Criterion Discoveries: Five Gems from the Cinematic Vault

In the Realm of the SensesThis is the first in a series of articles about Criterion Discoveries for CURNBLOG.

Over the last 30 years, Criterion has established themselves as the benchmark for curating classic, art-house film. As the years have passed and media delivery has changed from video to laser disc, DVD, Blu-Ray, and now digital streaming, they’ve remained relevant. Even today with the market for physical media waning, they have become the model for a boutique DVD label.

There are many reasons for their success, but one key is that they’ve established credibility. They have curated a library of the best of cinema. While it may not be the definitive list because they have to navigate obstacles like everyone else (like getting rights to media), they have come pretty close. Today they have struck a nice balance with releasing new Blu-Ray/DVD content, upgrading titles from their existing library from DVD to Blu-Ray, and offering up titles via their digital channels (Hulu Plus, Fandor, iTunes, etc.).

One would think that the number of classic, all-time great films is finite. There are numerous lists out there, such as BFI’s Sight & Sound list for international cinema, the AFI list for American, or even the “1,001 Movies to See Before You Die” book. Criterion has continually disproved this theory, as they have painstakingly searched for the best of cinema, whether it is modern or classic, American or International. On the 15th of every month, a horde of cineastes eagerly await the announcement of upcoming releases. There will inevitably be a surprise or two, and Criterion has a way of shining of light on under-seen and obscure films that otherwise wouldn’t get noticed.

That’s where this column comes in. I’m a voracious Criterion Collector. I currently own all but a handful of the Blu-Ray titles and still own a number of the DVDs. I purchase everything they release, every month, regardless of whether I have seen it, enjoyed it, hated it, or whatever. If Criterion is willing to put their time into bringing a title to our attention, then the least I can do is give it a second try. As a result, I’ve sometimes re-evaluated movies that I didn’t enjoy the first time, and after the Criterion, I’ve changed my opinion. That’s not always the case, but it happens more often than not. There are other films that have been off my radar that I have discovered through Criterion, which are usually the smaller films that do not get a large distribution.

This column is going to be a journey through my discoveries. I’ll try to mix it up with recent and older Criterion releases for variety, and I’ll talk about the films that I’ve discovered for the first time or re-discovered through Criterion. There are usually plenty of both.

Overlord (1975)

Stuart Cooper’s war tale is far from typical. It intersperses archived and filmed footage to tell a story about the life of a soldier from enlistment to battle. Compared to most war films I’ve seen, the footage was high quality and sometimes it is not easy to tell what is real and what is filmed. Sometimes it is obvious, such as aerial shots, but the film is always enrapturing. One of the reasons this film stands out is the black and white photography from John Alcott, who is known mostly for his work with Stanley Kubrick. It is a profound and moving statement on the nature of war on an individual basis.

Fellini Satyricon (1969)

I had first seen Satyricon years ago and dismissed it as a wild and foolish film. The new Criterion Blu-Ray gave me an opportunity to revisit with a matured mind. It is a visual spectacle, with every scene offering up plenty of eye candy, partly because it is photographed well, but mostly because of the lavish and extraordinary sets as well as the flamboyant and ostentatious costume designs. There is quite a bit of surrealism, some of which is simply because it depicts a Roman time that is foreign to our own world. Fellini added some of his own warped ideas to Petronius’ original text, although the template from the original is mostly intact. It shows the life of a Roman citizen as he travels from the heart to the outskirts of the empire. Even though there is cohesion with the beginning and end, punctuated by a breathtaking final shot, there is not a traditional storyline. It is more of a slice of life under the empire. The 4k transfer from Criterion really highlights the beauty.

La Cienaga (2001)

This is the only South American Criterion release, which is refreshing and also surprising. With her feature film debut, Lucrecia Martel created a bleak and deep glimpse into Argentinian life. She portrays the excesses and the shortcomings of the upper classes, most of which originates in the political philosophy of generations that lived under occupation. The adults in the film are pathetic, lifeless, and neglectful, while the children are full of vibrant energy when they are away from their stagnant families. When they are at home, they are bored and tired, basically taking after their parents. There is a subplot involving someone seeing the Virgin Mary and there is a difficult ending that I will not spoil, but I was surprised to find such a film so thematically rich and engaging, yet distinctly Argentinian.

