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Criticwire Survey: Criterion’s Best Discs

Criticwire Survey: Criterion's Best Discs

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Janus Films William Becker, who died this week, left a huge imprint on the world of art-house cinema, but his greatest ongoing legacy may be as the cofounder of the Criterion Collection, which established the high-water mark for home-video cinephilia. What are your favorite Criterion releases, and how do you view their legacy as a whole?

Christian Blauvelt, BBC

The three most essential Criterion releases, to my mind, exemplify the three ways in which Criterion has affected film culture. First, there is the Criterion package that introduces a film that should be better known to a larger audience. Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” is a Film School 101 title, but the fact that it was paired with the lesser known “Sans Soleil” helped introduce that film to a larger audience. The sheer beauty of that dual-film packaging — complete with an attractively designed essay booklet and relevant featurettes that put the movies in context — makes much of the argument for why both these movies, not just the film school fave, should be considered classics. Second, there’s the Criterion release of a recent film that makes the argument that it deserves to be considered a “new classic”: take the release of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which essentially played like David Fincher’s film school in a box as he took us through all stages of making that neglected 21st Century masterpiece. And third, there’s the Criterion release that makes you look at a canonical classic through fresh eyes, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” which had barely discernible audio before Criterion got its hands on it and then came packaged with a bonus film, the sequel “Crook’s Tour,” which few probably even realized existed before the Criterion release.

Farran Nehme, New York Post, Self Styled Siren

I couldn’t even begin to pick a favorite Criterion release, but I can name the one that was most significant for me as a home viewer. I believe the first Criterion I ever owned (as opposed to rented), and paid full price for, was “Rules of the Game.” Of course, I bought it because I already loved the movie. What struck me about the Criterion edition was how much it encompassed: essays, interviews, bonus material from the film. It was like a full day’s seminar, both entertaining and intellectually rigorous. Plus, the film itself looked better than I had ever seen it. More than anything, I think Criterion raised the standard for how to present an artistically valuable film. And the wide range of movies given the loving Criterion treatment, what a godsend! When they release something like “Ride the Pink Horse,” “The Uninvited” or “Speedy,” it tells the world that these old movies are not, and never will be, merely nostalgia.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

Their “Island of Lost Souls” was as obsessive as Charles Laughton’s creepy
doctor. It included some truly inspired supporting materials, from
goony Devo interviews to a window into Richard Stanley’s ill-fated 1996
remake. I wish Criterion wold do more horror.
On that ghettoized ground, they can really make a difference. I
treasure their “The Blob” and “Scanners” too.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

Criterion is the cinematic sugar rush that arouses hunger faster than it slakes it; this ever-growing treasure chest only fosters the world’s most grateful ingratitude, because for every treasure it contains and every one it adds, it also incites the inevitable question: but what about…? Because Criterion does so much, it’s all too easy to hope and even expect that it will do everything; because it grants so many wishes, it should obviously grant them all. My own personal shrine to Criterion’s bounty has, on the top shelf, the onetime hen’s-tooth “Made in USA,” which I first saw on 16mm at the Mudd Club, with the projector in the room and its beam struggling to pierce a cloud of cigarette smoke that tried to push the light back into the lens, and the DVD extra on “A Woman Is a Woman” of the record, featuring Jean-Luc Godard’s voice, that he made to promote and, seemingly, to revise the film. There are the masterworks and personal delights that I saw for the first time as Criteria, such as “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One,” “F for Fake,” and “Le Bonheur,” and ones that I had never even heard of before their Criterion releases, such as Pierre Étaix’s “Land of Milk and Honey”; things I had waited a long time to see again before they came out on Criterion, such as “Gertrud,” “Faces,” “Chronicle of a Summer,” and “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” and others that I thought I’d never see again if it weren’t for Criterion (such as Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl,” which I had seen years ago and could hardly believe my eyes, and the release on DVD confirmed the jangled extravagance of the original experience). For that matter, the other two Ozu boxes, the double-header of “There Was a Father” and “The Only Son” and the towering masterworks of “Late Ozu” plus the solo disk of “An Autumn Afternoon,” definitively establishes Ozu as an unsentimentalist in sardonic revolt. There’s the set of three films by Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman, which restores these films, which are absolutely central to to the history of cinema and my own pleasures, to the instant universal references that they are. Then there’s a special shelf, on top of the top — that of the masterworks of titanic pointillism, “Jeanne Dielman” and “Playtime,” which seem to gain a new cinematic identity through the meticulous splendor of their Criterion releases. It isn’t enough for a distributor to reflect the cinema; Criterion has changed it.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

