What Are the Best Short Films?
Before most directors produce a feature-length film, they start out with a short. There’s no guide that can fully capture the depth and breadth of the immense volume of short films in existence, but here’s a start. Our comprehensive list of short films features classics as well as shorts that gained praise for innovation, featured well-known actors or filmmakers, or made a big splash in recent years. We’ve summarized what they do best and what you can learn from them; gain inspiration from these films and build your best filmmaking team to get started on your own.
Big Break Short Films
“My Josephine” - Barry Jenkins
A prelude to the lush blue and green tones of feature film Moonlight, “My Josephine” (2003) was one of Barry Jenkins’s first short films that he made at his alma mater, Florida State University. It situates the discrimination of Arab and Muslim youth in America and is emblematic of his typical style, a story about romance amidst the tribulations of everyday people. Despite its low budget and a mere two days of shooting, out-of-focus camerawork and first-person perspective shots capture the dreaminess that remains the trademark of Jenkin’s films.
“Lick the Star” - Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola’s “Lick the Star” is the essence of late ‘90s teen angst and feminine grunge. Shot on 16mm black and white film, “Lick the Star” tells the story of teenage girls trying to poison the boys at school using rat poison. The dark humor features alt-rock by the likes of Kim Gordon as well as surprisingly lush shots of water and greenery. With nostalgic schoolbus scenes and intimate conversations between friends, this film simultaneously captures rage and vulnerability.
“Dawn” - Rose Mcgowan
An official Sundance Selects, “Dawn” at first appears to be a twee throwback period piece, but the rosy pinks turning into ominous hues indicate otherwise. Instead, Mcgowan tells the story of a wealthy, sheltered girl and her encounter with ‘Charlie.’ At seventeen minutes, the film breeches issues of gender, class, and more.
“Six Shooter” - Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh’s “Six Shooter” was the 2006 Academy Award winner for Best Live Action Short Film. After a man bids goodbye to his dearly departed wife, he takes a train across the English countryside to return home. A chance encounter with a strange young man in his carriage escalates into something worse. A contemplative film with bucolic imagery, the film captures a strong sense of ephemerality.
“The Escape” - Neill Blomkamp
“The Escape” is a 2016 star-studded short featuring Jon Bernthal, Dakota Fanning and Vera Farmiga, directed by Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp is mostly known for his big-budget action films District 9 and Elysium, but his short film is a tidbit of his explosion-heavy oeuvre on a smaller scale. This high-speed chase in an earthly dystopia shows that action and tenderness can all take place in ten minutes or less.
Have a small time frame? With the right team, you can still create a great short film. Get started with We the Project.
“Outlaws” - Geremy Jasper
“Outlaws,” as its title might suggest, is a rather indulgent film about life on the open road. The film features David Beckham in a dizzying shift between black and white and color. The film’s strength is its ability to spin a common tale into one of innovation by using visually striking lighting and fast-paced editing.
“Conventional” - Karen Gillan
Embracing the campiness innate to the horror genre, “Conventional” tells the story of a washed-up scream queen played by Gillan herself. The film lovingly mocks horror fans and actors with superfan caricatures and bad botox, but the horror convention soon turns out to be worse than expected. The film’s strong suit is its balance between true terror and over-the-top twists, a cheeky parody and horror tribute at the same time.
“Bullet in the Brain” - David von Ancken
Unlike some of the films above that rely on quality cinematography to make them stand out, the beauty of “Bullet in the Brain” lies in the story. An unconventional bank robber (a bitter, unlikeable professor) is humanized as flashbacks throughout the heist reveal his repressed past.
“In a Relationship” - Sam Boyd
This down-to-earth, slow-paced film captures the beauty of everyday mundanity. Boyd’s film excels in naturalistic dialogue and lighting, perfectly capturing the reality of struggling to connect to others emotionally in the city of Los Angeles. Unspectacular settings, like eating dinner or going to house parties, look spectacular with skillful lighting and a simmering musical score.
“Hotel Chevalier” - Wes Anderson
The precursor to The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson’s short film contains all the style elements of his major works. The warm color tones and intricate set design are complex for a short film. The simple romance plot builds suspense through compact pacing.
Even in a short film, a young filmmaker can show expertise by using shots that are extremely well-planned. The cohesiveness and diversity of shot composition make for a deeply engaging and endearing project.
