What makes a great short movie?  Better yet, what makes for one of the best short films of all time? They create entire worlds in a small amount of time.

They leave us all wanting more.

And, they all have at least one or more aspects in common: concise storytelling, great performances, an original concept, and stunning visuals.

Here, we present our list of the best films of all time and learn some steps to take to get similar results.

BEST SHORT FILMS OF ALL TIME

The common thread of great short films is a great concept

Since the beginning of cinema, short movies have shown the talents of filmmakers. They've been used as educational tools, as well as quick entertainment.  

They’ve also been used as calling cards for director’s looking to make a name for themselves.

Two of the common traits of the best shorts of all times is the storytelling and concept.

Telling a compelling story in a limited amount of time means that the writer and filmmakers are forced to ‘trim the fat’.

Cutting the situations and dialogue down to a minimum is mandatory.

If there is anything shown that’s unnecessary, it is obvious and glaring in a short movie.

The following films all illuminate huge ideas but with concise dialogue or none at all.

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BEST DRAMA SHORTS

THE BEST DRAMA SHORT FILMS

BEST DRAMA SHORTS

Short films have the best narratives

The best films will also have the best dramatic performances. Take a look below for some of the most exceptional movies.

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Best Drama Shorts

The top narrative short movies

BEST DRAMA SHORT MOVIES

Thunder Road (2017)

Jim Cummings may not be a household name yet, but Thunder Road is a mini-masterpiece of writing, directing and performance.

Imagine a film with one speaking character, one location, and no edits, that still manages to make you laugh and cry ALL in 12 minutes.

The title of that film is the Sundance Film Festival award-winning Thunder Road.

The film was adapted into a long-form feature film and was a giant hit in France.

Director Jim Cummings is the rare filmmaker who turned a substantial profit from this short film and gave the world a very signature calling card.

An Interview was the director, writer, and star.

An Interview was the director, writer, and star. This short film is one of the best in every way.

BEST DRAMA SHORT FILM

The Phone Call (2017)

In this Oscar-winning short film, Sally Hawkins plays a crisis hotline volunteer who calmly and sweetly talks to an elderly caller played by Jim Broadbent.

I’ve been knocking on doors for years, trying to get things made, and ever since the Oscar nomination, pretty much everyone whose doors I’ve been knocking on has invited me in.” - Matt Kirkby

The film was written by James Lucas and Matt Kirkby. Kirkby directs the film. Sally Hawkins brings her Oscar-nominated craft to this short film. The film had a four-year odyssey of creation it is a near textbook example of what to do when making a short.

Sally Hawkins has a thing for men or fish in peril

Filmed in one main location, with two actors in twenty minutes, the film does more than most features accomplish in two full hours.

It is beautifully but simply filmed.

BEST DRAMA SHORT FILM

Crossroads (2017)

This short is a recent arrival to the festival circuit, having screened at least thirty festivals such as the Academy Awards qualifying Hollyshorts.

It was even screened the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Foundation. And it has all the elements of the perfect short.

Written and directed by award-winning director Marvin Nuecklaus Crossroads has stunning photography, with a keen use of visual color palette for time delineation.

Best-Short-Movies-and-Films-Crossroads-Movie

Crossroads movie by Marvin Nuecklaus

It is a simple story.

“A young woman is interrogated after she is found unconscious in a desolate desert. Her case at first seems straightforward but the story has holes and the evidence doesn’t quite add up.”

But the complex characters come alive with vivid and nuanced performances by the leads.

The director of this short film plays with the structure like a master by using nonlinear storytelling.

He couples this with the color palette to keep the viewer informed and set the tone.

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BEST COMEDY SHORTS

FUNNY SHORTS TO WATCH

3

BEST EXPERIMENTAL SHORTS

WEIRD SHORT MOVIES

4

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

THE TOP DOCUMENTARY SHORT MOVIES

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILMS

The best short documentaries have great storytelling

The best short films aren’t all fictional stories.  

Documentary shorts are some of the clearest examples of the importance of storytelling, subject or concept and structure in nonfiction filmmaking.

The following documentary short films deal with huge themes even when their run times come up short.

04


Best Documentary Shorts

The top documentary shortS

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

Night and Fog (1956)

Writer-director Alain Resnais used writing and structure as well as a compilation of archival footage from all over Europe to bring this short film to life.

Using motion pictures and stills, there is no fancy Hollywood razzle-dazzle in this no-nonsense look at the horrors of the Holocaust.

