Army of Shadows
My admiration for Melville was propelled to a new level when I saw Army of Shadows for the first time in 2006. The level of suspense and paranoia that Melville is able to sustain throughout is astonishing, as is the performance by Lino Ventura. Thank you to Rialto Pictures and Criterion for making this available to us on the big screen and the small.
Au hasard Balthazar
I’ve limited myself to one film per director—otherwise my list might easily have included every Bresson film in the collection. I’m always struck by the sensation that I’m seeing a Bresson film for the first time no matter how many times I’ve seen it. I never remember plot points or performances, just a lingering feeling of having a profound experience. Through Balthazar the donkey, Bresson shows us that there is beauty and dignity in all that makes us human—from kindness to suffering. There is no way to top Godard’s quote on the film—“The world in an hour and a half”—so I won’t even try.
Dazed and Confused
Quick! What film do you think of every time you hear the beginning of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”? I think anyone who grew up even close to the era depicted in Dazed and Confused knows how pitch-perfect it is. That younger viewers can appreciate it as a hilarious stoner film, and that older viewers, with the presumed wisdom and perspective that comes with age, can appreciate the often poignant depiction of both the carefree joy and daily traumas of our teen years, is a testament to Richard Linklater’s ability to craft naturalistic dialogue and create well-rounded characters, even within an ensemble cast. The film includes perhaps my favorite use of a song in a film: Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” over the slow-motion entrance of Pink, Wooderson, and Mitch into the pool hall. The moment really sums up the film for me. It’s a moment that seems to capture the fleeting promise of youth (Mitch) and the weighty permanence of unfulfilled potential (Wooderson). There is an array of great extras on the Criterion release, so there is no reason not to own this one!
Fiend Without a Face
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting Richard Gordon and his brother Alex (who passed away a few years ago) knows what a rich vein of film history the brothers represent. A conversation with either might include stories of producing films with the likes of Ed Wood, Gene Autry, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and B-movie director Eddie Cahn, to name just a few. As a producer, Dick’s best-known work is the fondly remembered low-budget science-fiction staple Fiend Without a Face. It’s a great tribute to the Gordon brothers that Criterion has released not only Fiend but also the four films included in the Monsters and Madmen box set.
The Flowers of St. Francis
I saw Flowers for the first time during grad school in the early 1990s, and Rossellini’s deceptively simple depiction of grace and faith has never left me. I always wanted to see it again, so I was beyond thrilled when I found out that Criterion was releasing it. Hands down my favorite Rossellini.
I have special memories of the film not only because it’s one of my favorites but also because it was the film that introduced me to Tarkovsky. Though not as rigorous as later works such as Andrei Rublev or The Mirror (another film on childhood during World War II), it contains plenty of the thematic concerns and stylistic tendencies that would appear again and again in his work. And, of course, the end of the film is simply devastating.
Again, limiting myself to only one film per director, I went with Mon oncle to stand for Tati’s body of work. It was hard not to pick Playtime, but now that I’ve seen it a few times in 70 mm, I’m not sure I can ever bring myself to watch it on television (and I own the Criterion version). I had the opportunity to see M. Hulot’s Holiday a number of times as a teen and in college, but it never did much for me. Mon oncle was different. It was a revelation, so charming and brilliantly inventive, yet understated. It is a film I can watch again and again (and I have).
Robinson Crusoe on Mars
This one is on the list for nostalgic reasons, plain and simple. I saw it on TV as a child (on my mom’s recommendation, if memory serves) and knew I was watching something completely different than the rest of the brainless fare to which most kids are exposed. One vivid memory I have is of being scared by the film, but in that really great way kids are scared by things like the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz or the Pleasure Island sequence in Pinocchio. Though I’m sure I saw it in a pan-and-scan version, I was struck by the vivid colors of the film, and the scenes with little to no dialogue must have been as foreign to me as the beginning of Wall-E was for most kids this past summer. I’ve seen it a couple of times as an adult, and thankfully it stands up very nicely.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I think Philip Kaufman is one of our most underappreciated filmmakers. His films are funny and sophisticated and are often very insightful explorations into sexual interplay among adults. Having read the Kundera novel a couple of times, and having seen the film many more, I am astounded by the adaptation. Though some disagree, I think Kaufman did justice to the source (not that it matters in the slightest). And is there a sexier performance than Lena Olin’s? Wow. The film is one of my favorites, but the true reason it made the list is that this Criterion release has one of my favorite commentaries in the collection, featuring Kaufman, Olin, and the great Walter Murch. Unfortunately, the Criterion edition is out of print.