My Best Cinema Experiences of 2011

The end of the year has become a bit overwhelming in terms of "Best Of" lists. We evaluate things so much in terms of quality (or at least attempt to), but I hear very few people speak of true pleasure. Quality and pleasure often are not the same, but these end of the year list camouflage that a bit. We don't go to or watch movies just because they are good. We love films because they are fun -- and it's never just the content that makes the experience so great. It's the company and the context.

What was the most joyous experience of the year for you, for me? Since this blog is really only about film, I am going to have to leave out most of what's on my more expansive list (and after all that stuff is still a private matter, isn't it?), and instead focus only most on my most joyous cinema experiences of 2011 -- and for that matter experiences that didn't involve my own movies (as the festival premieres of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, COLLABORATOR, and DARK HORSE were all pretty damn wonderful). It's a pleasure to do so in that remembering, recognizing, bring it all back and more so.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN: My wife and I saw SKIN in Karlovy Vary, which has to be one of the loveliest places to screen a film. If you have a chance to go, don't delay. It's a spa town, nestled in a valley, with a wonderful hotel, and an extremely well-curated selection. The main theater there is huge -- I think 4000 seats but I am not sure. The screen is colossal none the less. Gigantic. And the people love movies; students camp out in the hills to attend screenings all week. SKIN was a hard ticket to get, even with a festival pass. I begged for days, succeeded, but then got confused on the time and we almost missed it. It was hot that day, very. We ran along the river through crowds of tourists and the only seats were on the floor up front. The kinkiest film that Hitchcock never made loomed above us as we caught our breath and tried to cool down. Each twist and turn above us was a total surprise. I was appalled in the best way on a regular basis. And when the leopard scene occurred, well, very few films ever blow my mind but Pedro does constantly. I can think of no other filmmaker who has been such a pleasure to watch him become a true master. When Vanessa and I left the theater we couldn't stop talking about it., As much as I loved the movie, I loved far more that I had someone to share it with who felt so much like I did, and that we had experienced it together in such an over the top way.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: My son and I saw APES opening weekend. We've seen all the Planet of The Apes films -- except the Tim Burton one because I thought it sucked. But we've only seen them on video. When I was a boy I collected the Planet Of The Apes cards with my dad, in anticipation of seeing it together, but due to complications, that never happened. My expectations for this one were pretty low, due to Burton's debacle. Low expectations helps everything always and the movie soared well beyond my measly expectations. Andy Serkis' turn is one of my fave of the year, and drew me into that movie like few this year. The bridge sequence captures what I imagine the exhilaration of revolution to be (along with the humor of the stupidity of mankind that is always fun to be reminded of). But the real pleasure of movies is always social, and just hearing my son say how much he enjoyed it, helped me recognize how much I have enjoyed sharing so much with him. In many ways, the movie completed a circle for me that I had not yet recognized wasn't closed.

WITHOUT: There are a few people who did an awesome job tipping me to under-appreciated films this year, but primarily Kim Voynar (who sent five or so great works to me) and Michael Tully, who via Hammer To Nail does so regularly. I think it was Kim who recommended Mark Jackson's WITHOUT to me though. I watched it alone, in my apartment, with no real context of what was to come. I have a HD projector that fills one wall in our apartment so the image towers over me when I watch. It was summer and the city was quieter than usual. Left alone, like the character, to figure out what was going on or not. As much as I love work from emerging directors and noble failures that reach high (not always to succeed), I confess I am jaded enough to not anticipate controlled, disciplined, ambitious, original work from a filmmaker or film that I have no clue about. At that time, Kim (or was it Tully?) had been the only one to recommend it. WITHOUT is some of the strongest work this year. Afterwards, I sat there still on the couch wondering what is wrong with our indie film infrastructure that this film isn't being celebrated as it should be, and how I am going to have to work so much harder to do so.

THE DISPOSABLE FILM FESTIVAL: I got to be a judge for this San Francisco festival this past year and it was another great marriage of subject and setting. All the films in the selection were hand-crafted gems made on a shoe-string budget. They represented the diversity and quality of individual artist today. If they were not inspiring enough, the festival is held at The Castro Theater, one of the greatest houses to worship cinema ever built. I had never been there and it is so gorgeous. When I travel, despite not being at all religious, I can not help but visit churches and be amazed with what worship, devotion, and conviction can achieve. Sitting in The Castro seeing such handmade work, I wanted to go on a global pilgrimage to all the great movie palaces, before it's too late. Sign me up for that tour if you hear of it, okay?

MARGARET: Hands down, Kenneth Lonergan's film is the best American film of the year. Great work not only does not get seen, but often not even released. Even when it was first released, I had my doubts. I couldn't believe that a film by this writer/director, with that cast, could be any good and not have been screened for so long. Shame on me. The movie was a wake up call. I saw when it came along a second time. I had just gotten MoviePass and was delighted to see the theater where it was playing on their list of cinemas; it meant I had no risk. The great thing about a subscription theater service is I can try out movies like never before -- the only thing I am sacrificing is time. But I digress. Or maybe not. Maybe it was because I accepted the movie with no preconceptions, but I was so thrilled at the quality of the writing & performance. Naturalism is currently my fave cinematic aesthetic and Lonergan used it to make the micro epic, and he did it so bravely, warts and all, I felt I knew each of his characters or at least passed them on the street. I saw it with my wife, and as we left the theater, fully engaged, I thought of all the great films we experienced together and felt that despite how close this excellent film came to never being screened, that life was actually good and everything will be okay and I must never forget how fortunate I am.

GENRE VIDEOS AT HOME ON THE COUCH WITH MY FAMILY: I hate to admit it but I think this may trump my cinema going highlights. I am one of the lucky few who has a great video store less than a block away (Allen's Alley). Be it DOCTOR WHO, AIRPLANE!, V FOR VENDETTA, A.I. or ATTACK THE BLOCK some of my most fun came courtesy of DVDs, good company, comfortable environments and the pause button. We are going to have to work harder to make theatrical exhibition the must-see entertainment I'd like it to be. And I suspect that this is the year that I cancel my Netflix subscription too.

So, tell me, what were your most enjoyable cinema experiences of 2011?