By Zach Dennis, Michael O'Malley, Diana Rogers, Lydia Creech, Andrew Swafford, and Reid Ramsey.
Note: These films are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
Sherlock Jr. (1924, 46m) by Buster Keaton // Frisco Jenny (1932, 73m) by William Wellman
When researching for this list, two trends emerged immediately: pre-code Hollywood movies and children’s animation. We’ll get to the latter soon enough, but for my first pick, I thought I’d flag up two pre-code classics that bound through their already-short runtimes like it’s an Olympic sport.
In Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton plays a theater projectionist who dreams of being a famous detective, and finally gets his chance when he’s framed for theft. What’s more, it’s the theft of his soon-to-be father-in-law’s pocketwatch, so showing off his detective chops is all wrapped up in wooing the woman he loves. Early on in the runtime, Keaton’s detective falls asleep in the projectionist’s booth and, in a dream, leaps into the movie screen, hopping through different genres and storylines with an energy to be matched only by Donald Duck 30 years later. Soon after Buster assumes the role of the world-renowned detective he longs to be, the film becomes a rollicking chase that leaps between cars, motorcycles, and boats, packed full of the death-defying stuntwork that has become synonymous with Keaton. If what cinema does best is capture movement and action, Sherlock Jr. is one of the most quintessentially cinematic movies of all time, especially considering its movie-in-a-movie conceit story and ending, which involves an in-the-flesh Buster mimicking what he sees on the theater screen in front of him. It’s a blast – and Keaton’s best.
Frisco Jenny, released almost 10 years later, may seem like a weepy melodrama when compared to Keaton’s crackerjack action romp, but it moves with nearly as much speed. Starting with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the titular Jenny’s life as a high-rolling saloon-girl is almost immediately disrupted by the disaster, which is presented as an enormous set-piece made with practical effects along the lines of Godzilla or King Kong (which would be released just the next year). After this, the film speeds through Jenny’s life with a sense of reckless urgency, bounding through the decades and individual scenes with no real time for the audience to breathe – until the third act hits, landing Jenny in jail under the legal power of her own son. It’s at this point in the narrative that the center of gravity drops, everything slows way down, and Wellman shoots the whole finale like Joan of Arc. The film is so incident-heavy up to this point that you, like me, may not realize how emotionally invested you’ve become in Jenny’s well-being – in the film’s final moments, I found myself unexpectedly leaning forward in my seat to catch the tearfully whispered dialogue. The breakneck speed of the first two acts and the somber reverence of the final one make Frisco Jenny a masterclass in how to pace a film, both for maximal entertainment value as well as emotional resonance.
Sherlock Jr. is available on YouTube; for Frisco Jenny, check your local library (or the TCM listings!). – Andrew Swafford
Horse Feathers (1932, 68m) by Norman Z. McLeod
Spending too many words describing a Marx Brothers movie seems like a futile and stupid gesture.
Groucho runs a university and wants to win a football game. There — what more do you want?
Horse Feathers gels much more cohesively than some of their other films from this period (namely The Coconauts or Animal Crackers) due its ability to transcend the concept of being just a sketch. These films usually stuck to a short running time (perfect for this canonical exercise) because the rope of the gag wasn’t as long enough to warrant any more.
In the case of The Coconauts, the interweaving of a fraud plot alongside the Marx hijinks wears the hour-and-change runtime a bit thin while the same could be said for Animal Crackers. What’s effective about Horse Feathers is its commitment to making the lunacy of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo paramount to the driving narrative (earning legitimacy for the university through a win in the football game against their bitter rivals) rather than trying to pile on alternative plotlines.
While it’s difficult to nail down the one gag that left the largest impression on you due to the high velocity of jokes being tossed at the audience all at once, but the image I always draw to is the one of Groucho (again, the head of the institution and not one of its athletes) jumping on the field and misdirecting the football game.
This leads to him continuing to play a role in the game, complete with cigar and newspaper for boot.
Between that and Harpo bringing a chariot of horse onto the field to lead the charge for a defining touchdown, it would seem there truly was a golden age for swaying college athletics. — Zach Dennis
Alice in Wonderland (1933, 76m) by Norman Z. McLeod
I actually quite like Alice adaptations; the characters and episodes are all so iconic and recognizable, but since it doesn't mean anything, you can do whatever you want with them (That statement feels a bit Carroll-ly?).
This one actually includes quite a lot of Through the Looking Glass and episodes that get ignored in other adaptations (but no talking flowers, which is an odd omission?). It manages to do a lot with camera tricks and sets and forced perspectives, which is all very practical and nice.
Alice in Wonderland has always had an undercurrent of malice to it, I think, which more recent adaptations take and run with and go dark or edgy, but that's really not necessary (the 1951 Disney version is a goddamn nightmare). This one’s (unintentional?) contribution to the creepy front is some truly horrifying animal suit costumes.
