Welcome to Criterion Corner, where the movies love you back. A column dedicated to the wide and wonderful world of the Criterion Collection, Criterion Corner runs twice a month, one installment featuring reviews of Criterion's new releases, and the other an essay pertaining to Criterion culture. Follow @CriterionCorner and visit the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates, or suffer for your insolence.
I love lists. A lot. I love lists so much that on my grave the inscription will read "1984 - ????" (not because I don't know when I'm going to die, but because I party so hard that you never know when the fun's going to end!), "He loved lists." I love lists so much that Franz Liszt is my favorite classical composer, even though I much prefer the experience of listening to Chopin, whose name sounded absolutely nothing like "list." I think you get the idea (and if you don't, comprehending the rest of this article might pose some difficulty for you).
Needless to say, this is my favorite time of year, because everyone who is even tangentially involved in the entertainment game pauses to ritualistically ennumerate the best new offerings from their particular medium, and the people who refuse to appreciate the catharsis of such an activity write lengthy think-pieces about how arbitrary it is to rank works of art, effectively reminding me that I could better be spending my time doing something else, like maybe reading a bunch of lists. This year I took things one step further and illustrated my list, effectively freezing my opinions in the Carbonite of YouTube for extra gravitas.
Bonus Video Countdown: Criterion Corner presents THE BEST 25 FILMS OF 2011
I think that people like me enjoy lists so much for two pivotal reasons: they're very easy to read (unlike long articles about why people like me enjoy lists so much), and they allow everyone involved a fleeting triumph over the ever-expanding infinitude of the universe. In retrospect, that second reason is kind of important.
The Criterion Collection is another one of those things that I love. But despite what previous installments of this column might have you believe, Criterion and lists don't necessarily like to co-exist. This is kind of a problem for me. In fact, by leveling the playing field between seminal films from various eras and countries under the banner of a single brand, Criterion sort of explodes the concept of ranking things, altogether. The unified aesthetic of their releases tempts you to measure up the likes of Kaneto Shindo's Kuroneko alongside something as wildly different as James L. Brooks' Broadcast News, but the depth of context available in Criterion's editions of those films remind you that it's a terribly misguided idea. I guess what I'm trying to say is that simply ranking my favorite Criterion releases of the year in one lump list would be a rather empty exercise. Don't get me wrong, I'm totally gonna do it anyway, but this is definitely one of those occasions that calls for more specific recognition.
Also, in the inerest of avoiding a "State of the Collection" kind of address, let's just say that the state of the Collection is pretty flippin' amazing. 2011 found Criterion delivering another impressively realized and refined batch of titles (a task that proves more difficult with every passing year, now that they've so thoroughly pillaged the bulk of the established cannon). They diversifeid their means of distribution with their aggressive use of Hulu Plus, while using the under-appreciated Eclipse line to motivate the release of essential obscurities into their rightful place in the public consciousness and away from the brink of oblivion (Kurahara for king!).
It's been a good time to love great movies.
So without any further ado, I give to you The First Annual Criterion Corner Awards!
MY 10 FAVORITE NEW CRITERION RELEASES OF 2011:
10.) THE GREAT DICTATOR
9.) SECRET SUNSHINE
8.) SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
6.) THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK
5.) THE MUSIC ROOM
4.) PALE FLOWER
3.) BROADCAST NEWS
2.) THE COMPLETE JEAN VIGO (note: this is kinda cheating)
1.) THREE COLORS (note: this is totally cheating)
Best Criterion Re-issue: #261 FANNY AND ALEXANDER (dir. Ingmar Bergman) 1982
To plagiarize from myself for a second cause I just reviewed this a few weeks back and have definitely not had the energy to form new thoughts since: "You could argue that Fanny and Alexander isn't Ingmar Bergman's best film (especially if you enjoy losing arguments), but it's hard to deny that the legendary auteur's magnum opus -- once intended to be his swan song -- isn't the most Ingmar Bergman film. Bergman felt for the meeting place between youth and old age, both sides mutually awed by the sheer enormity of human drama and desire, unable to understand it all but perfectly willing to let magic fill in the gaps." Criterion's HD upgrade is nothing short of perfection, gently sharpening Bergman's most densely intoxicating universe as Sven Nykvist's ravishing cinemtagoraphy drags you deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.
