Thursday, April 18, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 9: Midnight Traveler

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival is over half done; it runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.


A scene from Hassan Fazili's Midnight Traveler, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Midnight Traveler (USA: Hassan Fazili, 2019)
playing: 3:00PM today at the Theater at Children's Creativity Museum and 5:30PM tomorrow at BAMPFA.

This is, like yesterday's pick Aniara, another "Hold Review" title, for which I can only write 75 words until a commercial release occurs (it's distributed by Oscilloscope). Here's my stab:

What'll you see in this wrenching autobiographical documentary about filmmakers fleeing Afghanistan to the EU through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia? Daughters of a landlocked nation enjoying their first tides. A mother summoning the resources to fulfill her family’s needs under extremely harsh conditions. A father questioning his overcommittment to his profession. Ugly anti-immigrant sentiment up close. A broken international refugee system & its harrowing consequences for millions. What'll you do? That's up to you.

So that's the movie, which was funded in part through SFFILM's Documentary Film Fund grant. I believe last night's showing, the local premiere, was somehow the first time I'd attended the first SFFILM showing of a feature-length film funded through the organization's robust granting programs. There was a good deal of deserved pomp and circumstance for this moment, and in fact it was the first screening this year I've attended with now-outgoing SFFILM Executive Director Noah Cowan present. He doesn't appear to be phoning in his final few weeks as a lame duck ED; he seemed very much in his element interviewing Midnight Traveler's co-producer/editors Emelie Coleman Mahdavian & Kristina Motwani, and hosting a post-screening panel with them as well as with Sarah Leah Whitson of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. Today and tomorrow's screenings are expected to have Mahdavian & Motwani on hand as well, though not Whitson.

SFFILM62 Day 9
Other festival options: Today's the final showing of another documentary with a similar title: Midnight Family, about Mexico City ambulance drivers; it plays 6:00PM at the Children's Creativity Museum theatre shortly after Midnight Traveler ends. Just to keep things extra-confusing. (At least they're saving Midnight Cowboy for tomorrow). Tonight's also the final SFFILM show of another Documentary Film Fund recipient about refugees and asylum seekers, this time set much more close to home, as it follows four newcomers to San Francisco. Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America screens 8:00PM at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland.

Non-SFFILM option: At 7:30PM tonight at Artists' Television Access, moving image artist Roger Beebe will be on hand to present a program of work made in the past five years, some of it brand new, including a performance piece for four simultaneously running 16mm projectors called Lineage (for Norman McLaren). Who says SFFILM has the monopoly on world premieres this week? Beebe is in town thanks to Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, where he is currently participating in a residency. The screening is a co-presentation between that organization and SF Cinematheque, as is a screening of work by fellow Headlands resident Peter Burr next Thursday at the same venue. The rest of the SF Cinematheques' Spring calendar includes two co=presentations with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (namely, a DCP of Alexander Dovzhenko's rural masterpiece Earth and a 35mm print the earliest so-called "feature length" film ever shown by SFSFF, Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan & Giuseppe de Liguoro's 1911 version of Dante's L'Inferno. Both films will be accompanied by music by the Matti Bye Ensemble, members of whom were themselves Headlands Center for the Arts residents several years ago. And if that's too much interconnection for you to handle, try this one: the final currently listed upcoming SF Cinematheque show is another co-presentation, this time with Oakland's The Black Aesthetic, of work by Akosua Adoma Owusu, including last year's SFFILM selection Mahogany Too. No indication if her 2019 SFFILM selection Pelourinho, They Don’t Really Care About Us will be included in the program as well.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 8: Aniara

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began a week ago and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.


A scene from Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja's film Aniara, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Aniara (SWEDEN/DENMARK: Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja, 2018)
playing: 8:45PM tonight at the Roxie.

I can't say that much about Aniara because it's on the list of "Hold Review" titles at this year's SFFILM Festival, in light of its commercial release by Magnolia Pictures to theatres and streaming platforms precisely one month from today. (Though I'm not sure which Frisco Bay venues it might show up in; it's nowhere to be found on the coming soon page of the local Landmark Theatres, the traditional stomping grounds of most Magnolia theatrical releases) Anyway, here's the brief capsule review that I'm allowed for a "Hold Review" title:

The first feature-film version of a 62-year-old poetic saga by a Swedish Nobel laureate, Aniara depicts a spacecraft full of émigrés headed to Mars until a collision spins it into the galactic void. Eschewing a falsely "timeless" aesthetic, the action occurs in a relatable near-future culturally similar to today's Europe (questionable music taste included). Hard sci-fi concepts like beanstalks and artificial gravity are prioritized over character development but the cinematic trajectory’s haunted me for days.

SFFILM62 Day 8
Other festival options: Your last festival chances to see a couple of features I've been hearing good things about are today. In this case the culprits are The Death of Dick Long, playing at 3:00 at the Children's Creativity Museum Theatre, and A Faithful Man, showing at 6:00PM at YBCA. The latter showing is, at this writing, at RUSH status, meaning you'll need to wait in line for a ticket. No such line necessary however for Hong Kong action movie Project Gutenberg, having its single festival showing 7:30PM tonight at the Castro.

Non-SFFILM option: BAMPFA isn't 100% given over to SFFILM showings this week; today it also hosts the penultimate installment of its lecture/screening series devoted Japan's most decorated active auteur, Hirokazu Kore-eda. Kore-eda's latest feature Shoplifters won last year's top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and screens today after a sure-to-be substantial introductory lecture by Marilyn Fabe, starting at 3:00PM. A 35mm print of his first narrative feature Maborosi screens next Wednesday, April 24th at the same time, and both movies will be part of a package of lower-priced, lecture-less Kore-eda reprise screenings happening next month (Maborosi during the Silent Film Festival, so you might not want to put off a viewing of that one if you can possibly make it to an afternoon matinee.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 7: Confidence Game

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began a week ago and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.


A scene from Kathleen Quillian's Confidence Game, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM
Confidence Game (USA: Kathleen Quillian, 2018)
playing: 8:30PM today at the Roxie as part of the Shorts 4: Animation program

Some of my favorite things seen so far at SFFILM this year have been shorts. Madeline Anderson's I Am Somebody, for instance, screened as part of her Persistence of Vision Award presentation Saturday, was a rousing, formally inventive half-hour documentary about a 1969 hospital workers' strike in Charleston, South Carolina, that included footage of Coretta Scott King orating in support of the strikers just a year after her husband's assassination. On a completely different tack, the latest nine-minute mindfuck from Guy Maddin and his recent co-directors Galen and Evan Johnson is called Accidence, and it's probably my favorite new Maddin work in dozen years, starting as a planimetric riff on Rear Window and turning quickly into something much more diabolical. It was the warm-up for each screening of The Grand Bizarre over the past few days.

