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As a long time fan of the Criterion Collection, I have had plenty of time to cultivate and view films that I would normally never get to experience. Here, in no specific order, I have given my thoughts on my 10 favorite films in the collection. All 10 come with my highest recommendation. I will do my best not to spoil the films, if you have not viewed them before.
Branded to Kill, on paper, has a description that might be confusing, troubling and angering to most people. When the #3 hitman in all of Japan suddenly botched a job and is on the run...oh and he has a fetish for boiled rice. Seijun Suzuki, who was already on a short leash when making the film, turns this into a full black and white bong hit extravaganza. The off the wall technique used, probably baffled even the most well read of scholars. Branded to Kill is above what a hitman movie could be and what if might have become. This is a personal favorite of mine for the sheer audacity Seijun Suzuki directs with and the down right mind bending special effects used. This one is not to be missed.
If Branded to Kill is the equivalent of an early Looney Tunes short gone horribly wrong, Tokyo Drifter is Keystone Kops on acid. The film Seijun Suzuki made prior to Branded to Kill, is a technicolor shot of whiskey straight to the brain. Where Branded to Kill is much more subdued in its craziness, Tokyo Drifter turns up the crazy to 11 and goes full speed into a metaphorical brick wall. Phoenix is our hitman this time, but he is reformed and trying to live a quite life. When he is called back into a gang war, the craziness ensues. Add in a theme song (which I have whistled to myself on more then one occasion), hot jazz and 60's Tokyo, you have the makings of a midnight movie classic. Probably my favorite film in the collection and another film not to be missed.
Not to be outdone, the French have their hands in the gangster genre and take the Japanese style and shoot it dead in the yard. One such film, is the Jean-Pierre Melville classic Le Cercle Rouge. The story is simple, the great Alain Delon, plays master thief (and recently released convict) Corey. Corey, while trying to keep things on the down low, gets sucked back into the world of crime with an escaped convict stowaway in his car. The two plan a heist for their final score. Much like Branded to Kill, Corey is a character who should not be liked, but you fall for him very early on. Alain Delon plays Corey much like Steve McQueen in Thomas Crown Affair...cool. At every turn, you never truly know what Corey is actually thinking. It keeps the viewer at arms length, making the ending much more shocking when it happens. Another personal favorite...do not miss the amazing silent heist scene that takes up a solid 20 minutes.
When it comes to British films, my basis for critiquing started and ended with Monty Python. That was until a little film called If... came onto my radar. The legendary Malcolm McDowell stars as Mick Travis, a somewhat renegade youth navigating his way through the British schooling system. What makes If... so unique isn't so much what is happening, it is how it is presented. The color and black & white scenes that are spliced in towards the end of the film, are a happy accident. Lindsay Anderson had stated that the only reason this happened was due to lack of funds. My looking at this with a critical eye, the subversiveness does not change...if anything, it is amplified by this happy accident. If... is every single downtrodden male fantasy come to live. Even now in this day, it is strikingly eerie to the events of Columbine and various other school shootings that have become a part of the 24 hour news cycle. Not for the faint at heart.
As a man with deep Irish heritage (both within the United States and in Ireland), this film certainly hits close to home. This dramatic retelling of the life of Bobby Sands, is a prime example of putting a human face on an in-human cause. To say Hunger is an IRA sympathizer film would be discrediting it on the most basic of levels. What Steve McQueen has done is shown both sides of a glaring problem in the 1980's in Britain. Many viewers may dismiss this as prisoners getting what they deserve, the story revolves around men and what they will do to prove they are right. The most telling an a spell binding 15 minute uninterrupted take between Bobby Sands and a priest on the merits of a hunger strike. If you listen closely, there are a number of different conversations happening at the same time between the two men. One of is very stubborn in his resolve and another who feels things have gone far enough. This is a film that pulls no punches and is not for the easily queasy. However, it can be an eye opening experience if you are willing to give it a chance.
Here is yet another depressing film, that will leave you with more questions then answers. I will not summarized the plot, since it would spoil the surprise. But the title of the film takes on a rather interesting meaning about half way through. To put it simply, Certified Copy is a wholly original work that simply gets better with repeat viewings.
Rarely is there a film where a misunderstood figure in history is given his due, by an eccentric director who is always pushing boundaries. Another film that could be dismissed as a sympathizer film, Che puts Ernesto "Che" Guevara more as a guy on a t-shirt worn by the uneducated...but a woefully misunderstood revolutionary. To sum up Che, you see the man behind the scenes and not the prototype villain he has been made out all of these years. You begin to understand what his cause was and what it became...and a man who was struggling with where to go next. Benicio del Toro is electric as Che, who is apatly directed by Steven Soderbergh. Shot in HD, with a few 16mm scenes, ascetically this might be one of the best Criterion has to offer.
The best summation I can give is, a master director taking a B movie idea and making it into an A list film. The Game hits you on a number of different. Through all the twist and turns that keep you guessing, there is another film of a man who is getting back in touch with himself after being away for so long. If there was ever a capable director for this film, David Fincher was the man to do it. After his groundbreaking (and some, myself included, would say genre killing) film Seven, Fincher hits back with a serious adult thriller for the ages. While repeating viewings might take away from the charm of the film, The Game is one of those turn of the lights and grab the popcorn kind of films. With an extraordinary performance from Michael Douglas and excellent supporting cast, The Game can satisfy Fincher fans and thriller fans in general.
Here is an example on how to make a movie with a rather unique premise at the time and still have the film be relevant and timeless many years later. Panties...that is what made Anatomy of a Murder so controversial when it came out. Now, you are probably reading this and rolling your eyes. And rightfully so. But at the core, Anatomy of a Murder has all the elements of a classic. Jimmy Stewart stars as a small time lawyer with a really big case. That slowly unravels into who is telling the truth and who isn't. That pretty much gives you all you need to know going in. Stewart using his rambling/stuttering charms as only he could. But do not underestimate him, he will finish you in the courtroom. Throw in Saul Bass titles (one of my favorite sequences of all time, rivaled only by North By Northwest, Batman: The Movie and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), an fantastic Duke Ellington score and memorizing black & white cinematography, Anatomy of a Murder is in the running for the best American film in the collection.
There is a classic Simpsons episode, where Sideshow Bob is getting released from prison with the theme to Cape Fear playing has he exits the prison. When in his hotel, we see the words Love & Hate tattooed across his knuckles. That homage is from the best American film in the Criterion Collection, The Night of The Hunter. Robert Mitchum (really, was there anyone else who could have played this part?) plays Henry Powell, a disguised preacher who is really a convict looking for his former partners take on a job they did together. Powell rolls into town trying to find the money and is questioned by the children of a local widow. The Night of The Hunter hits all the right notes. The black and white cinematography, the incredible acting, the superior direction (Laughton would never direct again...shame) and has an atmosphere that a number of films today wish they could have. This film is a forgotten masterpiece that has been lovingly remastered and given the full bonus treatment by our favorite film company. Without a doubt, this is the film you have to own.