What makes this film truly extraordinary is not the subject matter.

This was not the first film to detail the atrocities of the Second World War.

It is the structure of the film that makes this short film stand the test of time as one of the best short documentary films of all time.

Resnais tells a complete story with a gripping subject matter but structures the story in an essay form.

A beautiful telling of a nightmarish story 

The events are told chronologically with the footage from Resnais’ present day, in color, and the archival footage edited seamlessly.

The tracking shots lead to the Nazis marching in step.  The overgrown fields of the 1950’s blend into the ghastly scenes of genocide.

The writing here is unsentimental and unapologetic.  It makes Night and Fog one of the best short movies, documentary or otherwise, of all time.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORTS

The Mushroom Club (2005)

This powerful Academy Award-nominated short film from director Steve Okazaki revisits the story of the first use of the atomic bomb by the United States against Japan.

The real story in this 34min film is the effects on the lives of those who experienced it.

Best-Short-Movies-and-Films-The-Mushroom-Clubg

Rod Serling approved story

The story itself is the leading player in this short film.  

In response to the lackluster coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the bomb, the filmmaker collected these stories of survivors in the short tragic anthology.

The director presents questions that no one wants to ask.  

The answers provide a harrowing portrait of “victory” from the point of view of those who lived in the aftermath of the bombing.

The survivors or hibakusha get to tell their story

The structure is less important as are the filmmaking skills.  The stories come together to make one unforgettable film.

The Los Angeles Times

Amidst the solemn official commemorations and the people who’d just as soon ignore the bomb and its aftermath, he finds a dwindling community of survivors and others who seek to keep the story alive and vivid.

This short film is a testament to the power of filmmaking.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILMS

God Sleeps In Rwanda (2005)

The best documentary short movies all seem to tackle the darkest and most tragic reaches of the human experience. God Sleeps In Rwanda is no exception.

Director Kimberlee Acquaro received a Pew Fellowship and later an Academy Award nomination for this intimate  

Once again, the story’s subject matter is the leading player.  

But the writing in this short is essential to the telling of such heavy themes as genocide and human depravity.

Five stories of hope born from despair

Narrated by Rosario Dawson, the writing here doesn’t overwhelm the stories of the five women who rebuild their lives and redefine women's roles in Rwanda.

This short film is a story of hope.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT MOVIES

The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club (2004)

Director Dan Krauss paints a tragic portrait of the life of a journalist in this superb short film.

The short film comes in at a sparse 27 minutes but packs a punch of any feature-length film.

The film sheds light on the suicide of journalist Kevin Carter a few months after winning the Pulitzer Prize and the death of a close friend.

The familiarity of Kevin Carter’s work makes the viewer an accomplice

The film is thorough in the examination of Carter’s life and the events leading to his death.  The amount of research that goes into the documentary short is staggering and worthy of its’ Academy Award nomination.

5

BEST LGBT SHORTS

LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL & TRANSGENDER SHORTS

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BEST HORROR SHORTS

SCARY SHORTS TO WATCH

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BEST SCI-FI SHORTS

THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION SHORTS

BEST SCIENCE FICTION SHORTS

Don't forget about sci-fi films

A calling card is a great use of the short film genre.

Many directors have gone on to have amazing careers because of the promise they show in their first short film.

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Best Sci-Fi Shorts

The top science fiction short movies

  1. Alive in Joburg (2006)

  2. Eight (1998)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION SHORT MOVIES

Alive in Joburg (2006)

Neill Blomkamp proved his abilities and announced himself to the world with this 2006b short film that would go on to become the hit film District 9.

If you ever wanted to see a great short film that begs for more, Neill Blomkamp’s Alive In Joburg is that film. 

Alive in Joburg

The visuals are as fully realized as the feature that would come later. The story is tight and the subject matter in this satire is clear and makes its’ point.

BEST SCI FI SHORT FILMS

Eight (1998)

The full display of Stephen Daldry’s directing ability is evident in this short film that launched his career.

The promise of his future work such as Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader, is definitely evident in Eight.   

Eight short film

The writing is concise and focused.  

The performance from the young star of the film is brilliant, even as much of the narrative is told in voice-over.  

But it is the camera that is one of the true stars of this short film.  

Those with an especially good eye can notice some of the director’s style in his later offerings.

From stunning tracking shots to close-ups, Daldry seems to say I know film theory and can put it to use.

Daldry is a master filmmaker and Eight was his calling card.