Runners-up: HARAKIRI, HIGH AND LOW, SALO, and then maybe HARAKIRI again to cleanse the palate.
Best Criterion Cover Art: #573 THE MUSIC ROOM (dir. Satyajit Ray) 1958.
Designed by: Marian Bantjes
Satyajit Ray is one of the forgotten pillars of The Criterion Collection, in that he should have been one of the pillars of The Criterion Collection, but he was forgotten. Well, that's not entirely fair, I'm sure Criterion would have landed Ray's revered "Apu Trilogy" by now if it were all that easy, but it's certainly true that few filmmakers of Ray's legacy and renown are entirely absent from Criterion's roster, anymore. Needless to say, The Music Room was something of a landmark home video release, and Criterion didn't want to blow it. Understanding full well that this wistful, shimmering, and deviously poignant drama is arguably Ray's most aesthetically delicate film, Criterion commissioned "vector artist" (please don't ask me what that means) Marian Bantjes to design something beautiful but broken, an abstract image that captured the spirit of a man who lived his life atop a fragmented mess of half-forgotten memories.
The genius of Bantjes' design is the extent to which it feels incomplete, like a scavenger map to a tracing the various touchstones of a particularly tormented human life. The twinkling flecks of white she contrasts with the gray backdrop obviously form a chandelier (a pivotal image in the film), but each time you look at them they require you to piece them back together, to determine their ultimate shape and take note of where the gaps are. I know that each time I look at it, it's something of a three step process:
Step 1: Is that an octopus?
Step 2: No, that is not an octopus.
Step 3: Oh, right, it's that chandelier from the movie that inspired this image, and it magnificiently captures the cracked persona of an Indian aristocrat who is forced to reconcile his life's greatest regrets while eulogizing the traditional world to which he once belonged.
Runners-up: SECRET SUNSHINE, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, INSIGNIFICANCE, KURONEKO, THE KILLING.
Best Fake Criterion Cover Art:
Designed By: TotalShinfo & Katherine Uemura, respectively
Runners-up: SAFE, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (and all of the other amazing stuff Tony Mayer does)
Best Opening: #590 THREE COLORS: RED (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski) 1994
It's really tough to argue with the blistering sequence with which Kieslowski begins his final film, so I won't. Kieslowski just doesn't seem like the kind of guy against whom you could even win an argument. You'd be all like "I'm so totally and uniquely right about this one thing," and he'd be all like "I'm Krzysztof Kieslowski, who the hell are you?" And that would probably be the end of things. Anyway, this is one of the greatest opening sequences in all of cinema.
Red isn't coy with its primary theme of fraternity, which could be argued to be the overarching theme of the entire Three Colors trilogy (if you were sadistically forced to pick just one). It explodes out of the gate, physically connecting the opposite sides of a phone call by following the signal through a mess of fiber-optic wires in a blitz of images that anticipates the impossible cameras of David Fincher and makes you wonder what sort of miracles Kieslowski might have worked with today's technology.
Runners-up: BLUE, BLOW-OUT, KURONEKO.
Best Ending: #575 THE KILLING (dir. Stanley Kubrick) 1956
Oof, brutal category here, and I'm tempted just to go with Red again, but that kinda feels like cheating -- the final moments of Red don't merely resolve the events of that particular film, but also provide a wrenching catharsis for the anxiety and wonder that Kieslowski has steadily fermented throughout the wayward course of his entire trilogy. Other candidates like The Times of Harvey Milk are disqualified because I'd really rather not weep loudly to myself while writing the rest of this article, thanks. Then again, my tearful screams of "You gotta give 'em hope!" might be the least bewildering thing that's happened in this Starbucks since I got here. Anyway, the win goes to Kubrick's deliciously bleak heist-noir, The Killing: something about "The best laid plans of mice and henchman."
