The Criterion Dozen: Part 2

A series that analyzes and studies The Criterion Collection, ten films at a time.

The Criterion Collection is an institution of film study, film appreciation, film collection and obsession.  It is primarily a film distribution company, established in 1984.  They are devoted to licensing, restoring, and re-releasing cinema of all kinds in the most prestigious packages possible.

This series will discuss the collection, ten spine numbers at a time, to review, compare, and question their purpose in this collection.  There will also be two extra points with each ten, related or tangential to the collection, making it a dozen.

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Spine #11: The Seventh Seal (1957) Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes

           

Ten films in, and we are finally getting a taste of some Bergman.  Although Criterion’s tastes are quite diverse, they do have a hard-on for a few key people, such as Kurosawa and Bergman.  And while they will tell you that Bergman can do no wrong, they at least started off strong and introduce us first to what is, in my opinion, his crowning achievement.  A meditation on death and on our place in this world, this film gave the rest of the world the first true taste of Swedish cinema, and oh boy was it ever a bitter and bleak taste.  If you like your drama brooding with a hint of allegory, do yourself a favor and study every frame of this film.

Movie: 9/10 pawns

Worth Owning on Criterion: OMG STFU YES.  No other edition will ever respect this film as much as the folks at Criterion.

Supplements: 10/10 This is where these editions shine: Not only do we have audio and video footage from Bergman, Max von Sydow, Woody Allen, and the great Bergman historian Peter Cowie, but a feature-length documentary, Bergman Island, as a supplement, which was also released as its own spine number, #477.  More on this film much much much later.

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Spine #12: This Is Spinal Tap (1984) Directed by Rob Reiner
Available on DVD (OOP)

       

From a world-cinema classic, to a raunchy mockumentary.  Although hilarious, and in most parts universally iconic, this film has a unique sense of humor.  Similar to Monty Python, the Spinal Tap humor is not for everyone, so as a comedy it might not strike a chord with everyone, but its cinematic legacy cannot be ignored.  We continue to see here, similar to the John Woo films, that Criterion is not only planning to highlight the usual classic titles, but that they have a deep knowledge and appreciation for all of cinema.  While the Kurosawas and the Bergmans offer important works, there are other trends and subgenres that have shaped cinema as it is today, everything from gun-crazy action films and grindhouse movies, to nature films and mockumentaries.  The importance of a film sometimes does not appear within the film itself, but with what the film represents, and this is expertly highlighted in these 10 titles in particular.

Movie:   6/11

Worth Owning on Criterion:  5/10  Considering that it is one of the very rare Criterion titles (out of print very early on, hard to find, and incredibly overpriced), it is not worth owning, insomuch as the lack of quality, lack of good supplements, and the large number of great editions that have come out since.  Strictly for Criterion completionists.

Supplements:  4/10  Nothing to write home about, and very similar to a standard home video release.  There is nothing here that would be considered Criterion-worthy.

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Spine #13: The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Directed by Jonathan Demme
Available on DVD (OOP)

       

Although Spinal Tap was a pretty big cult hit, here we start seeing Criterion branch out into more mainstream cinema, and their most recognizable film to date.  A huge Hollywood hit from the get-go, it is hard to think back now as to how Criterion was able to grab hold to this release so early on in their collection.  Their laser-disc days showed a lot more leniency towards big Hollywood productions, with The Wizard of Oz, Ghostbusters, and Se7en, however these choices are still wise business decisions, and gives them brand recognition and the sales they require.  Nevertheless, The Silence of the Lambs is an exceptional thriller, worthy of being in the collection.

Movie:  7/10 bottles of lotion

Worth Owning on Criterion:  For collectors only.  Being such a huge film, there are a multitude of better editions of this, and with better supplements.  Definitely not worth what some eBay troll is overcharging for this single disc. 

Supplements: 7/10  While more recent editions will have better about-the-film supplements, the FBI stuff included in this disc is pretty fascinating, including the Voice of Death segment, featuring statements from real serial killers. 

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Spine #14, #15, #16: The Samurai Trilogy – Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
– Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
– Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)
– Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes

   

Toshiro Mifune drops his Kurosawa residency for a hot minute in order to ham it up in this trilogy of biopics about the life of Musashi Miyamoto.  Incredibly interesting as a legend personal journey, boring as a samurai picture.  Criterion will prove time and time again that they definitely know how to pick their samurai films, however this is not one of these masterpieces.

Hits more of the right notes as a sweeping melodrama, with not much else to offer.  Still, this trilogy, and the book it was adapted from, are sacred to Japan, so be careful who you complain to about this.

Movie:  6/10 damsels in distress

Worth Owning on Criterion:  Only if you are already well versed in Japanese/Samurai films.  Luckily Criterion gave us Seven Samurai, because otherwise…this would have been a mess.  The older editions were sold individually, and were also packaged in a bulky box-set slipcase, however the new sleek edition, with original artwork, the trilogy was combined into one case.  This makes more sense because these three films honestly feel like one long film, or an episodic story.  There is not much that distinguishes either film very much as an individual work.

Supplements:  4/10  For a total of three films, all we get are a couple educational interviews that would make your history teacher snooze.

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Spine #17: Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976) Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

                

Criterion definitely came out blazing with this vulgar film.  On only their 17th film in the collection, they had the balls to let all bodily fluids go and unleash this beast of a controversial film to their collection.  Most films fans didn’t even have a chance to ease into this new DVD collection until they were treated with that ghastly earlier version of the Criterion cover for Salò.  (How did you bring that up to the cash register without fear of being arrested, I will never know)

On top of that, they decided a few years later to give this film a major upgrade, with a fancy deluxe 2-disc slip-case edition (and Blu Ray upgrade), all in all it seems to justify their decision for backing up this filth… and boy did it work.  Although not for the weak of heart or stomach, the film may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is an experience worth living through.  Art should not always be pretty, sometimes it literally needs to be a pile of shit.

Movie: 3/10 buckets of shit

Worth Owning on Criterion:  Absolutely.  This is one of those rare moments where the history and meaning behind the film far outweigh the film itself. 

Supplements:  10/10  This edition features a number of amazing interviews and documentary pieces that expertly dissect the film, its production, and the reason behind not only why you were meant to watch this disgusting film, but also why you were disgusted in the first place. 

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Spine #18: The Naked Kiss (1964) Directed by Samuel Fuller
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes

  

Criterion clearly knows film-goers, and they know their fans want variety. Following the John Woo double whammy, they bring us a Sam Fuller double-feature picture show, full of sleazy thrills, over-the-top scenarios, and the great Constance Towers in two beyond different and shocking roles.

The Naked Kiss opens with one of the biggest WTF moments in 60s cinema, as we are introduced to an unhinged prostitute, who decides to sneak into a quiet little town, and try to live a normal life.  No description can do either of these two movies justice.

Movie:  8/10 wigs

Worth Owning on Criterion:  The newer Blu-Ray editions of these two films are fantastic.  The new matching cover art for these editions was done by graphic novelist and cartoonist Daniel Clowes, and it is a stroke of pure genius.  These small works of art are worth owning on your shelf, even if you never watch the films.  But don’t be stupid. Just give them your money.

Supplements:  6/10  While the transfer may be amazing, the few interviews included do not add much depth to the film itself, except maybe for major Fuller fans.  A commentary would have been key.

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Spine #19: Shock Corridor (1963) Directed by Samuel Fuller
Available on DVD, Blu-Ray and iTunes

            

The same way Clowes’ weirdness was a perfect pairing to make art for these bizarre films, so was Shock Corridor an ideal companion piece to The Naked Kiss.  Fuller’s career is massive and impressive (and we will be seeing more of him later), however these two films were so carefully chosen, it’s as if he made them at the same time.

Another plot that will make you shake your head, reporter Johnny Barrett commits himself to a sanitarium, in order to win a Pulitzer Prize.  Drama ensues (just look at the poster!), and you can only imagine the type of characters he encounters in these never-ending hallways of insanity, as he slowly starts losing his own mind.

Movie:  7/10 psychiatrists agree

Worth Owning on Criterion:  Yes and yes.  What I said above.

Supplements:  6/10  Like the previous film, these few supplements do not add much to the movie experience, however the full documentary about Fuller’s career is staggering.

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Spine #20: Sid & Nancy (1986) Directed by Alex Cox
Available on DVD (OOP)

       

Many critics will agree: Gary Oldman’s performance as Sid Vicious is worth the price of admission alone.  The first true biopic to be added to the Criterion Collection (and no, Amarcord is not really a biopic), and it is a bit of a strange choice.  While not a remarkable picture, it is certainly a great introduction to Alex Cox in the collection.  It is also hard to argue why this shouldn’t canonized in the collection.

While the first ten films focused on adding some major World Cinema titles, this next ten has a great foothold in genre films, with this being a punk-rock masterpiece of Shakespearean disastrous and destructive love affairs.  But compared to most of the other titles here……

Movie:  5/10 shattered dreams

Worth Owning on Criterion:  It’s another one of these early first-generation Criterions that has not been updated as of yet.  There is nothing remarkable about the transfer.  At the prices you will find this rare edition, it’s not worth it.  For completionists only. 

Supplements:  7/10  These first-gen editions were usually very bare bones or unremarkable.  A true effort was made with this one though, including a number of interviews, bulky commentary, and an in-depth documentary.

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 #11: Designing Criterions

                

 The Criterion Collection has always done its best to prove that cinema is a grand art-form, not only as a storytelling medium, but also a visual art.  Their respect for film history is apparent, especially in the care they put in each single release, no matter then importance of the film.  They are recognized for their unique approach to original cover art, whether that would be by choosing the perfect frame from the film and turning it into an amazing work of art in and of itself, or by commissioning new and exciting artwork from brilliant visual artists.  From the Criterion logo and font by renowned graphic designer Paula Scher, to artists like Eric Skillman, Daniel Clowes, and Mike Mignola, and even having Wed Anderson’s brother design all of his releases. 

The artistry spills over to every detail of the release, from the disc design, to the booklets and interactive menus.

There are countless lists out there arguing which Criterion covers are the best, including thousands of fans who create Criterion-inspired covers for other films.  These Fake Criterions are especially worth delving into online.

Some of Criterion’s covers are so popular, they become identifiable with their film, taking over the poster-art on sites like IMDB, and used for screenings in art-house cinemas.  Which brings me to my last point:

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#12: Criterion Designs

                       

Criterion puts in a lot of effort in their cover designs, but had never done much with it, other than sell a few poster-sized prints.

However, to celebrate their 30th anniversary, they surprised everyone when they released a limited edition, hardcover coffee-table art book.  This beautiful piece of work honestly makes you forget that these are meant to be movie posters you are looking at.  Something that could easily have been found in an art class or museum gift-shop, the book offers a huge selection of their original cover art, including sketches and never-before-seen versions of these designs.

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