The end of every year sends movie critics scrambling to play the list game. You know, where we comb through that year’s titles for the privilege of allowing a select few a spot on on our “Top Ten” list. Those lists serve as a way of telling people “I love this movie!” as well as signaling our superiority by keeping certain flicks off . Because a guy who made exactly zero dollars on his film writing should be able to lord over Terrence Malick now and again, right?
I have a top ten list, but there’s a heavenly top fifty out there, all the great movies I know I missed this year simply because I didn’t have the time or the thing never made it to Minneapolis. This troubles me. So instead of the usual top ten, I’m going to make the list very personal, and reflect on my favorite moments watching movies, old or new. This is much different from the ten best of the year–for instance, R. Alverson’s masterful New Jerusalem, which I picked as my favorite movie of 2011, isn’t here, since I saw it on DVD, at home, by myself. The moment was memorable only because of the film (though you’ll see I have a DVD I watched alone as well.) This list serves as a sort-of thank you letter to the gods of cinema, to the people who made these events happen, to the good folks with whom I saw the movies in question, and perhaps it will inspire readers to think back on their happiest moments at the cinema this year.
10. The Adventures of Tintin at Mt. Pleasant’s Celebration Cinemas, Christmas Day. My wife and I head to Michigan for Christmas every other year, and it is our tradition to see a movie with my Mom and brother on the high holy day. If my best friend, Andy, and his wife, Sherrod (and kids), happen to be in town, then they come along, too. Problem is, the movies usually suck–we’re limited to whatever the studios have coughed out in December, and that in itself is limited by the conservative jerks who run Celebration Cinemas.
Our choices this year boiled down to Mission: Impossible IV, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Tintin (we were all in agreement that Sherlock Holmes, the fucking Zoo movie, and the new horror flick were right out.) M:I was only interesting because Brad Bird directed it, and he’s one of my favorites–but I missed number 3 because the series is so stupid and wasn’t interested in this one, Brad Bird or not. There was no way I was going to see Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, with its I Spit on Your Grave-style rape and retribution scene, on Christmas Day and with my Mom. So Tintin won out.
And thanks for that, since Tintin was a hoot. It’s the epitome of damning-with-faint-praise to say this was the best movie I’ve ever seen in a theater on Christmas Day, but it was. Even better, everyone enjoyed it (that’s a rarity.) With all of us hooting and laughing and marveling at the incredible animation, The Adventures of Tintin will be a fond memory.
9. The Bad News Bears and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training with Michael Fallon and Sturdy Andy Pants in the former’s basement on August 30. Inspired by the baseball season, by too many drinks, and especially by Josh Wilker’s book on the shitty sequel, pals Michael Fallon and Andy Sturdevant thought it would be a good idea to have a double feature of the greatest baseball movie ever made and its mind-numbing follow-up.
Good company always trumps a dead-eyed sequel, and having Fallon’s home-made corn dogs (as well as vintage-style candy bars and weird gin drinks to boot) added to the fun. Michael batter-dipped lamb sausages, Vienna weiners, and other amazing meatables, and we retired to his basement for some intriguing film and weird discussion. We made a game of counting how many different brands of beer Buttermaker drinks in the original (I can hardly recall, but I think it was near a dozen), and then proceeded to make hay about the sequel’s ineptitude, talk about Andy’s forthcoming fellowship in North Carolina, while I tried to convince him to go by Sturdy Andy Pants and become a Captain Kangaroo-style children’s TV show host. (Of course, this was during Breaking Training–no one talks during the Bad News Bears, which Andy hadn’t seen.)
There’s something terribly appealing about ripping apart a movie as you watch it, just as there’s something fun about eating pork rinds and guzzling gin drinks while talking baseball.
Though author Wilker loves Breaking Training, there’s no way I’m ever watching that shit again. No matter how good the corn dogs. The movie’s so awful there’s not even a trailer.
8. Scarecrow on DVD at home, July 26. Yes, as you have no doubt noticed, I keep a list of the movies I watch and the dates when I saw them. So sue me. Scarecrow was a strange and lovely experience for me, since it was a Facebook recommendation (thank you, Jeff) that is now out of print, so I had to buy it off eBay. On a balmy July night, in the mood for some awesome 70s cinema, I popped it in. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Scarecrow has a one of the most brilliant opening shots I’ve ever seen (read my review here, and you can see that shot), and is a sad and stunning picture that stayed with me for hours. What distinguishes this experience from other great movies I see by myself for the first time is its mystery. Where had this one come from? It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for cry-eye, and now was out of print? With Gene Hackman and Al Pacino? Crazy. Even better was telling everyone I knew who loved 70s cinema, and shipping it to my pal, James, who also loved it, and is passing it on. Discussions went on and on for a few weeks after that, making this solitary event a public one, and I recommend this one to everyone ambitious enough to look for out-of-the-way stuff online.