The Criterion Collection was, and remains, a major part of my own burgeoning cinephilia. Here in the UK their reputation was all the more exotic given their difficult to come by nature. A dodgy store used to stock Region 1 DVDs behind the counter, selling them illicitly for £25 a pop, and that’s where I bought my first Criterion, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, somewhat typical of the teenage cinephile-in-waiting. Growing up what I really loved about Criterion is that it suited my exploratory tendencies to a tee. While complete oeuvres are few and far between in the collection it does allow for some very impressive “Like this? Then you’ll love this!” style wandering, so Anderson would lead to Truffaut, and from Truffaut one could dive over to Bresson. There’s a sense of curation in there that is akin to a well-run rep theatre, or an independent video store (sure, “Armageddon” is in there, but my local indie cinema shows “Die Hard” once a year at Christmas too). It’s a vision that is all the more lacking as we leave physical media behind and head into the Wild West that is online streaming (see my own ” The Case Against Poorly Curated Online Streaming Services” series of Tweets from earlier this summer).

I also feel it’s worth noting their legacy on the home video industry. I’m sure most of us are well aware of the technical advancements they introduced with supplements such as audio commentaries, and their staunch drive to promote letterboxing in the age of the square television, but it’s their influence on others that ought to be recognized too. It can be seen in companies like Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line in the UK, or Arrow’s Video and Academy imprints, and it’s labels like these and Criterion themselves who will continue to pursue  an interest in home video once the major studios lose interest.

As for essential releases, well the canonical staples are well catered for, with “The 400 Blows” my go-to title for when recommending a newcomer to the line, while my favourite release of all is their edition of Bresson’s “Pickpocket.”

Ethan Alter, Film Journal International, Yahoo Movies

Most recently, I’m thrilled that Criterion rescued two of my favorite ’90s movies — Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and Steven Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill” — from out-of-print purgatory. And historically, they’ve always done right by Wes Anderson, with “Rushmore” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” being particular standouts from that catalogue. But the one entry I probably prize above the rest of my Criterion titles is “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” That was a DVD I picked up on a whim over a decade ago with only one previous Powell and Pressburger film under my belt and came away it immediately ready to immerse myself in the rest of their filmography. That speaks to the legacy of Criterion as a whole: they provide a way to discover films and filmmakers that might start as unknowns, but quickly become essentials.

Charles Bramesco, Random Nerds, Movie Mezzanine

Being of humble means and niggardly temperament, I’m kind of loath to spend my own money on what I consider to be shockingly overpriced Criterion DVDs. But hey — that’s what Hanukkah is for! I’ve amassed a few discs as gifts, and none has proven more edifying or enriching than the recent “Eraserhead” print. The customary booklet of essays and supplemental material is illuminating, and the inclusion of David Lynch’s early student films is a real treat as well. But it’s the spruced-up sound design that takes this festering cake, faithfully capturing every dull hiss and burst of white noise that makes Lynch’s debut into the supremely disquieting masterpiece that it is. Looking real forward to the “Apu Trilogy” restoration coming down the pike in November, too.

Alonso Duralde, TheWrap, Linoleum Knife

Bless the Criterion Collection, the final keepers (alongside Scream Factory) of the commentary and the essay and the extra in a world of digital downloads and pared-down catalog titles. They’ve kept a certain brand of cinephilia alive and nurtured it in a new generation, and their packaging is gorgeous. I’m sure there are any number of important and vital titles one could pick from this question, but I’m going to go with “Charade,” since it’s a great movie that suffered from years of crappy public-domain releases and finally got a first-class release from Criterion. (Bonus points for the Stanley Donen-Peter Stone commentary, in which they argue over whether or not they should reveal plot points, lest someone who hasn’t seen the movie might be listening to their commentary first.)

Alison Nastasi, Flavorwire

Having access to repertory cinema all my life, I have never felt compelled to own a lot of DVDs or Blu-rays. I was one of those weirdos who kept buying VHS tapes and relied on the library or borrowed discs from friends. The genre films I love aren’t always available on DVD, but back then it was also a matter of budget (I was a broke art student). When I finally made the late jump to owning DVDs, I wasted no time looking at the Criterion collection. One of the first films I purchased was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s mesmerizing “Vampyr,” which was an interesting bridge from old to new media given the hazy look of the film and Dreyer’s use of in-camera effects.

Carrie Rickey, Truthdig, Yahoo! Movies

Top five Criterion releases: “La Belle et La Bete,” “Cleo from 5 to 7,” “I Know Where I’m Going!” “The Hidden Fortress” and “Ordet.”

