Criterion

Foreign Correspondent

After directing more than twenty feature films in Britain, Alfred Hitchcock’s big introduction to Hollywood came in the form of two films released only four months apart in 1940, both of which were nominated for that year’s Best Picture Academy Award. The gothic chamber drama Rebecca ended up taking home the Oscar, while the trans-continental wartime adventure Foreign Correspondent eventually became all but a footnote in the Hitchcock canon. While Rebecca is no doubt a complex, layered masterwork with its fair share of brilliant Hitchcockian touches (check out IndieWire’s excellent take on the film’s lesbian themes), critics and historians have contended that Rebecca was at least as much a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock entry. In fact, Hitch himself told Truffaut that he didn’t see Rebecca as a Hitchcock picture because of its lack of humor. But Foreign Correspondent (whose Criterion treatment was released this week) displays a more direct, linear relationship to what would come in Hitchcock’s subsequent career in Hollywood. If we view Foreign Correspondent as the master of suspense’s first American film “in a sense” (as James Naremore puts it in his Criterion essay), then Foreign Correspondent can be seen as mapping Hitchcock’s own trans-Atlantic trek, forming a bridge between his British intrigue and his Hollywood spectacle. And now is as good a time as any to resurrect Foreign Correspondent’s worthy status as a Hitchcock classic.

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cc rushmore

With only a singular exception (The Darjeeling Limited), all of Wes Anderson‘s films have been works of art that are equal parts entertainment and emotion. Everyone will have their own favorite, but for me the top spot is a rotating position alternately occupied by Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Both films are pure perfection, but while the latter satisfies my darker moods, the exploits of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and friends are perfect whenever. It’s beautiful, funny, smart, and loaded with heart courtesy of Bill Murray. The Criterion Collection added Rushmore to their Blu-ray roster in 2011, and among the numerous extras is a commentary track featuring Anderson, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman. Unfortunately, the trio appear to have recorded separately, but they still have a collective wealth of information to share on a movie they still hold dear.

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Criterion 2013

The Criterion Collection is an ever-expanding accumulation of canonical works of cinema. Yet Criterion’s selections don’t only represent deliberate attempts to construct a pristine archive from cinema’s past, but also force a conversation with cinema’s present. These releases (and the cult of anticipation that develops around them) produces a distinctive contrast between the best of cinema history against the spoils of the current moment. And while 2013 did introduce us to some very good films (three of which made it into the Collection), the best selections of cinema’s past always have a lot of instructive lessons to offer the smorgasbord of cinema’s present. So here are some useful pieces of advice that we think current filmmaking should take from this year’s crop of Criterion releases.

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Mud Hunter

There are many reasons to compare and contrast current films with historical ones. One is to attempt to explain why some films have been spotlighted in place of a possible litany similar films. Another is to show the machinations of cinematic influence, or explore the persistence of repeated narratives throughout film history. And yet another is because it’s damn fun. Here at Criterion Files, we have (on a not-at-all-regular basis) compared recent films with relevant counterparts canonized in the cinephilic annals of the Criterion collection, including two Lincoln biopics, two iconic exercises of the close-up, and the overwhelming similarities between Pierrot le Fou and a certain beloved Wes Anderson film. But rarely has a crop of films released in a single season echoed the specific work of classic counterparts than the summer of 2013.

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Babettes-Feast-7943_5

I had a roommate in college who, every day like clockwork, ate dry toast for lunch while watching The Food Network. While he never explained this routine to me no matter how many times I asked/poked fun, I always assumed he was engaging in some ritual of transference: that the act of eating what is categorically the most bland of meals somehow tasted better while experiencing a feast for the eyes; that some modicum of what was impossible to taste onscreen somehow made it into the liminal space between his brain and his mouth. The phenomenon of television cooking in the United States is an unusual one. In a country that has virtually no unique culinary history in contrast to its European counterparts, viewing the act of cooking grew as popular entertainment, and made celebrities of cooks, at the same time that Americans were turning off their ovens in favor of microwave dinners. Cooking’s aesthetic qualities have only gone on to become further elaborated in its media representation as meals can be experienced in glorious HD, while feeding into earth-conscious food trends like specialized diets, farmer’s markets, home gardening, organic shopping, and locavorism. The visual art of cuisine has a far scarcer history in American movies than it does in American television, perhaps because TV, like the consumption of food, is more invested in the domestic and the ephemeral (but for my money, the very best American food movie is Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night). Perhaps this notable […]

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safety_last_it_725x320px copy

At the risk of generalization, The Criterion Collection is probably best known for packaging two types of films: celebrated canonical works that deserve pristine treatment; and comparably worthwhile but overlooked or unavailable films in need of a resurrection. Two of this week’s DVD/Blu-ray releases from Criterion – Harold Lloyd’s iconic silent comedy Safety Last and Czech auteur František Vláčil’s largely unheard-of-in-the-US Marketa Lazarová – exemplify the very best of both these tendencies, giving cinephiles an opportunity to “discover” in various ways both an undisputed classic and a challenging, largely unknown masterpiece of form and tone.

