As usual, I didn’t see anywhere near as many movies last year as I would have liked. But when it came time to make my list of best movie-going experiences, I had a tough time getting it down to 10. So I settled for 12. After all, what does the number of fingers I have have to do with it?
These are not my new films of 2014, but my favorite movie-going experiences. In choosing these awards, I consider the theater, the presentation, audience enthusiasm, live music, and Q&A with the filmmakers.
And so, without further ado, here are my top 12 movie-going experiences from 2014. Click on the film titles for my longer reports.
To my mind, Paths of Glory stands out as Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. This World War I tale of ruthless generals and the common foot soldiers shows the budding auteur at his best. The film he made just before it, The Killing, is a wonderful little noir; a classic heist thriller with a complex plan that goes horribly (and entertainingly) wrong.
The DCPs, supplied by Park Circus, looked great. Whoever supervised the digital mastering respected the film look and the grain structure. They kept the original mono soundtracks, without trying to convert them to 5.1.
11: Manos Sucias (Local Premiere)
Kabuki Theater 2
San Francisco International Film Festival
One of the joys of international film festivals is the chance to catch a great movie you may never get to see again. In this thriller set in rural Colombia, two brothers, barely on speaking terms, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine down river on a boat. Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works in a part of the world rarely visited by outsiders.
The presentation didn’t seem promising at the beginning. The Kabuki’s Theater 2 is horribly small, and the festival was running late. But the excellence of the film itself, and the Q&A with the filmmakers ("I don’t recommend shooting on water") more than made up for these problems.
10: Too Late For Tears & The Hitch-Hiker
Lizabeth Scott plays that paragon of mid-century American virtue, the housewife, in Too Late for Tears, but she plays her as a femme fatal-. Willing to do anything to hold onto an illegal fortune, she proves herself smarter and meaner than everyone else as she sinks into depravity and murder. The Hitch-Hiker is a quick, efficient thriller that’s simple, suspenseful, and based on a true story. Two men on a fishing vacation pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer wanted by the police.
Both films were shown in recently restored 35mm prints. Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation explained the problems in restoring Too Late for Tears, which admittedly suffered from uneven image quality. Shy of an expensive digital restoration, it’s not likely to look any better.
9: Duck Soup
Pacific Film Archive
Funny Ha-Ha: American Comedy, 1930–1959
The Marx Brothers at their purest and most perfect. What makes it so pure and perfect? First, it’s comedy stripped to the bone; there’s scarcely a minute without at least one good laugh. Second, the Brothers were always at their best when up against the stuffy, respectable protectors of the status quo, and the richest strain of that gold can be found in the halls of government. As the absolute ruler of Freedonia, Groucho Marx encourages graft, refuses to take anything seriously, and starts a war on a whim.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Duck Soup, but the day before this screening, it had been at least 30 years since I’d seen it theatrically. Watching this great comedy in a theater, with an enthusiastic audience, made it come back to life again. Over the years, I’d forgotten that even the name Rufus T. Firefly gets a laugh.
8: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Mill Valley Film Festival
Here’s an epic, sardonic, semi-comic western quest motivated purely by greed. Three violent and deadly criminals set out to recover $200,000 in stolen gold. None of them knows exactly where the loot is hidden, but individually each has a piece of the puzzle. They constantly change allegiances, sometimes collaborating with and then double-crossing each other. Meanwhile, the Civil War rages all around them.
MGM recently gave this classic a new, 4K restoration, which included the original mono soundtrack. it was a great presentation, showing the deep colors and heavy grain expected in a Techniscope production of the 1960s. Unless there’s an archival dye-transfer print from the original release somewhere, this is as good as the picture can get. A great audience as well, and my first visit to the Lark.
7: The Best Years of Our Lives
There’s no better movie for Veteran’s Day. A huge commercial hit and the Best Picture Oscar winner for 1946, it’s now all but forgotten. That’s too bad, because Best Years is not only an excellent film, it also deals with an issue that’s unfortunately still with us–integrating war veterans back into civilian life.