In restoring and preserving important films and in collecting documents and interviews with their filmmakers, Criterion is writing the first draft of movie history. For me, its effect is incalculable. My one criticism: Criterion has shockingly few titles by female directors. Last time I looked, abou 2-3 percent.

Monica Castillo, International Business Times

I haven’t been able to make a dent through the Criterion catalog, but for many cinephiles, the mark of Criterion is a shorthand for “must-see.” Criterion sales are a perennial mini-shopping holidays for my feed, with some folks posting pictures of their latest Criterion haul. Most of my favorite titles are good old stand-bys, the restored Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin collections and “The Red Shoes” among them.

But I think that Criterion has also upped the price on ownership of physical media. Not everybody can drop triple digits for a couple of premium Blu-rays. When a Criterion sale does come around, the prices can still be rather steep for some. No matter how many times I visited and re-visited my local used DVDs store in Boston, the prices rarely ever came down for any of the Criterion titles I had my eye on. Aside from a copy of “Pygmalion,” my Criterion collection have all been gifts. And that’s before looking into the way they value European male-directed film over other titles from women directors, South America or Africa (thankfully, their Asian cinema collection has become quite extensive).

Kyle Turner, Under the Radar Magazine, Movie Mezzanine
It’s hard for obsessive Criterion fanfolks, like myself, to answer this concisely. But, I’m quite fond of their releases of The Red Shoes,”  with a truly magnificent transfer that showcases Jack Cardiff’s
gorgeous cinematography that is arguably why any cinephile should have a
Blu-ray player and a solid screen to watch it on; Weekend,” one of Criterion’s most poignant (queer) films in their library; and Frances Ha,” a film I hold very closely to my heart for its warmth, honesty, and mix of effervescence and raw emotion.

Several years ago, Newsweek published a piece positing that Criterion would eventual fade in relevance and importance. But six years later, and right off the company’s 30th anniversary, Criterion has a unique place in film history: on the one
hand, its branding still has the ability to “canonize” a film, so to
speak, or at least elevate it to a point where adventurous film buffs
will possibly want to seek it out. on the other, Criterion, and Janus’,
mission to not only preserve interesting cinema but to keep the reel
running has remained one of its most astounding triumphs. In an age
where streaming and digital is king, Criterion still remains the
essential way to watch films at home, on physical media. I’ll always
appreciate them for that, and for exposing me to new filmmakers, ideas,
points of views, and worlds. 

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter, Sight & Sound

As I only own one Criterion Collection DVD, and the
question specifies “your” rather than “the”, my answer therefore has to
be “Blast Of Silence” (1961) — starring, directed and written by Allen
Baron. A 77-minute minor masterpiece of hardboiled, slightly arty, proto-Alphavillean
noir, Blast of Silence makes particularly evocative use of actual New
York locations–including some remote waterside locales of eerie
abandonment which were lost to development within years of the picture’s
completion. I had no idea that the DVD was a Criterion when I ordered
it (pricey, but a worthwhile package with some fine extras); and to be
honest the label isn’t something that impinges too much on my own
cinephilia, apart from when North American critics bang on and on about
it on Twitter in a somewhat fanboy-fetishistic manner. As they so often
do.

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

I suppose the cop-out response here is to say
that all Criterion Collection releases are equally essential, but I’m going to
avoid that one and give a slightly smaller blanket response: every Criterion
release of a Powell/Pressburger film is essential. If you have a Blu-ray player
and you do not currently own “The Red
Shoes,” “Black Narcissus,”
and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” on
Criterion Blu-ray, you are doing yourself a disservice. (Nothing against “The Small Back Room,” “I Know Where I’m Going,” or “49th Parallel.”)

But in truth, Criterion has too many essential releases from
which to choose. The impact that Criterion has had is difficult to quantify,
because their releases typically don’t aim at the same wide populace that might
be seeing mainstream releases in the multiplex. Yet how many films viewed from
a Criterion DVD or Blu-ray have helped form and shape younger cinephiles? How
often do people, young or old, explore something new thanks to a shiny new
Criterion release? There are other home-media distributors outside the major
companies that help fill out the world of cinema, but Criterion is still the
king.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

For me, what I love most about the Criterion Collection is that they do make room for titles that you wouldn’t immediately associate as being up their alley (though I pretend that the “Armageddon” one doesn’t exist). My favorite ones of theirs include “The Battle of Algiers,” as well as offbeat selections like “Chasing Amy” and “Dazed and Confused.”

