My Best Movie-Going Experiences of 2013

Happy New Year!

Because I have ten fingers, I’m obliged to write a top-ten list every year. But I don’t have to be conventional about it. Instead of listing my top ten new films of the year, I’m writing about my best movie-going experiences.

To pick these ten, I take into account the quality of the print or digital transfer, how well it was projected, live music, Q&A with the filmmakers, and even the quality of the audience. And, of course, whether or not I liked the film.

In other words, this is about showmanship.

The digital trend continues. Only two of the top ten presentations involved projecting actual film. On the other hand, one of them was my best movie-going event of the year.

Some artists turned up more than once. I’ve got two Hitchcocks here, and two silents accompanied by the Monte Alto Silent Film Orchestra.

In 2013, I saw five features in 3D–a personal record. Only one of them was new; the others were revivals from the 1950s. And most of those films made this list..

The title links are to my own articles about the events.

10. SFIFF Silent Movie Night: Waxworks
Castro, May 7
San Francisco International Film Festival
Tinted 35mm, accompanied by Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant

image

Every year, the San Francisco International. Film Festival hosts a silent film event, where they match a movie–generally not one in the pantheon–with one or more musicians who enjoy a strong local following but are not generally associated with silent film accompaniment. The German Expressionist anthology Waxworks won’t make any list great motion pictures, but it’s fun. Besides, the rare, archival print, tinted and toned, was good enough to make a far worse movie than Waxworks entertaining, as was the trio’s harsh, percussion-heavy music.

9. Gravity
AMC Bay Street 16, October 5
3D DCP

image

I feel odd putting anything I saw at the AMC on this list. The people running that place wouldn’t understand the concept of showmanship if they wandered into a circus. But Gravity demanded an immersive screen and 3D, and the AMC delivered. Easily the best special-effects flick of 2013, it’s a thrilling story and this time, the AMC did it well.

8. Lawrence of Arabia
Century San Francisco Centre 9’s XD Theater, March 20
XD, 4K DCP, humungous screen

Yes, this is the third year in a row that Lawrence made this list. But I had to include it, because this is the best presentation of this masterpiece I’ve ever seen. The XD Theater has an enormous screen, with a slight curve–a much better screen for this type of film than the Castro’s. And the 4K digital projection showed the image from the original 65mm negative better than any other medium.

7. 3D Noir Double Bill: Man in the Dark & Inferno
Noir City, Castro, February 2
3D DCP

image

My very first experience seeing old, 1950s 3D movies projected digitally. The first movie, Man in the Dark, would have been better without the 3D, but it’s clumsy use the gimmick gave me some idea as to why 3D failed in 1954. Inferno, on the other hand, was a revelation–a great story of survival and attempted murder that used the extra depth sparingly and intelligently. One of the best 3D films ever.

6. The Ring
Hitchcock 9Castro, June 15
DCP, accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

image

In June, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened all eight existing silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This story of a love triangle in the world of boxing was easily the best. It’s a virtuoso work, filled with experimental use of the camera and editing table, with enough heart to paint all three leads sympathetically. And Mont Alto provided wonderful accompaniment,

5. Dial M for Murder
Rafael, July 25
3D DCP

image

Alfred Hitchcock was the only major auteur to shoot a film in 3D during the 1950s–and he did it under protest. For the most part, he ignoree the obvious 3D effects. But when he finally threw something at the screen, it was absolutely the right time to throw the right object. It was more than 30 years since I’d seen Dial M in 3D; I’d forgotten just how well it worked. Of course, sitting amongst an enthusiastic audience helped make this a real treat.

4. Safety Last!
San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Castro, July 21
DCP; accompanied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Harold Lloyd understood the relationship between suspense and laughs at least as well as Alfred Hitchcock, and he never showed it better than in Safety Last. The first two thirds of this short feature make an excellent, workman-like comedy. But the film’s real brilliance comes in the last act, when Harold has to climb a skyscraper. If there is a funnier extended sequence in all of cinema, I haven’t seen it. Of course, an enthusiastic audience helped. As did personal appearances by granddaughter, Suzzanne Lloyd and historical special effects expert Craig Barron. And, once again, great accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

3. Twenty Feet from Stardom
San Francisco International Film Festival, Kabuki, April 26
DCP, filmmaker Q&A, musical performance after the movie

image

Yet another great movie-and-live-music event, although this time the music came after the film was over. First, the documentary, where we meet the unheralded backup singers who’ve graced some of the greatest recordings in the last few decades. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton ("Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!"), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without getting credit for it ("He’s a Rebel"). Then, after the wonderful movie, singers Clayton and Tata Vega came out and sang for us, followed by a brief discussion with the filmmakers.

2. Sony 4K Restorations with Grover Crisp
Bonjour Tristesse, December 5
Taxi Driver & Alamo Bay, December 6
Pacific Film Archive
DCP
image

Okay, I’m cheating here, counting three movies shown on two nights, requiring three admission tickets, as a single event. But they were part of the same series, and they each featured talks by Grover Crisp, Sony Senior Vice President for Asset Management (translation: VP for old movies). Thursday night had the longer, more detailed talk, which was terrific. And the movie, Bonjour Tristesse, was very good.

The two Friday talks were more concise, and the two films were full, 4K presentations (Thursday’s Bonjour Tristesse was only 2K). And one of the films was Taxi Driver.

