Best of Criterion’s New Releases, October 2019

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Best of Criterion’s New Releases, October 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 October, and, hey, maybe sign up for Criterion’s Criterion Channel to stream many of the titles we talk about here.

when-we-were-kings-criterion-cover.jpgWhen We Were Kings
Year: 1996
Director: Leon Gast
This Oscar-winning look at the October 1974 heavweight boxing match between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali is a thrilling document of not only the hype leading up to the event, but the sociopolitical climate in its host nation, Zaire. The capital city of Kinshasa was essentially operating as a police state, the republic at large under Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship, while the Black Power movement was gaining momentum. So the fight, orchestrated by ever-calculating Don King, was more than a cultural event—it encapsulated a pivotal moment in contemporary Black history. So too does Leon Gast’s electrifying portrait, tracing Ali’s return to the ring after his anti-Vietnam stance cost him his title, and characterizing Foreman’s seemingly undefeatable Olympian. That we know now what was then an unthinkable outcome, and yet are still on the edge of our seats, is Gast’s own triumph. His way with the larger-than-life subjects puts into context just how extraordinary “The Rumble in the Jungle” was, with edits and pacing as sharp as Ali’s left hook. —Amanda Schurr

Year: 1987
Director: John Sayles
In an age of blockbusters and CG-enhanced everything, it can be easy to forget how compelling a simple tale well-told can be. Over 30 years after its release—and about the same period of time since I saw it last—the first thing I noticed about Matewan when I returned to it was how hushed it seems. Written and directed by John Sayles, this retelling of the Matewan Massacre—a moment in 1920 when efforts to prevent West Virginia coal miners from forming a union exploded into violence—is in many ways the tale of a long-burning fuse before it consumes the wick entirely and reaches the dynamite. The significant glances and whispered conversations all contribute to the simmering tension. Matewan’s matter-of-fact depiction of life in a non-union “company town” provides a stark history lesson that might seem harshly exaggerated were it not, well, true. But even though the film has its share of moments of high drama, its more populous and more important ones are the quieter exchanges: the moment Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) introduces himself to Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) with a cover story that she sees right through; the careful weighing of options by the Italians, or of the African-American workers led by Few Clothes (James Earl Jones); or the unexpected yet resolute defiance of Sheriff Hatfield (David Strathairn) and the Mayor Testerman (Josh Mostel). The film’s cast, uniformly excellent, will likely trigger more than a few “Wait, I know that actor!” moments of recognition—it’s Cooper’s film debut, boasts a Jones in his Field of Dreams-era prime and McDonnell before Dances with Wolves or Battlestar Galactica. It also features scene-chewing villainy from Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp, and a less chewy but just as dastardly turn from Bob Gunton.

In terms of extras, the Criterion edition of Matewan presents the viewer with what one might consider the usual suspects when it comes to new releases: a 4K digital restoration; some audio commentary from Sayles and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; two new documentaries featuring Sayles, Cooper, McDonnell, Strathairn and Will Oldham (who played Elma’s son, Danny); and a new interview with composer Mason Daring. But even if this release boasted only a director-supervised restoration, it would be well worth the time to visit and revisit. —Michael Burgin

Year: 1922
Director: Benjamin Christensen
A truly unique silent film, Häxan is presented as both a historical documentary and a warning against hysteria, but to a modern audience it plays with a confounding blend of genuine horror and humor, both intentional and not. Director Christensen based his depictions of witch trials on the real-life horrors codified in the Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th century “hammer of witches” used by clergy and inquisitors to persecute women and people with mental illness. The dreamlike—make that nightmarish—dramatization of these torture sequences were almost unthinkably extreme for the time, leading to the film’s banning in the U.S. But put simply: There’s iconography in Häxan that grabs hold of you. Puffy-cheeked devils with long tongues lolling lazily out of their mouths. Naked men and women crawling and cavorting in circles of demons, lining up to literally kiss demonic asses. Scenes of torture straight out of Albrecht Dürer woodcuts or Divine Comedy illustrations. The grainy silence of black and white only makes Häxan more otherworldly to watch today—it feels like some kind of bleak Satanic relic that humankind was never supposed to witness. This is one silent film you won’t want on with children in the room.

