Britain’s audacious answer to The Twilight Zone for our plugged-in world of social media and screen culture, Black Mirror seemed to come out of nowhere. The anthology show debuted on Netflix in December with “The National Anthem,” which caused a viral sensation. That first episode addressed hacking, cybercrime, political protest, and extortion with a savagely satirical story about the kidnapping of a royal family member. To save her, the Prime Minister was instructed—in the form of a video ransom demand streamed for the world to watch—to fuck a pig on live television, and he did. “The National Anthem” was the most transgressive thing I’ve ever seen on TV, and I see a lot of TV.
Written by English journalist-turned-satirist Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator, that episode was wickedly, nastily funny. Unlike most premium American television, however, its shock value has a real point. The YouTube terrorism of “The National Anthem” is but an nth-degree exaggeration of our own cyber-bullying, celebrity phone hacking, and North Korean cyber-attacks.
Film history discovered and rediscovered on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats.
We never stop recovering our film history. In 2014 alone we found a 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes starring the legendary stage actor William Gillette (the only known footage of the man considered the definitive Holmes of his era in character) and an unfinished orphan film shot in 1913 starring black Broadway star Bert Williams.
The digital tools have given filmmakers, producers, studios and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods and the transition from film prints to theatrical digital formats for repertory and revival showings has created new incentives to restore and remaster classic films for new theatrical screenings. (There’s plenty of controversy over this shift, with many partisans arguing that movies shot and originally shown in celluloid should be preserved and only screened that way.)
But it’s still a specialized audience and film lovers outside of major metropolitan areas often have no opportunities to see these restorations and revivals on the screen. At least until they are made available to home video formats. For instance, while the new restoration of the original Todd AO version of Oklahoma! premiered at the Turner Classic Movies festival in April, it has yet to reach audiences outside of specialty theaters and the China Film Archive restoration of the 1934 Chinese classic The Goddess has only shown in film festivals.
So this list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks and restorations of great films and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers at home in 2014. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers now have a chance to see regardless of where they live, as long as they have a web connection and a Blu-ray player.
Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, streaming)
The home video event of 2014 is not a disc debut or a Blu-ray special edition but a piece of lost film history found, restored and streamed on the web. Shot by Orson Welles in 1938 (two years before he went to Hollywood and began production on Citizen Kane) as a kind of experiment to accompany a stage production of the theater farce Too Much Johnson, the film was never finished by Welles beyond a continuity work print that was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970. The 35mm nitrate work print was found in 2013 in a warehouse in Italy (in Pordenone, as it happens, home to the greatest silent film festival in the world) and restored in an international effort. After a series of special screenings, the film (in both the original 66-minute work print and a 34-minute “reimagined” version, with outtakes and duplicate shots removed and footage edited into an “educated guess” of how it would have played in finished form) was made available to audiences the world over for free via the National Film Preservation Foundation website and in an HD edition through Fandor. I celebrated the film and its discovery for Keyframe earlier this year.
Jonathan Romney is a film critic for The Independent and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Screen International and other publications. He’s also a filmmaker and most recently he wrote and directed L’assenza, a twenty-minute short about an everyday guy named Martin (Stephen Mangan) who watches an obscure Italian film (called, of course, L’assenza—“The Absence”) and spots an extra who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. He laughs it off with a joke but curiosity becomes obsession and as he watches the film again and again, the ill-at-ease extra seems to become aware of Martin’s observations.
L’assenza applies a very low-key wit to the cinema of doubles and doppelgängers and drops it into the world of cinephilia, which adds a new angle on the themes of voyeurism and obsession. And Romney’s fake Italian movie, shot in creamy black and white and set to a jazz score plucked right out of the culture of pretentious elegance, is such a spot-on recreation of the cinema of sophisticated people and empty lives you’d swear it’s the real thing. “It sounds like it should be the Antonioni movie that got away,” remarked Romney in our long-distance conversation.
L’assenza made its world premiere at the 2013 New York Film Festival, played in festivals around the world, and was a nominee in the Short Film category for the 2013 British Independent Film Awards. I spoke with Jonathan Romney by phone (late night for him, early afternoon for me, thanks to the time difference between England and America’s West Coast) and communicated with producer Carey Born via email conversations.
Sean Axmaker: Filmmakers usually make short films when they can’t get a feature going or to show their talent, like a resume of sorts. What inspired you to make a short film?
Jonathan Romney: Everyone starts by making short films before they make features. And if you have an idea that is the right idea and self-contained and has its own logic, you may as well make it. I’m working on a feature at the moment but I’ve been saying to people, ‘There’s also this other short that I want to make.’ People are saying, ‘Do you really need to make a short at the moment? Shouldn’t you be working on a feature?’ But this other short had been nagging at me. Short ideas do have a way of coming to your consciousness fully formed and they demand to get out. I’d wanted to do this particular story for some time.
Too Much Johnson, the Orson Welles film (or rather film project) that was long thought lost (the last print was reportedly destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970), was found a few years ago and restored. It’s not a feature or even a short, per se, more of an experiment shot to accompany a production of the theater farce “Too Much Johnson,” but at least the first section plays just fine on its own as a tribute to silent slapstick comedy with Joseph Cotten doing Harold Lloyd antics and Buster Keaton chases as a serial philanderer pursued by a jealous husband. The film was unfinished but mostly complete and you can watch both the workprint and a “reimagined” version with the outtakes removed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website. An HD version of both are available through the subscription streaming service Fandor.
I wrote an essay on the film for Keyframe: “This would all be interesting but academic if it wasn’t also entertaining and Too Much Johnson is a hoot. The prologue was designed to open the play, introduce the characters and situations, and set the racing pace for the stage scenes with a wild slapstick chase through the streets of New York to the ship that carries the story to Cuba. It plays just fine on its own (with an assist from intertitles added by NFPF), like an open-ended Mack Sennett farce that races through German Expressionism and Russian Formalism on the way to the docks. The subsequent sequences, both much shorter and apparently incomplete, are not as self-contained or coherent but they do feature some eye-opening moments for Welles fans.”
The third wave of Amazon Prime Instant Video Pilot Season shows will be available to sample on Thursday, August 28. As in previous waves, Amazon has made the pilot episodes of five new shows available to all Amazon customers (you don’t have to be a Prime member to watch them), and they will decide which shows move forward to full series based on audience feedback.
This time through, they have enlisted some interesting directors to create for the small screen. Whit Stillman heads to Paris for The Cosmopolitans, a continental romantic comedy, David Gordon Green (director of Pineapple Express and HBO’s Eastbound and Down) stays home in New Jersey for Red Oaks, a coming-of-age comedy set in 1985 (it’s produced by Steven Soderbergh), and Jay Chandrasekhar offers the sitcom Really, about a tight-knit group of married couples in Chicago. Each of these are in the half-hour format.
There are also two hour-long shows: Marc Forster (World War Z) takes the helm on Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman as a judge of dubious morals who goes vigilante after receiving messages from God, and writer / producer Shaun Cassidy delivers Hysteria, with Mena Suvari as a neurologist faced with virtual virus spread through social media.