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So there I was thinking about the films that The Criterion Collection might release during the year to come, when a nagging thought appeared to me with unusual force: The Criterion Collection is kinda screwed. See, the thing is that they’re simply too damn good at what they do, and they’ve been that way for way too long (hashtag: cinephile problems). Their stated goal has been to “Publish the defining moments of cinema for a wider and wider audience,” and, um, mission accomplished. It’s been well over a decade since Criterion began releasing DVDs, and they’ve been hyper-aggressive from the start, going after all the big fish (but mercifully not going after Big Fish), and reeling them in with a consistency rarely seen outside of ESPN 6 when you wake up too early on a Saturday morning.
I mean, looking back to the fall of 2003, there was a stretch of time over which Criterion released deluxe editions of Knife in the Water, The Rules of The Game, Tokyo Story, Le Cercle Rouge, La Strada, Naked Lunch, and Ikiru... CONSECUTIVELY. Compare that line-up to this month’s releases, which include third-rate trivialities like Godzilla and Belle de Jour... okay, fine, so Criterion is still sitting on a major lode of essential films, but the well has to eventually run dry, right? They’ve already sprinted through the (almost) complete works of cinematic titans like Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Seijun Suzuki, and even a few people who aren’t Japanese, and the influx of more contemporary titles that Criterion’s distribution deal with IFC Films affords them can’t always be relied upon to maintain the home video brand’s lofty standards (Life During Wartime). Criterion has released over 600 films on DVD & Blu-ray since they unloosed The Grand Illusion in 1999, and this might seem like the year that they’ll have to start scraping the bottom of the barrel if they hope to keep churning out 3 - 7 new films each month. But here’s the thing: it won’t be. Hooray! End of article.
I jest, but the simple truth is that both Criterion is poised to enjoy their most fascinating era yet: having largely unburdened themselves of the films they had to release, Criterion -- having established themselves as a brand that even causal cinephiles trust with their money -- is now more inclined to look beyond the films they need, instead often choosing the films that need them. Recently announced releases like Robert Young’s Alambrista! reconfirm that Criterion is eager to think outside of the box (as do all of the motley films on Criterion’s Hulu page), and upcoming titles like Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika will continue to prove that scores of supposedly “lesser” works of certain masters are worthy of their own spine numbers. For anyone who needs further convincing that Criterion is just getting warmed up, here are 7 incredible filmmakers whose work they’ve yet to release. I stress that the point of this post is that it's nocomplete or definitive or anything like that, but that an almost random sampling of worthy filmmakers hints at how many great artists Criterion has yet to bring into the fold.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Criterion Film: Le Fils (The Son) 2002
I’ve got a feeling (oooh yeah!) that the Dardenne brothers will join The Criterion Collection before long, and that they’ll do so with their masterfully told 1998 drama La Promesse. No complaints here, as that rough immigration saga finds the masters of modern neo-moralism doing what they do best, and to argue about the “best” Dardenne film is to enter a deathmatch of details, like getting into a heated fight over the worst episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno -- the Dardenne brothers are master craftsmen who know precisely what they’re doing, their output unfailingly falling into that narrow range between sublime and transcendent.
That being said, Le Fils is totally their best film, and I’ll fight you if you disagree. Anchored by Olivier Gourmet’s most bracingly physical performance, this gritty, kinetic, and ruthlessly lean portrait of a man on the precipice of his own ethics is one of the first examples that pops to mind whenever someone questions the notion of a “perfect film.” Gourmet stars as a carpenter who knowingly hires an aimless teenager as his new apprentice. Incidentally (or, um, the opposite of that), said aimless teenager killed the carpenter’s son five years prior to the beginning of the film. Gourmet, his stocky frame contained by a thick leather workman’s belt, can’t solve the compulsion to invite the young man into his life, but he’s unable to stop himself. What follows is the sort of visceral and immediate filmmaking that one might sooner associate with the white-knuckle thrill rides of Alfred Hitchcock, an intimate little fraction of a story that uses a sledgehammer to illustrate how every passing moment forms the future.
Criterion Film: Landscape in the Mist (1988)
Ugh, when I started writing this little blurb, I was referring to Theo Angelopoulos in the present tense. Of course, Greece’s greatest filmmaker was struck and killed by a motorcyclist in Athens on January 24th -- Angelopoulos was crossing a busy street, perhaps lost in the steps of his next sequence shot. It was an enormous blow to the world of cinema, a loss magnified by the fact that Angelopoulos was in production on the last installment of the unofficial trilogy he began with 2004’s The Weeping Meadow.
