Year in Review: The Best Criterion Files of 2010

Upon discussion and deliberation between Landon Palmer and Adam Charles (the two primary authors of the Criterion Files column) it was decided that due to the column’s state of near infancy and a small number of articles to choose from they would not reflect upon each other’s incisive works throughout the year of what was considered, or what they felt to be, the articles each were either most impressed by from the other, or considered the most indicative of what the column represents – and instead opted to choose 10 releases of the Criterion company in 2010 they felt most noteworthy of attention.

Delving into each other’s works even if the output was extended to 26 articles each over the course of a full year to choose the favorites from would actually prove to be a much simpler task than what was done for this year’s Year in Review. Trying to narrow down a list of the most significant Criterion Collection releases of any given year to a list of 10 is like…well, trying to list the 10 best of anything of which everything deserves attention. So, take these not as a slight against any of the other releases by any means (please, see every film they include in the library because they’ve selected it for a reason), these just happen to be a consolidation of releases Landon and Adam considered either significant for the availability on home video, marked a trend of the company’s direction of material to include in the library, personal affections, or were simply just incredible works in presentation of the picture previously not able to be experienced from prior releases.

In no particular order of “Importance” whatsoever:

#504: Hunger (2008)

Criterion’s undefined relationship with IFC Films sounds like a risky idea on paper, as it forges a business-based preference of including contemporary international cinema into the collection specific to a single studio’s output. However, it just so happens that in the past few years IFC Films has brought some of the greatest, most challenging, and most important works of international cinema to the US, and as long as this pattern continues we’ll be seeing great recent cinema from all over the globe getting the same extensive treatment as the classics.

Steve McQueen’s gorgeous and harrowing Hunger is a prime example of the benefits of this unlikely union: a fantastic, criminally underseen film that otherwise may not have had an American DVD release at all, much less an HD transfer and special features that extensively explore the history of the subject portrayed. -LP

#544 – 550: America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (1968 – 1972)

Encompassing the first five years of BBS Productions, this set represents the origination of the American counter-culture of the 1960’s igniting a surge of an entire decade of experimental and daring cinema. Whereas many countries had already experienced their cinematic revolutions, such as the Italian Neo-Realism of the 1950s and French New Wave of the 1960s, The United States was beginning to make its move in terms of a new focus of cinema and boldness of content in the mid-1960s, but it’s Easy Rider (the second film in this set) that’s oft-credited as the film that bridges the origins of New Hollywood with what would become an explosion of influential American cinema.

This set contains BBS Productions’ first seven pictures (two of which previously unavailable on any digital format) starting with Bob Rafelson’s surreal satire Head and ending with Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972 (However, BBS Productions is also credited as the production company for the 1974 Peter Davis documentary Hearts and Minds, spine #156 in the Criterion Collection). In between you’ll find Five Easy Pieces which contains one of Nicholson’s greatest performances, The Last Picture Show (one of the premiere films of the 1970s), and the two pictures previously unavailable on dvd or blu-ray the Jack Nicholson helmed Drive, He Said and the first picture from Henry Jaglom 1971’s A Safe Place starring Tuesday Weld, Nicholson and Orson Welles (a working a relationship that would extend to the great filmmaker’s final years).

Most sets released in the Criterion collection are director-centric and focus on a filmmaker’s collective works over a period of time. By focusing their attention on the output of a particular production company that played a major role in helping to shape the landscape of 1970s American cinema Criterion presents a set of seven films that represent a turning point in American cinematic culture. -AC

#507: Bigger Than Life (1956)

One of the reasons Criterion is so beloved by cinephiles is that it shapes and adds to the canon as much as it embraces the existing entries. Nicholas Ray has been a preoccupation of everyone from academics to the classic Hollywood movie fan, but the brunt of the focus on him has been on better-known works like Rebel Without a Cause. Bigger Than Life is a welcome edition to the 50s melodrama canon, and through their restoration Criterion has brought much-deserved attention to one of the most bizarre and revealing films about Eisenhower-era conformity.

It’s as beautifully insightful as it is over-the-top, literalizing the struggle for the perfect household through the prescription drug addiction of James Mason’s oddly cast “all-American” dad. This Technicolor gem is a discovery of film, the type of which makes you ask yourself why you hadn’t seen it before. -LP

#44: The Red Shoes (1948) (blu-ray)

This is one of a few pictures that already existed in the collection, but was restored and re-released as an upgrade over the prior release. The significance of this release is that it marks, hopefully, an evolution in careful film restoration to display older, classic pictures in ways not seen and experienced since fresh off the print; and, by God, did they select not only one of the most colorfully vibrant pictures of the 1940s to work modern technology on, but also one of the most easily to continue to revisit.