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Medium Cool

Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool is a film whose immediacy and docu-realism was all too fitting for an America that could, for the first time, see its wars on television. Shot during the protests and riots that accompanied the Democratic National Convention in August 1968, Wexler’s film seamlessly mixed narrative storytelling and documentary – Medium Cool is a Hollywood-made document of America in ’68 if there ever was one, a stunning portrait of the chaotic state of politics and its relationship to media in one of the most tumultuous years in American (or, perhaps, world) history. But Criterion’s long-anticipated release of Medium Cool isn’t the only A/V flashback to ’68 occurring this summer. Olivier Assays’s Something in the Air reflects on the student protests surrounding the similarly turbulent demonstrations in France in May of that year, while Season 6 of Mad Men has just entered the sweltering summer that will climax in the events in Chicago that August. Maybe it’s Congress’s seemingly eternal bottleneck, or the government’s paranoia-inducing surveillance of the press, or a general aura of well-justified cynicism, but the simultaneously dark and potentially revolutionary years of ’68 seem to demand contemporary reflection, even if it only results in pop culture nostalgia. That said, here’s The Criterion Collection’s archive of films that captured the spirit of the revolutionary times of the ‘60s around the world, all fitting comrades of the brilliant Medium Cool.

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Armageddon

This week, Michael Bay did something that I thought was only possible if you were named Joel Schumacher: he apologized for a loud, bloated late-’90s summer stimulus-athon. In an interview with the Miami Herald promoting his Florida-set Pain & Gain, Bay said, “I will apologize for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could. But the studio literally took the movie away from us. It was terrible. My visual effects supervisor had a nervous breakdown, so I had to be in charge of that. I called James Cameron and asked ‘What do you do when you’re doing all the effects yourself?’ But the movie did fine.” It’s unclear exactly what Bay’s problem is with the third act of Armageddon that isn’t also characteristic of the film as a whole (cloying sentimentality, a rushed pace, the central premise), or whether or not, in typical Bay fashion, his real problem is solely with special effects or the film’s box-office performance (“the movie did fine” here seems to relinquish any issues he may have had). But one thing’s for sure: Armageddon, according to its maker, is not a pure, ideal Michael Bay vision. (Bay, of course, later refuted the story and says he’s proud of the film, as he should be.)

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The Man Who Fell to Earth

Last week, David Bowie released The Next Day, his first album of entirely original music in a decade. That the seemingly retired former glam-space alien suddenly revealed himself to have laid down a full album’s worth of studio sessions in complete secrecy shocked rock journalists and fans of the shape-shifting pop star, inspiring many assessments of Bowie’s career at large and what this album means with respect to it. The Thin White Duke himself seems to be engaging in that exact same conversation, as promotional materials around the album incorporate Bowie’s past iconography: the cover for The Next Day appropriates the 1977 cover of Heroes with a block of white text over it and the word “Heroes” marked out, and the video for the aptly-titled single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” features a model imitating 1976-era Bowie and a magazine cover featuring a still of Bowie from the film The Man Who Fell to Earth from the same year. Bowie’s multifaceted personae have become manifest through album covers, live performances, and, of course, his diverse and shifting musical stylings. But Bowie, while hardly a traditional rock star/film star hybrid, has also exercised much of his persona through his selective cinematic appearances, which exhibit his chameleonesque performance capabilities across media. Whether playing a WWI veteran in David Hemmings’s Just a Gigolo, a vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (my childhood introduction to Bowie), Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, or Nikola Tesla in Christopher […]

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Emmanuelle Riva Hiroshima

Michael Haneke’s much-lauded Amour, which won Best Foreign Language Film last night at the Oscars, has at its center two powerhouses of modern European art cinema: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest woman ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar. The two central faces of Amour, here aged and frail, have graced screens realized by the visions of master filmmakers like Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Costa-Gavras, Krysztof Keislowski, Jean-Pierre Melville, Georges Franju, and Bernardo Bertolucci among others. It’s fitting that Haneke picked Trintignant and Riva to make a film about aging, for these are two performers that can be seen aging and changing on celluloid through decades of incredible work. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine European art cinema, in its many transformations, without these two faces. Here are a few of their key performances in The Criterion Collection…

