Since its inception in 1984, The Criterion Collection has been a vital voice in the home video distribution of films. From silent-era classics all the way to overlooked modern day releases, nearly every film in the company’s library is essential viewing (yes, including THE ROCK). While many of its films are available to stream through various services, the physical media editions of their films are so jam-packed with special features such as commentaries and interviews that even a small slice of their library is still a font of film knowledge. Every once in awhile, the company partners with Barnes & Noble to sell their films at half-price, which is almost crazy-making, since the films are usually worth the full list price. Running from now until July 28, the trickiest part of the sale is sometimes winnowing down what to buy, but fear not! If you’re the type of person who trusts me, here are some of my favorites from the company, in no particular order. Screenshots from DVD Beaver, a great site for reviews and comparisons of Blu-Ray releases.
- BRAZIL - Okay, I lied, this one is in order. On the right day, Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL is my favorite movie of all time. A masterpiece of world-building, Gilliam, who cut his teeth on the Monty Python films, creates a dystopic future where bureaucracy has run amok. In a case of life imitating art, the release of the film was held up by a debate between Gilliam and releasing studio Universal Pictures about the final cut of the film, with the studio backing a dramatically shortened version of the film the completely changes the film tonally. Gilliam countered by holding secret screenings of his cut of the film for the press, who then championed his version until it was ultimately released. The release has both cuts of the film as well as a feature-length documentary on the tumultuous process of getting Gilliam’s film out to audiences.
- 8 ½ - One of the greatest films about film, writer/director Federico Fellini’s story of a film director who reminisces about the women in his life as he struggles to find a trajectory for his latest project threatens to eat itself, but instead is a beautiful, at times surreal adventure. Also, this:
- BLOW OUT - A masterful work from Brian DePalma, an absurdly young John Travolta is a sound engineer for a b-movie studio who is out recording samples one night when he becomes a witness to car accident that claims the life of a senator with presidential ambitions. He manages to save the passenger of the car, and from there the accident’s more sinister underpinnings begin to reveal themselves. Featuring great work from John Friggin’ Lithgow as a killer for hire, the film’s threatening to supplant INDEPENDENCE DAY as my favorite film set around Independence Day, in case you were wondering how much I love it slash am a slave to childhood nostalgia.
It was only in his last moments that Tim realized how Frank Floweringboner earned his name.
- CLOSE-UP - Wait, when I said 8 ½ threatens to eat itself, I forgot that I still had to get to this film. Director Abbas Kiarostami found out about a trial where a man was arrested for impersonating famous Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and tricking a family into thinking that he was going to include them in an upcoming work. He then managed to get in touch with all the parties and got them to agree to recreate their various interactions to create a pseudo-documentary of the events that transpired, integrating it with footage of the trial after the family found out about the ruse and took the impostor to court. And that’s BEFORE the real Makhmalbaf shows up. Brilliant stuff.
Steven Tyler pays a visit to some adoring fans.
- HOUSE - The work of a literal insane person, director Nobuhiko Kobayashi’s film about a group of Japanese teens who visit the house of one of their aunts only to find that the aunt, her pet cat and, really, the house, are out to eat them. As in consume them. And it only gets more unhinged from there. Full of astounding in-camera and practical effects, this film was originally buried by the studio, only to be released due to popular demand. There’s a parallel dimension three slots over where this film is a midnight movie staple, and the world’s a generally better place for it.
**PERSONA** - Right from the first few seconds, Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA plants itself right on the line between the tangible and the abstract. There’s a special feature on the disc devoted entirely to the prologue of the film, which is a jarring series of shots, snapping the viewer to attention for what is to come. The film is about an actress who is suddenly stricken mute, and the trip that she and her nurse take out to the seaside. While out there, the nurse becomes emotionally open with the actress, using her as a sounding board for a lifetime full of frustrations. The film at times breaks the fourth wall, becoming unsettlingly self-aware of its own existence, as the relationship between the two women begins to fracture.
