The Best Criterion Collection Releases of 2016
As of this writing, the venerable Criterion Collection – a home video company so thorough and refined that you could treat them as a film school unto themselves – has released 845 features on DVD or Blu-ray. Their vault of high-quality world cinema hasn’t yet been matched, and the collection continues to grow all the time. In 2016 alone, Criterion has released 55 new Blu-rays, not to mention the re-vamped Blu-rays of previously-released classics from DVD, each one of them notable in its own way.
While tackling the Criterion Collection as a whole can often only warrant rewards, we here at Crave have boiled down their recent output to the very best box sets, obscure discoveries, and finally-released American classics that you must own, or at least watch first.
The Lady Snowblood Movies (1973, 1974)
Lady Snowblood was, to modern audiences, one of the more notable influences on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, not only in story and structure – the film is about a woman (Meiko Kaji) who seeks revenge on the men who raped and killer her mother and killer other members of her family – but is visually recognizable in the sequence wherein The Bride fights O-Ren Ishii. The Lady Snowblood movies occupy a rarefied space in cinema in that they are simultaneously crackingly trashy pulp entertainment, and yet somehow transcend into the world of art.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Despite Inside Llewyn Davis being one of the best films of 2013 – a very good year for film – it was frustratingly brushed aside by critics in the usual year-end flurry of notable Oscar-bait flicks. The Coen Bros.’ film details the hardscrabble comings and goings of the title character (Oscar Isaac), a cynical folk musician trying to make it big in the pre-Dylan era. Wise, hilarious, frustrating, and one of the Coens’ best movies was given the proper treatment by Criterion.
The Graduate (1967)
Mike Nichols’ film (previously released on a Criterion LaserDisc, but only now available on Blu-ray) is one of the most-quoted films to come out of the 1960s, and it’s also the subject of an ongoing debate as to whether it should be interpreted as romantic or tragic (the exemplary Gen-Y romance (500) Days of Summer is staged around this very criticism). The Graduate has received plenty of home video versions in the past, but the new Blu-ray is undoubtedly the best.
Paris Belongs to Us (1961)
Anyone interested in film is likely in love with the American cinema of the 1970s, which was a glorious time of unprecedented creative output from film-school-educated auteurs. By extension, students of film know that those 1970s Americans were influenced strongly by the French New Wave of the mid 1960s which turned cinema on its ear. And while Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is often called the clarion of the French New Wave, Jacques Rivette’s amazing and naturalistic Paris Belongs to Us was actually made first (although released later), and may actually be the linchpin to understanding all of cinema to follow. It’s not only great. It’s legitimately important.
A Poem is a Naked Person (2015)
Given the recent passing of Leon Russel, it may be important to look back at the presence and influence he had on the folk rock/jam band scene of the 1970s. Les Blank’s documentary – filmed in 1974, but kept from release for decades due to music rights problems – shows the down-to-Earth hick reality of Russell’s life and surroundings, and makes a form of music usually left oblique and faraway to big-city dwellers accessible and even kind of great. I wasn’t into this type of music, but the film was great.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
In the post-Star Wars world, it’s hard for audiences to think of science fiction as once having been the stuff of unpopular and oblique artistic experimentation, but much of sci-fi of the 1970s filled just that niche, most notably occupied by René Laloux’s amazing and dream-like animated cult classic. The film had previously been left a mess on home video (my VHS was dubbed and subtitled with two different translations), and the Criterion Collection’s cleaning of it was exemplary and necessary. Any and all sci-fi fans need this film.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Yes, you’ve seen it. You know it. You can quote it. It’s the best movie about politics possibly ever, and one of the funniest satires ever made. If you don’t yet own one of the many great editions to precede this release, now is the time to catch up. It won’t get much better than this.
Chimes at Midnight (1966)
Although Orson Welles is often called a Hollywood wunderkind for making Citizen Kane in his 20s (!), it may be more appropriate to refer to him as an ambitious artist with a flair for the experimental. He wasn’t interested so much in conventional stories as he was in what cinema could do, and, late in his career, he examined the tragic figure of Falstaff in this rejiggering of Shakespeare’s Henry IV parts I and II, and Henry V. In telling the story from Falstaff’s position, we really see what a tragic figure he was, and only Welles could do that with the literary eye on display.
In the late 1980s, master Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski took on an ambitious project for Polish TV wherein he sought to make ten short films, each one representing a different one of the ten commandments. Although intended as a TV miniseries, the films were released theatrically in the U.S., and are now considered to be some of the best of European cinema. They are wistful, painful, funny, surprising, and now, as of 2016, available in one place on some awesome Blu-rays.
Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro
The only film new to the Criterion Collection out of this set was 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a celebrated fantasy film about a young girl escaping the oppression of Franco’s military presence through some perhaps-imagined magical quests assigned her by a scary faun living in the nearby woods. Having it paired with del Toro’s other Spanish-language films – Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone – we can appreciate del Toro as more than a mere fantasy stylist, and appreciate the powerful political underpinnings of all three films. It also comes in one of the most elaborate boxes Criterion has ever put out, matching the director’s visual flare.
Top Image: The Criterion Collection
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.