“The Black Balloon” - Josh and Ben Safdie
This short film begins with a man talking to a black balloon. A completely different comedic tone than “Hotel Chevalier,” “The Black Balloon” uses wry humor and subtle ridiculousness. The Safdie brothers later went on to direct the film Good Time.
“Two Cars One Night” - Taika Waititi
Three children waiting outside a pub for their parents begin a conversation. In addition to its unique premise, the film is visually striking with its use of stark, black and white film. Waititi cleverly creates a sense of movement even in a still environment with panning shots across the childrens’ faces. The film has a unique tone that manages to be gritty, heartfelt, and funny at the same time.
“Multi-Facial” - Vin Diesel
Acclaimed actor and director Vin Diesel’s film “Multi-Facial” is a twist on the beloved premise of a movie about a movie. This film, which broached the topic of ethnicized casting in the film world, got the attention of Steven Spielberg and gave Vin Diesel his big break. With plain sets that lead viewers to focus solely on the actors’ performance, the film is a visual and politically daring pursuit. The film shows that sometimes, simplicity can be better.
Speaking of casting, get started with We the Project to find actors for your film.
“Daytimer” - Riz Ahmed
Actor-rapper Riz Ahmed (better known as Riz MC) captures the hip hop culture in ‘90s London with this short film. With poignant performances and a bucolic school setting, it definitely feels authentic.
Commercials and Branded Content
“A Love Supreme” - Thomas Campbell
A film for the (in)famous skate brand Supreme, this low-fi VHS film is as much a portrait of New York City as it is a tribute to skateboarding. Campbell’s film demonstrates how focusing on a place or an intense activity without a set storyline or fancy camera can still be captivating. The video intersperses action shots of skaters with poetic establishing shots of street lights, pigeons, and other New York images.
“The Life and Death of an iPhone” - Paul Trillo
Trillo’s film wasn’t created for Apple, but the premise certainly casts a positive light on the brand. The film shows life from a phone’s point of view, capturing this concept through upward shots and shaky camera work. The film serves as an example of how sometimes, it’s worth it to focus on the concept instead of technique. The film was actually made to show the usefulness of Vimeo’s Cameo app, since the film was also entirely edited using the iPhone version of this app.
“Roshambo” - Jonathan Doe and Guy Aroch
A film for the clothing brand Free People, “Roshambo” is an impressionistic compilation of shots that depict a couple playing rock-paper-scissors (or roshambo) throughout the streets of New York. The romantic music and use of nighttime lighting create a nostalgic mood and ephemeral energy that resonates with the clothing brand’s young audience. The characters, of course, wear clothes from Free People, further completing the overall vibe.
“The Door” - Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay’s short film “The Door” for Miu Miu captures the essence of this luxurious brand while also contemplating black femininity. Branded content can also be thoughtful.
“Kitty” - Chloe Sevigny
This ethereal short by model-actress turned director Chloe Sevigny tells the tale of a girl who imagines that she is a cat. The film is heavily stylized with Sevigny’s signature vintage, feminine aesthetic. Sevigny’s film shows how you can tap into your childhood dreams for a creative short film premise.
“Coffee and Cigarettes” - Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes is a series of short films, each starring respected musical guests in an unexpected setting. Here, GZA and RVA of the Wu-Tang clan sit down for coffee with Bill Murray. The film combines glamour with the everyday, and that’s due to Jarmusch’s well-known economy of language. Each conversation is smartly funny, with just enough cleverness to avoid being over-the-top.
“Come Swim” - Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart’s directorial debut premiered at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. It alternates between realistic scenes and those on the verge of fantasy, an experimental presentation of what one man’s imagination might be like. Stewart’s film is yet another example of how short films have more leeway to present suspenseful stories without a clear plot.
“For the Birds” - Ralph Eggleston
Pixar Animation Studios is known for pairing short films with their longer feature films. In “For the Birds,” small birds on a telephone line become frustrated when a larger bird makes its entrance. The film approaches the issue of mob mentality with a sense of humor, showing how funny films can also serve as moral tales.
“La Luna” - Enrico Casarosa
“La Luna” is a coming-of-age story in a unique world. Casarosa uses a combination of hand-painted animation and digital techniques to create this look, which departs from Pixar’s normal appearance. He shows how world-building, both in terms of technique and story, can help a director stylize a film.
