Each month, Paste brings you a look at the best new selections from the Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, Criterion has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here. In the meantime, because chances are you may be looking for something to give the discerning (raises pinkie) cinephile this month, find all of our Criterion picks here, and check out some of our top titles this September:
My Man Godfrey
Director: Gregory La Cava
Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey is kind of like a proto-Le Dîner de Cons—or Dinner for Schmucks—except that My Man Godfrey is really good and neither the latter nor the former film measure up to it. (Because Le Dîner de Cons is coarse, condescending trash, too.) La Cava’s inroads to skewering the upper crust is through the upper crust itself: The film takes its outsider protagonist, Godfrey “Smith” Parke (William Powell), who’s not an outsider at all but a man in exile from high society’s bosom, and inserts him into circumstances where he’s the sanest, sharpest man in the room. Rich people are wild. That’s the film’s subtext, or just its text, because Godfrey’s charges, the members of the family Bullock, are either completely out of their gourds or stuffed headfirst up their own asses. They’d have to be, perhaps, to mistake him for a vagrant when he’s actually a member of the elite class just like they are. They’d also have to be observant and considerably less self-absorbed to make these fine distinctions.
La Cava has fun with the scenario, as does Powell, and as does the rest of the cast, in particular Carole Lombard, playing young Irene, who falls head over heels for Godfrey, blithely unconcerned with his disinterest, and Gail Patrick as the daffy Mrs. Bullock, full of unfettered, dizzying joy. Dizziness, of course, is a requirement. Films like My Man Godfrey, screwball joints that move at a laugh-a-minute pace, demand the exhaustion of their viewers, and La Cava wears us out as surely as he delights us. —Andy Crump
Director: Olivier Assayas
Olivier Assayas—famed French “auteur,” to the point that the word is practically incantatory in describing his continued international success (he also, coincidentally, was a critic for Cahiers du Cinema)—has always been concerned with identity, as theoretically weak and all too broad as that may sound. And yet, in Carlos, in Clouds of Sils Maria, in Personal Shopper, to name a recent few, Assayas’s often young and beautiful (or once young but still dependent upon the beauty of youth) protagonists seem lost in the search for their identities, awash amidst the barrage of signifiers and stimuli and modern experiences that dictate—to them, for them—what they should be. Of course, the messages the world sends these people, epistles from the cosmos (or in the case of Kristen Stewart’s character from Personal Shopper, literal text messages sent by, maybe, a ghost) are mostly vague, even contradictory.
For Cold Water, his fifth film, Assayas looked back on his formative years to glimpse a few days with two teens, two lovers, caught between the lives they’re expected to lead and the lives they want to lead—if they could figure out what that means. Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet) rooms comfortably with his grandmother, father and little brother, financially supported and treated maturely, which means his ennui weighs heavily on his 17-year-old shoulders. He buys sticks of dynamite from a kid at school to give to his brother, for no discernible reason, Assayas simply observing the menacing potential of what he’s doing without observing Chekov’s rules. He slices up bus seats because he doesn’t know how else to direct his amorphous anger. He steals LPs with his girlfriend Christine (Virginie Ledoyen) to sell at school but also to impress her, to maybe prove to her that his life isn’t as cushy as she assumes.
Likewise, Christine can’t help but get in trouble, but in contrast to Gilles’ lack of discipline, her father (Jackie Berroyer) callously responds by having her committed to a mental institution, and her mother (Dominique Faysse), a Scientologist, can’t do much to help but fret and confess that she’s an unfortunately facile female figurehead. Christine’s unhinged and reckless, aware of how easily she can both convince and enrage adults, less a bad influence on Gilles as she is proof that his angst is well-founded. The world is out to get her.
