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One of the best and most daunting things about being a cinephile is that there will never be a dearth of films in your back catalog. (The only thing more terrifying than my never-diminishing Netflix and Hulu queues is the thought of all the unknown-to-me important/brilliant/provocative films I have yet to add to my lists.) And one of the most gratifying things about working at Criterion has been the number of discoveries I’ve had: films I’d always intended to see, or in some cases hadn’t even heard of before, but which have profoundly affected me.
Some might see the phrase “allegory for the end of the Franco era” and skip Carlos Saura’s remarkable coming-of-age tale. Forget the Franco stuff, if you need to. It works entirely on its own as a domestic drama of unusual delicacy; it’s haunting and emotionally lucid from first frame to last, and little doe-eyed Ana Torrent owns the screen as much as she did in The Spirit of the Beehive. This is one of those films that works on the viewer in indescribable ways—you’re not sure how or why it’s affecting you, but you know you’re in the hands of a master. Bonus: the film’s unexpected pop anthem, Jeanette’s “Porque te vas,” might be my discovery of the entire collection.
There it is, sitting forbiddingly in the middle of the twenty-fourth Eclipse set: one of the most important films in the collection, if not ever made. If I sound hyperbolic, it’s because there’s no other way for me to talk about this cathartic documentary masterpiece from Canada. I admit it’s a tough sell. I had heard about it from friends in Toronto, but had always decided to put it off for a rainy day. Thankfully that dark cloud arrived. It’s fair to say I was never the same afterwards. This exquisite film, following the final months, days, and, in some cases, seconds, in the lives of a handful of patients in a palliative care unit, better prepared me for some of the some of the most challenging moments I ever had, or will ever have.
At the risk of making this list seem like the ranting of a masochist, I’m following Dying at Grace with Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow. I’d love to sandwich something lighthearted in between, but, sorry, feel-good-lovers, I can’t place this one any lower. This heartbreaking (no . . . really) portrait of an elderly and loving husband and wife who must sell their house during the depression and move in with their grown children, only to find themselves separated from one another, is among the most uncompromising of Hollywood tearjerkers. It’s been regarded as the proto-Tokyo Story—but with its more accessible, heart-on-sleeve emotions it’s probably even sadder. Woe to anyone who watches this movie (especially the last twenty minutes) and has ever truly been in love. I hope I didn’t scare you off. Let me try this again: check out this gem from the director of Duck Soup!
It’s unlikely you’ll do anything but spend at least two hours Googling the name William Greaves after seeing this seriously entertaining sort-of-documentary. In it, Greaves “plays” himself directing a film (in Central Park) that’s as much a mystery to its actors and crew as it is to us viewers. The content of the film within the film—featuring a series of interchangeable actors reciting overbaked lines in some weird psychodrama—is endlessly amusing, but even better are the reactions of the perplexed camera and sound men, who begin to film themselves as they grow more impatient with the production, even threatening mutiny. The weirdly named Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is more than anything a fun, fleet investigation into power, race, class, and art—and it’s full of vivid glimpses of sixties New York.
There have been many instances in which established filmmakers have gone out of their comfort zones and traveled to other countries to make movies. My favorite is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí, which is a tourist’s film in the best sense possible (see another great one below). Teshigahara’s is a mostly wordless portrait of the titular architect’s jaw-dropping buildings, featuring music by Toru Takemitsu and probably the most sensuous cinematography ever devoted to concrete rather than human bodies. Another joyous thing to discover: this film has such a devoted fan base that it remains one of Janus Films’ most popular titles. There’s even an annual weeklong run of the film at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center around Christmastime.
Louis Malle initially wanted to make a movie about the phenomenon of shopping malls in America when he ventured out to the Midwest in 1979. (Didn’t he know George Romero had just made the definitive mall movie in Pennsylvania, Dawn of the Dead?) Instead, he ended up settling down for a spell in Glencoe, Minnesota, for this remarkable documentary of everyday Americans. Malle’s gaze is fascinated, but as an outsider, his perspective is never condescending. He clearly has a genuine love for the people who get in front of his camera—and the curiousness with which these folks view this French interloper in return is as much a part of the story. That Malle returned six years later after this farming community was wracked by foreclosures to finish the tale makes God’s Country not only an inquisitive work of nonfiction but also an important American document.
Here’s more expatriate cinema. The great Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman lived in New York for much of the seventies. During that time, she filmed this evocative portrait of the intimidating metropolis and her own isolation, consisting of contained, gorgeously framed long takes of Manhattan, over which she reads letters that her mother wrote to her while she was away. The result is mesmerizing, and it functions equally as a character study of a city as much as of Akerman herself, whom we never see on-screen.
Photographer Paul Strand and documentary trailblazer Leo Hurwitz collaborated on this one-of-a-kind political film from 1942. This is lefty cinema to the max, so those not predisposed should look in the other direction. Paul Robeson lends his booming baritone to what is essentially a collection of discrete tales of injustice done to average Americans’ civil liberties. There’s no doubt that this film, ultimately a plea for workers’ rights, often lays it on pretty thick, but its conviction is breathtaking, as is its technical sublimity—the strikingly composed images are cut together with a fluid, experimental rigor.
As staff writer for the company, I’ve had to come up with, I would approximate, eighty-nine different adjectives to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror (?) comedy (?), or, as it’s probably called by most viewers, “What!?” Here’s a sampling: psychedelic, absurd, nightmarish, bizarre, indescribable, hallucinatory, slapstick, ghoulish, kooky, goofy, gruesome, freaky, whacked-out, insanely entertaining. Despite all this I can’t say that I think I’ve managed to evoke it at all yet. All one really needs to hear is two words: dancing skeleton.
Speaking of adjectives, I also had to put on the brakes a couple of times while trying to describe just exactly what it is that goes on in Raffaello Matarazzo’s melodramas. In their day, ravenous audiences ate up the wonderfully preposterous plots in these popular Italian films from the late forties and fifties. And so did I. Class conflict and Catholic guilt reach unheard-of heights in Nobody’s Children and its sequel The White Angel: taken together they create an epic of suffering so absurd that you can only giddily smile in response.