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.
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.
AMC Bay Street 16, October 5
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And now, some runners up:
- Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave
Mill Valley Film Festival, Rafael, October 11
- The Clock at SFMOMA
SFMOMA, May 23
- The Big Trail
Pacific Film Archive, July 14
35mm (from a 70mm negative)
- Much Ado About Nothing
San Francisco International Film Festival, Kabuki, April 27
35mm (which was odd since the film was shot digitally), filmmaker Q&A
- Before Midnight
San Francisco International Film Festival, Castro, May 9
DCP; filmmaker’s Q&A
- Costa-Gavras Tribute
Mill Valley Film Festival, Rafael, October 4