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 August:
Director: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Criterion’s best accomplishments are real-deal restorative works, exercises in presentation second and repair first. That’s Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s masterful Memories of Underdevelopment, one of the greats of Cuban cinema, resuscitated under the delicate hands of L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory and Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográfìcos (ICAIC), funded by The George Lucas Family Foundation and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, facilitated by Filmoteca de la UNAM and Camelia Films. If film is a collaborative medium, as Gutiérrez Alea so firmly believed, then the joint effort to bring Memories of Underdevelopment back from the brink is the ultimate validation.
The film is set in 1961 Havana and stretches into 1962, cementing its events between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis (or, as the Cubans say, “Crisis de Octubre”) as the country’s people either fled to American shores or remained at home in helpless apathy. Our hero, such as he is, is Sergio (Sergio Corrieri), the Cuban counterpart to any number of Fellini characters played by Marcello Mastroianni, smugly contemptuous of everything around him, insufferably handsome, intelligent and informed but content to twiddle his thumbs and let life’s passing parade march on by. Sergio’s life in Havana, a lonely life following the departure of his wife and his parents, unfolds in episodes, each hinging on his involvement and interactions with others left behind. Memories of Underdevelopment is a lonely movie, a movie about the painful experience of watching one’s country fade and decay before your eyes. You’ll empathize with Sergio. You’ll still bristle at his pretensions, even if his pretensions about underdevelopment—his country’s underdevelopment as well as his countrymen’s—prove at least partially true, but to bristle is to be affected by the film’s staggering, evocative power. Memories of Underdevelopment is a major film, and its restoration a major achievement for Criterion and for Cuban culture. —Andy Crump
Director: Susan Seidelman
If Smithereens, a run-and-gun drama about the NYC punk scene in 1982 and the self-absorbed runaway Wray (Susan Berman) stuck in the middle of it, trifles with a predictable narrative, it’s a miracle that it was ever made in the first place, backed by no studio and practically budget-less. Director Susan Seidelman captures a raw, docudrama approach that suits the dingy New York characters and locations, never quite judging or condoning Wray’s narcissistic behavior, her script clearly fit from a “fall of the female delinquent” melodrama mold already well-used by (and subverted, as in Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss) by the early eighties. Smithereens may exist as more of a cultural and historical artifact than a fresh find, but Criterion presents a terrific A/V transfer for fans. The edition’s 1080p Blu-ray retains the grain and heavy contrast of the film stock without much digital scrubbing, accompanied by some great extras, two of Seidelman’s ’70s short films. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Robert M. Young
As much a high-stakes, adventurous western as it is a procedural, intent on sucking all the romance out of the genre, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is a subtle marvel of independent filmmaking, filling a pleasantly liminal space, between realism and allegory, between folktale and documentary. As dreamy as it can get, its truth is even more captivating, in that director Robert M. Young wields cinema verite tactics to tell a fictionalized, mythologized version of something that happen just less than 80 years before, seemingly on the edge of (American) civilization. More than 30 years after the film’s release, the film’s aesthetic feels pretty much indelible to independent, low-budget cinema, but The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, upon release, was a quietly inspiring catalyst, pushing the already burgeoning Chicano film movement into the mainstream and serving as an important political statement simply by existing. Charles Ramirez Berg writes in his essay for the Criterion Collection’s edition:
Every version and descendent of the ballad—the original song, the variants of it that appeared over time, the book about it published more than half a century later, and, finally, the film based on the book—was in one way or another a work of community activism. Each one followed a similar pattern of an outsider minority group finding a mediated method of filling in the gaps or elbowing its way into the mainstream establishment’s discourse.
Edward James Olmos, who collaborated closely with Young on most aspects of movie, plays Cortez, a Mexican American farmer on the run from Texas lawmen after a confrontation between him and Sheriff Morris (Timothy Scott) quickly goes south. According to the Texas Rangers hot on Cortez’s hooves, their version of events sides with Boone Choate (Tom Bower), interpreter and cocky drunk, whose reputation diminishes over the course of the film. Young takes care to show us how both Boone and Cortez remember what happened, the Spanish spoken by Cortez and his family members never subtitled, leaving those in the audience who can’t understand as understandably stranded and confused as the trigger-happy officers bringing tragedy to Cortez’s home. Intuitively breaking timelines into images and notions of information, Young pieces the whole story together with as much clarity as he can manage, more interested in building tension, mimicking the fogginess inherent in creating history, crafting a deeply felt portrait of the fabled farmer come folk hero, respecting both the myth and the man.
Olmos’s vision of Cortez, humane but outraged, always on the verge of emotional exhaustion, plus like five percent befuddled by everything that’s happened, just completely vanquished by the world, which he knows will go on without him once he’s gone, as if he never mattered—hoo boy, the guy can act. Young and the actor seem to know exactly what they want, and what they want seems to be the same film. That kind of seamless collaboration fits the film they created together: From multiple angles comes a wealth of conflicting feelings, all eventually cohering into an overwhelming dramatic experience. —Dom Sinacola