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My Favorite Film Screenings of 2017

The Unfinished Conversation

Here are my favorite film experiences of the year:

10. Loving Vincent (2017; dir. Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman; Lincoln Plaza Cinema)

9. The Red Turtle (2016; dir. Michaël Dudok de Wit; Lincoln Plaza Cinema)

8. Metropolis (1927; dir. Fritz Lang; Marble Collegiate Church)

7. La Belle et la Bête (1946; dir. Jean Cocteau; Tribeca Film Festival at Town Hall)

6. The Last Animals (2017; dir. Kate Brooks; Tribeca Film Festival at Cinépolis Chelsea)

5. City Lights (1931; dir. Charlie Chaplin; United Palace)

4. Harmony of Difference (2017; dir. Kamasi Washington; Whitney Biennial)

3. Romeo + Juliet (1996; dir. Baz Luhrmann; Little Cinema at House of Yes)

2. Imponderable (2015-16; dir. Tony Oursler; MoMA)

1. The Unfinished Conversation (2012; dir. John Akomfrah; MoMA)

This doesn’t really look like a typical “best-of” list for 2017, especially since only three films on it were new this year. But as we enter the annual end-of-year top ten lists I find myself in an interesting situation: my favorite film experiences of the year, by and large, weren’t movies from 2017. They were re-releases, gallery or museum installations, and unique experiences in a movie theater that were built around a film, whether or not that film was one of my favorites. Somewhat by default and somewhat by design, in 2017 I reduced the amount of time I spent in movie theaters, so I found that if I was going to go see something it had to be an experience that I would never be able to repeat at home. Thus my top ten list above.

What I’ve found, however, is that these screenings, and most of my other favorites of the year, all address one fundamental issue confronting cinema today: what can theaters offer that home viewing cannot? Now, that’s been a question ever since television first threatened theaters in the 1950s, but recently transmedia, immersive experiences, virtual reality, and other technological innovations have opened up new pathways to make public screenings unique. These often find a more suitable home in the gallery than the cineplex, raising questions of scalability, but for many indie filmmakers and video artists audience size is less important than the overall quality of the work. That said, a lot of my favorite experiences in a movie theater this year weren’t dependent on technology or artistic innovation at all — rather, they stemmed from the community of people who had gathered together to experience a film. That’s the original magic of the movies, and of the theater for millennia before that, and in 2017 I found myself surprised and impressed on many occasions at how watching a film with a group of strangers was so different — and better — than doing it on my own. I definitely enjoyed seeing Thor: Ragnarok opening weekend much more than, say, Doctor Strange by myself on my computer at home, and that impression was amplified even more for screenings with great conversations, live music, or Q&A sessions.

So, rather than talk through each title on my list in order, here are some of the types of experiences I had in 2017 that give me hope for the future of cinema as a communal public art form, even while we all increasingly consume it individually in our homes.

Premieres 

A premiere can technically only happen once, but the vibe around a premiere can occasionally extend beyond that initial screening as new audiences head to a new film for the first time. With premieres, the audience really wants to be there and, as you look around before the lights go down, you know that these are your people, people who are just as excited as you to see this specific film on this specific night; that provides a certain amount of camaraderie. There’s buzz, a palpable electricity in the room, usually aided by the fact that the theater is full. This is how I felt at the U.S. premiere of Andrzej Wajda’s last film Afterimage at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on February 9. Before the screening began scholar Annette Insdorf gave a touching tribute to Wajda, who passed away just a month after premiering the film in Poland last fall, and I could tell I was surrounded by people — in the very theater where he made his American debut decades ago — who knew much more about and cared much more deeply for this master and his now complete body of work than I, and I was inspired to learn more.

Contrasting with this almost memorial service for Poland’s greatest filmmaker, one week earlier at IFC Center I attended the American premiere of Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which arguably embodies the next generation of Polish film as it moves out from under the shadow of Wajda’s generation. A hip, stylish noir/horror(/musical) adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s The Little MermaidThe Lure was unlike anything I’d seen in a long time, and it was made more enjoyable by the young audience of Poles and Americans who had come to congratulate Smoczynska and her collaborators and hear their giddy Q&A presentation afterwards.

