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10 Favorite Criterion DVDs

by MarkoAndric76

Created 07/26/17

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Not a fan of rankings or lists. Too many to include. Yet as a regular Criterion customer, I might as well make one, it be understood that this is a random list of some of my favorite Criterions, not all of them and in no particular order. I like Number 10 no less than Number 1. However, I'll include a great box set as one dvd title, cause its my list and I can cheat every now and then. Also, I decided to include one of each director for diversity's sake. Ok, here goes.

  • Jean-Luc Godard is probably my favorite director and its hard to choose just one. Plus, so many great Godard titles aren't even included in Criterion, like his political films with the Dziga Vertov Group, La Chinoise,La Gai Savoir, Ici et Ailleurs, his history of cinema for television, his film on King Lear, his weird Hail Mary, or his 3D masterpiece Goodbye to Language, among others. Many of his films were on Criterion but are now out of print, like Pierrot Le Fou and Contempt. Vivre sa vie has been a particular favorite of mine for many years, perhaps because it was the first Godard I had ever seen. There's so much to say about it and I don't think I have it all. What I like about Vivre sa vie in particular is the way he uses the struggles of a young newly hired hooker to live her life to comment on the impact of art on the soul. His shots of Nana (played by Anna Karina) while she is watching Carl Dreyer's silent film about Joan of Arc and how the production moves her to tears shows just how much she identifies with the film and with the central character. Also love the penultimate scene where one of her customers (who becomes a boyfriend almost) tells her a story about an artist who becomes so enraptured by the painting of his wife that he loses all interest in his wife in the process, completing the painting only for the wife to die with its completion. Its almost a commentary on Godard's own marriage to the leading actress in this film, Anna Karina and how he made use of her for his art only for the marriage to end when that use was finished. Not to mention the film itself, as Anna's character makes her own life a work of art, only for it to end when it reaches its apex with the young lover. I won't say anymore but it truly is a jewel among Godard's great oeuvre.

  • Luis Bunuel defined surrealism as much if not more so than Salvador Dali and his films show-cased some of the best concepts in arthouse film coupled with powerful critiques of bourgeois society. The Exterminating Angel can be viewed as a re-working of his earlier film L'Age d'Or in its savage send up of the bourgeoisie and the Catholic Church and how they easily fall back on themselves and tear each other to shreds when confronted with their own absurdity. The older film had people throwing expensive furniture out of the window while this film has people cooking meat on carpets in the living room and plucking chicken feathers out of a purse, as they struggle to leave the house and party they were invited to, after a mysterious force keeps them in. Buffy the Vampire Slayer made use of the same idea some 30+ years later. Wonder if Joss Whedon stole it from this film.

  • Godard once referred to Bresson as being to French cinema what Dostoevsky was to Russian literature. Truly Bresson was in a class unto himself. Of all the major French filmmakers, he was truly unclassifiable and the most austere. Yet he left a profound influence on the French New Wave and the critics at Cahiers adored his work. Au hasard Balthazar is particularly noteworthy for its sparse use of music and very naturalistic approach. Set in the French countryside, we see the trials and tribulations of a young girl and her pet donkey as they are separated and put through the horrors of the real world through its betrayals and abuses. The young girl is often used and discarded while the donkey is used and abused by a number of owners. Yet while the girl, a human being, is often culpable in her own misfortune through her own choices, the donkey, despite being an animal with no free will as we understand it, shows more dignity and innocence in his suffering, being truly Christ-like in his endurance of his trials. The Catholicism of Bresson's films made him a French counterpart of the Italian neorealists in many ways. Another standout feature is Bresson's use of the French countryside. Truly a masterpiece and one I cannot recommend enough. Plus you get to see French thinker Pierre Klossowski appear in the film as a lusty miller.

  • Fritz Lang was the 20th century's filmmaker in that he captured it in all its darkness and savagery in his body of work, whether in Germany or in America. M is perhaps his greatest German film and a perfect showcase of how he could get to the darkness of the mob mentality in a fascist context, especially in matters of law and order. M describes how a suspected child killer is hunted down by vigilantes and subjected to a brutal, humiliating "vigilante court" where he is being prejudged for the crimes without any chance to give his side of the story or any concern for what is right, as in whether its right to take the law in one's hand and hang someone, just because that person did wrong to someone else. The film takes this choice away from the mob when the actual authorities seize the suspect but Lang's film was chilling enough as it was in simply implying what the mob was capable of. Even more interesting was how the black and white tone of the film inadvertently helped serve to set the mood for the film, creating a powerful noir that went to the seediest corners of the German city in this film to solve the mystery as well as highlighting the poor relations between the authorities and the people of the town, and how they are exacerbated in light of the investigation of the killings. Lang's American film Fury is in many ways an American reinterpretation of this same film or rather its themes.

  • Not much to say. Cassavetes was the independent filmmaker of the 60's and 70's and he left us an original body of work that defined American cinema for generations. A Woman Under the Influence is one of my favorites in how it uses its home video camera movements to show us the mental breakdown and chaos of LA housewife Mabel Longhetti and how her husband Nick walks on a thread to keep her and their children sane. Just brilliant in its portrayal of domestic turmoil and intense love.

