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The Criticwire Survey: Best Criterion Essays

The Criticwire Survey: Best Criterion Essays

Every week, Criticwire asks film critics a question and brings you their responses in The Criticwire Survey. We also ask each member of the poll to pick the best film currently playing in theaters. The most popular choices can be found at the bottom of this post. But first, this week’s question:

Q: What’s your favorite essay written for a DVD or Blu-ray in The Criterion Collection? 

The critics’ answers:

Edwin ArnaudinAshvegas:

“Kent Jones’ ‘The Royal Tenenbaums‘ essay was the first long-form writing I’d read on Wes Anderson and one of my first serious pieces of film criticism. Released the summer before I went to college, the essay was a fine lead-in to the years of watching, reading, and writing to come and one that I revisit whenever I watch my favorite film.”

Adam BattyHope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second:

“I’ve probably learnt as much about film from Criterion liner notes as any other single source. I’m going to go with Armond White’s piece on Truffaut’s ‘The Last Metro.’ For me White’s reputation very much preceded him, but his essay on this late Truffaut classic helped to demythologize the writer, in the sense that it contextualized him outside of the hyperbolic notoriety that welcomes most of his work in to the critical realm.”

Danny BowesMovies By Bowes:

“Farran Smith Nehme’s one for ‘This Happy Breed.’ Great piece about a great (and tragically underseen) movie.”

Sean ChavelFlick Minute:

“The Michael Wood essay on the 1961 film ‘Viridiana‘ is my favorite. It not only gives rich insight into the sacrilege and uproar of the film at the time, it gives an amazing career chronicle of master Luis Bunuel. The sad thing is that he is becoming a forgotten master, but the Wood essay and the film itself (I feel is Bunuel’s best) restores my faith that avant-garde film and social satire live forever. I could have also easily chosen Michael Wilmington’s essay on 1949’s ‘The Third Man.'”

Marc CiafardiniGoSeeTalk.com:

“Alexander Sesonske writes a great essay titled ‘West Meets East’ for the Criterion release of ‘Yojimbo.’ Sesonske calls attention to the fact that Kursoawa’s films of the ’50s ‘were exotic for Westerners but alive with characters who continually impress us with their humanity.’ Further stating that the shared humanity ‘helped ease our cultural stereotypes about the Japanese created by World War II propaganda.’ Mifune (who Sesonske says is ‘more akin to that of Sam Spade than Shane’), Nakadai and the bunch may be foreign to Western audiences but many of the themes on display are entirely universal. That element continues to make Kurosawa’s work timeless and allowed those same archetypes to very easily live on in scores of American films for decades. It’s a brief piece but is also the first of many insightful pieces in the ‘Yojimbo booklet’ (e.g. the one about Kazuo Miyagawa) that detail how and why Kurosawa was, is, and continues to remain such a revered filmmaker.”

John DeCarliFilmCapsule:

“I really like Mark Polizzotti’s essay ‘Which Year at Where?’ on the ‘Last Year at Marienbad‘ Blu-ray. ‘Mariendbad’ is as labyrinthine and complex a film as there is, and Polizzotti does a nice job approaching its mysteries through the film’s polarized critical response. A daring masterpiece or a pretentious bore? Both? Polizzotti also sheds light on the crucial participation of novelist/screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet went on to make his own films, with narrative structures somehow even more twisted than ‘Mariendbad”s. By analyzing the areas where the two artists agreed — and greatly differed — Polizzotti shows how ‘Marienbad’ is the improbable result of this unique collaboration, something that would never have been the same without the contributions of both men.”

Alonso DuraldeTheWrap/What The Flick?!:

“Wow, I’ve read and enjoyed so many that it’s hard to pick one — so I’ll go with the first one that comes to mind since it obviously shoved its way to the front of the pack. Matt Zoller Seitz’s take on ‘Man Bites Dog‘ offers the critic playing to his strengths, contextualizing a piece of work into its own time as well as into cinema as a whole, offering up the moments (pleasurable or otherwise) that will stick with you after viewing, and rationally putting forth an explanation as to why the movie matters and endures.”