But tonight I'll finally begin to start watching some of the Golden Gate Awards-eligible shorts at the festival. The Shorts 4: Animation program includes ten separate pieces representing seven North American and (mostly Eastern) European countries. Six are by women animators, including the only one by a filmmaker whose work I'm already familiar with: Kathleen Quillian. Her piece Confidence Game made its local debut on a program that I was able to attend a year ago at Craig Baldwin's notorious Other Cinema (where, incidentally, she'll be premiering another new work this coming Saturday) and I liked it enough to place it on my list of top 20 shorts as part of Senses of Cinema's latest World Poll. I've written a bit about Quillian's work before, for instance on the occasion of her 2011 piece Fin de Siècle screening at a 30th Anniversary marathon presentation at Artists' Television Access. But Confidence Game feels like another leap forward for her. Her tendency to center objects in the frame, when repeated against various collage backdrops, gives the piece a hypnotic effect that I'm certain is completely intentional, given the thematic interest in cults of personality that the work is clearly expressing. She ends Confidence Game with an almost psychedelic finale that includes stroboscopic flashing backgrounds, so be forewarned if that sort of thing gives your senses too much of a workout.

I haven't made a terribly close comparison, but it seems like there are more shorts programs in this year's SFFILM than I've ever seen in 20 years of attending. In addition to Shorts 4: Animation there the usual Golden Gate Award contender programs devoted to shorts by and for youngsters. The usual two programs of GGA-nominated documentary and narrative shorts have been expanded to three, and the New Visions program of experimental and form-expanding works appears to be quite strong this year, with new work by Akosua Adoma Owusu, Zachary Epcar, Laura Huertas Millán, Sandra Davis, etc. The New Visions section of the Golden Gate Awards was on the chopping block twenty-five years ago, and saved only due to an outcry from the local experimental film community. You can read a bit about that in this excellent interview between Russell Merritt and SFFILM artistic director Rachel Rosen.

One program that's gone missing this year, after nearly as long, is the annual co-presentation between SF Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). This was another set of experimental short films, differing from the New Visions program in various ways over the years. Perhaps because it was an out-of-competition program it tended to involve more 16mm and sometimes even 35mm prints, more work by established artists (though not exclusively so), and more flexibility in terms of the recency of completion; sometimes a program would include a new restoration of a short film made decades prior among a program of new works, and sometimes even the new works weren't always so new, having traveled on the generally slower experimental film festival circuit for a few years before making their way to their first San Francisco and Berkeley screenings. One might argue the need for two programs of experimental work at the festival has been made unnecessary by the sprouting of new festivals devoted entirely or almost entirely to such work: Crossroads, Camera Obscura and Light Field come quickly to mind. But I'm not as certain of the stability of all these younger organizations when compared to the venerable San Francisco International Film Festival, and more importantly I think there's a lot of value in SFFILM's long-standing "big tent" approach to bringing together different, sometimes fractuous communities together to see each other's work and have discussions about it. The loss of one program, even one that's run for 24 years straight, doesn't destroy that but it puts a damper on it.

I'm curious to know the reason for the loss of this program. I wasn't satisfied by the answer I got when I asked about it at SFFILM's program announcement press conference in March. I was told the reason for the change is because the festival wanted all the shorts programs to feature works in competition. That doesn't seem to hold water though, because of the existence of the Shorts 8 program, bringing together two of three Netflix-owned shorts. Both are out-of competition even though the third Netflix short, Life Overtakes Me,appears in the Shorts 1 program and is Golden Gate Award eligible. There must be some other reason.

Anyway, the festival has more than made up for absence of the SF Cinematheque/BAMPFA program in quantity at any rate, by highlighting shorts in their Persistence of Vision Award presentation, to the shorts presented in last night's Evening With Kahlil Joseph and in the Friday night live music presentation that I talk a bit about in the last paragraph of this post. Read on...

SFFILM62 Day 7
Other festival options: Today's the final screening of the Vanguard section of SFFILM, Lapü, about the Wayuú people, who also feature in the recent crime saga Birds of Passage. It screens 4:00PM at YBCA, followed by the final festival showings of the Uruguayan feature Belmonte at 6:15PM, and finally Mariam Ghani's documentary on the re-opening of Afghanistan's national film archive, What We Left Unfinished at 8:30PM. I've heard good buzz on all three so it might be a good place to camp out for the afternoon and evening.

Non-SFFILM option: A terrific set of 16mm shorts comes to the Coppola Theatre at San Francisco State University at 6:30 tonight. There's animation (Sally Cruikshank's Quasi at the Quckadero), documentary (the Miles Brothers' Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway), found footage classics (Arthur Lipsett's Very Nice, Very Nice and Bruce Conner's Valse Triste) and live-action based experimental films (Bruce Baillie's Mass for the Dakota Sioux and Maya Deren's A Study in Choreography for Camera, which is not among the Deren shorts screening digitally with a new, live soundtrack replacing Teiji Ito's scores at the Castro Friday), showcasing some of the diversity of treasures in the J. Paul Leonard Library collection at SFSU. This collection was the source for one of my favorite film screenings so far this year; it holds one of two known prints of SFMOMA Art In Cinema curator Frank Stauffacher's own filmed mini-masterpiece Sausalito, which showed in late January at BAMPFA with Stauffacher's widow Barbara Stauffacher Solomon on hand to discuss its filming and reception among other topics. Though Sausalito is not among tonight's showings, it will hardly be missed in such a strong line-up (I vouch for five of the six films and perhaps if there's a large enough turnout future screenings from the J. Paul Leonard Library collection might be organized. Best of all, this program is FREE to all!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 5: Winter's Night

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday night and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.


A scene from Jang Woo-jin's Winter's Night, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
Winter's Night (SOUTH KOREA: Jang Woo-jin, 2018)
playing: 5:30PM today at BAMPFA in Berkeley, and Monday, Apr 15 at 8:30PM at the Children's Creativity Museum Theatre.

Have you ever had one of those weird nights? The ones where you can't sleep and you end up doing things you never would under ordinary circumstances? If not, perhaps you've been caught up in someone else's weird night, which can end up making your own night pretty weird anyway.

