October 16, 2009

Great movies I discovered by virtue of their Criterion logo

There are a lot of movies out there and never enough time in the day. So, aside from classics, recommendations and films with directors/actors you like, how does one choose? Well, here's a personal shortcut: when I see a Criterion Collection cover, I know there's something worthwhile in there. Maybe it won't become a new favorite, but it's definitely worthwhile. The good folks at Criterion comb through a century-plus of cinema to find the good stuff for you, and there have been several instances where I discovered great movies simply because they bore the Criterion logo. Here are 7 movies that I plucked off the shelf due to their Criterion status, having never heard of them before, and loved. (And no, they're not paying me!)

1. Blast of Silence (1961)
A recent addition to Criterion library, I only really knew that this involved a hitman, a cool cover and a mere 77 minutes of my time. The film is not really groundbreaking in any respect, but it's taut and compelling nonetheless. It fits into a great genre that I call "post-noir" for lack of a better term - films of the late 1950s and early 1960s that incorporate noir elements but have a grittier, more realistic atmosphere (i.e. Sweet Smell of Success, The Man With the Golden Arm, The Hustler). The film has heavy narration written by the blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, which helps you get very close to the main character. A terrific and bitter little flick.

2. Mona Lisa (1986)
Neil Jordan's primary claim to fame is making that movie where the chick turns out to be a dude, but I had always heard that there was much more to him. The cover of this DVD, with a pretty woman yelling at Bob Hoskins in a car, had always intrigued me when I used to work at a video store, and last week I finally watched it. I'll admit that due to my rather pathetic inability to properly comprehend English accents, I probably missed a lot of the movie, but I was loving what I saw. I almost wanted to watch it again after I had finished - it's such a rich and dense film that I think it takes multiple viewings to fully appreciate. It's kind of a weird noir love story mystery, and Bob Hoskins is incredible. Michael Caine also has a small role playing a type you never get him to see him play. There's a planned Larry Clark remake that may or may not involve Mickey Rourke, so make sure to catch the original first.

3. Brute Force (1947)
Jules Dassin is most well known for his street-based crime films, from Night and the City to Rififi, but this one is set inside a prison. My interest was piqued because I'm a Burt Lancaster fan, and he's allegedly the star here, but it's really more of an ensemble piece with a scene-stealing performance by Hume Cronyn as the sadistic prison guard. A brilliant example of against-type casting, a role that would have typically gone to a macho, foaming-at-the-mouth type is pulled off by the mild-mannered Cronyn in what might be called a cross between Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. It also tackles social issues of prisons in a way that's never preachy, and delivers a grittiness that is not often seen in overwrought prison pictures.

4. Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)
Lured in by the bright yellow cover, I read on the back that this was a parody of caper films like the aforementioned Rififi. I couldn't say I had seen an Italian comedy before, much less a classic one - the closest thing was probably the highbrow satire of 8 1/2. It turns out this film is an absolute hoot despite its simple setup - a bunch of inept criminals planning a heist where everything goes wrong. All the characters have the lower-class European mannerisms that you see in films like Moonstruck or My Big Fat Greek Wedding (i.e. waving your hands and yelling "Mama mia!"), but here instead of groan-inducing stereotypes, they are accurate (and very funny) portrayals created by a true Italian director and based in truth upon the criminal classes of the day. It's not so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is clever, with a solid script and great performances from stars like Claudia Cardinale and Marcello Mastroianni (hysterical). If you thought Italian cinema was very formal and produced only things like neorealism, you're in for a real treat (with a great jazz score to boot!).

5. F for Fake (1973)
Every good little cinephile knows that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, and the second tier of Welles enthusiasts will know about The Trial and his Shakespeare work. But very few are aware of this bizarre and fascinating documentary he made about deception and fakers, from art forgers to Welles himself. I'm glad Criterion rescued this little nugget from obscurity, to strengthen the argument that there's a lot more great stuff to Welles than just Kane. Welles is a great actor, but he's equally compelling (and vaguely creepy) when he's just being himself.

6. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
I found this gem by browsing the shelves of the video store I used to work at. Drawn in by the interesting cover (sensing a theme here? Just goes to show that a well-executed design grabs attention much better than the generic plastering of celebrity faces on covers) and the premise, but having never heard of most of the people involved with it, I gave it a shot. It's British black comedy through and through, featuring a wonderfully deadpan performance by Dennis Price and Alec Guinness in eight (!) roles. This film may not be for everyone - some may find it too dark, some not dark enough, but for the right crowd it's a wicked pleasure.

7. Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
At the time I first became aware of this film, I only knew Louis Malle from Au revoir les enfants, which I saw in ninth grade English class and was to my cinematically uneducated self "That French Holocaust movie with the masturbating." But what's this? The noirish debut of an audacious young director featuring a Miles Davis score? You can't get much further from a French Holocaust movie with masturbating. So I popped it in one day and while my boyfriend and I agreed that the ending was a little sudden and that the whole movie would have never happened if cell phones had existed, it was still a captivating melancholic thriller that featured ample footage of a miserable Jeanne Moreau wandering the rainy streets of Paris in that "post-noir" (see above) style I love so much.

What about you? Do you have the same faith in the Criterion collection? Do you have any similar success stories of impulse movie viewings from their library?

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