Best Movie-going experiences of 2015

I don’t do the usual top ten list. Instead, as one year ends and another begins, I list my favorite movie-going experiences of the previous year.

What makes a great movie-going experience. A great movie helps a lot–but it isn’t entirely necessary. It’s a combination of the movie, the theater, the print, the projection, and even the audience.

An experience can include more than one trip to the movies, but usually doesn’t.

12: An entertainingly gruesome Halloween

On Halloween, my wife and i improvised costumes and headed for the Castro–not for the street party, but for the movies: a triple bill of Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Evil Dead. The show started with a hilarious selection of trailers–mostly of deservedly forgotten flicks. We skipped Massacre (I don’t care for it much) and enjoyed a very long intermission. The audience was rowdy and fun, and we ran into friends. Unfortunately, the print of Living Dead was badly battered.

11: Bridge of Spies
Corte Madera Century Cinema
Mill Valley Film Festival
DCP (probably 4K)

Not only did I get a chance to see Steven Spielberg’s complex and cerebral espionage drama with a festival audience, I also got to revisit an exceptional Bay Area theater I hadn’t been to in years. The Corte Madera is a rarity in today’s world: A single-screen first-run theater. But that single screen is one of the best in the Bay Area–huge and curved and perfect for immersive cinema. Wonderful movie, too.

10: Steve Jobs and a big opening night
San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s big festival started with a bang. Documentarian Alex Gibney was on hand with his new film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. After the screening (I gave the film an A), Gibney took the stage for questions and answers.

9: Noir triple bill with the Stones (no, not those Stones)
Noir City
35mm (I think)

The Noir City festival is always fun. But in 2015, the festival’s highlight were three thrillers made by Andrew and Virginia Stone, a filmmaking team whose work I was completely unfamiliar with until this screening. None of them were masterpieces, but they were all well-made and enjoyable. The usual Noir City audience helped with the enjoyment.

8: Apu Trilogy

I finally saw the Apu Trilogy this year, on three consecutive nights. It’s clearly one of the great masterpieces of cinema (or, arguably, three of the great masterpieces). And it has been beautifully reborn with one of the most impressive restorations in history. The original negatives were destroyed in a fire, but L’Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna physically restored much of the melted negatives to the point where they could be scanned.

7: Visages d’enfants
San Francisco Silent Film Festival

I had never heard of this film before I read the festival program. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t know until it started that I was watching a masterpiece. Set in a small town high in the Alps, in what appears to be the last 19th century, Visages d’enfants follows the difficulties of what is now called a blended family–and–as is so often the case–it wasn’t blended very well. Beautiful restoration, and Stephen Horne‘s accompaniment–on piano, flute, and I’m not sure what else–just dazzled. Before the film, Serge Bromberg gave an informative and enjoyable introduction.

6: Inside Out
Grand Lake

Pixar’s animated adventure through the workings of the human brain can tell you a lot about how we humans behave, while remaining funny and entertaining for adults and kids alike. What’s more, the Grand Lake’s big Theater 1 is a great place to see 3D movies. By using two synchronized digital projectors, you get a smoother and brighter image.

5: Oklahoma!

The new digital restoration allows us to enjoy the movie as it was meant to be seen–and that hasn’t been available for decades. Yes, the plot is silly and some of the cowboy accents are terrible, but when you see Oklahoma! on the big screen, with an audience, you discover what a remarkable piece of entertainment it is. The songs are catchy, the jokes are funny, and Agnes DeMille’s choreography is amongst the best ever filmed. And the new digital restoration allows us to experience it in something similar to the original 30 frames-per-second Todd-AO.

4: Picadilly
San Francisco Silent Film Festival A Day of Silents
not sure how it was projected

The last silent film I saw theatrically this year was one I’d wanted to see for years. The Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong finally gets the great part she deserved in this British drama about dancing and sex in a London nightclub. Musicians Donald Sosin (on piano and Macintosh) and John Mader (on percussion) put together an often jazzy, occasionally Chinese score that always served the story.

3: Three-Strip Technicolor Projection Experiences
Pacific Film Archive
35mm archival print & 4K DCP

In July, quite by happenstance, I was able to compare the old and new ways to project a film shot in Technicolor’s three-strip process. The first, Jean Renior’s The River, was screened pretty much as the original audiences saw it–in a 35mm dye-transfer print manufactured in 1952. The second, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann, has been digitally restored and was digitally projected. Each was wonderful in its own way.