7. Jim Brunzell’s first Defenders pick, Trylon microcinema, August 17. The Defenders is the brain child of Jim Brunzell III, film critic and programmer and woeful Vikings fan. It’s a great idea: a notable personality chooses a movie to “defend”, which may mean they choose a movie that has slipped through the cracks (Scarecrow would be a great choice) or a movie that is widely regarded as crap that the person in question loves (and everyone knows mine would be Mr. Bean’s Holiday.)
Here’s the rub: the movies are secret. You come to the Trylon, pay your money, listen as the defender briefly introduces the film (without revealing the title), and then as the lights go down and the titles come up you groan or cheer at the choice.
Jim wants to keep the movies a secret even after the lights come up, so I won’t give this one away, except to say that it was magnificently horrible, a giant blockbuster flop from ages ago. I did the Q & A with Jim, and later about a dozen of us kept the conversation going at a local bar over drinks. What amazes me is how eager and excited the crowds get about participating in the discussion that follows. You leave feeling like you made new friends, it’s that lively.
The runner up: Stephanie Curtis, of Minnesota Public Radio, defended a movie which was damn near abominable, but it was a brave choice, the bravest of the lot thus far. Most of the folks choose “lost gems”, which is kind of an easy route, and some of the horrible ones (Jim’s, too) are a bit hip. Stephanie’s was just plain fucking awful. But what a discussion!
6. The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, SoundUnseen screening at the Trylon microcinema, November 9. I didn’t actually watch The Ballad of Mott the Hoople. This was a SoundUnseen screening that we have the second Wednesday of every month at the Trylon microcinema. Our usual projectionist was off helping his wife have a baby, so I volunteered to take his shift. I brought a book, since Mott the Hoople doesn’t exactly float my boat, and I couldn’t see it in the theater, anyway.
But The Ballad of Mott the Hoople is that type of straightforward music documentary that, when done right, sends music lovers into the heavens. Even from the booth, I found myself attracted to the portholes to watch to the energetic live performances, and all the laughter and applause from the seats made me jealous to watch.
Afterwards, the joy was palpable–rare is the occasion when a movie without a Q & A has such a large crowd hovering and chatting, talking about the movie or recalling their favorite moment. One guy, who won a poster and a copy of the DVD, spoke to me at length about a gold record of theirs that he owned, about his favorite concerts, how great the movie was, and all I could do was nod, since I didn’t know beans about the group. He was so damn happy! Maybe the movie sucked, but who cares when everyone’s this thrilled?
One of the best nights at a movie that I didn’t watch.
5. Broadway Melody of 1940, Heights Theater November 21, and then at home on DVD November 22. You haven’t seen Broadway Melody of 1940? Until November, I hadn’t either. But Tom Letness, owner of the Heights and a man of refined taste, opened his wallet, paid Warner Bros., and brought us this dandy of a musical just before Thanksgiving. Not a big crowd, just enough to break even, but like many of the films at the Heights, it was replete with organ music, a fascinating introduction, and short clips featuring the mysterious tap dancing queen Eleanor Powell, the star (with Fred Astaire) of Broadway Melody of 1940. Afterwards, I said my thanks to Tom, and many of the usual suspects came up to do the same, and to share their vast knowledge on this great little movie.
I loved it so much I went straight to the library to get the DVD so Janice could dig it the next night, and then wrote a review so I could try and appreciate the thing even more. We’re lucky here in Minnesota to have a movie house as gorgeous as the Heights Theater, and having Tom program out-of-the-way pictures like Broadway Melody makes it even better.
4. A reading of my book, The End of Baseball, before the silent movie Hearts and Diamonds and the short Big League Baseball at Gallery 5 in Richmond, VA, with hot dogs from Captain Slappy’s Hot Dog Emporium, April 10. Here’s the ingredients to a wonderful night:
1 copy of your novel pressed into the hands of an admired novelist, Tom De Haven
2 cool little movies on 16mm–the rare Hearts and Minds and even rarer Big League Baseball
A good dozen folks eager to hear what you have to say
A bunch of great questions
2-3 hot dogs from Captain Slappy’s Hot Dog Emporium, parked on the curb outside
Fries to go with them dogs
Beer to go with that food
Friends to go with the whole kebang
Mix all this in the crazy Gallery 5, which at one point was a jail, then a firehouse, then later a policeman’s museum, and now a gallery (and I was told the trapdoor above the bathroom was actually the gallows, where men with ropes around their necks dropped until they were stone cold dead.) Bake under a balmy night in Richmond, Virginia during one of the best film festivals in the country, add the anticipation of another reading later in the night (see #2), and enjoy.
3. The Black Pirate, with the Poor Nobodys, at the Trylon microcinema, June 24. The Black Pirate is a great show, a beautiful and exciting silent movie that makes you realize, especially when you compare it to the overrated Artist, how entertaining these films were. One of the things that distinguishes silent cinema from sound is that you can make it a new experience every time simply by changing the music. Minneasota’s Poor Nobodys took this movie and added a score so compelling it made the film–which would be brilliant even with Taylor Swift singing–into a mind-blowing experience.
