Instead of listing my top ten movies of 2017, I’m giving you my top 15 moviegoing experiences of the year. What’s the difference? I consider the theater, the quality of the print or digital source, the enthusiasm of the audience, and live onstage supplements such as musical accompaniment and filmmaker Q&As. I also consider the quality of the movie, which can be an old film as well as a new one.
The experience had to be with a paying audience. Press screenings don’t count.
The links in the list below point to my articles about the experiences. In some of them, you may have to scroll down to find the movie.
15: Dunkirk, AMC Metreon IMAX, 70mm IMAX
I love digital, but film-based IMAX still provides the best possible image. Dunkirk is a powerful and unique film that puts you right into the battle, and IMAX is absolutely right for this movie.
14: Keep the Change, Castro, opening night of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, DCP
Rachel Israel’s sweet romance between people on the autism spectrum succeeds in being funny and warm, while opening your eyes to people you try to avoid in real life. The stars, Brandon Polansky and Samantha Elisofon, along with several supporting actors, have mental disabilities very much like those of their characters. This made the Q&A with Israel and the cast especially meaningful.
13: Long Strange Trip, Castro, San Francisco International Film Festival, DCP
Amir Bar-Lev’s epic documentary covers The Grateful Dead from Jerry Garcia’s first musical experiments to his fatal heart attack at the age of 53. The four-hour film (screened with an intermission) manages to be both informative and appropriately hallucinogenic. The audience mixed the usual festival crowd with aging deadheads. I wore a Jerry Garcia tie that day.
12: Stop Making Sense, Elmwood (downstairs auditorium), Blu-ray
No motion picture picks you up and makes you want to dance like this Talking Heads concert film, which I put on my A+ List this year. In the 80s, people really did dance in the isles. But in 2017, seeing it theatrically for the first time in decades, no one danced. I guess we’re getting older. But the audience showed its appreciation with cheers and applause throughout. The next morning was my birthday; my wife gave me the Blu-ray.
11: The Learning Tree, Pacific Film Archive, Technicolor print
Gordon Parks became the first African American to direct a Hollywood feature film with this touching story of a well-behaved teenage boy in a small, racist Kansas town in the 1920s. Burnett Guffey’s beautiful photography was enhanced by the Technicolor IB dye transfer print. True, the print was badly scratched, but those IB colors popped like nothing you could see in Eastmancolor…or DCP.
10: Darkest Hour, Castro, DCP
This historical drama about Winston Churchill and the need to fight fascism is one of the best films of the year. You can read my full review. I saw Darkest Hour at a special SFFILM screening about a month before the film’s Bay Area release. The audience clearly took the film’s story to their hearts. The Q&A with director Joe Wright, star Gary Oldman, and three other filmmakers was especially enlightening and entertaining.
9: James Ivory Tribute: Maurice, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco International Film Festival, 4K DCP
James Ivory is the last living member of the Merchant Ivory filmmaking trio. David Darcy sat down with Ivory to discuss the director’s nearly 50-year-old career, followed by Q&A with the audience. That was followed by a screening of Merchant Ivory’s excellent 1988 drama, Maurice, about gay love in early 20th-century England. The new, 4K digital restoration was mouthwateringly beautiful.
8: Tol’able David, Castro, San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day of Silents, 35mm
One of silent cinema’s greatest melodramas, Henry King’s rural masterpiece makes you feel the horror of violence, and how that horror effects not only the victim but friends and family. The 35mm print was just beautiful, and pianist Frederick Hodges enhanced the film considerably, with help from Rodney Sauer.
7: Rififi, Castro, Noir City festival, DCP
Before the screening, self-styled “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, called this French crime picture the all-time greatest caper film, and I have to agree. The main characters aren’t just criminals; they’re fully developed people. The heist itself is an amazing piece of cinema with no dialog or music. The audience loved the movie, and the digital restoration looked great.
6: Design for Living & The Merry Widow, Stanford, 35mm
The Stanford always means cheap prices, great projection, and enthusiastic audiences. Last March, I went there to finally see my favorite pre-code Lubitsch comedy, Design for Living, on the big screen. Few movies can match this one for sparkly, sophisticated entertainment. The movie is funny, sexy, and remarkable. The Merry Widow, which I saw here for the first time, can’t compare to Design for Living, but it’s still a lot of fun.
5: Harmonia, Albany Twin, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, DCP
This wonderful musical drama places the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac in a present-day Israeli symphonic orchestra. The ending is beautiful, and left the audience clapping with the music. Unfortunately, it will probably never get released (outside of film festivals) in the USA.
4: Anne V. Coates & Murder on the Orient Express (1974 version), Vogue, Mostly British Film Festival, DCP
To be honest, I don’t really care for the original, 1974 version of Agatha Christie’s popular novel; the new version is much better. But I didn’t go for the movie. I went to hear Anne Coates talk about her 63-year career as a film editor. David Thomson – like Coates a British subject now living in California – led a fascinating discussion on her work, sexism, the change to digital editing, and many other subjects.
3: Magic and Mirth: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films, 1906–1924, Castro, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, DCP (I think)
To celebrate what the late David Shepard did for silent film fans, French preservationist Serge Bromberg presented a selection of shorts that Shepard helped save from the ravages of time. Among the highlights were an early but still sidesplittingly funny comedy called First Prize for Cello Playing and a George Méliès fantasy adventure The Witch, with a partially-adlibbed narration by Bromberg. Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius added considerably to the mirth.
2: The Seven Samurai, Pacific Film Archive, 35mm
I’ve owned this epic masterpiece on Laserdisc, DVD, a better DVD, and Blu-ray – and all of them purchased at Criterion prices. But this was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen in maybe 35 years, and nothing compares to the theatrical experience. The auditorium was nearly full, and the audience was enthralled. People laughed, cheered, applauded, and gasped in horror at all the appropriate times. And this for a movie that runs almost 3 ½ hours.
1: The Shape of Water, Rafael (downstairs auditorium), Mill Valley Film Festival,DCP
My best movie experience of the year didn’t even have a filmmaker Q&A. It didn’t have live music. And it wasn’t a beloved classic I hadn’t seen theatrically in years. It was simply a grandly romantic, suspenseful, and horrifying tale and the best new film I saw in 2017. And I saw it in a large theater, with excellent digital projection and an enthusiastic audience made up, I assume, of Guillermo del Toro fans. Read my full review.
All in all, the Castro by far provided the most great movie experiences of the year – six out of 15. The Pacific Film Archive came in at a distance second, with two screenings. The AMC Metreon IMAX, Elmwood, SFMOMA, the Stanford, the Albany Twin, Vogue, and the Rafeal had one great experience each.
Eight films, a little more than half, were projected digitally via DCP. Another digital presentation came from a Blu-ray. Five movies were projected on film – four on 35mm and one in 70mm IMAX. There’s one screening where I’m not sure how it was projected.
Nine of the experiences – almost two thirds – happened at film festivals. That’s not surprising. Festivals really are the best way to see a movie.