For some it is an obsession, and for others nothing but a pile of pretension, but when I say Criterion, some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. The Criterion Collection, a company that distributes DVDs and now Blu-ray, but they aren’t just any old discs and they aren’t just any old movies. In their own words, the collection consists of “important classic and contemporary films,” which says it all and nothing at the same time.
There is no doubt that if a movie is on Criterion, it is presented in the best possible way. The aspect ratio will be correct, the transfer pristine, and the extras over-flowing. Sometimes it will be director approved, and sometimes it will come with a neat booklet filled with essays written by experts discussing the movie. It all comes wrapped in a great package with a special spine number branding it as “important.” For all the extra work put into making the disc, Criterion’s do tend to cost a little more, but the extra dollars only enhance the perception that these films are special.
(There’s also the Essential Art House series, which collects the best of the best sans special features but at a lower price and the Eclipse series, which collects rare and forgotten gems in bundles without the bells and whistles, but again at a lower price.)
But what makes a film important? What deserves to be in the collection? Sometimes a film is in the collection because the director made a deal with the studio to make it so (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) or because the studio let the rights go (Recently released Stagecoach) or the studio has a deal with criterion (IFC, Janus Films) or the film is a flat-out, stone-cold masterpiece (like M, or Z). If they can get the rights to it, there’s not a lot that will stop them from adding it to the collection (Armageddon). Because of this, the collection is quite an eclectic mix that fascinates, frustrates and educates. But not every Criterion is created equal.
I’ve come across some Criterion’s that put me to sleep (Withnail and I), others that have become instant all-time favorites (Wild Strawberries), and some that simply perplex (Alphaville). All told, I’ve managed to see 120 2/5 of the collection, out of 534 (the 2/5 being half of a double short film set, La Jetee, and a third of a triple short film set The Red Balloon). That’s not bad, about 22%, but there is plenty left to explore and critique.
And that’s what this is. From here on out when I (or Adam) see something on Criterion we will review it in this column. To be clear, not the disc, but just a review of the film itself. Was it pretentious crap, one of the best films ever, or somewhere in between?
Here’s a mini-review of a recently watched Criterion as an example and a way to kick-start the column.
# 378 – Fires on the Plain (1959) – Dir. Kon Ichikawa
This is a fantastic WWII film from Japan. The story of a soldier sent to the hospital because he is too sick to fight, only to be turned away because he is too healthy to be cared for.
He is in limbo and the film follows this dying fighter as he struggles to survive while retaining his humanity. Trapped in enemy territory, the soldier’s odyssey is powerful and unexpected, with moments of pure poetry juxtaposed with true horror. The film looks and feels less like a war story and more like a post-apocalyptic horror film, which is to its advantage.
War might well be the end of the world and this brilliant film is exactly how I imagine that end to look.