The best post-screening conversation I attended all year, however, was at the world premiere of Kate Brooks’ The Last Animals at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22 (which I wrote about at the time). A documentary about elephant and rhinoceros poaching in the DRC, The Last Animals covers familiar territory but does so with reportorial ferocity and a level of emotion that made it, in my opinion, the best new film of 2017. But the feeling in the theater made this screening electrifying even beyond that, with an audience that included park workers and activists from Africa, government officials from the U.S. and sub-Saharan nations, U.S. conservationists like John Calvelli, who heads the Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants project, and even American celebrities like Aasif Mandvi. The conversation was vigorous and insightful, yielding real strategies that individuals in both continents could undertake to help save these critically endangered species. As weary Cinépolis employees were ushering us out of the theater, I saw people exchanging phone numbers, setting up lunches, and planning how to further collaborate between American and Congolese organizations; in other words, even before any additional screenings The Last Animals was having an affect on potential policy, precisely the type of result you want with an advocacy documentary, and precisely what made this particular screening so memorable.

Amazing audiences

I had similar experiences at a few “regular” film screenings where the audience just made the movie that much more enjoyable, even if I didn’t get to the actual premiere or see the filmmakers present. The audience at Thor: Ragnarok was a blast, for instance, and this from someone who hadn’t seen a superhero film in a theater since Batman Returns. The audience that saw the animated Loving Vincent with me was audibly appreciative of the animation technique — each frame was painted in oil on a canvas in the style of Vincent Van Gogh — with gasps passing through the auditorium at Lincoln Plaza Cinema whenever a recognizable painting was quoted onscreen. As we left I heard people arguing about how Van Gogh actually died, discussing how his time in an asylum in Saint-Rémy influenced his work, and praising the artistry of the animation. Since I’ve been following this film since its first Kickstarter campaign (I wrote about it in 2014 and when it premiered in June) it was gratifying to finally see it, the ink on the thousands canvases, projected on a big screen.

It was also at Lincoln Plaza that I saw The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s latest feature, early in the year. The audience was equally appreciative, although the effect was strikingly different. The Red Turtle is in essence a silent film, with no spoken dialogue, and as it moved to its melancholy, silent ending, the entire audience — including my two daughters — matched its volume. As the credits rolled and the lights came on we actually all sat in complete silence for several moments, not wanting to disturb the profound sadness that had filled the theater. Eventually we had to move back out onto the street, but nobody said a word, preferring to remain in the film’s aural embrace as long as possible.

Restorations and screenings of classic cinema

New York offers so many opportunities to see classic films projected — films that you may never otherwise get a chance to see on the big screen — that it’s fully possible to continually go to these movies and never have time to see new films. Earlier this year Film Society of Lincoln Center presented several Tarkovsky films digitally restored by Mosfilm and distributed by Janus Films; I chose to see Stalker in a late-night screening, and it showed how some directors just should not be watched on a monitor if possible: even on a relatively small screen at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the breadth of Tarkovsky’s visual poetry spilled out in a way I haven’t experienced since first seeing Solaris projected in a film class in college years ago. There were numerous other opportunities that I had to miss this year — a Bresson retrospective at Metrograph, a restored copy of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc just this month — and I’m grateful to live in a city where venues like Metrograph, Film Forum, BAM, and others continually present the classics of world cinema the way they were meant to be seen.

But undoubtedly the best unsung venue for retrospective screenings is the United Palace, uptown at Broadway and 175 St. in Washington Heights. Opened as a movie palace for Loew’s circuit in 1930, it features an enormous and ornate theater with a balcony and mezzanine level that is an architectural wonder in and of itself. The stage is used for performances by groups like Ballet Hispánico (it’s hosted musicians from B.B. King to Adele), and since 2012 Mike Fitelson has overseen the rebirth of the cinema program with extensive fundraising efforts for a new screen and sound system, with Lin-Manuel Miranda donating $100,000 for a new digital projector last year. In 2016 I loved seeing Mary Poppins with 3,000 people in the packed screening, including hundreds of children who had never seen it before, simply because that was a once-in-a-lifetime way to see that film, and this year my daughters and I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and City Lights, neither of which I’d seen in a theater before. Watching Chaplin with a crowd, especially of appreciative children, is completely unlike any other way to see his work — and the same is true of Snow WhiteThe Wizard of Oz, and everything else I’ve seen there (including short films made by local public elementary school students who got to see their projects on practically the biggest screen imaginable). The United Palace’s size is its greatest strength and also ironically its weakness, making it difficult to run like a more traditional art house or repertory cinema that can get by with smaller crowds, but Fitelson and his team are already doing great work, and with screenings for the Dominican Film Festival in New York joining large family screenings like City Lights, the United Palace is bringing cinematic culture back to Upper Manhattan, which has no other theater north of 125th St.

Films with live performances

The mixture of film with music, dance, or theater remains the best way for artists to incorporate it into live experiences that cannot be replicated by a mere video recording after the fact. In December, just before the new year, I saw and wrote about a unique stage interpretation of The Wizard of Oz that incorporated the audience’s handheld devices and other technology, and while this year what I saw was less technologically advanced it was no less engaging artistically.