This teen drama culminates in the film’s centerpiece, a half-hour party scene at an abandoned chateau, told in long shots and close-ups of young adults subsumed by revelry and popular ’70s rock music. Assayas finds freedom in these moments, in direct opposition to the stolid, fixed views of Christine and Gilles when they’re with adults. Inevitably, Christine wants to run away; Gilles, smitten, will follow. They have no choice when faced with the futures the adults in their lives want for them. Or, at least, Assayas allows them to believe in such urgency, even if the wisdom of all the years since tells him, and tells us, that they’re foolish, that there is always more than one choice. Which isn’t nostalgia in the director, but an exploration of teenage identity, an honest depiction of the immediacy of such young lives filled with such old feelings. It’s beautiful, and it’s brief, a film of lust and despair and passion struggling, sometimes rapturously, just beneath the surface. —Dom Sinacola
A Raisin in the Sun
Director: Daniel Petrie
Opportunity takes different forms depending on who you ask about it. For some, opportunity means securing your present by creating financial stability for yourself, sort of similar to how it’s recommended that you put your own oxygen mask on first before helping fellow passengers. For others, opportunity means securing the future, again either for yourself or for the future in its purest form: the upbringing of the next generation. In A Raisin in the Sun, the Younger family?Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier), Ruth (Ruby Dee), Lena (Claudia McNeil), Beneatha (Diana Sands) and Travis (Stephen Perry)?agonize over how best to spend the $10,000 insurance check left them following the death of Lena’s husband, Walter Lee’s father. Walter Lee wants to sink it into a liquor store for income’s sake, thinking that the investment would help steady the family’s finances. Lena wants to buy a house in accordance with the dream she and her husband had together but never achieved. Ruth sides with Lena, while Beneatha wishes to use the money to pay for tuition for medical school. The back and forth over the fate of the check begins right at the movie’s outset, and sustains it for its duration.
But A Raisin in the Sun isn’t just a movie about dollars and how best to spend them in a family of five, and it certainly isn’t about avarice or greed. It’s about, yes, opportunity, and also about crafting a portrait of Black American life in its era, about the innate struggle of simply being a non-white person in a country set up not to serve your interests. Petrie adapted his movie from Lorraine Hansberry’s stage play of the same name, and hews closely to her original blueprint, knowing that her words, her intellect and his cast can carry the film’s messages. He directs with not caution, but respect, never forgetting that he’s a filmmaker but never allowing his ego to override its vision of America as seen through a Black American lens. He has the director’s credit, but the true storytellers here are his actors. —Andy Crump
Scenes from a Marriage
Director: Ingmar Bergman
For those uninitiated with Bergman’s under-the-microscope dissection of the ups and downs of a marriage over the course of ten years, it’s best to start with the full five-hour TV cut over the three-hour theatrical version, both of which are available in Criterion’s terrific Blu-ray package. Since this was a project that thrived on detail, what we get in those extra two hours distinctly communicates the concept of a marriage, the myriad of joys and conflicts that come with tasking two different people to co-exist within one cerebral body.
A perfect example of truth in advertising, the title of the film delivers on Bergman’s concept: We don’t get a five-hour biography of the sometimes loving, sometimes tumultuous coupling of Swedish intellectuals Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson) with a traditional linear narrative, but instead chunks of real-time interactions over the course of the aforementioned ten years. Bergman seamlessly mixes subtle exposition and the natural disposition of the two against one another at any given time, always allowing a clear picture of what’s happened between scenes, of where the couple stands, emotionally and practically, within any given moment. As these small pieces bring together the bigger picture, the complexity of the concept of marriage, how things can fall apart even if both parties are striving to do their best, becomes a cosmic inevitability.
The 1080p transfer of both cuts remains loyal to Bergman’s hyper-realistic conception of the chamber drama, as Criterion wisely stays away from scrubbing digital grain scrubbing or eliminating certain film noise in order to sustain the docudrama look, while ridding the new transfer of dirt and scratches to present some stunning clarity and detail. If you are upgrading from the original Criterion DVD release from 2004, you won’t find any new extras here, but the ones ported from that set are nevertheless great for newcomers, especially a 2003 interview with the two leads as they dive into detail about Bergman’s techniques of getting natural performances from his actors. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s films do not lend themselves well to modern audiences—besides for their anachronistic runtime (though the Avengers and Fast & Furious franchises might argue otherwise)—because he has little concern for narrative logic, for ostensible plotting, for anything viewers expect from the unspoken rules of cinema. Instead, Tarkovsky lines up scenes “linked by the movement of the idea, which is internally unified,” as he described in an essay in 1962, included in the Criterion package, written in the early stages of conceiving what would eventually be called, simply, Andrei Rublev. Our minds rebel against any less-than-ostensible arcs; Tarkovsky, in turn, gives us more than three hours, in long and unbroken takes, to get accustomed to the unexpected rhythm of his film, to realize that, as he opines, “cinema must be maximally close to life in order to capture its natural flow.” Typically, we are at the mercy of “traditional dramaturgy,” of populist means of storytelling. Instead, Tarkovsky resists: This is not how life works.
