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To make a Criterion Top 10 list is very hard; there is an incredible number of great filmmakers represented within the collection, but only a handful can be chosen. To not include the likes of Fassbinder, Bergman, Welles, Renoir, a certain Wes Anderson or Ang Lee picture, etc. seems to me to be some kind of crime, and yet I created a list anyway, that which is more indicative of those that I absolutely love, as opposed to those that I actually think belong on a "Best of" list (for instance, I think 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is a better Godard film than Pierrot, and yet it is not included here). Hopefully this gives a fairly accurate representation of my enjoyment within the Criterion Collection, even if many, many films are not present.
My favorite film; this masterpiece from one of the greatest of all modern filmmakers (he who died too young before a light could rightfully shine upon him) brims with light around an impending darkness, and it includes everything: life, death, love, heartbreak, work, play, choices/moral dilemmas, and virtually anything else of which one can think. It is a true testament to Yang's power that he could craft this film which so lovingly, and yet slightly hesitantly, follows its characters into depths of which we are not sure they will come out the same as they were before they entered. But isn't that how life is? Something happens, and one has to react and grow from it, whether it is a little occurrence or a life-changing event. Yang-Yang's last lines, his summation of his feelings after the events of the film have finished, hit the audience so hard with power that one can only empathize and feel love, care, and yet a little sad. And, of course, none of this would be possible without the eloquence and quiet patience of Yang's camera, that which has the ability to bring forth knowledge and emotion within the audience, not with grand gestures, but with simple movements.
My third favorite film, Chungking Express surprised me on first viewing (caught me off-guard is more like it), and then it only got better after each repeat viewing. Quickly, it rose to become my favorite film for a time, because of Wong's steady hand at crafting feeling out of images and sound that I had never seen captured in such a way before. Split in two halves, the film is part noir-romance, and part l'amour fou (maybe actually ALL l'amour fou, when one considers the goals of each protagonist), and yet it all works, primarily because the characters are likable, funny, interesting people, each dealing with the pains of love that attack each and every one of us, and because Wong knows knows how to build a narrative through a steady flow of feeling, rather than simple thought (which is not to say that the film lacks foresight, or anything like that, because, while made hastily, this is a well thought-out film). Wong made other great pictures, too (Days of Being Wild, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love), and some not-so-great films (Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels), and yet Chungking Express stands on its own two feet as a defining example of poetry-in-motion.
Linklater's great film was the first Criterion I ever received (from my brother for my sixteenth birthday), and it still holds up as one of their defining releases (of course, because the film itself still holds up). The story of a bunch of teens on their last day of school (none graduating, but all moving forward) and the interesting night that ensues is one of the best "high school" movies ever made; nothing is glorified here, and yet most of it is damn fun to watch (albeit sometimes painful to experience) due to the keen interest Linklater has in his players and their parts. The characters are more-or-less types, and yet they go so much further than that and become full human beings, swirling around in a chaotic mess of a world that wishes they'd grow the hell up (while they'd much rather just chill out and get wasted). The drama that happens within the film is all relationship-based, although there are definitely some existential undertones (or maybe overtones?) permeating the entire surface of the picture, making it much more of a "real" film than many other films on a similar subject. There are no big, life-changing events going on here, but there is life, and that is to be noticed.
Jeanne Dielman might just be about the most perfect film I've ever seen, and its strengths rely on its incredible communique between its form and its story (the loner-widow waiting for a package to arrive while she takes care of her son and prostitutes herself for extra money in the afternoon). The subject of the film might seem to be incredibly bland (especially the way in which I first understood it - that of a woman who does chores for three hours), but the actual presentation of the material leads the former conclusion to be nothing further from the truth. What Chantal Akerman does to build her film is genius; by setting it over a three day period (starting in the middle of the first day and ending in the middle of the third), we are able to see the ins and outs of every daily task performed by Jeanne, and we are then subject to the way in which each task is altered by a single event taking place halfway through. This brutally honest and intense feminist film jolts the audience from its comfort zone with its dazzling ability to both keep the mundane exactly as it is (incredibly mundane), but to make those mundane tasks actually mean something. Every time I put the film on, I am immediately drawn into its rhythms and, though it is three hours, I never feel the urge to turn away. The final scene culminates the entire film by smacking the audience in the face, and letting them see exactly every intricate notion behind Akerman's masterwork.