1. A Century Ago: The Films of 1913
Rafael, December 12
Mostly 35mm film, hand-cranked, with live music. Some digital.

Courtesy of Motion Picture Academy

4K digital projection is fantastic, but it can’t compete with 35mm film hand-cranked through a restored 1909 projector–especially when that projector is outside of the booth and you can hear the clickety-clack, as well as Michael Mortilla’s expert piano accompaniment. As the name implies, these were a selection of hundred-year-old one-reel movies. And a lot of fun they were.

Barney Oldfield's Race For a Life

And now, some runners up:

My Top Ten Movie-Going Experiences of 2012

As the curtain parts on 2013′s opening titles, it’s time to look at my favorite movie-going experiences of the past year.

To make this list, both the film and the presentation had to be exceptional. I consider the quality of the print or digital transfer, the theater, the showmanship involved with the presentation, the audience, and, of course, the movie itself. 

Some of the best new movies I’ve seen this year, including A Separation and Samsara, didn’t make the grade because I didn’t see them under the best of circumstances.  On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t make the grade despite a wonderful Imax presentation, because I didn’t like the movie.

Both the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Castro Theatre dominate this list, but that’s not surprising. Silent films inherently require showmanship, and the Festival doesn’t stint on that. And the Castro offers a great movie-watching environment.

2012 was the year that the art houses went digital, and I saw less and less physical film as the year went by. Six of the ten programs here were digitally projected.

10) Anti-Commie Double Bill, Pacific Film Archive
35mm film
Last fall, the PFA screened two very different flicks from 1953, Invaders from Mars was silly, cheap, and a lot of unintentional laughs. Pickup on South Street was a revelation. Written and directed by the great Samuel Fuller (2012 was my Sam Fuller year) this Cold War noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who lifts a wallet containing top-secret information. Soon, the FBI and Communist agents are after him. By the time it was over, I had a new all-time favorite Sam Fuller picture, and a new all-time favorite noir.

The PFA screened both films in 35mm with changeover projection (the way film should be projected). The print of Pickup, from Criterion Pictures, was exceptional. My one complaint: The movies would have played better if they had reversed the order.

9) Lawrence of Arabia, Castro 
DCP
This Lawrence of Arabiasame film, in this same theater, won ninth place last year, as well. That time, it was the 1988 restoration, projected in 70mm. And it looked great. This time, it was the new, 2012 restoration, projected digitally, and despite some flaws, it looked even better. A long, wide, visually expansive epic that cries out for a giant screen, Lawrence also succeeds as an intimate study. Peter O’Toole plays the title character as an emotionally troubled military genius, a megalomaniac and an exhibitionist, riddled with guilt and wanting to become something he knows he can never be.

Whoever was working the booth at the Castro that day knew how this type of roadshow epic should be presented. The houselights slowly faded during the overture, reaching full darkness just before the Columbia logo flashed onto the opening curtain.

Wonderful as Lawrence looked, I wish the Castro had used a 70mm print of the new restoration, or better yet, had a 4K digital projector. But economics make those options impractical.

8) Amazing Tales From the Vault, Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Live, with some digital and film demonstrations
Paramount’s Andrea Kalas and Sony/Columbia’s Grover Crisp (both executives in charge of aging film libraries) were on hand to discuss their companies’ digital restoration work. Kalas showed us before-and-after images from the newly-restored Wings (which was screened the night before; see number 2 below). Crisp, repeating a demonstration he had shown at New York’s Film Forum, allowed us to compare the first reel of Dr. Strangelove off of a DCP and a 35mm print. DCP won.

7) Bernie, Palace Theater in Hilco, Hawaii
35mm film
While vacationing in Hawaii this summer, my family stumbled upon a beautiful old movie palace, still in operation, screening independent and indiewood fare. They showed Bernie that night, and although I had already seen and liked it, I decided it was a good time to see it again with the family. The lobby is deep and ornate, the auditorium large, and they’ve got two 35mm projectors for changeover presentation.

Jack Black plays the movie’s title character as a sweet, kind, and patient guy. He seems to truly care about the bereaved people he comforts as part of his job. His voice and mannerisms suggest that he’s gay, yet you suspect he’s never acted on those urges. He ardently loves Jesus, as well as the people living around him. And he shot an old woman four times in the back and hid her body in a trunk for nine months.

6) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Rafael
DCP
Clive Wynne-Candy is an officer and a gentleman. A career soldier in His Majesty’s army, he believes in following the rules of combat–even against an enemy willing to commit atrocities. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows Wynne-Candy through four decades, from his dashing youth to a somewhat foolish old age. Along the way, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger–the same team that created The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus–provide warmth, heartbreak, laughs, and several viewpoints on what it means to be a soldier, a patriot, a young man, an old man, and a decent human being.

This beautiful, three-strip Technicolor fable received a major restoration in 2012. Screened through the Rafael’s new digital projector, it looked great. A talk before the screening helped set the scene.

5) Children of Paradise, Castro
DCP
Have you ever loved a film for decades, then seen it restored, and realized that it’s even better than you thought?

That was my experience watching the new restoration of Children of Paradise. Suddenly there were shades of gray and fine details I’d never seen before (was that really one of Arletty’s nipples?). Flaws and scratches and duty stamps have been removed, and what’s left is a beautifully realized past recreated in sumptuous black and white.

The most ecstatically French of all French films, Children follows the life of a beautiful woman and four men caught in her orbit–all set in the theater scene of 1840s Paris. That this big, expensive epic was shot in the last months of the Occupation makes it all the more impressive.