“I’m Here” - Spike Jonze
In what might appear to be a precursor to infamous actor Shia LaBeouf’s paper bag stunt, a sad paper-bag like robot man captures the attention of another robot. In this quirky, off-beat love story, Spike Jonze uses creatures to express human love. He shows how combining reality and fantasy can be especially intriguing.
“The Magic Bell” - Ariel Klimt
This charming animation by Ariel Klimt uses traditional stop-motion clay techniques. A young girl and her elephant try to rescue a stolen bell amidst fantastical chaos and singing mountains. The amount of intricate detail is staggering, demonstrating why you should take your time even with shorter projects.
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“The Boy Who Learned to Fly” - Limbert Fabian and Jacob Wyatt
This animated short film tells the inspirational story of runner Usain Bolt from his childhood to reaching international fame. The beautiful animation combined with contrasting bright and dark colors (depending on the mood of the scene) creates an emotional arc that’s easy to empathize with. The lesson - gain inspiration from true events.
“The Danish Poet” - Torill Kove
Using a simple animation style, Kove’s film tells a surprisingly complex story that spans decades and touches upon philosophical themes and poetic contexts. She uses narration to summarize time jumps and focuses on important points in the overall timeline, showing how even short films can be grand.
“World of Tomorrow” - Don Hertzfeldt
Hertzfeldt’s short film captures the existential woes of living in the digital age with the simple stick figure. His use of simple characters and a psychedelic color palette creates a truly unique style. The film won 44 awards, showing how big ideas can be captured through visually asking questions instead of providing answers.
“Un Jour” - Marie Paccou
Paccou’s black and white short film uses etchings with a charming, contemplative story about a woman who must live with a man stuck in her stomach.
“Otzi” - Evan Red Borja
This short film by SVA grad and skater Evan Red Borja shows that a short film can have layers of meaning even with no dialogue. The story is a fantastical interpretation of a real historical event, the discovery of old human remains. The film asks questions about human origins and also has a great sense of humor with a quirkily sparse soundscape.
“9” - Shane Acker
Before his feature film, 9, Acker created a short film by the same name. It tells the same story using a shorter time frame and more limited animation, but nonetheless intrigued investors enough to help fund his feature-length movie. If you’re thinking about making a feature film, you can test out your ideas by making a short one first.
“God of Love” - Luke Matheny
Matheny’s “God of Love” has a visual style that throws back to beat poetry and old school New York. At the time his film won an Academy Award, Luke Matheny was just a graduate student. In the film, a jazz singer enjoys throwing darts, and his dart-throwing abilities soon give him Cupid-like powers.
“Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” - Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling
Sloan and Pelling demonstrate the power of juxtaposition, or extreme contrast. The beginning of the film looks just like a kids’ show, but about halfway through, it takes a bizarre and ominous twist. Consider adding a plot twist, even in a short film.
“The External World” - David O’Reilly
O’Reilly premiered his bizarre film worldwide at the 67th Venice Film Festival and later at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Dark and definitely strange, O’Reilly uses strange jump cuts and heightened self-awareness. Using short scenes in a strange order can make a short film seem longer, but in a good way.
“Powers of Ten” - Charles and Ray Eames
This film by iconic mid-century modern designer-architects Charles and Ray Eames begins and ends with a couple having a picnic. The frame zooms out until all you can see is the galaxy, and then it reverses to zoom in until you can see microscopic skin cells. You can use one or two camera techniques in a short film to create a trance-like effect, and use the same shot to begin and end a film to create a sense of roundness.
“Curses” - Jodie Mack
Jodie Mack is one of the most notable experimental animators today. Her short film “Curses” was shot entirely on film - and with 24 photographs per second, reaches a painstaking level of detail. The use of hand-cut marbled paper creates a dreamy, feminine sensibility. The lesson? Experiment with the abstract.
“The Grandmother” - David Lynch
Surreal filmmaker David Lynch’s “The Grandmother” uses his traditional style of eeriness in daily life. An isolating family horror, the film makes use of dark lighting and disorienting camera work. For a horror short, minimalist surroundings and stark lighting can create a creepy feel.
