The 15 Best Short Films of 2017

By Andrew Buckner

Included below are A Word of Dreams’ fifteen favorite short films of 2017. The title of the work is proceeded by the name of the director or directors of the project. Enjoy!

15. “Ghost Bikes” – (Ethan Brooks)
14. “Alone” – (Tofiq Rzayev)
13. “Female” – (Aissa Carnet)
12. “Cosmic Bowling” – (Emily Berge, Spencer Thielmann)
11. “Tales to Line the Coffin” – (Evan Schneider)
10. “I Feel”- (Steve Blackwood)                                                                                                                                                                                                 9. “In a Heartbeat” – (Esteban Bravo, Beth David)
8. “To Be Alone” – (Matthew Mahler)
7. “The Stranger” – (Jeremy Arruda)
6. “Disregard the Vampire: A Mike Messier Documentary” – (Mike Messier)
5. “Undatement Center” – (Chris Esper)
4. “The Girls Were Doing Nothing” – (Dekel Berenson)
3. “Triangle” – (Christopher Fox)
2. “Leftovers” – (Tofiq Rzayev)
1. “Fireflies” – (Raouf Zaki)

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“To Be Alone” – (Short Film Review)

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***** out of *****.

“To Be Alone” (2017), the seventh short film from writer-director Matthew Mahler, is a wholly unique, thought-provoking and brilliantly realized meditation on grief. Yet, it is as much about religious guilt, shame and the all-encompassing hopes of redemption which arise with theology. As a matter of fact, most of the sparse words spoken in the entirety of the twelve minute and forty-six second runtime are from unseen spiritual individuals. All of whom cry out from inside the television set to our lead, William (in a mesmerizing and quietly compelling turn from Timothy J. Cox). They angrily exercise the foremost element. In so doing, they almost immediately prompt William to run outside and engage in actions which suggest the last two latter stated emotions. Whether this is a symbol of the unquestioning fidelity or the apparently easy manipulation of the devout is left to the viewer. There is an equal balance of circumstances throughout the piece that could support both belief systems. Likewise, the non-judgmental tone Mahler crafts here, especially when dealing with such a touchy subject, certainly assists the piece. This is in evoking its continually haunting and meditative resonance.

What also helps is the underlying tension. This is erected most readily in a repeated sequence which involves law enforcement phoning William. Once this erupts, a certain darkness settles over the proceedings. This is as the audience begins to comprehend why he may be going through the previously stated catalogue of inward impressions. It also makes us understand how the pious personalities that are shouting at him have such swift control over his dealings.

The successfulness of these ingredients is a courtesy of Mahler’s deft, carefully constructed screenplay and same said direction. They perfectly compliment the material. What enhances this aspect is the inclusion of moments of sheer style. For instance, a spellbindly done sequence has William looking up the steps towards the closed door of his bedroom. The way it is shot, with Mahler’s ardently energetic music punctuating the bit with an electric fervor that makes it impossible not to step inside William’s nervousness at the unfurling situation, is reminiscent of what one might find in a classically designed opus of cinematic horror. Yet, there are other clever, smirk-inducing bits. For example,  there is a near climactic episode that features William carrying a cross. This is in a manner that is reminiscent of Jesus Christ in the tale of his crucifixion. The item William is holding is arranged with Christmas lights and other season appropriate decorations. Such details suggest a bit of playfulness amid this otherwise somber narrative. These items work immeasurably. They also add to the admirable and well-rounded qualities of the endeavor. This is while finding new ways to augment the representative essence of Mahler’s theme. It also makes for imagery that is as unforgettable as the fiction itself.

Adding to the immersive beauty of the project is Jonathan Giannote’s brooding cinematography. Mahler’s editing is also superb. The exertion also benefits from terrific makeup from Maggie Kurth and Morgan Mahler. Correspondingly, Jack Fitzmaurice’s sound contribution is exceptional.

Produced by 8mm Films, Mahler’s latest is among his most accomplished configurations to date. The brief undergoing is massively entertaining. Still, its lasting impact is undeniable. Best of all, it makes you ponder your own convictions. In turn, you can’t help but wondering if you would go through the same repetitive cycle of reaction that William himself is going through. This is if you were in an equally fateful circumstance. With “To Be Alone”, Mahler has fashioned a mandatory movie-going experience. This is one of the best storytelling fabrications of the year.

“Dark Romance” – (Short Film Review)

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By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.

