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-adaptaion 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.
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.
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.
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.