- Block Cinema’s revival of the silent classic The Wind featured live music as well as live sound effects.
Chicago has such a tremendous repertory film scene that every year we get to see as many great old movies as new ones. So in addition to compiling a list of my favorite Chicago premieres, each December I make another list of the year’s best revivals and rediscoveries. I’ll acknowledge right out the bat that this list is incomplete—as much as I try to keep up with all the city’s worthwhile programming, inevitably there are screenings that pass my attention. Please contribute to the comments section if you feel there are any important shows I missed. And to any local programmers reading—keep up the great work.
44, or Tales of the Night (Block Cinema, April) This spring several departments at Northwestern University sponsored a retrospective of films by Moumen Smihi, a major Moroccan director whose work is little known in the U.S. All but one of the films (which were made between the mid-70s and the present) screened from new 35-millimeter prints, and Smihi introduced two of the programs in person. 44, or Tales of the Night (1981), a beautifully shot historical saga, was a standout of the series.
Aelita: Queen of Mars (Logan Square International Film Series/Comfort Station, August) Local musician Paisley Babylon performed alongside this silent Soviet sci-fi feature (1924) as part of the wittily named “Silent Film and Loud Music” series. There are hundreds of free outdoor screenings every summer, but this one was unique.
Attica (South Side Projections/Logan Center for the Arts, August) Cinda Firestone’s 1974 documentary about the infamous Attica Prison riot is a great history lesson and a stirring movie to boot. Just as good as the movie, which screened from a good-looking 16-millimeter print, was the postshow discussion with Michael Deutsch, who represented the Attica prisoners in their civil suit against the State of New York, and Benneth Lee, who took part in the Pontiac Prison rebellion of 1978 and is now president of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated.
The Black Vampire (Music Box Theatre, September) This year’s lineup of Noir City: Chicago (an annual collaboration between the Music Box and San Francisco’s Film Noir Foundation) was the festival’s most diverse yet, with movies from all over the world. This Argentinian reworking of Fritz Lang’s M (1953) was the most obscure selection—reportedly this screening marked the first time it ever played in the U.S.
Clown Torture (Art Institute of Chicago, May-September) I’m including Bruce Nauman’s four-channel video installation (which was originally exhibited in 1987) on this list because it had one of the best titles I encountered all year, if not the best.
The Constant Factor (Gene Siskel Film Center, June) My vote for the year’s best repertory series of the year was the touring program Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema. This revelatory series showed that, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, Poland had a national cinema as vibrant and groundbreaking as that of Italy or France. Krzysztof Zanussi’s awesome philosophical drama (1980) was my favorite in the series—I wrote about it at length about it when it screened. (I also interviewed Zanussi in October about the film’s legacy.)
Corn’s-a-Poppin’ (Northwest Chicago Film Society/Music Box, June) There’s nothing quite like this independent musical comedy (1956) about a country-and-western variety show produced by a struggling popcorn company, which local outfit Northwest Chicago Film Society rescued from obscurity. J.R. Jones profiled the group’s restoration of the film before the new 35-millimeter print premiered at the Music Box.
Dead Birds (Nightingale Cinema, July) Local filmmakers Ian Curry and Michael Wawzenek organized a free screening of this classic ethnographic documentary (1964) as a memorial to its director, Robert Gardner, who passed away in June. Gardner’s study of the Dani people of Papua New Guinea is fascinating and scary, focusing on the people’s system of ritual warfare.
Domitor Conference (June) Northwestern University and the U. of C. played host to this biennial international conference on early cinema. The five-day event featured four film programs, two of which were drawn from the archives of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. The materials ranged from documentaries to slapstick comedies to effects-driven fantasies. (The 1904 travelogue A Pictorial Story of Hiawatha, a mixed-media spectacle recently restored by Chicago Film Archives, was presented as well.) These programs gave viewers a sense of what it was like to go to the movies more than a century ago.