The third film from 34-year-old director Jang Woo-jin (and the first I've had the chance to see) Winter's Night takes this premise and gives it a uniquely Korean spin. It turns out Hong Sangsoo doesn't have a monopoly on comedies about soju-infused middle-aged men unable to control their feelings for unavailable women. I was a little disappointed that SFFILM this year declined to program either of Hong's most recent efforts, Grass or Hotel By the River, making Frisco Bay four feature films behind the prolific auteur's output (unless I've somehow overlooked a showing of The Day After or Nobody's Daughter Haewon in a local venue.) But putting that disappointment aside, Winter's Night provides a fresh perspective on some of the same material Hong works with, and quite a bit of other material as well. In fact, there's enough different that I wouldn't even bring up Hong at all, if the comparison didn't feel invited by Jang's chosen setting, the tourist-centric Kangwon Province that provided the backdrop and the title for Hong's second feature film, and by the casting of Seo Young-hwa, a veteran of at least six Hong films including prior SFFILM selections Hill of Freedom and Right Now, Wrong Then.

Seo plays Eun-ju, wife to the aforementioned middle-aged man Heung-ju (played by Yang Heung-ju), spending time together on a vacation to the region important to their mutual history more than thirty years ago, when he was fulfilling military service and she was traveling from Seoul to visit him. After visiting a thousand-year-old mountain temple she realizes in a taxicab that she'd left her phone behind. They return to look for it but are still unsuccessful by the time the temple's closed for the night and, after Eun-ju's aborted attempt to sneak onto the grounds, the couple resigns to staying overnight at the handiest guesthouse. There seems to be an eerie aura at this place, and it's not just the LED lights flooding the nearby frozen waterfall. The couple keep getting separated, and running into other unexpected denizens of the dark, including a seeming set of younger doppelgangers, and one of Heung-ju's old flames, whom he drunkenly makes passes at after an excruciating karaoke session.

Ultimately Winter's Light is a very accomplished example of the established "slow cinema" movement that seems to be waning from local festival screens when compared to its relative dominance 10-15 years ago. Jang has an intriguing concept, a middle-aged couple being tested by unusual, if not quite extraordinary, circumstances, and he keeps it fun and fresh by highlighting the comedy of situations more akin to the ironic stance of a Tsai Ming-Liang than to a ponderous Tarkovsky. In one scene, Heung-ju frantically searches for his wife, inquiring with a local innkeeper, when suddenly she steps into the frame as if she's been watching him all along. "Don't lose her again, you clumsy man!" is the inkeeper's droll response. Jang often transitions between scenes by inserting frames of a series of traditional Korean paintings that, upon accumulation over the film started reminding me of the famous ox-herding pictures associated with a strand of Zen Buddhism. I'd be curious to view Winter's Light again with these ancient prompts for contemplation in mind.

SFFILM62 Day 5
Other festival options: The festival has been really pushing the Castro's noontime showing of Photograph with its star Nawazuddin Siddiqui in attendance; I guess word hasn't gotten out to the Bollywood-loving community as pervasively as happened when Shah Rukh Khan appeared there a couple years ago and I got to see firsthand the closest thing to Beatlemania I suspect I'm ever likely to experience. Either that or Siddiqui's not quite the draw that SRK is; I know him mostly from Ashim Ahluwalia's 2012 "Hindie" film Miss Lovely, but I guess he's probably made more fans in movies like Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox, the latter of which was, like Photograph, directed by Ritesh Batra. After that show, the Castro will make way for an award presentation to Laura Dern and a screening of Trial By Fire, with its director Edward Zwick also expected to attend. Finally, I've been hearing good buzz on the Argentinian feature Rojo, including from my friend Michael Hawley, whose festival preview is the best I've found, as usual, even though he's no longer even living in Frisco Bay! It screens at BAMPFA at 8PM, after Winter's Night wraps up.

Non-SFFILM option: Today's the final day of the all-35mm Stanford Theatre's annual Alfred Hitchcock series -- sort of. While Psycho and The Trouble With Harry showing today for the final times (a late afternoon and an evening show each) marks the end of the schedule published in late February, the venue has recently announced its first-ever Doris Day series, to open next weekend with prints of two of her mid-1950s films Young At Heart and The Man Who Knew Too Much. The latter of course is a Hitchcock title as well, thus extending the Master of Suspense's grip on Palo Alto's jewel of a theatre for one more week. Though I wouldn't expect the 97-year-old Day to make the trip up from her Carmel home to attend any of these showings, I do hope to see at least one of the films she made with Frank Tashlin (ideally Glass Bottom Boat) in the program somewhere, and hopefully not the same weekend as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 4: The Grand Bizarre

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday night and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.


A scene from Jodie Mack's The Grand Bizarre, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
The Grand Bizarre (USA: Jodie Mack, 2018)
playing: 3:30PM today at BAMPFA in Berkeley, and Monday, Apr 15 at 8:45PM at YBCA.

Although I was able last November to see a digital projection of this film (SFFILM audiences will be treated to a 35mm print at each screening) and placed it on my list of my five favorite undistributed features of 2018, I don't feel up to the task of writing much of a review. Not when a critic as perceptive and eloquent as Michael Sicinski has already written three terrific paragraphs about Mack's latest. Let me excerpt a few sentences:
Mack’s film is whimsical, features some sick beats (including a riff on the Skype theme), and is so personal that it ends with the artist’s own sneeze. But the fact that it may be the most purely pleasurable film of the year shouldn’t prevent us from appreciating its exigency. The Grand Bizarre is a film about embracing all the colors and patterns of the wide, wide world, and in that regard, it’s exactly the film we need right now.
I must confess I don't love The Grand Bizarre as much as Mack's previously-longest opus, Dusty Stacks of Mom, but that's surely in large part because I'm just inherently more fascinated by the world of rock poster distribution than that of colorful textiles. But even I can recognize that there's a bit more thematic "heft" to this project, not just because it's a bit longer, but also because it's more international in scope at a time when the need to reach out across borders seems greater than ever. For anyone with an open mind about the parameters of what an animated feature can be (The Grand Bizarre descends from the lineage of Norman McLaren's landmark Neighbors, but ends up with a far more radical approach to narrative), it's one of the real must-sees of this year's festival.

SFFILM62 Day 4
Other festival options: Expect more traditional animation techniques to be on display at the Castro Theatre's 10AM Shorts 6: Family Films program; I attended last year's set for the first time with my young nephew, and we both had a great time seeing a mixture of the latest cartoons, documentaries and short narratives with definite kid-appeal. This year's group includes the Oscar-nominated One Small Step. Another animation program is aimed more for adults: Shorts 4: Animation, having its first showing 5PM today at the Roxie. But to make that you'll have to miss the Persistence of Vision Award presentation to African-American documentary pioneer Madeline Anderson at SFMOMA. No animation expected in this set, but expect a wonderful conversation with a veteran filmmaker finally getting her due.

