SARAH JANET: 2006
This list might be omitting some of the ten best films I saw last year, stylistically, but the event of going to the movies, whether the screening is in a traditional theater or the parking lot of a brewery, enhances the total viewing experience. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to pause the DVD to go to the bathroom or get another beverage, but I’ll always prefer seeing a film on a big screen, regardless of whether or not there’s a group of annoying people sitting behind me who feel the need to loudly express their thoughts throughout the screening. There’s something about sitting in total darkness in a room full of strangers who are all staring at the same large projected moving image that I just can’t get at home. This list is as much of a tribute to the films as it is to the theaters themselves.
1. Flying Nun Records Documentary at the Alamo Drafthouse
The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX is, perhaps, one of the greatest movie theaters in the country. What most sets them apart is that every other row of seating has been replaced by a bar; during the movie you can order buckets of beer, cheese fries, a root beer float (my usual), and a variety of other delicious items. When I lived in Austin I frequented the Alamo most often for their ongoing Music Monday series (admission: $2), in which they screened not only music documentaries but also original films that they had pieced together from various sources. Last March I saw one about Flying Nun Records, the legendary New Zealand record label, which consisted of segments of a made-for-TV documentary intercut with music videos. The Flying Nun roster, which includes The Clean, The Verlaines, The Chills, Tall Dwarfs, and so on, is said to have spawned the “Dunedin sound” of jangly guitars and minimal basslines, though Chris Knox denies that the bands invoke one single, unifying style. Unfortunately, some of the later Flying Nun bands were kind of weak; during one such video—I can’t recall the band—someone in the audience called out, “Boring!” and I couldn’t have agreed more. But on the whole it was enjoyable and informative, and I came away with an extensive list of bands to check out.
2. The Devil and Daniel Johnston at the Alamo Drafthouse/Jacob Burns Film Center
I saw this twice in the theater, the first time in Austin, which held a particular significance for me, as much of the film is set there. While I’m a pretty big Johnston fan, you don’t have to like his music to appreciate the film, an emotionally wrenching story of the singer/songwriter/artist’s descent into mental illness, and how his family copes (and at times doesn’t cope) with it. The filmmaker, Jeff Feurzeig, innovatively utilizes the thousands of Super 8 films and audio diaries that Johnston, a self-archivist to an almost obsessive degree, has recorded over the years. This may have been the best film I saw last year.
3. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls/Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains doubleheader at Independence Brewery
Being the amazing place that it is, the Alamo Drafthouse also sponsors the Rolling Roadshow, in which they screen films at, most often, the places that have inspired them via a large inflatable screen. (For example, I saw The Big Lebowski in the parking lot of a bowling alley; admission included a free round of bowling and a White Russian.) While a brewery isn’t exactly the setting for these films, it’s nonetheless always an interesting experience viewing films in an atypical environment. Prior to screening, an all-girl band played mediocre renditions of Carrie Nations songs and some of the original actors gathered for a Q&A session.
In Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a band of three girls moves to Hollywood from the Midwest and immediately is sucked into the decadence of the 60s via lots of drugs and sex. It’s a little dated, from the style of dress to the rampant use of terms such as “happening” and “groovy,” but amusing nonetheless, serving as somewhat of a time capsule. It gets a little weird towards the end; a representative line might be, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.”
I preferred the second film of the night: in Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, two orphaned sisters and their cousin, led by Corinne “Third Degree” Burns (Diane Lane) form a band called The Stains and tour the country (actually, I’m not sure how far they got since the story seems to be covered by the same local news network each night) in a bus with a Rastafarian driver and The Looters, a British band comprised of various members of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, plus one of the guys from Quadrophenia. The Stains are supposed to suck—at least I think that’s what the filmmakers intended—but they’re certainly the best band of the tour, culling minimalist elements of the early UK DIY scene a la Bow Wow Wow. Highlights include cameo appearances by Black (and later Mexican) Randy and the Metro Squad.
4. Dog Day Afternoon at the Paramount Theater
The Paramount is one of the oldest and most beautiful theaters I’ve ever had the privilege of viewing a movie at, complete with ornate domed ceilings and balcony. Every summer they host a film series, where I saw, among others, Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic, Dog Day Afternoon. Based on real events, the film recounts the story of a bank robbery that turns into a hostage situation, which then turns into a two-day media circus, the main character becoming somewhat of a hero to curious onlookers. It’s a case of the robbers’ losing control of the circumstances, what was supposed to be a quick, easy job transforming into something bigger than they’d initially intended. I’m not sure what else can be said about it, other than that everyone needs to see it.