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Soderbergh Schizopolis

In contrast to other well-respected filmmakers whose revisited obsessions traverse and develop across a litany of discrete works, Steven Soderbergh has most often been described as a expressive and ever-experimenting formalist, a master technician, a “process-rather-than-results person,” but never an auteur. But with Soderbergh’s immanent retirement on the horizon (his last theatrical film, Side Effects, will be released Friday, followed by his HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra), there seems to be a sense of urgency in attempting to make sense of a talented filmmaker who’s worked within and without the studio system, through various genres, and with budgets ranging from giant to shoestring. While Soderbergh is rather open about his process, what compels him to tackle certain subjects, and how they’re tied together, may remain a mystery – if, in fact, there’s any logic informing his choices at all beyond stylistic exercise and an addiction to workahol. But when examining the five (or, arguably, six) films of his that have been released through The Criterion Collection, an interesting pattern emerges – perhaps not one that encompasses all his works, but one that certainly applies to several films outside the small percentage of the prolific filmmaker’s career represented here.

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Qatsi Trilogy Criterion

The Qatsi series is made up of several compelling contradictions. On the one hand, the first film, Koyaanisqatsi (1983), was a unique-for-its-time, one-of-a-kind event; but on the other hand, that film used many of the same cinematic tactics and strategies common to “pure cinema” (or “absolute film”) projects that characterized experimental filmmaking in the 1920s, like Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mechanique, and the geometric filmmaking of Viking Eggeling. On the one hand, the Qatsi series is often celebrated as a series, or as an accomplishment characterized by a long-term vision realized across several films; but on the other hand, celebrations of the weight and accomplishment of this series are often relegated to the first film. Koyaanisqatsi’s sequels, Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002), are only mentioned a fraction as often as the landmark first film. On the one hand, this trilogy is one of the most radical critical critiques of capitalism and industry to arise from a relatively mainstream release; but on the other hand, the aesthetic “purity” of these films enables the major risk of a message lost. And on the one hand, Koyaanisqatsi launched the film careers of cinematographer Ron Fricke (whose most recent feature, Samsara, was exhibited in 70mm last year) and avant-garde composer Philip Glass; but on the other hand, these two have become considerably better known through their contributions to movies than the trilogy’s ambitious director, Godfrey Reggio. The Qatsi series is at once a single vision and an inspired […]

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Criterion Files

The Criterion Collection devotes itself to important classic and contemporary films. But cinema hardly exists in a vacuum. Moving image artists have often moved between media formats, and movies have had a history of influence from their many competitors. Would we have seen Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, for example, in widescreen Technicolor had 1950s cinema not competed with television? Therefore, even though The Criterion Collection is overwhelmingly devoted to the art of cinema, the Collection has recognized select important works of television. But the inevitable question arises: which works of great, influential television are justifiable to include in a cinema library? The Criterion Collection doesn’t include works of television that are great in television’s own terms, but instead recognizes works of television that are great for cinema.

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Holiday Gifts for Movie Lovers

It’s that time of year again when we scramble around looking for the perfect present for the people we love and like. While we’re big fans of movie-watching around the holidays we don’t recommend seeing one in a theater on Christmas day. Your patronage is requiring some poor shlub to have to work, and that’s not cool. But movies to own are never a bad gift idea, and with that simple mantra we present our second annual Blu-ray & DVD Holiday Gift Guide featuring items that were released in 2012! Click on the image to check current prices and buy a copy!

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Criterion Files

Sometimes the greater cinematic spectacle ends up not being the film itself, but the ability to watch the film crash and burn. And Hollywood history has arguably seen no greater spectacle of failure than Michael Cimino’s epic anti-western, Heaven’s Gate. Credited as the film that destroyed United Artists, the bloated-for-its-time production has come to represent for some the last hurrah for a New Hollywood whose challenging artistic visionaries eventually stumbled over their own escalating egos. But decades after the hype, damage, and demonization of the film faded away, audiences can finally see Heaven’s Gate’s depiction of the Johnson County War for what it really is: a gorgeously realized, largely misunderstood, admittedly far from perfect but heavily underrated film. The Criterion Collection’s addition of Heaven’s Gate is a significant step in complicating the story of the film’s overwhelmingly bad reputation. But unfortunately Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray packages make for a strange release that doesn’t go far enough in recontextualizing a movie whose tattered history always threatens any potential appreciation of it.