- THE RED SHOES - The beneficiary of an extensive restoration, THE RED SHOES has never looked better. A tale of the ultimate commitment to one’s craft, the film has served as inspiration to the likes of Scorsese and Spielberg, which, while a narrow range of the phonebook, is its own volume in the history of American film. Containing the rare ballet-within-a-tale, dancer Victoria Page is forced to choose between the role of a lifetime and the love of her life when offered the chance to be the star of a dance company headed by the famous Boris Lermontov while also in the throes of a relationship with the company’s conductor, Julian Craster. The disc features a fascinating short on the restoration process for the film.
- THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER - One of the greatest American horror films, Robert Mitchum is a monster as Harry Powell, a jailbird who finds out from his soon-to-be-executed cellmate that the condemned has a stash of money hidden away, and only his children know the location of the cash. Upon Powell’s release, he seeks out the family and woos the widow of the robber, posing as a traveling preacher. By exploring themes such as the hypocrisy of the pious, it’s easy to see why the film was poorly received upon its release in the 50s, as Mitchum conceals his deadly intentions behind parables, including a famous scene where he explains the “LOVE” and “HATE” tattoos on his knuckles that would later be paraphrased in Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING. The only disappointing thing about this film is that it did so poorly that director Charles Laughton made his first film his only film.
- ON THE WATERFRONT - Most famous for Marlon Brando’s “could have been a contender” monologue, one of the more interesting features in the entire Criterion collection is the presentation of this film in different aspect ratios. At the time of its creation, Elia Kazan’s film about former boxer Terry Malloy, who takes a job as a dock worker and eventually becomes at odds with the union boss, was filmed with its multiple viewing venues of theaters and television in mind, as many of the shots are framed to work at both wide and full-screen ratios.
- TOKYO STORY - By far the most recognizable work of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, an elderly Japanese couple travel from their home in the countryside to visit their city-dwelling children, only to realize that they have become pushed to the fringes of their offspring’s lives. The film is still as relevant today, maybe even more so than upon its release, only now technology has enabled people to substitute the Facebook like for actual human interaction, thus making moments of genuine, simple kindness all the more affecting.
- Anything from Wes Anderson - All right, now that we’re outside what could be considered a top ten, here’s the part where I cheat. Any film from Wes Anderson in the Criterion Collection, from his debut BOTTLE ROCKET to the most recent inclusion FANTASTIC MR. FOX, is worth owning. As the filmmaker with one of, if not the most, recognizable style working today, Anderson can be a polarizing figure, but for everyone on his wavelength, his films are a master class in world-building. Also as a side recommendation: critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s THE WES ANDERSON COLLECTION, a book featuring essays breaking down Anderson’s work and influences.
- Anything from Charlie Chaplin - Any film of Chaplin’s in the collection could be considered essential, from the simple delight of CITY LIGHTS or MODERN TIMES, to the incisive commentary of THE GREAT DICTATOR. Though many of his best works were created after the advent of sound in cinema, Chaplin’s films achieved a kind of grace that even films that few films, silent or no, could find.
- Anything from Akira Kurosawa - Oh, not much really, just SEVEN SAMURAI, RASHOMON, YOJIMBO, SANJURO, HIGH AND LOW, THRONE OF BLOOD, KAGEMUSHA, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS and I’m surprised you’re still here. One of the greatest, most influential directors of all time, with definitive home video releases of his greatest works. Start with the first two mentioned, and then it’s really a free skate from there.
- Anything from Terrence Malick - Malick has three films in the collection, and all of them are worth your time, from his debut feature BADLANDS, to the singular DAYS OF HEAVEN to his anti-war war film THE THIN RED LINE, all the releases feature best-in-class video and audio. My favorite, DAYS OF HEAVEN, sees Richard Gere as a steel worker who leaves Chicago with his sister and girlfriend after getting into a fight with a supervisor. The three of them make their way out to a farm, where the owner becomes taken with Bill’s girlfriend, who is now posing as a second sister. After realizing the farmer is gravely ill, Bill encourages the relationship, believing that the farmer isn’t long for this world, and will leave his remaining earthly possessions to his future widow. That plan goes well, I’m pretty sure.
And the list above is just what’s left after tons of scrutinizing and procrastination. As I mentioned earlier, nearly everything that has received a release from The Criterion Collection is worth owning, and there are many others that I gave thought to highlighting before winding up with the list as presented. But I suppose those are for another day. For now…