“Dark Romance” (2013), the debut short from co-writer and director Matthew Mahler, accomplishes in eight minutes what most thriller features need approximately an hour and a half or more to do. It tells a complete tale, albeit a familiar one, without the excess often utilized in a full-length fiction. But, the most intriguing element about Mahler’s account is that there is a considerable build-up. There is a high level of of suspense generated in its brief run. We, as cinematic patrons, are also offered a consistent focus on the obsessive signposts of affection directed toward our lead, Tim Cooper (another remarkable portrayal from Timothy J. Cox). They begin simply enough. But, soon they spiral quickly, wildly out of control. On Monday, Tim is given a card with a poem inside. They announce the regards of a mysterious someone in his office. By Tuesday, the chain of events have become violent. Wednesday is the bleakest day of them all. Thursday unveils a darkly smirk-inducing epilogue.

This condensed frame works beautifully. It also helps keep the intensity and pace wire tight. This also assists, in the tradition of the best white knuckle fabrications, in keeping our interest piqued to increasing levels throughout. Mahler makes the scenes showcasing the rapidly bizarre episodes for each of the previously stated spells as diminutive and to the point as possible. This narrative modus strengthens all of the aforementioned components terrifically well. Such is utilized via Mahler’s smart and claustrophobic direction. It is also strikingly unveiled in the sturdy screenplay he co-wrote with Ross Mahler. We are only allowed enough space in each sequence to see how unhinged Tim’s admirer is becoming. Before we can begin to fathom what is occurring, Mahler moves onto the next cringe-worthy instance. This makes for an undertaking that certainly delivers the exciting, expected ingredients of its genre.

To its discredit, the central figures are vaguely etched. Nevertheless, we know enough to care for them. It more than suffices given the scant duration of the piece. This is especially true of our labor-minded advertising executive antagonist. But, Cox more than makes up for this by being continuously affable. He fluently projects the type of managerial individual everyone at any place of employment, be it genuine or imagined, would like to have making the daily decisions. Tim’s secretary, Tiffany (Tiffany Browne-Tavarez), shares nearly as much screen time as Cox’s character. She proves herself to be a capable counterpart to Tim. This is with a simultaneously vulnerable, unflinching and bravura enactment. Though she is as broadly authored as the personality Cox brings to life, the duo both make their respective interpretations feel clearly unique. Because of this, we are more than willing to overlook the expository gaps in the Mahlers’ script. The proceedings are so well-done that we can also forgive another lingering sensation. This is that there is nothing new about the Fatal Attraction (1987) style confines of the straight-forward story arc. The twists are mostly expected. Correspondingly, the reveal of Tim’s devotee is obvious.

But, Mahler, who also provides the impressive cinematography and editing found herein, builds a plethora of memorable horror moments in an undersized expanse. Aside from the depictions and technical aspects, with Brian Shields and Ross Mahler both giving stirring turns in brief roles, this is where the real strength of the photoplay lies. Besides the already noted finale, what occurs on Tuesday is macabrely amusing. It is also masterfully designed. The segment optimizes its impact by eluding, but never glimpsing. Wednesday proves an appropriately unsettling, and grandly designed, climax. This arises as it more than ups the ante on the murderous crush taking place. The more light-hearted occasions of Monday mechanize just as well. They add a natural sense of enhanced disposition to Tim, Tiffany, and fellow employee, Cam (in a likable, credible and proficient representation by Cameron Rankin). It also adds similar personality to the composition as a whole. This is reflected in the natural, jesting banter that we hear early on. Such an attribute is just as active when the speech is more somber and terrifying in the advanced stretches.

Mahler has offered an all-around solid exertion with “Dark Romance”. The 8mm Films production, made for a mere $500 as a part of The 48 Hour Film project, excels as an exhibition of perpetually worrisome mood. It lacks the visual potency and risk-taking apparent in Cox and Mahler’s later collaboration, “What Jack Built” (2015). In this concoction not a word was spoken. Furthermore, the entirety of its eleven minutes was a one man display. Still, this is a gripping effort. The New York shot opus intends to both entertain and frighten. This is while summoning a vibrant aesthetic and authentic sensibility. It does this splendidly. The chemistry between Cox and Mahler, as well as the crew and their spectators, is more than visible in every frame. There is abundantly enough here to recommend this labor of fanatical love. The devotion to the craft from all involved resonates throughout. “Dark Romance” is a true gem. Because of this, I greatly anticipate seeing what Cox and Mahler’s next collaboration, “Finality” (2017), brings about.

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“What Jack Built” – (Short Film Review)

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By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

Director Matthew Mahler’s eleven minute short, “What Jack Built”, works tremendously well. It forces the imagination to look under its murky, brooding corners, retrace its steps and put the many enigmatic items of its narrative together themselves. The overall intensity and interest of the piece is garnered largely from the craftsmanship of the mystery at hand. This is just as true of Mahler’s skillful handling of the material. Such is a brilliant manner to tell a tale like this. Mahler provides a dialogue free composition. This is another smart move. It heightens the intrigue immensely.