Eric Rohmer, Eric Rohmer. If ever there was a filmmaker to bring joy to its audience after creating such misanthropes for us to view, it is Rohmer. Not that all of his characters are dumb, out-of-the-ordinary, or vile, but that, at least within his moral tales, many of them perform deeds based on notions that they think are right, but which, in actuality, are usually wrong. Love in the Afternoon, likely the most moral of the tales, is perhaps the most romantic film that I have seen in the collection, a movie that has one of the nicer Rohmer protagonists (even if he deals in wrongheadedness) who goes down a wrong path to realize exactly where he made his fault. It's interesting to view the psychology that we are presented with; here is a man who clearly loves his wife, but who seems to lead a relatively boring existence. Here comes a woman he used to know who spices things up; he doesn't think he is doing anything so wrong, but he lets himself get pulled into this woman's clutches (though I don't really feel as though she is to blame for his own inner-workings) while his love life at home continues on its sterile path. We can empathize with him, though, but not because we feel that what he does is right, but because we feel that he is human (Rohmer was a master at creating individuals, those who actually make actions based on thought and their own personal philosophies, rather than more bland characters from other films who simply use their genitals). When sense comes flurrying into his head toward the film's climax, it is one of the most reassuring moments in the cinema. And the final scene has more passion for human relations (even under more-or-less dire circumstances) than many, many other films that claim such passion, because Rohmer knows that the spoken word is a bigger key to romance than a sex scene.
This is a hilarious and always-fascinating film. Jerome is a nice enough man, but he leads a charade in the story of this film that is so self-satisfying that, even when nothing has been resolved, he walks away feeling proud of himself. After watching all of Rohmer's Moral Tales, this was the one I originally thought was the best, and, after watching it again, I can say that it easily holds up. This is another film built nearly entirely around dialogue, as well as one or two pivotal actions taken by Jean-Claude Brialy's Jerome, but the level of intrigue here behind each word is even more fascinating than the talk in My Night at Maud's, especially since the age difference between Jerome and the two women he would like to court is vast (both girls are around sixteen). It is also an interesting film in how it relates its characters - some, you know a lot about, and some you end up knowing very little about, even if you feel as though, having seen the character so much, you can probably get a handle on what makes that person tick. That is probably the way Jerome moves throughout this film; he first attempts to court Laura - a smart, brash youth - and he becomes close to her. Then, though, his gaze shifts to Laura's sister, Claire, and he feels he must touch her knee (with the touch being accepted) for satisfaction. His knowledge of Claire starts at about zero and only rises to as much knowledge as he might have knowing that she is a girl of sixteen. She doesn't seem to be nearly as interesting as Laura, but Jerome will not be deterred. Rohmer's play with characters and their individual ideologies here is striking. Jerome in particular describes himself, and then constantly contradicts that description because of how highly he regards his own character. It is so entertaining to watch the story unfold (with astonishing photography at the mountains of Switzerland), and the ending and its moral "lesson" (one actually not learned by anyone in the film) provides for a hilarious jolt to the upstanding bourgeois nature of Jerome, even if he will never actually feel such a jolt.
Fellini's 8 1/2 was the first "art film" that I recall watching, and that wasn't until my seventeenth birthday. I remember laying on the floor watching it in my mom's room on her 12" TV while my mother and sister watched television in the living room. I was floored. I had read Ebert's Great Movies review of the film countless times in hope of seeing it at one point or another, and the film did not disappoint; instead, it presented me with images unlike any I had before experienced - images that start subjective and then become objective, a dream sequence that is the most pure of that form that I have ever seen in a film, etc. And the power of its story - that of a conflicted director who cannot create what he wishes - became from there on out a staple in my own writing through my early years of college. It also began to personally hit me when, in school, I had to make different projects than I would have liked, and I thus felt very constrained. In any case, the film itself is majestic, inter-cutting the past and the present, reality and fantasy, to create a visual and aural collage of nothing more than desire, passion, and fear - fear of faith, of love, of rejection. It is a very large and expensive acutely personal film, and I am always surprised again when I put it on how much I find myself enjoying it - not because I think, in retrospect, that it's not as good as I thought it was, but rather that I am constantly surprised that a film can grab me so suddenly and with such strength that I am absolutely amazed.
Another film I had read and re-read Ebert's Great Movies review of, The 400 Blows brought me to the French New Wave and showed me a cinema that was free-wheeling and fun, but also that was incredibly affectionate with its characters, and which dealt smartly with the challenges youths face. I'm not sure how many coming-of-age films I'd seen before this, but they had never worked as well as this one did (although I feel there are better ones, like perhaps Eustache's Mes petites amoureuses, and yet the power of Truffaut's film is undeniable), and they never utilized such emotion in regards to exactly how youths feel when they are at the awkward age of responsibility and yet are still demeaned by their elders. What is a kid to do when he is stuck in a zone that has no escape? That is what Truffaut's final image asks of us, because Antoine Doinel (one of my favorite film creations) is somehow supposed to be both a boy and a man, and yet he cannot be both. The power of the music and photography, specifically in the way everything becomes almost like energetic play, allow the film a feeling of spontaneity and youthful resourcefulness that few other films achieve. And Jean-Pierre Leaud was a true find, one who became almost like the son of the New Wave, and one of the most interesting and entertaining actors to ever watch.