Told in seven chapters ranging from small conversations, to exhaustive sequences of violence, to unrelated diversions into other artist’s existential opuses—what Tarkovsky called “novellas” or “episodes”—Andrei Rublev bears the trappings of a biopic in purpose only, which is to discover objectivity within a particular life: This happened, then this other thing happened, and maybe the two are connected? Historical accuracy, though, never concerned the director. Rather, he sought the “dialectic of the personality,” or the truth behind the fifteenth century Russian artist’s creativity. “In our film, there will be not a single shot of Rublev painting his icons,” Tarkovsky wrote. “He will simply live, and he won’t even be present on-screen in every episode.” Andrei Rublev makes good on this assertion, instead using mise-en-scene to dramatize the monk and painter’s inner life, experiencing medieval Russia through not only Rublev’s eyes, but through his emotions and the ways that his experiences reflect his psychological inertia, compelling us toward the film’s final moments: the full-color exploration of his finished icon, the revered Trinity.
This, his second film, then is achingly tactile, its frames flush and teeming with wildlife and coincidence, Tarkovsky providing no pretense that any of it is planned. Life abounds throughout Andrei Rublev, is the structure, if any, through which Tarkovsky limns Rublev’s creative journey and, by extension, the period in which he existed. Though the speech of Tarkovsky’s characters are contemporary, and the art direction casually opposed to veracity, Andrei Rublev’s commitment to the sensuality of its artist’s world is almost unbearable. What’s most surprising might be that Tarkovsky and his cohort exhaustively researched their subject, if only to know what to avoid. Like in the documentaries of Werner Herzog, truth is not unmitigated objectivity, but an honest sense of how the living move through this world, changing it or being changed by it. “The artist, on the strength of his natural sensitivity, is the person who perceives his epoch most profoundly and reflects it most fully,” Tarkovsky began his essay. Andrei Rublev is not a revelation of an artist’s life’s secrets, but an attempt to understand the seemingly boundless depths of that artist’s and that life’s sensitivity. —Dom Sinacola
The Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick
In his big ole windy essay for Criterion’s edition, Kent Jones writes of The Tree of Life as if it is the climax of not just Terrence Malick’s oeuvre, but of filmmaking itself—the art, the physical action, the manifestation of dreams. Undoubtedly, Malick’s fifth film in more than 40 years is a masterful achievement of scale, an outpouring of awe and wonder and existential melancholy which Jones can only compare to the work of directors like Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Robert Bresson and other white, Christian-leaning, cisgender auteurs deemed the truly transcendent cartographers of the great beyond (by people like Jones). It’s a lot to stomach; it’s OK to wonder if Jones has actually seen a movie since 2011.
Still, the majesty of The Tree of Life isn’t in how audaciously it claims the whole of existence as its setting, but in how it juxtaposes, with weight and reverence, two kinds of infinity: the incomprehensibly large and the deeply, intimately small. It’s about the life of Jack, played by Sean Penn as a vacant adult and Hunter McCracken as a quiet boy with the world on his shoulders, that life set against nothing less than the birth and death of the universe—against nothing more than a dream, perhaps, of a man losing his grip on reality. Jack’s mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) “always wrestle within” him, representing the two poles—of grace and nature, respectively—that pull us in opposite directions, forever and ever, amen. Between those two poles is the creation of everything, literalized by Malick over the course of 20-something minutes, rendered in impressionistic glimpses of the cosmos and of dinosaurs stepping on weaker dinosaurs’ faces. And yet, despite all this grandeur, the most moving moments of The Tree of Life are brief and minute: the father mourning his dead son, Jack’s brother, by cursing his own authoritarian, asphyxiating neediness; the father hugging his dead son in the film’s final sequence; the father’s eyes dropping when he hears that his son is dead. The magnanimity of the mother reflects the hard-won empathy of the father; without the hugeness of Malick’s vision, the tiniest bits wouldn’t feel so heart-wrenching.
Of course, the real treasure of Criterion’s release is Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s new extended edition, which adds 50 minutes of previously unseen footage, crafting an entirely different viewing experience. As is the case with the theatrical cut, it’s difficult and entirely useless to describe how one abundance is different from another, though the feeling one derives from this recent version is two-fold. That disparity of scale, between infinities, leans more thoughtfully toward the small in this new version, better justifying the hugeness Malick tries to capture, wrapping the narrative in on itself so that there is only one infinity, the large and the tiny equally mind-boggling. But in adding so much more of Jack’s young life, Malick practically argues against Sean Penn’s inclusion at all. Regardless, the extended edition is just as essential as its earlier incarnation, one inextricable from the other. —Dom Sinacola