4) The Master, Grand Lake
70mm
Physical film may be dying, but it hit back in some interesting ways last year. For instance, two films released this fall were shot in the 70mm format (see When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm), the first films shot that way since 1996.

And of the two, only The Master was released in 70mm. Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, which is grand indeed, was the only Bay Area venue to screen the film that way for more than a one-night stand. I saw it in their opulent main theater, which was almost sold out that night.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson loosely based The Master on the life of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard–although it should in no way be considered an expose. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the Hubbard-like title character, but the story really centers on an alcoholic drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix. The weak final act hurts but doesn’t ruin The Master, and the 70mm image gives it a striking clarity.

3) Headhunters, Kabuki
San Francisco International Film Festival
DCP
This Norwegian thriller entertained me more than any other new film I saw in 2012. The protagonist of this Hitchcockian tale leads the good life of wealth, power, and a beautiful wife. But even his high-paying, high-status job can’t pay for his lavish lifestyle, so he moonlights as a burglar, breaking into homes and stealing expensive paintings. But something goes seriously wrong. Then it gets worse. And then…Well, before long, avoiding the police is the least of his worries. See my full review.

What was so special about the presentation? The audience. They cheered, laughed, and gasped in horror in just the way that they’re supposed to in this type of movie. Headhunter is a crowd-pleaser, and it sure pleased that crowd.

2) Wings, Castro
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
DCP
Live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Ben Burtt, & others

I never cared for realistic sound effects in silent films, but this summer I found the exception to the rule. Sound effects wizard Ben Burtt (Star Wars, WALL-E, and others) used bicycles, drums, a typewriter, several assistants, and devices that I couldn’t possibly name to bring the air and land battles of World War 1 to audio life. Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra–one of the best ensembles accompanying silent films today–added emotional heft to the story.

But let’s not forget the movie. William Wellman’s Wings, the first film to win the Bestimage Picture Oscar, is a grand epic of regular soldiers at war, taking its time to develop the atmosphere and characters, and foreshadowing an important death. When the action starts, we’re entirely invested. The two leads, Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Richard Arlen, give complete and subtle performances. There’s a moment when Arlen’s character is receiving a medal, and the weary sadness and confusion on his face speaks more eloquently than any dialog ever could.

Newly restored, Wings looks more thrilling than it has in at least 80 years.

1) Napoleon, Oakland Paramount
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
35mm, with the final sequence in three-strip Polyvision
Accompanied by 46-piece orchestra conducted by Carl Davis

I have a confession to make. I went into 2012 all but certain that this event would hit the number 1 spot on this list. I was right. This may have been the greatest movie-going experience of my lifetime.

I doubt I have ever seen such a perfect melding of cinema and showmanship. Napoleon requires the special presentation that the Festival provided, and the presentation would overwhelm any other movie. Running 5 1/2 hours (broken up by three intermissions, including a long dinner break), and filled with thousands of extras, this picture is huge in every way. Yet it can be intimate and witty when appropriate. Although the film was made in 1927, it uses the camera and scissors in ways that seem revolutionary today.

And 20 minutes before the end, the masking opens up and the screen triples in width, showing us a vast vista recorded by three cameras and shown by three projectors. The audience went wild.

I’ve been watching silent films for more than 40 years. Many of them had color tints. But this was my first literally tinted print. Rather than recreating tints on color film, restorer Kevin Brownlow ran black and white film through dye baths, giving the colors a radiance that no photochemical or digital process can replicate.

Carl Davis, one of the heroes of modern-day silent film accompaniment, conducted a full orchestra at the screening. His score, which leaned heavily (and appropriately) on Beethoven, added zeal, depth, and beauty to the film.

Talk about a hard act to follow.

Runners up

My Best Movie-Going Experiences of 2011

Happy New Year!

With 2011 now consigned to the pages of history (and probably mythology), it’s time to look back at my favorite movie-going experiences of 2011. These aren’t the best films of 2011, the best films I saw at festivals that didn’t get a theatrical release, or even the best restorations. These are simply my favorite theatrical movie-going experiences of the last 12 months.

A great movie-going experience is more than just a great film–although that helps. It’s about the movie, the theater, the technical presentation, interesting discussions before and after the movie, and the audience. This award goes as much to the theater and/or the festival that put it on as it goes to the picture.

The Castro really dominates this set of excellent presentations–six out of ten. And only one event was in my own neighborhood–the East Bay.

2011 was the year in which I finally and enthusiastically embraced digital projection. Yes, badly managed digital projection can look horrible, but not as horrible as a scratched and maimed film print ineptly projected. And good digital projection looks like a brand-new 35mm print, only without that slight vibration. Three of the ten experiences I honor here involved no actual film. 

Click on the titles for my full write-ups of the events.

10) Oscars at the Cerrito, Cerrito, February 27. I’ve been watching the Academy Awards all my life, but this year I discovered just how fun an Oscar party can be. Goody bags, hors d’oeuvres served in (and on) the house, a costume contest (the winner was dressed as Helena Bonham Carter’s queen from The King’s Speech—her queen from Alice in Wonderland would have been more impressive), and trivia questions during the commercial breaks kept the evening entertaining.

9) Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm, Castro, June 11. Hollywood made a lot of long epic movies in the 50s and 60s. Many of them were shot in large formats, and initially presented in 70mm roadshow presentations—a great way to see a big film. Some of these movies were pretty good. A few were excellent. Too many of them are unwatchable. But only one stands out among the greatest masterpieces of the cinema: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia—as perfect a blending of medium and story as you can find. Seeing this film this way wasn’t a new experience for me last summer, but an old, beloved one. Had it been my first such experience, it undoubtedly would have made number 1.