Films by Harun Farocki (White Light Cinema/Nightingale, February) The movies suffered a great loss in July when film essayist Harun Farocki passed away at 70. Farocki was an important thinker who addressed how moving images shape our view of the world. This program, introduced by local film scholar Kevin B. Lee, provided a fine overview of his work.
Green Fields (Doc Films, October) This bucolic comedy (1937) was one of three movies codirected by Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, Detour) that played in Doc’s series of Yiddish-language American films from the late 30s. The series spotlighted an area of American film history unknown to most Americans—an independent cinema that bridged old-world narrative traditions with modern popular art. And hey, one of the selections featured a cameo from my grandma!
The Hawks and the Sparrows (Siskel Center, April) The Siskel’s near-complete Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective (which screened entirely from 35-milimeter) was one of the major events of the moviegoing year. Pasolini was a one-man cultural revolution whose trailblazing creative output (which included poems, novels, and political essays in addition to films) rocked Italian society from the 1950s to the ’70s. This 1966 comedy may be one of his lightest films in terms of surface tone, but his trenchant analysis of Italian class relations can be felt throughout.
Heroes for Sale (Block Cinema, June) William A. Wellman’s bang-up pre-Code drama (1933) was a standout of Block’s Depression-era film series, which also featured two films by the great Frank Borzage, Man’s Castle and No Greater Glory. The series coincided with the Block Museum’s excellent exhibit on radical American art of the 1930s.
Films by Helen Hill (Chicago Filmmakers, July) This July brought two exceptional programs of experimental animation: the Siskel Center showcased the work of John and Faith Hubley, and Chicago Filmmakers honored Helen Hill, a talented artist whose life was cut short in 2007. Both programs served as reminders that experimental cinema can be plenty of fun.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Music Box, July) I had no idea how wild people get over Stanley Kramer’s slapstick epic (1963) until I saw it with a reverential crowd at the Music Box. This played as part of the theater’s Son of 70mm Film Festival in its original roadshow version, complete with overture and intermission.
Julius Caesar (Northwest Chicago Film Society/Block Cinema, October) Speaking of Northwest Chicago Film Society and rediscovered independent productions of the 1950s, the programming body presented this locally made adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy (1950) in the fall. J.R. Jones called the film “remarkably effective, with striking compositions and boldly expressionistic moments.”
Lord Thing (Chicago Film Archives/Gene Siskel Film Center, August) South Side Projections revived DeWitt Beall’s long-lost documentary about the Conservative Vice Lords (1970) three years ago, but Chicago Film Archives got it restored and premiered the new print at this year’s Black Harvest Film Festival. The screening went over so well that the Siskel presented it again a couple months later.
Mon Oncle d’Amérique (Doc Films, May) When the programmers at Doc Films planned an Alain Resnais retrospective for the spring calendar, they didn’t realize that they’d be organizing a memorial for this giant of French cinema, who died in March at the age of 91. One of Resnais’s most popular films, Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980) screened off a gorgeous 35-millimeter print from the Institut Francais.
Films by Suzan Pitt (Chicago Filmmakers/Gallery 400, September) Another great experimental-animation program was this overview of Suzan Pitt’s four-decade career. Best known for Asparagus (1977), a 20-minute work that originally screened before David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Pitt brought nightmarish, psychosexual undertones to whimsical storybook imagery. I’d sooner revisit any of the shorts on this program than the Disney version of Into the Woods, but that’s just me.
A Rage in Harlem (Siskel Center, August) In hindsight, Bill Duke’s Chester Himes adaptation (1991) looks like one of the neglected major films of the 1990s—a spirited, colorful, and consistently surprising comic thriller that pays loving tribute to both Himes and the Harlem Renaissance art of the 1920s and ’30s. There were some very good new movies at this year’s Black Harvest Film Festival (Melvin and Jean: An American Story, Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till), but this was a revelation.
Reason Over Passion (Doc Films, April) One of the year’s best experimental series was Doc’s retrospective of films by Canadian avant-gardists Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. This 1969 feature is arguably Wieland’s masterpiece, but every movie in the retrospective was essential big-screen viewing.