“Next Floor” - Denis Villeneuve
Villeneuve’s film uses dark surrealism and an exquisite setting for a unique brand of horror, creating an eerie undertone of a stately dinner.
“Meshes of the Afternoon” - Maya Deren
Surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren is often known as the mother of the avant-garde, and “Meshes of the Afternoon” captures her cinematic essence quite well. The silent short makes use of poetic imagery and repeated sequences with a mysterious ending. In it, Deren shows how repetition can create suspense instead of dullness.
“La Jetee” - Chris Marker
Unlike a conventional moving picture, Marker’s film uses a series of photographs. Nonetheless, he conveys a sense of movement by layering sound intricately and implementing documentary-style zooming. The film is an early version of a time-traveling drama, but with a sense of sadness rather than the now commonplace mood of suspense.
“A Trip to the Moon” - Georges Méliès
This classic short film from 1902 is considered the first science fiction film. It shows the power of limited special effects since the absence of CGI technology in the 20th century forced movie-makers to take a more creative approach. The use of real actors on an obviously stylized set gives the film its distinctive look.
Narrative Music Videos
“Take On Me” - Steve Barron
Another mixed media film, Barron’s “Take On Me” for the band a-ha tells a cute love story with live actors and rotoscoped animation. Rotoscoping, or the technique in which animators trace live-action footage, transforms the motion picture into a cartoon fantasy. The film is fun to watch because it moves through sketches with cinematic angles and lifelike pacing.
“This Old Dog” - Rachel Rossin
If your next project is a music video, Rossin’s video for Mac DeMarco shows how cutting-edge technology can add a new layer to scaled-back acoustic music. This Virtual Reality music video allows viewers to experience a fantasy world in 360 degrees, and it captures a different side of DeMarco’s quirky musical identity.
“Better by Myself” - Marcella Cytrynowicz
Cytrynowicz’s trademark is her use of Super 8 and primary colors. While most filmmakers shoot on video now, Cytrynowicz proves that it’s sometimes worth it to go old school. Shooting on film allows the video to undertake a lush, expressive color palette. The set walls often remain visible in the background, giving the movie an intentional home video feel.
“Island in the Sun” - Spike Jonze
Jonze’s music video for Weezer begins with a man resting in a field with puppies, but soon he’s surrounded by animals like small bear cubs, apes, and more. The simple twist on a basic premise as well as the expert use of dreamy lighting make this film iconic.
Nothing Compares 2U - John Maybury
For the music video of her cover of a Prince song, Sinéad O'Connor takes a simple approach. The film is expressive not because of a wealth of cinematic techniques, but because the single use of a close shot of her face allows the viewers to really focus on her expression. This is a great concept for any short film whether or not it is a music video.
Find a cinematographer to help you out with these time-tested techniques with We the Project.
“Glas” - Bert Haanstra
“Glas” pairs documentary footage of glassblowers with an upbeat jazz soundtrack, showing how a documentary doesn’t have to have a narrative arc or expository feeling. Instead, it artistically frames glass workers at the factory and captures an emotional sense of what this profession means.
“The Polaroid Job” - Mike Plante
Plante’s “The Polaroid Job” uses archival footage to think back on his parents’ professions as mall photographers. Like Marker’s film “La Jetee,” it uses still photographs instead of moving pictures. A simple archival approach with straightforward narration can tell a powerful story if the footage itself is nostalgic or meaningful.
“The Emperor of Time” - Drew Christie
Heralded as a Sundance favorite, “The Emperor of Time” tells the life story of the father of animation, Eadweard Muybridge. Depicting still photographs taken in short succession as a way to understand motion, this technique appears at the center of the film with old, archival footage. You can consider making a short film about an artist who you admire.
“Heavy Metal Parking Lot” - John Heyn and Jeff Krulik
This film depicts the lives of heavy metal fans. The filmmakers interview heavy metal lovers in a crowded parking lot. What might have once seemed mundane now appears to be a snapshot into the lives of a niche group in a forgotten time period. Take inspiration from those around you.
Now that you know what the best 50 films are and how they leave a lasting impression, it’s time to get started building your team. With We the Project, you can hire creatives in the entertainment industry from the comfort of your computer and gain access to countless portfolios. With We the Project, you can bring your short film idea to life.