Film Feature: Best of the 2018 Criterion Collection Crop

By Matt Hanson

Criterion will start its own streaming service early next year, and signups for charter membership have commenced.

A scene from Kenji Mizoguchi’s “A Story from Chikamatsu.”

Through no fault of their own, it’s been a tough year for the Criterion Collection. A couple of months ago, the corporate bastards who control everything decided to abandon Filmstruck, the joint streaming platform of the Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. Vaguely referencing a “niche market” and promising to take “key learnings” into the future, the immense glories of over a hundred years of cinema went dark before their time.

But there’s still hope — Criterion will start their own streaming service early next year, and signups for charter membership have commenced. Hopefully, there will be enough people to keep the channel running smoothly, rising from the ashes. And, of course, there’s always the hard copies of the films — which Criterion excels at as no other. Every release from company is the definitive version of the film that exists, which is a huge blessing for the artists and audience alike.

Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood Box Set
There have been plenty of legendary director/actor pairings in cinema history, but the collaboration between Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg is one of the sexiest. Lovers of a kind in real life (their relationship was explained in more intimate detail in a recent episode of the great movie history podcast You Must Remember This) their onscreen creations were dazzlingly erotic and gleamingly artificial. This set includes Morocco, with Dietrich twisting all known gender roles around her little finger by strutting through an exotic nightclub in a tux and brazenly planting one on the lips of an attractive dancer. And that’s only the beginning of the decade of decadence that followed.

Dead Man
There’s a lot of different terms that critics came up with to describe Jim Jarmusch’s legendary Dead Man when it first arrived in 1995. Some called it an “Anti-Western” or an “acid Western” but whatever label you want to put on it, it’s pure Jarmusch. Johnny Depp plays an accountant who wanders through a surreal Western landscape, encountering compellingly odd characters aplenty: a loquacious Native American fellow who is convinced that he is the poet William Blake, Iggy Pop in drag, Alfred Molina as an evangelical gun salesman, and Robert Mitchum as a grizzled sheriff of an outlaw town. Throw in a beautifully haunting Neil Young soundtrack, and you’ve got a film that casts a spell on you like no other.

A Raisin in the Sun
I admit I might be a bit biased choosing this, because I’ve taught the play several times, but having read the text probably half a dozen times I can say with all confidence that the story still sizzles. Lorraine Hansberry knew this story about a black family from Chicago’s South Side trying to figure out what to with their father’s life insurance check as well as she knew her own kin. Sidney Poitier is electric as the tormented Walter, who is riven by his high-class aspirations and the degraded conditions of his daily life. The story of the Younger family is still as painfully relevant as ever, and this movie version of the play that ruled Broadway still crackles with truth, outrage, and love.

A Story from Chikamatsu
In terms of Japanese cinema, everybody knows about the monumental greatness of Kurosawa. Ozu, the poet of the interior life, is probably the second best known outside Japan. But the one who completes this triad is the great Kenji Mizoguchi, auteur behind soul-shattering classics like Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff. Criterion recently released this luminous retelling of a classic Japanese folktale about class, forbidden love, and social hypocrisy that still stings and devastates. I recently showed it to someone who had never seen a Japanese movie before and now he can’t stop talking about it — Mizoguchi is one of the most tragically underrated of all directors, so don’t sleep on this one.

The Princess Bride
If you haven’t seen this before, I really don’t know what to tell you. It was a staple of my childhood, and I’d imagine many others’ as well, and since it was released in the late ’80s it’s fair to say that it has charmed and delighted several generations of kids and parents. The script is the stuff of quirky fairy tales, the acting is fun, the picaresque plot provides oodles of thrills and chills, and the endlessly quotable lines will provide a lifetime’s worth of in-jokes. It’s inconceivable (inconceivable!) that it shouldn’t be seen by extremely intelligent children of all ages.

Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

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