4.) “DR. STANGELOVE, OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB”
3. “IN A LONELY PLACE”
2. “MCCABE & MRS. MILLER”
Dir. Antonio Pietrangeli. 1965. Spine #801.
From “The Graduate” to “Dr. Strangelove” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Criterion worked their magic on so many monumental classics this year that it can be easy to overlook the more obscure films that they spruced up and sent back out into the world — films that were at risk of being forgotten altogether. Of these diamonds in the rough, none were as spectacular, as alive, as completely essential as Antonio Pietrangeli’s “I Knew Her Well.” Like many of the best Italian films of the 1960s, Pietrangeli’s restless character study hides a delicate sense of despair under a frothy surface of manic youth, the story following a beautiful young woman (“Divorce Italian Style” star Stefania Sandrelli) as she hops from one crass encounter to the next in her submissive search for fame.
Stylish to the hilt and shot with cinematography vivid enough to rival anything in “La Dolce Vita” or “Il Sorpasso,” “I Knew Her Well” may be overshadowed by some of Criterion’s more familiar titles, but it easily ranks among their most noteworthy new releases of 2016. And while the Blu-ray may be a bit light on bonus features, it’s worth it just to hear Sandrelli look back on the experience, and to hear Pietrangeli’s scholars fix a place for him in the firmaments of critics turned filmmakers.
Dir. Howard Hawks. 1939. Spine #806.
The best of the two Howard Hawks films that Criterion released this year (no disrespect to “His Girl Friday”), “Only Angels Have Wings” is seldom used to justify the argument that 1939 was the movies’ best year, but it’s some of the most compelling evidence you could ever hope to find. Set in a small South American port, this faux-exotic romance turns elevates love into a matter of life and death, as a stopover beauty played by Jean Arthur falls in love with a fearless local pilot who looks an awful lot like Cary Grant. It’s frothy and fierce-witted stuff, and that’s just before Rita Hayworth crashes the party.
Criterion’s disc may seem a bit light on the extras, but each one of them packs a punch. It would be hard to blame anyone for heading straight for the 1972 conversation between Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich, but the winner here is a Craig Barron and Ben Burtt’s “Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies,” a newly recorded feature that has the power to turn the director’s causal fans into born again acolytes.
Dir. Ethan & Joel Coen. 2013. Spine #794.
The Coen brothers finally came to the Criterion Collection in a big way this year, as 2016 saw deluxe releases of the filmmakers’ terse and seedy debut, “Blood Simple,” and — even more excitingly — their brittle recent masterpiece, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Chronicling a week in the wayward odyssey of a financially challenged folk musician who’s weighed down by his talent and the perverse clarity it gives him, this is the Coens’ most tender film to date, and one of their most re-watchable for that. Seldom, maybe even never, has a story so bleak and unsparing also felt so warm and full of life. As the saying goes: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” And there’s no bad time for another spin.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is at least new enough that its inexplicable snub for a Best Picture nomination still feels fresh, but Criterion’s lavish home video release — arriving just two years after the movie first hit theaters — confidently asserts it as one of the major American films of the 21st Century. Come for the making-of doc and the 101-minute concert movie where the Punch Brothers take New York, stay for the video interview in which Guillermo del Toro lightly grills the Coen brothers about what makes them tick, and display the thing for Telegramme’s wistful, unexpectedly adorable cover design.
Dir. Terrence Malick. 2005. Spine #826.
Diehard fans will scoff at the notion, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that “The New World” is the forgotten Terrence Malick film, or was at least in jeopardy of becoming so until this year. Lost between the enigmatic auteur’s triumphant comeback (“The Thin Red Line”) and his modern classic (“The Tree of Life”), Malick’s characteristically meditative take on the story of Pocahontas moves like a fickle gust of wind, unmoored even by his standards.
But Criterion’s edition makes a strong case for the film’s greatness, and not just because the generous decision to include three different cuts is a huge help for anyone who could use some help in getting a lay of the land. Austin Jack Lynch’s making-of doc helps ground the project in a new reality, while interviews with Malick’s editors illuminate the contours of a deceptively shapeless narrative. The last 11 years have seen Malick lodge himself in a more explicitly autobiographical register, but “The New World” survives as a testament to his gift for keying into the common spirit that allows history to become personal.
Dir. Edward Yang. 1992. Spine #804.
Nearly a decade has passed since the great Edward Yang died at the premature age of 59, but his loss — a loss from which the film world will never fully recover — has been exacerbated by how difficult it’s been to actually watch his work. Of the many masterpieces he made during his too-brief career, only “Yi Yi” has been widely available to Western audiences. And while that tender and touching human drama might yet endure as the cornerstone of Yang’s legacy, it paints an incomplete portrait; fully appreciating Yang without seeing “A Brighter Summer Day” would be as impossible as fully appreciating Truffaut without seeing “The 400 Blows.”
Snagged in a music rights dispute for years (blame Elvis), Yang’s 237-minute epic combines the scale of a miniseries with the specificity of a flashbulb memory. Framing a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story against the backdrop of a murder that shocked Taipei in the early 1960s, the film is a political epic told on a personal scale and vice-versa, and Yang’s ongoing renaissance could never hold together without it.
Fans of the filmmaker know how incredible it is just to have access to this film in such an immaculate state, but Criterion went the extra mile for this singular event, adding an engaging audio commentary from critic Tony Rayns and including an essential — and very thorough — 2002 documentary about New Taiwanese Cinema.
