Ok! I want to spend some time endorsing a collection of outstanding films that were made available or released in my US of A home country of origin in YR 2014. I’ve waited until after the obligatory ‘award season’ both because even in the best city in the world to be a movie lover, it takes a lot of time and effort to track down certain movies when it isn’t explicitly your job to do so, and also because during ‘awards season’ in my US of A all is eclipsed by feverish hand-wringing over a handful of lauded selections handed down by a gaggle of mostly old mostly caucasian mostly gentlemen who mostly live in Manhattan’s UWS. In short, the WORLD of living and evolving cinema where folks continue to dare and stretch the medium with active investigations is swept aside for the **mandatory big time celebration event** of fare that has had its formula (paradigm//genre//message) determined far in advance (DOA).
I have curated this list with the above aforementioned factories in front of mind. It is my hope that I will be able to pique your curiosity about some films you maybe never heard mentioned last year and get you excited about seeking out cinema that attempts to transcend expectation (both about the medium itself, and about life in general) by asking new questions and creating open-ended experiences that resist reduction or classification. Dig the invitation to adventure, ya’ll, and get the old psychic furniture rearranged! It’s fun!
STATATTACK: Notably, only 4 of the films on this list of 20 were recognized in any category at the Oscars, and only 5 were produced exclusively in America (as a country, we have loads of celebrities but very few genuine visionaries in my estimation). 3 of the following films feature house pets as their primary muse, two feature toy helicopters at integral moments, 3-4 were made on consumer grade cameras and technology with extremely minimal budgets, and 4 could be considered ‘debut’ films. Two of the films took nearly 20 years to reach an audience. One was made illegally.
The broad point here is simply that film manipulation is both an art form and an industry, as we know, and the line dividing one guiding impetus from the other is often pretty difficult to follow. Film as an evolving art form in conversation with an evolving humanity (one hopes (!)) is in need of more people who are willing to take whatever resources are available to them and ask questions about film (or whatever art form, really) as a medium and simply investigate their own lives. Start there. I’m pretty sure that is something I heard Jean Luc Godard say in an interview this year, at 83, after having just finished the most mind-blowing and genre-exploding experiment in 3D most anyone has seen before. If you feel compelled to make some stuff, don’t let imposed barriers, whether conceptual or material, block you up!
Because what’s the alternative? People in genuine conversation with an art form are treated, and sometimes totally become, disseminators and rabid consumers of The Entertainment (100% in the Infinite Jest sense).
So, let’s go see film and discuss it. Give me feedback about these selections, and offer me some to check out that I missed. Let’s argue. Let’s shoot a movie with our iPhones, or assemble a new narrative out of stacks of discarded VHS cartridges. Let’s be generous and hospitable with our creative environments and activities in an effort to encourage and surprise each other while resisting commodification!
Due to pretty awesome advances in accessibility of worldwide content via online streaming this past year, YR 2014, almost all 20 of these films are available for you to track down and wrestle with little out of money’s pocket regardless of where you live. I will try to direct you to the best platform to click with each film. I will keep it to only a few films per endorsement, cause words.
Ok, ok? Go now!
20) A Field in England (Dir. Ben Wheatley, UK)
A Field in England is a film that seamlessly borrows much from my favorite traditions in UK cinema (most notably the ‘Folk Horror’ genre), without kowtowing to any of them. Director Ben Wheatley is obviously a free range bird who love movies enough to break their rules by looking to open up unexpected tonal spaces. The result is incredibly surprising! A Field in England features gorgeously gritty B+W photography, pitch black scatological humor marble-mumbled, hilarious terror, two song interludes, as well as one of the most brilliantly edited hallucinatory sequences in recent memory - jagged flurries of morphogenic shapes that both invoke awe and seem capable of swallowing you whole. What information guides these shapes, and why don’t we see their constant movement during ‘normal’ life moments? The film got under my skin and had me returning to it mentally time and time again. All of this without much of a plot to speak of, as well:
While a Civil War in 17th century England noisily rages on, a handful of individual deserters find each other and become a group of deserters. A man name Whitehead is, they all guess, their leader as they traverse an empty field. That is until they (unwittingly?) make some stew with large handfuls of psilocybin mushrooms and encounter an alchemist on a dark quest to find gold buried in the field. The alchemist enslaves Whitehead in a truly terrifying way, and so enslaves the others by default. Their trip on gold uncovers something much more powerful and dangerous than they expected...we think. You see, plot is almost useless when recounting a trip of this nature. Something happened out there, Jim. Something BIG.
I think the element that will most stick with me in this film is its emphasis on shapes imbedded in open environments. Often the characters are found unexpectedly in religious-looking tableau, still but not totally frozen for a number of seconds before action resumes. It made me wonder about symbol and archetype as living entities, inhabitants of spaces much more expansive than the shapes we see with our eyes can convey. We make contact with an aspect or surface of an idea, but the map is never the territory.