Non-SFFILM option: In memory of the April, 18, 1906 earthquake and fire that reshaped San Francisco, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is devoting its weekly Saturday 16mm film screening showcase to films that shed light on this tragic event. First, a pair of documentaries shot by the Miles Brothers, one shortly before and one, recently re-discovered, shortly after the destruction. After an intermission, they'll show one of the best of the surviving early features starring Lon Chaney, Sr., The Penalty, which was filmed in 1920 throughout a rebuilt San Francisco (a wonderful website devoted to its filming locations is found here).

Friday, April 12, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 3: The Sisters Brothers

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began Wednesday night and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix star in the Western The Sisters Brothers, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
The Sisters Brothers (FRANCE/SPAIN/USA/ROMANIA/BELGIUM: Jacques Audiard, 2018)
playing: 7:00 tonight only at the Castro

A year and a half ago, attending a SF Opera production inspired me to wonder on twitter why there have been so many great movies made about the Klondike Gold Rush, from Chaplin's canonical classic to my personal favorite, The Far Country, to more recent entries like Dawson City: Frozen Time, but none (that I've seen) devoted to the famous California Gold Rush of 1848-1855 that played such an important role in the growth of Northern California cities and towns, including of course San Francisco. I noted that I hadn't seen Michael Winterbottom's The Claim (a former San Francisco International Film Festival closing film) but that I understand it's set later than the real height of the era, that Antonia Bird's Sierra horror movie Ravenous is set before the era, and that I'm not a particular fan of Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (being filmed with Idaho standing in for the Sierra foothills being the least of the problems I had with it on a single viewing, though I'd be open to revisiting it, especially if a 35mm prints came around sometime.) Others suggested Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which is great but set in Washington State, and Thomas Carr's The Forty-Niners, which I haven't seen for myself. I'll certainly allow that there may be a forty-niner movie as good as The Gold Rush or The Far Country, but that I simply have yet to run across it.

But assuming I haven't just failed to strike the right mother lode, I'd guess the main reason for a comparative lack of great gold fever movies set in the Golden State than in The Land of the Midnight Sun is because the later can be easily visualized by filmmakers because of the contemporaneous actualities that were made during the period; the California Gold Rush of course predates the invention of the motion picture by several decades. But though 1840s & 50s California may have lacked movie cameras, there was certainly no lack of dramatic situations. So it's rather ironic that the first relevant movie I saw since composing that twitter thread was based on a book praised by some reviewers for eschewing deep historical research. I would call The Sisters Brothers a pretty good California Gold Rush movie, not a great one disproving my original position. Again, it's not really such a problem that it includes severe historical inaccuracies like including a scene at Folsom Lake, which didn't exist before Folsom Dam was erected in 1955 (just a hundred years or so too late). But its various plot threads don't ever really feel like they add up to that much.

That doesn't mean it's not a gorgeous film, or that it doesn't contain wonderful performances, including a terrific dramatic turn from John C. Reilly, an actor I first took note of in Paul Thomas Anderson's early drama Hard Eight, but who is much better known these days for his ability to carry comedies like Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story and Cyrus. In fact I saw The Sisters Brothers on one of the Castro Theatre's semi-perverse double-features, in this case with Step Brothers, also starring Reilly. And I'm not surprised to see that, of these two fraternal features, SFFILM was always more likely to pick the more (though not entirely) serious-minded one to accompany its award presentation to an underappreciated actor. I always applaud efforts to bring more Westerns to the big screen, and The Sisters Brothers is certainly at least as good as any new ones I've seen in the wake of The Lone Ranger. And how can an organization that calls its annual prizes the Golden Gate Awards pass up a chance to show a movie like this at this moment, which Rebecca Solnit identified as a modern-day San Francisco Gold Rush six years ago, and which hasn't felt any less like a boom town since?

SFFILM62 Day 3
Other festival options: For those of us dying to hear more Stuart Staples music after last night's screening of High Life, today's biggest must-see may be the first of two festival showings of Minute Bodies: The Intimate Lives of F. Percy Smith, an investigation of the early-cinema non-fiction pioneer probably best known for his 1908 film The Acrobatic Fly. Not only is Staples (a.k.a. the lead Tinderstick) the musical guide for this "Vanguard" section selection, he's credited as its director. It shows at YBCA tonight, followed by the first festival showing of A Useful Life director Federico Veiroj's latest Belmonte.

Non-SFFILM option: On the subject of great mining movies, one of my very favorite things seen at last year's SFFILM edition is making a return appearance tonight only: Robert Greene's brilliantly re-enactment-heavy (and I normally loathe re-enactments) documentary about labor history in an Arizona mining town, Bisbee '17. This FREE outdoor showing launches the Spring series of Friday night screenings at ProxySF in Hayes Valley; other SFFILM alumni in this set include The Miseducation of Cameron Post  April 26th and Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. May 10.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 2: High Life

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began last night and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.


A still from Claire Denis's High Life, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM.
High Life (FRANCE/GERMANY/UK/POLAND/USA: Claire Denis, 2018)
playing: 8:00 tonight only at the Victoria

I was able to see an advance screening of High Life, which opens for at least a week-long engagement tonight at theatres around San Francisco, as well as screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival. But I don't think Claire Denis, responsible for amazing films such as Beau Travail, Friday Night and 35 Shots of Rum, is expected to be on hand for any of the showings at the Embarcadero, Kabuki, etc. The first tickets I bought to a festival event this year, long before my press credentials were confirmed, was to see one of my very favorite working directors appear at a SFFILM event along with a showing of her latest; at least two previous attempts to bring Denis to the festival or a festival-sponsored event (in 2011 and 2018) were fruitless but tonight should mark the long-awaited ripening of that strawberry.

Strawberries figure into High Life, which features several key scenes in a garden tended by the prisoners living aboard a spacecraft heading directly toward a black hole. Like Denis's L'Intrus (like the aforementioned trio, also a film that made its local premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival) it's the kind of enigmatic, expectation-confounding movie that defies being reviewed after having been seen only once, although Durga Chew-Bose has made an excellent first stab. (I'm assuming her article's title indicates she hadn't seen High Life more than once before writing it.) It's part of why I'm so glad to get another chance tonight. I suspect many Frisco Bay Denis fans for whom tonight's screening is their first will want to make time during the festival to attend another, non-festival, showing somewhere. I'm an advocate of balancing film festival attendance with other screenings, which is why my daily fest picks will always include a "Non-SFFILM option" paragraph at the bottom.