8) Four Noir Features in One Day, Castro/Noir City, January 22. It was dark. It was dangerous. Lust, greed, and fear hung heavily in the air. It was enough to drive you crazy. On one dark and scary winter day, I sat through two double bills of vintage noir, all about people who were out of their minds (a festival-long theme last year). I loved three out of the four movies, but the best was easily Don’t Bother To Knock, which gave Marilyn Monroe one of her first starring roles. She plays a babysitter who really should not be trusted with a child. She shouldn’t be trusted with a grown man like Richard Widmark, either.

7) Three Charlie Chaplin Mutual Shorts, Castro/Silent Film Festival Winter Event, February 12. Forget, for a moment, the mature Charlie Chaplin of The Gold Rush and chaplin_pawnshopCity Lights. It was the short subjects he made a decade earlier that won him more populsilarity than anyone could have imagined before he stepped in front of a movie camera. The three shorts presented that day, "The Pawnshop," "The Rink," and "The Adventurer" reminded me and hundreds of other people of just how amazing he was in his third year as a filmmaker. The early Chaplin character could be exceptionally selfish and cruel–even sadistic. Yet you root for him. That’s star power. Donald Sosin provided piano accompaniment.

6) Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Kabuki/San Francisco International Film Festival, April 26. The Kabuki’s new digital projector and Dolby 3D came together for an exceptional presentation of what is still the best 3D movie I have ever seen. Only Werner Herzog would think to ask a scientist about his dreams, and that’s precisely why Herzog was the perfect choice to make this documentary about very ancient cave paintings. And 3D allowed him to capture the way the paintings worked with the contour of the cave. You can read my full review. I caught the picture again when it opened in the East Bay, and painfully discovered that not all digital 3D presentations are equal.

5) Upstream, Castro/San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 14. How often do you get to see a newly discovered John Ford movie (actually, this was my upstreamsecond). Thought lost for decades and recently found in New Zealand, Upstream is not the sort of picture you associate with Ford. But this amusing and entertaining trifle about the residents of a theatrical boarding house–a story with a love triangle at the center–showed that he was considerably more versatile than we generally assume. Rather than merely accompanying the film on a piano, Donald Sosin put together a jazz sextet that rocked the house.

4) Serge Bromberg and the History of 3D, Castro/San Francisco International Film Festival, May 1. Funny how both of the SFIFF shows that made this list were in 3D. In 2011, the Festival gave its Mel Novikoff Award to film restoration expert, distributor, and entertainer Serge Bromberg. After a brief Q&A where he discussed preservation and set some nitrate film on fire, he presented, narrated, and occasionally accompanied some rare, historic 3D shorts. Among the filmmakers whose works were presented were George Mêlées and Chuck Jones. With the exception of the first two-reeler, all of the films were presented digitally.

3) Kirk Douglas & Spartacus, Castro/San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 25. Last year, the Jewish Festival gave its Freedom of Expression Award to Hollywood star, living legend, executive producer, and stroke survivor Issur Danielovitch—better known to the world as Kirk Douglas. The stroke slurred his speech but not his enthusiasm, and didn’t keep him from talking about the importance of free expression in a democracy, and that how without it we are all slaves. Then they screened Spartacus–one of the great roadshow productions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like Lawrence of Arabia, this picture requires something like the Castro to make it work its best. My only regret: They screened it in 35mm as no 70mm print is currently available.

2) Miracle Mile, 92Y Tribeca, October 21. This may sound like sacrilege, but my number 2 spot goes to a movie I didn’t even see in California. I was in New York visiting my son and his girlfriend when, on a whim, we went to see a museum screening of a movie we’d never heard of. Miracle Mile starts out as a gentle, witty, charming, and sweet-natured romantic comedy. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the main character answers a wrong number and discovers that World War III has started and Russian missiles are on the way. He spends the rest of the movie trying to find his new love and bring her to the airport in time to escape the coming holocaust. Without a doubt, this is the best dark and suspenseful romantic comedy I’ve ever seen about the end of civilization as we know it. the director and star were in attendance and answered questions after the movie.

1) The Artist, Embarcadero, November 30. If this was a list of the Best Films of 2011, The Artist would still be number 1. Michel Hazanavicius made a silent movie about the death of silent movies, that is also a warm, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally sad story of a Hollywood star’s fall from grace. That sad tale is counterbalanced by another, of a struggling actress who becomes a star in the new medium of talkies. But what made the presentation so special? Two days before the film’s theatrical opening, I attended a special screening hosted by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. What could be better than seeing The Artist? Seeing it with a full house of enthusiastic silent film fans.

And here are eight runners-up, listed in chronological order by screening date:

My Top 10 Movie-Going Experiences of 2010

I didn’t see enough new movies last year to do a top ten list. And I didn’t cover enough festivals to do a Festival Top 10, either.

So instead, here are my top 10 movie-going experiences of 2010.

Half of these were silent film screenings. This was a great year for silents–dominated by Metropolis and  The Passion of Joan of Arc. I saw two silent films accompanied by full orchestras this year. That’s as many as I’ve seen in my previous 40 years as a silent film fan. And this year, they were better movies.

The bolded film titles are links to my posts about the screenings.

