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, here are our top picks for the month of February:
Director: Michael Curtiz
It’s common in film noir to observe people doing things they oughtn’t for the sake of, say, the acquisition of wealth, or maybe the pursuit of power. In Mildred Pierce, oft-referred to as a “domestic noir,” that convention is applied to a far simpler and more universal ambition—love, specifically the love of one’s children. The title character, a woman propped up by a sturdier backbone than any man in the cast, labors endlessly while climbing the social ladder three rungs at a time just to provide a better life for her daughters, spoiled and selfish Veda (Ann Blyth) and the tomboyish Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), only to learn the hard way that money really doesn’t buy you love. The clash of gender roles, represented by Mildred’s determination to succeed and by her male peers’ insistence on coasting (or loafing), is the intellectual stuff of the film, but sans Joan Crawford’s stunning lead performance, Mildred Pierce might be remembered very differently in movie history; she suffuses the mundanity of Mildred’s life and circumstances with her astronomical star power, validating Mildred as an everyday woman capable of extraordinary achievements.
This is very much Crawford’s movie, all compliments to director Michael Curtiz’s craft aside, and Criterion recognizes as much: The Blu-ray disc includes Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, an hour and a half documentary from 2002 that feels like an essential companion piece for the movie that revitalized her career in the 1940s. —Andy Crump
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown put Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar on the international map. Part melodrama, part dark-yet- screwball comedy, the film tells the story of Pepa (Carmen Maura), whose suicide attempt is interrupted, with bizarre and hilarious consequences and an investigation of the human, and particularly female, psyche. A rivetingly directed ensemble cast (including Antonio Banderas) and lush visual style make this film every bit as compelling as it was in 1988. Criterion’s new Blu-Ray release features a new 2K digital restoration overseen by the director (and executive producer Agustin Almodovar), 2.0 surround DTS Master Audio soundtrack (with alternate 5.1 soundtrack presented in DTS-HD master Audio) and new English subtitle translation. There are also interviews with Pedro Almodovar,
Agustin Almodovar and Carmen Maura, a discussion of the film’s impact by film scholar Richard Pena, and an essay by novelist and critic Elvira Lindo. —Amy Glynn
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
Director: Ermanno Olmi
While it is tempting to describe Ermanno Olmi’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs as “the kind of film they don’t make anymore,” it’s just not the case. Rather, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is the kind of film too few of us are willing to watch anymore. And that’s a damn shame. Anyone who is willing to share the requisite 187 minutes with Olmi’s nonrealistic, turn-of-the-20th-century Italian peasant families will be a better person for it—and not because the film is heavy-handed or at all didactic.
The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a meditation on human empathy, a patient film that never once slouches into maudlin sentiment or religious zeal (though it is one of the most deeply Christian movies I’ve ever seen). With deliberate echoes of Vittorio De Sica’sBicycle Thieves, The Tree of Wooden Clogs’ final hour is heartbreaking … and doggedly hopeful. In Olmi’s view, there are no tragedies, only lives in the living, communities found and lost.
The new Criterion 4K restoration ofThe Tree of Wooden Clogs is one of the series’ best to date, with a hauntingly beautiful new color grade supervised by Ermanno Olmi himself. The film shimmers in luminous grey-blues and greens, with hopeful pops of yellow, orange, and red sneaking in on occasion to brighten the TV-scaled frame. (The Tree of Wooden Clogs was originally produced for Italian television, then released theatrically.) This is a must-have disc for any collection—a tragically overlooked/forgotten masterpiece of 1970’s world cinema. —Chris White
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Pieced together from outtakes from the long-time documentary filmmaker/cinematographer’s extensive body of work, Kirsten Johnson forgoes the safety net of voiceover narration—and mostly of even showing herself—to tie all the footage together in the 2016 documentary Cameraperson. The footage speaks for itself, and for her. Which is not to say that the film is just a compilation of clips strung together willy-nilly. Johnson breathes an animating intelligence into Cameraperson’s construction, employing a method that suggests a mind processing one’s life experiences, contemplating the sum total of her work, veering off into tangents whenever she happens upon a piece of footage that triggers broader reflections. Though most of the film is built out of snippets of footage introduced by a title card indicating where it was shot, she’ll occasionally, suddenly lead into montages bound together by theme. the impression all of these clips in toto is of a life fully lived, of an artist who has seen much in her life and wants to share all she has learned with the rest of the world. But Cameraperson adds up to so much more than just a personal remembrance. Johnson has spent much of her career dealing with subjects related to political activism and human rights—she was, after all, the cinematographer of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Laura Poitras’s The Oath and Citizenfour, among many other films—and peeking through the essayistic qualities of her film is an implicit political stance: a humane focus on individual rights and a healthy skepticism toward people in power. Cameraperson is, in some ways, an activist documentary in the guise of a memoir.
This director-approved edition includes a new high-definition digital master; a roundtable between the director, producer Gini Reticker and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp; excerpts from film festival discussions (including one with Johnson and filmmaker Michael Moore); and a program called Editing Cameraperson, featuring Johnson, producers Marilyn Ness and Danielle Varga, and editors Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws. Add the trailer, Johnson’s 2015 short film Above and some additional essays and writings by Johnson and others, and it’s easy to understand why “definitive” and “Criterion” are synonymous. —Kenji Fujishima and Michael Burgin