This was a hell of a year in The Criterion Collection.
Between films about phantom carriages, angry jurors, beasts and beauties, stranded astronauts, international revolutionaries, and great dictators, Adam Charles and Landon Palmer found their wallets empty and their cinephilic obsessions sated.
Here are their eleven favorite releases and upgrades of the year…
#591: 12 ANGRY MEN (1957)
Of all of the types of releases one could find in the Criterion collection, it’s tough to find a significant release from popular/prominent American filmmakers who sprang up during the highs of the 1950s and 1970s. Why’s that? Most of the studios held on to the rights of those films and have released, more often than not, their own fully-loaded discs with pristine transfers. One of the few missing from that group was 12 Angry Men.
It was Sidney Lumet‘s first picture, and while Lumet is criminally not considered amongst the higher ranks of the Scorseses and Kubricks, you’d have a difficult time finding an American filmmaker with a more varied filmography with multiple masterpieces (one could even argue his 1970s releases were the more impressive of any other filmmaker in the United States) and who remained consistently productive for almost six full decades until his passing just this year. With this release, one of America’s finest film treasures finally sees the kind of release it’s been in need of since the advent of DVD. -AC
#6: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (BLU-RAY) (1946)
Like Hara-Kiri, this film already existed in two releases in the Criterion Collection DVD library, but this is one of the films that demands to be revisited whenever an advancement in picture quality is made. It’s amongst the most premiere fantasy films on the planet, its story is timeless, but more important to film, it’s one of the most exquisitely produced and directed pictures ever.
The costumes, set pieces and art direction are second-to-none and it remains one of the most visually influential, hypnotic, dream-like and surreal features ever made. Nothing much more can be said about it that already hasn’t been, other than now it looks about as good as we ever dreamed it would. –AC
#582: CARLOS (2010)
If any film can be described as a Molotov cocktail, it’s Olivier Assayas’s Carlos. Released temporally alongside a barrage of multi-part true-life European crime/international espionage/revolution films (Che and Mesrine distributed cinematically in two parts, Carlos and The Red Riding Trilogy as sprawling television narratives), Carlos shows that a biopic need not necessarily be restricted to the time limits of cinematic convention.
Through its ever-engaging five-plus-hour duration, Carlos follows the ebbs and flows of an extraordinary life (as Carlos’s life slows down, so does the film). Its inclusion in the same collection as films like Fanny and Alexander and Berlin Alexanderplatz serve as a reminder that some of the best cinematic work throughout the history of Western Europe has been made for television. But most importantly, Carlos is a damn good movie with an incredible performance as its crown centerpiece, and one of the Collection’s contemporary entries that sits comfortably beside its classics. -LP
#578: THE COMPLETE JEAN VIGO (1930-1934)
Rarely can sets encompass an entire career, but the Criterion Collection has accomplished exactly this two years in a row. Last year, Criterion released The BBS Set, which encompassed the brief history of one of the most daring production companies in Hollywood history. This year, the Collection released the complete work of hugely influential French filmmaker Jean Vigo. Both of these box sets are not without a sense of tragedy (BBS with the dissolution of a risk-taking production company (and the later end of New Hollywood by association), and the Vigo Collection with the untimely death of the filmmaker at age 29), but this only makes their pristine availability feel all the more valuable.
The silent A Propos de Nice (1930) (as seen above) is a subversively critical parody of tour films, and Taris (1931) is another interesting early work, but it’s Zero de conduite (1933) – a school-based enfant terrible narrative which provided essential influence for French New Wave filmmakers, specifically Truffaut’s The 400 Blows – and L’Atalante (1934), Vigo’s sole feature film about an increasingly distant newlywed couple onboard a barge with an enigmatic first mate, which are the heart of this disc. While Vigo’s brief life history makes one inevitably wonder what films we may have missed out on had history turned out differently, his existing body of work is not without an aura of incredible accomplishment. -LP
#565: THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)
Charlie Chaplin’s first “talkie” is definitive proof of why we should take comedy – or, at least, great comedy – seriously. An uncanny meeting of historical context with star persona (how can the same mustache be so iconic for such vastly different public figures?) made for a comedic opportunity of upmost relevance, the type of which American cinema wouldn’t see again until Dr. Strangelove.
Chaplin once famously said that if he knew the extent of Hitler’s awful crimes, he would not have made a comedy of the man. I’m glad he did, for Chaplin’s absurd humor seems the only logical and human way to react to such absurd power through cinema, and the humanist message at the film’s end still remains one of the most powerful speeches ever captured on film. Also, the color behind-the-scenes footage is a historical treasure, and probably the best special feature of any Criterion release this year. -LP
#302: HARA-KIRI (BLU-RAY) (1962)
Though already released in the Criterion Collection on DVD a few years ago, this release on Blu-Ray is significant specifically to me. Frankly, I think the film is perfect. Its concept is intriguing, the subtext very subversive, the script structure (scripted by Rashomon co-scribe Shinobu Hashimoto) is elegantly formed with its reveals, the story is expertly told, the photography is impeccable, the lead performance is unforgettably controlled and sinister in its vengeance, and the final action sequence caps it all off in a way that it had to.
