London Short Film Festival opens with some Funny Sh*t

Once again the London Short Film Festival is ringing in yet another year of exciting short films with their festival-launching events at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a well-established cradle for modern and alternative art forms in the British capital. Now on its 13th edition, the festival seemed decidedly busier this year, with the lure of free drinks definitely seeing their welcome party swell considerably. Though the screenings themselves also had bustling queues, which extended right outside the building - and that is something you do not often see at short film gigs.

Though some things haven't changed either, and LSFF certainly remains a watering hole at which the well-healed culturally hungry young people of the metropolis can converge (even if at times they feel a bit contrived). Nevertheless, that buzz of a mob that is excited to make new discoveries certainly remains, and they were so drawn to this year's perennial 'Funny Sh*t' programme that LSFF were actually able to concurrently pack out two relatively large cinemas this year. Interestingly though, the reception of the films was a little more lukewarm than it was in 2014, even if that was perhaps just in our particular screening room.

Perhaps that was due to the films often being somewhat slower burners, but the quality of the narrative indulgences these shorts took us on was still definitely incredibly high. It began with a duo of films which seemed to very consciously tackle the conventions of film, reducing or amplifying them to levels of absurdity which made it hard not to laugh. First came Mr. Director (dir. Andy Martin, UK, 2015), a film which played off the film industry's auteur culture with this animated mockumentary; then followed one of the night's strongest offering in the form of Dark_Net (dir. Tom Marshall, UK, 2015).

Mr. Director filled the screen like a more stylised, more splodgey Aardman clay-model production, and it's carefully scripted punchlines drew some deservedly strong laughs. Throughout, the dead-pan narration of the animated presenter also worked nicely against the somewhat daft assertions of the eponymous director. The somewhat enigmatic title given to this auteur also gave Martin a pleasing scope to send up directors as disparate as Guy Richie and Stanley Kubrick, and the series of genres he deconstructs in a succession of very literally named pastiches like "Singing at the Stars" (where an sort of Burtonesque pair of lovers literally sing at the stars) was definitely good fun!

Meanwhile the genre mash-up that was Dark_Net was a very different beast. Featuring the brilliant Johnny Vegas, this excellent melodrama tells the furious tale of a man scorned by his lover in favour of one of his mates, and is filled with a sort of hard hitting repulsiveness which must have been very hard to achieve. Ever adept at playing a neurotic slob too, Vegas excels in his role of the jealous lover who clandestinely hires a hitman to kill of his friend. Equally the film is forever thrusting you into its neon-lighted, scenes of close-up grossness, and it always seems to feel like it happens when want it least. What really makes this short triumph, however, is it's ability to flit between as sort of Hitman: Agent 47 spoof and your average night in a northern pub, so it would be surprising not to see this film make future appearances at places like the Glasgow Short Film Festival.

Then next film to burst on the scene (proving that LSFF still remains deeply committed to local British content, despite having become an international festival last year) was Just Desserts (dir. Michael Yanny, UK, 2015). Having already played at festivals such as Raindance and the London Film Festival, this film stars cult actor Alexander Macqueen as an irascible man who uses a weekly bid on the National Lottery as way to escape the horrors of things like a meal with his wife and her friends. Filled with a flourishing sort of swing band sound track, this film ebuillently sits somewhere between Philip Larkin's Vers de Societe and your average Italian-American ganger film, making it quite good fun.

Certainly Yanny's film blows up with all the fury of a repressed Englishman once Macqueen's character comes to think he's finally won his freedom with a jack-pot ticket too, but something about the film just seemed overly dry to me. Much better was Oh-Be-Joyful (dir. Susan Jacobson, UK, 2015), and its oh-so-good female entry into a seemingly very male-dominated comedy shorts sector. What's more, this film seemed somewhat reminiscent of recent Cannes victor Dan Hodgson's Are You Albert? which played at LSFF a few years ago, and it certainly proved that potty-mouthed pensioners remain a keen favourite with local audiences.