This was my first chance seeing Best Years theatrically, and it was worth it. Before the film started, the Castro entertained us with a slideshow of coming attractions and music appropriate to the immediate postwar period. Then came the organ concert, followed by The Best Years of Our Lives. The digital transfer was mostly excellent, although a few scenes had clearly come from low-quality sources.
6: Wild (Local Premiere)
Mill Valley Film Festival
Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Flashbacks show us her struggling but loving mother, who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.
Before the show began, we were treated to Pixar’s new short, Lava, about a lonely volcano who finds love. Yes, the story is silly, but fun enough for a short. Then Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton interviewed Laura Dern, who has a small but important role in the picture.
5: Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts
San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s Silent Autumn
35mm, with live music
Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen personas were probably the dumbest reoccurring characters in the history of cinema. Stan appears incapable of having a thought or remembering an instruction. But Stan at least knows he’s dumb; Oli considers himself smart. Their comedy is extremely violent, but the slow, methodical, and absurd nature of that violence makes it enduring. The festival screened three of their two-reel silents–Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, and Big Business. All three were extremely vengeful and destructive–and extremely funny.
Donald Sosin accompanied these shorts on a grand piano. All three films opened with the MGM lion, and Sosin managed to recreate the roar musically. His lively music also helped keep the laughs coming. The Festival screened archival prints from the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film Archive. Aside from some bad titles in Should Married Men Go Home?, they looked excellent.
4: Die Hard
What makes a great action movie? A strong plot, a likeable and sympathetic hero, a fun but scary villain, great fights, and the willingness to spend nearly half an hour on character development before the first violent act. NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in LA hoping to reconcile with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia). She’s a rising executive; he’s a working-class cop. Then a dozen well-armed bad guys take over the building, kill a few people, then hold everyone hostage.
Die Hard was originally released in 70mm, but up until a couple of weeks ago, I had only seen it on Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. But between the big screen, the powerful sound system, the excellent DCP transfer, and the enthusiastic audience, it was a whole new experience. I used to give Die Hard an A. Now I give it an A+.
3: The Big Lebowski
Pacific Film Archive
Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010
As with Die Hard, I had never seen the Coen Brothers’ cult hit theatrically before 2014. But unlike Die Hard, I had never really appreciated it before. This comedy really needed the theatrical experience to come alive. Imagine a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t.
The well-packed audience made the film special, allowing me to discover that a film I thought was pretty good was actually pretty great. But the presentation had a very big flaw: an over-processed DCP. It looked like video, with film grain removed and everything smoothed over. Considering the quality of this transfer, I would rather have seen this movie in 35mm.
2: Boyhood (Local Premiere)
San Francisco International Film Festival
Fifty years from now, people will still be watching Richard Linklater’s intimate epic–the best new film I saw in 2014. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood allows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. You really feel as if you’re watching these people grow.
The screening was the center of an event honoring Linklater, latest winner of the SFIFF’s Founder’s Directing Award. After a short clip reel of his work, the writer/director and actress Parker Posey (who isn’t in Boyhood but has worked with the director) came on stage for a Q&A. There was another Q&A after the film, but, unfortunately, I had to leave and missed that one.
In this epic comic adventure, Chaplin’s tramp travels through the frozen Yukon of the Alaskan gold rush, gets marooned in a cabin with two much larger men, nearly starves to death, nearly gets eaten, and falls in love with a dancehall girl who scarcely knows he’s alive. This seemingly serious story contains some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe, the dance of the rolls, and my favorite–the fight over a rifle that always points at Chaplin. It’s not my favorite Chaplin feature–that would be City Lights, but it’s a close second.
This was unquestionably the best screening of The Gold Rush I’ve ever experienced. The digital image quality was uneven, but most of it looked very good, and none of it looked dreadful. Timothy Brock conducted the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in his adaptation of Chaplin’s score, adding some wonderful musically-created effects. And the large, enthusiastic audience made it even better.