Every serious or inquisitive film fan eventually arrives at the Criterion Collection (CC). Those who don’t shy away from subtitles and know that black and white can offer more than color. They might stumble upon a DVD labeled as such in Barnes and Nobles or read about an old foreign film thought lost to history, repacked and refurbished for your HDTV courtesy of CC. Formed in 1984, CC dedicates itself to gathering some of the great, often little-seen, films in world cinema and making them widely available, each packaging coming with a film class’s worth of extras.
The Criterion Collection is also known for their high cost of films. Consequently, Barnes and Nobles holds a sale twice a year, slicing the price of the films in half. Now, there are scores of wonderful films already in the Collection so you really can’t go wrong in choosing one, but this list below is made of some of their newer releases, and they are great places to start in digesting little slices of significant film history, whether it’s Ingmar Bergman’s harsh studies of faith and God, Film Noir at its finest, or the weepiest of Hollywood weepies. Take the plunge with any of these films, and you may not look at the latest summer blockbuster the same way again.
10. Five Easy Pieces (1970), Bob Rafelson
Those poor few who only know ol’ Jack Nicholson as that looney who screamed “Here’s Johnny!” in “The Shining” or that old guy with the shades court-side at Lakers games would do well to take a look at the film that made him a star. “Five Easy Pieces,” is an essential American work from the ‘70s. It helped put American film on a journey away from the elegant artifice of old and an A-B-C narrative. This fresh terrain was unafraid of digression, of the weird little detail and the vulgar eloquence of American speech. This film, about a thirty-something outsider running away from both the past and the future, defines that sense of inchoate longing and alienation that people like Lena Dunham have turned into a fad. But thanks to the vividness of the performances and the writing, the fad still feels real here. Special features include audio commentary from the director and interior designer, a documentary on “Five Easy Pieces’s’” film company BBS productions, a making-of featurette, and an essay by critic Kent Jones
9. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Jaromil Jireš
If you scoff at the twinkly, teenage nonsense of “Twilight,” you’ve hit the jackpot. You’ll want to show this sensual, freaky fairy tale to your friends, particularly if they weren’t too sure Czechoslovakia even made films. There are images of witchcraft and eroticism here that will give your dreams some extra material. Special features includes three shorts from the director and interviews with two of the film’s stars.
8. The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Fassbinder was a force. In less than 15 years, he completed 40 films, two film series, three shorts, 24 stage plays and four radio plays, and he acted in 36 acting roles. I can’t even find the time to iron my clothes in the morning. This film grants me some solace, however, as its protagonist is an even greater wreck, an alcoholic fruit vendor with a cheating wife and a hateful mother. If it sounds like melodrama, you would be half right. Fassbinder’s work in the ‘70s was influenced by the German émigré Douglas Sirk, who made a series of melodramas in America that both expressed and undermined the middle-class values of Eisenhower-era America. Fassbinder merely eschews the highs and lows of melodrama, leaving a tense, harsh middle part. There’s still a hint of exaggeration (Fassbinder’s theatrical sensibilities give his work the look and tone of a play), but the exaggeration leaves a scar.
7. Cries and Whispers (1972), Ingmar Bergman
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman liked to shoot faces, often in extreme close-up. In his films, the actors betray every little tick and repressed emotion in their features, unable to hide from his emotional X-ray of a gaze. Bergman, and specifically this anguished drama, is what you might think of when you imagine artsy-fartsy, Important Art. That idea won’t arm you for the unsettling feeling that emanates from the images on screen, shot as if stained with blood. Telling the story of three sisters torn apart by (self) loathing and the slow, agonizing death of one of the three, Bergman brings us to the edge of human suffering and misery, with scenes and passages of dialogue so personal and painful you may fidget in your seat. But Bergman is unwavering. For those viewers fascinated by humanity in the face of death and “God’s absence,” “Cries and Whispers” is a hypnotic watch, the kind that leaves all other “serious’ films feeling small and timid.
