Last month, a short film won praise from animation fans and film critics. The big surprise? It was a commercial for Chipotle restaurants.
In it, a scarecrow discovers cruel and unusual practices happening behind closed doors at a fast-food factory. Machines pump livestock full of chemicals. Sinister, robotic crows spray crops with pesticides. And consumers line up to swallow the toxic results, oblivious—perhaps willfully oblivious—to their part in an ugly enterprise.
The scarecrow goes home and starts cooking the old-fashioned way: growing fresh, pesticide-free produce and raising healthy livestock. Soon, he's serving fresh, nutritious meals—personally—to diners who can enjoy real flavor and real nourishment without any corruption of conscience.
Chipotle's commercial went viral, earning better buzz than many of this year's feature films.
Chipotle's brilliant pitch (whether or not it accurately represents their product) appeals to an increasingly popular appetite. Even though consumer culture gives us more options all the time, at greater and greater convenience, we're hungrier than ever for something real.
This also applies to moviegoing.
Talking with other film fans, I find that by September, many of us are feeling a little regretful, a little sick. We've spent the summer consuming big-budget, committee-designed, factory-made features. They're like microwaveable burritos stuffed full of shouting, chases, gunfire, showdowns, explosions, and end-of-the-world scenarios.
So we start looking forward to the opposite—a parade of pompous, overly serious, "important" features known as Oscar Bait. And here they come: films that shove hard truths in our faces, shocking us with heartbreakingly tragic, wildly imaginative, furiously acted experiences.
But even that September-to-January programming can seem like an assembly-line of oversized portions and artificial ingredients. The delusional hype of "competition" corrupts the way art is made, promoted, and received. Ten years down the road, how many of these overbearing films will still haunt us? How many will we call "old favorites" and revisit with friends?
I'm finding a growing audience of moviegoers for films that are artful but modest, films designed to inspire conversation rather than award-season hype. Films that provoke without pandering. That invite without insisting. That offer subtle beauty instead of shocking pizzazz. That grow from an artist's exploration and experience instead of a studio's formulas and box office analysis.
Maybe we're tired of being bludgeoned into amazement. Maybe a good story about real people, distinguished by a sense of mystery, would be just the thing.
Recently, I followed the whispers of film enthusiasts whose discernment I have come to trust. I found myself off the beaten path, tracking down two little-known movies.
The first I found on Netflix. I'd planned to spend an hour folding laundry and dusting furniture, with one eye on the television screen. But 90 minutes later, the laundry remained in the basket, and dust still blanketed the bookshelves. I'd fallen into—and in love with—an engrossing little movie by director Chad Hartigan called This Is Martin Bonner.
The second—Jem Cohen's Museum Hours—played for one week in a Seattle arthouse theater, and I caught its penultimate screening. Afterward, I gave in to the urge to find the theater's manager and thank him personally for bringing this movie to town.