  • Of all the poetic realist filmmakers of the 30's, Jean Vigo was my favorite. Though he died at 29 and left behind only four films to his name, he still showcased a brilliant mixture of surrealism and naturalistic movements that made him the most innovative and perhaps radical of the 1930's French cinematic giants, standing head and shoulders above Carne and Renoir. His masterpiece L'Atalante left a strong mark on French filmmaking, influencing the French New Wave that came after poetic realism and other filmmakers like Yugoslavian Emir Kusturica. Plus who can forget Vigo's captivating underwater shots, some of the first of their kind. This wonderful two-dvd set contains all four of Vigo's films plus great commentary and documentary features on the importance of Vigo. A must buy for all film lovers and Criterion customers.

  • Italian neorealism was first and foremost a humanistic response to the devastation and turmoil of Italy wrecked by Fascism, World War II and Nazi occupation. The king of neorealism, Robert Rossellini, got to the heart of this condition with his brilliant war trilogy of films: Rome, Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero. He not only showed the defiance of ordinary Italians against the Nazi occupying authorities, the humanity of American GIs and locals despite racial barriers and the courage of Italian partisan fighters, he also showed us the humanity of the German enemy themselves as they struggled to cope with a country broken by the dangerous fantasies of their leaders and authority figures and have nowhere to run to. Truly masterpieces of the school.

  • The work of Michelangelo Antonioni is the closest Italians ever came to having a New Wave of their own. His use of stark spaces and contrasts helped highlight the sense of urban alienation he wanted to communicate about his characters and modern society as a whole. L'Avventura is one of my personal favorites in this regard in its depiction of a young woman who falls in her love with her best friends husband after her friend inexplicably disappears on a boating trip to an island off the coast of Italy. Antonioni succeeds in capturing the alienation his two protagonists feel in society without each other. Its also perhaps his most naturalistic film in his use of landmarks such as the Mediterranean, the Italian countryside and Mount Etna to help bring his characters together.

  • Andrei Tarkovsky is a treat all too himself. He took the best aspects of Bergman and carried them a hundred steps forward to create beautiful, naturalistic, contemplative works that grappled with spiritual alienation of his characters while simultaneously launching subtle critiques of the censored Soviet culture from which his work emerged. In many ways, his films could be treated as a Soviet counterpart to the radical subversive filmmaking that emerged in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia during the 60's and 70's. Stalker was his last great film and truly one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, rivaling Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. For Tarkovsky, science fiction was as much about grappling with the dilemmas of the soul as they were about demonstrating technical and scientific feats. In Stalker, we see a story about a guide (or "stalker") who takes two others, a writer and a professor, into a forbidden area called "the Zone" which is all color while the urban project where they live is colored in high contrast brown monochrome. The "Zone", a place outside of reality and the laws of nature, is cordoned off by the government, yet the Stalker sneaks them out to it, where they encounter not the derelict over-industrialized wasteland of their home but a lush green forest and an abandoned building. They venture into this building to find a room where their desires may be granted, only to discover that it is the unwanted and unconscious desires that are granted by the Room, not what they think they are after. They decide not to go in, frustrating the Stalker's long-held belief that belief in the Room could bring hope and salvation to them. He returns, dejected to his wife, who continues to love and stand by him despite many difficulties and his sick child, "Monkey", who apparently has psychokinetic powers. There is so much to say about Tarkovsky's style. Much has already been written about his characteristic long takes, which help increase the sense of contemplation and meditation in his films. The differing color schemes for the Zone and the characters' urban home also help highlight the significance entering the Zone and what it means to the Stalker. Indeed, one could watch Tarkovsky's film and wonder whether it is not a critique of the Soviet urban space and its fetishization of industry. Incidentally, its worth mentioning that Tarkovsky adapted the story of this film from the book Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, itself a brilliant work of science fiction. The Strugatsky brothers were every bit as legendary as sci fi writers as were Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick and they understood many of the same struggles in their story as Tarkovsky did in the film adaptation. Although both are ultimately very different in execution, I recommend the book highly to fans of this movie.

  • Most filmgoers probably remember David Lean for his sprawling epics from the 50's and 60's like Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. They're all great. However, it was his smaller scale black and white dramas from the 40's (including his lovely Dickens adaptations) where his genius really shown. No where was this more apparent than in Brief Encounter, perhaps the greatest 40's love story ever told on film. In many ways, it almost reminds me of a Graham Greene romance. Set in a London suburb, the movie describes the illicit yet unconsummated affair between a disillusioned housewife Laura and a local GP named Alec (played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard respectively) who wallow in joy in each other's company yet suffer tremendously knowing that they cannot leave their spouses to be together. This failure to consummate their love is hard as it is heartbreaking and it is through Laura's eyes that we see most of the devastation. The torment and sense of loss Laura feels is terrible you almost want to give her a hug and comfort her. Celia Johnson was not necessarily the most glamorous or attractive actress of English-language cinema at the time but she was one of the most compelling and that showed in her role as Laura. Of particular brilliance is Lean's use of the railway station and how it serves as the source of both passion and sadness for Laura in terms of Alec coming and going from her life. Not to mention the alleyways and byways of the London suburb as the backdrop for their almost-affair, their "Brief Encounter." It may not have been made on a $15 million budge as Lawrence of Arabia was but its every bit as grand and fine a work of cinematic art as one can ever see from Great Britain.