Its graceful story of obsession and conflicting passions is timeless, the dance sequences mesmeric, and, now thanks to this restoration and impeccable visual quality it’s one of the most gorgeous representations of what the blu-ray format can offer in terms of being as close to cinema-perfect as we can currently be. -AC

#543: Modern Times (1936)

As comprehensive as Criterion has become in establishing a canon of essential cinema, many silent works have yet to be included in the collection despite a few great entries. 2010 took a significant step forward in changing all that by releasing Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (the first of purportedly several Chaplin releases) and the box set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg. While both sets are incredible and belong on the shelves of any serious movie lover, Modern Times is as great a release on its own as it is a harbinger of future great silent entries in the collection.

Commercially available on DVD well before this release, Modern Times shows how uniquely different it is to experience a film when its given the Criterion treatment despite being pervasively accessible elsewhere. It’s hard to believe that a film nearly 75 years old could feel like it was made for home viewing, but silence has never been so plentiful. -LP

The final five best Criterion releases await you…


#30: M (1931) (blu-ray)

Like The Red Shoes this title already existed in the library prior to the 2 disc standard-def re-release a couple of years ago. This year’s release was strictly an addition to the blu-ray format, which also saw another Fritz Lang classic impressively restored and released for blu-ray by Kino (their Complete Metropolis truly is something to behold with their discovery of previously conceived lost footage incorporated into the picture). This release, like Chaplin’s Modern Times represents a devotion by the company to not ignore the benefits and desire of the arthouse patrons to view some of cinema’s oldest treasures in ways we never have before, which is as close to the ways filmgoers from 75 years ago were able to experience them (or were meant to have experienced them).

M is amongst cinema’s greatest achievements with its stark black-and-white photography and style that pre-dates the eventual film-noir aesthetic by decades and its ability to garner slight sympathy for its antagonist remains one of the most impressive acting feats in history thanks to the portrayal by Peter Lorre. -AC

#539: House (1977)

One of the great things about the Criterion collection is that it can take a brilliant but rarely seen work and catapult it into notoriety. Such is the case with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s now-cult-favorite House, a film that’s as difficult to encapsulate as it is a potentially unending subject of conversation. 2010 has seen a significant embrace by Criterion of cult, genre, and horror films like their releases of Antichrist, Cronos, and The Night of the Hunter, but House displays significantly the company’s ability to bring to cinephiles what they never thought they wanted nor knew existed.

It also provides further evidence that cult and genre aren’t antithetical to artistic, essential filmmaking. As a result of releases like this, film history itself asks to be reexamined. Can one really watch the kinetic fight scenes of Scott Pilgrim without thinking of the pre-video-game hyperreality of House’s “kung-fu” scenes? -LP

#541: Night of the Hunter (1955)

Previously only available as a bare bones MGM release on dvd this bulging set of the Charles Laughton masterpiece is exactly the release that a film of this magnitude and importance to American cinema deserved. Completely unlike any American picture that had come before it this film marked advancement in the portrayal of despicability and genuine terror that would not become more commonplace until the 1960s. Adopting much of the visual style typical of film-noir this picture moves the setting typical of the ‘genre’ from its more common urban environment to a small town community and represents one of the most terrifying stories of pre-adolescent fear, manipulation and conniving we’ve seen – depicted famously by the Robert Mitchum antagonist.

Containing an extensive amount of behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, documentaries, and interviews to go along with its phenomenal digital transfer this may be the most impressive single film release put out by Criterion this year for both blu-ray and dvd collectors. -AC

#522: Red Desert (1964)

Red Desert is one of those films that’s been asking for a Criterion release for a long, long time. Previously commercially unavailable on DVD despite being one of Antonioni’s most celebrated works, Red Desert was one of those elusive titles movie fans imagined a Criterion release of, and when it finally came about, the wait was well work it.

I had heard about the brilliance of this film years before I saw it, yet after seeing Criterion’s transfer I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to see it. Its incomparable simultaneous aesthetic integration of ugliness and beauty is impeccably displayed here, and its one of the collection’s essential, inevitable titles that makes the “important films” part of the company’s slogan ring perfectly true. The “red desert” sequence alone warrants this treatment. -LP

Eclipse Series 23: The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (1943 – 1945)

Though we have yet to extend the column to the works of Criterion’s Eclipse series of films it doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the company’s un-supplemental feature heavy Eclipse sets as part of the collection. On the contrary, their willingness to provide a more cost-effective method for attaining films they feel are deserving of attention is one of the reasons Criterion is so beloved by cinephiles. For collectors they want you to have the best possible product they can offer and will go through great lengths to give it to you for a slightly larger price tag. However, there are films that they simply just want people to be able to see and buy without feeling a strain on their pocketbook.

What makes this set so special is that it contains the films previously available in Region 1 only as part of the massive Akira Kurosawa 25 film set released by Criterion in 2009, allowing Kurosawa junkies (like myself) the opportunity to attain Kurosawa’s entire directing filmography (minus one picture which he was co-director on) on Region 1 dvd without having to purchase the large set. Thanks to this I can now die fulfilled. -AC

Punch your ticket to the arthouse every Wednesday with more Criterion Files

The FSR Staff is an author similar to Hydra. Its articles have many authors. It has many heads. Please don't cut off any of its heads, we're trying to work here.

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