Critic's Picks: A December To-Do List for Film Buffs in L.A.

Desperately Seeking Susan - H - 1985

Reagan-era gems from Susan Seidelman and Robert Zemeckis, wintry classics from Nicholas Ray, Stanley Kubrick and Todd Haynes, and a secret program of 16mm film prints are among options for SoCal cinephiles this holiday season.


On Dec. 2, Film at REDCAT will celebrate the birthday of experimental filmmaker Chick Strand with a special screening of her singular 16mm short films. Strand, who would have turned 88 this month, specialized in a personal form of small-gauge filmmaking that utilized both documentary and experimental techniques to explore issues of social and political import. REDCAT’s program, comprising six films made between 1966-1986, will highlight the range of Strand’s approach, from her early experiments in surrealism (1966’s Angel Blue Sweet Wings) to the ethnographic projects (1976’s Mujer de Milfuegos and 1986’s Fake Fruit Factory) that took her from Los Angeles, where she lived and worked for many decades, to Spain, Greece and various parts of Latin America. Like Strand, David Lebrun is one of L.A.’s under-sung icons. On Dec. 13, Lebrun will be in person at REDCAT to present a selection of his little-seen short films, including two works, 1976’s Tanka and 1979’s Sidereal Time, that excavate ancient and modern histories through experimental and anthropological film forms. Rounding out Lebrun's program will be a selection of six shorts from The Forms: Four Worlds, a work-in-progress installation that uses over 100 animations to trace centuries of iconographic art across time and space.

REAGAN’S '80s AT THE BILLY WILDER | 10899 Wilshire Blvd.

In celebration of his new book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, veteran film critic J. Hoberman will be on hand at the Billy Wilder Theater this month to present two double features pairing movies from the 1980s that in various ways embody the paradoxical pop culture landscape fostered during Ronald Reagan's presidency. On Dec. 6, Ted Kotcheff’s box office smash First Blood, featuring Sylvester Stallone in the first of his many performances as disenchanted Vietnam vet John Rambo, will share a bill with They Live, John Carpenter's bluntly incisive indictment of American consumerism run amok. The following night's program, meanwhile, will feature Robert Zemeckis’ era-defining suburban sci-fi comedy Back to the Future, as unintentional an emblem for Reagan’s whitewashed '80s as any film the decade produced, alongside Susan Seidelman’s sly tale of urban ennui, Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Rosanna Arquette as a bored housewife whose life becomes entangled with that of a boho hipster played by Madonna. All four pics will be presented on 35mm courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and Hoberman will be signing copies of Make My Day before both screenings.


On Dec. 5 at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz, Los Angeles Filmforum and Dirty Looks will team up for a special screening of Salome, a hallucinatory 65-minute feature from 1976 by Mexican writer and filmmaker Teo Hernandez. Originally shot at silent speed on Super 8mm, the movie — which for this screening will be projected on a 16mm blow-up print and accompanied by a live score by performance artist Dorian Wood — loosely interprets the Oscar Wilde play of the same name, though its concerns, as they often were for this tragically overlooked artist, are decidedly less textual than elemental, less spiritual than experiential. Combining performative sensuality with art-historical abstractions, Hernandez, who died in 1992 from AIDS-related complications, queers the story’s biblical particulars in playfully provocative fashion.


Christmas and crime collide this month in the American Cinematheque series “Christmas Noir: A Hardboiled Holiday,” which, as its title suggests, comprises midcentury dark cinema classics set during the holiday season. Beginning Dec. 3 at the Aero Theatre with a matinee screening of Allen Baron’s 1961 neo-noir Blast of Silence, this largely 35mm series continues over consecutive weeks at the same venue with Max Ophuls’ suburban murder drama The Reckless Moment (Dec. 10), starring Joan Bennett and James Mason; Nicholas Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (Dec. 17); and a double bill of W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (screening digitally) and the little-seen comedy-noir Mr. Soft Touch (Dec. 20), directed by Henry Levin and Gordon Douglas. Festivities then shift to the Egyptian Theatre for a 16mm closing night presentation of Vincent Sherman’s Backfire (Dec. 21), featuring Gordon MacRae as a war veteran investigating the disappearance of a wrongly accused comrade played by Edmond O’Brien. ’Tis the season.


Those looking for more alternative Christmas classics should look no further than the New Beverly Cinema, which all this month is running 35mm prints of offbeat holiday treasures both new and old. On Dec. 2 and 3, for example, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan will share a double bill of "snowy crime films," followed on Dec. 4 and 5 by two classic Hollywood equivalents, Nicolas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground and Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall. Other notable programs include two nights of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (Dec. 9 and 10); a Todd Haynes double bill featuring the contemporary classics Carol and Far From Heaven (Dec. 11 and 12); and special one-off showcases of Ingmar Bergman’s generational epic Fanny and Alexander (Dec. 16) and John Carpenter’s arctic horror saga The Thing (Dec. 20). Not to be outdone, the theater's Monday and Wednesday matinees will offer their own share of vaguely seasonal fare. Highlights include Charles Laughton’s gothic melodrama The Night of the Hunter (Dec. 4); Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife (Dec. 18), starring Cary Grant and Loretta Young; and Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi fable Brazil (Dec. 30).


Back in September, Academy film preservationist Mark Toscano launched a new screening series called "Remains to Be Seen" at Echo Park Film Center. The semi-regular program, named after a film by the late Phil Solomon, features a selection of 16mm film prints from the Academy’s collection that have either been newly restored or will one day undergo the preservation process. The catch? Each program is kept secret until the night of the screening. So, on Dec. 5, if you choose to attend, you may see a film by either Solomon or other such experimental icons as Stan Brakhage, Barbara Hammer or Peter Hutton, projected alongside lesser-known titles by artists like Su Friedrich or Robert Todd, to name just a few who have been showcased in prior programs. There’s even been a rare student film by Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris. So while it may seem strange to recommend going in blind to a screening, in this case the results, as least so far, have been not only surprising but thrilling. I have little doubt the thrills will continue.