Best of Criterion’s New Releases, March 2019Images via the Criterion Collection/Sam Smith Movies Lists Criterion Collection
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 March, and, hey, maybe sign up for Criterion’s just-announced Criterion Channel, coming in only a few days.
Director: Barbara Loden
As pure an example of auteurism as one might find in cinema, and as unapologetic a portrait of self-disintegrating American identity as one might find in the 1970s, Barbara Loden’s undersung Wanda now rightly occupies space on the shelves of the Criterion Collection among countless other masterpieces. Criterion’s lack of women represented among the cinephilic sausage party conga line sashaying throughout its archives is well-documented, and Wanda, admittedly, is just one new title among a scant few architected by female directors. Yet, Wanda is all the same a major acquisition, a watershed entry in America’s indie cinema movement from decades past: The film functions like a middle finger raised and aimed straight at the slick studio product churned out during its heyday, liberated from the formulaic constraints imposed on such films. It’s a sovereign work of art.
Maybe that’s too generous a characterization, given that Wanda’s title character is hardly ever bothered enough to take such meager action as removing her hair rollers before going to divorce court. This is not a woman to root for or take pride in or glean any sort of feminist message from, but a woman deprived of purpose, or—maybe put more accurately—robbed of purpose. Or maybe she has relinquished purpose of her own volition, because Wanda doesn’t live in a world that gives half a goddamn about women when they don’t fit into traditional gender roles molded for them by a society curated and governed predominantly by men.
Loden’s work in the lead role is hypnotically unmoored, her writing nearly dreamlike in its atmospheric depression, her filmmaking grainy, sharp-edged, in a movie that’s liable to leave knicks and scrapes all over its audience the closer they get to it. How much of Wanda’s plot, such as it has one, shaped by her abusive relationship with career asshole Elia Kazan, is a question no one will ever know an answer to. Loden died of breast cancer in 1980, ten years after Wanda announced her as a vital voice in American cinema. She’s the kind of filmmaking talent the culture looks for and embraces in 2019, and the kind that, nearly 50 years after the fact, we still rarely get to observe. —Andy Crump
The Kid Brother
Director: Ted Wilde
Sage wisdom dictates that laughter’s the best medicine. If sage wisdom stands to scrutiny, then the best medicine of all is Ted Wilde’s The Kid Brother, arguably the best Harold Lloyd film ever made. (Allowing for argument is generous, because there’s not much of an argument to make to the contrary.) Lloyd knows how to make ‘em laugh. He’s so good at it that Wilde and screenwriter Howard J. Green both feel like footnotes, names that must be credited for propriety’s sake but which shrink under the shadow of Lloyd’s legend. Maybe another actor could have made the Lloyd character—Harold Hickory, a nerdy beanpole hick straight out of Hickoryville—work; maybe another actor could have given Harold the proper levels of aptitude and ineptitude, strength and meekness, with a surplus of sweetness, but 92 years later, the movies might not have remembered that person as well as they remember Lloyd.
The mechanized comic genius of Lloyd’s shtick never rusts out, never actually feels mechanical. He’s an effortless font of ingenuity; viewers giggle at Harold’s low key resourceful genius out of endearment, and guffaw at his confrontations with The Kid Brother’s stereotypical male element because it’s so much fun watching him outsmart his brawny brothers, his macho sheriff father, his arch-nemesis, Hank Hooper (Ralph Yearsley). Maybe he’s easy to root for because he’s innately lovable. Maybe he’s easy to root for because the strongman types he has to triumph over are such neanderthals that it’s impossible not to root for him. Or maybe he’s just easy to root for because of his immense facility for drawing snickers and snorts from an audience. —Andy Crump
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Director: Robert Zemeckis
In the prologue to I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Ed Sullivan (Will Jordan) warns his crew that this performance, The Beatles’ iconic 1964 performance on the host’s show, won’t be like anything they’ve seen before: “I want you to be prepared for excessive screaming, hysteria, hyperventilation, fainting, fits, seizures, spasmodic convulsions, even attempted suicides. All perfectly normal. Merely means that these youngsters are enjoying themselves.” This quick monologue perfectly encapsulates how there wasn’t any precedent at the time for the hysteria that surrounded the first steps of the British Invasion. Co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis, with his first feature, does an admirable job recreating this manic tone through his teen characters getting into all kinds of shenanigans to get close to the Fab Five. One, like Wendie Jo Sperber’s die-hard fan Rosie, faints at the mere thought of getting close to Paul McCartney. Then there were naysayers like Bobby DiCicco’s Tony, who thinks the British Invasion is the end of rock as they know it. A nostalgic throwback to ’60s youth culture, and an ensemble comedy that takes place during a single day to boot, I Wanna Hold Your Hand can’t deny comparisons to American Graffitti. (Even in an interview found in Criterion’s edition, Zemeckis, producer Steven Spielberg and co-writer/producer Bob Gale call their film the cousin to George Lucas’ classic.) Yet, because Gale and Zemeckis were as much into Looney Tunes as they were into The Beatles, they manage to distance themselves with a zanier, slapstick-heavier tone. The new HD transfer supports great clarity on the video side, but it’s the lossless 5.1 surround track that should satisfy Beatles fans. The supplements to be found on this edition are plenty, but it’s the aforementioned casual 40-minute conversation between Zemeckis, Gale and Spielberg that’s almost as valuable as the film itself. —Oktay Ege Kozak
The Magic Flute
Director: Ingmar Bergman
With The Magic Flute, master Ingmar Bergman figured out a way to showcase a filmed play, a wholly cinematic fare and a visual treatise on the importance of the communal artistic experience all within the same project. A faithful adaptation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s fantastical opera, the whimsical story of a prince (Josef Kostlinger) rescuing a princess (Irma Urrila) from an evil priest (Ulrik Cold) using the titular instrument for protection, The Magic Flute was produced for Swedish television in 1975. It was a massive ratings success, leading to worldwide theatrical release.
