The Criterion Collection has released some 750 films since its launch in 1984. Today, a Criterion release ranks among the highest compliments a film can receive. These kingmakers of cinematic taste can lead critics to reevaluate a film’s reputation and drastically increase its distribution. For a recent example of the Criterion bump, see the deluge of articles on John Frankenheimer’s long-ignored Seconds after Criterion released the film this summer.
The following list includes 12 films we think should have a place in the Criterion canon. We’ve split this list into three distinct types of titles. We first look at great films that are either hard to find or out of print. We then discuss four films in need of a better home video release. We lastly explore four films that look great — if only we could see them.
Rare/Out of Print Films
Criterion has a long history of bringing rare and out-of-print films back on the market. These four films are prime candidates for a proper, bells-and-whistles rerelease.
Ranked among critics as one the 100 greatest films ever made, Beau Travail remains maddeningly out of reach for many viewers. How can this be? It tied with Chinatown on BFI’s once-a-decade poll last year, yet Claire Denis’ 1999 masterwork is only sporadically in print and unavailable on streaming services. The film is an incisive take on the rituals of male desire. The men of Beau Travail live for combat and the clubs, and Denis depicts their rhythms with an ethnographic eye. The movie unfolds, in many ways, like a spiritual twin of The Hurt Locker, that other female-directed picture about men, the battlefield, and the wonders of testosterone. This slow-moving, knotty film ends with one of the great standalone final shots in film. The sight of Denis Lavant — unchained on an empty dance floor, unleashing his inner id to Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” — is at once a gleeful music video and a tearful encapsulation of the entire film. Criterion released Denis’ White Material in 2009; the rarer Beau Travail is an almost too-obvious contender for their attention.
Ken Russell‘s The Devils is a movie that more people know of than have actually seen, and it deserves a Criterion treatment for its influence, rarity, and artistic audacity. More than 30 years old, its controversy hasn’t diminished. In addition to Oliver Reed’s raucously blasphemous performance, there’s a notorious sequence depicting a nun orgy that outdoes all other nunsploitation movies combined, culminating in the sexual desecration of a Jesus statue (“the Rape of Christ”). Much of The Devils has slipped into our culture through music videos and other films, which is surprising since the movie has been kept out-of-print in the United States by its distributor, Warner Bros. The last stateside release was on VHS in 1995. Last year, the British Film Institute licensed a 111-minute version of The Devils, and Ben Wheatley introduced a U.S. screening of the film at this year’s Fantastic Fest. There are apparently scenes missing (the original cut was 117 minutes) and some of the video quality is poor, but The Devils is Criterion-worthy even in this incomplete state.
The cult film to end all cult films, Possession turns the torment of a bad breakup into a phantasmagoria of shrieks, spasms, and body-horror. Here’s a film with enough camp/shock value to delight midnight crowds and the dramatic gut-punch to intrigue Ingmar Bergman lovers. Few films have gone more over-the-top and retained such a devastating emotional core. Possession’s many excesses inspire laughter, terror, and throat-grabbing agony, often in the same scene. Above all, the film captures the feeling of a dying relationship, when the rest of the world disappears and the histrionics take over. Despite its established cult appeal, Possession has no DVD distribution in the U.S.; fans must currently settle for a South Korean import. Possession is a quintessential Criterion picture: a daring, art-house lightning rod in need of critical resurrection. No viewer, no matter how calloused, can walk away unscathed from Possession. A virtual roadmap for the careers of Lars Von Trier and David Cronenberg, Possession is a scarring, unshakeable film in need of a greater audience to terrorize.
Frederick Wiseman is one of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers of all time. His work is just as influential as the Maysles brothers, whose Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter are already part of Criterion’s catalog. Though Wiseman’s movies are available through Zipporah Films, his inclusion in the Collection is long overdue. A great initial release would be Wiseman’s 1967 directorial debut, Titicut Follies. One of the few documentaries that appears on lists of the most disturbing films ever made, Wiseman crafts his grim portrait of criminally insane inmates being mistreated in such a way that narration is superfluous. He’s stuck to this approach for more than four decades, which has led many to consider Wiseman an exemplary filmmaker of the vérité style. Yet Wiseman is resistant of this label, given the way he puts his films together. As Errol Morris noted in a Daily Beast article from 2009, Wiseman’s films are “personal and idiosyncratic visions”, less interested in capturing objective reality and more focused on “the essential absurdity of the world”.
