Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Only Have Two Eyes 2008

I'm not traveling to Sundance this year, but film festival season begins again here on Frisco Bay this Thursday with the opening of Berlin and Beyond at the Castro Theatre. And the Pacific Film Archive re-opens for the semester with tomorrow night's screening of Amarcord. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and SFMoMA screenings are already in full swing. Yes, thirteen days into 2009, it's high time to close the book on 2008. I saw a lot of great films, and a few weeks ago I drew up lists of my favorite new releases and unreleased films, as well as a few other year-end thoughts, for sf360.

My cinematic interests continued to lean toward the historical, however, and once again I'm excited to unveil my personal choices of favorite repertory/revival screenings I was able to attend in Frisco Bay cinemas. I'm even more excited to present the weighing-in of fourteen local compatriots in cinephilia on that subject. No two eyes can witness all the splendid film presentations that occur in a year here. Though I was present at at least one screening cited by each contributer, they each list multiple films I ruefully couldn't fit into my schedule (I think I'm probably most upset that I wasn't able to see the Passion of Joan of Arc with a full orchestra and chorus at the Castro in November). Collectively, these fifteen lists might provide a reasonably accurate view of the range and depth of cinematic experiences to be had for a Frisco Bay rep-head in 2008. I'm honored to have gotten such thoughtful and informed responses!

In alphabetical order, the participants are (click on the contributor's name for the list):

Ben Armington
Robert Davis, surgeon general of the Daily Plastic
Michael Guillén, schoolmaster of the Evening Class
Adam Hartzell, contributer to koreanfilm.org, Hell on Frisco Bay and elsewhere
Michael Hawley, operator of film-415
Ryland Walker Knight, conveyor of Vinyl is Heavy
Frako Loden, contributer to SF Weekly and elsewhere
Carl Martin, co-founder of the Film On Film Foundation
Miriam Montag
Shahn, proprietor of six martinis and the seventh art
Lincoln Spector, editor of Bayflicks
Marisa Vela, painter with a cinematic eye
Jason Wiener, of the eponymous Jason Watches Movies
Austin Wolf-Sothern, creator of Placenta Ovaries

And here's my own list, in chronological order of viewing:

Speedy at the Pacific Film Archive

How much more fun can there be than being in a room full of kids and kids-at-heart experiencing a top-notch Harold Lloyd film shot on the streets of New York City? Speedy has just about anything one might want to see in a movie: obsolete amusement park rides, streetcar chases, a geezers vs. gangsters brawl, and even an extended cameo from Babe Ruth. With Bruce Loeb on the piano and free ice cream after the screening, this is what I call revival! Part of the PFA's Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

They All Laughed at the Castro

Another shot-on-location film where Gotham becomes the playground for an exuberant, cheery cast, in this case including Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, Dorothy Stratten and John Ritter. It was possible to momentarily forget the tragic fates that would befall certain cast members as I found myself immersed in this charming universe that falls somewhere between those of Blake Edwards and Robert Altman. And it's at least as good a film as almost anything they made. Magnificent on the giant Castro screen, and the perfect capper to an emotional Peter Bogdanovich weekend at that theatre, with the director present for questions afterward.

The Brig at the PFA

The Film on Film Foundation four-walled the Pacific Film Archive on Easter Sunday evening to bring focus to legendary filmmaker-critic Jonas Mekas. I had never seen any of his work on the big screen before, and the Brig knocked me senseless. It's a play filmed in a very tightly-enclosed space, recalling at times the Brechtian brutality of Nagisa Oshima's Death By Hanging. The military prison milieu, shot in a nearly-documentary style, felt simultaneously "of its time" (1964) and disturbingly timeless.

Carriage Trade at SF Camerawork

I sadly missed most of the multi-venue Warren Sonbert retrospective put on by Konrad Steiner of kino21 and Guardian editor Johnny Ray Huston. But I did catch this epic of editing, a radical precursor to high-gloss "non-narrative" travelogues like Powaqqatsi and Baraka. As a 16mm projector whirred in the back of the room, an astonishing array of images told a kind of narrative of their own- a very personal, not-exactly-representational one for about an hour's duration.