Shohei Imamura, how you fascinate endlessly! This film about a serial killer is one of the most interesting, in that it doesn't attempt to justify the crimes, but rather to show them; it is, in a sense, simply a rather inquisitive film, one that doesn't really have answers for anything, but which knows that there is something very wrong when a man begins to do what Iwao Enokizu does. Imamura made several films that I really do love, and this is not one to disappoint. The boiling undercurrents of sexual longing and desire, which may, in a way, play a part within the crimes themselves, stirs between all different people, including our murderer's family and the adultery his wife begins with his father, and it is fascinating to see where such anger and jealousy are able to come out. Is that why he committed his crimes? Not exactly, but again, there is no clear statement. He is an angry man, and he will let nothing in his path stop him. Imamura said that he did not actually know how he felt about Enokizu, and I think that his lack of knowledge (not necessarily indecision) makes the film that much more interesting. In a way, almost all of Imamura's films are studies, and usually of the individual within a society (how he responds to the moral demands of the world around him). There is a great mystery here, with scenes evoking a kind of grand tragedy of character, and also some scarring melodrama that delves deeply into the heart of taboo. The ending of the film does not give us a right or wrong, but it does show us a kind of power that the lingering effects of our past can hold over us. It is an amazing work, one in which character, plot, and layout intertwine to build up inquisitiveness about the film's highness, allowing us to question moral judgments and our own personality, as well as those evil-doers in our own societies.
Simply put, Every-Night Dreams might very well be the saddest film I have ever seen. Naruse surprised me with his mastery of skill in the first three films in this Eclipse set, but this film stood out above the rest as a testament to the torturous anxiety that society can level upon the individual, and the resilience that some try to muster to keep themselves afloat. Really, the film is about a weak man and a strong woman, both of whom are in a very dire situation financially, and both of whom want an escape. Naruse films are always exciting to watch in some way, primarily from a filmic standpoint, because his knowledge of film form so early on was astounding, and this film is no exception; he has the ability to easily take a joyful situation and instantly turn it tragic, all the while maintaining a sense of reality that allows for such incredible empathy. This film, through its story and images, is almost a precursor to the Italian Neorealist movement, and its emotional dimensions bring this little family drama to grand proportions, making desire everything; those who can hold on a little bit longer will win out, but only because they still hold on (therefore their situation still might not get better, but they will not have perished due to letting go). I found this and nearly every Naruse film in the Eclipse set (except for Street Without End) to be an example of pure artistry, a sure hand guiding these stories to chilling emotional climaxes that few films I've seen from this era had the ability to achieve. Regrettably, it has the weakest image quality in the set (perhaps being transferred from a video print), but that we have this masterpiece available at all is fantastic.
This is one of the most perfect film trilogies I have ever seen, in that each film (regardless of quality, even though each piece is, at worst, only very good) is absolutely necessary, showing sickness, death, and then a lapse into purgatory. Ossos is a fine film (albeit, for me, the weakest of the trilogy) that shows that there is something very wrong in Fontainhas, a depressing slum, where a man must give up his baby in hopes to eat. In Vanda's Room, then, continues with that thought, but it becomes all the more interesting because it is not scripted, and it is shot during the literal destruction of the slum in which these people lead their lives. Also, Costa's decision to not shoot on film, but on digital video, is a fascinating and engaging choice, one that lends itself wholly to a more authentic and realistic portrayal of events; the film exemplifies dying and death. Colossal Youth, finally, represents the after-death, limbo, purgatory, in which a man, Ventura, wanders aimlessly around to those stuck in their own little hovels, usually bare-walled white rooms, or dirty shacks, each engaged in his own plot and hardly able to think of anything else. It is perhaps the saddest depiction of stasis I have ever seen, and what such a stasis does to people, thus ending the trilogy on an incredibly down note, but one of an immense power that the impact of the films cannot be denied. They are beautiful, sad objects to behold, and this set is likely one of the best offerings criterion has ever put to DVD (hopefully we might get a Bluray upgrade someday, but the presentation is still amazing).
