The 10 Best Short Films in Cannes History

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The Palme d’Or du Court Métrage has had a long, varied, and pretty magnificent history. The short films that have been honored over the years by the Cannes Film Festival are significant, unique and often almost brashly creative. And unlike its feature film counterpart, the short Palme has ventured well beyond the realm of live-action narrative film many times. These smaller films are a quirkier bunch, an exciting collection of cartoons and vérité documentaries alongside the international narratives.

Nor are they an aside, tangential to the larger history of cinema that the feature Palme winners represent. Jane Campion’s first short film won the Palme, and it was with Cătălin Mitulescu’s 2004 winner Traffic that the Romanian New Wave arrived on the Croisette. There are films on this list that seem almost shockingly early, forgotten forerunners of 20th century cinema’s greatest moments. And you can watch a whole lot of them online! So many that I couldn’t even feature some of the best in this piece – do yourself a favor and go track down “Blinkity Blank,” “Skaterdater,” “Balablok,” “Sniffers” and “Cracker Bag,” to name a few.

Here are the cream of the crop, the ten best winners of the Palme d’Or du Court Métrage that are available to watch online.

“Floods” – by Jerzy Bossak (1947)

Now, I know very little about Polish documentary in the late 1940s. I’d imagine most of us don’t, and it seems like director Jerzy Bossak is now almost entirely forgotten outside of Poland. Yet, according to this fascinating essay by Michael Brooke, we can’t overstate the significance of early documentaries like “Floods.” Made in the brief window between World War Two and state-imposed Socialist Realism, the fact that documentaries of this nature even exist is pretty incredible. As for the film itself, this wordless recording of the flooding of the Vistula River is an absolutely breathtaking discovery.

“Overture” – by János Vadász (1965)

A whole lot of the best short film Palme d’Or winners are from Hungary. I can’t entirely explain it, but there you have it. János Vadász’s “Overture,” is a documentary, in a sense. It’s really more evidence of why the term “documentary” is silly in the first place, but that’s another conversation entirely. This film is the overture to the hatching of a chick, set to Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont. The powerful music lends grandeur to the origins of life, among the most ingenious pairings of music and image in the history of the festival.

“Island” – by Fyodor Khitruk (1974)

Many of the short Palme d’Or winners from the 1960s and 1970s are cartoons functioning as hip political allegories, the best of them from Eastern Europe. Soviet animator Fyodor Khitruk’s “Island” is a wry indictment of colonialism, built around one lonely castaway under one lonely tree. The poor guy is conquered, converted, fingerprinted and abandoned again and again while the world steals the sand out from under him. Khitruk combines the charisma of Saul Bass with an Eastern European absurdist sensibility, and the result is both charming and unruly.

“Harpya” – by Raoul Servais (1979)

“Atmospheric” would be the most clichéd understatement for the mood of this weird little animation, in which a mysterious bird-woman torments a mustachioed gentleman. “Harpya” is haunting, a bit deranged, and entirely unforgettable. It has the air of psychoanalysis to it, the sort of myth-making directed right at our deepest anxieties. It also contains the most unsettling example of French fry eating in cinema.

“An Exercise in Discipline – Peel” – by Jane Campion (1986)

Here it is, the eight-minute start to one of the richest filmographies of the last thirty years. Jane Campion’s “Peel” is an exercise not only in discipline but in tension, a slice of life choreographed down to the last bead of sweat. The plot is both immaterial and crucial, great significance dropped into the most minute of quarrels: an exhausted father ordering his son to pick up the pieces of an orange tossed out the window of the car, an argument between siblings about missing a television show. Campion’s choice of close-ups, her brash use of sound and her grounded understanding of family make “Peel” perhaps the strongest live-action Palme d’Or short in history.

“Vykrutasy” – by Garri Bardin (1987)

If “Island” is among Cannes’ most charming allegories, Garri Bardin’s wire animation is its darkest masterpiece. It begins with an Adam made of metal, folded from a large wire coil. He creates a forest and later a farm, fashioning a Garden of Eden out of metal. Yet as hidden predators begin to feast on his plants, he responds with paranoia and violence. Bardin is commenting on war, greed, and the limitations of our natural resources. The animation itself is also extraordinary, a triumph that breaks between 2D and 3D images and manages to evoke the invisible with ease.

Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California” – by Jim Jarmusch (1993)

Jim Jarmusch’s eventual 2003 feature began here, with a single short film starring Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. The set-up is obvious from the title, a brief meeting between the two musicians in a little anonymous café. Waits is gruff and confrontational, while Iggy seems mostly confused. It’s funny in that restrained, matter-of-fact sort of way, especially when the two light up cigarettes because “the beauty of quitting is that now I can have one. Because I’ve quit.” It’s awkward, earthy and downright weird.

“Wind” – by Marcell Ivanyi (1996)

“Wind” might be the single greatest one-shot short film I have ever seen. Marcell Ivanyi begins with a recreation of a photograph by Lucien Hervé, showing three women looking off-camera in the same direction. The film then pans behind them, gradually granting us a 360 degree view of a chilling event in this tiny Hungarian village. It is the simplest of triumphs, and as haunting as “Harpya” in its own way.

“When the Day Breaks” – by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis (1999)

Death is not necessarily the sort of thing that needs to be portrayed in full mourning, the dour black and whites of “Wind.” Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis bring the finality of life into the big city, using an urban environment of well-dressed animals to soften the blow. Beautifully painted in their signature style of pencil and paint over photocopies, “When the Day Breaks” is a warm, wise look at how we are all connected.

“Traffic” – by Cătălin Mitulescu (2004)

Before “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” won the Palme d’Or in 2007, and before “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” won the Un Certain Regarde prize, Cătălin Mitulescu’s “Traffic” picked up the Palme d’Or du Court Métrage. This small narrative of a man stuck in rush hour, destined to be late for an important meeting, begins to build the complex relationship that the Romanian New Wave has with time, even without its signature long takes.