A Report on the Party and the Guests (Facets Cinematheque, March) This absurdist nightmare (1967) was a highlight of Facets’ weeklong retrospective of films by Jan Nemec, a key figure of the Czech New Wave.
Roommates (Doc Films, July) I wrote quite a bit this summer about Chuck Vincent’s subversive hard-core melodrama (1981), likely one of the only movies of its kind. Vincent was a fascinating figure, an openly gay filmmaker who worked in straight pornography for the creative freedom it allowed him. I doubt if any theater in town will ever organize a retrospective of his work, but you can find a good deal of it on DVD.
The Shanghai Gesture (Block Cinema, October) I wonder what inspired the unofficial Josef von Sternberg celebration that took place all over town this year. Doc Films screened his final masterpiece Anatahan this summer, the Music Box screened all seven of his films with Marlene Dietrich a few months ago, and Block revived Underworld in January and this lesser-known title (1941) in October. The Shanghai Gesture played as part of a brilliantly curated tribute to groundbreaking French programmer Henri Langlois, who was, among many other things, a fan of this film. An ostentatious, innuendo-packed fever dream that only Sternberg could have devised, this rarely revived feature showcases the director’s mad genius as well as anything else he made.
Sins of the Fleshapoids (Siskel Center, March) What a treat it was to see legendary underground filmmaker Mike Kuchar talk (via Skype) about this giddily enjoyable early work (1965), which screened with his brother George’s Hold Me While I’m Naked in the New American Cinema series curated and introduced by SAIC professor Bruce Jenkins. The screening was part of a welcome wave of Kuchar screenings that took place this spring, with additional revivals at the Nightingale and the gallery Flat Space Chicago.
Films by John Smith (Block Cinema/Siskel Center/Film Studies Center, October) British structuralist filmmaker John Smith—who’s been messing with our expectations of how movies work for almost 40 years—received a king’s welcome when he came to town a few months back. Three separate venues hosted programs of his work, which added up to a summary of his entire career.
Sorcerer (Music Box, March) William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of The Wages of Fear, which manages to trump the original in terms of sheer intensity, came to town this spring in a new digital restoration. The director considers it his best film, and I’m inclined to agree.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Black World Cinema/Chatham 14, June) Veteran programmer Floyd Webb organized a fantastic panel discussion to follow this revival screening of what Jonathan Rosenbaum once called “one of the great missing chapters in black political filmmaking.” Filmmakers Peter Kuttner, Judith McCray, and Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) joined up with community activist Daveed Lemieux and Pemon Rami of the DuSable Museum to discuss the legacy of Ivan Dixon’s radical blaxploitation film (1973), which Sam Greenlee adapted from his own novel.
Two Stars in the Milky Way (Film Studies Center, March) As part of the University of Chicago’s “Envisioning China” festival, this spring the Film Studies Center screened several films about the world of Chinese opera. This 1931 melodrama was a fascinating time capsule, presenting images of China during a period of rapid modernization.
Waltzes From Vienna (Siskel Center, August) This comic romp about Johann Strauss II (1935) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s least characteristic films, but it’s also a good deal of fun. It played in the Siskel Center’s retrospective of the director’s 1930s work, a series that provided new insights into his career. The autobiographical comedy Rich and Strange was more eye-opening, but I’m singling out Waltzes because it’s harder to see.
The Wind (Block Cinema, November) There were so many stellar programs in Block’s Henri Langlois celebration that I couldn’t mention just one. (Heck, I could have mentioned several, what with the rare screenings of films by Jean Grémillon, Germaine Dulac, Jean Vigo, and Tay Garnett.) This 35-millimeter revival of Victor Sjostrom’s late silent (1928) featured live music as well as live sound effects, the latter performed by the Toronto-based foley artists known as Footsteps. Seeing and hearing these people at work was a magical experience, one of the best times I had at the movies in 2014.