I've heard grumblings from Denis aficionados about the festival's choice of venue for tonight's event; the Victoria is not a year-round cinema space and it has in some past years proven less than satisfactory in its presentation quality, especially in the sound department. If last year's presentation of First Reformed there is any indication, however, such fears should be relatively unfounded. Like Paul Schrader's feature (one of my favorites of last year) also distributed by A24, High Life revels in the digital video aesthetic, never attempting to mimic celluloid filmic textures. Denis and her director of photography Yorick Le Saux create a cool, synthetic aesthetic to establish High Life's setting. It's also entirely in English (many people calling it her first English-language feature are forgetting how much of Trouble Every Day is uttered in English, but even that film had a few subtitled moments) thus making the sight-line issues from certain spots in the theatre less problematic. And unless the 2019 sound set-up isn't as good as what the Victoria had installed for First Reformed and other 2018 festival screenings, I expect we'll be able to hear Juliette Binoche's, André Benjamin's and Robert Pattinson's dialogue as well as we did Amanda Seyfried's, Cedric the Entertainer's and Ethan Hawke's last year. The same should go for Stuart Staples/Tindersticks' music compared to Brian Williams/Lustmord's.

Between the guest and the movie, you can see why I had to feature High Life as my daily pick of the festival. The only drawback is that the show has long since gone to RUSH status, meaning that advance tickets for the public have all sold and anyone who wants to get a ticket tonight will have to wait in a line in hopes of a lucky break. My experience with SFFILM RUSH lines is that it's rare that you need that much luck however; an hour or so of waiting ought to do it. But given the rarity of a Denis in-person appearance in Frisco Bay, I'm not sure the standard advice will hold this time. Luckily, my daily always include other promising festival options. Read on...

SFFILM62 Day 2
Other festival options: This year's SFFILM edition includes four films screening in 35mm prints, and two of them are tonight. One, Tamara Jenkins' under-discussed The Savages is showing as part of a Laura Linney tribute, and like High Life is currently at RUSH status. The other, Jodie Mack's inventive animated experimental documentary The Grand Bizarre is the only brand-new 35mm film screening at the festival; it shows 6PM tonight at YBCA and has two more future festival screenings.

Speaking of RUSH status, tonight's BAMPFA screening of First Night Nerves is the only one of three festival showing of this particular movie NOT currently at RUSH status. Director Stanley Kwan (perhaps best known for his Ruan Ling-yu biopic Centre Stage) is expected to be in attendance.

Non-SFFILM option: If you missed local artist and educator Jeremy Rourke's 2017 hybrid animation/documentary/performance work I'll Be Around when he staged it a year and a half ago, you simply have to go to Artists' Television Access tonight at 8PM to see him re-stage it. It's a site-specific piece so it's better to see it at ATA than anywhere else it might be performed. Here's a short review from Kristin Cato.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

I Only Have Two Eyes 2018*

Screen capture from HBO DVD of The Holy Girl
The past two or so years have been full of life changes for the proprietor of this blog. After well over a decade scraping together a living by working in part-time positions, I secured a full-time position working in an academic library in late 2016. In mid-2017 I moved in with my incredible girlfriend (filmmaker, photographer and installation artist Kerry Laitala) and our two tuxedo cats, Sherlock and Watson. Kerry I got married in her Maine hometown in July, 2018. The elation from these wonderful highlights have been somewhat tempered, of course, by far darker events, including the deaths of friends and family members, and the day-to-day dispiriting melancholy of living in a rapidly-transforming city that nonetheless still feels like some kind of oasis in the hellscape that our nation has become under our federal political regime.

Which is all to say, though I still try to take advantage of the unique screening opportunities offered in the Bay Area (here's a rundown of my favorite newer moving image works of last year), making time to blog at Hell On Frisco Bay has become a comparatively low priority; I didn't even run my annual survey of the best repertory presentations this time last year, interrupting a ten year streak of collecting and posting cinephile reactions to a year of viewing films from the past in the cinematic spaces of the present.

But I'm back with another great set of lists from perceptive viewers of time-tested classics and unearthed gems during the year 2018. And I've even invited folks to name favorites from 2017 as well, to make up for my uncompiled year. That's why I'm calling this year's iteration "I Only Have Two Eyes 2018*"- the asterisk indicating that a few of the following links (marked with an *) will lead to lists (or in one case, a single title) of films seen in 2017 as well as 2018. This will be the "hub page" for this year's project, and the list of participants below will grow every day until I publish my own list.

02/06/19:   Monica Nolan, author and contributor to festival program guides
02/07/19*: John Slattery, a filmmaker based in Berkeley
02/07/19:   Lucy Laird, a writer, editor, and co-producer of Nerd Nite San Francisco
02/08/19:   David Robson, proprietor of the House of Sparrows blog
02/08/19:   Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, educator, writer and host of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS
02/09/19:   Joel Shepard, independent film programmer; his blog archive is well-worth perusal
02/09/19:   Claire Bain, San Francisco-based artist
02/10/19:   Terri Saul, Berkeley-based artist and writer
02/10/19:   Carl Martin, who maintains the invaluable Bay Area Film Calendar
02/11/19:   Michael Fox, who writes for KQED Arts & hosts screenings at the Mechanics' Institute
02/11/19*: Ian Rice, part of the ATA@SFPL curatorial committee behind screenings like this
02/12/19:   Frako Loden, educator and writer for www.documentary.org and elsewhere
02/12/19:   Ben Armington, ticket-selling maestro for Box Cubed
02/13/19:   Lincoln Spector, who founded and continues to maintain the venerable Bayflicks site
02/14/19*: Jonathan Marlow [PARACME | CALIFORNIA FILM INSTITUTE | ARBELOS]
02/14/19:   Michael Hawley, cinephile and blogger at film-415
02/21/19:   Brian Darr- that's me!