6. Odd Man Out (1947), Carol Reed
Finally! Black and white! And what rich black and white indeed. In Carol Reed’s depiction of a wanted man lost in a labyrinthine city, the shadows loom large, creeping down alley ways, masking faces and allegiances. Beams of light escape from doorways and illuminate the soft kisses of snowflakes on cobblestone floor. Part noir, part psychological thriller, “Odd Man Out” is a harrowing physical and spiritual journey into the depths of a divided city and a man’s soul. Special features include a featurette on the sociopolitical climate of the film’s release, a radio adaptation of the film, and a short doc on the film.
5. Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Leo McCarey
These days, an American film about Alzheimer’s disease can still have you coming out the film feeling happy. This Depression-era tearjerker is made of far sterner stuff, and it may feel like a gut punch for many viewers. McCarey earns your tears with an unsentimental portrait of the indignities and trials that befall an elderly couple subjected to the often selfish and apathetic whims of their children. You know this story. You know these people. We often want to make more time for each other, particularly our parents and grandparents. We want to listen to them, to be with them, to show our love. Yet we insist that pesky thing called life just gets in the way, so family gets put on the shelf. “Make Way” is about what happens when family connections pick up dust. It’s about people who sometimes forget how precious life is. It’s about people like you and me.
4. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Alain Resnais
I think since this landmark, perhaps only Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” felt the same moral, social and personal imperative to face tragedy in a vein similar to many European post-war films. Alain Resnais, who among his contemporaries dealt most severely with the nature of memory, pushed cinema ahead with this masterpiece, which plays like visual music and poetry. Resnais merges fiction and nonfiction, past and present. 70 years after Hiroshima, it still resonates as a haunting testament to the burden of history. Special features include interviews with the director, lead actress Emmanuelle Riva, and an excerpt from a roundtable discussion of a bunch of really smart filmmakers who can convince you of the film’s greatness a lot better than I can.
3. The Killers, (1946 and 1964), Robert Siodmak and Robert Siegel
This marvelous package gives you two movies for the price of one. Both based on Ernest Hemingway’s seminal short story, the ‘46 is a shadowy mystery with the hapless sucker, the cigarette smoke, the seductress whose dress bears a low neckline and whose heart low morals, and the twisty narrative that signify that glorious thing called Noir. The other is a tough, sun-bleached thriller initially made for TV, yet considered too violent in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. The ‘64 is a special, trippy treat as it features Ronald Reagan’s final screen performance.
2. 3 films by Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman
For three films and a treasure chest of features and essays, the cost is usually 80 dollars. So 50% is quite the deal. Ingrid Bergman, Hollywood icon of such classics as “Casablanca” and “Notorious,” caused a scandal in America when she went to Italy to form a partnership with Roberto Rossellini, a successful maker of socially conscious, post-war dramas. Bergman and Rossellini would soon start an affair (both were at the time married) and have three kids. The affair was forgiven, and the work endures. This year celebrates the centennial of Bergman’s birth, and what better way to celebrate than a viewing of these influential films, whose examinations of existential boredom and restlessness in the modern age (what in the biz they call “ennui”) are still being mined by artists today.
1. The Complete Jacques Tati
Again, this is a lofty set; its regular price is 125 dollars. So it’s sale or bust for us normal folk. Viewers knowledgeable of Charlie Chaplin might see Jacques Tati as France’s equivalent, but Chaplin’s silent clown was never as preoccupied with a world of plexiglass and mass consumerism the way Tati’s sweet and humble Monsieur Hulot is, or as unsure of himself. This set has all his work: six feature films (the most celebrated is 1967’s epic “Playtime”) and seven Tati-related shorts. Tati’s films are made of long wide shots, and as Chaplin said, life is a tragedy in close-up, but a comedy in long shot. Tati’s frames contain comedy in every nook and cranny, though it isn’t the gut busting, physical theatrics of Chaplin or the Marx Brothers. Here the comedy is subtler, worth more of a nod of recognition. It comes from a keen, droll observation of human behavior, the kind we see all around us when we’re walking down the street or through a mall, if only we took our headphones out and paid attention.