Interestingly enough, this film is filmed in London, but it certainly feels like an openly Welsh film, with both the ungainly grandmar and her luckless granddaughter speaking in quite marked Welsh accents. What unfolds between them is a comic comparison of the their love lives, and this even culminates in them going robbing at their local Tescos. There are some real laugh out loud moments in this film as a result, even if they are spaced out, and its focus on an LGBT character certainly should make it a potential contender for inclusion at festivals such as the BFI Flare Film Festival (which turns thirty this year) too.

This in turn was followed by Mr Madila (dir. Rory Waudby-Tolley, UK, 2015), which for this reviewer's money was definitely the best film in this year's competition for the LOCO Short Award, and failure to include it in something like this year's upcoming Annency festival's programme would be a travesty! Seemingly drawn on an ipad, this film really takes a fresh approach to animating and clearly demonstrates why animation is such a fantastic quarter in the film industry. This short has something of Adam Buxton's work to it, and it playfully imagines an exchange between a larger-than-life spiritual healer and a tentative documentarian who turns their interviews into an animation project to protect the mystique of his subject.

What ensues is a wonderful film that is simultaneously cosmic, profound and hilarious, and the expressive way in which Waudby-Tolley manages to illustrate and convey his titular character in relation to the voice-over really is delightful. Plus the way he captures the dynamic between these two protagonists really isn't exactly hard to watch either! And this is similarly true for If The Cuckoo Don't Crow, (dir. Steve Kirby, UK, 2015) another film in the programme which has made previous outings at Bristol's Encounters Film Festival last year.

Taking up the broad West Country accent that surrounds Bristol, this short animation similarly builds itself atop of a phone call made to a radio station. The conversation which follows concerns a moment in British history when a little old lady called in to predict a hurricane, and was famously mocked by national weather presented Michael Fish, who later turned out to have egg on his face. Drawn in a very stylised kind of way, this short is also rather Buxon-esque, and it relies heavily on the eccentricities of its rural caller. But it most certainly does not disappoint, and Kirby's decision to mix it with animation is a clever one.

Another good film live-action film was Circles (dir. Dean Puckett, UK, 2015), which marked a worthy return for Lucy Montgomery in a role not unlike some of the weirder performances she produced in the persistently odd BBC comedy Tittybangbang. This story focuses on two paranormal enthusiasts who present their very own eccentric radio station, and it slowly unfolds that they want to enact revenge on the people who are whimsically creating crop circles and undermining their authority on all things extraterrestrial. What therefore ensues is often so bathed in red it seems almost like a parody of Douglas Sirk, and it's persistently gory or sexually charged plot is hard not to find titillatingly ludicrous.

On a very different side of the spectrum was the light, bright and often perky Fan Girl (dir. Kate Herron, UK, 2015), another key female-directed inclusion, although it certainly made up one of the weaker films in the selection. That's not to say that its account of what would happen if four avid fans broke into the house of a faded pop star's house isn't amusing and compelling premise, but its characters' steady narrative ark sadly seemed a bit flat - even if not every short should have to be a rapid, quick-fire succession of bathetic punchlines. It is undeniably a nice idea to imagine how shit your childhood idols would be if you were to meet them now, though.

Also flawed but funny was Wingman (dir. Will Herbert, UK, 2015), a film which begins promisingly as it thrusts a layer of David Attenborough's commentary over a prostrate, hung-over human figure on a couch - the very same figure who turns out to be the central character. Equally, it's hard not to feel that this film's subtle stabs at some pretty important social themes, with its look at the absurdities of modern dating and its attempt to pull up contemporary British lad culture for closer inspection.

On top of that, Wingman has some really nice macho slow-mos that seem straight out of a much slicker film ,and it even briefly seems to dabble in the desktop-film genre. but ultimately you could argue that the film makes one or two polemical jokes which perhaps should have no place in this programme (or any other programme for that matter). So perhaps Wingman's inclusion does suggest there was a slight lack of truly great comedic content to choose from this year.

Or perhaps it was rather that some of the highlights have been held back for one of the festival's stand out events this year: a comedy shorts programme meets live stand up sketches, held on the rafters of the Hackney Picturehouse Attic on the 10th of January. Nevertheless though, even with a slightly more sedate selection than last year, 'Funny Sh*t' still remains a key feature of London's annual film calendar.

11 January 2016, by Thomas Humphrey