I described this list as a list mostly of my favorites within the collection, and yet how many times have I complained about Pierrot le Fou and its final fourth, that which I don't think necessarily works? It is almost a wonder to me that I added it to this list, but I cannot deny the incredible interest I find within this film, at least within its opening moments. The amount of times I have seen the first few minutes of this film shows just how instantly gripping it is, with music that chills to the core, an interesting narration, and images that create a stunning collage in play with that very narration. And then the film starts, and it creates this unique atmosphere that is at once open and suffocating at the same time, with a moment's solace coming when Belmondo's Ferdinand is able to speak with Samuel Fuller. The film really kicks into motion in the coming scenes, in which Ferdinand escapes with former girlfriend Marianne Renoir, and their relationship leads the film into fascinating waters, chronicling Godard's impatience with Anna Karina, and how he felt his art (and thus his life) had been destroyed by such a toying force. Of course, it is hard to look at Godard's character and really always empathize with him, but one can empathize with Ferdinand, because Belmondo portrays him as a man with such passion, and we see all of that passion go to waste for a conniving nag. The film is sad, but gorgeously shot, almost showing such passion beneath even the most mundane of circumstances. The score is unlike almost any other, and its dark and depressing beats pull and pull and create a true powerhouse of audio that wrenches the gut with feeling of a kind of torturous sympathy. Do I find the ending, or, in the very least, what leads to the ending, flawed? Yes, but I still find what Godard does along the way, including his many detours, to be fascinating enough.
This is another film that I have sat and watched the opening minutes of countless times, always lured in by its images and, like Pierrot, by its utterly depressing use of music. Melville constantly fascinates because his images brim with modernity while his characters seem to hail from the past, juxtaposing, then, time as well as mental attitudes in such times. Here, his style is absolutely full, and the drama that he is able to concoct through stillness and silence (and sudden momentary bursts of action) authenticate his world as lived-in and regarded, as well as well-calculated - timed to perfection (because how can one be a resistance member if he is not acutely aware of both his surroundings and of the necessity of precision within his actions?). Each image drips with a sadness, not for things past, but for things both in the moment, and to come. Every action taken by a character could lead, down the road, to his own undoing, and so the careful development of each relationship almost becomes paramount concerning interaction. Melville's film, then, has a focus and determination unlike most others, because his camera acts as though it were one of his characters - with a steady precision that is not to be swayed by manipulative forces around it. I love watching this film because of its necessarily dreary tone, and because its characters are also not supermen, but simply men with lives who do this work also, and who are trying, therefore, to desperately make a difference under such ruthless control (that which is pictured nearly horrifically in the film's opening shot). Why did it only finally come out in 2006? Somehow the French didn't like it back in '69, but I'm certainly thankful that we have it now.
Why does this film stick in my mind so strongly? It probably has something to do with my surprise at its technique, which I did not expect coming from the early sixties. Ritt's decision early on to shoot Alec Leamas from behind as an introduction, cramped in a little room with three other men all looking on, waiting for a man to cross the Berlin Wall, astonished me in such a way that I've never been able to let go of that image, and the sadness pervading through both it and the rest of the film. Done in black and white, the film paints a portrait of the Cold War as something that, once involved in, one can never really escape, and which makes the times concerning the self and those around him all the more difficult, and all the less fun. There are few moments of joy throughout the film, and even in those moments, there is the undercurrent of rampant emotion dealing with the political and the thought behind each word. It is a dark film, one that pushes deeper and deeper into knowledge and truth, only to find its world turned upside down by the very ones in which it was supposed to believe. Not many people I have come across love this film, and yet I do for similar reasons as my love of Army of Shadows, although they are still very different films; the tone that each respective filmmaker imparts onto his film leaves the viewer with such a bleak outlook, even when good things are happening, because bad is always right around the corner. Do I admire such viewpoints? I don't know, but I certainly know that they provide for some interesting and dark cinema that relates the hurt of the soul to the audience extremely well.
This little study of a street (by way of its inhabitants and their goings-on) is one remarkable piece of cinema, one that is wonderful in its eye for people and their thoughts, as well as one that is not afraid to step into the line of fire (i.e. people who do not wish to be captured). Malle seems to know how to study something, constructing interest at every moment, often simply by letting the camera roll and letting people talk, revealing more and more each moment (whether the intent is to do so or not). The proximity of the film, that which often gets very close to its interviewees, allows for almost a case-study of Parisians in general, specifically at that point in time. It is interesting to see the different viewpoints (also the wonderful amazement of people who have never been filmed or seen a film camera, and how they respond to it) on the tough times the community and its residents are going through, as well as the incredibly personal revelations of the individual within society, and alone with himself. It seems that the French are much more open to discussing certain aspects of their private lives than people in America (either that, or Malle, simply by being friendly, can really open people up, as he also did in God's Country). The two final portions of the film amazed me. First, Malle gives the questioning up to a young girl who recurs throughout the film, and she proceeds to ask most individuals about their sex lives (leading to incredibly stunning revelations); it is a lot of fun to see this fresh and interesting youthful perspective, as opposed to the older Malle's perspective (which is fine by itself, but this portion of the film brings forth such differences in age that it creates an even more interesting image than had he simply continued to interview her). And then the final, very long portion, in which a recurring older woman keeps telling a lengthy story (so long that one might easily forget where it begins) is almost a case study in film tension, in that it becomes more claustrophobic as people circle around the interview, and those watching because increasingly perturbed by the length. Of course, though, they are fascinated, and we watch too, fascinated along with them.