Runners-up: THREE COLORS: RED, THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, THE GREAT DICTATOR, FISH TANK.
Runners-up: LETTERS FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, FOUR FILMS BY DARIO ARGENTO
Best Surprise: #566 INSIGNIFICANCE (dir. Nicolas Roeg) 1985
Mileage will obivously vary on this one. I mean, this category is pretty much the "Most brilliant film about which David was blithely ignorant until this year" award, so something like Secret Sunshine -- which I was ecstatically shocked to see on Criterion's release schedule, but have been raving about since 2007 -- didn't qualify. Nicolas Roeg's Insignificance, on the other hand, wasn't even on my radar. It was like a giant alien ship hiding under the ocean, and I was Liam Neeson.
But Criterion's Blu-ray (tepidly received by most) changed all that in a major way. Roeg is a filmmaker whose work I've found both rapturous (Walkabout) and beguiling (The One Where Rip Torn's Penis Acts Against David Bowie), but his films are unfailingly big and bold, unafraid to shift the ground beneath your feet. Insignificance, a criminally overlooked late-era gem that bends ciphers of American icons into a feverish meditation on celebrity and cosmic perspective, makes for some of the strangest stuff he's ever committed to film (and that's saying something), but it's darkly enigmatic and ever rewatchable. Henry Jaglom's brother kills it as Albert Einstein, and Theresa Russell does the best approximation of Marilyn Monroe in movie history, and that includes both Michelle Williams and Marilyn Monroe.
Runners-up: LE BEAU SERGE, BLACK MOON.
Best Transfer: #564 PALE FLOWER (dir. Masahiro Shinoda) 1964
In 2011, Criterion made a lot of films look more beautiful than most of us ever thought possible, but there's something about the lustrous silvers they brought out of Masahiro Shinoda's nihilsit yakuza romance that was truly special, even by their lofty standards. Pale Flower occupies a severe world, where every action is responded to with a grim consequence, and recklessness is both the only way to live and the quickest way to get you killed. Criterion's switchblade-sharp transfer obliterates the middle ground between Shinoda's monochromatic light, forcing every shade of gray to pick a side and stay there. The Blu-ray positively shimmers, allowing viewers to get lost in the reflections of Mariko Kaga's big dark eyes, and confronting the sheer sexiness of a film that feeds off of your misplaced lust.
Runners-up: LIFE DURING WARTIME, BLACK MOON, HARAKIRI
Best Special Feature: #573 THE MUSIC ROOM (dir. Satyajit Ray) 1958
Criterion -- moreso than any other company in the business -- has a knack for acquiring special features that are created explicitly and exclusively for their releases. They'll send employees to the far ends of the earth to track down whomever for an interview if they think it'll contribute to the strength of their supplements, and I'd be really remiss to overlook such a commitment. Having said that, sometimes the best stuff is already out there, and just needs to be borrowed for a little while. I mean, when you're including an entire feature-length Kubrick film as a bonus feature, whatever new material you happen to create -- no matter how illuminating it might -- is not going to be the main draw.
But as awesome as it is to have Killer's Kiss hiding in the folds of The Killing, the single most invaluable bonus included in one of Criterion's releases this year is Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal's 131-minute documentary that's waiting for you as soon as you're done with The Music Room. A candid filmmaking masterclass from one of the most gifted storytellers to ever pick up a camera, Benegal's portrait of Ray as he shoots his 1984 feature The Home at the End of the World is some fiercely compelling stuff, wide and watchable enough to easily support a Criterion release of its own.
