Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Criterion Challenge: January 2015

Happy New Year, everyone, and Happy Criterion Challenge, which begins...NOW!


- Note: the films with a highlighted asterisk next to it means that they are my absolute favorite.

* 1. 12 Angry Men


Synopsis

12 Angry Men, by Sidney Lumet, may be the most radical courtroom drama in cinema history. A behind-closed-doors look at the American legal system that is as riveting as it is spare, this iconic adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay stars Henry Fonda as the dissenting member on a jury of white men ready to pass judgment on a Puerto Rican teenager charged with murdering his father. The result is a saga of epic proportions that plays out over a tense afternoon in one sweltering room. Lumet’s electrifying snapshot of 1950s America on the verge of change is one of the great feature film debuts.

Review:

Beyond a reasonable doubt, 12 Angry Men is the best courtroom drama movie ever made. What's so breathtakingly remarkable about this movie is how miniscule and simple it is---the entire movie takes place in only one room---and yet, it keeps us at the edge of our seats, gripping us from start to finish. Every man, yes, all twelve of them, are fully developed characters. The dialogue is so punchy, and as the story unfolds, that dialogue holds even more meaning. The emotion becomes more intimidating and overwhelming as one by one, each man breaks. When the last one does, let me tell you, very few films make me cry, and when it happens here, I was. You'd think a movie like this would be boring, but it's so far from it. It's gripping, powerful, tragic, and unforgettable. And to think, this was the director's debut movie. Nobody makes movies like this anymore. 12 Angry Men is a prime example of how the phrase "less is more" can truly make an impact. This is human drama at its finest, most resonant, and memorable, so much so that it can---and will most likely---give you goosebumps.

2. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her 


Synopsis:

In 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle), Jean-Luc Godard beckons us ever closer, whispering in our ears as narrator. About what? Money, sex, fashion, the city, love, language, war: in a word, everything. Among the legendary French filmmaker’s finest achievements, the film takes as its ostensible subject the daily life of Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady), a housewife from the Paris suburbs who prostitutes herself for extra money. Yet this is only a template for Godard to spin off into provocative philosophical tangents and gorgeous images. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is perhaps Godard’s most revelatory look at consumer culture, shot in ravishing widescreen color by Raoul Coutard.

Review:

Jean-Luc Godard is basically the James Joyce of cinema. His films are art in essay form, telling stories not through actual plot and character development, but through philosophy. Every character---even the children---in this movie, and practically everything around them---the city, the cars, the trees, groceries, and a cigarette, for instance---are philosophers that dig deep into analyzing the meaning of life, the universe, society, politics, sex, war, death, and the consumer culture. All dialogue in this movie is a scathing analysis of all this---and somehow, it explores even beyond these things. Does it all makes sense? Remarkably, yes, especially the scene where a swirling cup of coffee represents the entire universe. Artsy as hell, but brilliant, definitely one of the highlights of 2 or 3 Things. It's one gorgeous-looking movie too, highlighting Paris for its beauty and ugliness. It's a movie that not only thinks for itself but has the viewer thinking too. The movie's not necessarily gripping. I think one can easily call this "boring". If you lose focus while watching this one, there goes the movie. But if you stick with it, it is rewarding and well worth viewing at least once.

* 3. 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Synopsis:

Vienna-born, New York–raised Josef von Sternberg directed some of the most influential, stylish dramas ever to come out of Hollywood. Though best known for his star-making collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg began his career during the final years of the silent era, dazzling audiences and critics with his films’ dark visions and innovative cinematography. The titles in this collection, made on the cusp of the sound age, are three of von Sternberg’s greatest works, gritty evocations of gangster life (Underworld), the Russian Revolution (The Last Command), and working-class desperation (The Docks of New York) made into shadowy movie spectacle. Criterion is proud to present these long unavailable classics of American cinema, each with two musical scores.