David Ehrlich, Film.com:

“With over 600 essays to choose from (nearly all of which are excellent and essential), it’s nearly impossible for me to select any one of them as my ‘favorite,’ though some have proven to be more helpful than others. At this particular time, on this particular day, I find myself thinking of the Phillip Lopate essay that can be found in Criterion’s OOP DVD edition of Godard’s ‘Contempt,’ which might be a bit of a cheat given that it was originally written for Lopate’s book ‘Totally, Tenderly, Tragically.’ One particularly astute passage: “‘Contempt’ is an ironic retelling of Homer’s ‘Odyssey.’ At one point Camille wryly summarizes the Greek epic as ‘the story of that guy who’s always traveling.’ But Paul’s restlessness is internal, making him ill at ease everywhere. In modern life, implies Godard, there is no homecoming, we remain chronically homeless, in barely furnished apartments where the red drapes never arrive. Paul’s Odysseus and Camille’s Penelope keep advancing toward and retreating from each other: never arriving at port.'”

Eric HavensDownright Creepy:

“My favorite essay is a direct correlation to my favorite genre. When Criterion actually gives its treatment to a bonafide horror picture you know it’s deserving. ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘ is one off favorite movies of all time, so to see it get the Criterion release, which included Ed Park’s excellent essay, made this guy a happy fella.”

Peter HowellToronto Star:

“Tough assignment this week, but I have to say that I’m partial to William Rothman’s essay for the 2001 Criterion DVD release of Luis Bunuel’s ‘That Obscure Object of Desire.’ Rothman deftly sums up the Spanish erotic provocateur’s final film and entire career in about 1,000 words. He concludes with this potent thought: ‘In Bunuel’s art, what is principled, and what is perverse, cannot be separated. Bunuel is a moralist. He is also a terrorist.'”

Sean Hutchinson, Latino Review:

“Criterion does an absolutely wonderful job with the essays included in their releases even considering when they release a film without any supplemental material. Sometimes only the essay itself along with the film makes it nonetheless a must-own. Yet of all the essays included in their 600+ releases that seek to contextualize the sometimes difficult, sometimes radical, sometimes fun movies they correspond to I feel drawn to J Hoberman’s essay ‘One Big Real Place: BBS From Head to Hearts’ included in the absolutely essential ‘America Lost and Found: The BBS Story‘ box set. Despite including five other essays in the release from writers like Chuck Stephens and Matt Zoller Seitz, I think Hoberman’s essay does the best job of typifying the kind basic yet substantial essays that Criterion is known for. He insightfully maps out the history of BBS Productions but subtly lays the groundwork for the atmosphere of American cinema that brought about the revolutionary company and its cast of deranged wackos that somehow struck late 60s and early 70s perfection with films like ‘Easy Rider,’ ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ and ‘The Last Picture Show.’ It’s a great read from an indispensable release — a kind of film school in and of itself — and a great primer for the best types of films Criterion has to offer.”

Peter LabuzaLabuzaMovies.com/The Cinephiliacs:

“Adrian Martin’s essay on ‘Days of Heaven‘ is quite a triumph of writing. He smartly avoids all the cliches of writing about the director and concentrating on the fleeting, ephemeral moments that make up so much of the film, and connecting it among filmmakers (Rivette, Truffaut), philosophers (Simone Weil), and composers (Camille Saint-Saëns) rarely discussed along the work. He does what criticism does best — put into words what the eyes see but can rarely articulate.”