My 2018 Eyes*

I'm oh-so pleased that I was able to convince sixteen other cinephiles to allow me to publish their lists of favorite repertory/revival screenings seen in San Francisco Bay Area cinemas and other exhibition spaces. Though I don't use this blog space for much anymore (if you want my latest quick thoughts on the Frisco Bay cinema scene and a few other topics I encourage you to check my twitter feed), I'm proud that I can still occasionally use it for something I think is still valuable: a collective "thank you" to the people who make Frisco Bay a still-vital site for audience re-appreciation of the world's cinematic heritage. 
My own cinema-going year in 2018 was just about as exciting as ever, despite it being the first full year that I removed an active 35mm revival venue from my moviegoing itinerary; please read the first two paragraphs of this post to learn why I no longer attend the New Mission/Alamo Drafthouse. I do give an early-2017 screening there a nod in my make-up list of 2017 repertory cinema highlights at the very bottom of the piece you're currently looking at.
As usual, I focused the following selections on films brand-new to me, mostly because I'm usually so much more energized by falling in love with a new-to-me movie for the first time than by even the most fruitful re-visitation of an old friend. Although 2018 brought some very fruitful re-visitations, such as seeing 70mm prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey and West Side Story (the latter for the first time in that format), and 35mm prints of Eyes Wide Shut and Shadow of a Doubt (again, the latter for the first time in that format), all at the Castro, or revisiting Sátántangó in 35mm at BAMPFA and viewing an IB Technicolour print of All That Heaven Allows at the same venue. I even saw, under not-to-be-disclosed circumstances, a collector-held original-release IB Tech print of the first film I ever fell in love with as a young child, which was quite the nostalgia trip. But in most every way I appreciated all the following screenings even more:
Alexander Nevsky screen capture from Janus DVD
Alexander Nevsky, February 16, 2018
Though this list is made up about equally of films I'd barely if ever heard of before they appeared on a local repertory calendar and films I've been wanting to see for many years, this early-year BAMPFA presentation not only fit squarely in the latter category, it was perhaps the most prominent and long-standing example of it. My desire to see Alexander Nevsky preceded my cinephilia, going back to my youthful days as a Sergei Prokofiev-loving prospective music major. My mother sang in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus when they accompanied it at Davies Symphony Hall in the 1990s, while I was attending college in the Midwest. Having missed that chance, I kept hoping for a reprise to be my first experience with Sergei Eisenstein's sync-sound debut, but upon seeing the Symphony's cinematic programming moving away from foreign-language masterpieces featuring music composed by concert-hall regulars, in favor of Hollywood hits, I decided to give up on such dreams and take the first 35mm opportunity I could get, which ended up being this extremely stirring screening. I'm actually glad I first saw this extraordinary 1938 work of form & emotion in a setting in which the music did not threaten to overwhelm image any more than it occasionally does, but then the push-pull of the two Sergeis in its creation is one of the most dynamic aspects of a film that shouldn't be categorized only as anti-Nazi propaganda, though it is of course that too.
Merrily We Go To Hell, March 14, 2018
No single 2018 series at the always-35mm Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto matched 2017's spotlight on five decades of Warner Brothers films in its breadth of satisfying films from various eras & genres, but the follow-up focus on 1930-1935 Paramount was at least as welcome, for its willingness to unearth more rarities (and to also include cartoons, in this case mostly featuring Betty Boop instead of Bugs Bunny). I caught five of the series double-bills including a knockout pairing of Mitchell Leisen's barely-known debut Cradle Song with Josef von Sternberg's severely underrated An American Tragedy. But the single-best new discovery for me of the set was director Dorothy Arzner's 1932 Merrily We Go To Hell starring Frederic March essentially reprising his Jekyll & Hyde role but through the avatar of a Depression-era dipsomaniacal journalist, and with Sylvia Sidney excelling in the audience-stand-in role of a young woman who falls in love with him. The film is proof that the appeal of Pre-Code Hollywood goes well beyond the "naughtiness" that often gets played up in promotions of the era's films, and that these early talkies were elegant vehicles for discussions of serious social problems in a serious (yet no less entertaining) way that tended to dissipate once the Hays Code became generally enforced in 1934.

Road House, May 18, 2018

Another surprisingly serious take on the deleterious effects of alcohol, this time focused less on the over-indulgers than on the capitalists battling each other to control profits from one town's drunks, smuggled into the skin of a corny 1989 action movie in which a beautifully be-mulletted Patrick Swayze plays a nationally-renowned bouncer. (I clearly do not travel in the correct circles to know if such a characterization has any basis in reality). Ben Gazzara plays the corrupt local kingpin and Sam Elliott has a role not so far-removed from the one he's currently up for a A Star Is Born Oscar for. On one level this Razzie-nominated movie hits you repeatedly over the head with all the most shopworn cliches of Rehnquist-era cable-television staples, but on another level it perfects and transcends all the cliches, becoming a ballet of bodies in motion that was staggering to behold on the Roxie Theater screen. I don't know anything about Rowdy Herrington, but for these 114 minutes he became my favorite director, and I can't ask much more from a movie.

Patty Hearst screen capture from MGM DVD
Patty Hearst, May 25, 2018

It appears May was a particularly strong month for 35mm prints of late-1980s American films with a touch (or more) of the exploitation film about them; just a week after Road House I saw Paul Schrader's 1988 docudrama about the inspiration for Citizen Kane's granddaughter and her infamous kidnapping into the Symbionese Liberation Army. But Patty Hearst makes its artfulness far more apparent, especially through Natasha Richardson astonishing performance and Bojan Bazelli's immersive cinematographic techniques. It didn't debut at Cannes for nothing, even if it didn't garner any prizes. Maybe it should have; for me it stands at least as high as Schrader's best-directed features like Blue Collar, Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters and First Reformed. Filmed locally in large part, Patty Hearst was part of a brilliantly-packaged set of films wrangling with "San Francisco's dark decade" that served as hangover to the Summer of Love at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; most unfortunately this was one of the final series programmed at YBCA by Joel Shepard before he and curatorial assistant David Robson were misguidedly dismissed by this shadow-of-its-former-self arts organization that appears bent on hastening its complete assimilation into the orbit of the nearby convention spaces that, like YBCA itself, rest on land that was until that "dark decade" home to more low-income residents than perhaps any other neighborhood in town. Tragically for cinephiles, YBCA's film program essentially doesn't exist any longer, replaced only by rentals from festivals and other organizations like SF Cinematheque, the latter a partnership I understand Shepard in one of his last acts encouraged to be continued in his absence.