Review:

This gorgeous trilogy box set is perfect, containing the films that define Josef von Sternberg's legacy of a filmmaker who was so ahead of his time. He basically debuted as a trailblazer with his riveting breakthrough, Underworld, which is often credited as being the film that launched the gangster genre as we know it today. As heart pounding as the plot is the cinematography, it's so stunning, expressive, and lush with detail and talent. The Last Command makes a huge, dramatic leap to the story of an exiled Russian general turned Hollywood extra playing the role of a former version of himself. This one is brilliant from the cinematography, plotting, characterization, drama, emotion, and pure passion of it all, definitely one for the history books. It's next to impossible to not be gripped by this masterpiece. And lastly, there's The Docks of New York that signs, seals, and delivers, being such a rousing finish to this collection. Like the rest of Josef's films, the cinematography is exquisite, the set designs are masterful, and the lead actors are so raw and sensual. The story is so simple, and yet packs such a punch, as does all these films do, and the director himself. I wasn't expecting to love 3 Silent Films by Josef von Sternberg. More than that, I just adore this box set! It also has a 95-page booklet that has essays on all the three films and on Josef, and each DVD has a mini-documentary on the films and the director's biography, and the last disc has an interview with the man himself! I can't  recommend this time capsule to the golden age of silent cinema highly enough. This is not only Josef von Sternberg's best, but one of the best DVD sets that you can buy from the Criterion Collection.

* 4. 3 Women 


Synopsis:

In a dusty, underpopulated California resort town, a naive southern waif, Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), idolizes and befriends her fellow nurse, the would-be sophisticate and “thoroughly modern” Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall). When Millie takes Pinky in as her roommate, Pinky’s hero worship evolves into something far stranger and more sinister than either could have anticipated. Featuring brilliant performances from Spacek and Duvall, this dreamlike masterpiece from Robert Altman careens from the humorous to the chilling to the surreal, resulting in one of the most unusual and compelling films of the 1970s.

Review:

This is one chilling film. The premise of someone being obsessed with their roommate is far from being something new, but something about this one is even more surreal, eerie, and freaky. From the get-go, I'm not quite sure what is it about Pinky's obsession with Millie. It's obsession at first sight, with no sense to it at all, but then that adds to the dream-like feel of this movie (I read that the director based this film off of a dream that he had). Millie is far from perfect: she's kind of an air-head, is often snubbed and mocked by nearly every man that she flirts with, and is anal about a lot of things, but Pinky thinks she's perfect anyway. Pinky's obsession to Millie only gets worse when the two live together, and things only get weirder and stranger as the plot thickens. This film is also chock full of symbolism (like the twins and the pool murals); it's done so well and brings on more of the chill. The creepiest thing about 3 Women most of all is how there's this strange calm about everything. There's never that urgency that you'd expect from the events that happen in this story. It works, because that feeling is inescapable, resulting in what really is one unusual experience that's definitely Bergman-esque in style and very Persona in theme/plot, but uniquely 3 Women. 

5. The 39 Steps


Synopsis: 

A heart-racing spy story by Alfred Hitchcock, The 39 Steps follows Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as he stumbles upon a conspiracy that thrusts him into a hectic chase across the Scottish moors—a chase in which he is both the pursuer and the pursued—as well as into an unexpected romance with the cool Pamela (Madeline Carroll). Adapted from a novel by John Buchan, this classic wrong-man thriller from the Master of Suspense anticipates the director’s most famous works (especially North by Northwest), and remains one of his cleverest and most entertaining films.

Review: 

I was charmed by how compelling and intense, and yet funny, light, and entertaining this movie was. It's also a very well-made movie, using a lot of witty film techniques that gives it that extra flair. I wasn't completely in love with this one, though, and I'll admit that it was hard to follow most of the time (for me anyway), but it was enjoyable and entertaining. As far as Hitchcock films goes, The 39 Steps is not his best, far from being his most complex and sophisticated film, but it's still awesome.

6. 3:10 To Yuma 


Synopsis: 

In this beautifully shot, psychologically complex western, Van Heflin is a mild-mannered cattle rancher who takes on the task of shepherding a captured outlaw (played with cucumber-cool charisma by Glenn Ford) to the train that will deliver him to prison. This apparently simple mission turns into a nerve-racking cat-and-mouse game that tests each man’s particular brand of honor. Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma is a thrilling, humane action movie, directed by the supremely talented studio filmmaker Delmer Daves with intense feeling and precision.

Review: 

I'm not a fan of Westerns, but I can imagine that for many fans of the genre, this is a classic. This didn't do much for me; I didn't find the plot realistic and it all felt kind of affected. The performances of the main lead characters though was riveting and powerful; they are the glue that holds this film together. Another highlight of this movie is that it's so beautifully shot, just gorgeous. 3:10 to Yuma overall though is not my cup of tea, but if you're a fan of Westerns, you'll enjoy and appreciate it.

