We know you’ll sympathize, dear reader, when we whine that Criterion is putting out too many damn fine Blu-rays to keep up with. Pity us, watching masterpiece after masterpiece and having to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, or synaptic impulses into digital space, to explain our insights. It’s all too much.
Sometimes, we just have to give briefer takes on these releases, so here’s ten films to watch and why. Bottom line: All are worth your time.
Make Way for Tomorrow
Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore
US DVD: 12 May 2015
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
What: When an old couple faces foreclosure, they split up because their five grown children can’t take them both in. All characters are annoying, poignant and human. This perfectly pitched social observation blends humor and pain in a plot that inspired Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and whose central problems haven’t dated by five minutes. Throw in some raunchy jokes, and it could have been made today.
Why: Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich (seen in a bonus interview) that this movie would make a stone cry. Director Leo McCarey’s desire to mix tones in lengthy scenes can lead to lopsided, uncertain films (e.g. Once Upon a Honeymoon, Good Sam, My Son John ) but he knocked it out of the park here. He and writer Viña Delmar understood that the families we love also embarrass us, and that our egos are both sensible and shameful. Too bad it flopped.
What: Charles Chaplin plays a former vaudeville star on the skids who develops an interest in the waifish ballerina (Claire Bloom) downstairs. Buster Keaton shows up for a climactic scene that proved crucial to reviving his career, though malicious rumors have circulated about this.
Why: Although Chaplin would make two more features (one of which, A King in New York, is fascinating), this heartfelt character study was his final sentimental gem and includes appearances by most of his family. When right-wing attacks caused Chaplin’s re-entry visa to be denied, the movie’s release proved abortive until 1972, when it finally qualified for Oscars and won for the score. Extras include a making-of from a previous DVD, interviews with Bloom and actor Norman Lloyd, and two Chaplin shorts.
The Confession (1970) and State of Seige (1972)
What: Two long-unavailable political thrillers from Costa-Gavras, both starring Yves Montand. The first film depicts the true-life ‘50s kidnapping and imprisonment of Czech diplomat Artur London by his country’s Communist party. In the second film, Montand plays a U.S. official kidnapped by guerrillas in an unnamed South American country to protest CIA operations and release political prisoners, leading to a media circus and internal tensions.
Why: Aside from being claustrophobic intellectual melodramas, both films demonstrate that power works independently of -ism’s and -ologies, and that when the boot is on your neck, it doesn’t matter whether the boot spouts one philosophy or another. Power serves itself, and resistance is problematic. Both discs include background material on the events that inspired them, especially on the first film.
The Bridge (1959)
What: Seven 16-year-old boys in a German village get drafted in the final days of World War II and, unaware that it’s a ploy to keep them out of the way until it’s blown up, are assigned to guard their hometown bridge against the American army. Half the movie is their pre-war life, and then it’s that long night of fog and terror. A grim film with room for melodramatic gestures, this is reminiscent of Konrad Wolf’s great, unfairly obscure I Was Nineteen.
Why: This film is brand new to video. Director Bernhard Wicki made an international splash with one of the first major postwar German films, even nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar. The black and white photography is calm, graceful, and razor-sharp. Bonuses include archival clips on Wicki and a new interview with the original novelist who recounts the incident he turned into fiction. Volker Schlöndorff explains why Wicki influenced the New German Cinema.
The Merchant of Four Seasons
Hans Hirschmüller, Hanna Schygulla
US DVD: 26 May 2015
The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971)
What: Self-loathing and loathed by others, a struggling fruit vendor in a lousy marriage in ‘50s Germany vents his frustrations in alcoholic violence as the camera performs delicate pirouettes. His meltdown is largely created by himself, and his self has been created by his society, as is typically the case in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cruel social microcosms.
Why: Did someone mention the New German Cinema? Fassbinder discovered the films of Douglas Sirk and reinvigorated his already indefatigable output with this beautifully shot and scored melodrama of the “little man”. It’s populated many of his regulars, including Irm Heermann, Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab and Ingrid Caven. This Blu-ray retains the older commentary from Wim Wenders and throws in a few new interviews.
A Master Builder (2014)
What: Actor-writer Wallace Shawn and actor-director Andre Gregory have been working on Henrik Ibsen’s play for 14 years, performing it privately. It’s about an architect, lording over his unhappy household, who is confronted by an angelic young woman (Lisa Joyce) of mysterious, disorienting intent. Shawn frames the story as a deathbed vision to emphasize its otherwordly aspect.
Why: What critics mean by “luminous”: there’s a literally glowing quality to the light in this intense, riveting dream, as directed with intimate closeups and bracing pace by Jonathan Demme. All the actors are sterling, with Julie Hagerty especially strong as the miserable wife. The extras are interviews. This is available by itself and in the box Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films, which includes Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).
The Fisher King (1991)
What: In Manhattan, washed-up deejay (Jeff Bridges) crosses paths with a homeless lunatic (Robin Williams) on a quest for the Holy Grail, and it turns out they have something in common. Terry Gilliam couldn’t finish Don Quixote (see Lost in La Mancha), but he pulled off this quixotic tale of a poignant madman whose delusions reveal the truth. Although we may now have the impulse to measure such portrayals against Williams’ suicide, it’s important to resist that.
Why: Gilliam’s movies are marked by a boundless surplus of visual ideas that threaten to hijack any sense of story, but he doesn’t mind if we don’t. Like Leo McCarey, he prefers not to settle on any one tone when he can offer several. This film grounds its fantasies in a relatively realistic story (by Richard LaGravenese), supported by Amanda Plummer and an Oscar-winning Mercedes Ruehl. The result was one of his most acclaimed films. This edition features Gilliam’s commentary, deleted scenes, and new interviews with many people involved.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
US DVD: 30 Jun 2015
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
What: Valerie keeps waking, seeing strange things, dying, resurrecting, and waking again. She’s just had her first menstruation at 13, and she’s learning (or imagining) that everyone wants to have sex with her, that everyone may be related to her, and that some are vampires or animals. This inexplicable fairy tale is one of the last great gasps of the Czech New Wave, and this 4K digital restoration puts previous discs in shadow.
Why: To describe this as a dream doesn’t explain it. We must call it a delicately surreal, vicious, erotic, naive visual symphony, abetted by an ethereal score, lovely colors, and disorienting montage. Extras include three shorts by Jaromil Jireš; an interview with the star, who says she acted in many banned films; and a remarkable alternate score by the Valerie Project, psych-folkies inspired by this film.
What: One huge monster is dead, its bones bleaching on a beach, while another is very much alive and swallowing in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar nominee for Foreign Film. It’s a long, slow portrait of Russians getting drunk and lugubrious, with a suffocating anxiety about official corruption in a fishing village as a mechanic fights to keep his property from annexation. Like Fassbinder’s petty hero, this protagonist’s flaws seem to grow like a cancer out his culture. The law is a blunt instrument, the narrative elliptical on several points.
Why: Okay, this isn’t Criterion, it’s from Sony, but it reminds us of one scene in Criterion’s edition of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where drunken Russians are lying on the floor picking arguments like, “Who said you know anything about the nature of reality?” Extras include background footage and a director’s commentary in which he discusses the film’s mysteries without elucidating.