10 Marwencol, Kabuki, May 2. Serendipity sometimes leads me to the best festival screenings. I saw this documentary about a brain-damaged artist only because was that it was in between two other docs I really wanted to see at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It turned out to be better than either of them, and the best new film I saw at the festival. I’m glad it got a theatrical release in the fall.

9 Mon oncle, Pacific Film Archive, January 20. Until last year, I’d never seen this particular Jacques Tati comedy. With this one screening, it instantly became my favorite, quite possibly the funniest visual comedy made since Charlie Chaplin reluctantly agreed to talk. Bright and colorful, it works both as a satire of modern materialism and a great collection of belly laughs. Too bad the PFA presented a print dubbed into English, although with Tati, ruining the dialog doesn’t do much damage.

8 Rotaie, Castro, July 17. There’s nothing like discovering an old, wonderful movie that you’ve never heard of. In this 1929 Italian drama, a young couple, broke but very much in love, find a huge wad of cash and start living the good life. We can see the character flaws that left them destitute in the first place, and will leave them that way again. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened the only known existing print, with intertitle translations read aloud and Stephen Horne accompanying on piano and other instruments. 

7 Cinematic Titanic: War of the Insects, Castro, August 3. I’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a long time. Here was a chance to experience it live. From the opening shot of an H bomb explosion, with Mary Jo Pehl’s comment, "Sarah Palin’s first day as President," the jokes flew thick and belly deep. There were times I couldn’t breathe.

6 The General, Oakland Paramount, March 19. I’ve seen Keaton’s Civil War masterpiece countless times, in classrooms, museums, theaters, festivals, and home. I once rented it on VHS, and have owned it on Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. Yet this was probably my best General experience. Why? A great, 35mm print, terrific accompaniment by Christoph Bull on the Paramount’s pipe organ, and an enthusiastic audience of symphony goers who didn’t know what they were in for and were very pleasantly surprised.

5 The Gold Rush and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Davies Symphony Hall, April 16.  I finally saw Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush properly—a good print with live musical accompaniment–by the San Francisco Symphony, no less. The only problem: Davies Hall really isn’t built for movies.

4 Kurosawa All Over the Place. Akira Kurosawa was born in 1910, so last year saw a whole lot of retrospectives of my all-time favorite filmmaker. Naturally, considering my East Bay residence, I stuck to screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. I started my own personal retrospective, watching the films on DVD late in 2008. The PFA allowed me to finish them in 35mm, on a large screen, and with an audience.

3 Metropolis, Castro, July 17. Setting aside my own experiences, the restored "Complete" Metropolis was the motion picture restoration event of the year. I’d already seen it in New York before it played the Castro in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, but the Castro screening was the better experience. Part of that was the theater itself. But more credit goes to the Alloy Orchestra’s very electric score, which brings out the film’s overall weirdness and the third act’s excitement better than any other Metropolis score I’ve heard. Too bad that score was not, as was announced at the festival, included in the Blu-ray release. (You can buy it separately from the Alloy Orchestra’s web site.

2 Three live presentations at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Castro and Kabuki, April and May. I’m putting these events together for brevity’s sake. Three of my top, living, English-speaking, cinematic heroes got a chance in the spotlight at this year’s festival, and the results were as entertaining and educational as any movies screened. Editor and sound designer Walter Murch gave the State of the Cinema Address. Screenwriter/producer/studio head/Columbia professor James Schamus answered questions from B. Ruby Rich and the audience as the winner of this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. And Roger Ebert was honored with this year’s Mel Novikoff Award.

1 Voices of Light & The Passion of Joan of Arc, Oakland Paramount, December 2. This was definitely the greatest film/live music experience of my 40+ years as a silent film aficionado. It jut might be the greatest experience I’ve had sitting in an audience. Not only was it a brilliant film (and one I’d never seen before  theatrically), but it was accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, “An Oratorio with Silent Film,” and a great work in its own right. Mark Sumner conducted the 22-piece orchestra and approximately 180 singers from multiple choruses. The overall effect was powerful, entrancing, awe-inspiring, frightening, and beautiful.

Movie of the Decade

I’m not doing a Top Ten list this year—I’ve missed too many movies. Nor am I doing a Top Ten of the Decade.

But I’d like to honor one film of the past ten years. Not the best film of the decade by a long shot; I would probably give it an A-. But it was arguably the most influential, raising a silly genre to both big box office and high art.  And appropriately for the film of the decade, it came out in 2000.

The movie: X-Men.

To understand just how important X-Man was, consider the superhero movies that preceded it. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies with of the 70s and 80s played best as intentional camp, never taking themselves seriously. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman cast a dark and serious shadow over the material, but in the end, the story and characters lacked the depth to support it. The sequels were soon as camp as Superman.

But from X-Men’s opening sequence at the gates of Auschwitz, director Bryan Singer let us know that this was a story to take seriously. In the very next scene, a teenage girl kisses a boy for the first time, and nearly kills him. Superpowers never looked so much like a curse.

X-Men is at its best when it explores the characters and the society they live in, where random people are born with superpowers that make them hated and feared outcasts. The plot-heavy second half is a bit of a letdown, despite some very well choreographed fights, because what you really want by that point is more time with the characters.

But X-Men wouldn’t be my film of the decade if it was just a very well-made, character-and-ideas-driven action fantasy. It spawned a decades-worth (so far) of ambitious superhero movies. Three of them, Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight, just might be masterpieces. Other, very good to excellent titles include Spider-Man, X-men 2, Batman Begins, and Iron Man.

