Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The best repertory screenings of 2011

Posted By on 12.28.11 at 12:32 PM

Terence Daviess The Long Day Closes (1992)
  • Terence Davies's The Long Day Closes (1992)
Thanks to a legion of dedicated programmers (at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Music Box, Doc Films, and many others), there’s always something interesting to see in Chicago. The following list of my ten favorite revival screenings of 2011 is by no means comprehensive, but it suggests the wealth of discoveries (and re-discoveries) that were available to Chicagoans this year.

Man Follows Birds (Ali Khamraev, Uzbekistan, 1975). This Uzbek feature played as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Ali Khamraev retrospective in February. It was my first introduction to Central Asian cinema, and what an introduction! Working in period dramas, art movies, and “Red Westerns,” Khamraev displayed a mythic sense of character and landscape. All of his films look great on a big screen, but Man Follows Birds has the most fluid narrative, a primal allegory about a boy’s initiation into adulthood.

Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, US, 1990). In March the Eye & Ear Clinic at the School of the Art Institute invited experimental filmmaker Su Friedrich to introduce a program of her work, which included this 48-minute autobiographical piece. Friedrich’s work is at once poetic and conversational, and her lecture style is engaging. In the hour-long Q & A, Friedrich offered some valuable advice to aspiring experimental filmmakers (particularly with regards to the use of music), and she was candid when explaining the personal stories behind her films.

Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, US, 1978). I wrote about Paul Schrader’s debut film when the Music Box screened a new 35-millimeter print of it in May. I found it one of the major rediscoveries of the year, a lively and observant working-class drama featuring an amazing (and curiously unsung) performance by Richard Pryor. I wish Schrader had gone on to make more movies like it.

Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, Germany, 1976) and The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992). In May, Block Cinema at Northwestern University programmed these two great movies about movies, neither of which is officially available on DVD in the United States. Both evoke the magic of moviegoing through idiosyncratic means—for Wenders, a slow shaggy-dog story in which even boredom becomes cinematic; for Davies, a fluid style that’s all moments and no story. And both deserve to be projected more often.

Lord Thing (DeWitt Beall, US, 1970). This locally-produced documentary (which screened at the South Side Community Art Center in June) was the first screening of Southside Projections, Michael W. Phillips’ iniative to bring rare cinema south of the Loop. Phillips invited former members of the Conservative Vice Lords (the Chicago gang depicted in Lord Thing) to discuss the movie at this revival, and learning about what had happened to them since 1970 was just as interesting as the movie itself.

Dante’s Inferno (Harry Lachman, US, 1935). The Northwest Chicago Film Society found a genuine oddity with this mid-30s morality play starring Spencer Tracy. It was one of the few films directed by Harry Lachman, a once-and-future painter with some epically daffy ideas about production design. Dante’s Inferno depicts Tracy’s rise as a carnival tycoon after he creates a giant spook-house recreation of Hell. The sets alone were worth the price of admission, but Tracy’s performance as a destructive jerk (made during one of his worst periods of alcoholism) was a terrifying spectacle as well.

Dantes Inferno (1935)
  • Dante's Inferno (1935)

Hands Up! (Jerzy Skolimowski, UK/Poland, 1967-81). I wrote briefly about Skolimowski’s masterpiece when the Film Center screened it in July as part of a director retrospective. Hands Up! combines parts of a banned film that Skolimowski made in Poland in 1967 with a confessional essay-film he shot in London in 1981, forging complex relationships between past and present, repression and freedom, fiction and documentary. The six films in this series proved Skolimowski worthy of comparison to Godard, Makavejev and Oshima. Hands Up! is as original, playful, and politically engaged as anything by those masters at their best.

The Naked Island (Kaneto Shindo, Japan, 1960). This screened as part of the Film Center’s other July retrospective of a great overlooked filmmaker, Kaneto Shindo. Best known in the States for his horror films Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), Shindo also excelled in social dramas and domestic stories. But this independent production, the best I saw in the ten-film series, found Shindo working outside of any genre. The Naked Island begins like an ethnographic drama in its isolated, indigenous setting, but the eerie silences and off-kilter landscape shots made it feel more like a science-fiction film. And, like much of Shindo’s 60s work, the black-and-white widescreen cinematography looked exceptional on the big screen.

Amateur (1994)
  • Amateur (1994)
Amateur (Hal Hartley, US, 1994). The great cinematic rediscoveries aren’t always of rare movies. The features written and directed by Hal Hartley in the 1990s, though hardly obscure on initial release, look better with every passing year—even as Hartley, unfortunately, becomes ever more marginalized in American movies. This comedy-drama, a sort of slacker farce version of Godard’s Hail Mary, now feels sincere in its consideration of religion, innocence, and forgiveness. Also, Hartley’s style feels a lot fresher than most new American independent films I saw this year. Facets revived this as a midnight movie in August, and it was given a moving introduction by Northwest Film Society programmer Julian Antos, who made a fine case for Hartley as one of the most emotional of filmmakers.

Love, Lust & Violence (Norbert Meisel, US, 1975). Also in August, Odd Obsession Movies’ Joe Rubin screened three choice 70s grindhouse titles at Chicago Filmmakers. It was a wild weekend, reviving some crude and downright antisocial approaches to moviemaking that haven’t been missed for over 30 years. This gangster movie-hardcore porno mash-up was my favorite of the three on grounds of flat-out weirdness. For four months, I’ve been trying to forget about the movie’s voyeuristic Mafia don who spoke like “Joey Five Cents” from Annie Hall—chances are I never will.

***

...and since the Internet allows for unlimited text space, here’s a list of 15 more noteworthy revival screenings of 2011, in chronological order:

Films by Luther Price (White Light Cinema at the Nightingale, March)

Little Stabs at Happiness (Ken Jacobs, 1963; Doc Films and Eye & Ear Clinic, April)

The White Dove (Frantisek Vlacil, Czechoslovakia, 1960; Film Center, May)

Little Man, What Now? (Frank Borzage, US, 1934; Northwest Chicago Film Society, May)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, UK, 1976; Music Box, July)

A Time to Live, A Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan, 1985; Film Center, August)

Take Me to Town (Douglas Sirk, US, 1953; NCFS, August)

Four Adventures of Reinette & Mirabelle (Eric Rohmer, France, 1987; Film Center, September)

La Silence de la Mer (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1949; Doc Films, September)

Aleksandr Medvedkin’s “Film Train” works (USSR, 1929-34; University of Chicago Film Studies Center, October)

World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1973; Film Center, October)

Enianos II (Gregory Markopoulos, US, 1949-91; Film Center, November)

Claudine (John Berry, US, 1974; Film Center, November)

Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis (“Fritz Lang,” 1984; Music Box, November)

Liliom (Fritz Lang, France, 1934; Northwest Chicago Film Society, December)

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