David Schwartz is the chief curator at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image.
1. The easiest choice. The greatest of movies. Never has a film been so formally rich and so teeming with life. Jean Renoir’s romantic roundelay is as fluid and multifaceted as the characters he depicts with equal doses of compassion and bemusement, and this depiction of the mercurial nature of human behavior, of the beauty and absurdity of civilization, has never been equaled. The Dance of Death is the greatest sequence, but it’s also a dance of life. For many years, the film was literally unavailable in an acceptable print or video version in this country. For a showing several years ago (before the recent Janus Films rerelease), the Museum of the Moving Image had to import a 35 mm print from England. And as though it isn’t enough to be able to own a masterfully restored copy, the Criterion DVD has a great documentary about Renoir by Jacques Rivette!
2. Is Setsuko Hara the most beautiful actress in movie history? That’s just a rhetorical question . . . the answer, of course, is yes. In Late Spring, she plays the young daughter of a widowed father who reluctantly wants to see her married. I am the man she should have married, but that’s a different story. Like many cinephiles, I was first drawn to Ozu by his serene compositions, the meditative “pillow shots” of train stations and empty rooms that served as scene transitions, and the exquisite way that his films explore the architecture of domestic and urban life. Repeated viewings reveal that underneath the director’s formal, often eccentric playfulness, there lies a fascinating undercurrent of sexual neurosis and pathology that is thinly masked by the demure self-sacrifice of the characters. In their own quiet way, Ozu’s families are deeply fascinating. And this two-disc set has an amazing bonus: Tokyo-ga, Wim Wenders’s loving and thoughtful feature-length tribute to Ozu, the actor Chishu Ryu, and Tokyo. It’s a first-person documentary and urban portrait par excellence, photographed by Ed Lachman.
3. David Cronenberg’s reflexive masterpiece of modern horror, with James Woods as a seedy purveyor of soft-core exploitation for cable TV, and Debbie Harry as his siren, brought the media-as-message theories of fellow Torontonian Marshall McLuhan to visceral life. This was one of the first movies I rented on VHS, and Videodrome is partly an exploration of the strange, clunky physical sensation attached to the idea of a feature film being available on a paperback-size plastic-and-tape cassette that is inserted into a machine . . . and our brains. A quarter century later, Cronenberg’s dazzling vision of a world where image and flesh are one—“long live the new flesh”—Videodrome’s futuristic vision is timelier than ever. And above all that, the movie is sexy, smart, funny, and fascinating, moving adeptly between its layers of reality, imagination, and that vast territory in between.
4. The idea of Stan Brakhage’s films being transferred to DVD once seemed heretical. The preeminent avant-garde filmmaker of the past half century, Brakhage made hundreds of intense films, many of them silent, that seem to be pure celluloid expression—poetic visual studies based on the play of light, tactile editing, and frame-by-frame editing. He worked mainly in 16 mm, but also made movies that were painstakingly hand-painted onto IMAX-size frames. Yet shortly before his death, Brakhage embraced the idea of a Criterion set, acknowledging the reality of a future (okay, present) where his films were more likely to be seen by an individual, perhaps on a laptop, rather than projected in 16 mm to a small film-society audience. The ability to study Brakhage’s films frame by frame, and to read Fred Camper’s superb commentary, also enhances the experience, easing the bittersweet film nostalgia for die-hard celluloid purists.
5. Is there a greater, more suggestive and bittersweet movie title than All That Heaven Allows? (Well, yes, there is, Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But . . . , but that’s another story and another great Criterion disc.) Sirk dug beneath the surface of idyllic American small-town life in the 1950s, and the surface has never been more beautiful than in this Technicolor nightmare of conformity and the repressive nature of community and family life. It’s Freud vs. Walden, as pettiness, jealousy, and repression pair off against a bohemian vision of rural tranquility. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose brilliant essay on Sirk is included as an extra, remade the movie as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and it was also the model for Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven and Sanaa Hamri’s not-too-shabby Something New.
6. The amazing thing about W. C. Fields’s comedy is how much mileage he can get out of almost no plot and very little dialogue. The humor comes from his gleeful disdain of American propriety, and from his impeccable sense of timing and absurdity. He can build a comic routine out of the pronunciation of “proboscis” and of such names as “Egbert Souse.” Fields’s movies have few frills, and the same is true of this straightforward single-disc version, but the performance and the movie are as bracing as a shot or two of late-morning whiskey.
7. To use another alcohol metaphor, owning the Criterion DVD of Ernst Lubitsch’s endlessly effervescent 1932 masterpiece is like being able to uncork and savor the same bottle of expensive champagne over and over again. A love triangle among social-climbing riffraff and upper-class beauties (call it “The Thief, the Pickpocket, and the Perfume Executive”), with Herbert Marshall torn between the beautiful Miriam Hopkins and the stunning Kay Francis, Trouble in Paradise has the great advantage of being made before the Code. It’s as frank and scintillating as it is urbane and surprisingly touching, and it’s one of the rare American screen comedies to be completely comfortable with European sophistication. Peter Bogdanovich’s video introduction lucidly explains the meaning of the “Lubitsch touch.”
8. Eric Rohmer may be underrated as a director. His films are rightly known for their endless talking, and for their intricate, ambiguity-filled exploration of contemporary romance and relationships. Yet he is also a precise and inventive director. His deceptively straightforward films are rich and cinematic: every cut, every decision to shoot in long shot or shot–reverse shot, and every object, costume, and piece of furniture reveals something about the emotional and intellectual subtext. Filmed in lush, crisp black and white, during a snowy Parisian winter, by the great Nestor Almendros, this is the most beautiful of Rohmer’s films. And the good news is that in order to obtain this film, you’ll have to get the astonishing box set Six Moral Tales.
9. The seemingly precious whimsy of Wes Anderson’s style masks a sensibility that is at once delicate and magnificently imaginative. The Royal Tenenbaums has been described as an adaptation of a great novel that doesn’t exist, and it is set in an upper Upper West Side that also doesn’t exist. Anderson literally creates a world of his own to explore the most primal emotions and family dynamics. There is so much to savor—the sweat suits, the enchanting music, Gene Hackman on a tricycle—and the DVD is also a world of its own, as beautifully packaged as, well, a Wes Anderson film, with Kent Jones’s lucid manifesto defining Anderson’s particular brand of genius, and a great gallery of production design drawings.
10. Agnès Varda’s New Wave masterpiece about a famous singer/fashion model who abandons her blond wig and rediscovers her identity on the streets of Paris is jam-packed with vivid detail, an expressive graphic style, and an eye for urban chaos, and is at least as engaging and inventive as Breathless and The 400 Blows. While waiting for this film to enter its rightful place in the canon of great movies, buy it now and enjoy its distinctly up-to-date sensibility. More than forty years after it was made, Cléo from 5 to 7 is a perfect movie for our times, digging beneath the surface of fashion and celebrity culture.