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 September:
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rebecca is one of the most haunting and effective ghost films ever made, and it accomplishes this while not having a single ghost or any supernatural elements in it. On the surface, it’s a melodrama about a melancholic debonair millionaire, Maxim, (Is there anyone but Laurence Olivier to play such a role with such grace?) who attempts to get over his grief regarding his deceased wife by falling in love, or pretending to fall in love, with a vibrant young girl (Joan Fontaine). Both Daphne DuMaurier’s original novel and this Best Picture Oscar winning adaptation do not give this woman a name, since she will not be graced with an identity of her own while living under the insurmountable shadow of the seemingly untouchable and impeccable Rebecca, Maxim’s previous wife. Rebecca might be officially dead and gone, but her presence still haunts the giant interiors of Maxim’s mansion, forcing the young girl with every breath to compare her “lowly and common” self to the unattainable beauty of the one she perhaps unwisely replaced. Just like he did with Marnie, Hitchcock takes the inner trauma and conflict of a usually dramatic protagonist and turns her into a splendid conduit for a taut psychological thriller. Rebecca is shot with a dark and stark noir look, the exact opposite one might expect from what looks on the page to be a lush melodrama. In fact, Hitch’s unusual tone for the adaptation apparently caused quite a stir between him and uber-producer David O. Selznick, who was expecting a more straightforward drama. (In fact, one of the most welcome extras in Criterion’s Blu-ray is the printing of a series of contentious letters between the two cinematic powerhouses during Rebecca ’s production.)
Criterion’s 1080p transfer from a new restoration looks incredibly clear and crisp, with a healthy amount of grain and minimum use of digital noise reduction in order to retain the celluloid look. The extras alone will take fans a day to get through, complete with a new interview about the film’s special effects, as well as a feature length documentary of Du Maurier. However, the best extra is a vintage hour-long candid interview with the master of suspense himself. —Oktay Kozak
Director: Murray Lerner
Ask the average, moderately informed film lover about great music festivals captured on film, and you’ll likely get answers that range from Woodstock to … well, Woodstock. Go a little deeper and you’ll find Monterey Pop. The latter gets its own Criterion Collection treatment in December. But before that, you can enjoy Criterion’s presentation of Murray Lerner’s Festival, a documentary from four years of footage Lerner shot at the Newport Folk Festival. The result is fascinating, both as a document of the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and as a revealing glimpse of artists who would influence music for decades to come. (And most of whom are no longer around.) As with those other festivals—not to mention concert films such as Demme’s Stop Making Sense—the best way to appreciate Festival is to stop talking and listen to the music. This restored 2K digital transfer is a good place to start.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Life is full of quiet indignities. Kelly Reichardt’s sixth feature, Certain Women, is full of life. The film is built on reaction shots of its actresses—Laura Dern, perennial Reichardt favorite Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and the sterling Lily Gladstone—as they buckle beneath the weight of insults both intended and unwitting, and accidental injuries inflicted on the spirit. The title lends the picture a sense of specificity, though its most specific detail is its setting, Montana, a whole state away from Reichardt’s beloved Oregon; small town sprawl and open range turn out to be the perfect backdrop for her mournful character studies, and Big Sky Country has a surplus of both. The marriage of location and aesthetic proves haunting from the first frame.
Reichardt’s addition to the Collection feels significant for the company in a year where its gender discrepancies have been addressed in mildest terms; padding their library with works by Kirsten Johnson, Chantal Akerman, Agnieszka Smoczynska, and Donna Deitch shows their awareness of the label’s imbalance between sexes, but the inclusions feel like table scraps in terms of quantity. In terms of quality, Certain Women feels like a gift. Reichardt is one of the most talented and yet bizarrely underappreciated contemporary American filmmakers, as evinced by literally every single movie she makes. Of these, Certain Women may be the best. If nothing else, it’s refined, sharply honed even, in ways that her other refined, sharply honed movies aren’t: You can’t watch it without feeling empathy for her leads, and you may not be able to watch it without feeling culpable in the humiliations and heartaches they endure throughout its running time.
Certain Women is a prison of sorts for its protagonists, a vast but confined space where catharsis is an illusion and the task of meeting one’s needs is Sisyphean in nature. Occasionally, it’s also hilarious, credit mostly to Laura Dern’s priceless “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” face, struck on being handed a Kevlar vest and conscripted into negotiating with an armed and irritable Jared Harris. But taken as a whole the film is stirring in its evocative melancholy, and a testament to Reichardt’s peerless storytelling gifts. —Andy Crump
David Lynch: The Art Life
Directors: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes, Jon Nguyen
Plenty of material exists on David Lynch—some care of the artist, much more care of critics and thinkers and admirers and acolytes struggling to dissect the man’s work, especially with the reality that, as he enters his 70th decade, we know we’ll never get much of a dissection from the maker behind it all. David Lynch: The Art Life, last year’s meditative “docu-account” of Lynch talking about the first couple decades of that life we now all die to unearth, doesn’t do much to clear anything up, except for one notion: Even if Lynch were more forthcoming about the ideas and themes worming throughout his muddiest films and art installations, we still probably wouldn’t get much that would satisfy us.
As the essay by film scholar and Lynch enthusiast Dennis Lim implies, Lynch’s vocabulary is noticeably limited—he describes many things as “beautiful” and all he says about Eraserhead, the making of which being the point where the documentary ends its narrative, is that he loves “everything about it”—simultaneously simple and detailed, much “like dreams.” In that sense, first-time directors Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes and Jon Nguyen are able to divine in their film the same quiet unease and surprisingly warm sensibility as in Lynch’s work, while staying true to the minimalism and impulse that still drives the artist today.
The only voice in The Art Life is Lynch’s (though, as Lim states, the directors filmed plenty of ancillary talking heads interviews, but elected to cut them—perhaps they should have been included in the otherwise shallow Criterion edition?), but his is the only voice we deserve. The only person in The Art Life is Lynch (with the occasional cameo by his toddler daughter, which brings up a whole different moral quandary about the chance that Lula may not grow up knowing her chainsmoking dad if the inevitable occurs), but his face, apart from archival family photos and BTS Eraserhead footage, is all we need. The rest Lynch never addresses with much more than the precise few words demanded to complete a sentence. Which is both inspiring and troubling: When Lynch talks about his father visiting him in school in Philadelphia, and how gleefully he showed his dad the decaying animal corpses (his “experiments”) in his basement, it’s difficult to tell if Lynch believes his dad’s extremely concerned reaction was justified or not. All Lynch does is relay to us that his dad recommended the young Lynch never have children. Lynch did anyway; his first wife Peggy was, unbeknownst to him at the time, pregnant. This is how David Lynch: the Art Life goes: Things happen, and Lynch speaks of them as empirical inevitabilities. Viscerally, he then moves on to the next vignette. His films work the same way. If this is as much as we’re going to get out of Lynch, then The Art Life is everything we could expect. —Dom Sinacola
The Piano Teacher
Director: Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke’s confrontational filmmaking does not take sides in its portrayal of the apparently unbalanced lead character. Isabelle Huppert stars as masochistic piano teacher who strikes up an affair with a much younger student. As Erika, Huppert plays a woman with a hard-edge, immensely talented and proud but trapped by an overbearing mother and an inability to unwind. As explored in the film, masochism is not about giving up power, but rather exercising it—it is Erika who dictates very concisely exactly what kind of sex and violence she wants. Huppert’s intense and powerful performance showcase how the physical pain and humiliations connect with an otherwise mysterious inner world. Haneke’s filmmaking, always blistering with the mysteries that lie behind the eyes is at its height here, in one of his most difficult and mysterious cinematic experiences. As always, Haneke challenges the viewer to look away knowing very well there is a dark pleasure in seeing something that is not meant to be seen. In many ways, Haneke’s work which pushes and pulls between pleasure and pain mirrors the very subject at hand. —Justine Smith