Over the next few days, I’ll be looking back at my favorite revival screenings of 2013. This isn’t a comprehensive list—with so much great repertory programming in Chicago, there’s no way I can acknowledge it all—though I’ve tried to spotlight as many different organizations and venues as I could. I’ve said it before, but Chicago is a great city for moviegoing. Thanks to the tireless efforts of our city’s programmers, local moviegoers get to engage in an ongoing conversation with film history of all stripes. Any given month brings revivals of Hollywood classics, trailblazing independent movies, and rediscovered works by foreign and avant-garde filmmakers. Most of the films on this list hadn’t screened in Chicago in a long time, and a few, to my knowledge, hadn’t screened here even once. All of them enhanced my appreciation of film history in the past year—reviewing the list makes me excited for what will screen here in 2014.
Antoine and Antoinette (Gene Siskel Film Center, October) Rialto Pictures restored this early feature by French director Jacques Becker, whose conversational storytelling style and resourceful use of low budgets made him a major influence on the nouvelle vague. A compact tale of working-class newlyweds, the movie displays such a strong feel for Parisian neighborhood life at the time of its making (1947) that it doubles as a time capsule. Incidentally, this played at the Siskel just weeks after the Northwest Chicago Film Society revived Becker’s Casque d’Or (1952) at the Patio Theater. Seen together, the two films showcase a director with great range as well as a distinctly personal approach—I’d love to see a complete Becker retrospective some day.
Altered States (Harris Theater, April) Composer John Corigliano visited Chicago in April for a series of performances of his work—the most lavish may have been this presentation of Ken Russell’s wacky sci-fi extravaganza (1980), accompanied by a full orchestra playing Corigliano’s original score. Altered States remains a polarizing movie, but few could deny that the presentation was spectacular. This event also provided a wonderful illustration of how music interacts with moving images, creating a vivid sense of a composer’s work. (I interviewed Corigliano about the film around the time of this screening—you can read that here and here.)
Champagne (Music Box Theatre, August) The touring “Hitchcock 9” program, which came to the Music Box this past summer, presented the master filmmaker’s silent movies in the best-looking versions anyone’s seen in years. I’ve singled out Champagne (1928) because it finds Alfred Hitchcock working in a genre, screwball comedy, few viewers associate with him, though I could have listed the boxing picture The Ring (1927) or the small-town drama The Manxman (1929). In any case, the series was a grand film-history lesson, illustrating how Hitchcock gradually came into his craft.
Coming Out (Siskel Center, February) Another valuable film history lesson was the series of East German productions that came to the Siskel in February. Influenced by both western and eastern European filmmaking, yet not quite in tune with either, the movies in this program represented a national cinema that remains alien to most U.S. viewers. Coming Out (1989) provided a glimpse into that cinema in its final days, focusing on a closeted high school teacher (reportedly the first sympathetic gay protagonist in an East German film) to consider the plight of social outcasts in Communist societies.
The Driver (Doc Films, January) Walter Hill’s wry, moody, and razor-sharp action movie (1978) came to town at the beginning of the year in a fantastic new 35-millimeter print that honored the richness of Philip Lathrop’s night cinematography. It was also a treat to revisit on a big screen Bruce Dern’s quirky supporting performance as a big-talking police detective. Later in the year, Dern would draw acclaim for his lead role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, in some ways a tribute to the offbeat American films of the ’70s in which he thrived. Perhaps this renewed interest in Dern will inspire revivals of The King of Marvin Gardens, The Laughing Policeman, or Smile in the coming year.
Dust in the Wind (Doc Films, October) This screened in Doc Films’s Terence Davies and Hou Hsiao-Hsien series, one of the essential repertory programs of the year. Like Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes (which also played in the series), Hou’s 1987 feature is not currently available on Region 1 DVD—though I’m not sure if the movie would “work” on DVD anyway. As this revival confirmed, Hou creates all-enveloping environments like few other filmmakers. Watching Dust in the Wind (or any other film in the series, for that matter) was akin to being transported. As I noted in October, the movie remains so mysterious and hypnotic 25 years after its release that it puts much recent art filmmaking to shame.
Emma Mae (Film Studies Center, April) Jamaa Fanaka’s lively independent feature (1976) was one of the gems of the L.A. Rebellion series that played all over town this past spring. That program showcased a number of African-American filmmakers who came out of the UCLA film school in the 70s and 80s and created a confrontational, politically aware underground cinema. (J.R. Jones wrote about it at length here.) Later retitled Black Sister’s Revenge, Emma Mae superficially resembles countless blaxploitation movies with its ass-kicking heroine and criminal milieu, yet Fanaka’s social observation distinguishes it from the genre.
Far From Vietnam (Block Cinema, October) After the program of No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger and Trick Bag organized by South Side Projections in August, this was the year’s most significant revival of a Vietnam-related documentary. Seven major filmmakers—Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda—contributed to this 1967 omnibus film about the impact of the Vietnam War on world culture. Like the L.A. Rebellion series, the screening served as a reminder of how politically engaged art cinema used to be.
The Flying Ace (Portage Theater, January) Northwest Chicago Film Society provided another valuable lesson in black film history by screening this 1926 “race film,” which was made for exhibition in segregated theaters. The film conveys the impact of Jim Crow culture in subtle but informative ways. Not only is the film without white characters, it doesn’t allude to white society at all. This made for a fascinating point of comparison with Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1919), a more confrontational work of early black cinema that the Music Box screened in February.
Goldstein (Patio Theater, October) This locally shot independent comedy (1964) screened in a new print as part of Chicago Artists Month. Though it’s more weird than funny, the movie succeeds as a time capsule, capturing Chicago underground culture in the beatnik era and documenting the acting style of first-generation Second City performers. Chicago Film Archives and Northwest Chicago Film Society presented this event, screening the movie from a lovely new print funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.