Looking to break away from the remakes, reboots and endless sequels dominating your local multiplex? Then you’re in luck: UW Cinematheque has released its spring schedule.
The slate features a wide array of films, including series on directors Federico Fellini, S. Craig Zahler and Chantal Akerman, and restorations of golden age Hollywood classics by UCLA’s Film and Television Archive.
The season opens on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 30-31, with something you may not have seen before: 3-D dancing! Alla Kovgan’s 2019 documentary Cunningham celebrates the life of Merce Cunningham in a way the experimental choreographer probably would have loved: by recreating some of his best work in immersive 3-D. Kovgan pulls double-duty, preserving Cunningham’s game-changing work and delivering an ambitious statement of her own.
And at Cinematheque, Cunningham is in good company. Here are 10 highlights of the spring roster:
‘Varda by Agnès’ (2019)
French New Wave icon Agnès Varda, who died last March, couldn’t have come up with a better swan song. Varda by Agnès explores the late film director’s life, serving as a walkabout through her storied career. The documentary takes an inside look at Varda’s films, photos and feminism, but it also paints a distinctly human portrait of the cinematic titan by featuring the little things she loved, from cats to heart-shaped potatoes. Equal parts warm and experimental, Varda by Agnès proves she was a true original until the very end.
‘63 Up’ (2019)
Up (no, not the devastating Pixar flick) is one of the most ambitious projects ever put on screen. Begun in 1964 by Canadian director Paul Almond and continued thereafter by Michael Apted, the documentary film series follows 14 British children every seven years from age 7 onward. 63 Up is the ninth installment, checking in with the kids in their sixties. If you can steel yourself for a group of English boomers’ Brexit takes, the Up series always engages. It’s possibly the most complete portrayal of growing up anywhere.
‘The Killing Floor’ (1985)
Helmed by Predator actor Bill Duke, The Killing Floor tells a story that’s unfortunately still pretty relevant. Set against the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the film follows Frank (Damian Leake), a young, black farmer who relocates to Chicago from Mississippi in hopes of more progressive race relations. He gets a job at a meatpacking plant and soon finds that the Windy City is also rife with racism. But when Frank becomes involved in the creation of one of the country’s first interracial labor unions, he begins taking steps to fight back. The Killing Floor also stars Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek) and hall-of-fame swearer Dennis Farina.
‘The Great Escape’ (1963)
Steve McQueen is a Hollywood icon whose effortless coolness was immortalized by a great Drive-By Truckers song. But McQueen was also a great actor, and one of the first big-screen action stars. And before Bullitt or The Thomas Crown Affair, there was The Great Escape. Directed by John Sturges and arguably McQueen’s best film, The Great Escape is a prison break drama that also features some of the actor’s best stunts. (Did someone say “motorcycle jump”?) Likewise, the WWII-set film boasts an ensemble cast that includes James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn and Charles Bronson.
‘Downtown 81’ (2000)
Shot in NYC in the early 1980s, this film directed by Edo Bertoglio is a time capsule of post-punk bohemianism. Written by future GQ “Style Guy” Glenn O’Brien and starring late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Downtown 81 meanders its way through the era’s hipster subculture as Basquiat interacts with luminaries like Blondie’s Debbie Harry and original Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy. It was abandoned shortly after being completed but got a proper release in 2000 after O’Brien re-acquired the rights to it.
‘Bone Tomahawk’ (2015)
S. Craig Zahler does not make movies for the squeamish. His films are brutal, bloody and at times a challenging watch. But for those with the stomach, the writer/director is the closest thing that modern cinema has to a new John Carpenter: a spooky auteur. (Like Carpenter, Zahler even composes his own unsettling music.) Bone Tomahawk was Zahler’s directorial debut, and it makes a strong first impression. In this western horror hybrid, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox set out to find an indigenous tribe of cannibals who’ve kidnapped two white settlers. Bone Tomahawk will put you on the edge of your seat and then shock you right out of it.
‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ (2017)
Another of Zahler’s symphonies of destruction, Brawl in Cell Block 99 features what I consider the most brutal kill I’ve ever seen on film. I won’t give it away, but you’ll know it when you see it. Vince Vaughn plays Bradley, a soft-spoken drug mule whose his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and unborn child will be murdered unless he takes out a specific someone inside a maximum-security prison. And Vaughn steals the show, delivering one of the best performances of his varied career. But the one-time wedding crasher has always had a knack for playing simmering lunatics; check out his work in the underrated ’90s indie Clay Pigeons for further evidence. And as an added bonus, Zahler’s co-composer Jeff Herriott (a UW-Whitewater music professor) will participate in a discussion following the screening.
When I was in film school (yeah, I’m one of those assholes), I took a whole class about movies based on the myth of Orpheus. One of the most memorable of those was Orphée, a retelling of the tale by French master Jean Cocteau. Here, the Greek fable gets an update for the 20th century, changing the setting to post-WWII France. It’s a stylish, sophisticated take on a story that’s ostensibly about the inevitability of death. It’s also the second part of Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy, which includes 1930’s Blood of a Poet and 1960’s Testament of Orpheus.
‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’ (2000)
Bong Joon-ho is in the middle of serious Oscar buzz thanks to his gonzo class satire Parasite. It’s the latest in the director’s unimpeachable filmography, which includes Snowpiercer, Okja and The Host, which I consider to be the greatest creature feature ever made. Barking Dogs Never Bite, his directorial debut, is a literal starting point for budding Bong-heads. It’s about a down-on-his-luck college professor who starts kidnapping dogs in his apartment complex to stop the constant barking while a young woman who works in the building slowly catches on and investigates.
‘The Cotton Club Encore’ (1984/2017)
Francis Ford Coppola’s filmography is a confusing one. While the notoriously finicky director was responsible for classics like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, he also farted out a few head-scratching misfires. One from the Heart, Jack and Twixt are all dark spots on Coppola’s otherwise sterling resume. The Cotton Club falls somewhere in between those two categories. It was a commercial flop, and the set was a coke-fueled mess. Worse still, many of the film’s black performers had their scenes cut at the whim of a financier. But in 2015, Coppola decided to revisit the film and dropped $500,000 to restore it with new footage, much of it featuring those spurned artists. The result is The Cotton Club Encore, a longer version of the 1984 movie that Vanity Fair called a “nobler, fuller, and of course more righteous film than it’s marred predecessor.”