by Ben Sachs
In chronological order, my favorite screenings were:
Bill Douglas Trilogy (Doc Films, February and March) Doc's exceptional British New Wave series contained several gems—namely, a rare revival of Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End—but these three featurettes were the most eye-opening. Prior to these screenings I'd never heard of Douglas, a colleague of Terence Davies who advanced a similarly poetic and autobiographical filmmaking style. His small body of work demands to be better known.
Four Nights of a Dreamer (Gene Siskel Film Center, February) This and The Trial of Joan of Arc were the rarest films to screen in the Siskel's near-complete Robert Bresson retrospective. It may be the funniest of his films, with the director's austere style giving way to deadpan comedy. One of these days, someone should screen it with the cinema's other great adaptations of Dostoevsky's White Nights, Visconti's La Notti Bianche and James Gray's Two Lovers.
The Devil's Cleavage (Experimental Film Society at School of the Art Institute, February) February saw several tributes to noted underground filmmaker George Kuchar, who died in September 2011, with programs at both Doc Films and the Siskel Center's Conversations at the Edge. But this revival of Kuchar's 1975 feature seemed the most appropriate. Held at a college screening room in the middle of a weekday afternoon, it memorialized Kuchar's long tenure as a film professor and his enduring influence on aspiring filmmakers.
Daughters, Wives, and a Mother (Doc Films, February) As I mentioned in our Best of Chicago issue, eight of the nine films in Doc's Mikio Naruse/Hideko Takamine series are unavailable on DVD in the U.S. That's a shame, as Naruse is one of Japan's greatest filmmakers and the author of some of the most devastating films about domestic life. This 1960 feature, shot in color and wide-screen, exhibited a masterful narrative density, with nearly a dozen major characters and conflicts.Charulata and The Home and the World (Northwestern University, April) There was much to admire about Northwestern's symposium on Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore, particularly filmmaker Shyam Benegal's informative lecture about how Bengali literature differs from that of the other Indian states. But these recently struck prints of Ray's Tagore adaptations floored me. Most of Ray's films are available on region 1 DVD, but those releases fail to convey the rich visual splendor of his filmmaking. Let's hope more of these new prints start coming around.
Documentaries by Les Blank (CIMM Fest [various locations], April) This sidebar presentation at the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, co-curated by the Nightingale's Christy LeMaster and sponsored in large part by the Columbia College TV Department, marked some of the most ambitious programming to appear at the local fest, spanning several decades and sidestepping a sizable legal hazard. According to a decades-old court order, one of the movies screened could not be mentioned or even described in the press, and Blank had to be present to introduce it. That was as good an excuse as any to bring this witty, music-loving filmmaker to Chicago.
Macunaima (The Whistler, April) Every month the Impala Sound DJs screen a different third-world classic at Logan Square's the Whistler before spinning records for the remainder of the night. The choices, though highly enjoyable, veer towards crowd-pleasers like the Bollywood gangster musical Don, which made this 1969 Brazilian classic an unlikely choice. But the film's wild imagery made a good fit for the party setting, which in turn underscored the movie's counterculture vibe.
The Oak (Facets Cinematheque, May) This 1992 Romanian feature was the central work in Facets's Lucian Pintilie retrospective. The director's first film after the fall of Communism (and after more than a decade of being unable to work in cinema), it feels like an exorcism of years of frustration. However cryptic it can be at times, Pintilie's vision remains unmistakably disturbing and funny. It also anticipates the major breakthroughs in Romanian cinema that would occur a decade later.
The Sign of Leo (Block Cinema, June) This is one of only a few Eric Rohmer films unavailable on DVD in the States, but that's not all that makes it unique in the French master's body of work. At once more cynical and more freewheeling than the comedies of manners for which he's better known (My Night at Maud's, Pauline on the Beach), Rohmer's 1960 debut feature still contains the sort of dramatic irony for which he's justly celebrated. The new print looked great too.Whisper of the Heart (Gene Siskel Film Center, June) This 1995 feature, a straightforward coming-of-age story about a preteen girl, may be the most naturalistic thing Hayao Miyazaki ever wrote. That's not a bad thing, as it highlights the deep understanding of childhood that informs the director's other work. I enjoyed revisiting the better-known films in the touring Studio Ghibli series (which returned to Doc Films in the fall) having that in mind.