2: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Alamo Drafthouse New Mission
010216_0116_TheForceAwa2.jpgDirector J.J. Abrams understands Star Wars better than George Lucas. He’s developed a fun, exciting fantasy film with the energy and wit of the original, pre-alteration trilogy. And the New Mission’s huge screen, first-class projectors, and enthusiastic audience made this a great way to see this particular type of movie. But it was expensive.

1: Ian McKellen at the Mill Valley Film Festival
Mill Valley Film Festival
live event

No movie here, aside from multiple clips which I suspect were run off a computer. Instead, we were treated to a talk, followed by Q&A, with the great British actor. He proved to be witty, open, honest, and knowledgeable about his craft.

My top 12 movie-going experiences of 2014

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.

Of course I also consider the quality of the film itself. That’s why Interstellar didn’t make the grade, despite my seeing it in 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater.

As usual, the Castro, the Pacific Film Archive, and various film festivals fill this list. That’s where you find the best screenings in the Bay Area.

And so, without further ado, here are my top 12 movie-going experiences from 2014. Click on the film titles for my longer reports.

12: Paths of Glory & The Killing
Pacific Film Archive 
Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick

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
Noir City
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
image  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.

1: The Gold Rush
San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s The Little Tramp at 100
DCP, with live music
Gold Rush

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.

My Best Movie-Going Experiences of 2013

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.

10. SFIFF Silent Movie Night: Waxworks
Castro, May 7
San Francisco International Film Festival
Tinted 35mm, accompanied by Mike Patton, Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant


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.

9. Gravity
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.

8. Lawrence of Arabia
Century San Francisco Centre 9’s XD Theater, March 20
XD, 4K DCP, humungous screen

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.

7. 3D Noir Double Bill: Man in the Dark & Inferno
Noir City, Castro, February 2


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.

6. The Ring
Hitchcock 9Castro, June 15
DCP, accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra


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,

5. Dial M for Murder
Rafael, July 25


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.

4. Safety Last!
San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Castro, July 21
DCP; accompanied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

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.

3. Twenty Feet from Stardom
San Francisco International Film Festival, Kabuki, April 26
DCP, filmmaker Q&A, musical performance after the movie


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.

2. Sony 4K Restorations with Grover Crisp
Bonjour Tristesse, December 5
Taxi Driver & Alamo Bay, December 6
Pacific Film Archive

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.

1. A Century Ago: The Films of 1913
Rafael, December 12
Mostly 35mm film, hand-cranked, with live music. Some digital.

Courtesy of Motion Picture Academy

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.

Barney Oldfield's Race For a Life

And now, some runners up:

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

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:

My Top 10 Movie-Going Experiences of 2010

I didn’t see enough new movies last year to do a top ten list. And I didn’t cover enough festivals to do a Festival Top 10, either.

So instead, here are my top 10 movie-going experiences of 2010.

Half of these were silent film screenings. This was a great year for silents–dominated by Metropolis and  The Passion of Joan of Arc. I saw two silent films accompanied by full orchestras this year. That’s as many as I’ve seen in my previous 40 years as a silent film fan. And this year, they were better movies.

The bolded film titles are links to my posts about the screenings.

10 Marwencol, Kabuki, May 2. Serendipity sometimes leads me to the best festival screenings. I saw this documentary about a brain-damaged artist only because was that it was in between two other docs I really wanted to see at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It turned out to be better than either of them, and the best new film I saw at the festival. I’m glad it got a theatrical release in the fall.

9 Mon oncle, Pacific Film Archive, January 20. Until last year, I’d never seen this particular Jacques Tati comedy. With this one screening, it instantly became my favorite, quite possibly the funniest visual comedy made since Charlie Chaplin reluctantly agreed to talk. Bright and colorful, it works both as a satire of modern materialism and a great collection of belly laughs. Too bad the PFA presented a print dubbed into English, although with Tati, ruining the dialog doesn’t do much damage.

8 Rotaie, Castro, July 17. There’s nothing like discovering an old, wonderful movie that you’ve never heard of. In this 1929 Italian drama, a young couple, broke but very much in love, find a huge wad of cash and start living the good life. We can see the character flaws that left them destitute in the first place, and will leave them that way again. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened the only known existing print, with intertitle translations read aloud and Stephen Horne accompanying on piano and other instruments. 

7 Cinematic Titanic: War of the Insects, Castro, August 3. I’ve been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a long time. Here was a chance to experience it live. From the opening shot of an H bomb explosion, with Mary Jo Pehl’s comment, "Sarah Palin’s first day as President," the jokes flew thick and belly deep. There were times I couldn’t breathe.

