It’s easy to sympathize with repertory programmers: 52 weeks of screen time every year, and only so many international cinemas and revivable careers to showcase. Such is the desperate state of American film culture—dominated by studio goat dung, controlled by marketing skanks—that when our own Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, MOMA, and Walter Reade Theater occasionally struggle for attention by importing new European lacklusters or yet again disinterring the oeuvre of Douglas Sirk, you consider the screenings your home-field advantage and you count your blessings. The same shall be said for the best-of series running at the Film Forum and Walter Reade; the staffs’ vacations are our opportunity to catch up on movies we’re likely to remember not merely through dinner, but to our deathbeds.
Hyperbole, maybe, but the Reade’s 10th-anniversary series gives you an opportunity to see Robert Aldrich’s atomic bad dream Kiss Me Deadly (1955) on the biggest screen in town, a moviegoing transaction guaranteed to tattoo your cortex. Video doesn’t do justice either to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) or Bae Yong-Kyan’s Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989), not so much for their cinematographical loveliness as for their patient, immersive wholeness. David Thomson’s admonition—that video is to theater-viewing what gazing at a fish tank is to having a whale pass you underwater—defines the difference; it’s a matter of submergent experience. Hou’s films in particular demand your sensory surrender, but since they seem to sell out every time they’re shown, that’s hardly news.
Probably the most epochal film on display, Abbas Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On . . . (1992) is simply essential viewing (if only someone could get Miramax to undungeon the Koker trilogy’s third film, Through the Olive Trees, which has gone virtually unscreened since its initial anti-release). Rare as well are Youssef Chahine’s larky musical miracle Destiny (1997) and Max Ophüls’s final German film, Liebelei (1932), but the newsmaker might be Frank Hurley’s South (1919), the original Shackleton/Endurance adventure doc. Because the man filming this unbearably gorgeous antique is stranded in the Antarctic nowhere as certainly as his shipmates, South has a breath-taking immediacy that no amount of new helicopter sweeps, IMAX screens, and Kevin Spacey narrations can touch. With live music by the Alloy Orchestra, it’s the new year’s first must-see movie.
As for separating the dabblers from the diehards, the revival to beat is Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour Fou (1968), the underseen mastodon of the French New Wave and, at four and a quarter hours, a life-transforming meta-movie lightning strike. Arguably less transcendent than his Céline and Julie Go Boating, and less monumental than the never screened, nearly 13-hour Out One, L’Amour Fou remains one of cinema’s key mileposts, its Anna Karenina. This lazy, crazy, hazy series is warranted if only to baptize a roomful of new Rivettians.