There were disappointments as well, of course, some from directors we expected good work from. X-Men’s own Singer helmed the limp Superman Returns. And after making one very good and one great Spider-Man movie, Sam Raimi proved the third time a curse with the nearly unwatchable Spider-Man 3. But the most disappointing of all was Hulk, because it came from the best director ever to make a superhero movie, Ang Lee.

On the other hand, if Singer hadn’t resurrected the genre and made it something better than anyone thought possible, would Ang Lee even have tried to make a superhero movie?

The Best Films You Couldn’t See in 2008

I saw a lot of great movies this year. Unfortunately, quite a few of them never got released in this country. They screened at local festivals, but didn’t get picked up for commercial exhibition–even by the small, independent distributors who pick up the good stuff that the Hollywood studios and their faux independent subsidiaries, don’t bother with.

Not that the distributors miss everything. When I saw them at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I was sure Forbidden Lie$ and Stranded would make this list. But they got picked up and shown, at least briefly, in a few theaters.

The following films did not. I hope you get a chance to see them someday. I list them in the approximate order I saw them, because I don’t want pick one as better than another.

Around the Bay, Cinequest. Sparse and utilitarian, Alejandro Adams’ low-key drama gets right to the point, then tells its dysfunctional family story without pyrotechnics. Single dad Wyatt (Steve Voldseth) is so remote and disconnected from his five-year-old son (Connor Maselli) that he leaves the child home alone–and that’s in a house with an unfenced swimming pool. Looking for a way out of his responsibilities, he asks his estranged 21-year-old daughter (Katherine Celio) to move in as caregiver. Slowly, they work out some of their problems, but by no means all of them. Adams made Around the Bay for very little money, shooting it on standard-def video. The low budget shows, but thanks to an excellent script and cast, doesn’t hurt the film.

Mataharis, San Francisco International Film Festival. Three female private detectives, all working for the same agency (and the same sleazy boss), struggle with private and professional problems in this character study. Inés finds herself in a moral dilemma when she realizes that the two factory workers she’s supposed to spy on are suspected of union activity, not theft. Eva uses her skills to follow her own husband, thus discovering a secret that, while not really all that horrible, shatters her ability to trust him. And the older and possibly wiser Carmen helps a client facing double betrayals and begins to doubt her own marriage.

Time to Die, San Francisco International Film Festival. Almost a monolog by an old woman talking to her dog, this Polish wonder is much better than any film that meets that description has any right to be. Danuta Szaflarska is wonderful in the lead role–wistful, bitter, demanding of respect, a little crazy, with a tendency to spy on her neighbors. Not that she doesn’t have reasons. The yuppies next door want to buy her property and tear down the once-beautiful house where she spent her life. Despite the title, the film is not so such much about death as about how one spends the last years of one’s life.

The Art of Negative Thinking, San Francisco International Film Festival. This a Norwegian comedy/drama is brutal, terrifying, and forces you to think about how you’d respond should disaster severely limit your life. It’s also devastatingly, hysterically funny, and the best movie I saw at SFIFF. It addresses a subject that we’re not supposed to laugh at: the disabled and the fully-abled people who care for them. A mostly wheelchair-bound support group, led by an incompetent yet self-righteous social worker, come to the home of a potential new member. But Geirr, boiling with rage since a car accident paralyzed him from the waist down, doesn’t want to join. When he finds it impossible to ignore the group, he sets out to destroy it.

Emotional Arithmetic, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In the best performance of an excellent career, Susan Sarandon plays an American-born Holocaust survivor (the story is set in 1985) trying to hold onto her family and her sanity. She’s overjoyed by the arrival of two old friends and fellow survivors, but their presence complicates her tricky relationship with her remote, sarcastic husband and their grown son–who appears to be devoting his life to caring for his messed-up parents. Beautifully written, designed, shot, acted, and edited, with a near all-star cast including Christopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, and Max Von Sydow. Read my full review.

In the Family, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Joanna Rudnick made this haunting and troubling film to document her own emotional struggles with the news that she carries the BRCA genetic mutation–a condition that forces some serious decisions. One in 40 Ashkenazi Jews carry it, and for women it means an almost certain death by ovarian or breast cancer–-unless the dangerous body parts are removed before the cancer strikes. For Rudnick, only 31 and looking forward to having children, that’s a very difficult decision. She trains her camera on her boyfriend, her family, and herself, and lets everyone speak candidly. She also goes beyond her problem and interviews others who have, or might have, BRCA, including some who found out about it or acted upon it too late. She also speaks with the scientist who discovered it and the inventor who got rich off the very expensive diagnostic test. This one stays with you.

Idiots and Angels, Mill Valley Film Festival. Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, and funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man (at one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye) who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But no matter what their bearer may be thinking, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it.

Jerusalema, Mill Valley Film Festival. The best new film I saw at Mill Valley. Like the Warner Brothers gangster flicks of the early 1930’s, it tells the tale of a street punk who rises to the top of his profession through a combination of brains, charm, and ruthlessness. But this isn’t prohibition America, but post- Apartheid South Africa. In other words, it’s a society filled with grinding poverty, new opportunities, lingering racism, and bitter disappointment that the revolution didn’t bring Utopia. In this environment, Lucky Kunene (Jafta Mamabolo as a boy, Rapulana Seiphemo as a man) shows both street smarts and book smarts. He starts by hijacking cars. Eventually he’s taking over Johannesburg tenements, intimidating both the tenants and the landlords, and doing well by pretending to do good.

