It seems like every year we have to begin this particular article with the disclaimer that we aren’t necessarily talking about the best releases Criterion put upon us this calendar year. If one made a list of top 10 home releases in a given year one could conceivably litter that list with nothing but Criterion releases, and still find themselves in the same predicament. Here, our approach to this article has, more often than not, been based on a wow factor in one of many different areas. Either a wow for the presentation of the release, a wow for the personal discovery of something previously unknown, a wow for the collective power of a set, or, occasionally the most fun, a wow for the “I can’t believe Criterion released that….I’m really happy Criterion decided to release that…but seriously can you believe they released that?”
This year was no different in any of those respects for Criterion as they continue to put out some of the most impressive releases month in and month out with films that have been in dire need of the Criterion treatment for a long time (Purple Noon), notoriously maligned and controversial artworks that deserve a second chance (Heaven’s Gate), their continuous support for the unique voices of the next generation of filmmakers (Tiny Furniture) while trying to also include the early works of some of modern cinema’s most exciting visionaries (The Game, Being John Malkovich, Shallow Grave); which, on that note, brings us to our first release to kick off this list to celebrate our appreciation for the studio that loves what they do just as much as we love them to do what they do:
#638 Following (1999)
Earlier in his filmmaking career Christopher Nolan was drawing comparisons to Quentin Tarantino in his toying with writing structure by breaking up his linear story line into movable chunks that could be mixed and matched to move the story forward to a more entertaining effect than had the story been told in sequence. Also like Tarantino it was with his second feature film that Nolan would make his more prominent impact. While the two would separate themselves from comparison beyond that point their roots remain planted in similar soil.
In Following Nolan tells of a writer who chooses to stalk people to assist in getting material to write about. In doing so he meets a professional thief who gives our unsuspecting writer a tour in the life of a criminal. Like in his second feature, Memento, Nolan does a fine job of locating the climax in his story and ensuring that while the plot doesn’t follow a sequential timeline, the events that occur are told to us as they should be in order to accommodate a familiar, expected, and enjoyable rhythm. – Adam Charles
#622 Weekend (2011)
One of the best films of last year, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is a beautiful, touching, starkly honest portrayal of a three-night romance between two young men in the English Midlands. The film’s modest narrative and style contributes to, rather than contradicts, the altogether surprising emotional weight that Weekend ultimately delivers.
Criterion has developed a keen eye for selecting great contemporary films worth preserving, and I can think of few films released in recent years that deserve the status of “instant classic” as much as this indie gem. Sure, this year also saw the Criterion release of Godard’s anarchic, similar-in-title-only Week-End, but even the greatest cinematic subversions are no match for the simple profundity of watching two people fall in love onscreen. – Landon Palmer
#630 Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
If there’s one thing the Criterion Collection does indeed lack is the rights to some of American cinema’s most revered pictures of the more commercially successful artists they are able to feature. More often than not the studios that own the distribution rights to those films tend to hold on to them because they have a viable financial reason to and, therefore, Criterion rarely gets the opportunity to give some of those pictures the treatment they deserve (not to say the major studios don’t do a standout job).
Roman Polanski‘s Rosemary’s Baby is one large step in that direction. It’s one of American cinema’s most well regarded horror pictures and regularly enjoys a place on the mantle next to pictures like Hitchcock’s Psycho, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Kubrick’s The Shining as top tier auteurs who chose to put their powers, full force, into a genre that’s typically not as well regarded as containing material worthy of their attention. It was actually these four pictures (among others) that helped put that stigma to rest. While not quite as eerily unsettling as Polanski’s other psychological thrillers (Repulsion and The Tenant) it is one of the few pictures of warranted paranoia that never unlatches itself from the back of your head when you first meet your elder next door neighbors. – Adam Charles
#598 World on a Wire (1973)
When trailers for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s miniseries/very long film made their American debut last year in anticipation of its first-ever theatrical run in the US, World on a Wire looked like a stunning piece of science-fiction film history that geeks like me never knew we needed.
The hybrid of European art filmmaking and genre cinema of the fantastic variety makes for a rare combination in of itself (I struggle thinking of appropriate points of comparison outside of Alphaville), but Fassbinder’s incomparable eye for composition, camp humor, and patient approach to cinematic world-making ultimately adds up to a one-of-a-kind work by a great director that was, for some reason, kept hidden until now. I only wish American television were this cerebral and stylish. – Landon Palmer
#603 David Lean Directs Noel Coward (1942 – 1945)
David Lean‘s first credited foray into the world of film was as an editor all throughout the 1930s and working on such projects as Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger‘s 49th Parallel and the Leslie Howard picture Pygmalion (adapted from the same stage play that was the basis for My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn), but as his first attempt at directing he co-captained a picture adapted from the work of famed English playwright Noel Coward (in which Coward is also credited as director) titled In Which We Serve about a crew of British Naval soldiers trying to survive on a life raft. The critical success of that film would result in 3 more subsequent collaborations of equal, if not greater reverence, that make up this box set (This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, and previously released Brief Encounter).
Brief Encounter may itself be cinema’s most subtle and romantic pictures that perfectly brings the working relationship of these two to a close, and to set Lean on his future filmmaking journey to then do two of the most accomplished Charles Dickens adaptations before then becoming one of film’s preeminent talents of sprawling epics. – Adam Charles