2008 began, for me, with Blade Runner and City Lights, and it ended with Bridge on the River Kwai. While the movies in between didn’t always reach those lofty heights, I saw a lot of great stuff in ’08. For better or worse, most of the truly great movies I saw last year were repertory films that played at theaters like the Music Box, the Siskel Film Center, and Doc Films. So I thought I’d lead off this year with the Top 10 Old Films of 2008. Don’t worry, though. I’ll get to the more traditional top 10 in a couple days. My only requirements for this list are that they played somewhere in Chicago and that I saw them for the first time last year. For fun, I’ve listed the theater where I saw each film.
1. Charulata (Doc Films)
One of the best movies I’ve seen anywhere in several years, this incredible “woman’s picture” from Satyajit Ray completely blew me away. A story of a wife who finds her own voice in writing, it’s an incredible portrait of both a woman and her marriage. While I enjoyed Ray’s Apu trilogy, nothing in that prepared for me for his incredible style in this film, which is full of tracking shots, spectacular lighting, and breathtaking freeze frames. Made in 1964, it’s clearly influenced by the French New Wave just as the Apu films owe much to Italian neo-realism. But Ray takes the playful New Wave-isms and joins them with his Bengali sensibilities to create a film that’s staggering in its accomplishments. A movie that I wanted to see again as soon as I left the theater and one I’ve been thinking about ever since.
2. Last Year in Marienbad (Music Box)
This film’s reputation for impenetrability preceded it, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, but Rob had so enjoyed it in San Francisco that I wanted to make sure I saw it on the big screen. Needless to say, I’m glad I did. Resnais’s use of his palatial setting pairs with spectacular cinematography and sound design to tell a story of a couple meeting and then I don’t know what. But I found that sense of mystery engaging, and Resnais plays with certain modernist ideas of time and space in ways I could puzzle over for hours. But J. Hoberman says it best: “a drama of erotic fixation that takes Vertigo to the next level of abstraction.”
3. Les parents terribles (Doc Films)
An amazing film from Jean Cocteau in that it’s able to be both farce and melodrama at the same time, it offers us two parents who are terrible indeed and yet somehow understandable, and it could be used as a master class on camera placement and composition.
4. So This is Paris (Doc Films)
A silent comedy from Ernst Lubitsch, it focuses on two couples. Lies, wrong assumptions, and missed connections are beautifully knitted together to create a masterful screwball comedy. And the Lubitsch touch is in strong evidence with clever “wordplay,” a wonderful scene where people are communicating through pantomime (in a silent movie), and some clever special effects. One scene of a man dreaming about a cane is simply awesome, as is the moment when the doctor literally shrinks in size under his wife’s withering criticism.
5. The Leopard (Film Center)
Burt Lancaster takes what could’ve been a slow, long love letter to the aristocracy and creates a performance for the ages.
6. California Dreamin’ (Film Center)
The Film Center’s Romanian retrospective was an invaluable survey of one of the more remarkable contemporary national cinemas. I thoroughly enjoyed Occident, The Paper Will Be Blue, and Adela. But this 2007 film from now deceased director Cristian Nemescu was what most caught my eye. A sprawling comedy about what happens when a American military train convoy gets stuck in a Romanian backwater village, it is both hilarious and deeply insightful about the state of our world.
7. City Lights (Music Box)
Rob will probably make me do penance for this choice--both that it took me however many years to finally see this masterpiece and then that I don’t have the decency to put it #1. Still, it’s a truly sublime picture, full of real pathos and beauty, that builds to one of cinema’s greatest final scenes. I may not be as big a Chaplin fan as Rob is, but even I can recognize what he does with the Tramp here. And, yes, it was worth it to wait to see it on the big screen.
8. I Am Cuba (Northwestern’s Block Cinema)
Another film that gained immeasurably from the big screen experience was this paean to the Cuban revolution. It isn’t as much agitprop as it is a celebration of the country and its people. But seeing as it’s another film made in 1964, it’s also full of lush stylistic devices, including some of the most incredible long tracking shots I’ll ever see.
9. Barry Lyndon (Music Box)
And another film that I’ve waited years to see on the big screen. It’s not my favorite Kubrick, not even my fourth or fifth favorite. But his trademark control and unbelievable compositions help overcome a bland Ryan O’Neal performance to create a costume drama that’s sharp and thought-provoking. An earlier comparison between this and Brideshead Revisited can be found here.
10. Pickup on South Street (Film Center)
A crackling film noir from Sam Fuller and anchored by a surprisingly rich turn from Richard Widmark, this is a hugely enjoyable classic Hollywood flick. The story revolves around some stolen information, and Fuller combines a cops-and-robbers drama with elements of the Cold War. You know your noir is dark when the film’s moral center is selling information to anyone who’ll pay.
And let me end with a huge note of thanks to the many Chicago programmers who continue to make this a wonderful film town.