Runners-up: THE KILLING, THREE COLORS, THE COMPLETE JEAN VIGO, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Best Menu Design: #553 THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (dir. Victor Sjostrom) 1921
Menu Designed by: Ian Whelan
In the last 18 months or so, Criterion has really embraced the extent to which Blu-ray technology allows them to design exceptionally dynamic menus, and the little snippets of endlessly looping footage that queue up when you put in a disc are now often compulsively watchable little short films of their own. This may seem like an especially nerdy detail to examine, but, well... duh. That being said, these things really are rather critical to the effect that Criterion is hoping to achieve with their releases -- they set the tone, and elevate the practice of watching a film into a richer and more encompassing experience, one that better invites you to explore the world of the film rather than just briefly visit it.
Also, if you tend to watch movies in bed like I do, these things play approximately 8,000 times a night for the amusement of your stupid snoring body, so I'm absorbing these lights and sounds more than almost any other stimuli on earth. Seriously. The average menu loop is approximately two minutes long. I'm a student, so I'm unconscious for about 5 hours a night (tops). That means, via osmosis, I absorbed the Salo menu 150 times a night for about 6 straight nights (Ambien is a hell of a drug), which means that I experienced that menu 900 times. I don't even want to know what sort of psycho-sexual timebombs that left me.
Anyway, the menu for The Phantom Carriage is a brooding and brilliant little piece of animation, made from a small handful of still drawings that bring the hauntingly evocative cover to stop-motion life -- the endlessly cyclical stages of death's search for a soul to replace him. I couldn't find a clip of that menu on the web, so instead I've posted Ian Whelan's menu for Fish Tank, which modestly loops a pivotal scene from the film. It's not particularly fussy stuff, but it allows Mia's mood of exuberant desolation to spread throughout the disc. Check out Whelan's Tumblr for a glimpse at his other work.
Runners-up: FISH TANK, PALE FLOWER, BLACK MOON.
Best Actor: #552 BROADCAST NEWS (dir. James L. Brooks) 1987 ---- > Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks is having one hell of a year, stealing Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive as the aging Jewish gangster who has no scruples about trying to rid our world of the force of memes better known as Ryan Gosling. But for me, great as he was in Drive, Criterion's January release of Broadcast News was always going to be the actor's most endearing revival of the year. Brooks' sensitive portrayal of Aaron Altman, a fiercely intelligent journalist caught in a dead end love triangle that personifies the war of attrition between news and entertainment, is underappreciated as one of the great expressions of American nebbishness. The epitome of the hyper-articulate wise but wanting hero that James L. Brooks would pass on to Cameron Crowe like a torch, Altman is among the cinema's most tragic romantic heroes, in that we're helpless to see ourselves in him, and live in the world he failed to prevent.
Runners-up: Édgar Ramirez in CARLOS, Burt Lancaster in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Best Actress: #576 SECRET SUNSHINE (dir. Lee Chang-dong) 2007 ---- > Jeon Do-yeon
Jeon Do-yeon is an absolute force of nature. In the shot-for-shot Dante's Peak remake that someone in Hollywood is probably shopping at this very minute, Jeon Do-yeon should be cast as Dante's Peak. James Cameron could digitally substitute her for the iceberg in his forthcoming 3D re-release of Titanic and audiences would weep as if seeing it for the first time (you all wept that first time... right?). Playing a freshly-minted widow who retreats to her late husband's hometown in the hopes of a fresh start with her young son, Jeon anchors each and every scene of Lee Chang-dong's almost unwatchably raw Secret Sunshine, slowly peeling off the details of an ordinary woman until she exposes the primal hollows that stir beneath.
But the brilliance of Jeon's performance ultimately isn't in her suffering, but rather in how she thoroughly she convinces herself that she's found solace. To paraphrase something I wrote in my review of Criterion's release, "Jeon's character is a heroine worthy of von Trier, but one denied the security blanket of his excess." It's widely mocked and practiced in equal measure that actors tend to go for it by donning a fake nose or making the decision to go "full retard," but at the end of the day the truly brave performances are usually the ones that are so frighteningly close to normal.