Angelopoulos’ films, characterized by their amorphous structures, intense pockets of action, and exceedingly long takes, are rather unknown here in the States (probably due to their inexplicable lack of Nia Vardalos). Most are rather difficult to track down, and several of his most monumental works are still represented by empty stubs on Wikipedia (Wikipedia, of course, being the true measure of any artist). Ulysses’ Gaze and The Traveling Players are popular Angelopoulos favorites, but I’ve gotta go with Landscape in the Mist, a particularly unfortunate transfer of which is currently available on Netflix Instant.
Cleanly emblematic of Angelopolous’ ethos and yet unusually accessible (i.e. it has kids. I mean, Warhol’s Empire was one cute kid away from an $100 million box office), the 1988 winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival is a piercing portrait of two kids on the road in search of a father who may not even exist. Tender but brutal, intimate but mythic, Landscape in the Mist is a rare self-contained film in a oeuvre dominated by trilogies. Angelopoulos was feared for his excess, but here’s a film that opens with an invitation for self-parody (“This story will never end”), and closes by hitting you harder than any punchline.
Criterion Film: Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
An ostensibly obvious addition to The Criterion Collection, Hou Hsiao-hsien is one of the most revered Taiwanese filmmakers to have ever lived, and the fact that he continues to operate at such an extraordinarily high level hints at his enduring relevance. His intensely minimalistic style is a bit less welcoming than many of the contemporary films that have been released by Criterion (it’s not like they’ve put out a Tsai Ming-liang collection and set a precedent, or anything), but stuff like Millennium Mambo and Three Times are drunk on neon and sex despite all of their critical acclaim. Hou has even made a film dedicated to Criterion stalwart Yasujiro Ozu, and his Flight of the Red Balloon stars Juliette Binoche, an actress Criterion (rightfully) loves so much that they once flirted with the idea of releasing Dan in Real Life (note: some parts of the previous sentence may be flagrantly untrue).
If only one Hou film could receive a deluxe Blu-ray edition, however, I’d have to go with his moody, sepia-toned 1998 masterpiece Flowers of Shanghai over Goodbye South, Goodbye. One of the most beautiful films ever made (it says so right there on the crappy DVD box), Flowers of Shanghai is the splintered and stained portrait of four brothels (or “Flower Houses”) in 19th-century Shanghai, and Hou’s decision to restrict the film to these inky rooms makes palpable the idea that these spaces are all his female protagonists will ever know of the world. The opium-per-minute ratio is completely off the charts, muting the film’s soap opera episodes into a single blissed out reverie, while using nothing more than a few candles and some still prosceniums to create a filmic space as transportive as anything in a James Cameron film.
Pedro dos Santos
Criterion Film: How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971)
Criterion, like approximately every other distribution outlet in the brief history of home video, is guilty of neglecting the likes of Bollywood, Nollywood, and the various national cinemas of South America. Having said that, Pedro dos Santos’ Cinema Novo landmark is such an outsized serving of subversive bile that its release could be enough to turn the tides.
Perhaps the greatest Brazilian film ever made (and hopefully the angriest), How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman finds the cinema at its most devious, unspooling like a historically accurate Tupi riff on Avatar, where the white guy who comes to save the helpless locals only ends up serving himself (HA!). The year is 1594, French and Portuguese forces are fighting each other for control of the verdurous Guanabara Bay area, home to the supposedly cannibalistic Tupinambra people. The Tupinambra capture the titular Frenchman, and are quick to inform him in no uncertain terms that he’s allowed to roam the village as a resident, but will only be their friend until they’re ready to make him their feast. The Frenchman, however, is so arrogant as to think that he can tame the Tupinambra’s wild ways, and he’s sure that the submissive wife that the tribe has provided him (not Zoe Saldana) has been sufficiently awed by his civilized charms. The Frenchman is convinced that he’s found paradise (all perfect beaches and exposed breasts), but the Frenchman should have paid a bit more attention to the title of the film.
Mixing the narrative impishness of David Fincher’s The Game with the dislocating fury of Luis Buñuel, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is a lynchpin of world cinema, and would prove as vital an addition to Criterion’s line-up as anything that has ever been inducted into the Collection.