If you’ve never seen Douglas Fairbanks in a movie before, The Black Pirate makes you realize what made him so special. He totally dominates every scene he’s in, and when he flashes that famous smile, the screen lights up. Compare the fight scenes on board the ships in Black Pirate to the sword fights on a pirate ship in Tintin, and you find yourself even more amazed at the former–where the latter is computer generated and thrilling, in the silent you find yourself wondering “how did they do that?” Between the complicated sets, the sometimes shocking violence (a guy swallows some jewelry so the pirates don’t get it, so they carve him open!), the amazing swimming (weird, man, weird), all this coupled with an efficient plot, crack direction, and the thrilling score, the Black Pirate was one of the most entertaining nights of the year, and one of the best in the history of the Trylon, which is saying a lot.
2. The Night of the Hunter at the Grace Street Theater, during the James River Film Festival in Richmond, VA, April 10. As if the night of April 10 couldn’t have been any better (see #4), after doing a reading from my novel at Gallery 5 in Richmond, we packed up, my friend and JRFF programmer, sage, and man-for-all-seasons James Parrish and myself, and headed to the Grace Street Theater to do yet another reading and screening. And what a reading it was.
I’ve written before about the great surprise of discovering that Davis’ Grubb’s novel, The Night of the Hunter, is actually superior to Charles Laughton and James Agee’s 1955 film adaptation, which is one of my ten favorite films of all time. Well, each year, James and I think about a great noir, or rep screening, to show at the festival. We’d been trying to get Night of the Hunter for a couple of years, but this was the first time it was available.
Introducing the movie of Night of the Hunter was a pleasure in itself, but I didn’t want to just go into the usual factoids about a classic film and bore people. So instead I talked about the book and read one of its most heartbreaking moments (it’s the section in that linked review, and one which always leaves me choked up.) I also ruminated on whether or not the intensity of the novel drove all three people–Laughton, producer Paul Gregory, and screenwriter James Agee–to never make a movie again. (Well, Agee didn’t have a choice, since he died of a heart attack before the movie was ever released.)
If I may say so myself, I nailed that reading. For once I didn’t ramble on, practicing earlier in the day kept me on point, and I believe I communicated how brilliant the source novel was and that if you wanted a deeper understanding of this amazing story, watch the movie that night and then read the book and just sit back and let it wash over you.
Even better, I’d spoken with local bookstore, Chop Suey, weeks before, and begged them to have a guy there with copies of the book (they’re hard to find, and only on print-on-demand.) They agreed, and sent a nice dude out with a stack of The Night of the Hunter in trade paperback with Laughton on the cover. I’m pleased as the proverbial punch to say that they sold every copy when all was said and done. Afterwards, there were a number of great questions, and a few people came up to thank me and to ask even more pointed questions about the novel. Afterwards, James and I had drinks at the Ipanema Cafe, and over good booze he presented me with a thank you gift–the Criterion DVD of Night of the Hunter. Too awesome.
I learned a lot about Night of the Hunter during the reading and Q & A. This is one of those movies that are both cool and ultimately strange and moving. And if I got even one person there to read Grubb’s novel, I’ll be a happy man. And I think I did, I think I did.
I leave you with the eerie riverboat scene from the movie. Please: read the book.
1. Skid Row and On the Bowery double feature, Trylon microcinema, July 29-31. There’s little I can add to the lengthy piece I wrote this summer about the Trylon double feature of Skid Row and On the Bowery. It was a great privilege of mine to program this show, and then project both from 16mm (Skid Row) and Blu-Ray (On the Bowery), replete with pauses in the picture to keep it on track with the DVD that we used for the 16mm audio of the former. What was even better was seeing people emerged stunned by what they’d seen. Even folks who’d seen the local PBS screenings of Skid Row were shocked to discover that that one had been edited and scattered throughout an hour long doc on Minneapolis’ Skid Row. The version we screened was the pure item, nearly thirty minutes of beautiful 8mm footage (blown up to 16), narrated by the weary, respectful Johnny “Rex” Bacich, “the King of Skid Row”, who owned both a bar and a flop house. Skid Row is so fascinating that I was never bored, even though I projected every showing–six screenings over three days, not to mention the half dozen times I practiced on it to make sure I had the sound and the visuals synched correctly. Honestly, I could’ve watched it a dozen more times.
It’s true that you can watch Skid Row online, that you can now rent On the Bowery, but to see them together, on the big screen, was magnificent. As I wrote in my prior piece:
That’s Skid Row, whose closing narration, with Mr. Bacich thanking you not once, but twice, for watching his little movie, the perfect close to a perfect film. Perfect? Perfect like Welles, Bergman, the fucking king of pretense Terrence Malick, Spielberg, Coppola, fuck, you name a director, name one, perfect like them? Maybe not. And I love many–most–of those auteurs.
But as I projected, and listened to the talk afterwards, I knew I loved Skid Row more.
More in part because I saw it in my favorite movie theater, with some of the great people in my life, and I held the film in my hands, threaded it, and projected it. Perfect.