Films in Need of a Better DVD Release
Films in Need of a Better DVD Release
Criterion has the power to rescue a film from the bargain bin. The following titles deserve better than their current, subpar home video releases.
Phantom of the Paradise
Though it came first, Phantom of the Paradise has for decades lived in the shadow of that other ‘70s rock opera: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Now, in 2013, Brian De Palma’s deranged horror-comic opus appears primed for its cultural moment. Earlier this year, the members of Daft Punk hailed Phantom of the Paradise as “the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically”. Just look at those masks. Daft Punk’s omnipresent new record even features Paul Williams, Phantom’s costar and the maestro behind its music. All this is to say: Criterion should ride those “Get Lucky” coattails with a re-release of this underseen acid trip of a musical. The company has already resurrected two De Palma films (Blow Out, Sisters), and Phantom’s current DVD is a minimal affair from 2001. Like Rocky Horror, Phantom makes for great group viewing. The film has inspired costumes, festivals, musical covers, and other cult marginalia. An entire community of fans exists around Phantom of the Paradise. That community deserves, at last, a definitive home release of its beloved film.
The Reflecting Skin
It’s surprising that there wasn’t a DVD release of Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin in the early 2000s, perfectly timed to capitalize on Viggo Mortensen’s star status following The Lord of the Rings. Instead, the film languished in obscurity in the U.S. until 2011, when Echo Bridge Home Entertainment put out a bare-bones DVD (i.e., no special features). It’s the unfortunate fate of one of the great, disturbing art-house oddities of the 1990s. The Reflecting Skin is a dark, sweeping vision of the death of innocence in the Midwest — think Andrew Wyeth collaborating with David Lynch — and it would be great to have a Ridley audio commentary to accompany his haunting film. Because the driving force of The Reflecting Skin is the overactive imagination of its young protagonist, some might draw comparisons to Terry Gilliam’s Tideland. Ridley’s story is much more nightmarish, however. The elements of fantasy in The Reflecting Skin are not charming forms of self-defense but a glum, internal child-logic that adds greater chill to this landscape of memento moris.
The Criterion Collection is already home to two of the best long movies ever made: Masaki Kobayashi’s three-part, nine-and-a-half-hour epic The Human Condition and Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour-plus Holocaust documentary Shoah. Why not add another Mount Everest of cinema, and one of the most important art films of the ’90s: Béla Tarr‘s Sátántangó, a seven-hour-plus black-and-white work of poetic misanthropy? This is probably Tarr’s best known film simply given its ungodly duration and its average shot length of two-and-a-half minutes. (The average shot length in a contemporary Hollywood film is four to six seconds.) The result is a movie that’s less like watching paint dry and more like watching a town crumble from the effects of weather, greed, and human stupidity. Current DVDs of Sátántangó are marred by poor image quality and possibly some missing scenes. The Criterion Collection could improve the transfer and gather several critics to tag team an audio commentary. Perhaps Sátántangó could also be packaged with the book of the same name by László Krasznahorkai, a frequent Tarr collaborator.
Those who chance upon this cult classic often feel as though they’ve discovered some wonderful lost artifact. The brainchild of Talking Heads front man David Byrne, True Stories is a freewheeling musical, a mockumentary, and a gentle portrait of small-town America. The movie resembles the cine-essays of Jean-Luc Godard, only swap the jagged-edge polemicism with something infinitely more fun. Byrne shares his thoughts on fashion, computers, TV, capitalism, religion, urban planning, everything. He even explores the occasional dead end (i.e., “I have something to say about the difference between American and European cities, but I forgot what it was. I have it written down at home somewhere”). The results are as joyous and scatterbrained as a Talking Heads record. Byrne’s stature has only grown as an avant-pop tastemaker and public intellectual since the film’s release in 1986. Despite his lasting cultural relevance, True Stories, his sole feature film, remains fairly unseen. Warner Home Video put out the no-frills DVD in 1999, and it’s still the only way to purchase True Stories. This “completely cool, multi-purpose movie” (its actual tagline) deserves better.