A Field in England can be found streaming for free on Amazon Prime, streaming rental from Amazon is $3.99, or on disc rental over at Netflix.
19) Closed Curtain (Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Alright, this one is complicated. As you may already know, the circumstances of director Jafar Panahi’s current personal life are inseparable from the fiber of his last two films, This is Not A Film and now Closed Curtain. Panahi has been sentenced by his government to house arrest in his home country of originating, Iran, until YR 2016 and has been forbidden to make films for 20 years. Closed Curtain is his second film produced since this sentence. This is Not a Film was Panahi filming himself using iPhone cameras, marking out in the space of his living room the scenarios to films he cannot make. It was smuggled to Cannes via a zip drive hidden in a cake. For real. This film felt dangerous and hopeful in a visceral way.
With Closed Curtain, the political is just as inseparable from the art. Panahi has had his creative life ripped out from under him essentially because the Iranian government sees him as having become a propaganda instrument of the West due to a documentary he and fellow filmmakers were working on about Iran’s Green Movement. The Green Movement has multiple times declared themselves as independent of of US interests or money, but the uncomfortable truth is that the US of A’s very own alphabet soup agencies have had a very long track record of infiltrating other country’s organic social movements and seizing positions of influence over said country’s various non-profit organizations and networks of human interest groups, usually all the way to disastrous and society destabilizing events - so called color revolutions, wearing the name tags ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. These ‘color revolutions’ usually end up in the installation of a government better suited to the US of A’s financial interests. Ukraine is the most recent example of how this tends to turn out. There is at least some evidence that destabilizing Iran has been ‘part of the plan’ for US foreign policy for many years now, well before the ‘nuclear power’ ‘threat’. So, I don’t blame the Iranian government for being hyper vigilant against this sort of thing.
This being said, the Iranian government has apparently also banned walking dogs in public as an unclean practice and influence from the West. Police are shooting outside dogs, humans are being arrested. This is the basic premise of Closed Curtain: a screen writer smuggles his pet pup to his beach house, seals the curtains, hunkers down and tries to write a movie. He is unsuccessful and begins to question whether it is worth being alive. He is interrupted by a couple running from the police. The woman stays and haunts him as possibly a character from the film he is trying to write. He questions reality. His dog watches other dogs on TV news getting shot in the street in the most heartbreaking piece of dog acting I have ever seen. Panahi enters the film, unacknowledged by the screenwriter, and we know that we are currently all (director, screenwriter, audience) imprisoned in his mental and physical space - the artist’s existential crisis unfolding in real time.
‘I must go on i can’t go on i’ll go on’...
Jafar Panahi makes movies. This is all he knows to do. He likes to film cities, outdoors, real life events unfolding in social spaces. He is particularly in tune with the women’s liberation struggle in Iran. With this sentence, his expressive voice is imprisoned and his sense of joy and even meaning in living is completely arrested. All of the main actors in the film have had trouble with the police since it’s export out of the country. For Panahi to do his work and not negatively effect others he must increasingly isolate himself. This cruel treatment aims to effectively neuter any positive social effect he is capable of producing using his only medium of expression. In short: Corrupt State Smashes Art and Dissolves Community.
The bottom line, as I see it, is that regardless of whether this sorrowful film exists because of corruption in the monotheistic religion of Islam, in the theocratic government of Iran, or the predatory behavior of US imperialism, or all combined, State Sponsored Art Smashing and Community Dissolve should never happen. Everyday people like us around the world should exert every social pressure at our disposal to stop this sort of torture and imprisonment. The right to community gathering and freedom of expression should be universal. The right of a large gathering of peoples (Idea: NATION) to group-determination without the parasitic influence of other gatherings of peoples (Reality: GOVERNMENT) should be universally accessible and reinforced by people and not weapons//war.
When government is allowed to exert this type of control over people’s individual lives and perceptions of reality (they like to call this ‘fixing the facts around the policy’) the clear result is a breakdown in creativity, loss of connectivity and vitality, and spiritual (+sometimes physical) death.
Will the US government continue to try and control the whole world? Will the Iranian government lift Panahi’s sentence? Will Panahi make another movie? Chaos generating machinations have and will grind ever forward, and so it seems that the decisive constructive factors and possible outcomes in all of the above questions depends on us non-predator (pro-creative) type humans. It is worth always remembering that empathy-equipped humans make up most of the world. As much as we may be made to experience isolation from one another, the ‘feeling-together’ can be activated and nurtured with a simple increase of information. The experience Closed Curtain puts before us, in spite of its knots of Gordian complications, is still capable of this fortifying social function.
Closed Curtain can be found streaming on Amazon Instant Video ($3.99 rental).
Stay tuned for next week when I take a look at experimental filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell's attempt at film as magic spell, rave over Jake Gyllenhaal's incredible embodiment of the unconscious war raging in the male id/ego, and celebrate the under awknowledged Québécois film movement!