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BEST ANIMATED SHORTS

THE TOP ANIMATED SHORT MOVIES

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILMS

What about animated shorts?

Their attention to story structure is another common link that all of the best short films share.

All of the films on the list adhere to a tried and true structure or upends the very idea and creates something new.

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Best Animated Shorts

The best animation short movies

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILMS

Zero (2010)

“How can something be nothing?”

Simple animation and a well-executed universal story are what makes this short film shine.

Filmmaking by definition is a labor-intensive art form. This is doubly true for animation.

This is why a simple and familiar concept is a must! But the stop-motion animation really serves the story well and is visually innovative in its’ simplicity.

Zero short film

Zero is the story of two outcast zeroes in a world of higher numbers. Their attraction to each other is ugly to any other numbers. But it is them who are triumphant by the end of this animated short movie.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILMS

Geri's Game (1996)

The concept:  An old man plays chess with himself in the park.  Simple enough.

How did Pixar tell this story?

By having the man assume the multiple characters in the chess match.

The combination of concept, storytelling and, yes performance, even if it is computer generated imagery, works to make this academy award-winning short film one of the best.

Geri's Game short film

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILMS

Human Behaviour (1993)

This is the only music video you will find on this list and it definitely deserves to be on any list of groundbreaking short movies.

When pop-rock superstar Bjork enlisted Michel Gondry to make a video the chances were high that they would make something unique.

BJORK

I guess I just didn't think it would be fair to force an animal to act in a video. I mean, that would be an extension of what I'm against. I told him [Gondry], 'I want a bear and textures like handmade wood and leaves and earth, and I want it to seem like animation.' Then I backed out.

An odd but complete story told with was then the cutting-edge use of retro-animation, Human Behavior is one of the best shorts made for another artists’ work.

There is nothing normal about this Human Behaviour

Gondry would go on to direct a full-length take on the subjects and themes presented in this short film.

BEST ANIMATED SHORTS

Sanjay's Super Team (2015)

Every filmmaker should see this Pixar short film for the amazing combination of original concept, strong storytelling, and stunning visuals.

Director Sanjay Patel based the story on his own childhood.

This wide angle shot / wide shot / long shot in Blade Runner rules.

Taking the familiar story of a clash of interest between two generations, Patel used the Hindu deities and the superhero storyline to create a magical short movie. It is truly a delight for all ages.

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BEST OSCAR SHORTS

THE BEST AWARD-WINNING SHORTS

BEST OSCAR WINNING SHORTS

Take a look at the structure of these Oscar short films

These short films have either won or been nominated for an Oscar award. Take a look below to see the list.

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Best Oscar Shorts

award-winning short movies

  1. Knife Skills (2017)

  2. Stutterer (2017)

BEST OSCAR WINNING SHORTS

Knife Skills (2017)

This Oscar-nominated short film of 2017 is one of the few documentary short movies that delivers a message of hope and redemption.

This short film is the story of a restauranteur looking to open the best French restaurant in America.  

The catch? The restaurant is staffed with ex-convicts looking to change their lives.  

They have a few weeks to learn the kitchen skills.

Ex-convicts serve a dose of humanity with their skills

The structure of the story is where filmmakers can really learn a thing or two.

Starting the film on the opening night as an amuse bouche and then serving up the entrèe as the staff is initiated into a brand new world of traditional French cuisine.

It is funny as a fish out of water stories, frustrating to witness how lives can take a sudden bad turn and a pleasure to watch as men and women are redeemed in a kitchen.

Knife Skills is as riveting as any of the best shorts ever made.

BEST OSCAR WINNING SHORTS

Stutterer (2017)

Another Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning short film of 2017 is Stutterer. Writer and Director Benjamin Cleary tales the story of a man afflicted with a terrible stutter.​

When an online friend happens to come to town, he is conflicted over whether to meet her, given his condition.

A solid twist at the end isn’t only for the best horror shorts

A solid twist at the end isn’t only for the best horror shorts

This is a simple story that heightens the emotions of anyone with a heartbeat.

Stutterer takes a simple concept, a linear but clear structure, and a familiar subject and brings them together for an impressionable short film.

Stutterer was accepted to more than 785 festivals and has won at least 20 awards to date.

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BEST INTERNATIONAL SHORTS

THE BEST FRENCH AND INTERNATIONAL SHORT FILMS TO WATCH

BEST INTERNATIONAL SHORT MOVIES

What do these international shorts have in common?

