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Originally posted on Next Projection on June 19, 2012.
The Criterion Collection is the boutique publishing company of choice for Region 1 cinephiles, self-described as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” and specializing, in its relationship with Janus Films, the catalogs of many of world cinema’s foremost auteurs. It boasts a section of Top 10s from an assortment of filmmakers, actors, writers, and other film-and-culture-related personalities running down their favorite movies that Criterion’s released. Since, like the British film magazine Sight & Sound, Criterion hasn’t contacted me for a list, I’ll publish it here with the brief, casual kind of commentary elicited in those wonderfully eclectic articles.
Although entirely viewable in a single evening, the density and richness of Criterion’s set of the four films by Jean Vigo will last a lifetime. It includes an entire disc of extra features relating to his brief but crucial place in film history, elucidated by the likes of Gondry, Eisenschitz, Truffaut, and Rohmer, some in archival footage. Vigo’s style of thrilling, romantic, poetic, surrealist cinema has yet to find an equal, so Criterion has done a huge service in releasing it as a single unit to be enjoyed as a unified yet tragically short whole.
Terry Gilliam’s dystopian, anti-bureaucratic tragicomedy has long been one of my favorite films, but arguably as interesting as its narrative and themes is its notorious production history, chronicled in the book and video (the latter included as a special feature) The Battle of “Brazil”. Universal executive Sid Sheinberg insisted on a re-edited version after the film tested poorly, and the Criterion release includes this “love conquers all” version in addition to the Gilliam-approved final cut as an example of how injudicious editing can affect the shape and tone of a film.
Intense and shot in a blend of subjective and documentary styles, The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic portrayal of the Algerian War of the mid-20th century, is a widely-influential political film, shown for instance at the Pentagon in 2003 for its insights into indigenous guerrilla warfare in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. No matter your political stripe, it’s a deft exercise in presenting both sides, even if its clear sympathies lie with the invaded underdog, and presenting some harsh moral quandaries that aren’t definitively answered. Among a host of special feature documentaries outlining its impact and ramifications are fascinating interviews with politically-engaged contemporary directors like Spike Lee, Mira Nair, and Steven Soderbergh discussing its still searing relevance.
Chris Marker is one of the world’s foremost essay and documentary filmmakers, a mysterious personality best known for his passion for memory, culture, video, and cats. Criterion released a set of his two most famous works, the SF short composed of still photographs La Jetée and the expansive meditation Sans Soleil, and included writing by Marker himself in the liner notes. The rest of his output is worth searching for and perhaps being released by Criterion itself in the future, but until then these two serve as an incomparable introduction to his radical aesthetic.
Along with Ozu and Mizoguchi, widely represented in the Criterion catalog, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the foremost Japanese filmmakers of the 1930s. Each of the four films in this Eclipse set — Japanese Girls at the Harbor, The Masseurs and a Woman, Mr. Thank You, and Ornamental Hairpin — chronicles the ordinary lives of its small cast of characters with incisive honesty and compassion, making the entire collection an essential slice of humanist cinema.
I have a soft spot for Jean-Pierre Melville’s icy, impossibly cool Le Samourai as it was the first Criterion edition I ever bought, and blindly to boot. Combining a noir fatalism with an almost 60s Pop Art presentation, opening with a fake Japanese warrior quote concocted by Melville himself, the film takes its tone from its central lone wolf embodied by erstwhile pretty boy Alain Delon, here so implacable and glacially expressionless. Its booklet of liner notes includes an appreciate by John Woo, an obvious inheritor of much of Melville’s tonal aesthetic.
Both epic and intimate, this romantic but clear-eyed examination of the British soul during wartime across the century is maybe the masterpiece of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s collaboration. The Criterion edition is the fully restored version from the 1980s after years of unconscionable cutting due for politics and television, slashing its impact and acuity about human relationships and the very act of aging. Perhaps best of all is the feature audio commentary of both Powell and the duo’s foremost American champion, Martin Scorsese.
The Eclipse sets released by Criterion sans extras present either a series of more obscure titles from canonical filmmakers or serve as introductions to now less well-known names back into the Region 1 market. Such is the case with “Presenting Sacha Guitry,” a collection of 1930s works from the French writer-director-actor that showcase his invention and wit. All four glide along with Gallic irreverence and a confidence borne of extensive theater work and a natural entertainer’s disposition.
Criterion has released some wacky movies over the years (the questionable Michael Bay diptych, the indescribable Japanese horror fantasy House) but for pure naturalistic bizarreness, nothing beats hard-hitting genre icon Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, which opens with a woman attacking straight at the camera. From there it goes off into not only lurid but oddly sentimental tangents related to a former call girl trying to fit in with outwardly normal suburbia. Most of the extras come straight from Fuller’s rambunctious, cigar-chewing mouth in the form of interviews and featurettes specifically about him.
I had seen a VHS version of Roberto Rossellini’s historical masterwork The Taking of Power of Louis XIV before its sumptuous release by Criterion, along with three other worthy films during Rossellini’s made-for-television period of historical reconstructions. Louis probably remains the most famous of these for its meticulous detail in presenting the French king’s challenging rise to consolidating power behind the throne. History really does come alive in front of Rossellini’s lens, intellectually and artistically vibrant even in the present day.