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 the Criterion Corner Tumblr for daily updates!
My favorite war of the 21st century (so far) is probably the one waged between Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Sure, it was fraught with tension, but I remember the battle between the two dueling media formats as being slightly more enjoyable than all of those violent conflicts in which thousands of innocent people were horribly killed for no good reason (a few Toshiba executives were probably executed, but their deaths were totally justified). And while scores of misinformed consumers may have sent some of their hard-earned money to an early grave, the cold war between these two formats expedited the emergence of HD physical media, ensuring that we would win so long as someone lost. We all know that Sony's Blu-ray format ultimately came out on top (the recesses of eBay serving as a poignant memorial for HD-DVD), the three decisive turning points of the war being the introduction of the Playstation 3, Warner Brothers' decision to ditch their support of HD-DVD, and -- the most promising nail in the coffin -- Criterion's May 2008 announcement that they had chosen Blu-ray as the next-generation format with which they'd supplement their treasured DVD line. Yeah, HD-DVD may have had porn on its side, but it didn't stand a chance without a pristine and print-perfect edition of El Norte in 1080p (that's just simple economics).
In the years since helping Blu-ray to emerge victorious, Criterion has contributed to the format like no other company, both in terms of volume and quality. The meticulous standards and merciless eye for detail with which Criterion upgrades these films have consistently revealed the format's true potential, returning to the titles the pristine yet textually filmic qualities these films likely possessed on their opening nights, whereas other companies simply bury the image under a layer of HD gloss and plop it on store shelves.
In 2010 they began to release all of their new titles in Blu, and their monthly release slates continue to include HD upgrades of some of the most beloved films that are already in the Collection. And yet, some of Criterion's choices -- both inclusions and omissions -- have raised an eyebrow or two from time to time, which is especially impressive considering that Eugene Levy once confused my eyebrows for a mirror.
In the realm of looking a gift horse in the mouth, this is sort of like getting Secretariat for your birthday and complaining that he has a slight overbite, but whatever, I like movies, not horses (George Lucas could overdub R2-D2 with Chelsea Handler's stand-up material and it still wouldn't make 5th avenue smell like a dirty stable). All the same, if you give a mouse a cookie he'll want a glass of milk, and if you give a movie-lover a carefully restored DVD edition of an obscure Iranian epic that one could previously enjoy only on stolen microfilm, they'll bitch about the aspect ratio. So with that in mind, I give you the 10 Criterion DVDs that most desperately need to be released on Blu-ray!
10.) #162 Ratcatcher (dir. Lynne Ramsay) 1999
A gorgeous film set in an ugly time (national garbage strikes! domestic abuse! awkward-looking teenagers!), Lynne Ramsay's difficult but hauntingly poetic debut feature is a portrait of a Glasgow adolescence during an era (the mid-70s) in which the city seemed entirely mapped from dead ends. The cover of Criterion's Ratcatcher DVD succinctly captures Ramsay's moribund mood, as her protagonist -- James -- is presented in close profile, his cheek smeared with a mortar of twigs and foul earth. The design's grey Polaroid anesthetic also hints at a world just beyond the reality of what we can see, and the film delights in contrasting the grey tones of cold living with the most vivid flights of fancy (a mouse tied to a balloon and the most beautiful wheat field since Days of Heaven being my favorite examples), the harsh disparity between the two elements providing the film with a sense of defanged hope that can rattle your marrow. The better Ratcatcher is allowed to look, the more devastating it will feel.
9.) #62 The Passion of Joan of Arc (dir. Carl Th. Dreyer) 1928
Because when you're going to watch a young woman endure recorded history's most hopping mad kangaroo court and then be burned alive at the stake (spoiler alert?), you obviously need it to look as good as possible. For the brunt of its duration, Carl Th. Dreyer's masterful and uncomfortably intimate depiction of Joan of Arc's final hours interrogates its heroine within inches of her life from within inches of her face, capturing actress Maria Falconetti's every pious pore, the camera so trained upon her hardened faith that you can almost see God's reflection in her eyes.