One People (African Diaspora Film Festival at Facets Cinematheque, June) This was a fine year for the African Diaspora Film Festival, which brought the local premiere of the fine independent production Welcome to Pine Hill and the new print of Lionel Rogosin's South African-shot Come Back, Africa. But this 1976 feature, shot mainly in Suriname just after that country was granted independence, was a singular discovery. It's not only a remarkable time capsule but also a fun and earthy romantic comedy with some killer dance songs on the soundtrack. Facets just brought it back for a return engagement; you can still see it tonight and tomorrow.
You and Me (Portage Theater, June) I wrote at length about Fritz Lang's sole musical comedy just before the Northwest Chicago Film Society presented it in June. The local programming organization has screened some great left-of-center movies in the last year (such as Don Siegel's The Beguiled, which played a month ago), but this is a genuine oddity, a Bertolt Brecht tribute made in Hollywood with all the style that money could buy. Like much of the NWCFS selections, this remains unavailable on DVD.
The Gang's All Here (Music Box Theatre, August) And speaking of oddball musicals, this Busby Berkeley feature from 1943 contains some of the strangest numbers I've ever seen in a movie. This is so peculiar in its manipulations of scale and horizon lines that a friend remarked on his way out of the theater, "They should have called that 1943: A Space Odyssey!" The new print, which returned a few months later to Block Cinema and the Film Studies Center at U of C, was one of the great sensory experiences of the year, with voluptuous Technicolor that all but jumped off the screen.
The Movie Orgy (The Nightingale, August) Gabe Klinger organized this rare revival of Joe Dante's epic found footage collage, made when the director was still in college, and brought Dante to Chicago for good measure. He was a gracious guest at both the Music Box (where he introduced Gremlins 2 and The Hole) and micro-cinema the Nightingale, where he stood in the back of the room while Orgy inspired convulsive laughter for more than four hours. This was a good reminder of Dante's roots in 60s counterculture, shining a new light on the studio films that played in Doc's Dante series later in the year.
"Seeing the Light" (Southside Hub of Projection, September) Copresented by the Poetry Foundation and South Side Projections, this program of experimental works centered around Stan Brakhage's masterful Deus Ex (1971). The turnout was larger than expected, and it was standing-room in the old Hyde Park house where the event took place. But the crowd was silent and reverential, which heightened the spiritual intensity of Brakhage's work.
Urban Peasants (Cinema Borealis, September) In September I wrote a post about Ken Jacobs's personal and very moving found-footage film about Jewish immigrants in New York. I noted, "The jittery motion renders the excavation of the past giddy, even exciting, yet Jacobs subverts these sentiments by emphasizing his distance from the material. The film is silent and structured in such a way that you can't relate to any of the faces as you would characters. One focuses on rituals, street corners, interior design; to watch it is to feel as much like an ethnographer as a movie spectator."
Hauling Toto Big (Gene Siskel Film Center, September) The last major film work (1997) by experimentalist Robert Nelson was one of the highlights of the two-part Nelson program that played at the Siskel in September. This found the filmmaker (who died almost exactly one year ago) pushing his playful aesthetic towards more dreamlike and mysterious ends. The movie retains Nelson's non-sequitur humor, which (like the Impala Sound revival of Macunaima) blurs the line between high and low art.grappling with the Werner Schroeter retrospective that the Museum of Modern Art organized this summer and which came to Facets in the fall. Schroeter's heady combinations of opera, performance art, current events, and mass-culture pastiche leave the viewer so much to chew on that I suspect I only scratched the surface of his Kingdom of Naples and Palermo or Wolfsburg. But this mosaiclike documentary about the Philippines under dictator Ferdinand Marcos was as clear as a bell. Schroeter's passion for high culture doesn't obscure his political analysis, as it does in some of his other work, but rather places it in an epic context.
Twenty Days Without War (Gene Siskel Film Center, October) Of all the films to play at the Siskel's complete Aleksei Guerman retrospective, I can't decide whether I'd choose this 1977 antidrama or My Friend Ivan Lapshin as my favorite. Both are entrancing investigations of the Soviet past that feature masterful camerawork and stinging black humor. I'm picking this one because it's in black-and-white 35-millimeter wide-screen, which is the most beautiful of all movie formats.
Nothing But a Man (Gene Siskel Film Center, December) Michael Roemer's 1964 independent feature had been restored once before in the early 90s, but this new print (which played just last week) is worth praising. Robert Young's photography looks stunning in this new version; the night skies seem to congeal around the characters. The portrait of segregation in Alabama remains astutely observed and powerful in its restraint, hinting (along with Roemer and Young's follow-up, The Plot Against Harry) at a brilliant career that never quite took off.