The Criterion Collection has been the preeminent authority on art-house home viewing since it released its first laserdisc (Citizen Kane, 1984) and its first DVD (Grand Illusion, 1998). Adapting with the times, its reach has extended beyond physical media: Criterion’s catalog became available digitally as part of the late, great FilmStruck service, and for the past year it has been accessible through its own platform, the Criterion Channel.
Available for $99 annually (or $11 monthly) through its website, Roku, Fire Stick and many smart TVs, the streaming platform doesn’t offer every Criterion release at one time, but it also showcases titles it hasn’t issued on disc; at this writing, users can screen 2,061 movies, from epic miniseries like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz to Hollywood studio classics to experimental documentaries to five-minute shorts. Nothing is off the table, and as the website itself states, “we don’t have any killer algorithms, just a staff of dedicated movie lovers who program the Channel as if it were an ongoing film festival.” New titles cycle in every month, with most available for three-month stints.
I joined the service this month, and so far it has been a comforting source of light in these dark times. Here are my thoughts on six films I screened on the Channel during my first week:
Daddy Longlegs: I finally caught up with Josh and Benny Safdie’s gritty and uncompromising breakthrough feature, from 2009, which feels even more profound today when paired with the directors’ career apotheosis, Uncut Gems, 10 years later. Like the later film’s Howard Ratner, Daddy Longlegs’ self-destructive protagonist, Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), is an irresponsible father with loose morals, whose prospects for survival in 21st-century New York grow dimmer by the day. Divorced from his two boys’ mother, his job as a projectionist hanging by a thread, and his latest romantic relationship threatened by his selfish actions, he steals away on an impromptu trip upstate, drugs his children with a not-so-mild sedative, gets arrested for public vandalism—in short, collapses, as we observe every detail, aghast and thankful we’re not the people he’s hurt. By this time in their short career, the Safdies had already developed a signature, Cassavetes-informed DIY poetry that jettisoned establishing shots and plot exposition; the scenes in Daddy Longlegs collide into each other like bumper cars thrown off their course. The result is both a deeply affecting character study of human frailty and a quintessential, tourist-unfriendly New York City mosaic, with its grifters and beggars, its rats and graffiti. There isn’t a false note struck.
Cold Water: Olivier Assayas’ 1994 Bildungsroman, the oldest of the director’s works that I’ve now seen, borrows from his own troubled upbringing, imbuing this youth-in-revolt work with the reckless spirit and boundless cinematic formalism of early Truffaut. It’s set in 1974 Paris, where society is fractured for teenage lovers Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet, an unprofessional actor) and Christine (Virginie Ledoyen). Both of their sets of parents are divorced; both lie and steal to get ahead in the world; both are rebels fumbling for a cause in post-May 1968 France, as political activism has curdled into — literally, in one scene — burn-it-all-down nihilism. Gilles looks askance at a future in a boarding school designed to smooth out his rough edges, while Christine is institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital until she manages to escape. The two runaways converge in the film’s lengthy, infectious centerpiece set at a raucous gathering, where a thrilling soundtrack features everything from Janis Joplin to Alice Cooper to Roxy Music to Leonard Cohen, and which culminates in a symbolic bonfire. Filmed with an observational, documentary-style camera that captures both jolting defiance and aching tenderness, Assayas distills the exhilaration and rootlessness of a particular lost generation, for whom oblivion is preferable to society’s stifling structures. The uncertain pang of its final moments makes for a pitch-perfect party hangover.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice: Originally conceived in 1939 but finally completed in 1952 — a year before his masterpiece Tokyo Story — The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice is a touching and underrated Yasujiro Ozu melodrama about disobedient women, the vagaries of the human condition, and that most eternal of Ozu’s subjects, the tenuous balance between tradition and modernity. Refined housewife Taeko (Michiyo Kogure), whose arranged marriage to her longtime husband, the less sophisticated Mokichi (Shin Saburi), has ossified into a mutual disinterest, retreats into a separate world with her friends and defiant niece, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima), lying to Mokichi in the process; he, in turn, withholds information from Taeko. It takes Setsuko’s rebellion against her own pending arranged marriage, a practice still defended by Taeko, to allow the older couple’s hypocrisy to surface, which spurs a defining reassessment of their status quo. Ozu’s trademark mise-en-scène, with its fixed camerawork and geometrically precise framing replete with door and window frames boxing characters into their spaces, fosters gentle confrontation and earned resolutions. It’s such a superlatively made remarriage story that it appears effortless, and the director’s sense of empathy for his characters is, as always, bottomless.
Panique: Julien Duvivier’s sobering 1947 noir opens like many a Law & Order episode: a lady’s corpse is found, elegant shoes first, among a trash heap. The crime scene becomes a magnet in its tight-knit, rabble-rousing French community, distracting the populace even from the literal circus in town; as Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) dryly comments, “carrion always attracts flies.” A paunchy, voyeuristic loner with a taste for bloody meat, an unkempt beard and a camera dangling perpetually around his neck, Hire is the town’s unshakeable conscience as well as its increasingly persecuted Other. Capoulade (Max Dalban), a two-bit hood playacting as a tough gangster, sends his dedicated moll (Vivane Romance) to seduce the older man and plant incriminating evidence in his apartment, while he spreads xenophobic gossip about Hire, accusing him of mesmerism and pederasty, and raising the town’s temperature to pitchfork-wielding hysteria. While Hire’s Jewishness is never overtly acknowledged, it doesn’t need to be. We get the message, as audiences in postwar France surely did as well. Panique is an infuriating allegory of mob rule and scapegoating that resonates just as emphatically today, while dually functioning as a taut commercial thriller rife with a double-crossing femme fatale and impeccable chiaroscuro lighting.
Dark Star: What Spaceballs was to Star Wars, John Carpenter’s Dark Star was to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released in 1975, the horror director’s debut is less space opera than space vaudeville, tracking the episodic, interstellar exploits of the four bedraggled inhabitants of an underfunded starship following the death of its captain — from something as prosaic as a short circuit in his seat panel. They stave off boredom with solitaire, a rubber chicken and target practice with dangerous lasers; chase an alien that has escaped from its enclosure (the extraterrestrial is presented as a clingy, ladybug-colored beach ball with webbed feet); and endeavor to blow up every celestial body they encounter, while tussling with a loquacious, self-aware bomb. Carpenter shot the movie on a $60,000 shoestring, and like many of the New Hollywood auteurs of the 1970s, his foray into feature filmmaking is decidedly lo-fi and reliant on unnecessary formal flourishes. It’s also a lot of fun, replete with slapstick zingers, B-movie SFX, knee-slapping sight gags, and even a few prescient riffs on consciousness and cryogenics. The most Carpenteresque element is the score, which the director, as always, composed himself, with his signature spooky minimalism audible in embryonic form; he even wrote the anachronistic country tune that bookends the picture.
The Lure: Part of the Criterion Channel’s appeal is its ability to introduce viewers to films and directors they didn’t know existed. Such is the case with The Lure, Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 feature debut, a bonkers fantasy that seems to borrow from vampirism, the heyday of music videos, and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Two mermaids, Silver and Golden (Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska), their siren call reverberating through balmy ocean air, wash up on a beach at an opportune time: It’s the 1980s, and rock band Figs ‘n’ Dates is practicing on the sand. The teenage “ladies,” whose facsimile legs transform into slithery fish tails when sprinkled with water, land a burlesque job at an adult nightclub, where the Figs serve as the house band, and involve themselves to various degrees with the humans they encounter; one falls in love, the other feasts on the organs of the lured. Remixing mermaid lore, and its peculiar logic, with a site-specific accounting of Poland’s bygone, hedonistic club life, The Lure plays with society’s deification of the young and nubile, but its splashy, often incongruous musical numbers grate after a while. Imaginatively designed, shockingly violent, yet somehow teenybopper-targeted, it’s brilliant and tiresome in equal measure.