Andrew LapinThe Atlantic:

“For all those who believe Armond White has never contributed anything of value to the critical community (I know you’re out there), you owe it to yourself to read his 2002 Criterion appreciation of David Gordon Green’s ‘George Washington.’ He ties Green’s striking vision of the American South to language both cinematic and historical, and touches upon precisely what mystifies and delights about the Green film, with no attacks on the bourgeoise in sight. If White approached every film this past decade the way he approached ‘George Washington,’ I have no doubt we’d now be looking at him as one of the finest critics around.”

John LichmanFreelance:

“The ‘White Dog‘ Criterion features dueling essays from J. Hoberman and Armond White. It’s sort of a rarity to see the two of them clash, yet here both come to go into the merits of Fuller. Also in the same booklet: Fuller interviews the dog.”

Joey MagidsonThe Awards Circuit:

“I’m sure this is not going to be a favorite answer, but I have to go with the first Criterion film I ever picked up, which was ‘Chasing Amy.’ It has an essay by Kevin Smith himself called ‘The Hows and Whys of ‘Chasing Amy” that’s vintage Smith essay writing/more evidence of his skill as a raconteur, be it in written or verbal format. I mention this film a lot, I know, but it has a special place in my heart.”

Mike McGranaghanThe Aisle Seat:

“This was a great question because it forced me to finally make the time to read some of the essays in my Criterion Collection. Then again, the more I read, the less I was able to definitively choose just one as the best. They’re all so good! But since I like to give specific answers to these survey questions, I’ll choose the piece David Thompson wrote for the Criterion release of Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild.’ I choose this one for several reasons. First, this is one of my all-time favorite movies; there are no words to sufficiently describe my love for it. Second, I think Thompson does a fantastic job of analyzing the things that make ‘Something Wild’ so great — the carefully executed tonal shift halfway through, the inventive use of music, the manner in which the plot continually reinvents itself — while also giving a nice overview of how the movie fits into Demme’s larger filmography. Mostly, though, I’m picking this article because it gives me an excuse to recommend ‘Something Wild’ to people who have never seen it. If you fall into this category, you need to get right on that. Seriously.”

Ryan McNeilThe Matinee:

“For two or three years, I’d only ever known Armond White as ‘The Contrarian.’ I’d scratched my head at his pattern of decrying wildly popular movies while defending others that were generally loathed. My confusion with his schtick reached a new level when he appeared on a podcast in 2010 to discuss ‘Inception.’ White was asked which other critics he felt were worth reading, and he was stumped. I was convinced the man was just an attention-seeker. The very weekend that podcast dropped, I bought myself a copy of ‘The Complete Monterey Pop Festival.’ Wouldn’t you know it, one of the three essays included inside was ‘People in Motion’ — written by Armond White. The essay is warm, joyous, insightful, and intelligent. It evokes such love: for not only the music within the film, but the way that music was captured on film. It underlines the way great music documentaries don’t just roll tape, but actually work with the musicians being document as if following another staff of notes on the sheet music. In short, it completely dispelled my notion that White was just an attention seeker, and it leaves you wishing he’d write pieces filled with its level of love and intelligence more often.”

Jana J. MonjiThe Demanders/Pasadena Art Beat/Examiner.com:

“Movies can become tied to memories and for that reason my favorite essay is film critic Maitland McDonagh’s for ‘Kuroneko.’ The movie is one of two that I will forever associate with Roger Ebert (the other being ‘March of the Penguins’). For that I can credit Michael Jackson. My husband and I had compiled a CD of interpretations of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ On a whim, I sent one to Roger Ebert for Halloween. In return, he sent to me ‘Kuroneko.’  The McDonagh’s essay has a balanced blend of background information, cultural contrast between East and West and commentary on cinematic style. Yet I would want to say something different. Roger urged me to watch Japanese films on Hulu and write about Japanese movies. This essay reminds me of those two things as well as appealing to my growing affection for Halloween (I’m already contemplating my costume for this year) and interest in horror films that are targeted at frightening men over women (‘Audition’ or ‘Fatal Attraction’).”  