Katyn, Mill Valley Film Festival. In the spring of 1940, Soviet special forces massacred over 15,000 Polish prisoners of war, including the father of future filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. After the war, Stalin’s government insisted that the Nazis were to blame and suppressed the truth. Wajda tells the story of the crime and the cover-up through a handful of fictitious characters in this visually gorgeous yet emotionally shocking historical epic. The second half, set mostly after the war, sags through too many characters you haven’t really gotten to know, but it’s still an amazing recreation of a largely-forgotten atrocity.

 

 

 

Top Ten Films of 2007

I’ve already told you my Top Ten criteria and shared my thoughts as I worked through the selection process. I’ve even let you know that I look for variety in quality work when selecting my Top Ten, rather than say that this drama is better than that comedy. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, start here.)

So I’ll cut to the chase and tell you about the films. The titles all link to my full (or in some cases, just fuller) reviews.

10: Ten Canoes. Set in pre-European discovery Australia, Ten Canoes comes as close as cinema can to the feel of pre-literate oral tradition. The off-screen narrator recounts one tale, most of which involves an old man telling another. That story within a story, built around jealousy, fear of other tribes (often justified), and human nature, drives this sad, poignant, yet often wryly funny movie. Few motion pictures put you into another world (one of cinema’s primary functions as an art) so completely.

9: Death at a Funeral. 2007 was a great year for comedies; six of them qualified as Top Ten finalists. But when all is said and done, this very British farce (directed by an American) earns more laughs than anything to hit the big screen in years. There’s nothing like blackmail and hallucinogens to put the fun in funeral. You get very few chances to not laugh in this Dean Craig/Frank Oz collaboration.

8: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. A lot of reviewers prefer the similarly-themed but more stylish No Country for Old Men, but I’ll take substance over style. When two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) set out to rob their parents’ jewelry store in what they tell themselves will be a victimless crime, the best-laid plans of amateur crooks go lethally wrong. Writer Kelly Masterson and director Sidney Lumet make you experience what it’s like to have your entire world fall apart bit by bit, while knowing that it’s all your fault.

7: I Am Legend. This third film version of Richard Matheson’s novel is not a fun ride. As the only living, non-zombified human in Manhattan and perhaps the world, Will Smith spends most of the film fighting off a deep, soul-killing loneliness. Not what you’d expect in a big-budget sci-fi special effects extravaganza with a major star who’s saved the world in several past profit-making ventures. But it’s so much better than the expected.

6: No End in Sight. In a year short on truly first-rate documentaries, Charles Ferguson’s exposé of the Iraq occupation stands out. You may think you know how badly the administration bungled the war in Iraq, but No End in Sight tells the story so carefully, so dispassionately, and so authoritatively that you’re awed by the enormity of these people’s incompetence and the tragedy of its results

5: The Savages. Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both turn in brilliant performances (what else do you expect) as siblings coping with a father sinking into dementia. Not that they feel much love towards Dad (Philip Bosco), but they do feel responsibility. Writer/director Tamara Jenkins, in her first feature since 1998′s Slums of Beverly Hills, avoids sentimentality, tragedy, and easy lessons. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait nine years for her third feature.

4: Ratatouille. Brad Bird keeps proving himself the most original, talented, and interesting animator since Chuck Jones. While there’s nothing really original about building a cartoon around sympathetic, anthropomorphic rodents, only Bird would make our skin crawl with realistic images of rats in the kitchen, and still have us rooting for the rats. A celebration of the creative, a critique of those who profit from others’ art, and a wonderful piece of family entertainment.

3: Lust, Caution. Like Brad Bird, Ang Lee consistently puts out one excellent film after another. So it’s no surprise that Lee’s NC-17-rated thriller appears on my list adjacent to Bird’s G-rated cartoon. Using the conventions of the Hitchcockian thriller and the historical drama, Lee has fashioned an anti-Fascist character study, examining an idealistic young woman (newcomer Wei Tang) who must become a different person in order to seduce a man and set him up for assassination.

2: The Lives of Others. Yes, it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2006, but it didn’t come to the Bay Area until this year, so this intimate, human story about the horrors of Communism qualifies. An up-and-coming officer in the East German secret police (Ulrich Mühe) must gather dirt on a respected playwright (Sebastian Koch) for reasons more personal than political. Slowly, bit by bit, the secret policeman comes to identify with his prey and lose faith in the Socialist ideal.

1: Juno. The last thing I expected before the year ended was a comedy about unintentional pregnancy that was more truthful, more insightful, and just plain funnier than Knocked Up, but writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman pull it off. And they do so without ever moving into parody or farce, and never straining for laughs. They get a lot of help from star Ellen Page as the titular “cautionary whale.”

Top Ten Preparation, Part V: Final Winnowing

In our last chapter, I managed to get the number of candidates down to 13, despite adding three additional films to the candidates list. Now I must add another, I Am Legend, bringing the number up to 14.

So what can I remove?

In Part III, I considered the possibility of eliminating La Vie En Rose and/or Atonement, on the grounds that the list includes a better historical drama, Golden Door (not to mention Lust, Caution, which also qualifies). Now I’m ready to remove both of them. That brings the list to 12.

I also just realized that, although I decided to eliminate Knocked Up in Part IV, I didn’t actually remove it. That brings the count down to 11. (Isn’t it comforting to know I’m only human?)

But what an 11! There’s not a film here I want to eliminate. (Kind of makes me wish humans had one more finger.)

And then I have to figure out the order. Can I really say that Ten Canoes was better at exploring Australian aboriginal culture than Death at a Funeral was funny?

I’m cutting off, now. You’ll have to wait for the actual list to see my decisions.

Here’s the almost-final Top Ten list, still just in the approximate order I saw the films:

  1. Golden Door
  2. The Lives of Others
  3. Ratatouille
  4. Ten Canoes
  5. No End in Sight
  6. The Savages
  7. Death at a Funeral
  8. Lust, Caution
  9. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  10. Juno
  11. I Am Legend

Top Ten Preparation, Part IV: Comedies

Click the links for Part I, Part II, and Part III.

I have to add another film to my top ten candidates: Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s wonderfully true-to-life comedy, Juno. And that’s handy, because comedy is exactly what I want to talk about in this chapter of my ongoing quest for the Top Ten Movies of 2007.

I see two, equally valid ways to evaluate a comedy. You can take into account everything you would in a drama–fully-realized characters, a well-designed story, an interesting world-view–as well as the fundamental issue of whether it made you laugh. Or you can forget all about that other stuff and just ask if it made you laugh hard and consistently from beginning to end.

With both criteria in mind, I try to include two comedies in my Top Ten list. You can think of them as Best Comedy and Funniest Comedy.

This year, two excellent, funny, true-to-life movies about unwanted pregnancies dominate the Best Comedy subcategory–Knocked Up and the aforementioned Juno. That’s a very tough call, but I’m going to have to go with Juno. It’s funnier, and with it’s lack of Hollywood gloss, it’s more down-to-earth.

But what about Adam’s Apples–another fine Best Comedy candidate. I’m hesitant to put it on the Top Ten for reasons that have little to do with quality. It’s now 19 months since I saw the film at the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival. Can I really compare it to Juno, which I saw last week? So, on those admittedly unfair grounds, I’m eliminating Adam’s Apples from the competition. And although it’s not a comedy, I’m eliminating Venus for similar reasons–I saw it about 16 months ago at a press screening for the 2006 Mill Valley Film Festival.

While writing this, I’ve realized that I accidentally left two of the best comedies of 2007 off the list: Death at a Funeral and Dan in Real Life. Dan would fall into the Best Comedy category, but it’s definitely not as good as Juno (or Knocked Up or Adam’s Apples, for that matter), so I won’t worry about it.

No other flick this year made me laugh as much as Death at a Funeral, even though Hot Fuzz came close. (What is it about British comedies?) So Hot Fuzz gets dropped from the list. When I reviewed it in May, I stated that “If Hot Fuzz doesn’t make my Top Ten list as the funniest film of the year, 2007 will be the best year for comedies in a very long time.” I stand by that.

The list is now down to 13–despite adding three additional titles since Part III. Here’s the current tally:

  1. Golden Door
  2. La Vie En Rose
  3. The Lives of Others
  4. Knocked Up
  5. Ratatouille
  6. Ten Canoes
  7. No End in Sight
  8. The Savages
  9. Death at a Funeral
  10. Lust, Caution
  11. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  12. Atonement
  13. Juno

On to Part V.

Top Ten Preparation, Part III: Categories

Click the links for Part I and Part II.

Last time I discussed this topic, I had 17 possible candidates for the Top Ten. Instead of eliminating seven, however, I’ve added one: Atonement. Now there are 18!

The very concept of a list requires you to say that this film is better than that film. That’s reasonable if the pictures resemble each other. You can decide which comedy kept you laughing, which thriller scared you out of your skin, and which daring independent art film did something new and original that actually proved worth doing. But can you really say that Hot Fuzz was funnier than No End in Sight was informative and depressing?

Acknowledging this problem, I try to get a genre mix into my Top Ten. Without following hard and fast rules, I shoot for least two comedies, some documentaries, intimate and epic dramas, and one big, expensive special effects adventure–just to show I’m not totally stuck up.

So let’s see what we have here:

There are two special effects adventures on my list, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Stardust. I gave them s, but they were both kind of low s. I’m tempted to keep Stardust in the running because it’s a flop that should have been a hit, and the more Top Tens it gets in the better, but I guess I’m not tempted enough. So unless I Am Legend really impresses me, no Hollywood blockbusters this year. Two films (really movies) out.
Now here’s something interesting: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and No Country for Old Men. That’s two thriller/dramas, both serious and sad, about crime gone wrong. No Country is the better film technically–beautifully shot to create a hopeless and arid mood. But Before the Devil succeeds on a more important level: You can believe it’s happening to real, recognizable people. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the better film, and No Country for Old Men gets dropped from the list.

I’m a sucker for historical epics, so it’s no surprise that I gave s to three of them: Golden Door, La Vie En Rose, and Atonement. I love all three, but I definitely prefer Golden Door. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to eliminate both La Vie En Rose, and Atonement, nor am I sure which I’d keep. I’ll have to think about that.

So here’s the current list:

  1. Venus
  2. Golden Door
  3. La Vie En Rose
  4. Adam’s Apples
  5. Hot Fuzz
  6. The Lives of Others
  7. Once
  8. Knocked Up
  9. Ratatouille
  10. Ten Canoes
  11. No End in Sight
  12. The Savages
  13. Lust, Caution
  14. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
  15. Atonement

On to Part IV: Comedies

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers