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 December:
Director: Ted Wilde
Harold Lloyd’s final silent film, Speedy, is a lot of things—a portrait of New York City, an ode to the good old can-do American spirit, a critique of corrupt industrialization—but mostly it’s just a delight. Using little more than the language of cinema and a handful of helpful title cards for when occasion demands dialogue, Speedy takes its viewers on a wild tour of the Big Apple as the titular go-getter, Lloyd’s famous “Glasses” character, leapfrogs from one job to the next, terrorizes Babe Ruth (the real Babe Ruth!) with a taxi, and foils a nefarious railroad company’s plans to drive the last remaining horse-drawn streetcar in New York out of business; Speedy is an ambitious sort, but his ambitions outweigh his motivation, not to mention his competency. But the film endears us to Speedy as well as the way of life he comes to champion, and Lloyd is such an immense comic talent in all his averageness that we can’t help but be wrapped up in the film’s sweeping, energetic capers. Eager to get to know him better? Criterion has outfitted Speedy’s Blu-ray with 17 minutes’ worth of home movies, narrated by Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne; as an additional accompaniment, listen to Film Forum’s director of repertory programming, Bruce Goldstein, wax eloquent in an insightful commentary track. —Andy Crump
Director: Michael Ritchie
With Downhill Racer Michael Ritchie did for sports films what Two-Lane Blacktop did for road films. He created an existentialist sports film that is as tense as it is harrowing, and brought the genre into the realm of the bleak. Unlike many other films of its ilk, Downhill Racer subverts many of the tropes we’re so used to seeing in most commercial entertainment. The romance is empty, there are no heroes to root for, and the protagonist we do have certainly has the drive for greatness, but at no point does he inspire us. Instead, Robert Redford’s David Chappellet has much subdued anger, jealousy and fear. When he succeeds it feels hollow, for both the audience and the character. At times the film is quite nihilistic, despite the poetic and transcendental beauty of the setting and cinematography. Redford gives one of his most understated performances here; his range of emotions is much more subtle, yet in his subtlety we notice all the rage, fear and ambition that make up Redford’s brilliant turn. The supporting cast is equally nuanced. It’s the little things that create this film’s powerful atmosphere, and as a result the action sequences are all the more gripping. As it stands, this is one of the quieter entries in the Criterion Collection, yet one that should not be missed. —Nelson Maddaloni
Director: Takashi Murakami
Fair warning: You may want to precede your first viewing of Japanese artist-filmmaker crossover wunderkind Takashi Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes by reading the essay Glen Helfand has penned for Criterion’s Blu-ray release. If you like to walk on the wild side, go right ahead, check out the movie before Helfand, but you’re just increasing the odds that your takeaway from Murakami’s loopy, melodramatic genre mash will boil down to bafflement. Helfand’s writing gives viewers proper context for engaging with both Murakami as a creative type, and with Jellyfish Eyes as a product of its era; as Godzilla is to Hiroshima, so Jellyfish Eyes is to the Fukushima natural and accompanying nuclear disasters of 2011. It’s also a charmingly bizarre cocktail that mixes kaiju flicks with Ghibli-brand magic, Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and probably a dozen or so other influences that aren’t quite as easily sussed out in a single sitting. If Murakami’s reference points are varied and odd, though, his thematic explorations—about human interactions with technology, the conservation of our planet, and the consequences of miscommunication—ring much more clearly. Jellyfish Eyes is an odd duck, but its substantive cuteness and earnestness should win over even less adventures cineastes. —A.C.
Burroughs: The Movie
Director: Howard Brookner
Lost after so many years and now given to us by the Criterion Collection is Howard Brookner’s masterful portrait of writer William S. Burroughs. The film is a fascinating, often bittersweet look into the life of a prolific author. Burroughs is, naturally, a gifted storyteller, and the readings scattered throughout the film are captivating, full of life despite his droning, dry voice. What surprises, however, is just how gentle and warm this film is. Brookner acknowledges the shortcomings of a human being while crafting an affectionate tribute to Burroughs that chronicles the aches and pains, love and passion that have been his life. Additionally, the film stands out as a shining example of queer documentary cinema. At no point does it shy away from sexuality, be it Burroughs’ or anyone else’s for that matter. With extra features that complement the movie, this is worth owning for any lover of literature and film. —N.M.