Scott NyeRail of Tomorrow:

“I’m going to cheat a little, but reading Kent Jones’ essay in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums‘ release was a pivotal moment for me as a cinephile, introducing a level of passion and real heart into film analysis, recognizing that cinema is as much a collection of wonderful moments as an overarching experience, and how each ties into the other. It doesn’t hurt that it remains among my favorite films, and his favorite moments were mine as well. More recently, Kim Morgan’s essay on ‘Design for Living’ was revelatory, in part because the film is far from my favorite Lubitsch, but she addressed and elucidated the way in which those elements with which I took issue were actually to the film’s benefit, all the while displaying, again, a real passion for her subject. Lesson is, I suppose, passion goes a long way, certainly for me.”

Rudie ObiasShockYa.com:

“Oh man, there are so many great essays packaged with Criterion Collection films. When I read this week’s Criticwire question, the first thought that popped in my mind was Georgina Evans’ essay ‘Red: A Fraternity of Strangers’ — on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colors: Red.’ Not just because it was the last Criterion essay I read, but also it’s an insightful and poignant look at Kieslowski’s final film and how it impacted the ‘Three Colors’ trilogy as a whole. Evans’ emphasis on ‘Red”s similarities to Kieslowski’s 1991 film ‘The Double Life of Veronique’ makes watching both films all the more rewarding.”

Josh SpiegelMousterpiece Cinema/Sound on Sight:

“So many great essays to choose from, but I’m going with ‘Faded Glories,’ the essay for ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ written by Kent Jones of Film Comment. ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ has long been one of my all-time favorite films; I remember, upon buying the Criterion DVD back in 2002, being so thrilled that the film got such an impressive treatment, both in supplements and in Mr. Jones’ musings, instantly comparing Wes Anderson to Preston Sturges as one of America’s best new comic minds. Like ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’ the Kent Jones essay alongside it in the Criterion Collection is shrewd, incisive, and one of my favorites.”

Brian TallericoHollywoodChicago.com:

“I went back and reread a number of essays but could easily have missed a gem. I can’t wait to read what others point out. As for what I reread, I’m going to cheat and offer two favorites because one comes from a critic and the other an author. The critical favorite is Kim Morgan’s take on ‘Design For Living.’ The best Criterion essays are both informative regarding the film’s history and insightful on its impact then and now. Morgan offers not only background on the making of the film but convincingly makes the case of its relevance to today’s audience. Like the best special features in the Criterion Collection, it doesn’t just offer trivia but deepens the experience of appreciating the film. As does Dennis Lehane’s essay on ‘The Wages of Fear,’ a stellar piece of writing from one of our best authors. Clouzot’s film is such a visceral, physical experience that reading about it from the perspective of an author and not a filmmaker, one who notices structure and not just the notorious stunts, makes a complex film even more interesting.”

Scott WeinbergTwitch/Movies.com:

“Probably a simple pick, but film critic Jack Mathews’ brief essay in the ‘Brazil‘ set is a great jumping-off point for the wealth of supplementary material. Not only do I adore this bizarre 1985 Terry Gilliam masterpiece, but the essay (and the supplements) tell fascinating tales about horrific studio meddling and the quiet importance of outspoken film critics.”

Andrew Welch, In Review Online:

“There are too many I haven’t read, but of the ones I have, Kent Jones’ take on ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button‘ is one of the most striking. I’m slightly cool towards the movie itself — I like it, but I don’t love it. Yet, when I read what Jones says, I begin to doubt myself. I think, ‘You know, it really is pretty good,’ and I’m tempted to put the disc in again. That, to me, is what criticism is about. History and context are important, but they should be second to the writer’s passion. Jones brings that to whatever he touches, and it’s contagious. Genuine passion always is.”

The Best Movie Currently In Theaters on June 17th, 2013:
The Most Popular Response: “Before Midnight” 
Other Titles Receiving Multiple Votes: Frances Ha,” “This Is the End,” “Man of Steel.”

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