Also the cast is PACKED with the biggest stars Paramount had on payroll: Cary Grant is the Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper is the White Knight (actually he's v good, in a lanky sorta way), and W.C. Fields plays Humpty Dumpty. — Lydia Creech
You can watch it for free here:
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960, 72m) by Roger Corman
Shot on a seriously shoestring budget over the course of two days—with some exceptions—Little Shop of Horrors is one of the truly great trash films of all time. I’m not talking about the tremendous musical it inspired, but instead Roger Corman’s 1960 original. The plot mechanics are the same: hapless Seymour Krelboyne, afraid of losing his great job as a florist’s assistant, tries to impress his boss with a new plant named Audrey Jr. Once he learns that Audrey Jr.’s massive success comes from the consumption of human blood, well, there’s no turning back for Seymour. Little Shop of Horrors is a bloody, funny, effects-filled romp of a movie that clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes.
To the modern viewer, the most standout element of Corman’s film is the effects. Reusing sets from his previous film A Bucket of Blood for all the interior scenes, the crew was able to focus on the substantial creation of Audrey Jr. which is an impressive feat of practical effects even by today’s standards. The mechanic man-eater moves and speaks and is just as much the central character as poor Mr. Krelboyne.
Why did I call this a truly great trash movie? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad movie. However, on that tiny budget and with that snappy run time, Little Shop of Horrors has all the blood, laughs, and instant gratification needed for the perfect movie to throw on late at night while eating a Taco Bell burrito (maybe a vegetarian one?), because sometimes you just want to feel like trash and be okay with it. Did I mention it also inexplicably features a young Jack Nicholson?
So go ahead and listen to your Blu-Ray player when it starts grumbling, “Feed me, Feed Me, FEED ME!” — Reid Ramsey
The Pied Piper (1986, 53m) by Jiří Barta
The myth of the Pied Piper has not had a lax in adaptation to the screen, but a version that seems to definitively exude the medieval German lore that the story is based from.
Barta, the film’s director, modeled his stop-motion figures on the artwork being done during the German Expressionist movement — finding that both the constraints of that period, meshed with the aesthetic of stop-motion, crafted a surreal effect that would best personify the fear and anxiety of the fairy tale.
The film embodies this surreal effect not only in its look, but its language (both literally and cinematically). The characters emit a near gibberish language, one that Barta notes was used to emphasis the “on the rhythm and the onomatopoeic quality of the language." This rhythm becomes key to the nature of film, which is built on its lyrical tune played by the titled Pied Piper as he leads (in this case) the citizens of the town — now turned into rats — to their doom.
It’s interesting to think of the political context of the film, coming out in the late 1980s in German and Czechoslovakia markets in a time of strife. The imagery switch of the town’s citizens rather than just the children is most likely speaking to the political turmoil in the area at this time.
While short, The Pied Piper is effective and for those interested in either fairy-tales or stop-motion animation, it is a film to seek out as it stretches both to their heights. — Zach Dennis
Before Sunset (2004, 80m) by Richard Linklater
The middle chapter in Richard Linklater's Before trilogy hits that sweet spot between the starry-eyed first flush of romance that was Before Sunrise, and the unvarnished portrait of love, parenthood and marriage in Before Midnight.
Sunset checks in with Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Céline nine years after their first brief encounter in Vienna, when they met by chance on the train and spent one enchanted evening together. Though clearly taken with each other they agree to go their separate ways without exchanging contact information, but with the caveat that, if they find they still have feelings for one another in six months time, they'll meet back at the train station in Vienna, and possibly begin a relationship in earnest.
Before Sunset picks up with Jesse, now a modestly successful author, on the tail end of a European book tour to promote a recently published novel. His final stop brings him to Paris and a second fateful encounter with Céline. The dialogue-heavy script is both free-wheeling and organic but also sly, deliberate, and calculating, peeling back its layers, onion-like, to slowly reveal more and more information to the audience, and using that content to build emotional tension. The idea of fate looms larger and larger over the story as it progresses "Why weren't you there in Vienna?" Jesse cries at one point, not so much to Céline, but to the universe. "I wish you woulda been; our lives might've been so much different." Jesse and Céline have believed for years that they missed their opportunity to create a life together. What will they do, now that they've been gifted with a second chance?