The Lighthouse Keepers, May 31, 2018

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival continues to expand, this year for the first time moving its opening night to a Wednesday and running a full day of programming on a Thursday. That day wasn't easily-skippable stuff for cinephiles either, unlike some previous years' weekday programming choices; it included the Amazing Tales From the Archives program and two of my favorite films seen previously only in highly-compromised video copies: Carl Dreyer's Master of the House and Yasujiro Ozu's An Inn In Toyko. But the day ended with an eye-popping visual hurricane by a filmmaker I'd long wanted to acquaint myself with for the first time: Jean Grémillon, represented at the festival by his second feature film The Lighthouse Keepers from 1929. Presented in a rare 35mm print from the National Film Archive of Japan of all places, this cinematic approximation of an injured island-dweller's increasingly frenzied mental state also benefited from a dose of only-at-a-festival psychogeography. Set and shot on the Britanny coast, the film was accompanied perfectly by pianist Guenter Buchwald, who (I later learned) drew upon his young experiences living in and playing traditional music of that region. Buchwald has been a gifted SFSFF mainstay since 2013, but for me this was by far the best showcase for his talents I've seen, bettering even last year's SFSFF screening of Lubitsch's The Doll and that afternoon's Ozu presentation. (No coincidence, I suspect, that SFSFF percussionist Frank Bockius joined him on all three of these accompaniments; Bockius's contribution to An Inn In Tokyo particularly made me hanker to hear him anchor an entire score on his own sometime; perhaps another Ozu since he's typically so difficult to accompany). The Lighthouse Keepers cemented the festival's first jam-packed Thursday as the day to beat for the rest of the weekend, and though Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness on Friday, No Man’s Gold, Trappola and The Saga of Gösta Berling on Saturday, and perhaps especially the Serge Bromberg presentation and Stephen Horne accompanying Soviet phantasmagoria Fragment of an Empire on Sunday tried to give it a run for its money, I don't think any of them quite succeeded.
Sisters, June 28, 2018

The Castro Theatre is probably the ideal venue for any film festival aiming to bring revived classics to a large and appreciative audience, as proven not just by the aforementioned Silent Film Festival but also Noir City (where I had great first-time screenings of films like Address Unknown, Jealousy, Bodyguard and The Underworld Story), Frameline (which hosted a moving presentation of a newly digitized Buddies) and Cinema Italia SF (which included a rare showing of A Special Day in a Mastroianni marathon). But I'm equally appreciative when the venue screens, between its festival four-walls and second-run showings of recent multiplex and arthouse fare, great repertory selections programmed in-house. Some of 2018's highlights along these lines included my first big-screen viewing of John Boorman's Deliverance and my long-awaited first-ever viewing of Frances Ford Coppola's One From the Heart. Very enjoyable, but neither as gleefully enjoyable as my first-ever viewing of the breakthrough film by another New Hollywood director who happens to share my first name. I don't think that's the reason I find I have a particular affinity for Brian De Palma's films (well, not all of them, but the ones that hit me hit deeply) as I was a Carrie fan before I knew or cared what a director was. At any rate, Sisters was a film I'd wanted to see for many years but, like Alexander Nevsky, was willing to wait to catch in ideal circumstances. The Castro Theatre in 35mm, surrounded by sparsely-assembled but devoted Margot Kidder mourners, fit that bill. On twitter afterward I called it "the last horror movie of the pre-Roe v. Wade era", which may or not be technically true but feels spiritually so. At any rate, it's the earliest De Palma film I've seen that clearly has his Hitchcock-infused brand stamped clearly upon it.

A Moment of Innocence screen capture from New Yorker Video DVD
A Moment of Innocence, September 6, 2018

How did I let myself go so long as a cinephile without seeing this metacinematic masterpiece made the year I first began actively turning my eyes toward non-mainstream cinema, 1996? I guess my excuse is that I was then still taking baby steps and films like Lone Star and Dead Man were my idea of "non-mainstream". Iranian cinema wasn't on my radar screen until a couple years later, and though I did enjoy early films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf like Boycott and The Cyclist when I caught up with them on home video, I never dove deeply into his complete filmography. So I was very glad for BAMPFA's Autumn showcase of films directed by Makhmalbaf as well as his wife and two daughters. I'd actually seen most of the womens' films before, but none of the five by Mohsen programmed; I was able to catch up with three of them, all via imported 35mm prints: his Istanbul-filmed Time of Love, the also-amazing Salaam Cinema and this investigation into the very hows and whys of making and re-making cinema. It's the kind of film that recalibrates your understanding of the arbitrariness of lines between professional and amateur, of spectator and maker, of documentary and fiction, etc. And the titular "moment" is just perfection. There was talk of a follow-up series of Abbas Kiarostami films coming to BAMPFA soon (perhaps this year?) but with the political impediments to bringing Iranian films into the US under the current culture-hostile regime, I'm not sure how likely that has become; I'm told a November screening of Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow was hindered when the new DCP was confiscated by our customs officials and BAMPFA was forced to track down an inferior transfer already within US borders to screen.

Forty-six films by Kurt Kren, September 22-23, 2018

Located just one block from the 16th & Mission BART station, The Lab is a crucial performance and art space that in recent years, under the direction of Dena Beard, has become an increasingly important square in the quilt of local film exhibition, especially of the "bubbling up from the underground" sort. In 2017 the venue hosted Frisco Bay's only guaranteed all-celluloid film festival, Light Field, and a March 2019 iteration has been unveiled as well. It was also venue for a years-in-the-making near-complete two-evening retrospective of the films of Vienna-born experimentalist Kurt Kren, with introductions by archivists, scholars and people who knew the filmmaker before he died in 1998. I don't know if I've ever had quite this kind of intensive immersion in a moving image artist's work before; one Saturday afternoon I'd seen just a single Kren film in my lifetime (31/75: Asyl) and less than thirty-six hours later I'd seen almost all of them.  The forty-five that were new to me can't be summed up in a sentence or a paragraph as they ran the gamut of approaches and effects, and I didn't even like all of them; some went way over my head and others (especially the naked body-, food-, and fluid-filled "Action Films" documenting Otto Mühl performances in the mid-1960s) were varying degrees of repulsive. But finding that films as singular as 2/60: 48 Heads from the Szondi-Test and 47/91: A Party or 36/78: Rischart and 46/90: Falter 2, or 18/68: Venice Destroyed and 32/76: To W+B came from the same individual's camera was almost unbelievable and rather inspiring. I think my very favorite of the films was 3/60 Trees In Autumn, a kind of skyward update of Oskar Fischinger's Walking From Munich to Berlin that I was very glad to see again amidst a handful of Kren films a month and a half later at BAMPFA, alongside work by a modern-day filmmaker whose work owes much to Kren's: Tominari Nishikawa, whose Lumphini 2552 felt particularly connected to this botanical strand of Kren's work, as well as its use of its year of creation in its title as Kren always did (in the case of the Nishikawa the year number is the Thai solar calendar equivalent of 2009). Almost every major experimental film screening organization in town (besides Other Cinema I guess) had a hand in the Kurt Kren weekend; it was co-organized by Black Hole Cinematheque, Megan Hoetger & Canyon Cinema, the latter of which also put on contending highlights in its salon series (seeing Sky Hopinka present Peter Rose's The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough among other works was extremely memorable). And the community sponsors included SF Cinematheque, via which I also saw great 16mm revivals like The Hart of London and All That Sheltering Emptiness, and BAMPFA, whose Fall Alternative Visions series provided me with great big-screen experiences with new-to-me films by Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Enrique Colina & other Latin American avant-gardists, while First Person Cinema did the same with 16mm works by Ute Auraund, Margaret Tait & Marie Menken. It will take a similarly collective effort on a larger scale to save The Lab and the other non-profit organizations, writers and artists that make use of the historic Redstone Labor Temple from displacement in the face of the current real estate speculation boom in San Francisco. Please sign a petition and/or attend a FREE event if you want to be involved in keeping this space available for amazing events like the Kren immersion for the foreseeable future!

