My friend Brian does the “I Only Have Two Eyes” series annually on his blog (the title of which I’ve revised for my bespectacled self), about the best of archival screenings in the Bay Area. And since 2016 was the first year in ages that I actually logged every film I saw in a theater (final tally: 229 features & 256 shorts), it made compiling a list of my own 10 indelible experiences much easier to do.
We’ll start with Dumbo (Sharpsteen, 1941) at the Paramount in Oakland, on absolutely stunning 35mm. Although the emcee called it original (which it couldn’t have been, because that would have meant nitrate stock), it certainly was a crisply struck print that had not seen much circulation. Combine the divine “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence with the most gorgeous Art Deco palace in the Bay Area, and it was a great way to start the year.
Also in January were some memorable titles at Noir City at the Castro, and for me, the highlight was a first viewing of Mickey One (Penn, 1965), a glorious jazz-tinged fever dream of a film, with an assist from legend Stan Getz. Disjointed, bizarre, singularly unique and punctuated by a live dance routine from burlesque goddess Evie Lovelle.
Soon after, the PFA had an excellent Maurice Pialat series, but I suspect that the power of his Under the Sun of Satan (1987) was magnified by it being bookended (quite by coincidence) with two other contemporary films I saw the same week that also explore religious faith, fanaticism and hypocrisy: Pablo Larrain’s The Club and Avishai Sivan’s Tikkun. In Pialat’s fantasy-fueled acid bath Passion Play, he posits the possibility that religion may be the most oppressive to the truly devout. Overall, a provocative accidental trilogy.
Some fun Gothic films ran their course at the Yerba Buena Arts Center that summer, and the highlight was my first time seeing The Beguiled (1971) on the big screen. Still Don Siegel’s best, Clint Eastwood plays a Yankee fox trying to subvert and seduce a Dixie henhouse. The thick hothouse atmosphere and sexual tension played beautifully through Siegel's lighting and the insidious plotting and character power plays. Still a remarkable film (soon to be remade by Sofia Coppola).
Though a relatively recent movie, I have to include the Triplets of Belleville (Chomet, 2003) screening at the Taube Atrium in the SF Opera House because Benoît Charest was there with a jazz combo to perform his exquisite score live, including saws, bikes, and trashcans as percussion instruments. A terrific experience.
2016 was the first year the Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission was open, and the best part of their programming is the late night Mon-Wed screenings. My first dip into that pool was a packed show of Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971), which I’ve seen several times in the theater, but never tire of the gearhead culture, the meditative structure and lack of urgency (for a racing film!) and Warren Oates’s phenomenal turn as GTO. My year was relatively short on roadtrips but this went some way to sating my wanderlust.
In my backyard at the Parkway, there was an irresistible double bill of the cuckoo-bananas conspiracy theory documentary Room 237 (Ascher, 2012) followed by a screening of the focus of its subject, The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) itself. Rarely does a year go by when I don’t see some Kubrick on screen (I also revisited Paths of Glory and Spartacus at the Smith Rafael Film Center for Kirk Douglas’s 100th birthday), but a bonus this year was an excellent exhibit on Kubrick at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF with some amazing artifacts from his career, including the typewriter and hedge maze model from this film.
Also at the Smith Rafael was a Sam Fuller weekend (with his widow and daughter in attendance), where the biggest revelation for me was his Tokyo noir House of Bamboo (1955), a beautifully stylized genre piece whose gangster trappings and compositions appeared to anticipate the marvelous Seijun Suzuki, whose career was starting around the exact same time. As you’d expect, Robert Ryan is in top form and the climax on a rooftop amusement park is a standout.
And finally, two silent films, both firsts for me. At the Silent Film Festival at the Castro, Destiny (1921), the earliest film I’ve seen by Fritz Lang and a glorious anthology of stories where Love must face down Death. It was wonderful seeing Lang’s visual imagination in bloom, anticipating the superb special FX and supernatural wonders of his next few years in Germany. Months later, over at the Niles Essanay Film Museum, the buoyant energy of underrated actress Bebe Daniels was on full display in the fizzy comedy Feel My Pulse (La Cava, 1928), about a hypochondriac heiress looking for rest at a health sanitarium which is actually acting as a front for bootleggers (led by a very young William Powell). A hilarious comedy and secret gem.
So that’s 10 features, but since I saw over 60 archival shorts in the theater last year, I’ll give an honorable mention to two with Buster Keaton, still silent in the autumn of his career. I saw The Railrodder (Potterton, 1965) at an Oddball Film Archive screening, featuring Buster traveling across Canada on an open-air mini-railcar, a playful reminder of his other great train film The General, but in sumptuous color. And around the same time, the Smith Rafael Film Center played Film (Schneider, 1965), one of Samuel Beckett’s few forays into film and a wonderful existential metaphor with Buster showing that age had not changed the expressiveness of his body in motion. A sublime pairing. Here’s looking forward to another year of familiar films and new discoveries.
The Walt Disney stamp is Scott #1355 and Buster Keaton #2828. Dumbo is #4194 and Steamboat Willie #4343. The Ringling Brothers stamps are #4901 & 4904 while the other circus stamps are, sequentially, #1309, 2750 & 2751. The Pontiac GTO is #4744 and the Ford pickup #5104.