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All that talk about how cinema is dying, and yet it’s abundantly obvious that there’s never been a better time to be a cinephile. To say nothing of the extraordinary Comstock Lode of brilliant new movies that hit screens this year, 2012 saw the Criterion Collection release nearly 50 important classic and contemporary films (alongside a host of beautiful Blu-ray upgrades of titles that they had previously released on DVD), solidly reaffirming that -- at least when it comes to home video -- the cinema is, at worst, gloriously undead. Of course, if zombies looked this beautiful, and returned to the land of the living with the comprehensive care and lavish attention to detail that Criterion affords to the movies released under their banner, World War Z would be a global holiday.
Sure, every year has its share of duds, but it’s increasingly impressive to see the quality and intrinsic value of the stuff that Criterion puts out, given how much stuff of quality and intrinsic value that Criterion has already put out. The year 2012 saw Criterion make a rare but essential detour into the avant-garde with its collection of films by structuralist icon Hollis Frampton, while its release of Paul Fejos’ frenzied 1928 masterpiece Lonesome proved that it is not done combing the distant past for undiscovered treasures. Yes, Criterion continues to underrepresent (or entirely ignore) several of the world’s richest national cinemas -- it’s hard out there for a boutique physical media label -- but, hey, it means it still has plenty of room to grow.
So without further ado, here’s the Second Annual Criterion Corner Awards, beginning with my list of the year’s 10 best Criterion Collection releases.
#10) THE QATSI TRILOGY
Godfrey Reggio’s indelible triptych of wordless meditations just hit stores a few days ago, but some of us have been waiting years for a proper release of these iconic films. Criterion’s box set, gorgeously designed by Sam Smith, made it all worthwhile, with three (nearly) flawless transfers allowing fans to get lost in these mesmeric and increasingly pissed-off portraits of life in flux. Unfortunately, the otherwise packed release didn’t include the one extra feature that I had hoped for: a comprehensive explanation as to why Powaqqatsi has a second “Q” that makes it sadistically more difficult to spell (most likely explanation: Reggio got the definition wrong, and “Powaqqatsi” is just Hopi for “mess with bloggers”).
It turns out that the only monster that could ever truly defeat Godzilla was kitsch. Decades of battles against Mothra and Mecha-Godzilla transformed the most brilliantly immediate symbol of Japan’s post-war fears into a semi-dismissive cultural shorthand, to the point where most Western audiences now regard the lumbering monster with the same reverence they do his Pokémon descendent, Squirtle (be careful when Googling that one, folks).
But Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla is a gen-u-ine masterpiece that holds up better than you might imagine -- it’s a fun but legitimately unsettling plea for a better world, a monster movie that doubles as one of the cinema’s most humanistic treasures. Criterion’s loaded release treats the film with the respect it deserves, full of awed commentaries and illuminating special features.
#8) LA PROMESSE
It’s been clear for a while that the Belgian duo of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are pretty much the greatest, but it sure was nice to see them take their rightful place between Alfonso Cuarón and Jules Dassin in the Criterion Collection. Criterion kicked things off with two of the Dardennes’ breakthrough masterpieces from the late '90s -- La Promesse may not have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but it edges out Rosetta for the only award that actually matters around here: my affections.
Nevertheless, both of these films are tough but tender neo-realist fables that unforgettably illustrate what “shaky cam” is supposed to look like. Not to overvalue the Dardenne brothers’ work, but if Citizen Kane is so great, where was Olivier Gourmet? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
#7) BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich is one of those “favorite films” that is always even better than you remember, even though you probably remember it as being pretty dang great. This thing hasn’t aged a day, but watching it makes you realize just how removed we are from 1999, if only because it’s now impossible to remember an age when a new John Cusack movie didn’t make you want to travel back in time and convince Thomas Edison to become a poet or something (that might sound drastic, but The Raven and The Paperboy were enough for me to wish that movies had never been invented).
Quoth my review: “Being John Malkovich felt like the film that the 1990s had been searching for all along, capitalizing on our collective fear of loneliness and the big tomorrow to reframe the opportunity for us to redefine ourselves as a chance to better see each other.” Criterion’s appropriately trippy artwork was a bit of a curveball, but it’s hard to complain about such a great film finally getting the respect it deserves.
My (full) review.
#6) WEEKEND/WEEK END
Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End -- perhaps the angriest film ever made by the cinema’s most inventive curmudgeon -- has seemed like an inevitable Criterion release from the very beginning (the Criterion Corner Tumblr has run a “Happy Week End!” post on nearly every Friday for the last 18 months). Now that it’s actually here, Godard’s most furiously demented screed against bourgeois culture is easier to appreciate than ever before. Wildly anarchic and technically astonishing (the traffic-jam tracking shot exceeds expectations every time), Week End is every bit as vital to Godard’s body of work as Breathless or Vivre sa Vie. Now if Criterion could finally get its hands on Godard’s King Lear, the masses could finally see how Woody Allen and Molly Ringwald’s menstrual fluid fit into the same movie.