The Goddess screen capture from Music Box DVD of The Story of Film: an Odyssey
The Goddess, October 21, 2018

Another opportunity for diving into the filmography of an under-screened moving image artist was provided in the screening room at SFMOMA, which made Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray the focus of the seventh iteration of its recent Modern Cinema collaboration with SFFILM. I'm told the current "eighth season" was programmed by SFMOMA's Gina Basso on her own, and future sets such as a summer 2019 spotlight on book-to-film adaptations will be all hers as well, part of a much-welcome expansion of the screening program at San Francisco's most prominent artistic institution. But if the Ray series was the last of these triannual partnerships, it was apropos, as SFFILM's San Francisco International Film Festival provided the U.S. premiere and two prizes for Ray's debut Pather Panchali as part of its inaugural festival in 1957. It was also extremely valuable to someone like me, who'd seen a little more than a handful of Ray's films but was able to double my exposure to his work in the space of three weekends. New favorites included some of his delvings into the darker corners of post-colonial Indian society such as The Big City, The Coward, Company Limited and The Middleman, but I think the most powerful of them all was The Goddess, also frequently referred to as Devi. Arguably as cynical as any of those four but in a period setting rather than a contemporary one, this 1960 piece takes religion as its central theme and has the benefit both of Sharmila Tagore's magnetic screen presence and a sumptuous visual design unmatched in any Ray film I've seen other than (perhaps) The Music Room. It was the new-to-me highlight of one of 2018's deepest auteurist dives, just as The Spook Who Sat By The Door was the new-to-me highlight of a very solid summer series focusing on African-American directors, and Chocolat of an emotionally-fraught set of films by Claire Denis and her cinematic ancestors. It was during this February series that SFMOMA's lead projectionist Paul Clipson unexpectedly died, leaving a gaping abyss in the middle of not only the Bay Area film community, but in the wider circle of interlocked international communities of experimental film and music performances in which Paul traveled. Less than a week after his death SFMOMA organized a memorial tribute in which the five 16mm prints of Clipson's own magnificent film work held by Canyon Cinema were presented to a mourning public. Though I'd had the great pleasure of knowing Paul for several years, and seen dozens of screenings of the prolific artist's work in various contexts, I had never before seen one of his greatest single-channel masterpieces Union before; it's a stunner and perhaps deserves its own slot on this list, but somehow it feels more appropriate to honor a 35mm screening of a gorgeous Indian film, projected by Paul's protégés in the SFMOMA booth where he seemed so at home.

The Emperor's Nightingale, December 15, 2018

Frisco Bay cinemas provided a good number of director retrospectives that I unfortunately was unable to take advantage of as thoroughly as the previously-mentioned Kurt Kren or Satyajit Ray concentrations. Most of them were held at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which is conveniently closer to BART in its now-three-year-old "new" location, but inconveniently tends to spread its series programming out across weeks, months, or even (in the case of a 2018-long Ingmar Bergman focus) a whole year. I'm sure this pleases the majority of BAMPFA customers, especially those who live in Berkeley and don't particularly relish seeing more than one movie a day, but still aspire to catching every screening in a given series. But as someone who lives across a bridge and likes to save time and BART fare, I miss being able to see more than one film in a series on a single trip, something that used to happen occasionally at the old Bancroft Way location, but now seems to occur only when a filmmaker is in town (like Ulrike Ottinger next month). On the other hand, I now am more likely to sample at least one program in almost every series programmed, at the expense of honing in on one or two per calendar. In 2018 I caught just a couple films in BAMPFA's Alain Tanner series (I particularly liked The Middle of the World), their Lucrecia Martel restrospective (The Headless Woman was wonderful to revisit), and their Frederick Wiseman spotlight (Belfast, Maine was a highlight), while finding time for just a single film apiece in hefty programs dedicated to Aki Kaurismäki and Luchino Visconti (La vie de Bohème and Conversation Piece both knocked me out), and just one program from a series dedicated to Czech animator Jiří Trnka. The Emperor's Nightingale, the main attraction in this two-film program, was quite simply one of the greatest stop-motion animation films I've ever seen, by a filmmaker I'd been barely familiar with previously and might not have sampled if this showing hadn't landed on a day in which two programs from other series tempted. Based on this 1949 film, it's clear that Trnka created an absolutely unique style influential to but not fully assimilable by descendents like Jan Švankmajer and Arthur Rankin Jr., and that (as I noted in a post-screening tweet) "calling it ‘puppet animation’ is too limiting, when lighting, lenswork and even film grain itself are as crucial the illusion of movement in this Fabergé world."

Because I didn't run a "I Only Have Two Eyes" survey at this time last year, I also present (without commentary) my favorite repertory/revival screenings of 2017:

The Limits of Control, February 15, 2017, Alamo Drafthouse at New Mission Theatre
Goshogaoka, February 18, 2017, SFMOMA
Los Ojos, I Change I Am the Same, Filmmaker, Rumble & Peyote Queen among others, March 2, 2017, Exploratorium
Angels of Sin, March 5, 2017, BAMPFA
Until They Get Me, June 23, 2017, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum with Frederick Hodges accompaniment
Marie Antoinette, June 25, 2017, Roxie
Captain Horatio Hornblower with One Way Passage Rabbit Hood, August 23, 2017, Stanford
Phantom Lady, October 2, 2017, Castro
Sweet Charity, November 11, 2017, YBCA
Spite Marriage, December 3, 2017, Rafael Film Center with Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompaniment