At one point on the Criterion Collection website, they had some film critics, writers and filmmakers name their top ten favorite Criterion Collection editions. Among those who gave their lists were Steve Buscemi, Allison Anders, Jane Campion, Neil LaBute, Dennis Lehane and Richard Linklater among others. Their lists were interesting to view as each of their choices described their influences as well as movies they veer towards watching more regularly. It was great to see what they selected, and that’s regardless of whether or not you agreed with their selections.
Criterion has been around since the days of laserdiscs, and they have very well pioneered the audio commentary that has since become the standard on most special edition DVDs and Blu-rays. We all want to know what the director, writers and actors were thinking when they made their particular movie, and we are more than willing to listen in as they talk over it. It’s one of the very few opportunities in life where we actually don’t mind someone talking during a movie (but they still need to keep their cell phones on silent).
Truth is, I am a big DVD and Blu-ray fan and buying them was at one time my biggest addiction. Criterion Collection editions have been among my favorites because they can get so in depth about the making of movies, and they have set a path which many other companies have followed when it comes to creating special editions. It’s no secret that the world of movies owes a lot to Criterion.
On the list, I put my favorite Criterion special editions here as opposed to my favorite movies in their catalog. These are the ones that I would leap to first above all the others. Here are my top ten picks for the best Criterion Collection editions.
Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece from the 1980’s is easily the best Criterion Collection release ever because of what it reveals about the treacherous world of filmmaking. Not just the making of a movie mind you, but of what it takes to get it released. Criterion’s edition of “Brazil” consists of three discs. The first one features Terry Gilliam’s 142 minute final cut of the movie and features a fascinating audio commentary where he talks about how many still compare it to George Orwell’s “1984.” The most surprising revelation of this commentary, however, is that Terry Gilliam admits to never having read “1984.”
This set also includes another disc that features an alternate cut known as the “Love Conquers All” version which gives “Brazil” a happy ending that was not in Gilliam’s final cut. It features an audio commentary by Gilliam expert David Morgan in which he remarks that this is a subversive movie, but with the happy ending, he cannot help but wonder which version of “Brazil” is more subversive.
The third disc looks deeply into the making and releasing of “Brazil.” This disc is essential viewing for anybody truly interested in filmmaking. Among the documentaries on this disc is one by Jack Matthews called “The Battle of Brazil.” It looks at the film’s delay and of how executives at Universal Pictures wanted a more audience friendly version of it. Even Terry Gilliam says that this is the part of filmmaking that those who are really interested in filmmaking need to learn about.
The Silence of the Lambs
This one ranks so highly in part because it was the first Criterion Collection edition I ever bought, and for the fact that it remains one of my all-time favorite movies. One of the most flawless films ever made, Jonathan Demme’s film on the relationship between a budding FBI agent (Jodie Foster) and an incarcerated serial killer (Anthony Hopkins) remains among the most unforgettable ever conceived.
Among the special features on the Criterion disc is an audio commentary which features director Jonathan Demme, stars Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally, and FBI agent John Douglas. The best participant in this commentary track is Foster who remains one of the most intelligent and fascinating actresses working today in contemporary cinema as she gives us her description of the female hero.
Another special feature on this disc is “Voices of Death” which contains word for word statements from real life convicted serial killers. Some of what is said is so utterly disturbing that I had to eventually take the disc out of the player and watch “The Muppet Movie” to recover. It is one of the most disturbing things you will ever find yourself reading.
Paul Verhoeven’s American breakthrough remains one of the best science fiction movies ever made. Not even the wretchedness of its sequels can take away from it (and they really sucked). It features a fantastic commentary track with director Paul Verhoeven and co-writer Edward Neumeier among others. Paul originally turned “Robocop” down because he felt it was just another action movie. His wife, however made him see how the script had a lot of different levels to it. On top of being an action movie, it is also a sharp-edged satire on the corporate world. This is revealed through the commentary of co-writer Edward Neumeier who admits that he worked in the corporate world as he tried to support himself as a writer. His experiences in the corporate world are the most interesting on this commentary track.
This edition also features the unrated director’s cut that Verhoeven had to edit down in order to avoid am X rating (now an NC-17). Among the restored scenes is one where a corporate executive is gunned down by one of the machines after he is clearly dead. The MPAA meant to cut it down due to what they saw as excessive violence, but the ironic thing is that they cut out a lot of the black humor which helped diffuse the horror of that moment. All the MPAA ended up doing was making the scene seem all the more violent and disturbing.
Do The Right Thing
Spike Lee’s 1989 movie remains one of the most important to come out of the 1980’s. It was by no means a call to racial violence, but rather a study of the unconscious tensions and emotions that finally make their way to the surface on a very hot day. Spike’s movie showed the ugly world of racial tensions that we were under the mistaken impression we had long since buried and gotten past. It was a picture of where we are at, and that there are certain truths in life that we need to face now. Among those truths was the fact that the division between blacks and whites was just as big as now as it had been in the past, and that division is still strong.
In addition to a fantastic commentary track with Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson (who brilliantly kept the rain out of certain shots), Wynn Thomas and Joie Lee, there is an hour long documentary directed by St. Clair Bourne that goes above and beyond these short little documentaries that make tend to make movie making look like a breeze. Also featured is the Spike Lee directed music video of “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and a 1989 Cannes Film Festival conference.
The one question that Spike has constantly gotten about this movie is “why did Mookie throw the trashcan through the window?” He remarked that “not one person of color has ever asked me that.”
John Woo’s last movie that he made in Hong Kong (until he returned there to make “Red Cliff”) still remains one of the greatest no holds barred action movies ever made. To this day, I still wonder how many characters got killed in this movie and of how the filmmakers managed to pull off all those incredible stunts. Chow Yun-fat is an actor that John Woo has made great use of over the years, and his role as jaded detective “Tequila” Yuen is one of his most memorable performances. Whereas many action movies treat violence simply as spectacle, John Woo treats it as poetry with a deep sense of loyalty and morality.
The audio commentary features John Woo, producer Terence Chang, filmmaker Roger Avary (“Killing Zoe,” “The Rules of Attraction”), and critic Dave Kohr. The most interesting participants on the track are Woo and Chang who go into detail on both the making of the film and of the moral quandaries that are deeply wrapped into the story. They also make clear that safety was their number one concern throughout the movie. But still, one has to wonder how the hell they were able to keep these actors from getting hurt.
Calling this a brilliant documentary is not enough. “Hoop Dreams” is an experience to be lived through and it offers a peak into young African Americans growing up fast and at the families that raise them through various struggles. It follows two inner city kids who have a lot of talent in basketball and who both want to achieve professional basketball glory despite the impossible odds of making it. We see them through their high school years and their academic and family struggles. There is also great attention on the adult figures in these kids’ lives, and it takes away from the views and clichés many may have regarding African Americans and the inner city communities.
There are two audio commentaries on the disc including one with the filmmakers who spent several years following these kids and their families. We see how they went along making the film and how it became so much more than they had originally intended. Their commentary is endlessly fascinating because you cannot help but wonder how they could have filmed so patiently for many years.
The disc also includes segments from “Siskel & Ebert” who have heaped critical acclaim on this movie endlessly, and they do deserve some credit for getting “Hoop Dreams” a wider audience than most documentaries tend to get. The fact that it never got an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary is a travesty, but at least it proved to be the long overdue call to overhaul the documentary nomination committee.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Martin Scorsese’s deeply religious film was nearly swallowed whole by the controversy surrounding it from religious groups who had friends in high places. It is unfortunate that many would lash out at “The Last Temptation of Christ” because it is one of the most spiritually powerful films ever made. It may challenge your views on how you see Jesus Christ (played in a brilliant performance by Willem Dafoe), but it does not insult them. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis’, it views Jesus as a man and the desires the holds at bay. Jesus is told he will become the Messiah, but it is a role he isn’t sure he wants.
I also got to give credit to Scorsese for making Judas a heroic character as opposed to the back-stabber many religions have made him out to be for centuries.
The audio commentary by Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, Willem Dafoe and Jay Cocks is informative on the religious overtones of the movie and the reaction many had to it. There is also a great video interview with Peter Gabriel who composed the brilliant score to the film. His music featured instruments and musicians from other countries to create a score that is a fusion of both ancient rhythms and electronic elements.
The late Robert Altman’s kaleidoscopic view of modern Los Angeles filtered through the many short stories of Raymond Carver. “Short Cuts” cemented Altman’s filmmaking comeback that started off with “The Player,” and it remains one of his best films ever. There is not a single weak performance by any actor here as we go from one set of characters to another, and they somehow become intertwined with each other and all come together emotionally at the end when Mother Nature rumbles loudly. Even at three hours long, this movie never drags.
There are several special features on the second disc worth watching. The best one is a feature length documentary on the making of “Short Cuts” called “Luck, Trust and Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country.” The feeling one gets from watching it is just how different and more freeing it can be working on an Altman film as opposed to any other Hollywood production. There is also a great videotaped conversation between Altman and actor Tim Robbins as they talk about the movie and the effect it still has after more than a decade. There is also a companion book of short stories by Raymond Carver which practically begs to be read after you finish watching this movie.
Rest in peace Robert Altman. We miss you.
Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie features Dustin Hoffman as a young American mathematician who moves to what seems like a peaceful English countryside with his wife Amy (played by Susan George). But instead of peace and quiet, they are constantly taunted and attacked by the local folks who live there. What follows is a disturbing portrait of masculinity and the nature of violence as Hoffman’s character finally reaches his breaking point, and you immediately forget that he was originally a pacifist.
“Straw Dogs” remains disturbing to watch to this very day, and it is a testament to both Peckinpah and the actors that they are able to take us through this journey while giving us characters that are not particularly sympathetic. It inspired a lot of very strong reactions that were for and against the movie, and you got to love a movie like that which inspires so much discussion after you have seen it.
Among the special features on this two-disc set is a documentary on the director called “Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron.” It allows us to have an in depth look at a man who had been through a lot in life and of how his life experiences influenced his vision in the movies he made. Also featured are some on location interviews with Dustin Hoffman, some behind-the-scenes footage, and a great section which shows Peckinpah responding to certain critics and viewers who came down hard on the film.
To this day, “Straw Dogs” still does inspire a lot of passionate discussion.
Well, I had to put at least one comedy on this list, so it might as well be “Rushmore.” Wes Anderson is a big favorite of the Criterion Collection as many of his movies have been released in special editions through them. That usually doesn’t happen with movies until several years after they are released, but with Wes Anderson, why wait?
“Rushmore” is one of the most original comedies I have ever seen, and it provides us with one of the most original characters in cinema history, Max Fischer (played in an unforgettable performance by Jason Schwartzman). Max is dedicated to the dozens of extracurricular activities he does at the Rushmore School, but none of it hides the fact that he is failing all his classes. But soon he becomes enamored with one of the teachers (played by Olivia Williams) and quickly forms an on-and-off friendship with depressed millionaire (Bill Murray in one of his very best performances). It is a truly original look at the world of adolescence and of how Max survives the traumas of that time in a most creative fashion.
The special features on this disc are brilliant. The commentary with Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson (one of the writers) and Jason Schwartzman is one of the most interesting and personal. Wes talks a lot about his influences as a filmmaker, and among them is “The Graduate” which he pays homage to when we see Bill Murray’s character seek solace in the underwater silence of his swimming pool. Owen comments a lot on how he got kicked out of school like Max and of the reaction he felt his father would have about that.
My big favorite special feature on this disc, however, is the Max Fischer Players doing theatrical adaptions of movies such as “Armageddon,” “Out Of Sight,” and “The Truman Show.” These were staged especially for the 1999 MTV Movie Awards and they are hilarious. Max Fischer casting himself in the Ed Harris part of “The Truman Show” makes perfect sense!