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:

2 thoughts on “My Best Movie-Going Experiences of 2011

  1. Try the Balboa’s Academy Award party. The master of ceremonies, Reed Kirkham Rahlmann, gets the audience involved in hilarious and wonderful ways with a range of events and contests including a few degrees of separation from an Oscar winner. (Through the miracle of TIVO, the audience doesn’t miss anything except the commercials.) Lots of great prizes, people come dressed as their favorite nominated film which allows for some great creativity (and prizes) , and it is a film-loving crowd.

    Reed will also be hosting the much more laid back Golden Globes on Jan. 15.

    And while you are thinking about coming out to the Richmond District—- the following week, March 4, is the Balboa’s Birthday Bash. With a nod to HUGO, the program features Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST, Melies shorts on screen and as part of the live vaudeville show, George Melies will perform magic on stage and Linda Kosut will sing songs on the era. The night is a recreation of a night at the movies in 1926 with shorts subjects, Frederick Hodges accompanying on piano, prizes, vintage cars and jazz era clothing. Admission includes birthday cake and libations.
    This has been a favorite event for ten years for many people,.

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