We watch the cigar-smoking and brooding, Jack (Timothy J. Cox, in another mesmerizing and masterful enactment), as he puts together blueprints in a secluded basement. He is also seen laboring over a trapping device. This is for the wholly concealed fiend lurking in the woods as well as inspecting his security cameras. Audience patrons view the succession of these immersive, hypnotically constructed and intriguing sequences of the affair’s arc in wonder. They are forced to uncover the meaning behind Jack’s actions themselves. This just adds to the appeal and quality of the item immensely.

What is going on inside of his psyche? How did he come to think of this device? What is its purpose? How did he put it together? Since he is the only one we meet, is he the only one left alive? What is exactly is this creature in the woods, if that is in fact what it is, he appears to be combating? Are they truly at war with one another? Are they linked somehow? It’s fascinating to ponder and assess these questions, left unanswered by the actual account, and come to our own conclusions based on the wisely sparse bits of details Mahler provides. These lack of particulars are a deliberate inclusion on Mahler’s behalf. Such is a bold choice that pays off handsomely. The result of this already attention-garnering saga is amplified by the minimalistic approach. The consequence is elevated far more than it would be if it was told in a traditionally straight-forward manner. This is not only thanks to Mahler’s taut direction, but also the cleverly paced, electrifying and meditative screenplay. This was penned by Matthew and Ross Mahler.

The title alone suggests a bit of a parallel to the popular British nursery rhyme, “This is the House That Jack Built”. In retrospect, it can even be perceived as an apocalyptic aftermath of the absurdly comic events that transpired in that tale. Yet, with a far more mature tone. “The man all tattered and torn”, as the folktale states, certainly applies to the brooding Jack realized in Mahler’s fabrication. He appears haunted, as if by the measures transcribed in the poem. Cox portrays this excellently. Not to mention, there is an underlying aggression to his motions. It is one which backs up the previously stated line splendidly. It is grasped in the various facial expressions Cox so expertly instills into the protagonist. Maybe this all circumstantial. It could be that this theory has nothing to do with its similarly captioned brute. But, it is this uncertainty, the many ‘what-ifs’ the endeavor captivatingly radiates, that makes it so thought-provoking and endlessly stirring.

what jack built

Matthew Mahler also issues music which is as spellbinding and ominous as the article itself. He utilizes a creaking soundtrack, reminiscent of one conventionally heard in a feature by Dario Argento, to chilling effect. It also sonically re-instates the endless atmospheric of the exertion beautifully. It makes the moments in the depths of the secluded area where Jack is hiding, as well as the ventures into the outside, all the more fearful and suspenseful. Adding further technical success to the project is Mahler’s sharp editing. There is also an inspired flare to the chronicle. The instances the smartly never spied beast is sensed creeping through the surrounding landscapes is reminiscent of the recurring shot which opens Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1982) is where this is most evident. Even the setting itself calls this comparison to mind. Yet, Mahler’s attempt is far more than a simple homage. It is entirely its own entity.

In scenes such as the one recently addressed, Mahler’s aforesaid sonic contribution is most proficient. Yet, his appropriately dark, gorgeously honed cinematography drives this magnificent attribute home all the more victoriously. He also instates a credible, well-done input to the costume and wardrobe department. John Heirlein’s art department influence strengthens the believability and stalwart nature of the proceedings just as well.

This 8mm Films production is a true marvel. In an era where so much of cinema goes out of its way to show and tell, in excruciating specificity, its spectators what is hidden behind every door and explain every secret within a moving picture, “What Jack Built” is all the more necessary and refreshing. Those who expect everything ushered there way as far as a fully-fleshed out yarn, character development and all of the other trademark tools of the storytelling trade may find themselves frustrated. Such would be in the manner in which Mahler ceaselessly defies these expectations. They are assuredly the ones who will be put off by the undefined sum of the effort. Yet, those of us who like a new experience, one which gives us more inquiries than responses, will feel liberated.

Mahler drops us immediately into the exploits as if in the middle of a fiction already in progress. From herein, we are with Jack, hanging on his every motion, riveted through the duration. Despite the intentional vagueness of much of what we encounter, this can also be understood as an admirable experiment. This test concerns how much can be stated without a single word. Yet, the investigative nature reaches far beyond this single boundary. There is genuine risk-taking incorporated at nearly every turn. It makes the outcome all the more harrowing. For those of us who enjoy innovation as well as an adventurous take on the thriller, Mahler’s undertaking is a mandatory dose of adrenaline. It is a fantastic, illuminating, nail-biting spectacle which demands to be witnessed.

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