On a broader scope, the company has a wonderful little effect on film culture by functioning as a tastemaker of sorts when it comes to classic movies. Budding cinephiles have a cheat sheet of sorts that they can dive into and give themselves an at home approximation of film school. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Ben Travers, Indiewire

I’ll let smarter writers than I respond to the company’s effect on film culture, but as an avid collector, “Armageddon,” “Brazil” and “Ran” are my essential Criterions — and may just about cover the wide breadth of what the company has to offer.

Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, Filmmaking in New Mexico

“Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Paris, Texas.” Some of my all-times favorites.

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times

Bonus features are great, but how many times are you going to watch them? That’s why I favor Criterion releases that emphasize value over bells and whistles, namely the six-film Essential Art House sets and especially Vol. 1 with “Rashomon,” “Wild Strawberries” and “Grand Illusion.”

For me and other cinephiles, Criterion has become synonymous with quality and the preservation of important, sometimes hard to find films. It earned that reputation long ago and continues to energize the film community whenever a new title is announced. While I still think the practice of buying DVDs and Blu-rays should be examined more often than it is, when a film you love and plan to watch many times receives the Criterion treatment, supporting this great company is an easy decision. I’m certainly looking forward to “Moonrise Kingdom” arriving at my doorstep Tuesday and to following Criterion’s next moves.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, One Perfect Shot

It’s always exciting when Criterion releases an edition of a movie I love, such as Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild,” or David Mamet’s “House of Games.” But I think my favorite Criterions are the ones I blind-buy because it’s a film I’ve always wanted to see and never have. In these cases, I watch the movie, read the booklet, and devour the supplementary materials. It’s like a crash course in a great work of cinema. I’ve done this sort of thing with Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique,” and Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces,” among many others. (Altman’s “Nashville” is in my home theater awaiting my attention at this moment.) That’s the beauty of a Criterion: it’s like a mini film school in a box.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Popmatters

Would have to go with “M” and “Bicycle Thieves,” simply put, because they are the cleanest and most distinct prints of those masterworks I’ve ever had the privilege of watching, and they are both films I like to watch every couple of years or so to calibrate my headspace. To a cinephile, the significance of Criterion simply cannot be overstated: So many of cinema’s great works are represented in their catalogue, you want to weep every time you glance through it.

Greg Cwik, Vulture

“Rosemary’s Baby” and “Videodrome” are the movies I watch most frequently, because they’re awesome. The movies with my favorite special features are probably “F for Fake,” “M,” and “Eraserhead,” which is just an all-around gorgeous package, though I don’t watch the movie very often.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

“Rules of the Game,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Tokyo Story,” “The Red Shoes” are some of the Criterions I own. I own others too, have sold some in the past only later to repurchase them in a fit of desperation, wanting to plug into the body filmic, paying way more than a DVD should cost as a declaration of identity: film is important, it’s important to me, there is more at stake than a passing entertainment, a physical product, this is preservation, this is cinema culture. If anything it represents the ossification of that culture, the locking down of a time when the supplemental materials were new, the programs from French television on the state of the cinema, in depth interviews with those involved when there was something to be involved with, when a recording mechanism produced smoke and grit, chemical smells and sticky cuts at the end of editor’s fingers. It’s packaging you believe in, you want to believe is real, the wanting not affecting reality. It’s a warm blanket to wrap yourself in, its importance is for future generations, its legacy, its canon, it is “some films are more important than other films, some films you’ll never know and will never know your gaze,” it is…difficult to put into words. It’s just a label, a collection, a brand, the finger pointing to the moon. I love it.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule

I’m a huge fan of Criterion Collection Blu-rays; from selection to presentation to features to packaging, they have impeccable taste and show tremendous care and respect for the films they sign their name to. I think their impact on film culture has been considerable, particularly as we’ve shifted in such a pronounced way from “cinema to cinephilia” as Rosenbaum puts it, allowing the budding cinephile incredible access to a wide range of canonical films. To many, the famed Criterion “C” indicates a culturally, historically and/or aesthetically significant film that must be reckoned with. Some of my favorite releases include “The Thin Red Line” and “Stagecoach.”

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

My favorite Criterion films are hardly the tricked-out releases that cinephiles swoon over. Rather, I have selected two personal favorites: #38, “Branded to Kill,” which was given to me as a gift. I’m still dazzled by this insane Seijun Suzuki cult classic about a hitman with a rice fetish. The other is #649 “Ministry of Fear,” Fritz Lang’s adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, which I think is highly underrated. I especially love watching the sinister Dan Duryea dial a phone with enormous scissors. I appreciate Criterion for bringing these films out, which otherwise, might be lost for the ages.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “Queen of Earth”/”Mistress America” (tie)

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