Films That Look Great… If Only We Could See Them
Films That Look Great… If Only We Could See Them
A Criterion rerelease almost inherently increases a film’s availability. These films remain so unavailable that a Criterion edition feels like our last, best hope of seeing them at all. Reminder: Low-grade YouTube streams and torrents don’t count as a proper release.
This experimental horror film has reached legendary status in part due to its lack of availability. Used copies of the out-of-print DVD sell online for $85 and above. The film’s shock value and critical love — Susan Sontag famously called it “one of the ten most important films of modern times” — have done nothing to help it receive a proper release. E. Elias Merhige’s 1990 feature remains the stuff of underground screenings and 280p YouTube streams. The film appears to resemble David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the films of Guy Maddin, though we wouldn’t know. It also appears to be a highly divisive blend of the cerebral and visceral. Begotten, at the very least, looks like the perfect movie to project on mute at your annual Halloween party. Given the prices some have paid to own this film, a re-release would seem like a good bet for Criterion, especially if the DVD included the film’s unofficial sequel, Din of Celestial Birds, as an extra feature. A Criterion release would allow us to finally see and assess this mythical beast.
Old Czech Legends
There are currently no animated films in the Criterion Collection. Jirí Trnka’s Old Czech Legends would be a great place to start. This 1953 stop-motion film retells six classic folktales using wonderfully articulated dolls/puppets. The film screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, but an official release remains hard to find. The handful of online clips from Old Czech Legends are breathtaking. The look is somewhat crude, given that this is stop-motion animation from the 1950s, and a certain amount of jerkiness is unavoidable due to the limitations of available technology. And yet, Trnka’s use of color, camera movement, shadow, and composition is so daring and adventurous. It’s as if he’s attempting to transcend technological limitations through the sheer bravura of his filmmaking. There’s an endlessly watchable battle scene, staged as if there were real-life extras waging a massive war. Birds take flight, arrows intercept them, wolves pounce, melees ensue. There’s so much drama in the movement, and Trnka’s ambition in that sequence alone puts a number of contemporary animated films to shame.
The Thief and the Cobbler (The Recobbled Cut)
Most people know Richard Williams for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but his thwarted masterpiece was The Thief and the Cobbler. Developed over the course of three decades, this hand-drawn feature-length film was set in ancient Arabia and featured many intricate, staggering set pieces. In one sequence that’s part Mr. Magoo and part Modern Times, an oblivious thief wanders the inner machinery of a city while a war rages on, serendipitously avoiding death by turning gears and errant cannonballs. Sadly, Williams’ film was compromised and eventually ruined, part of it due to this time-consuming complexity. To this day, he refuses to speak publicly about the film. Devoted Williams fans created a “Recobbled Cut” of The Thief and the Cobber, which painstakingly reconstructs Williams’ original film using completed footage, pencil tests, and storyboards. Available online as a bootleg, a proper release would be wonderful for Criterion simply because of how dazzling the animation is even in this lovingly rebuilt form. Perhaps this would get Williams to talk about the beauty of his impossible dream.
Before he reinvented the American action movie with films like RoboCop and Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven directed six films in his home of the Netherlands. These movies continue to elude our eyes. The most renowned of the early Verhoeven flicks is Turkish Delight, the highest grossing Dutch film of its time and an Oscar nominee. This raw, graphic take on Love Story captures the anything-goes attitude of the 1970s — or so we’ve read, anyway. Despite its notoriety, place in Dutch cinema history, and the appeal of its director, the film is out of print. One-percenter film nerds can buy used copies on DVD for $45 (and up) or a 2003 early Verhoeven box set, also out of print, for $200 (and up). The rest of us must wait for Criterion to salvage these works. We ask: Who wouldn’t want to see the films of a young, taboo-baiting Paul Verhoeven? With Criterion’s help, this unseen prologue to one of the most celebrated Hollywood careers of the ‘80s and ‘90s could finally have its day in the U.S.