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002. Spine #844
It was only a matter of time before Paul Thomas Anderson joined the Criterion Collection, but it came as something of a surprise that his most eccentric film was the first to be so honored. So far as surprises go, it was a damn good one — a dazzlingly sui generis romance that’s proven too singular to steal from, “Punch-Drunk Love” is a demented testament to the infinite strength that you can find in another person. It’s also the perfect PTA film to get canonized with the Criterion treatment because everyone who loves it feels like they’re the only one.
It remains frustrating that Adam Sandler is even capable of being this good.
It remains frustrating that Philip Seymour Hoffman, who defaulted to greatness, will never give us another chance to take him for granted.
“SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP! Shut up; will you SHUTUP SHUTUP! SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUT SHUTUP… SHUTUP! NOW.” Hoffman’s performance as Dean Trumbell, a very angry dude whose mattress store is a front for a phone-sex scam, should be on Mount Rushmore. Individual frames should be printed on our money. We should broadcast it into space so that aliens know that Earth is worth preserving. Your home video shelf is naked without this movie and all of the magic it contains. It hardly matters that the disc isn’t overflowing with bonus material — PTA likes to let his work speak for itself, and his absence here is noticeable, but Criterion offset it with a solid trove of archival material, and Miranda July’s booklet essay is a wonderful treat.
Dir. Stanley Kubrick. 1964. Spine # 821.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Sometimes it seems like Criterion has already exhausted all of the monumental films that the 20th Century had to offer (at least of the American, European, and Japanese varieties), but then — more than 800 titles deep into the DVD / Blu-Ray era — they drop something like “Dr. Strangelove” and remind you that they’re fishing from a bottomless reservoir. There isn’t much left to say about Stanley Kubrick’s bitingly sardonic anti-war screed, but Criterion certainly picked an interesting year to reintroduce it to the world — the Cold War is heating up again, and the idea of a reckless maniac having access to nuclear weapons no longer sounds all that far-fetched. Oh that Kubrick, always both of and ahead of his time.
When it comes to a film with this degree of megaton impact, Criterion busts out all the stops, and “Dr. Strangelove” proved to be no exception. In addition to a pristine 4K transfer, their release boasts new interviews with Kubrick scholars, four short docs about the making of the movie and the conditions around its release, and several different Peter Sellers interviews that offer a three-dimensional take on his talent. And Eric Skillman, somehow giving new life to a film that has been petrified by its own iconography, graced the package with an absurdly perfect cover design that cements this as the definitive home video edition.
Dir. Nicholas Ray. 1950. Spine #810
One of the most hostile and hurting films noir ever made, and crucially also one of the most romantic, Nicholas Ray’s 1950 masterpiece has always been revered by its acolytes (the late Curtis Hanson was an outspoken fan), but this acid-tongued look at the underbelly of the picture business has proven too prickly for proper canonization. Criterion’s release, however, might be enough to drag “In A Lonely Place” out of the shadows.
So gorgeously restored that you can see the true depth of its darkness, the film — about a toxically honest screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) and the seductive blonde (Gloria Grahame) who risks being strangled by his rage — has never seemed so potent or so true. And it’s one-liners, perhaps the most savage ever spoken on screen, haven’t lost one bit of their edge over the years.
This wasn’t Criterion’s most extravagant disc, but the supplements here are all well worth your time, none more so than “I’m A Stranger Here Myself,” a 1975 doc about Ray that remains mandatory viewing for anyone curious about one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic wildmen.
Dir. Robert Altman. 1971. Spine #827.
Always and forever the coolest Western ever made, Robert Altman’s bitter cold and defiantly shaggy foray into the frontiers of the Pacific Northwest is all the more poignant following the death of Leonard Cohen (whose songs shiver throughout the film) and the election of the first Business President (who probably would root for the mining company if he ever had the culture required to watch this movie, or the patience required to hear it through the marvelous din of Altman’s sound design). Criterion’s release makes it easier than ever to appreciate the elemental beauty of Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, their flawless 4K restoration an ideal tribute for a man who died on the first day of 2016 and kickstarted the funeral parade to come. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” wasn’t the first revisionist Western, but no other film provided such a swaggering illustration of how to break the genre down to its genes in order to let some new light shine through the cracks.
The new making-of doc included on the disc is a great thing to have, but Altman’s commentary track — recorded 14 years ago — is all that’s needed for this edition to feel special.
Dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski. 1988. Spine #837.
When Criterion released this definitive edition of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s magnum opus, finally providing a respectable way to watch one of cinema’s true holy grails, the best 10 hours you could ever spend at the movies became the best 10 hours that you could ever spend on your couch. Inspired by the Ten Commandments but never the least bit didactic about their meaning, “Dekalog” is a far cry from the heavy-handed religious treaty suggested by its premise. In fact, while the subject of some episodes can be neatly assigned to a single line of Old Testament scripture, all of these stories — much like the man who directed them — are too dazzled by the sheer complexity of existence to pretend that life can fit within a rigid set of guidelines. The oppressive drabness of the Polish housing development that shelves these characters on top of each other only serves to accentuate the strikingly ordinary nature of the dramas that unfold inside (and far beyond).
Even in the age of Netflix and “The Knick,” when directors are migrating to TV and are increasingly responsible for delivering 600 minutes of footage at a time, Kieślowski’s epic still towers above the rest, and still seems somehow fuller than any of the similarly ambitious projects that have sprung up in its wake. It may not be the tallest building on the block, but — crammed with sex, death, love, murder, regret, reprisals, and enough moral fiber to earn the Vatican’s highest endorsement in spite of its many iniquities — it’s almost certainly the one most dense with life. 10 hours might sound like a long time to watch a film, but it’s an incredibly succinct way to see the whole world.