My Take: The Criterion Collection

July 17, 2023 by Sandy Lerebours

Criterion Collection Closet

The Carolina Theatre of Durham’s Senior Director of Film, Jim Carl, gives his take on the Criterion Collection.


 

Criterion Collection Picks

As of this writing, there are 1,193 films in the Criterion Collection. My editor asked me to pick some of my favorites, which is okay when you’ve got lots of time and can get downright soulful about these pictures, but not so-okay when you’re given a 3-day deadline to write an amazing blog like this one. Growing up, all I knew about Criterion was that they included some very “important” movies. I knew this was true because their DVDs had actual numbers on their spines, like the Encyclopedia Brittanica. What I didn’t know until much later was that Criterion also had a sense of humor. What other collection plops Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” next to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”?

Best of all, Criterion is following Roger Ebert’s good advice when adding movies to their collection. Roger knew it was unfair to judge a popcorn flick like “Dirty Dancing” against an Academy Award-winner like “An American in Paris.”  Instead, he asked whether a movie was a good picture compared to others of its own type, resulting in Bo Derek’s “Tarzan, The Ape Man” getting the same two-and-a-half-star rating he gave to Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”  And while some may snicker at Criterion’s inclusion of “Terror of MechaGodzilla” alongside the likes of “Seven Samurai,” I snicker back with the knowledge that those same people are missing a hell of a lot of fun movies.

So what are some of my favorites?  For the sake of simplicity, I’m restricting this list to American titles because there’s no point in pretending I’ve seen “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice.”  So Criterion, if you’re reading this and want to invite me to raid your closet, here’s what I would grab for my collection:

 

HOPSCOTCH (1980) Spine #163

Criterion Collection: Hopscotch (1980)

Walter Matthau plays a CIA operative named Miles Kendig. He’s a lifelong spook who’s grown tired of shooting bad guys and smuggling microfilms, and simply wants to settle down and spend the few remaining years of his career drinking vodka with his Russian counterparts, whom he’s grown fond of. When a new boss comes along and accuses him of being a dinosaur, Matthau decides to write his memoirs, publicizing all the dirty tricks the US Government has been pulling for decades. Matthau plays the same comedic role he always plays: a grumpy old movie star filled with bemused detachment. He was the 20th Century equivalent of Simon Pegg; easily believable if cast as a deadpan prankster. He brings charm and authority to this role. I imagine there aren’t many G-men-turned-fugitives in the Agency, and fewer still as rumpled as Matthau, but “Hopscotch” is clearly not striving for realism.

 

IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) Spine #692

Criterion Collection: It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

This all-star comedy doesn’t introduce its plot so much as jet-launch one at us. It begins with a car flying off a cliff and ends with Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel. But the plot’s not important; it’s simply a hook on which to hang an assault on our eyes and ears, a non-stop series of climaxes, pratfalls, explosions, double-takes, sight gags, and corny jokes.  Today’s generation marvels how “Airplane!” relentlessly throws gags at us until we’re dizzy, but it’s nice that Criterion recognizes “Mad World” got there first.

 

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964) Spine #404

Criterion Collection: Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964)

This is the kind of old-fashioned wilderness survival adventure that Hollywood used to do so well, like “The Incredible Journey,” but nobody seems to make anymore. “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” was made at a time when space exploration still embraced simple things like American know-how, patriotism, and family values. It’s a high-spirited, joyous, escapist romp in which an astronaut crash lands (with his pet monkey) on the surface of Mars and no sooner settles down to create a ramshackle home in the wastelands than the forces of nature threaten to chase him off. What distinguishes it from similar colonization tales, like “Forbidden Planet,” is the good-natured but sometimes eerie thrills we experience along the way. And that’s okay. One of the pleasures of movies like this one is watching the cliches do their thing.

 

ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) Spine #724

Criterion Collection: All That Jazz (1979)

Everybody involved in this semi-autobiographical biopic of Bob Fosse seems to be having a good time. Best of all, there’s an infectiously free-spirited, carefree sensibility regarding sex and drugs that most modern movies wouldn’t dream of fetishizing without first offering us a lecture. People in this R-rated musical take uppers, sniff poppers, and snort cocaine with such abandon, you’d think America was on the verge of a drug shortage. It’s impossible to resist or dislike its hedonism. “All That Jazz” should best be regarded as a cultural artifact, which is to say, it was the late 70s; a time when Broadway dancers were kings, AIDS was unknown, and death was depicted as one big celebratory musical number that finally bursts apart at its seams, filled with glittery unisex clothes, disco balls, and backup dancers dressed as carotid arteries.


JIM CARL is the Senior Director of Film at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. He has been in charge of its film program since 1995. Some of his favorite movies include “Aliens, The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), and “The Towering Inferno.”  He loves 70s disaster pictures and will watch anything involving Great White Sharks, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, or is set underwater. His favorite movies of all time are “Jaws” and “Ordinary People.”  Some of his least-favorite movies include “O Brother Where Art Thou?,”  “About Schmidt,” and Kenneth Branagh’s godawful remake of “Death on the Nile.” His least-favorite movie of all time is “Alien 3.”  He is a firm believer in the presentation of pictures that are fun and entertaining (and sometimes educational) and will book any movie he suspects will make money, even if he hates it.