Best of Criterion’s New Releases, February 2019

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Best of Criterion’s New Releases, February 2019

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, check out some of our top titles this February, and, hey, maybe sign up for Criterion’s just-announced Criterion Channel, coming in April. One of the titles below is currently their “Movie of the Week,” a title they’re sharing every week until the Channel’s premiere:

to-sleep-with-anger-criterion-movie-poster.jpgTo Sleep with Anger
Year: 1990
Director: Charles Burnett
Charles Burnett’s serio-comic masterwork opens with a dream sequence and ends with an image that’s entirely too real: The body of a black American man prone on the ground, his dignity simultaneously kept and undermined by the sheet covering him from the eyes of the living. If you thought the Ferguson Police Department’s neglect of Michael Brown’s corpse back in 2014 was a new image, you thought wrong; authorities have left black bodies to rot for hours on end since always. At least in To Sleep with Anger, the body happens to be indoors instead of out on the street.

The body belongs to a major ne’er do well, too, not so bad that death’s a fair price for his misdoing but bad enough that no one in the film truly grieves. The true reason to grieve for the incorrigible Harry (Danny Glover) is his postmortem treatment. At the same time, his death finally reunites the family fractured by his presence throughout To Sleep with Anger’s episodic narrative. Harry’s arrival on the doorstep of Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) realizes the portents of doom Burnett casts at the start of the film, a hazy scene that would feel right at home in Twin Peaks: Gideon, dressed handsomely in a powder blue suit, sits calmly by a fruit bowl that bursts into flames, giving no reaction as they engulf him. Harry doesn’t set Gideon on fire, but his devotion to older ways nevertheless burns his family.

To Sleep with Anger creates a multifaceted portrait of a black American family and black American life, the kind we see today in the films of Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler and Dee Rees. It’s a pioneering work in keeping with Burnett’s career spent opening doors and blazing trails for black Americans in the film industry, and its addition to the Criterion Collection as a piece of history and as one of Burnett’s best movies reaffirms its essential status. —Andy Crump

Year: 1968
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Included in Criterion’s recently released Bergman boxset—stacked heroically with the director’s trench-deep oeuvre—Shame is also part of the Farö trilogy, released between Hour of the Wolf (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969), all starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, Bergman’s muses to the extent that he seemed to trust them to inhabit wildly different personas with sublimely similar settings, all filmed on the Swedish island. A story of two musicians, a married couple, who’ve fled an unnamed civil war in their unnamed home country by embracing isolationism on a small farm, Bergman resists providing any historical anchors to their untethering love for one another, instead subjecting them to the small tragedies of war, watching their affection picked away until all the have is a kind of functional dependence, a desperate substitute for the bond they once shared. At one point, Ullmann’s character describes their situation as feeling like “someone else’s dream.” As much as Shame seems to demand context, the film rejects it, focused more simply on the inescapably dehumanizing nature of war, a surreality the film makes as visceral as it can before dissolving into uncertainty, as if it’s waking from a quiet nightmare. —Dom Sinacola

la-verite-criterion-movie-poster.jpgLa vérité
Year: 1960
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
The so-called “French Hitchcock,” his popularity waning in the wake of the New Wave, crafts a courtroom melodrama interrogating the mechanisms of that popularity. As formalist and finely tuned as any of the tense thrillers he’d released through the Nazi-occupied ’40s—The Murderer Lives at Number 21 and La Corbeau—and post-war ’50s—Les Diaboliques and The Wages of Fear especially, tinged with politics but only if you’re looking for them—La vérité more overtly pits its protagonist between societal systems she’ll never be able to survive, as well as the film itself navigates between traditional cinematic storytelling and whatever the New Wave, both banks, was up to. Much of that in between was embodied in Brigitte Bardot playing Dominique, the tragic youth whose passions for life, noble and salacious alike, meant she wasn’t long for this world. On trial for the murder of her lover Gilbert (Sami Frey), Dominique is a woman as adept at demonstrating control as she is withering in defeat, lovesick and delirious. When she first seduces Gilbert, a complete stranger, she’s naked in bed, dancing to some non-classical, and therefore risque, record by thrusting her hips into the mattress, Armand Thirard’s camera as hypnotized by Bardot’s curves as the man she’d eventually murder. The director of photography, and director too, and audience even—all are unable to keep from judging her, judging Dominique but Bardot too, in such a moment of sexual domination. Coupled with Bardot’s burgeoning superstardom and tabloid presence, fact and fiction blur seamlessly in La vérité, the name of the film an unfunny punchline to a plot steeped in the biases and social structures that ensure Dominique’s fate’s been sealed since birth. The truth, Clouzot seems to say, is less about what really happened (because we learn plenty of details about exactly what occurred) and more about what’s squeezed out of what happened under severe—unfair—scrutiny. And maybe he meant to say that about film as well: If Truffaut and Godard thought Clouzot too tied to tradition, too much an old hand whose time passed, La vérité is Clouzot’s response. Just because you admit a film isn’t true, over and over and over, doesn’t mean you’re somehow any closer to the truth. —Dom Sinacola

death-in-venice-criterion-movie-poster.jpgDeath in Venice
Year: 1971
Director: Luchino Visconti
In Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, obsession with love, or an idea of it, plagues ailing composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who, in Italy, spies young Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), a perfect approximation of beauty in von Aschenbach’s eyes. Tadzio charms the every adult, but von Ausenbach’s got Tadzio under his skin. All the while, the world may be crumbling around him, a mysterious disease forcing everyone in Venice to flee, but von Aschenbach can’t bear to part from the physical manifestation of his intellectual preoccupations with beauty, youth, art and perfection. If no other person listens to one of his pieces, he will at least be the final audience member to what Venus promised.

The most important audience member in all of this, in discerning beauty—being taunted and toyed by it—is us. What beauty is, what it can be, is frequently presented in queer cinema in a rather de facto manner. Watching Call Me By Your Name, one should automatically find the slender, milky-skinned and Cherubic face of Timothee Chalamet a version of the Platonic ideal, or, if not him, then his opposite, Armie Hammer. Even the title cards make a promise to explore the implications of queer beauty, including the remains of statues relevant to Elio’s father’s academic work. But it is a promise broken. In films with less self-awareness about the politics of male beauty and desire, from Love, Simon to I Killed My Mother to GBF, there is a presumption that we will find whom the film deems beautiful to also be beautiful, fitting a particular criteria that need not be explicitly stated. Which is not to say that any of those films are bad per se, but that they are decidedly uninterested in challenging or, at least, poking holes in the dream of someone, something beautiful.

In Death in Venice is an ideal and an extreme of mythologized beauty. Visconti asserts beauty as androgynous, prepossessed, to exist temporally in opposition to all that surrounds it. Andrésen’s golden locks and coquettish glances exude innocence and the promise that time can stop, or maybe even that the beauty of one’s past can be captured again. The film supposes that to be beautiful and to desire that same beauty is painful, arresting, capable of bringing someone, including the beautiful themselves, down to their knees. The warning signs are all around von Aschenbach, as Venice is washed in unbearably odorous disinfectant, turning the lime-colored streets into a pale, puke-like white-ish green. Even when the city is on fire, he continues to trail Tadzio and his family. Beauty, the obsession with it and quest for it, only leads to self-destruction. —Kyle Turner / Full Article

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