Criterion Film: The Girl on the Bridge (1999)
Patrice Leconte reminds me a lot of Sam Mendes, in that neither one of them has any business directing a James Bond movie. Also, they’re both erratic directors, guys whose work has maintained a certain austerity despite actively resisting the aesthetics of auteurism. Leconte, like Mendes or their infinitely less assured contemporary Marc Forster (who also didn’t have any business directing a James Bond movie...), have become successful journeymen who maintain a steady reputation despite refusing to stay put on any particular look, tone, or genre. The only difference is, when Leconte does it, he makes gold records.
Er, sometimes. Breaking through with a string of small masterpieces in the late 80s / early 90s (Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser’s Husband), Leconte has quietly amassed an impressive and impressively varied body of work, occasionally even breaking through to international audiences. Watching a gentle, confident gem like The Man on the Train, it’s easy to imagine that future generations of cinephiles will unearth Leconte’s films, rediscovering them with the sort of zeal that’s reserved only for overlooked art. But if there’s one Leconte film that will put him into the film consciousness with a bullet, it’s The Girl on the Bridge, a glitzy black & white spectacle starring Daniel Auteuil, Vanessa Paradis, and that gap between Vanessa Paradis’ two front teeth.
Whimsically and intoxicatingly romantic, The Girl on the Bridge tells the story of a traveling knife-thrower who trolls bridges at night in the hopes of finding a suicidal girl for his act (and oh, does he ever). Light on plot and heavy on just about everything else, The Girl with the Bridge is about as grounded in reality as Thor, but its giddy rush of romance and chaos takes rare pleasure in the inexplicable (contortionists! Marianne Faithfull!), and remains a relentlessly charming portrait of a love just beyond the fringes of understanding.
Criterion Film: Seven Beauties (1975)
Fun fact about Lina Wertmüller: Everything I’ve written in this article so far has actually just been the title of her next movie. Get it? Because her movies often have insanely long titles? One of them was called Un Fatto di sangue nel comune di Siculiana fra due uomini per causa di una vedova moventi. Si sospettano moventi politici. Yes, one of her films had such a long title that it actually had to pause for a period in the middle. Suck on that, next Narnia movie. Ahem. I think what I’m trying to say is that Lina Wertmüller is awesome (yes, “is,” she’s still around being awesome somewhere), and her particularly spicy brand of sexual politics would fit nicely in any group that would have Pasolini as a member. Besides, as a previous column argued, The Criterion Collection could certainly use a few more female filmmakers amongst its ranks.
To my mind, Wertmüller’s greatest work is worthy of the highest honors a film can be afforded, even when divorced from the allure of its auteurist context. Seven Beauties is ultimately a Holocaust story that finds moral upheaval in a time that most cinema is quick to sketch with stencils, following Giancarlo Giannini’s open-mouthed gangster from his domineering years as an anonymous Italian hood to his time spent sexually placating the cinema’s most grotesque concentration camp commander, and rendering the journey with a whimsical streak so dark it can often be hard to see. Seven Beauties is told with a sideways giddiness that borders on the cartoonish, but in perverting the horrors of our world it finds beneath them a harrowing reality -- few stories of survival have ever been so real.
Criterion Film: Sherlock Jr. and The Cameraman (1924 & 1928)
It almost feels as if Criterion and Kino got divorced and had to split custody of the kids, Criterion taking Charlie Chaplin and Kino claiming Buster Keaton. Given the nature of Criterion’s releases and the extent to which they favor a cache of pivotal features over a collection of beloved short films, I think they did well for themselves to emerge from the scrap with the rights to Chaplin’s work. I mean, it’s tough to argue with the likes of Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush. On the other hand, can an ostensibly definitive collection of film masterworks possibly feel complete without an appearance by The Great Stone Face? That’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is no.
Criterion’s interest in presenting film has always been matched by their interest in defining it, their history of releasing slyly self-reflexive studies like F For Fake and Close-up naturally indicating a passion for the bigger picture. My two favorite Keaton films (tough break, The General) are likewise obsessed with the idea of the movies as a mechanism, Sherlock Jr. and The Cameraman both having a tremendous amount of fun fiddling with the medium the way a (brilliant, death-defying) kid might play with a new toy. I highly doubt that Criterion will ever get their hands on these (and Kino’s Sherlock Jr. Blu-ray is excellent in its own right), but a man can dream.