And, now, I can finally say that there is a release and transfer about as perfect as one could hope for a film one considers relatively perfect. -AC
#586: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)
If there is one thing the folks at Criterion have never shied away from it’s finding those little-known treasures of the B-movie variety and giving them the treatment and care that they would give to any of the most highly important pictures in the world. Some of the films themselves may not all be winners, but the employees at Criterion sure do take pride in making sure that you’ll at least be interested in seeing what a flick has to offer. Little did I know about this early 1930s adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring one of American cinema’s greatest actors as the demented scientist (Charles Laughton), and one of the most recognizable figures in early American horror pictures (Bela Lugosi).
To say that I was shocked I didn’t even know about this film until Criterion decided to release it is shameful on my part. Especially considering that the picture itself is in no way one of the films I would consider a “non-winner,” and is without a doubt the best Moreau film I’ve seen brought to screen. In a year of Criterion releases of such important magnitude it’s always refreshing to see them continue to retain their stance that just because the film isn’t important to most in the film-admiring community, it’s still important to them and it deserves their best. -AC
#579: THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)
Knowing little about this silent film from Sweden during the early 1920s I was intrigued by the acknowledged influence the picture had on famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Adapted from a novel, the story shares much in common with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol about a broken man given the opportunity to revisit all of the times in his life where he was led astray and what kind of an effect his wrongdoings had on people; only now, he is forced to see them as he is the last person to die just before the New Year and is therefore tasked with taking over the responsibility of reaping the souls of the dead until New Year’s Day the following year.
Not sure if it was just my ignorance but I don’t recall hearing much about this picture before this year’s DVD and Blu-Ray release, but its significance as a primary source of influence on one of world cinema’s most important filmmakers alone makes it something to be made aware of. However, the fact that it may possibly be the most affecting and emotional telling of a kind of story commonly visited at this time of year (though not an adaptation of that story) is staggering considering it is not more well-known probably outside of its country of origin. Director Victor Sjostrom (who also starred in and wrote the script, and also later appeared as the lead in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries) put together a masterwork of despair and redemption that almost none of the adaptations of Dickens’s classic work onto film ever reach. Aside from that, the storytelling elements of flashbacks and (if I recall correctly) flashbacks within flashbacks pre-dates the most oft-considered structure pioneering of Rashomon by thirty years. -AC
#17: SALO or, THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (BLU-RAY) (1976)
Is Salo the type of movie you should add to your collection to watch time and again, and have in the background in gorgeous HD during parties? Probably not. (Unless you’re Rebelais! Boom!) But Pasolini’s last film is perhaps one of the best examples of why we need film preservation, and why The Criterion Collection not only makes great upgrades of classic films for cinephiles, but keeps important works in circulation no matter the factors that may be working against them. Salo’s domestic home video history is almost as troubled as the original international release of this enduringly controversial film.
One of the first entries in the Collection’s move from Laserdisc to DVD, Salo went out of circulation as a result of various rights entanglements, making the original (subpar) Criterion DVD release a highly valued collector’s item. In 2008, the film was re-released in a pristine new double-disc version, and this past year was upgraded to Blu-Ray. Love it or hate it (I’m torn because of its misappropriation of De Sade, but I can’t deny its importance), Salo’s Criterion history proves that the particulars of a film’s release really does make a difference. After only being available only through bootlegs or on an inferior legit DVD release for most of the first decade of the twentieth century, an HD Salo illustrates the artistry and finesse with which Pasolini approached the grotesque. Still controversial after all these years, Salo is essential cinema. -LP
#164: SOLARIS (BLU-RAY) (1972)
Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the most visionary filmmakers to have ever existed. If you have the endurance to let his time sculptures suture you to whatever screen you may be viewing, his films provide an opportunity to experience time and space spiritually in a way that few films do, but somehow only the medium of cinema can. The mere seven feature films that he made constitute an incredible body of work, but not until this year has any of his work been available in the HD in the US.
Solaris is perhaps Tarkovsky’s best-known film, and while it wasn’t a favorite of the filmmaker’s, for many of Tarkovsky’s audiences it remains the gateway drug to the auteur’s unique and inimitable aesthetic. A beautiful and despairing rumination on trauma, memory, and the cycles of life, Solaris was Soviet cinema’s (unintentional) answer to 2001’s fantastic linear annal of scientific progress. It’s about time one of Tarkovsky’s films was released in HD. I can think of few other filmmakers whose work benefits more greatly from the format. -LP
#587: THE THREE COLORS TRILOGY (1993-1994)
Kryzstof Kieslowski made films about ideas, and his films were rarely isolated. He made films in cycles which explored overlapping themes and whose issues were engaged through connective threads (i.e., The Decalogue, A Short Film About Killing/Love). Kieslowski’s final works proved to be the masterpiece(s) that would define his international reputation after his death in the mid-1990s. Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994) explore the three political ideals of France: liberty, equality, and fraternity, which serve as the thematic framework for each of these brilliant deconstructive exercises in genre (tragedy, comedy, and romance).
Like many of Criterion’s great box sets, The Three Colors Trilogy posits that, while each of these films may be strong on their own, they must be viewed in their context as components of a complete, and completely brilliant, singular work of cinema. -LP