* 7. The 400 Blows


Synopsis: 

François Truffaut’s first feature is also his most personal. Told through the eyes of Truffaut’s cinematic counterpart, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), The 400 Blows sensitively re-creates the trials of Truffaut’s own childhood, unsentimentally portraying aloof parents, oppressive teachers, and petty crime. The film marked Truffaut’s passage from leading critic to trailblazing auteur of the French New Wave.

Review: 

It amazes me how much this film still stands the test of time. It's legendary for birthing the New Wave Age of French cinema, but more than that, it's a real testament to the director's talents as an auteur, using film instead of a pen to write his story of tragedy, sadness, and hopelessness. Even if you yourself weren't a juvenile delinquent with a troubled home life, The 400 Blows will take you into that experience from its highs and its many lows. Though this film is mostly sad, there is a charm to it, and there are some humorous moments that sheds some light into the darkness that surrounds it. This one may not grab everyone. It still grabs me because I could relate to the story so much. The movie's style and plot has so often been imitated, but this is the original, and it's still golden.  

8. 8 1/2


Synopsis: 

Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a director whose new project is collapsing around him, along with his life. One of the greatest films about film ever made, Federico Fellini’s (Otto e mezzo) turns one man’s artistic crisis into a grand epic of the cinema. An early working title for was The Beautiful Confusion, and Fellini’s masterpiece is exactly that: a shimmering dream, a circus, and a magic act.

Review: 

This is one of the most surreal and pretentious movies you'll ever see. The movie knows how lofty it is, and from start to finish, so many questions are asked as to why. The general plot of the story is about a movie director's warped "artistic crisis" or director's version of a "writer's block," but it's essentially a satirical, artsy, whimsical, strange, and daring journey through the past, present, and future. I adore Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, and enjoyed some of his other films, but is one of those movies---his movies--- that I can admire, but can't say I like. It's so long and frankly it's often so boring, but how can anyone not give credit to this movie's imaginative depth? It's quite something.

* 9.  A Story of Floating Weeds


Synopsis: 

In 1959, Yasujiro Ozu remade his 1934 silent classic A Story of Floating Weeds in color with the celebrated cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Ugetsu). Setting his later version in a seaside location, Ozu otherwise preserves the details of his elegantly simple plot wherein an aging actor returns to a small town with his troupe and reunites with his former lover and illegitimate son, a scenario that enrages his current mistress and results in heartbreak for all. Together, the films offer a unique glimpse into the evolution of one of cinema’s greatest directors. A Story of Floating Weeds reveals Ozu in the midst of developing his mode of expression; Floating Weeds reveals his distinct style at its pinnacle. In each, the director captures the joy and sadness in everyday life.

Review: 

My Criterion DVD unfortunately didn't have the original 1934 classic version of Floating Weeds. I can only imagine how fascinating it must be to watch both films one after the other to compare and contrast the director's vision. The 1959 remake of Ozu's own movie is instantly inviting, the plot intriguing and oftentimes sad, and yet optimistic, hopeful, and sweet. It's an overall pretty delicate movie and is so simple really, but it packs so much punch and becomes more engrossing as we find out why the "aging actor" has only been known as "Uncle" to his son. The cinematography adds to the mood and theme of the movie, popping with so much color and bringing this seaside town to life. This movie has so much style and grace to it that you'd be hard pressed not to admire it for it. I absolutely loved this movie, and will definitely watch it again and again in the future.

* 10.  Ace in the Hole

Synopsis:

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is one of the most scathing indictments of American culture ever produced by a Hollywood filmmaker. Kirk Douglas gives the fiercest performance of his career as Chuck Tatum, an amoral newspaper reporter who washes up in dead-end Albuquerque, happens upon the scoop of a lifetime, and will do anything to keep getting the lurid headlines. Wilder’s follow-up to Sunset Boulevard is an even darker vision, a no-holds-barred exposé of the American media’s appetite for sensation that has gotten only more relevant with time.