Bend of the River and the Far Country at the Stanford

Though nearly all of the other films I'm citing here were brand-new to me in 2008, this pair of Anthony Mann North-Westerns were longtime favorites experienced for the first time on the big screen- for some reason they'd been left out of the PFA's 2004 retrospective. I cannot favor one over the other as they seem, especially when paired like this, two halves of a single inventory of philosophies on politics and human nature. Bend of the River is exquisitely scripted and acted, The Far Country particularly well-composed. Or is it vice versa?

Syndromes and a Century at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

The other film listed here I'd seen before, and yes it was only just over a year prior but that still counts as revival in my book. This time I'd cleared my calendar to watch two sets of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's short films at YBCA, but when their arrival was delayed the screenings were replaced by two showings of his Syndromes and a Century. I spent one trying to puzzle out its commemorative enigmas, and the other letting myself steep in the green of its ambiance.

Jujiro at the Castro

When drawing up my list last year, I recused myself from mentioning San Francisco Silent Film Festival screenings because I'm a member of the festival's writers group, responsible for researching and writing educational materials on the films programmed. But this year I can't restrain myself, at least not in the case of the film I researched, Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro. The July festival was full of memorable screenings, but none for me more memorable than the presentation of this grim 'floating world' vision full of haunting close-ups and Vertov-worthy montages. Stephen Horne performed a largely-improvised score on piano and flute- instruments which he played simultaneously. A nearly-packed Castro was hushed in awe like I've never experienced it before.

Bells Are Ringing at the PFA

I really don't have much to say about this one right now; it's amazing, it's a Vincent Minnelli musical, it was part of a wonderful widescreen series, and the above screen capture from one of the film's best numbers is certainly worth at least a thousand words.

My Sex Life...Or How I Got Into An Argument at the Clay

I'd never come close to "getting" Arnaud Desplechin until watching this film, and to a lesser extent, Life of the Dead, when they were brought by the San Francisco Film Society for its successful new French Cinema Now series. But after these films and especially this film, I was inspired to re-rent Esther Kahn and recognize it for the masterpiece that it is, and primed to fall head over heels for a Christmas Tale. I'm still not sure I'm getting what everyone else is getting, but what I do get is a filmmaker whose camera shows the actor's physical performance as primary, perhaps the foundational building block of human art. Every camera position and cut comes in service to that. Thanks to the Film Society for opening this door for me- now I'm excited to revisit Kings and Queen. I think I'm finally ready...

Monika at the Red Vic

Ingmar Bergman, a filmmaker I'm often cool to, burst onto the international film scene with this 1952 water-borne "road movie". Now that I've seen it, I honestly think it might be my favorite of his films. It's fun to imagine how it might have played for mid-50s audiences brought in by the lurid sales pitches (at least in the US), because it's so heartbreakingly full as a lively but serious drama, portraying the terrible, beautiful headstrong folly of young love. It's sexy too, of course - how could it not be with Harriet Andersson in the title role?


  1. I hope you have the chance to see Blue Angel in English, and Screaming Mimi. Not totally unrelated, Screaming Mimi was directed by Gerd Oswald, son of German director Richard Oswald.

    I looked at the lists of unreleased films and could not understand why The Class was listed. It has a distributor, and is scheduled for U.S. release next month.

  2. Brian, thanks for organizing this. It really looks great, and it's so much fun to see how different the lists are. It's not like San Francisco had a handful of good screenings in 2008. Tons!

    It's interesting to see Carriage Trade on your list because I really wanted to see it. (I've never seen anything by Sonbert.) But it was in my last few weeks in SF, and I had an avalanche of preparations to make, so I missed it. Ah well, I'll just have to leave it on the to-see list.

  3. Thanks for participating, Rob, and enjoy Sundance without me!

    Peter, I definitely plan to see the Blue Angel and get a taste of Emil Jannings' famous accent. And though I had not singled out Screaming Mimi, that has been rectified and I look forward to seeing that too. Thanks for the rec!

    As for the unreleased films poll and the Class, we were instructed only to list films that had commercial releases in San Francisco in 2008 on our main list. It seems different contributors took different approaches to a film like the Class which had a local festival screening in 2008 but is getting its commercial release here in a couple weeks. Perhaps verifying your comment that using NYC/LA releases as a national standard is no longer valid.