No other film ever took such complete advantage of the fact that Milla Jovovich was not yet alive, and despite largely confining itself to the taut flesh of Falconetti's face, few other films have ever felt so visceral and expansive, so arrestingly emblematic of the cinema's capacity for expanding upon what the eye can see by itself. With all that in mind, it's abundantly clear that 480p just doesn't get the job done. The Passion of Joan of Arc screams for an HD upgrade because Falconetti wears her faith on her face, and the more resolutely human and textured that face appears, the more astonishing her faith becomes -- this is a film ideally watched through a microscope, but Blu-ray would provide a most fitting substitute.
8.) #288 F For Fake (dir. Orson Welles) 1975
I"ll never forget the promotional campaign of American Beauty, the posters for which urged audiences to "Look closer." Which is kind of like saying, "Seriously people, pay attention to the movie, otherwise you might not understand the incredibly labored character dynamics or, like, why the guy from Money Train loves Nazis so much" (a tagline scuttled only weeks before the film's theatrical debut). Yet "Look closer" seems like a perfectly appropriate piece of advice for viewers wading into the waters of Orson Welles' tricksy masterpiece F For Fake, regardless of how many times they may have already seen the film.
A smirking essay about truth, deception, and the arbitrary divides that carve up our interpretations of validity, F For Fake is the kind of film that demands a trained eye, if only because it's the especially observant viewers whom Welles is most determined (and delighted) to seduce and destroy. Welles wants his labyrinth of deceit and misdirection to be as clear as possible, he wants viewers to see and hear every detail as lucidly as possible, if only so they're convinced that they know the secret to the magician's trick, which of course makes the revelation of how badly they've been fooled all the more satisfying for everyone involved. With a crisp 1080p transfer, viewers would be able to delineate the individual gestures of Welles' slight-of-hand better than ever before, which -- my argument follows -- would allow F For Fake to pack that much more truth in its lies.
7.) #217 Salo (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini) 1976
Hahaha, imagine how insane this would be! ...What's that? Criterion is releasing a Salo blu-ray in October? But I just put it on the list as a goof... Well, it's like I always say: "If I'm going to watch people eat human poop, it damn well better look great, because low resolution or even minimal edge-enhancement would just be uncivilized." In fact, that's usually my opening line on first dates.
Let's move on.
6.) #281 Jules and Jim (dir. Francois Truffaut) 1962
Cinematographer Raoul Coutard is best known for laying the aesthetic groundwork of the French New Wave with Jean-Luc Godard, but it was his 1962 collaboration with Francois Truffaut that most effectively allowed his camera to unmoor itself from the weight of convention. Marrying a somewhat traditional romantic triangle with the kinetic energy of the French New Wave and its elliptical considerations of love gone by, Jules and Jim is too perfect, too important, and too damn pretty not to be available in the best possible format.
5.) #342 Six Moral Tales (dir. Eric Rohmer) 1963 - 1972
Well, this is flagrantly cheating, but I doubt that Criterion fans who've already took the plunge for this brick-sized box set would complain about the opportunity to do it all over again in glorious high-definition. The late, great Eric Rohmer is often positioned as a European Woody Allen, a frustratingly reductive comparison made all the more distasteful because of how much it denies Rohmer's quietly strident compositions. Rohmer's mid-career work pulsates with a swift visual energy, a giddily propulsive momentum that motors through human dynamics, developing relationships the way Tony Scott steers trains.
Rohmer's camera is often wobbly and anxious, still searching for things when other filmmakers are convinced they've found them, streaming words over images with such casual force that the resulting alchemy makes it easy to lose sight of how beautiful each element is on its own. The pastoral erotica of Claire's Knee, the monochrome philosophies of A Night At Maud's, the svelte metropolitan grind of Love in the Afternoon -- these are the kinds of things for which Blu-ray was invented, although these films are so watchable that it can be tough to see.
4.) #196 Hiroshima, Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais) 1959
I was initially tempted to include Chris Marker's Sans Soleil on this here list, but I ultimately decided that the visual artist's spellbinding meditation on time and technology was ideal fodder for the streaming age, when moments seem to slip away as soon as they're buffered. And while an argument could be made that any film so rhapsodically plagued by memory is better served by the haze of standard-definition than the precision of 1080p, I can't deny my desire to have such stuff available to me in the best format possible.