Take a spin around the world to view some of the shorts that every filmmaker should see.

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Best International Films

Including the best french short movies

BEST FRENCH SHORTS

La Jetee (1962)

A post-apocalyptic, cautionary tale and a masterpiece of writing, this short film is one of the best of all times.

Twenty-eight minutes long and entirely in black and white, La Jetee is ahead of its’ time.

The themes are as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.

Importantly, it pays homage to the French New Wave movement.  

FRENCH NEW WAVE DEFINITION

WHAT IS THE FRENCH NEW WAVE?

The French New Wave was a movement in French cinema by writers and filmmakers beginning in the 1950’s and continuing until the 70’s.  A direct repercussion of the standards of “films of quality”, the French New Wave was embedded in iconoclasm. French filmmakers called on their peers to tell stories more relevant to modern social issues.  The New Wave movement was concerned with pushing the boundaries of the art form. The term New Wave was first coined by cinephiles in the French periodical, Cahiers du Cinema in the early 1950’s. The movement is now recognized as one of the most influential film movements of the late Twentieth century.

This movement is still influential to modern filmmakers.

Storytelling at its' best

One major example that filmmakers can learn from La Jetee, is that there is more than one way to tell a story with motion pictures.

Best-Short-Movies-and-Films-La-Jetee

Alain Resnais masterpiece of a short film

In fact, with very little exception, most of this short film is told using still photographs.

But the ideas presented here are timeless. This short film inspired the Hollywood hit 12 Monkeys.

Best-Short-Movies-and-Films-12-Monkeys

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt starred in the 1995 adaptation

The plot is incredibly similar even if the way the story is told is not.

The story is the same even if the stars and time period are not. 

Even in shorts, the story is key.

This modern French classic is proof that storytelling is essential to any of the best short movies.
Best-Short-Movies-and-Films-The-Red-Balloon

Pascal Lamorisse is the star and son of the director

In fact, The Red Balloon is the only short film to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

The writer-director, Albert Lamorisse, made this “featurette” in post-war Paris as a parable of hope in dark times.  

It is a simple story that is told well and visually stunning.

A short film that is just over 35 minutes long, The Red Balloon has less than ten lines of dialogue.  

 The script itself reads almost like a treatment.

If you didn’t notice when you watched,  this gem of a short movie has some of the best tracking shots of any film.

The Red Balloon is a beautiful fantasy brought to life from a child’s point of view.

A beautiful telling of a nightmarish story ​​​​

BEST FRENCH SHORT FILMS

A Trip To The Moon (1902)

The influence of this film from director and actor George Melies cannot be overstated.

Out of the hundreds of film this Godfather of cinema completed, this is the one that has stood the test of time.

The story follows a group of astronomers who voyage to the moon. They explore the surface, come to blows with the natives, before returning to earth with a captive.

An early short film blockbuster with influence

This short film has cutting-edge special effects… for the time.

In 1902, seeing Trip to the Moon must have been like seeing Titanic for the first time.

The writing is great even without a word of audible dialogue.

The enduring theme of the exploration of man was cleverly realized in this short film.

The film was heavily pirated in its’ day even though it was financially very successful.

Originally published by The San Francisco Examiner on July 13, 1890, the short story was first collected in Ambrose Bierce's 1891 book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians.
Best-Short-Movies-and-Films-An-Occurrence-at-Owl-Creek-Bridge

What did occur at Owl Creek Bridge?

The short film seventy years later was specially presented on an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Best-Short-Movies-and-Films-Rod-Serling

Rod Serling approved story

Adapted for the screen and directed by Roberto Enrico, the story is simple, but the telling is what makes it jarring and original.

A man about to be hanged during the Civil War escapes his captors to be reunited with his love.

Enrico stuck to the source material and abandoned strict linear narration and instead uses the internal mind of the protagonist.  

This is one of the best shorts of all time.

It was a winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

In addition, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge received both the BAFTA and the Academy Award for the best Live Action Short film.

There is minimal sound until nearly halfway through the film.  That this film is committed to telling the story visually is very important.

It definitely highlights the need for a shotlist when looking to make one of the best films of all time.

WRAPPING UP THE BEST SHORTS

Up Next: The 21 Best Pixar Short Films

You received a glimpse of the animated films that Pixar got absolutely right.  Now see the complete list of Pixar’s best short film in our “best of” list. The shorts combine many aspects of live action but are made for audiences of all ages.

UP NEXT: The 21 Best Pixar short films →

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