Before Sunset unfolds in real time, and, like Sunrise and Midnight, it's basically one long conversation between Jesse and Céline, punctuated by occasional scenery changes. The pair walk to a nearby cafe for coffee, they stroll through a park, they briefly board a river boat tour of the Seine, and their conversation flows as effortlessly and organically as it did nine years before in Vienna, concluding with a scene in Céline's apartment that is nothing short of swoon-worthy perfection. Hawke and Delpy are fantastic together, projecting a natural chemistry as a couple that feels both lived-in and quietly electric. Their dialogue, filled with mundane but precious little details about their lives, is specific to those two characters, but the way they interact and what they choose to say (and not say) to one another is universal and relatable. Maybe they are like people you know, or maybe you recognize yourself in them. I know I certainly do. — Diana Rogers
Winnie the Pooh (2011, 69m) by Don Hall and Stephen John Anderson
Within Walt Disney Animation Studio’s resurgence in the 2010s, it’s the likes of Frozen and Moana that get the most press. And those movies are fun, sure. But people often forget that the best movie of Disney’s past decade is Winnie the Pooh--the only Disney animated feature of recent years that even gets close to qualifying as “underrated.” It’s a wafer of a feature film: only 63 minutes long, and ten of those are the end credits. Of the entire Disney 57-film animated feature canon, it’s also probably (alongside 1977’s original Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) the movie with the youngest target audience--this is definitely (like most Winnie the Pooh properties) a movie first and foremost made for preschoolers. So it’s not exactly surprising that this one gets overlooked, given moviegoers’ preference for films that lumber over two hours in length and their embarrassment at entertainment obviously aimed at young children. That’s a real shame, though, because Winnie the Pooh is front-to-back delightful. It has a touch less of the melancholy that informs the original novels by A. A. Milne and the earlier Disney film, but it’s equally as warm and imaginative. Like The Many Adventures, one of the central conceits of the movie is that these characters are literally storybook illustrations come to life, which means that their environment consists not just of the Hundred Acre Wood but also all the various pieces of the book they inhabit, like the creases between pages and the actual text of the narration. This allows for the movie to do some really fun and inventive visual gags like having the characters climb over the letters of the dialogue which they have just spoken or knock loose the punctuation so they can use them as props in the plot. It’s also gorgeously animated, somewhere between a clever pastiche of the scratchy Xerography look of Disney’s house style in the 1970s and a lushly modern, computer-assisted look, all the more gorgeous for the sheer effervescent energy of the film.
One of the things I personally enjoy about movies that dip below that 80-minute mark is how efficient they tend to be; it’s not just the length as a function of time but also as a function of how much the filmmakers value their time, and movies this short seldom have wasted minutes the way that even excellent longer features almost invariably do. Winnie the Pooh and its barely 1-hour runtime are perhaps the platonic ideal of this function in action. Not only does Winnie the Pooh have exactly zero wasted minutes, it also invests so much care into each of those scant minutes that do exist. Not a frame of the film goes without some wonderful little character animation or unexpected use of scenery or some exuberantly playful image or a bit of thrillingly silly, stuffed-with-fluff dialogue. Even the credits themselves, all ten minutes of them, are crammed full of personality and charm, as if the filmmakers just couldn’t stand to let even this perfunctory sequence sit idle on the screen. This gentle urgency to fill each minute with form and content that count means that the movie is always pushing its own boundaries and changing its own rules in the most surprising and good-natured ways possible; an unsung quality of the best preschool-audienced entertainment is this comfort in not having to explain itself, the idea that young children will enjoy an experience for just the sensory parade that it is, and Winnie the Pooh is no different in its surprisingly experimental sense of play, content that children will not cynically question but just enjoy. It’s so completely unlike anything else that Disney has made in recent memory.
I can’t recommend enough clearing the mere hour in your schedule you’d need to queue up this gem. — Michael O’Malley
Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (2013, 41m) by Jodie Mack
Outside of pre-code Hollywood and kids movies, there’s one more cinematic tradition that tends to embrace very short runtimes: avant-garde features. And in my experience, no one makes them quite as fast-paced or delightful as Jodie Mack, an avant-garde stop-motion animator who works primarily with textiles, paper, and other non-anthropomorphic objects that she nonetheless brings to life with crackling eccentricity. Mack’s newest film, The Grand Bizarre, was my favorite movie I saw at TIFF 2018, but I still think her best work is 2013’s Dusty Stacks of Mom, a musical ode to her mother’s defunct poster factory set to an album-length parody of / homage to quintessential dorm-room classic Dark Side of the Moon.
With the posters themselves as her primary material, Jodie Mack spends a lot of her time playing with icons – flashing kaleidoscopic images of pop stars, actors, and pin-up models that America has had various fleeting love affairs with. In the latter half of the film, these paper tableaus are replaced by lightning-fast scrolls through Google Image search results, tracing the way in which America’s obsession with images has begun occupying new technological spaces, leaving behind tangible businesses like the one owned by Jodie Mack’s mom. With it’s playful energy and Mack’s analytical eye, Dusty Stacks is a film that can be enjoyed on a myriad of levels: it’s a sobering study of late-capitalism, it’s a aesthetic tour-de-force of light and color, it’s a feature-length music video with intricate production and familiar melodies, and it’s a heartfelt love letter to the filmmaker’s hardworking mother, who herself is animated into stop-motion throughout the film, balancing checkbooks and shredding paper guitars (pun very much intended).
The state of avant-garde movie distribution is a pitiful one, and as such Dusty Stacks of Mom is among the innumerable avant-garde features that is virtually nonexistent on streaming platforms or home-video. However, Jodie Mack does tour the film on occasion, singing the lyrics to her Dark Side of the Moon riff live; it was how I first experienced the film, and I can’t recommend it enough. Otherwise, keep your eye out for an eventual release – Jodie Mack continues to receive more attention with every new film, and it’s not impossible that she’ll get some sort of anthology release in the near future. – Andrew Swafford