Each month, the Paste staff brings you a look at the best new selections from the Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, The Criterion Collection 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 February:
Night of the Living Dead
Director: George A. Romero
George A. Romero’s harrowingly realistic masterpiece Night of The Living Dead may have single-handedly invented the zombie genre, but it still dominates a formidable chunk of the pop culture conversation 50 years after its release. Romero and a bunch of his buddies from his Pittsburgh-based commercial film company scrounged up enough dough to film a low-budget horror flick about a group of strangers struggling to survive the night after an army of the undead try their best to turn them into human sashimi. With complete creative control, the crew was able to display a then-extreme level of gore and cast an African-American actor (Duane Jones) as the protagonist without having to change a single word in the screenplay in order to reference his race. The film’s depiction of a black man taking charge in a heavily stressful environment, acting like the only adult in a room full of terrified and irrational white people, alluded positively to the civil rights movement, yet for Romero, the casting decision was based solely on the fact that Jones was the best actor they could get. Aside from the many symbolic tags audiences have placed on Night, the film works primarily as an intimately direct tale of survival—all sub-plots and character arcs directly connect to the single goal of finding any way possible to not get eaten—and the black and white docudrama-like cinematography infuses Romero’s narrative with the eerie look of a newsreel, making the terror feel that much more palpable.
Because of a silly copyright mistake, Night has been available through the public domain for decades, leading to a horde of home video releases with terrible quality. Criterion’s HD edition, transferred from a gorgeous 4K resolution, is a feast for the eyes: With amazing contrast, grain and black levels, it’s crisp and clear. Add to that a bevy of extras, like the work print version of the film and some valuable vintage interviews with Romero, and Criterion has compiled the ultimate home video presentation for which fans have been waiting. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Elevator to the Gallows
Director: Louis Malle
Prior to reinventing filmic language with their playful genre experiments, the members of France’s New Wave movement got their start as film critics. In fact, it was through their writings and discussions that the term “film noir” was first christened as a means of describing a certain breed of brooding postwar films. It’s not surprising then that Louis Malle—though not an official New Wave member—would settle on a noir-influenced project as his first feature film. Acting both as an homage to and a subversion of the noir structure, Elevator to the Gallows stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as a pair of criminals whose plan to kill Florence Carala’s (Moreau) husband quickly falls apart when the Ronet character gets stuck in an elevator. This already absurd concept becomes all the more confounding when paired with the Malle’s unorthodox, experimental editing and the film’s somber jazz score, performed by none other than Miles Davis. —Mark Rozeman
The Silence of the Lambs
Director: Jonathan Demme
The camera hugs her face, maybe trying to protect her, though she needs no protection, and maybe just trying to see into her, to see what she sees, to understand why seeing what she sees is so important. Not even 30, Jodie Foster looks so much younger, surrounded in The Silence of the Lambs by men who tower over her, staring at her, flummoxed by her, perhaps wanting to protect her too, but more likely, more ironically, intimidated by a world that would allow such a fragile creature agency, that would let her freely wander the domain of monsters. As Clarice Starling, FBI agent-in-training, Foster holds her performance in suspension, an innocent who’s seen more than any of us could ever imagine, and a warrior who seems unsure of her prowess. That Jonathan Demme—a director who came up under the tutelage of Roger Corman; a journeyman capable of helming the greatest concert film ever made (Stop Making Sense) as adroitly as a screwball thriller/rom-com (Something Wild), adopting then immediately shedding genres at whim—corners Starling within the confines of a “Woman in Peril,” only to watch her shrug off every label thrown at her, is a testament to The Silence of the Lambs as a feminist masterpiece, not because it so thoroughly inhabits a female point of view, but because its violence and fear is clearly the stuff of masculine toxicity. Demme’s film is only the second to adapt Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector novels to the screen (the first being Michael Mann’s hyper-stylized Manhunter, a brutal dream unto itself), but it’s the first to draw undeniable lines between the way men see Clarice Starling and the way that serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) projects his neuroses onto his victims.
Harris obviously has a fascination with the idea of “seeing” and how that manifests maliciously in those whose self-perception is already mangled by traumatic experiences, but Demme’s film is the only iteration of Harris’s stories which links seeing to transformation to one’s need to consume, all pursued through a gendered lens, represented by the seemingly omniscient perspective of Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), a borderline asexual cannibal who literally consumes those over whom he holds court. Buffalo Bill is a monster, and so is Lector, but the difference is that Lector does not attempt to possess Clarice Starling, though he sees her, because he is past transformation, is in control of that which he consumes. Buffalo Bill isn’t, because as a man he believes that by consuming femininity he can become it, too stupid and too self-absorbed to realize that to consume it is to delete that femininity—to admit that the world is a dangerous, predatory place, and that to protect a woman is only a matter of admitting that the World of Men is a weak and evil failure of the very ideals it strives to preserve. —Dom Sinacola