One great example was Giveness, a series of short animated documentaries by dramatist Amy Jensen, which she presented in May as part of the performance series Feast at a theater in the East Village. Jensen recorded residents of an elderly care facility talking about memorable birthdays from their youth, which she then animated by hand. The work, which is in progress, was presented in a pre-show audio archive and an onstage monologue, screenings, and conversation about birthdays and gifts and relationships, concluding with her passing out slices of a cake she had made the night before. In a small basement blackbox theater, cake and drinks in hand, and the filmmaker there discussing her work, this was arguably the most intimate way to watch a movie, and it was just as moving as any other doc on the elderly or caregiving could be.

On February 20, the Marble Collegiate Church in midtown hosted a screening of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as part of a national conference on organ music. Veteran organist Peter Krasinski gave a brief presentation of how he accompanies silent films, followed by a performance of Franz von Suppé’s The Poet and Peasant Overture, and then the film itself. If the hard church pews and columns didn’t make for the most comfortable viewing experience, hearing a live score performed on a genuine pipe organ was a rare and wonderful way to see Metropolis, different than any of the previous times I’ve seen it with different pre-recorded scores; in fact, watching it in a church affected the way I saw the scenes regarding the workers’ organization and Maria’s promise of deliverance, and sitting among a mix of cinephiles and organ music lovers who had never heard of the film before made this perhaps the most unique way I’ve ever seen the film.

Slightly more adventurous is Philip Glass’s 1994 opera based on Cocteau’s classic La Belle et la Bête, which was performed live at Town Hall as part of the opening festivities for the Tribeca Film Festival. Glass and Errol Morris began the evening with an onstage conversation that turned slightly comical at times but which revealed a great deal about how Glass undertook the project, his technical process, and how it differed from any other type of work he’d done in the past. The film, its sound turned off, began, and to hear the live performers singing along to synchronize their words with the lips on screen, complete with a few moments where it didn’t work perfectly, was unlike any live accompaniment of a film I’d seen. In the end Glass’s minimalism and Cocteau’s romantic surrealism made for odd bedfellows, but the effect was otherworldly and completely transporting.

But undoubtedly the most interesting live performance of a film I saw was Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, performed at the House of Yes in Bushwick as part of their Little Cinema series. For several years now Jay Rinsky has functioned as the curator, VJ, and driving force behind Little Cinema, which remixes classic films with live performance, emphasizing House of Yes’s specialties with acrobatic and aerial performance. The video of Romeo + Juliet was intermittently shuffled and mixed in interesting ways, while on-stage dancers portrayed the Montagues and Capulets. New music was added, some scenes were cut, and sometimes the film stopped entirely for onstage — or overhead — action as dancers from The Love Show climbed up the bar and the walls, danced along the central catwalk, or swung low over our heads, all close enough for us to see the sweat rolling down their bodies. It was sensual and sexy, comic and zany; and for a conclusion the film’s entire denouement was dropped in favor of a gorgeous aerial pas de deux by two women performing in a single aerial hoop. Substituting this for the film’s ending was unlike anything I’d seen before, a completely fresh take on the play’s tragic conclusion, and I feel pretty certain that Luhrmann would have approved.

Films shown in a gallery

I began the year by visiting Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest, the Swiss artist’s one-woman retrospective at the New Museum. I wasn’t previously familiar with her work, but quickly became enamored, especially of the large-scale pieces that projected on walls, floors, ceilings, and hanging sheets of sheer fabric. The crowd was immense in the exhibit’s last days — we waited over an hour on the sidewalk just to get in the building — but watching Rist’s very physical images and odd angles interact with our crowded bodies in the three-dimensional space made for a unique communal experience that had us walking around, under, and through her work and thus becoming truly part of it in a way that monitors or single screens can never achieve.

There were other great video installations at museums and galleries throughout the year. Among those I enjoyed most were René Clair’s 1924 Entr’acte screening in the context of a Francis Picabia retrospective at MoMA, a series of short works by Brazilian artist Lygia Pape at the Met Breuer dating from the 1950s to today, Teiji Furuhashi’s 360-degree installation Lovers at MoMA, in which several nude performers circle around the gallery walls, and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependecy, also at MoMA, which the artist originally presented in the 1970s and ’80s as a slideshow of nearly 700 candid and personal photographs of herself, her lovers, and friends, accompanied by a rock score. MoMA’s curators recreated Goldin’s presentation format, with the static shots shuffling through at a steady speed while the music plays without synchronization, making each moment unique and creating new instances of meaning as music and image align in ways that will never be repeated.

