The Best Movie You've Never Seen

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 30, 2007 3:00PM

Winner of a special prize at the Berlin Film Festival, #12 on Metacritic's All-Time High Scores and one of the first 50 films chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry, Killer of Sheep has always been a film more talked about than seen. Until now. This week you'll probably be hearing a lot more about it, because twenty years after it was finished it's finally getting a release; it opens Friday at the Music Box.

The film centers on Stan, who lives in Watts with his wife and daughter. He works at a slaughterhouse, and the job is a perfect metaphor of Watts itself, for both are dangerous yet monotonous. Poverty's grip is harrowing. The story is a just a series of poignant moments and vignettes, but all so palpably real that even watching the simple act of children playing in a vacant lot is somehow fascinating. It captures early-70's ghetto life in a way that 180 degrees removed from Melvin Van Peebles. As Roger Ebert writes, "The lives go nowhere, the movie goes nowhere, and in staying where they are they evoke a sense of sadness and loss."

2007_7killerofsheep.jpg Charles Burnett wrote and directed the film as his thesis for UCLA. It was shot in 16mm black & white over a series of weekends for less than $10,000 and only sporadically shown afterwards, since music rights for the songs Burnett chose for the soundtrack (including Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong and Earth, Wind and Fire) were prohibitively expensive. We were lucky enough to catch a screening in the late 90's at the Siskel (back when it was still on Columbus Drive!) and certain of its images still haunt us: a child running around in a Halloween mask, a conversation about a car engine, the film's final sequence at the slaughterhouse.

Courtesy of a state-of-the-art restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the film looks better than it ever has before. And except for one Dinah Washington song all the original music is intact, licensed at a reported cost of $150,000. We know that it doesn't sound like the most exciting movie currently on offer, but we urge you to give it a try. A lovely NPR profile and the trailer are worth checking out if you still need convincing.