Moreover, Criterion has exhibited such a fine hand in upgrading their catalogue into high-definition that I believe them capable of restoring the filmic qualities to Sans Soleil and its ilk, effectively satisfying a portion of the Kundera-esque need to return upon which these elegiac movies thrive. But it looks like I decided to go with Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, if only because no film about memory has ever been so relieved by the beauty of its here-and-now. Resnais' documentary footage of the Hiroshima bombing would sear into the brain if projected on a lampshade, but the chatty affair that dominates the story provides contemporary viewers a haunting glimpse of a Japan long gone, and a pristine look at those scenes could help to make the deliberately rough flashbacks by which the lovers are tortured feel all the more punishing if cut into an immaculate present.
3.) #306 Le Samourai (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville) 1967
You know what's cool? Le Samourai. In fact, movies don't really get much cooler. You know what's not cool? Le Samourai horribly compressed within an inch of its life. Don't take that the wrong way -- the Criterion DVD did its best with the cards stacked against it -- but Jean-Pierre Melville's supremely unruffled hitman saga is all mood and style, Alain Delon unignorably badass even when he's trying to blend into some drab wallpaper towards the bottom of the frame. While I'm of the mind that Melville made a better film (Army of Shadows) or two (Le Doulos), none of his work screams for the benefits of HD quite like Le Samourai, because Delon's Bushido-obsessed contract killer is supposed to be unnoticed, not invisible. Also, I believe it was Nostradamus who famously Tweeted: "The world will not be at peace until the day that all of Melville's films are widely available in 1080p."
2.) #147 In the Mood for Love (dir. Wong Kar-Wai) 2000
I should just say "Christopher Doyle's most beautiful work" and leave it there, but I'm not that lazy, and I derive a masochistic enjoyment from diluting my purest points with several sentences of pure drivel. This may violate logic and / or widely agreed upon recent history, but I'm pretty sure that HD video was invented cause some especially proactive person saw In the Mood for Love in standard-definition and was all, "What is this -- a school for ants?" (indeed, there's a pertinent Zoolander quote for all of life's most frustrating moments).
All of Wong Kar-Wai's films are swooningly gorgeous -- even when they're terrible, they still star the likes of Natalie Portman and Chan Marshall -- but In the Mood for Love is nevertheless in a class of its own, an infidelity romance rendered as an exactingly choreographed tribal dance of sounds and shadows, slow motion and cigarette smoke. You know, writing about In the Mood for Love is sort of like dancing about architecture or performing gymnastics about the performance art of Marina Abramovic (actually, that sounds pretty essential), but yeah, Wong Kar-Wai makes the sort of films that people would stitch into their skin if they could -- there's not an inch of In the Mood for Love that wasn't art-directed to perfection, and until AMC reserves an auditorium in all of their theaters to just constantly loop this movie forever, Blu-ray is the only way we'll be able to fully appreciate its details in the comfort of our own homes, and the Doyle is in the details.
1.) #482 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (dir. Paul Schrader) 1985
It may not have been the result of an insidious master plan, but the fact that the garishly flat Life During Wartime has been treated to a Criterion Blu-ray while something as opulent and mesmerically gorgeous as Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is still confined to the fuzzy ghetto of DVD is the kind of injustice for which we typically oust foreign dictators who wear silly hats. Schrader's film -- a fluidly kaleidoscopic portrait of Yukio Mishima, the 20th century's most multi-faceted artist -- has an eye for beauty as keen and harsh as that of its subject, its attention to aesthetics allowing viewers to viscerally experience Mishima's life as he idealized it for himself.
Its unsparing splendor -- The Temple of the Golden Pavilion splitting at the seams, an arrow of cadets assembling beneath a blue sky clawed with portent -- is never self-indulgent, but rather a critical means of illustrating the extent to which Mishima intended for his life to be his greatest work of art. In fact, the DVD packaging is so lavish and detailed that for it to house a standard-definition video at its core feels downright inappropriate, and given the remarkable care with which Criterion treated this title, the lack of a Blu-ray edition feels like a genuine void in their output, and their best opportunity to fulfill the potential of the HD media they allowed to reign supreme.