Letter Never Sent
For years, this fairly obscure Russian movie has probably been my favorite movie. I first had a crummy Russian VHS with blocky Soviet-era lettering (in which the movie title was translated as Unmailed Letter). Then in the early 2000s, my friend somehow found me a bootleg DVD. (Shoutout to Bilge!) Miraculously, in 2012, I saw it listed on Criterion’s “Coming Soon” page. I remember when I saw that, I just couldn’t believe it. This story of survival in the Siberian wilderness is simply the greatest “tough terrain” adventure movie ever made (with apologies to another Criterion fave, The Wages of Fear). Both director Mikhail Kalatozov and his cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, seem half-crazed, and my jaw drops repeatedly while watching. Kalatozov is one of cinema’s boldest stylists, and there are a zillion shots in this movie that blow me away. Yet, despite the cinematic fireworks, the most affecting shots might actually be the many meticulous close-ups of the explorers’ faces, which foreground the raw human drama unfolding before your eyes.
I had the legendary film critic Andrew Sarris as a professor during his later years. At the time, he’d gab about the auteur theory (it was his theory, you know?) and talk about Hitchcock, Wilder, and Ford. But when pressed by his sycophantic students (myself included), he’d actually declare a 1955 Max Ophuls movie “the greatest movie ever made.” It was the first time I had ever heard of Lola Montès, so I immediately blind-bought the Criterion laser disc. I eventually graduated to the Blu-ray, which I’ve now seen countless times. Lola Montès is a beautiful, virtuoso piece of cinema. It’s an old-fashioned woman’s picture. It’s a study of loneliness. It’s structurally daring and technically masterful. It’s also really fun. It’ll make you want to devour every Ophuls movie you can get your hands on. The Criterion disc also features a really lovely documentary on Ophuls, made by his filmmaker son Marcel (I find this extra touching as my father is a filmmaker too.) After watching Lola Montès, New Yorkers can check out the grave of the real-life Lola Montès in Green-Wood Cemetery, an unlikely burial place for this nineteenth-century globetrotter.
The Thin Blue Line
As someone who’s really passionate about what he does, I have a lot of opinions about documentary films. A lot of documentary filmmakers don’t really think about their films cinematically, and some documentaries almost seem like they were just copy-and-pasted like Microsoft Word documents. I’ve always loved how Errol Morris takes a wrecking ball to those conventions. His films are constantly exploring the idea of what a documentary is. His films tweak and twist reality, and they don’t just try to serve the audience digested ideas on a platter. If I had to pick a favorite, it’s his transcendent 1988 classic The Thin Blue Line, which recounts a murder case and then riffs and re-riffs on it like a Bach fugue. It was the first film to really use re-creation and reeneactment scenes in a new and highly cinematic way, both to explore a case and to challenge a viewer’s own bias and subjectivity. Nowadays, its approach and editing style loom over every one of these multipart true crime series and podcasts. The Thin Blue Line is almost like the influential band that’s been ripped off so often that new converts may not realize just how significant it is.
Blast of Silence
One of my favorite mini-genres is the B crime movie from the late fifties and early sixties. It was a unique period in American cinema that gave birth to these half-cocked, no-budget movies that were made by some visionary filmmakers. They’re all super raw and gritty, very existential, and absolutely innovative in technique. It’s no wonder that the French New Wave filmmakers all discovered them and ripped them off (I’m looking at you, Jean-Pierre Melville). Movies like Don Siegel’s The Lineup and Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract (both of which have popped up on the new Criterion Channel recently!) embody this subgenre, but the high point for me is Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence, which seems to grow in stature every year.
It’s hard to describe it. Imagine if Orson Welles was a crazed junkie on the Bowery in the late 1950s and somehow conned someone out of $20k to make a bleak movie about a hit man. It’s sorta part Point Blank, part Taxi Driver, part Shadows, and it’s as hardboiled as they come. It’s also one of the great New York City movies, with amazing time-capsule photography in all the boroughs and near pristine documentary coverage of streets. The Criterion disc also unearthed another absolute gem: a 1990 documentary in which Baron visits all the locations from the film. Oh, and the Criterion cover art, by comic artist Sean Phillips, is maybe my favorite cover! And the edition also includes a graphic novel based on the film! (Damn, should I have put this first?)
The Battle of Algiers
When I’m not making my own movies, I’m usually working on a trailer for someone else’s. Since I was twenty-two years old, I’ve been a professional trailer editor. I began editing trailers for big Hollywood films (I was one of the editors on the trailer campaigns for the Scream movies, The Matrix movies, and a zillion others), but I eventually left that world and turned all my attention to art-house films. In recent years, I’ve had the unbelievable fortune to have created the trailers for several modern masterpieces now enshrined in the Criterion Collection, including Heart of a Dog, The Great Beauty, Yi Yi, Cameraperson, and Like Someone in Love. Another highlight in my trailer career was editing the rerelease trailer for The Battle of Algiers. Not only was there so much incredible material to use, but Pontecorvo’s masterpiece had always been one of my all-time favorites. It’s a huge influence on how I think about filmmaking, from the handheld camera work to its daring and quick editing to its strong use of music (Morricone!) to how Pontecorvo just throws a viewer right into the deep end from the get-go. Also, like the best documentaries (see The Thin Blue Line up the page a bit), it puts the responsibility on the audience to draw its own conclusions. The Criterion disc also includes some amazing extras, including a not bad rerelease trailer. ;)
The Night of the Hunter
All this talk about bonus features has made me think we need to talk about extras! I apologize, but I’m gonna deep-dive for a sec. It’s just that the special features are such key ingredients to some of these amazing Criterion titles and have become such an essential part of my own viewing experiences.
