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These are my favorite Criteria. I like movies that are from the 1960s, or that are avowedly leftist, or that say something smart about the politics of desire.
This film solves the one problem Godard has attempted to solve without success: the problem of how to use cinematic form in order to to theorize the politics of heterosexuality. Erotic fantacies are unmasked as structures of domination, and structures of domination unmasked as erotic fantacies. Brilliant and unrelenting in its focus on the relationships among race, class, gender, empire, desire, and consumerism. The smartest film I have ever seen.
Heart of Darkness rewritten as a romantic comedy. Also my two favorite things are cats and records, and L'Atalante features plenty of both. Marriage is a stifling mess, but the freedom of the alluring world on shore is, ultimately, even more terrifying.
In a perfect world, this would be the only movie.
I've been thinking about this one a lot, mostly trying to compare it to other films, but I think the two reasons the film works so well are 1) it understands (in a way that anticipates Fassbinder) what melodrama is for, and why melodrama works when it works, and 2) it so completely sees how intimacy works in conjunction with the world of objects. The emotional connections between the characters need to draw on things - rats, pianos, stairs, glasses of water - as a kind of currency with which all the manipulative games can be played. The piano is never just a piano - it's an objective correlative for the emotional bridges by which people both need one another and torture one another.
Bresson shows you a world too fallen to care about and then forces you to care about it anyway. This film is proof that the craft of acting belongs to the stage, and that "screen acting" is little more than a myth. That donkey gives the most psychologically nuanced performance in screen history just by letting himself be used as a prop.
The best silent movie, or at least by far my favorite silent movie (with thanks, of course, to Criterion's wonderful score). Naruse is the great poet of raw sadness, undiluted by Bresson's or Antonioni's, faith in the redemptive power of art, or Ozu's faith in the redemptive power of love, or Fassbinder's faith in the redemptive power of transgression. For Naruse, what redeems your sadness is just *more* sadness. Silence here becomes, as it was for Tati or for Chaplin in the 1930s, not a technical limitation but a potent stylistic gesture: the silence is actually an argument that talking won't do any good. I love all Naruse, and tend to like his films starring Hideko Takamine even more than his others, but for capturing my attention (when, normally, silent films are something I struggle with) this takes top spot among them.
If this had been made in 2005 it would have to be reclassified as a documentary.
Another movie about heterosexuality. Cocteau has a shockingly keen understanding of straight masculinity. He sees something about it most people don't seem to see - that its death drive has a whole erotic fantasy life of its own. Remade (unintentionally?) as Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Parts of this are too gross to watch, but the first half is pretty much the coolest thing I've ever seen. The relationship between commodity fetishism and erotic fetishism perfectly theorized in pictures.
This world can only torture you for so long, because eventually you will have nothing to lose, and, like Milton's Satan, will begin to strike out blindly, with tears in your eyes, at whatever crosses your path.