Häxan is also an oddball testament to one of the enduring qualities of human nature, which is our tendency to be snarky assholes in our appraisal of previous generations. Christensen’s film often points a finger at the “superstitious” and “religious fanatic” persons of 1922 with a modern sense of cynicism and superiority in its implication that society had long since grown past such things. Obviously, almost 100 years later, we know this is not the case: We’re still deeply informed by the dusty trappings of religion and supernatural superstition, just as Christensen’s contemporaries were. Watching Häxan, then, becomes a different kind of warning: to not think too highly of our own sophistication, or make the assumption that we have in some way evolved from what we once were. People, as it turns out, have always been this way, and may always be. —Jim Vorel

josef-von-sternberg-criterion-cover.jpg3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Years: 1927-1928
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Watching the pictures included in Criterion’s “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” collection means watching the rapid, exacting choreography of silent filmmaking in action and conclusion: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928) all opened within a year of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer, the movie that ushered in the beginning of the silent era’s slow end. Maybe it’s wrong to suggest this von Sternberg trio dropped during the apex of the aesthetic, but grant that, apex or not, they’re all superb.

In 2019, they’re even instructive. There’s a crispness to von Sternberg’s direction across all three, a sense of clockwork precision in blocking, composition and scoring. Should any one of those elements be knocked out of joint, the rest would follow suit. Capturing a shot even as simple to the eye as characters walking through a bar requires timing and planning, and when a film can only rely on visuals to facilitate its narrative, both pieces become exponentially more important. Fist fights that break out in The Docks of New York, where George Bancroft lays out other men as easily as he sucks down hot toddies, could also break down equally as easily on set if one person, whether behind or in front of the camera, is off their mark.

Appreciating the technical skill applied in each movie is a breeze, but falling in love with von Sternberg’s craft is inevitable. From great entertainment to great drama (and, in Underworld as well as The Docks of New York, great George Bancroft performances), “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” perfectly encapsulates the particulars that define silent filmmaking and set it so far apart from the movies that slowly overtook them from 1927 through the 1930s and beyond. —Andy Crump

godzilla-showa-era-criterion-cover.jpgGodzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975
Directors: Ishiro Honda, Jun Fukuda, Yoshimitsu Banno, Motoyoshi Oda
In Ishiro Honda’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), one of our interchangeable human characters watches a game show in which two young boys can meet any celebrity they choose. The boys want to meet Mothra, a benevolent and giant larval moth kaiju revered by a small society of native islanders, introduced in Honda’s Mothra (1961) and again in Mothra vs. Godzilla, released earlier the same year as Ghidorah. Living up to their side of the bargain, the game show hosts call upon the assistance of the Peanuts—fairy-like tiny twin women whose choral songs wake Mothra from her hibernation—to sing for the monster’s presence at the studio. Mothra shows up, somehow. All of this is captured on prime time television.

Waving away the image of grinning pre-pubescents nervously approaching a gargantuan centipedal demigod, the aforementioned character scoffs, “Not my cup of tea.” A man witnesses miracles on his television, and gets bored. After four films set in Toho Studios’ Godzilla MonsterVerse—in which Eastern Asia must cope with the catastrophic likes of not only two previous Godzilla attacks, but the carnage associated with King Kong (Honda’s 1962 King Kong vs. Godzilla) and spiky-shelled Anguirus (introduced in the first Godzilla sequel, Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 Godzilla Raids Again) making it to the Japanese mainland—Honda seems to think that people can get used to anything.

And throughout the first 15 films of Godzilla’s Showa Era career, the people who must survive all these monsters attacking grow more and more unsurprised by the leviathans stalking their world. In Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), a bureaucrat lets a crisis room in Tokyo know that he’ll take care of the “evacuations” as the looming threat of Titanosaurus seems ever-iminent; why he waits until the monster’s on land, joined by a revitalized Mechagodzilla leveling city blocks with rainbow laser rays, to evacuate the populace feels like a gross miscalculation. That bureaucrat should know better; this has happened at least 14 times before, and it will happen again. It always does.

In 2019, the world is on fire. We should know better. We move on because this is what we do: We get used to the flames, the poison, the death and destruction. We constantly erect new normals, and once those are surpassed, we craft newer normals, and pretend those have always been. When we see signs of that which we cannot escape, we change the channel because it isn’t our cup of tea. We shrug at the monsters, huge and black and opposing silhouettes on the horizon. We get used to the apocalypse because we can get used to anything. —Dom Sinacola / Read the full article here

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