There are stunning extras in the Criterion Collection that I often think about as important additions to the history of movies. So don’t get me started, or I’m going to start blabbing about the piles of amazing extras on Barry Lyndon (which fill two Blu-rays!). Or the amazing documentaries on 8½ and Seven Samurai and Brazil. Or The Game, with its eight different audio commentaries. Or that concert film in the edition of Inside Llewyn Davis. Or every Andrea Arnold short film on Fish Tank. Or that Cronos supplement where Guillermo del Toro gives a nerdgasm tour of his bonkers house. (I told you: don’t get me started.)
But I think my all-time favorite bonus feature is Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” a two-and-a-half-hour documentary that has to go down as one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes films ever made. I had never even heard of this until I picked up the Night of the Hunter disc. It literally shows something that I’ve never seen before: tons of footage of a director in the midst of working with his actors during takes. While actors are performing, you hear Charles Laughton (a legendary actor directing his only film) guiding the cast through every line in basically every shot, take after take after take. It’s like being on set next to a perfectionist director while he meticulously sculpts the performances in his masterpiece. (And oh, poor Shelley Winters. “Do it again! Do it again! Less air in between! Go ahead Mitch! Look at her! Shelley, look up now and say ‘blessss ussss all.’ Yes, that’s it, Shelley!!”)
I love soulful noirs, and this slow-burn Austrian crime thriller is one of my faves of the new millennium. It’s as if Bergman made a movie about cops and robbers. Austrian director Götz Spielmann gets incredible naturalistic performances, and the storytelling has some real breathing space, which is rare in crime thrillers. (For another soulful Criterion crime pic, give The Hit a look-see.)
What I love most about Revanche is this narrative magic trick it pulls. You think it’s going to be a relatively conventional story about a robbery that goes off the rails and criminal-code revenge. But instead it turns into this deep exploration about the intersection of people and the happenstances that lead us down surprising paths in our lives (a theme that I explored in my documentary Magical Universe. Find it!). Like the best noirs, the crime plot is just the Trojan horse that takes you into a profound story about choice and consequence. Before you even know it, Revanche has morphed into something like a Kieślowski film, and it suddenly knocks you on the floor and leaves you in a heap.
Green for Danger
Years ago, during those quaint days of DVD-by-mail rental, I made a dork pact with one of my friends that for several weeks straight we’d only watch films in the Criterion Collection. Additionally, they had to be films we didn’t know much about. The experience was a total revelation. There were so many amazing films that I discovered during those weeks that made me really rethink a lot of what I thought I knew about the history of cinema. Films like Ballad of a Soldier, Death of a Cyclist, René Clair comedies like À nous la liberté or Le million, American indie landmarks like Symbiopschycotaxiplasm and the stunning Ermanno Olmi pair from the early 60s Il posto and I fidanzati. But the one from this period that I always recommend to friends is Green for Danger, a delightful British murder mystery that I had never heard of.
A Hitchockian thriller before that was even a thing (the director, Sidney Gilliat, cowrote The Lady Vanishes), Green for Danger is one of those classic British examples of “entertainment of the highest order.” It’s perfectly cast, with an incredibly clever and taut script—all wrapped in that classic Pinewood Studios style with impeccable camera work. Droll and dark at the same time. It’s the kind of movie that your murderous grandmother might call “delicious.” If you’re a fan of British mysteries or whodunnits, this one is for you.
I’ve always espoused this dopey idea that everyone should have one Shakespeare play that they know inside out. Just pick one. For me, it’s Macbeth. I’ve seen countless performances and probably watched most every movie version. (Hey, Scotland, PA, I got your back!). For me, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is really the greatest of all Macbeths (and would have to be in the running for best Shakespeare film). People often mention how it was Polanski’s first film after the Sharon Tate murder or how Hugh Hefner was a producer. Try to get past all the extracurricular stuff and just play’dst (with the English subtitles on, I’d suggest) for the incredible performances, the mastery of Polanski’s cine-aesthetic precision, and a bleakness that feels so relevant today. I love how it’s so true to the play yet also so clearly a Polanski film. It’s harrowing, visceral, and frightening, like all his best work.
I’ve seen Koyaanisqatsi more than any other movie. For years, I would just put play the disc on repeat the way some people might play their favorite record. But more importantly, Koyaanisqatsi has had a profound effect on me as a filmmaker and editor. It’s not so much the obvious stuff (i.e. the time lapse cinematography, editing to music, etc.) but rather this age-old notion that an audience can experience a story just through imagery. Audiences are smart—give them some guideposts, throw out some complex ideas, and they will do the rest. Koyaanisqatsi serves as a constant reminder that film is a visual medium where explanation (and even plot) can sometimes be intrusive, and the most powerful statement a film can make is the one that the audience arrives at.
The Koyaanisqatsi supplements are also really instructive. There are a couple candid doc pieces with the director, Godfrey Reggio. At one point, he says he explored having Allen Ginsberg recite poetry throughout the film. At another point, he talks about filming surreal Terry Gilliam–like scenes (at an enormous budget) that he ultimately decided to cut out. It reinforces the idea that with filmmaking, just like in life, sometimes you have to go through a lot of bad mistakes to discover what really works.
John Lurie’s Top 10
John Lurie, whose band, the Lounge Lizards, was one of the most acclaimed jazz groups of the eighties and nineties, has recorded twenty-two albums and has acted in several films, including Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and The Last Temptation…
Michael Atkinson’s Top 10
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His books include Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.