In the grand scheme of companies who, as something like collateral damage in their quest for profits, have made the world a better place, The Criterion Collection has got to be up there. Errol Morris' long out-of-print documentary semi-adaptation of Stephen Hawking's bestselling A Brief History of Time is the latest in a long line of releases in what at this point amounts to a beautifully curated museum of film history.
Bob Hoskins died today, a sad loss for the movie community. Widely known for his work in such '80s and '90s blockbusters as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Hook, you're doing yourself a disservice if you haven't seen his starmaking turn in British mob-classic The Long Good Friday. Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey and the dark BBC musical miniseries Pennies from Heaven are a couple more personal favorites. He'll be missed.
18 years later, Breaking the Waves might still be the grand accomplishment of Lars Von Trier's lifelong ambition to make his viewers feel terrible. Only, when I say it like that, it sounds like a bad thing. Von Trier, the consummate provocateur, is - whatever you may think of his movies - one of the most talented directors working anywhere in the world today. Breaking the Waves was the film that took him from something of an arthouse cult superstar to something very like a household name. Their shattering performances likewise raised the profile of stars Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard.
In 2008 this was a small-scale arthouse film, grossing less than $200,000. In the five years since, director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and star Michael Fassbender (Shame, Prometheus) have become near enough household names that one would expect this to be a major award circuit blockbuster. It wasn't overlooked by critics, however, who heaped awards onto this intense real-life story of a 1981 hunger strike undertaken by imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army.
If, like me, the new Godzilla remake has sparked a renewed interest in the classic series, I have good news: We've got a whole bunch of them. Mothra versus Godzilla is easily the best of the series of sequels in which Godzilla fights some other monster or series of monsters, as long as we understand "best" to actually mean "highest quality". For cheesy thrills and unintentional laughs, there are lots of better options. Contrary to popular perception, the original Gojira is both very well-made and very sad, a transparent allegory for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's easy to forget that it was made a short nine years after the bombings. Mothra versus is ten years after Gojira and, while it still carries a message, it loses much of the original's haunted, post-traumatic feeling, but reunites the criminally underappreciated director Ishiro Honda with big-time special effects guru (think Japan's answer to Ray Harryhausen) Eiji Tsuburaya.
Modern minds are boggled by the fact that the Monkees sold more records in 1967 than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. Which makes Harold Lloyd a sort of curious genremate of theirs, having been more popular with contemporary audiences than either Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. But before we judge historical audiences too harshly, remember that Kevin James' Zookeeper made about twice as much money as There Will Be Blood.
But, I digress. Lloyd's Safety Last! may not equal the artistic pinnacles of either Keaton or Chaplin, but it is a tremendous entertainment, and the climactic stunt of Lloyd climbing straight up the side of a skyscraper (including, as he hangs from the hands of the big clock high above a crowd of onlookers, one of the most famous images in the history of movies (many more people know the image than know Lloyd's name)) is definitely Keaton-worthy. Thanks to Criterion Collection for giving their special loving treatment to this lesser known classic.
The Walker will be screening (one of) Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece(s) in October. The screening is being held in conjunction with Geoff Dyer giving a reading from his new book Zona: A Book About A Film About A Journey To A Room. Dyer is not timid with his praise of Tarkovsky's film, saying "It's not just one of the greatest films of all time, but one of the greatest works of art." Similarly superlative is no less a luminary than Ingmar Bergman, who adds, "My discovery of Tarkovsky's first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream." Tarkovsky himself wants you to know that you're headed for deep water, however, "I am categorically against entertainment in the cinema: it is as degrading for the author as it is for the audience."
By all means, check out the DVD from the library if you prefer. But, a screening of a real, live 35mm print of such a film is a difficult thing to pass up.
Perhaps the perfect movie - if you're staying in - for Saint Patrick's Day. It's John Ford, so you know it'll be a master class in technique without ever feeling technical. It's got John Wayne (at his actingest) as an American who returns to Ireland where, of course, he falls in love with feisty, red-headed Maureen O'Hara, as Irish a name as Hollywood's got to offer. There's comedy. There's drama. There's romance. The all-knowing authors of Wikipedia tell us that "the film is notable for [its] lush photography of the Irish countryside and a long, climactic, semi-comic fist fight." The photography is lush (or, wait, is it the countryside that's lush?), and that climactic, semi-comic fist fight? Yep, it's one of the longest in film history. Dig in, this is everything that made Classic Hollywood great.
Another Irish-themed movie for St. Patrick's Day. Kells is a stunningly-animated retelling of the quasi-mystical origins of the real-life Irish-national-treasure the Book of Kells. Appropriate for kids that can handle a bit of scary and for grownups that can handle a bit of animation, Kells was nominated for the Oscar for best animated feature in 2009 (and as much as I loved Up, I still think Kells ought to have won), and played to acclaim at the 2010 Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival. Kells was entirely animated by hand, which will flabbergast you when you see it.
Art-house favorite Claire Denis' follow-up to her 1999 career-defining Beau Travail must have come as a shock to audiences and critics alike. Thematically, structurally and artistically, 2001's Trouble Every Day actually has a lot in common with its predecessor, but you might be forgiven for not noticing. Where critics thrilled to Travail's languorous pace, stunning cinematography and simmering sexual undercurrent (not to mention one of the top five or so great endings in the history of filmdom), Trouble is, as Wikipedia describes it, an erotic horror film. Well, it may be short on scares, but it's plenty long on gore. Trouble garnered largely negative reviews - with many of Denis' biggest champions decrying it as not even a particularly strong attempt at empty shock value - though over the intervening decade a small, but vociferous contingent of supporters has emerged. You might like it, you might hate it, but it is a work by a major artist, it has long been unavailable in North America, and Kimstim recently put out a nice DVD edition. So, there you have it. Oh, and it also played at the Walker's 2012 Denis retrospective.
Criterion has really hit a home-run with this 27-disc set of the complete series of Zatoichi films. If you're unfamiliar with the character of Zatoichi, he's a blind masseur who wanders around feudal Japan fighting bad guys and winning the affections of many pretty ladies. Played through the whole series by the great Shintaru Katsu, his iconic status in Japan is something akin to a more dignified James Bond. Criterion's press release wants you to be aware that "The films that feature him are variously pulse-pounding, hilarious, stirring, and completely off-the-wall." Just so you know.