September tends to be the time of year that movie studios start busting out the big guns, and 2016 finds the Criterion Collection following suit, as the boutique home video label will be releasing one of the most significant cinematic landmarks on which they’ve yet to put their stamp.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s mammoth “Dekalog” makes the company’s September lineup something of a bumper crop in and of itself, but — lucky for us — it’ll be accompanied by an essential Kenji Mizoguchi classic, two ample doses of Jacqueline Susann-inspired campiness, some old school Coen brothers and much more. Check out the full release slate below, listed in rough order of our excitement for each title.
1.) “Dekalog” (dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1988), Spine #837
This would be at the very top of the list regardless of what else Criterion is releasing in September. One of the greatest achievements in all of film (though it was originally conceived for television), Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 561-minute magnum opus transubstantiates the Ten Commandments into the residents of a rundown housing complex in post-Communist Poland, devoting an hour-long episode to each of the divine decrees. On their own, each of these ten perfect, fiercely idiosyncratic parables is a wry heartbreaker. Seen together, they form Voltron-style into a towering masterwork that seeks to distill the root of our moral character, and trace the distance between the purity of human ideals and the malformed actions into which they’re expressed here on Earth.
Presented alongside a treasure trove of extras, including interviews with the late director, a video piece by Anette Insdorf, and — this is the best part — the couplet of feature films that Kieslowski spun out of his meatiest episodes, Criterion’s edition of “Dekalog” is sure to be one of the most valuable and mandatory titles they’ve ever released.
2.) “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum” (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939), Spine #832
Never before released on home video in the United States, Kenji Mizoguchi’s sole contribution to “The Greatest Year in the History of Movies” is one of the formalist master’s most pivotal (and soul-crushing) films, its long-take grace paving the way for signature later works like “The Life of Oharu” and “Sansho the Bailiff.”
Most crucially, this story of a striving kabuki actor and the woman who commits her life to his dreams helps locate Mizoguchi as one of pre-war cinema’s most sensitive feminist storytellers — few other male filmmakers have ever evinced such an empathetic, nuanced, and consistent attention to the mistreatment of women. Criterion’s release may be a bit thin (an interview with Phillip Lopate is the only major supplement), but let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. You’ll take your rare Mizoguchi and you’ll like it.
3.) “Cat People” (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1942), Spine #833
One of those RKO gifts that keeps on giving, “Cat People” may have significantly less Nastassja Kinski than Paul Schrader’s schlocky 1982 remake (a major demerit), but it nevertheless endures as one of the most essential horror films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and its loaded iconography only grows more potent with every passing year. The peerlessly named Simone Simon stars as Donald Trump’s worst nightmare: A beautiful immigrant who transforms into a feline monster whenever she gets aroused.
Directed by the great Jacques Tourneur and shot with the same shadowy innuendo that he would later imbue into his noir classic “Out of the Past,” “Cat People” is an elegant and seductive genre landmark that makes many contemporary horror films feel primitive by comparison. Criterion’s edition, kissed by some killer art by Bill Sienkiewicz, sports a feature-length documentary about producer Val Lewton, a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, and a revived audio commentary by historian Gregory Mank.
4.) “Valley of the Dolls” (dir. Mark Robson, 1967). Spine #835 // “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (dir. Russ Meyer, 1970), Spine #836
Synonymous with the very idea of “camp” (even if much of that reputation is owed to the follow-up film that it spawned), Mark Robson’s “Valley of the Dolls” is a nearly fatal overdose of late-’60s real talk. Adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s mega-famous novel of the same name (still among the bestselling books of all time), the film stars Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate as a trio of women who find themselves tripped up in show business, as addicted to the pulse of the industry as they are to the pills that allow them to keep up with it.
The notoriously sexed up “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” — scripted by Roger Ebert and directed by king of cleavage Russ Meyer — may have been conceived as a direct sequel, but this acid-washed melodrama came out of the machine mutated into more of a balls out parody of the original somewhere along the way. The Criterion editions are being released separately, but what sort of monster could only choose one? Especially because both are loaded to the gills with great bonus features, including a new video essay by Kim Morgan on “Valley of The Dolls,” and an exclusive interview with John Waters (natch) on “Beyond.”
5.) “Blood Simple” (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 1984), Spine #834
It’s tempting to think of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Blood Simple” as a pared down dry run for “No Country for Old Men,” but that reductive way of thinking — while true to the terse noir menace that binds both films together — overlooks the signature pleasures of their ice-cold debut feature. Pleasures that include the wonderfully oily Dan Hedaya, playing a sonofabitch bar owner who puts a hit out on his cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz).
The film, which features the work of mainstay Coen collaborators like Carter Burwell and sound mixer Skip Lievsay, enduringly suggests that the siblings may have come out of the womb with their side-eyed sense of humor and slick moral relativism already intact. Criterion’s well-furnished disc is highlighted by a lengthy conversation about the film between Dave Eggers and the Coens.