Review: 

Ace in the Hole is no Sunset Boulevard. It's a tad bit self-indulgent and over the top for its own good, but I can't really imagine this movie being any other way. Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum is one bold, chilling character, so disgusting, unlikeable, and fraudulent. You will hate him, but love him also for his tenaciousness. He'll stop at nothing to get that big story and make a name for himself, even if that means endangering somebody's life---and even his own---to get there. The pacing of this movie is so fast and intense. Even the slower moments have you at the edge of the seat. Irony and social commentary boils over, and makes it even more chilling since, eerily, American media hasn't really changed that much from how this movie realistically reenacts it. This won't be one of the best movies that you've ever seen, but definitely, it must be one of the best films on American sensationalism.      

* The movies that are in the collection, but my library doesn't have, hence ommitted from the challenge, are:

3 Films by Louis Malle 

Synopsis:

Few directors have portrayed the agonies and epiphanies of growing up as poetically—and controversially—as Louis Malle. Laced with autobiographical details, Murmur of the Heart; Lacombe, Lucien; and Au revoir les enfants tell stories of youth, set against the tumult of World War II and postwar France. Tragic, amusing, and poignant, these three films are more than just coming-of-age stories. They are the director’s ongoing response to a world gone wrong.

3 Films by Roberto Rossellini starring Ingrid Bergman 

Synopsis: 

In the late 1940s, the incandescent Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman found herself so stirred by the revolutionary neorealist films of Roberto Rossellini that she sent the director a letter, introducing herself and offering her talents. The resulting collaboration produced a series of films that are works of both sociopolitical concern and metaphysical melodrama, each starring Bergman as a woman experiencing physical dislocation and psychic torment in postwar Italy. It also famously led to a scandalous affair and eventual marriage between filmmaker and star, and the focus on their personal lives in the press unfortunately overshadowed the extraordinary films they made together. Stromboli, Europe ’51, and Journey to Italy are intensely moving portraits that reveal the director at his most emotional and the glamorous actress at her most anguished, and that capture them and the world around them in transition.

4 by Agnès Varda 

 Synopsis: 

Agnès Varda used the skills she honed early in her career as a photographer to create some of the most nuanced, thought-provoking films of the past fifty years. She is widely believed to have presaged the French new wave with her first film, La Pointe Courte, long before creating one of the movement’s benchmarks, Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7). Later, with Le bonheur and Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), Varda further shook up art-house audiences, challenging bourgeois codes with her inscrutable characters and offering effortlessly beautiful compositions and editing. Now working largely as a documentarian, Varda remains one of the essential cinematic poets of our time and a true visionary.

49th Parallel


Synopsis: 

At once a compelling piece of anti-isolationist propaganda and a quick-witted wartime thriller, 49th Parallel is a classic early work from the inimitable British filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. When a Nazi U-boat crew, headed by the ruthless Eric Portman, is stranded in Canada during the thick of World War II, the men evade capture by hiding out in a series of rural communities, before trying to cross the border into the still-neutral United States. Both soul-stirring and delightfully entertaining, 49th Parallel features a colorful cast of characters played by larger-than-life actors Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, and Leslie Howard.

¡Alambrista!


Synopsis:


In ¡Alambrista!, a Mexican farmworker sneaks across the border to California to make money to send to his family back home. It is a story that happens every day, told here in an uncompromising, groundbreaking work of realism from American independent filmmaker Robert M. Young. Vivid and spare where other films about illegal immigration might sentimentalize, Young’s take is equal parts intimate character study and gripping road movie, a political work that never loses sight of the complex man at its center. ¡Alambrista!, winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s inaugural Caméra d’Or in 1978, remains one of the best films ever made on this perennially relevant topic.



It's too bad that those three I couldn't find in the library - they seem so interesting.

If any of you are in on the Criterion Challenge with me, let me know if you'll be checking out any of these films from this list. Or if you're creating a 10 list of your own, link me so I can see what you're watching for this month of the challenge. :)

Vanessa

2 comments:

  1. Forgive me if this comment shows up twice. I thought I'd posted it, but then it didn't show up. Just wanted to mention that I've seen '12 Angry Men' and found it to be totally riveting. My husband, who doesn't like old black and white movies, was completely engrossed, too. Just goes to show how much solid acting and a good script can accomplish. No huge budget or CGI needed!

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    1. YES! 12 Angry Men is that classic example of just how powerful a story can be with the "less is more" concept. I'm glad your husband loved it! It's hard not to be riveted by it. I've seen it many times, and I'm still hooked as if it were the first time :).

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