Favorites: The Criterion Collection

Here at 25YLSite, we handle a lot of heavy lifting. Analysis, interpretation, deep discussion, introspective interviews… you name it, we’ve got it. “Favorites” takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites – whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever! – in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Josh Lami’s favorite Criterion Collection Films.


Do not allow my decision to exclude all David Lynch titles from this list diminish the fact that he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. Never one for pointing out the obvious, I’ll just trust my reasoning for exclusion goes without saying, and if it doesn’t, well just don’t worry about it. Also excluded from my list of five favorite Criterion Collection films is 8 1/2, as I’ve already written a review for it.

Oh how I love the Criterion Collection. I own about 20 titles, so I’m not in the big leagues yet, but collecting Criterion is a huge hobby of mine. Before we get started, I want to assure everyone I’m not being paid to write this. Criterion is awesome, I love their products, but this isn’t a shill post, I’m just a huge fan.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Criterion Collection, I’ll explain. Every day, a person gets into movies. For some reason it’s often horror, and I’m not sure why, but it is. The horror fan inevitably comes across an arthouse film that moves them, often a David Lynch film. Eraserhead is the biggest culprit of pulling casual film fans into the house of art. So, baby film nerd seeks out a Blu-ray copy of their new beloved masterpiece and is perturbed to find out said masterpiece is only available as a release from the significantly more expensive Criterion Collection. Baby film nerd buckles and buys it anyway, because what are you going to do, not own Eraserhead on Blu-ray? Do you even film nerd, bro?

After buying their first Criterion, baby film nerd realizes this Blu-ray is well worth the money, as it’s extremely comprehensive and the audio/video aspects are flawless, not to mention the cover art. Then, baby film nerd realizes they have to own as many Criterion titles as possible to achieve maximum film nerd credibility. Here’s the kicker: Criterion doesn’t release bad movies, or even just good ones. Criterion only releases cream of the crop, high art masterpieces (and Armageddon). So, often the Criterion nut will start blind buying titles because they assume the movie will not suck. Even if it does, we can always lie and say we love it, while expanding our collection.

But enough of my thinly veiled personal experience. Let’s cut to the chase for once and get into my five favorite Criterion releases.

5. Bowling for Columbine

Before you get annoyed with my candidness in regard to politics, understand, I spend much of my time analyzing art films. What… exactly do you expect my political views to be? Michael Moore is polarizing, I personally like him. He’s a blowhard, but so am I; what can I say?

Bowling for Columbine is a documentary which still resonates. Moore isn’t pretending to be neutral. Every Moore documentary is an indictment of the GOP. He takes on capitalism, lack of gun control, monetized healthcare, and now that being racist seems to be acceptable again, I assume he’ll touch on that more. If there’s a negative to Michael Moore it’s that he tends to preach to the choir with his films. Truthfully, I don’t need to see Bowling for Columbine. It’s something of a masturbatory experience for a vegan, hybrid-driving, Radiohead fan like myself. The minute you see me, you’re like, yeah that guy eats a lot of hummus and agrees with Michael Moore. My neighbor Kent, on the other hand—that guy might benefit from seeing it. Actually, I doubt it. Kent once tried to convince me Barack Obama was the literal Antichrist. Kent has crossed a threshold, methinks. That said, it’s fun watching his confusion when I assert that Donald Trump is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Notes: This one is not out yet. I preordered it but can’t speak on the specs just yet.

4. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom

Am I joking? Trying to traumatize someone? No, it’s just my pick. I think Salò is a great film. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s work is amazing and if you don’t know Pasolini, maybe don’t worry about him yet. It depends on where you are in your cinematic journey. If you’re a Lynch fan, I’d give it 50/50 odds you’re going to dig Pasolini. If you’re a casual film fan, it’s more like a 5% chance. It isn’t because I’m smart and you’re not, or any other ridiculous notions. Rather, it’s just likely you’re looking for something a bit more conventional by today’s standards and you’re just not acquainted with certain types of filmmaking. You may never be, and it’s fine. Getting into Pasolini when you’re a casual moviegoer is like a third-grade math student trying to do trigonometry: they’re not stupid, they just need to learn some basic fundamentals first and work up to the more complex stuff. They may never get to the point where they need trig, and that’s ok too. Maybe they’re just not a math person.

It’s never surprising to me when a movie buff who loves the work of Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen Brothers puts on Mulholland Drive and is mostly frustrated by it. Anderson and the Coens are incredible filmmakers, but Mulholland Drive is in a completely different class of film. It may be well known, but it’s rather abstract and impenetrable, when compared with something like Magnolia. Going from Lynch to Pasolini is a similar leap, but for wildly different reasons, especially with Salò. You’re not going to like Salò, it’s going to repulse you. The compositions are beautiful, it has a tonal intensity all its own, the violence and perversity are unbelievable, it’s an amazingly crafted work of art. I’ve seen it more than once and while I can’t exactly say I enjoyed it, I appreciated it and took it in for what I felt it was, rather than focusing on the fact that there is definitely an amount of rape and torture which could only be described as unrelenting. If you’re the kind of person who wants to understand every aspect of cinema, awesome! Salò is non-negotiable, you must see it. Let’s enter the Circle of Shit! But you should watch Theorem and Medea and some other Pasolini films first and see if this is your bag. Salò isn’t something to just go jumping into. Fair warning.

