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 
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
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
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
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
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
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