Best John Waters Cameo: #563 SOMETHING WILD (dir. Jonathan Demme) 1986
For the longest time I was convinced that Life During Wartime had this category in the bag, but when I was informed that John Waters wasn't actually playing most of the major characters in that film (a la Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor), it occurred to me that I probably had to find another winner. His scene in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild hits right smack in the middle of that film's delirious first act, cementing the sheer unpredictability of this journey into the belly of emotional oblivion.
Runners-up: THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, KES.
Hardest Release to Resist, Even Though The Film Itself Is Rancid: #574 LIFE DURING WARTIME (dir. Todd Solondz) 2010
Thus far the only downside to Criterion's brilliant partnership with IFC has been having to deal with this garish and flaccid spiritual sequel to Solondz's much worthier, Happiness. As ugly and self-obsessed as any of its characters, Life During Wartime plays like a parody of Solondz's auteurist tics, picking at the skeletons of everything that made Happiness so disturbingly true. And yet, Criterion's release of the film is just... ugh... so damn beautiful. The illustrations that stretch from the vibrantly emotive cover art to the nooks of the disc's supplemental features are discordantly perfect, and the transfer is even more precise and detailed than you might expect from such a recent film. Gross.
Runners-up: SENSO, THE FOUR FEATHERS.
Scariest Film: #569 PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (dir. Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer) 1930
This year Criterion released only one film starring Gary Busey, so you'd think that this category would be a rather open-and-shut case. But you'd be wrong. The deceptively serene People on Sunday takes the cake, as I imagine it would in any other year, as well. As I wrote in my review: "People on Sunday is an enduring reminder that kitsch thrives on the brink of tragedy. A flickering ode to the monochromatic idyll of Weimar-era Berlin, Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer's charming quasi-documentary pastiche of life in the city was transformed by the imminent terrors of WWII into cinema's most haunting portrait of innocence lost."
Runners-up: CUL-DE-SAC, IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN.
Biggest Disappointment: #587 THE MAKIOKA SISTERS (dir. Kon Ichikawa) 1983
Criterion doesn't make a habit of disappointing their rabid fanbase all that often, but when they do it stings that much harder, like being let down by an idolized parent. Okay, that's "George Lucas raped my childhood" kinda talk, but the truth is that, yeah, we expect Criterion to deliver the goods every time, and when they don't it feels kinda like a smack in the face. It feels like... The Makioka Sisters. Among legendary filmmaker Kon Ichikawa's most revered later works is this languid adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki's beloved novel, and the Criterion release -- hot on the heels of a sumptuous 35mm restoration -- hits home with a jarringly inconsistent transfer (Ichikawa's complete submission to 80s aesthetics didn't do the film any favors), and not a single extra feature beyond the thin booklet that's tucked inside the case.
At an MSRP of $15.95 it's priced to match, but The Makioka Sisters is a lovely and resonant film that struggles in a vacuum, so steeped in the manners of a particular time that Criterion deprives its audiences of a complete experience by releasing it with such little context. Be that as it may, I think I can see the tonsils of that gift horse, so I think we'll stop there.
Runners-up: LIFE DURING WARTIME (because they actually released it), A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (because they still haven't).
Best Wish For 2012: MISHIMA. Blu-ray.
It's not hard, people. Not sure if their DVD edition of Paul Schrader's masterpiece was ever much of a hot-ticket item, but share some numbers with me, Criterion. Let me know the kind of insurance you need to make this happen, and I'll get a little Kickstarter campaign going. It'll be fun. And totally not a dangerous precedent at all... just give me the friggin' Blu-ray!!
Runner-up: Attention to national cinemas that the Collection has overlooked or outright ignored for far too long. Bollywood, Nollywood, South America... there's so much to see, and who better than Criterion to introduce us to the films we've never known we're missing? Why not start with Nelson Pereira dos Santos' How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman?