[26 December 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You know you’ve had a good year in DVD distribution when you can discount a company’s remarkable reissues and still come up with an amazing list of definitive digital releases. And in Criterion’s case, the accomplishment is even more impressive when you realize that The 400 Blows, Armacord, Grey Gardens, Brazil and The Seven Samurai are all part of the second time around list. For SE&L‘s 2006 pics, we’ve purposefully avoided the new presentations of these timeless classics, simply to make room for more amazing cinematic goodness. Of the over 50 releases this year, the industry’s premiere preservationist introduced film fans to the eclectic catalog of independent international film, resurrected several seemingly ‘lost’ efforts, and argued for the place of works both pre-sound and post-modern as viable benchmarks in the history of cinema.
In essence, choosing a top ten out of this amazing collection is actually fairly counterintuitive to Criterion’s overall philosophy. Indeed, in the rare cases where a release goes out of print, the company attempts to replace the missing title with something of equal import and aesthetic merit. And besides, how fair is it to discount other fabulous discs like Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales or Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned? On the other hand, to mention every single DVD the company created this year would look kind of foolish, and so, the creation of a subjective Top Ten. By no means definitive, the list represents 12 months of remarkable entertainment options, as well as a spectacular amount of film history and archeology. Covering nearly eight decades of filmic expertise, here are the choices for the best Criterion DVDs of 2006:
1. Dazed and Confused
Richard Linklater’s love letter to the sensimilla-tinged ‘70s was given one of the best digital presentations of the entire year, which is apropos when you consider the fabulous film inside. More like a snapshot come to life than a fictional recreation of the last day of school in a small Texas town, the director expands his Slacker dynamic to create the ultimate illustration of youth, unaffected and unbridled.
2. Pandora’s Box
Criterion uncovers yet another gem with the release of this legendary Louis Brooks vehicle. The tragic story of a prostitute and performer named Lulu, this is the film that made Miss Brooks a star, and the toast of the jumping jive jazz age. Director Georg Wilhelm Pabst combined his acclaimed insight into actors with the inherent artistry of German Expressionism to forge an epic dissection of the human spirit.
3. Mr. Arkadin
A film whose history is as convoluted as its narrative, Arkadin represents Orson Welles at his most insular and inspired. Writing, directing and playing the lead role of a mysterious tycoon with no memory of his past, the infamous filmmaker once again saw his vision butchered, altered and rearranged by distributors desperate for financial returns. Criterion does it’s best to preserve the artist’s original vision, and the results are masterful.
4. The Double Life of Veronique
Looking for another way to explore spirituality’s place in the world, Polish director Krsysztof Kieslowski crafted a complex exploration of duality/parallelism featuring two identical women living similar lives in different parts of the planet. Veronique/Weronika both have magical singing voices. They are also both burdened with a biological birth defect. What follows is a meditation on the connectivity between humans and of unlinked lives still being inseparable and intertwined.
5. The Spirit of the Beehive
Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive is the visualization of the moment when every child’s mind turns from naiveté to knowing. Combining youth, the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s fascism, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village at the center as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction. The results are both moving and revelatory.
Yet another example of innocent filmmakers flimflammed by a savvy distributor out to make a buck, this Famous Monsters of Filmland inspired novelty is nothing more than a home movie fleshed out to definite drive-in dimensions. Thanks to Criterion’s decision to release both versions, as well as a complete compendium on the film’s making and reconfiguration, we witness the birth of horror fandom, and the evils inside the motion picture industry.
Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Obviously, Australian auteur Jane Campion (in her first feature film) is dealing with a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, dopey, demeanor. Between one child’s uncontrolled Id and the rest of her kin’s slighted and submerged egos, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.
8. The Fallen Idol
Carol Reed, the British director responsible for several of cinema’s more outstanding milestones (The Third Man, Oliver!) delivered one of the most devastating takes on hero worship shattered ever attempted. When cruelty and death forces an isolated child to confront his issues of loyalty and adulation toward a favored family butler, the truth becomes more difficult to decipher than the mixed messages from the adults around him.
Call him France’s answer to Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton, or a post-modern silent comedian, but no one can deny Jacques Tati’s filmmaking acumen. A stickler for detail as well as a painstaking perfectionist, Playtime began production in 1964…and didn’t wrap until 1967! Focusing on his classic character, the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, and his 24 hours in Paris, this pop art poem glitters with cosmopolitan gloss and delightful urban angst.
10. Young Mr. Lincoln
John Ford’s adulating approach to Lincoln in his early, pre-Presidential days is highly fictionalized, but oddly enough captures the American icon in all his revered glory. Thanks to Henry Fonda’s fascinating performance, the amazing black and white cinematography, and the crackerjack court case the characters participate in, this is a vision of how America might have been – or at least, how a pair of patriotic artists wish it would be.