This year’s Whitney Biennial, the first in their new building downtown, presented a series of film screenings, only a few of which I was able to see, and several video installations of animation, live-action film, and virtual reality in the galleries. Oto Gillen’s New York functions much like The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, with wall-sized vertically formatted photographs revealing beautiful details of New York City street life. Postcommodity’s installation A Very Long Line features dizzying views, spinning in 360 degrees around a small white room, of the U.S.-Mexico border. If political commentary is blurred by the presentation format, it remains visually arresting.

My two favorite films at the Biennial were Anicka Yi’s 3D documentary The Flavor Genomea short film about perfuming and the creation of aromas that is part myth, part science, part history, and all shot with an astute eye towards the quieter use of 3D, and saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference, which uses three screens on different walls to display abstract animations and, in its live-action portions, create a multivalent portrait of people of color as they wrestle, smile, sit, and play in color-saturated footage reminiscent of Bill Viola or structuralist filmmakers, particularly with some incredibly slow camera tracking, although the images always relate to the driving jazz suite played by Washington’s own band. The music, which he released as an album in September, is the main story here, but its interaction with the images and the way it surrounds you in that small darkened gallery make for an immersive experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.

But it was MoMA that presented my two favorite screenings of the year. Tony Oursler’s Imponderable is a feature-length narrative film that weaves in and out of stories about the occult, mediums, and contact with other spiritual worlds. Real people like Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle are shown exploring this world, but the film’s narrative, such as it is, is just as enigmatic and ethereal as the ghosts it pursues. This gossamer veil over the seen and unseen takes shape in the film’s presentation just as much as in its subject matter: the film utilizes two screens stacked in front of each other rather than presented side by side as most dual-screen films are. The screen apparently closest to the audience is translucent and angled towards the floor so that a hidden ground-level projector is able to point up towards it; images on this screen are always by necessity transparent, allowing Oursler to layer them faintly on top of the action of the rear screen, which is more traditional — a vertical and opaque screen which is projected onto from the rear of the auditorium. The effect of having several feet of space in between these two screens, and the potentially three-dimensional effect were you to walk around the auditorium while watching them, made all the images feel ghostlike, unreal, a feeling enhanced by Oursler’s use of animation, black-and-white cinematography and other visual effects. Other tricks rounded out the ambience, as the narrative occasionally made use of scents, heat lamps, colored lights, moving air and thuds from underneath the wooden bleachers. Thus the tools of the theme park’s trick theater are brought into the service of high art, and through these formal elements Imponderable becomes exactly that, imponderable: unclear and enigmatic but completely arresting, enough that I returned to watch it nearly three complete times.

Finally, The Unfinished Conversation is a 2012 documentary shown at MoMA as part of an exhibit of that name this past spring. Though it’s five years old it was undoubtedly the best film I saw in 2017. Ghanaian-British director John Akomfrah created a broad life story and intimate portrait of the Jamaican-British social theorist Stuart Hall, who died in 2014. Hall left behind a trove of written works and filmed appearances that give Akomfrah the archival material needed to thoughtfully retell his life, and in this sense alone and the profundity of Hall’s words the film rivals I Am Not Your Negro and similar docs in terms of its narrative content. But The Unfinished Conversation is presented on three side-by-side screens, which are all showing footage nearly continuously, creating a fugue-like visual rhythm as Akomfrah directs our attention back and forth, mixing and juxtaposing this series of images with the overarching soundtrack of Hall’s life. Watching The Unfinished Conversation, with its triptych, is like watching the climax of Gance’s Napoleon but with much greater syntactic density packed into every moment. New information, new insights, arrive at such a rate that it’s simply impossible to take it all in. But amazingly there’s nothing jumbled, there’s no overload; the film is spare and graceful even while essentially presenting three entire movies simultaneously. Although it’s 45 minutes long, when I finished watching it the first time I sat transfixed through an entire second screening — and I wish I’d been able to see it again, because it is not something that I will ever be able to repeat via VOD. I felt unfinished, which it seems is exactly the point of the title.

**

I had some great experiences watching film on my own this year, like seeing the Emmy-winning VR documentary The People’s House, probably my favorite virtual reality piece of 2017, and discovering that New York Public Library card holders have access to Kanopy, essentially an educational version of FilmStruck that gives access to stream ten art house or documentary classics per month. But in the end it was these public viewing experiences that defined my 2017 in film and showed that visual innovation and quality presentation can matter more than a slick storyline, the latest special effects, or a visionary new director. And what did I learn? Creating great cinema in 2018 will be about creating a unique experience, stepping upward into a new type of film viewing rather than trying to differentiate among the latest traditional indie dramas. I will go see those too in 2018, and enjoy them, but always with an eye on the lookout for ways that audiences are coming together and cinema is reinventing itself.

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