6 The General, Oakland Paramount, March 19. I’ve seen Keaton’s Civil War masterpiece countless times, in classrooms, museums, theaters, festivals, and home. I once rented it on VHS, and have owned it on Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. Yet this was probably my best General experience. Why? A great, 35mm print, terrific accompaniment by Christoph Bull on the Paramount’s pipe organ, and an enthusiastic audience of symphony goers who didn’t know what they were in for and were very pleasantly surprised.

5 The Gold Rush and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Davies Symphony Hall, April 16.  I finally saw Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush properly—a good print with live musical accompaniment–by the San Francisco Symphony, no less. The only problem: Davies Hall really isn’t built for movies.

4 Kurosawa All Over the Place. Akira Kurosawa was born in 1910, so last year saw a whole lot of retrospectives of my all-time favorite filmmaker. Naturally, considering my East Bay residence, I stuck to screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. I started my own personal retrospective, watching the films on DVD late in 2008. The PFA allowed me to finish them in 35mm, on a large screen, and with an audience.

3 Metropolis, Castro, July 17. Setting aside my own experiences, the restored "Complete" Metropolis was the motion picture restoration event of the year. I’d already seen it in New York before it played the Castro in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, but the Castro screening was the better experience. Part of that was the theater itself. But more credit goes to the Alloy Orchestra’s very electric score, which brings out the film’s overall weirdness and the third act’s excitement better than any other Metropolis score I’ve heard. Too bad that score was not, as was announced at the festival, included in the Blu-ray release. (You can buy it separately from the Alloy Orchestra’s web site.

2 Three live presentations at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Castro and Kabuki, April and May. I’m putting these events together for brevity’s sake. Three of my top, living, English-speaking, cinematic heroes got a chance in the spotlight at this year’s festival, and the results were as entertaining and educational as any movies screened. Editor and sound designer Walter Murch gave the State of the Cinema Address. Screenwriter/producer/studio head/Columbia professor James Schamus answered questions from B. Ruby Rich and the audience as the winner of this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. And Roger Ebert was honored with this year’s Mel Novikoff Award.

1 Voices of Light & The Passion of Joan of Arc, Oakland Paramount, December 2. This was definitely the greatest film/live music experience of my 40+ years as a silent film aficionado. It jut might be the greatest experience I’ve had sitting in an audience. Not only was it a brilliant film (and one I’d never seen before  theatrically), but it was accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, “An Oratorio with Silent Film,” and a great work in its own right. Mark Sumner conducted the 22-piece orchestra and approximately 180 singers from multiple choruses. The overall effect was powerful, entrancing, awe-inspiring, frightening, and beautiful.

Movie of the Decade

I’m not doing a Top Ten list this year—I’ve missed too many movies. Nor am I doing a Top Ten of the Decade.

But I’d like to honor one film of the past ten years. Not the best film of the decade by a long shot; I would probably give it an A-. But it was arguably the most influential, raising a silly genre to both big box office and high art.  And appropriately for the film of the decade, it came out in 2000.

The movie: X-Men.

To understand just how important X-Man was, consider the superhero movies that preceded it. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies with of the 70s and 80s played best as intentional camp, never taking themselves seriously. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman cast a dark and serious shadow over the material, but in the end, the story and characters lacked the depth to support it. The sequels were soon as camp as Superman.

But from X-Men’s opening sequence at the gates of Auschwitz, director Bryan Singer let us know that this was a story to take seriously. In the very next scene, a teenage girl kisses a boy for the first time, and nearly kills him. Superpowers never looked so much like a curse.

X-Men is at its best when it explores the characters and the society they live in, where random people are born with superpowers that make them hated and feared outcasts. The plot-heavy second half is a bit of a letdown, despite some very well choreographed fights, because what you really want by that point is more time with the characters.

But X-Men wouldn’t be my film of the decade if it was just a very well-made, character-and-ideas-driven action fantasy. It spawned a decades-worth (so far) of ambitious superhero movies. Three of them, Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight, just might be masterpieces. Other, very good to excellent titles include Spider-Man, X-men 2, Batman Begins, and Iron Man.

There were disappointments as well, of course, some from directors we expected good work from. X-Men’s own Singer helmed the limp Superman Returns. And after making one very good and one great Spider-Man movie, Sam Raimi proved the third time a curse with the nearly unwatchable Spider-Man 3. But the most disappointing of all was Hulk, because it came from the best director ever to make a superhero movie, Ang Lee.

On the other hand, if Singer hadn’t resurrected the genre and made it something better than anyone thought possible, would Ang Lee even have tried to make a superhero movie?