As for Andrew Haigh’s wonderful Weekend, it may not make for the most fitting double feature with the Godard film, but it’s nevertheless a beautiful and arrestingly assured romance that just so happens to be a pivotal movie in the canon of new queer cinema.
#5) THE GOLD RUSH
Finally, some hard evidence that that Chaplin guy wasn’t just an overblown hack (that’s a joke). It turns out that the film by which Charlie Chaplin wanted to be remembered, might be the film that remembers him best. Criterion maintained its one-Chaplin-per-year pace, continuing to knock out pristine and definitive editions of the Little Tramp's classics, here providing both the silent and the chatty versions of The Gold Rush.
#4) CERTIFIED COPY
Certified Copy currently has my vote as being the best film of the current decade, and I’ve written about it so many times that by this point I’m not sure what else I have left to say. Every subsequent viewing of Abbas Kiarostami’s elusive love story about two people falling in or out of love offers new food for thought, but the particulars of such insights tend to slip away as they’re erased by the movie’s ultimate unknowability. I guess I can add that Kiarostami’s spiritual sequel, Like Someone in Love, is almost as sublime, and that my marriage offer to Juliette Binoche still stands (contingent, of course, upon a full written apology for Dan in Real Life).
Criterion’s edition of Certified Copy was rather light on extras (predictably so for such a recent film), but methinks that the release properly contextualized the movie’s greatness in a way that its muted festival reaction and subsequently quiet theatrical/VOD release didn’t. It’s safe to say that people will now be seeing this movie, even if they’ll never see it coming.
#3) A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY
If you came across experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton in a dark alley, you’d probably be a bit startled, and not just because he’s been dead for almost 30 years. The man looked like he was 70% LSD, with a few wisps of hair running across his balding head and a beard so thick that even an editor of his skill couldn’t seem to cut it. By the time he finished his career with Magellan, a 36-hour monstrosity intended to reimagine the history of cinema as it should have been, it’s likely that Frampton had lost it completely. But his legacy endures, in part because his exploratory tinkerings maintained a warmth rare in such nonnarrative works, and in part because his structuralist confections made questioning the cinema as fun as watching it. Introducing Hollis Frampton to a wider audience was one of the great (perhaps even charitable) of Criterion’s great achievements in 2012.
#2) ROSEMARY’S BABY
The most frightening thing about Rosemary’s Baby may be the fact that there are still so many frightening things about Rosemary’s Baby. The waifish subservience with which Mia Farrow embodies the title character seems too extreme and theatrical to connect with modern audiences, but the twisted dynamic between Rosemary and her husband Guy (the John Cassavetes) is still unnervingly believable. When Guy and Rosemary move into a musty new apartment, it’s soon clear that their neighbors are all witches, and that they’ve somehow tampered with Rosemary’s unborn child. Rosemary is merely a vessel to them, but as she becomes increasingly confused by what’s happening to her, her predicament becomes increasingly more familiar to us. Like so many of the greatest horror films, Rosemary’s Baby is scary to see on-screen, but much scarier to see at home.
#1) THE TRILOGY OF LIFE
The best films ever made to have been rejected by their own maker. The most beautiful Criterion release since Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The largest assortment of flaccid penises collected in one place since Antichrist premiered at Cannes. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life is all of these things and many more, three bawdy, boisterous and brilliant adaptations of landmark anthologies that together cohere into Pasolini’s personal Narnia. They have to be seen in order to be believed, and even then it’s a toss-up. Much like with the original Star Wars trilogy, you will never forget the last few minutes of Pasolini’s middle chapter (The Canterbury Tales). That isn’t hyperbole (I’m not even sure if it’s praise), but it is most definitely a guarantee. Enjoy.
BEST EXTRA FEATURE: GODZILLA: Audio commentary by David Kalat
BEST COVER ART: THE TRILOGY OF LIFE/BELLE DE JOUR
BEST SURPRISE: LONESOME
BEST TRANSFER: ANATOMY OF A MURDER/LETTER NEVER SENT
BEST ACTOR: Spalding Gray in GRAY’S ANATOMY
BEST ACTRESS: Juliette Binoche in CERTIFIED COPY/Émilie Dequenne in ROSETTA
WORST COVER ART: HEAVEN’S GATE
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
WORST TRANSFER: CHILDREN OF PARADISE
BIGGEST HOPE FOR 2013: A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY/MISHIMA on Blu-ray.
THE BEST 25 FILMS OF 2012: