Thursday, November 9, 2017

Label Slave: The Criterion Collection

by Rob DiCristino
Celebrate Barnes & Noble’s semiannual sale with a look back at a few favorites.

It’s time again for the famous Criterion Collection sale, those wonderful few weeks out of every year when Barnes & Noble stops being the absolute worst retailer in America long enough to take 50% off your film school syllabus. My snarky nonsense aside, those of us who still collect physical media consider this a holy time of celebration. We gather eagerly around each display, combing through titles row by row. “Which Antonioni film did I forget last time?” we ask ourselves. “Has enough time gone by that I can pick up Blue is the Warmest Color without seeming like a pervert?” Probably not. Anyway, here’s a look at some of my favorite Criterion releases:

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998, Dir. Terry Gilliam)
Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s savage journey into the heart of the American Dream was one of my favorite movies long before it became one of my favorite books. Combining Terry Gilliam’s surreal direction with manic, sweat-soaked performances from Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, the film is a perfect introduction to Thompson’s world of Gonzo journalism and, even now, immensely underrated. The Criterion edition is filled with great bonus features (including a fascinating documentary about Oscar Acosta and a few scenes from the Fear and Loathing radio play), but the best comes from Thompson himself: a feature-length audio commentary in which he complains about Terry Gilliam, calls Tobey Maguire a “wax doll freak,” and generally behaves like a cock-eyed madman. It’s required listening for those who (like me) worship at the feet of the good doctor. This was one of my first Criterion purchases and remains one of my favorites.

2. Ikiru (1952, Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
I’ve already written at length about my love for Akira Kurosawa’s somber exploration of life and death, but it always bears a revisit. Now that I think of it, Ikiru is an ideal film for the upcoming holiday season, one that confronts the futility and impermanence of mortal existence while also celebrating the eternal resonance of a life well lived. Though Kurosawa has probably made “better” films, there’s something about Ikiru’s clean, quiet presentation (brought to life by Takashi Shimura’s haunting performance as Watanabe), that makes it feel very special. The crown jewel of Criterion’s release is the feature commentary track by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera. Prince offers crucial insights into both Kurosawa’s approach to making Ikiru and the ways in which the film fits into the context of (and, at several points, functions as a commentary on) post-war Japan. It’s a beautiful release for a beautiful film.

3. Brief Encounter (1945, Dir. David Lean)
“There were no big stars,” David Lean said of his 1945 film Brief Encounter. “The main love story had an unhappy ending. The film was played in unglamorous surroundings. And the three leading characters were all approaching middle age.” Yet, as Kevin Brownlow’s essay “Riskiest Thing I Ever Did” goes on to argue, Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s Still Life would end up a classic of British cinema. Brownlow’s essay and a pair of documentaries (one retrospective on the making of Brief Encounter and one on Lean himself) are just some of the great extras on Criterion’s release, many of which dive into the controversy over the (alleged) love scenes (did they or didn’t they?), the homoerotic subtext (Coward’s play was – again, allegedly – originally intended to be performed by men), and the complexities of staging a passionate love affair in a dingy train station. A tragedy of austere British manners, Brief Encounter is equal parts romantic, heartbreaking, and hopeful.

4. Chasing Amy (1997, Dir. Kevin Smith)
When Patrick and I discussed my favorite Kevin Smith film earlier this year, we gushed about our affection for Criterion’s excellent release, which – despite the film’s seemingly dated sexual politics – cements our special appreciation of Chasing Amy as a time capsule of ‘90s indie cinema. Its best feature is the commentary track (you’re noticing a trend here) featuring Smith, Ben Affleck, Jason Mewes, producer Scott Mosier, Miramax executive Jon Gordon, and producer Robert Hawk (whom Smith credits with discovering Clerks). While it’s nearly impossible to talk about Miramax with any kind of wistful nostalgia at this point (rightfully so), the track features a pre-burnout Smith ruminating on his new indie cred, a barely-conscious Mewes deep in the throes of his storied drug addiction, and an anonymous doofus named Ben Affleck who doesn’t know that the film he’d just finished shooting (Good Will Hunting) will soon propel him to Oscar glory.

5. Do the Right Thing (1989, Dir. Spike Lee)
Speaking of Smith, I remember renting Do the Right Thing for the first time after hearing that he’d based the original ending of Clerks (in which Dante is shot and killed after closing the Quick Stop) on that of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece. “I wanted it to be a very funny movie that ended with something very tragic,” Smith had said. Do the Right Thing is those things and more, a film far too complex to properly dissect in just a few lines. Fittingly, Criterion’s double-disc release features two of my all-time favorite bonus features: a behind-the-scenes documentary that follows Lee & Company from table read to final take, and footage of the infamous 1989 Cannes Film Festival press conference, the one where Lee assures a nervous crowd that Sal is, indeed, a racist. This exchange would help spark Lee’s adversarial relationship with the press and inspire almost three decades of heated discussion about the themes, intent, and repercussions of one of the best American films of all time.

What are some of your favorite Criterion releases? Leave them in the comments.


  1. God, but I am old.
    I used to collect Criterion Collection laserdiscs back when...
    (falls asleep, snores, suddenly awakens)
    Some of my favorite Criterion blu-rays, GO!
    12 Angry Men,
    Ace in the Hole,
    Bigger Than Life,
    Brazil (epic)
    A Hard Day's Night
    Island of Lost Souls,
    It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World,
    The Killing,
    My Winnipeg,
    Sweet Smell of Success. &
    Wings of Desire...

    Well, time for my afternoon nap.

  2. where to begin. each and everyone of my Criterion Blu-Rays are their own little treasures. there's a reason they're prices so high. tons of extras, always great restorations, booklets in every release. when you buy one, you know you got something special.

    - Picnic At Hanging Rock: great movie that comes with the book it's based on.

    - Guillermo Del Toro Trilogy: master on imagery, all 3 movies are great. and Criterion did tremendous work with the packaging, adding a 100 pages booklet full of great articles and sketches

    - Ghost world: the one i've been waiting for years, ever since Blu-Ray started and rumors of it being released on Criterion.

    - Inside LLewyn Davis: i love this movie, and the extras include a full folk music show they did, with Oscar Isaac doing a couple of songs

    - Che: with this one, i got the confirmation that Steven Soderberg was part of the greats. this is his masterpiece and a must see. again, full of great extras

    i have yet to watch Stalker and Barry Lyndon that recently got released

    i could go on and on about my collection and why i love every one of those Criterion i got, but at 130+ and counting, i can't do it

    i hope you do more label slave, because i am one, with Kino, Shout/Scream and Arrow to name a few.

    1. and i also pre-ordered Le Samourai and Jabberwocky on B&N.

      i wish they would put back Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) in circulation. one of my favorite

  3. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is probably my favorite release. The commentary on the roadshow cut is great, and it just looks good as hell.

    Dazed and Confused has my favorite packaging. I hate digibooks and all that but the yearbook/booklet with the character profiles is a nice touch.

  4. I thought B&N did the sale during July. But maybe it's a regional thing? Either way, I really wanna pick up Barry Lyndon as soon as I can.

    1. it's twice a year. july and november

    2. Well I've been missing out on half the fun.

  5. Elevator to the Gallows, Last Year at Marienbad, Playtime, F For Fake, Breathless, Beauty and the Beast, The Innocents, Night of the Hunter all the De Palma releases and I echo a couple on JB's list with The Killing and Wings of Desire.

  6. I love my copy of Picnic At Hanging Rock, one of the editions that comes with a copy of the novel as well. (A feature that's also seen for the sadly out of print The Man Who Fell To Earth.)

    1. It’s out of print at criterion, but was released under another label with another seemingly great special edition. Not sure what the extras are

  7. My Criterions definitely have their own shelf space. It's just pretty packaging and some extra features, but I love them. I just have a mini Wes Anderson collection basically with 2 of my other all time favorites: Dazed and Confused, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,

  8. My favorite is probably Wings of Desire. Just a beautiful movie.

    I struggle a bit with the Criterions. On the one hand, I love every one I own, but then I have to grapple with lack of space, budgeting, and the recurring sense that I'm burying myself with stuff.

    BUT, for those of us with a worrying amount of stuff or who want to watch a movie first instead of blind buying, I wanted to make a PSA for people in LA or NYC (or really, California or New York): the two public library systems have partnered with the streaming service Kanopy and they have an impressive selection of Criterion movies. They also apparently partner with other institutions like universities, so check if yours is one of them.

  9. Criterion was my first love of buying physical media long ago. It propelled me into buying everything from Scream/Shout Factory discs to Kino Stuff, when I figured out restorations were actually worth the money.

    The Jean Pierre Melville releases are my favorite. He is my favorite Frenchmen, and his films are far and away the easiest to watch out of that era of foreign film. Le Cercle Rouge, Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, Army of Shadows, Le Samourai, Le deuxième souffle are all amazing, have great art, and fun to watch to see how they influenced John Woo, Walter Hill, etc.

    Then the stuff from lesser-known-than-Kurosawa Japanese filmmakers like Hara-Kiri, Ugetsu, Three Outlaw Samurai, etc.