Notes: The HD transfer is gorgeous. It comes with a full-color book, making-of featurettes, and interviews with Pasolini. Mine is a Digipak, though I have seen some Criterion releases that came out as a Digipak and were later released in the standard clear plastic case, synonymous with Criterion. I have seen pictures online of this in plastic case format, but I’m unsure if it was legit. Available in Blu-ray and DVD.

3. The Qatsi Trilogy

It was 2003, I believe, when I first saw Koyaanisqatsi. A friend of mine invited me to the home of someone he didn’t know well and I didn’t know at all. There we hung out in a basement owned by a strange 45-year-old man who showed us old short films he’d made in the 70s and 80s. Turns out, he managed a movie theater in a nearby town. In this basement he had built a theater screen, complete with theater seating, and he owned a legitimate film projector. Now here’s the kicker: this guy had a ton of movies on reel. It was a fairly intense collection. That night I sat in a dark basement watching Koyaanisqatsi on a fucking 35mm reel projection. It’s like if Bill Murray stole your spaghetti, no one will ever believe you.

Godfrey Reggio’s classic Koyaanisqatsi is an extremely experimental film with virtually zero dialogue and a lot of long shots of nature, cut alongside images of industry and city life. Hard to describe, honestly. The other two films in the trilogy: Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi are similar, though revolve around different subjects, like third world countries and war. Incredible images, unforgettable score… not a great pick to show your Tinder date.

Notes: Three discs, I have only seen in Digipak format. Restored picture overseen by director Godfrey Reggio for all three films. Only the Blu-ray edition has the 5.1 DTS-HD master audio. Sounds incredible on a good surround sound system. Available in both Blu-ray and DVD, but I can’t imagine why anyone would go with DVD, especially for this title.

2. Antichrist

Another polarizing figure, Lars von Trier directed this behemoth of a film. A lot of people hate this Antichrist, and I mean hate it. As a fan of this film, let me assure you, they have their reasons. If I could pick one Von Trier film to be in the Criterion Collection, it would be Dancer in the Dark. Alas, that hasn’t yet happened. Antichrist is a great consolation prize, though. With some of the greatest compositions I’ve ever seen, Antichrist is artfully shot from beginning to end. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe both give perfect performances.

Antichrist is, to say the least, a fucked up movie, though. Like deeply fucked up. It’s not as visually disturbing as Salò, but it’s disturbing for different reasons and I think tonally this film lingers far longer than Salò. This one I’ve only seen once. Antichrist is the first film in The Depression Trilogy, alongside Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, both of which are great, but neither as of yet have Criterion releases. Time will tell, but dear God, people at Criterion, if you’re reading this, please make those happen. This film contains graphic depictions of genital mutilation and scenes of unsimulated penetrative sex, so… you know, discretion.

Notes: HD digital master picture, transfer overseen by director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle and director approved by Lars von Trier. DTS-HD master audio on Blu-ray only. Again, buy Blu-ray. Never seen this in a Digipak. As far as I know, clear plastic case only. Excellent booklet with essay.

1. Blood Simple

And so we’ve reached the final title: Blood Simple. Blood Simple isn’t nearly as challenging as some other films mentioned here, which shouldn’t seem strange. More challenging doesn’t necessarily mean better. Blood Simple is straightforward. Casual moviegoers might find it a tad on the weird side, but that’s about it. Blood Simple has grim moments, but it’s not overtly dark, at least by comparison to the most mean-spirited Criterion titles. It isn’t even my favorite Coen Brothers film. That honor probably goes to A Serious Man.

Blood Simple is just such an intriguing, fun watch, while managing to maintain significant cinematic relevance. Visser, the film’s main antagonist, is such an engaging character to watch, viewers miss him when he’s offscreen. This was the Coen Brothers’ debut film and my God, it rivals Eraserhead for best film debut. Use of luminous neon color juxtaposed against textbook film noir shadow is an aesthetic audiences will find entrancing for coming decades. In Blood Simple, the Coens execute an airtight sense of dread following each character as they plunge into a world made up of 20% irrationality, 30% deceit, and 50% miscommunication. The film’s foreboding tone contrasts perfectly with an unmistakably dry sense of humor, establishing the signature style of every Coen Brothers film to follow. For that, Blood Simple stands as a gift to film.

Notes: 4K digital transfer overseen and approved by the Coen Brothers and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. Not a whole lot of special features, but does contain full DTS-HD audio on Blu-ray only, and does not come in a Digipak. One bit of new special features contained is a new commentary/conversation with the Coen Brothers and Sonnenfeld discussing some extremely interesting tidbits about the production of the film. Only problem is getting past Sonnenfeld’s incessant need to remind the viewer he is now a professional filmmaker and would never use the same methods now he was using then. Yes, Barry, we get that indie film production is more improvised and crude than production on major studio films. It kind of goes without saying.

 

What are your favorite Criterion Collection titles? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook/Twitter!


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