5. The Unknown at the Coney Island Museum
Coney Island was the perfect location for a screening of this 1927 silent film directed by Tod Browning, who is perhaps best known for Freaks. It features an armless knife-thrower who falls in love with the circus owner’s daughter (played by a young Joan Crawford). She has an irrational fear of men’s arms so you’d think they were a perfect match, except he’s a big faker and ties his arms to his waist. Similar to Freaks in dark tone and carnival setting, I think I prefer the former, but it was great to see this fairly unknown (I swear, no pun intended) film; plus, I got to ride the Cyclone and eat funnel cake afterwards.
6. The Warriors at Brooklyn Bridge Park
The final screening of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy’s outdoor summer film series was a near washout, but fortunately the pouring rain that was occurring in the other boroughs somehow managed to pass over Brooklyn. For those unfamiliar, the Warriors are a street gang framed for the murder of Cyrus, a high-profile gang leader who has called the city’s gangs to a meeting in the Bronx. For the duration of the film, the Warriors have to get back to their home turf of Coney Island without getting caught by the hundreds of other gang members who are out looking for them. The movie has provided the names of various bands over the years, such as the Baseball Furies and the Lizzies, and after reading through the list of gangs appearing in the film—for example, the Hi-Hats, the Turnbull ACs, the Punks, and so on—I feel there must be more that I simply don’t know about. I only wish that gangs really wore face paint and garish costumes like they do in this movie. Imagine wandering through the park and seeing groups of guys wearing Kiss-style makeup and baseball uniforms. Or denim overalls and roller skates.
7. The Beales of Grey Gardens at IFC Center
Described by the Maysles brothers as a “love letter” to fans of the original film, The Beales of Grey Gardens is somewhat of a sequel to the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which portrays the everyday lives of Big and Little Edith Bouvier Beale, the eccentric, reclusive aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, who live(d) in a crumbling mansion in the Hamptons among dozens of cats. It was nice to watch this film among fellow Grey Gardens enthusiasts—in the opening scene, when Little Edie, whose unusual dressing style involved wearing sweaters as skirts and headscarves, steps out and does a little turn for the camera, scattered cheers and claps could be heard among audience members.
8. Paris Belongs To Us at the American Museum of the Moving Image
Part of the French New Wave (it’s the movie the Doinel family goes to see in The 400 Blows), this little-seen film opened the American Museum of the Moving Image’s Jacque Rivette series in November. In it, a literature student in Paris investigates the apparent suicide of Juan, a Spanish activist she’s never met but who ran in the same crowd as she does. Besides the rare opportunity to see the film, as it’s not in theatrical distribution in this country, the best part about this screening was the location: if you show up early you can play vintage 80s arcade games, create 10-second stop-motion animations, and wander around among decades of movie paraphernalia.
9. Inland Empire at IFC Center
David Lynch’s latest is a three-hour-long surreal nightmare in which Laura Dern plays an actress, a suburban housewife, a foul-mouthed streetwalker, and most likely a few roles I’ve forgotten to mention here. There are a number of plot lines taking place simultaneously, such as one involving Polish circus performers and a sitcom in which three people wearing bunny heads communicate cryptic deadpan messages to canned laughter. I won’t even begin to try to explain my theories regarding this film, as I’m trying to keep this short, but I’m certain that after repeated viewings, arming myself with a pencil so I can take notes, its significance will become increasingly apparent. Inland Empire is not for everyone, especially those who prefer a cohesive narrative. While I feel certain that there is a meaning behind it, I’m perfectly satisfied to simply immerse myself in its dark, Lynchian weirdness.
10. Annie Hall at Film Forum
Annie Hall opened Film Forum’s “Essential Woody” series throughout December and January. Though it was released in 1977, it doesn’t feel dated, holding up just as well today as (I’m guessing) it did then. The film makes innovative use of various techniques, such as the actors’ addressing the camera directly, subtitles illustrating the characters’ actual thoughts as opposed to their onscreen dialogue, split-screens, and so on. In one of my favorite scenes, Alvy Singer, Woody Allen's character, is irritatedly listening to someone behind him in line at the movies bullshitting his way through a conversation about Fellini and Marshall McLuhan. To silence this idiot, Alvy brings out Marshall McLuhan from behind a counter; McLuhan asserts that the man knows nothing of his work. The film won the Oscar for “Best Picture,” beating out Star Wars, although I’m afraid that Star Wars ended up having the more lasting effect on cinema, albeit a negative one.