Bergman begins, as he has before, in introspection, with an overture that emphasizes the soothing effect great art has on its audience, focusing entirely on close-up faces belonging to various ages, genders and races all enthralled with expectation as they’re about to take on this magical adventure. The film’s set design is minimal and intimate, while static wide shots introduce each scene in a way that captures the theater audience’s point-of-view. Bergman then seamlessly transitions into a much more subjectively cinematic style, allowing the TV audience to fluidly get close to the performances through dolly shots, zooms and extreme close-ups, capturing every intonation of the performances. This triplet of styles allows us to contemplate the audience experience, to then see their experience and then to become intimate spectators of the performance the way a theater audience couldn’t. Likewise, Criterion’s HD transfer does great justice to the film’s exuberant colors, transporting us to Mozart’s fantasyland, but fans will get a greater kick out of the spectacular lossless stereo track demonstrating incredible range. The Criterion edition’s extras are solid, as expected, like a vintage TV interview with Bergman, but it’s the hour-long fly-on-the-wall making-of documentary that really seals the deal on getting a hold of this package. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
A Poverty Row staple with an unknown cast peering into the post-war dark night of the soul, Detour has come to embody the best film noir has to offer—namely, that budget and schedule concerns indirectly enriched the artistic product, paring down a weightier script and even more bloated source novel into a precise, exquisitely sharp bit of storytelling economy. Trapped within the sweaty mind of always-broke jazz pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) as he heads West from New York to settle down with his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), a symbol of stable life for Roberts who absconded with his heart to try to “make it” in Hollywood, we’re stuck with only the unlucky guy’s version of events throughout his increasingly desperate trip. After all, his hitchhiking journey seems doomed to fail from the start, but it grows damn near bleak with the accidental cadaver-ing of a gregarious Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) following a whirlwind buddy meet-cute, and then completely hopeless with the introduction of Vera (Ann Savage), an iconic femme fatale who doesn’t have to try hard to ensnare Roberts, by that point so far out of his league he’s got his pants pulled up well past his nipples. As much an efficient encapsulation of its genre as it is a noir drowning entirely within its own hell-bent nightmare, Detour is most impressive for how gracefully Ulmer can get the most out of so little. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Carlos Reygadas
With Japón, Carlos Reygadas begs us along—on the journey of the mind into which a man, his main character played by Alejandro Ferretis, delves, gathering the courage to, as we quickly and bluntly learn, commit suicide. But we’re also required to walk with this man, to get used to the slow and stunted rhythm of his gait, over treacherous rocky terrain usually and aided by a cane. As well, we’re asked to walk with Ascen (Magdalena Flores), the old woman with whom the man stays while on his existential journey toward death, as she does thankless chores and, more often, shuffles uphill at a snail’s pace. (He name is short for “Ascención,” or for the day of Jesus’s infamous floating up to Heaven.) From the film’s first moments we even find ourselves traveling, from the traffic of Mexico City by car to the hardscrabble canyon country of a small village by foot, DP Diego Martínez Vignatti’s camera taking the first person perspective of the man as he matriculates into rural life, each shot carefully orchestrated and storyboarded beforehand by Reygadas, his penchant for subjectivity so masterful even in his first film. Rather than ponder only the turmoil within the man as he may or may not be finding reasons to live, Reygadas wants us to experience the effort of all of that moving. If one isn’t lulled by the oneiric pace of Reygadas’s films, then one will surely get tired out by watching people doing so much serious cardio. The physicality of life, Japón seems to intone, can be too exhausting a spectacle for one solitary human to endure.
In her wonderful essay included within Criterion’s edition (bolstered by Sam Smith’s beautiful design), Valeria Luiselli writes, “There is always an ambivalence in Reygadas’s work as to whether landscape and geography are the backdrop against which human stories play out, or whether those stories function as the background for the much greater tragicomedy of the natural world.” Into the worn out and lived in bodies of Reygadas’s film we’re immersed so that we can understand, with these characters, just what guides us in this life. What pushes these fleshy husks through this world of fleshy husks. Though at one point, Ascen stares at her hands in quiet dismay, then later tells the man she’s not find of her arms, the most intimate scenes in the film occur when Ascen and the man clasp hands. The same hands Ascen works raw scrubbing blood from the man’s shirt, or brings together trembling to pray to her white Jesus picture, or uses to serve the men who are literally pulling down her home stone by stone, violating her domesticity, all because Ascen’s asshole nephew flaunts his claim to those stones. Reygadas’s work feels like work, even when it is fundamentally at peace, which is the kind of truth only a filmmaker as naturally aligned as Reygadas could ever so casually stumble upon. —Dom Sinacola