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Junkfood Cinema - Large

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; they don’t make buns like this down at the bakery…well they do, we just bought them all. This is the weekly bad movie column that makes all other bad movie columns look far better by comparison. Every week we serve up a delightfully terrible movie with every intention of ripping it to shreds. But then, as we are forced to spend two hours with that celluloid terror, a funny thing happens. We begin to fall in love. The film engenders a genuine feeling of adoration within us that we can’t always fully articulate even as we articulate it. So yes, Junkfood Cinema has officially been reclassified as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. To wash down the deeply disturbing breakthrough we’ve just had, we will offer a disgustingly awesome snack food themed to the film. Fantastic Fest may be over, but its effects linger like the hangover we may or may not but totally are experiencing as we/I write this. One of those effects is the scorched Earth where once stood the Drafthouse theater that showcased a repertory screening of 1987′s Miami Connection. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Junkerford, isn’t Miami Connection a little too mainstream for this column?” Perhaps you’re right, but my name is Junkseph. However, despite the fact that everyone and their sister, Everywina, has seen this masterpiece, it somehow managed to go unreleased on anything but VHS. Drafthouse films, the harbingers of international genre fare of spectacular quality, as well as […]

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Got some extra cash laying around? Thinking about starting holiday gift-buying early? Missing a crucial title? The Criterion Collection has got you covered, as every cinephile’s favorite creator of technically and trivia-ly (go with it) superior home video releases has just launched a major flash sale. For just twenty-four hours, every available title on the Criterion list (including both DVDs and Blu-rays) is a big, eye-popping fifty percent off. That’s right, half off. Head on over to the Criterion website to get going on your purchases. Remember, the sale ends tomorrow (Tuesday, September 25th) at noon EST. Stymied by too many choices? Take a look back at some of our Criterion Files to get a handle on all the must-buys.

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Criterion Files

The common, received wisdom about Hollywood during The Great Depression tends to go like this: Hollywood played an important role as a place for escape, or a low-cost brief vacation, for a populace struggling to make it day-to-day. Much of Hollywood entertainment no doubt possessed escapist entertainment value, and the importance of Hollywood’s social role in this respect shouldn’t be dismissed. But the assumption that Depression-era Hollywood worked exclusively – or even mostly – as a purely escapist institution with little reflection on the overwhelming social conditions and problems of the time is greatly misinformed. The Depression-era-escapism argument about Hollywood has significant implications. While the industry’s role as an institutionalized dream factory had been well established by the early 1930s, the early years of the Depression were instrumental in the formation of a Classical Hollywood mode because it was during these years that synchronous sound became solidified with other standardized industry conventions. Genres like gangster films and westerns certainly existed during the silent era, but these genres acquired their shared signatures as sound grew into an expected, important part of the cinematic experience, just as the sonic spectacle of the musical or the rat-a-tat dialogue of screwball comedies became essential defining components of their respective genres after the standardization of sound. So, in short, how we conceptualize Hollywood in the 1930s is instrumental to understanding the foundation of Hollywood’s entire history.

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Criterion Files

Of the 600+ films in The Criterion Collection, almost 200 are listed as from the United States. While not all of these films are explicitly thematically based  around life in the US, the American selections for the Collection do make up a mosaic of diverse perspectives on life in this country, proving that there is no sustainable solitary understanding of what it means to be an “American,” but there exists instead an array of possibilities for interpreting American identity. What the American films do have in common, though, is provide proof that excellent films have been made in the US for quite some time. So, after exhausting yourself with Independence Day Parades, firecracker-lighting, and Budweiser, settle down with a great American movie. Here are a dozen great titles from the Criterion Collection about “America” and “freedom” in the many senses of those terms.

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Criterion Files

The Criterion Collection’s motto makes explicit its devotion to “important classic and contemporary films,” but it’s also clear that the Collection has dedicated itself to the careers of a select group of important classic and contemporary directors. Several prestigious directors have a prominent portion of their careers represented by the collection. Between the Criterion spine numbers and Eclipse box sets, 21 Ingmar Bergman films are represented (and multiple versions of two of these films), ranging from his 1940s work to Fanny and Alexander (and 3 documentaries about him). 26 Akira Kurosawa films have been given the Criterion/Eclipse treatment, and Yashujiro Ozu has 17 films in the collection. Though many factors go into forming the collection, including the ever-shifting issue of rights and ownership over certain titles, it’s hard to argue against the criticism (or, perhaps more accurately, obvious observation) that the films in the Collection represent certain preferences of taste which makes its omissions suspect and its occasionally-puzzling choices fodder for investigation or too predictable to be interesting (two Kurosawa Eclipse sets?). And while the Collection has recently upped its game on the “contemporary” portion of its claim by highlighting modern-day masterpieces like Olivier Assayas’s Carlos and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, for the most part attempts at forming a complete directorial filmography via within the Collection has typically been reserved for directors whose filmographies have completed. Except, of course, for the case of Wes Anderson.

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