The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, November 23-29

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Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
Directed by Robert Bresson
Perhaps one of the most well-known assertions regarding Bresson’s heartbreaking Au hasard Balthazar was made by Jean-Luc Godard, who hailed the film as “The world in an hour and a half.” Godard was not only alluding to the film’s extraordinary depth in depicting the overwhelming hardship and suffering of a donkey throughout his life in rural France, but was also suggesting a greater, universal dimension to Bresson’s masterpiece—one that elevates the plebeian animal to higher, even heavenly levels.

Au hasard Balthazar follows the life and death of a donkey named Balthazar, starting when he is first a foal, throughout his life as he gets passed from owner to owner. Each owner, either inadvertently or purposely, mistreats the animal. Parallel to Balthazar’s travails, a young girl named Marie (Anne Wiazemsky),who is the donkey’s first owner, also experiences similar burdens as circumstances separate them. Both Balthazar and Marie are treated as property by several of the townsmen. One of Balthazar’s owners is the son of a baker named Gerard (Francois Lafarge) who beats and abuses Balthazar. Gerard also happens to be Marie’s romantic interest, despite the abusive nature of their relationship. Of course Bresson never falls into melodrama, even at times when the tension is heightened: like when Gerard chases Marie out of a car as he tries to sexually advance on her. It’s a quiet scene—only Jean Wiener’s gentle piano score fills the ears. Bresson is brilliant in finding poetry rather than dismay in such moments and as in all of his films, one must look past the austerity to find the beauty.

Not shying away from Christian allegory, the film saddles Balthazar with the townsmen’s sins, and he becomes a martyr. Bresson elevates the animal to a holy status. Even towards the end of the film, as Gerard and his gang try to take Balthazar away, Marie’s mother turns to Gerard in tears and says, “He’s worked enough. He’s old. He’s all I have… besides, he’s a saint.” Alejandro Veciana (Nov 23-29 at the Metrograph; showtimes daily)

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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Directed by David Lynch
Long regarded as the least of Lynch’s “uncompromised” works, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me has recently undergone a drastic reappraisal, rightfully taking its place among the greatest of the director’s works. At the time of its release, it was booed at Cannes and seen as an unsatisfying follow-up to the ABC show’s notoriously unresolved ending (not to mention the film’s seemingly irrelevant status as a prequel). Few recognized the film for what it was: a devastating, no-holds-barred portrait of abuse, made all the more cruel by the Lynchian trademarks and the familiarity of the town of Twin Peaks. Featuring a never-better Angelo Badalamenti score, an unforgettable David Bowie cameo, and one of the all-time greatest screen performances courtesy of Sheryl Lee as the doomed Laura Palmer, it is a mesmerizing, heart-wrenching vision unlike any other. Ryan Swen (Nov 23-26, midnight at the IFC Center)

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Body Double (1984)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Perhaps it’s best to view the much-maligned Body Double not as a serious thriller, but as a deadpan comedy with thriller elements. So overtly derivative are the Hitchcock homages here that one can’t help but laugh at how ridiculously blatant De Palma’s being this time around. But the joke’s not just on us, but also on Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), with much of the first half playing as a lampoon of the struggling-actor hero’s professional, personal and sexual inadequacies. De Palma reserves his most amusing meta-movie conceits, though, for the second half, with Jake playacting a porn producer in order to get close to adult star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), his descent into the hardcore-porn underground depicted as a hedonistic music video set to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax.” In the end, it’s Jake’s own re-imagining of the film’s opening scene—his claustrophobia-induced failure while playing a vampire in a low-budget exploitation flick—that helps him finally achieve the potency he so desperately seeks throughout. With the film’s central mystery pretty easy to guess if you know Vertigo well, one is free to simply enjoy Body Double as an endlessly playful lark from a filmmaker interested in gratifying himself and daring us to watch. Kenji Fujishima (November 25, 9:15pm; November 27, 6pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Voyeurism, Surveillance and Identity in the Cinema”)

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The Arbor (2010)
Directed by Clio Barnard
In The Arbor, sometimes too simply called a verbatim film, Barnard’s recorded interviews with the family and friends of wunderkind playwright, Andrea Dunbar, form the dialogue of mesmerizingly lip-synced, reenacted scenes, many of them filmed in the same English housing projects where Dunbar lived and set her own plays. A star at 15, but dead at 29, leaving behind three children from three different men, Dunbar was celebrated for her authentic and unvarnished voice—”a genius straight from the slums.” But The Arbor goes further than breathlessly pretending to speak, raising questions about how truth is constructed, realism is consumed, and a voice can be heard and still remain unknown. Dunbar’s children supply much of the The Arbor’s dialogue and uncertainty, reckoning with her legacy and, at times, each other’s stories. Mixing hyper-realism and all-too-real suffering, The Arbor is a disorienting, moving testimony to difficult, irreducible life. Jeremy Polacek (November 26, 4pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “A Decade of Documentary”)

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Gigi (1958)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
For those still recovering from the results of the election, maybe a film about a young woman groomed to learn the ways of Paris’s patriarchal high society is not an essential watch. But then again, you’ve never met a girl like Gigi. One of the last hurrahs of MGM’s Golden Age, Minnelli’s ornate musical was a critical success in 1958 and remains a visual feast today. Minnelli, a former set designer, fills each frame with the vibrant colors and lavish decorations of the Belle Epoque. But it’s Leslie Caron, as the precocious title character, who lends the film its surprising feminist spirit. Gigi refuses to become just another mistress and, when she ultimately relents and marries the womanizing Gaston, she greets her happily ever after with a weariness rarely seen in Hollywood musicals. A.J. Serrano (November 27, 4:15pm, 9:15pm at BAM’s “That’s Entertainment!: MGM Musicals Part II”)

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Hard Target (1993)
Directed by John Woo
New Orleans meets the craftsmanship of the Shaw Brothers in Hard Target, a kinetic action flick of choreographic refinement. When Natasha (Yancy Butler) comes to town to investigate the death of her estranged homeless father, she accidentally uncovers a sadistic business where bored rich people hunt down and kill the destitute. But as Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) explains to the villain who runs this classist human safari, “poor people get bored too.” Roles are then reversed as magnificent sequences of immaculate violence are shot and edited with elegant and morally justified grace. Woo definitely has an eye for detail, but also one for the ethnographic diversity of New Orleans, whose social and cultural nuances are not flattened out in the pursuit of action which nonetheless remains the poetic core of the film. Giovanni Vimercati (November 28, 9:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse)

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