The Sword of Doom (1966)

As a classic cinephile, I’ve seen my share of Samurai films. Even though the best rank up there with some of my favourite films of all time, they can follow a formula of sorts. The protagonist is often played by a famous actor (especially Toshiro Mifune) and has a heroic nature. The Sword of Doom is the opposite, with the protagonist being the object of evil and an anti-hero. Mifune appears in the film as an antagonist, but the object of our attention is the nihilism, immorality and bloodlust of Ryunosuke Tsukue. The narrative appears to be guided by these two larger than life characters into a major showdown, and that is exactly what most samurai films would do, whether they are artistic or mainstream. The Sword of Doom takes us in a different direction and gives one of the most memorable ending in all of Samurai film.

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

Nagisa Oshima’s shocking film is seen by many as pornographic, but it is essentially an unconventional romance. It is up there with the most controversial in the Criterion library (which is saying something), but at its essence is a story about a woman’s insatiable desire and her lover, who will do anything in order to please her. Some of the messages of the film are difficult to comprehend, especially the confusing ending, but all is based on a true story. Even though there is quite a bit of sex, the photography and direction are masterful and the product of one of the later Japanese New Wave masters. Oshima is partly playing with the viewer and suggesting the comedic or outlandish, while he is also telling a unique and dark story about true love. Because of the sensuality, this was one that was tough to come to grips with, but after delving deeper, I found it to be an intense and remarkable character study.

Aaron West is a history/film grad, classic film aficionado and DVD hoarder. He is currently in the midst of a long-term project to watch and review the entire Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray over at CriterionBlues.com. He is a fan of virtually all film nationalities and genres, but gravitates towards French films, particularly the golden age of the 1930s, “Poetic Realism.”

7 thoughts on “Criterion Discoveries: Five Gems from the Cinematic Vault

  1. The Sword of Doom looks incredible. I’ve marked it to the watchlist.

    The issue with things like Sight+Sound, AFI and 1001 is that they are quite insular. Compare the TSPDT list to 1001, then compare them both to the AFI list, then compare that list to the IMDB Top 250. The same films show up (of course for reason) in a way that is great if you have never seen the films before and are looking for a place to jump in. But for a cinephile, they don’t work so well. Unless like me you need to catch up on a few years of film viewing.

    Criterion has a lot of this crossover too, but not nearly as much. It seems bolder in being willing to step out into uncharted territory and champion great films that are under-represented in the lists that limit themselves to number-ranking.

    I’ll just never understand why Armageddon is in there.

  2. Criterion have done great work, no doubt about it. I have a few of their titles in my collection too.
    I take it as a measure of their value that they include on their list movies that I wouldn’t want to see once, let alone twice or three times. They’re not shy about covering diverse cinematic territory.

  3. One more thing regarding cooperation — the rights are pretty important too. 😉
    Recently they struck a deal with WB so we should see some new and interesting titles in the collection.

  4. Jon, good question. Criterion keeps their selection process pretty secretive, but having been a follower for awhile, I can make some educated guesses. First it depends on what they can get and whether they have cooperation of directors and estates. For example the Tati set came out because of help with the estate. The same with Anderson, Assayas, Dardennes. They get released because they provide a lot of support and solid extras, plus make good films.

    I also think that Criterion has established a certain taste in world cinema. They go for the titles that push the envelope and say something creatively, not just the Sight and Sound best lists (although there are plenty of those too). It makes it a little more fun to have Eating Raoul and Satyricon on the same shelf as La Dolce Vita and The Leopard.

  5. Good stuff Aaron. Do you have any idea how Criterion makes their selections? They obviously are state of the art in putting out intriguing, significant movies and explaining why the movie matters. Although I gotta say, nothing is getting me to sit through Sayricon again.

  6. I am happy to report that I have seen all of these, and can confirm your appraisals of each film. I don’t have them all on Criterion, but the couple of their films I do own on DVD are very good quality, and they bring us many films that would be unlikely to find a distributor elsewhere. I will look forward to the rest of this series.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  7. Great article, Aaron! I can’t imagine a world without the Criterion Collection!

    Glad to have you on board, and looking forward to seeing your next article 🙂

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