Each month, Paste brings you a look at the best new selections from the Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, Criterion has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here. In the meantime, because chances are you may be looking for something to give the discerning (raises pinkie) cinephile this month, find all of our Criterion picks here, check out some of our top titles this January, and, hey, maybe sign up for Criterion’s just-announced Criterion Channel, coming in April. One of the titles below is currently their “Movie of the Week,” a title they’re sharing every week until the Channel’s premiere:
Director: Elaine May
Everyone’s got a friend like Nicky (John Cassavetes), though the Nickys of the world exist on a sliding scale. Not every Nicky works for the mob, or womanizes, or betrays the mob, or generally acts like a large diameter asshole at any provocation or under any amount of strain. But strip Mikey and Nicky of its genre particulars, its gangster trappings, and what remains is a recognizable story of two friends at loggerheads, joined by the history of their lifetimes, inseparable, and yet chemically volatile when standing in arm’s reach of each other. Mikey (Peter Falk) and Nicky go way back. They’ve been pals since always, since before they became small time crooks, since before their parents shuffled their mortal coils.
Mikey’s the equanimous one, Nicky the hothead, though Mikey’s only cool and composed when stood next to Nicky. “You give me that in 30 seconds or I’ll kill you, you hear me?” he roars at a diner counterman, desperate for a cup of cream to help soothe Nicky’s ailing stomach. Neither is especially good to women, and both are in boiling water, though Mikey’s only up to his toes and Nicky’s waist-deep, having ripped off his boss and earned a hit on his forehead. The most honest move Mikey can make is to leave Nicky to the mob’s mercies, but he’s not an honest man and honestly, male relationships aren’t all that honest.
Elaine May understands how quickly men oscillate between emotion and violence, rancor and play. One minute Mikey’s fretting over Nicky catching a cold. The next, they’re scrapping in the street, as if their friendship never mattered in the first place. Amazing how easily men can transgress from adults to boys, whether they’re trading blows or just gleefully racing one another down the sidewalk. Even when they’re all grown up, they’re still children at heart. At 43, Mikey and Nicky has aged better than both of them. —Andy Crump
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
However one aligns Notorious with the rest of Hitchcock’s films—as the first sign of his matriculation into the pantheon of greats, or yet another of his solid-ass thrillers—the film operates as practically any Hitchcock film operates, whether the viewer is deeply familiar with the director or a newcomer, picking off whatever seems worth watching. Notorious is, in other words, good: dependable and flawlessly constructed and entertaining storytelling, but also morally fine-tuned. In Hitchcock films, everything seems to work out as it should—though not for the best—because everything is in its right place, shadows and blocking and editing and dolly shots and crane shots and dialogue and makeup marked indelibly with precision, nothing unintentional, or at least seemingly so. There’s a reason we meet T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) in silhouette from behind, despite and because of Grant’s legendary features, and it most likely has something to do with the duplicitous goings-on he’ll come to represent and become entangled within. When we meet Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), she’s somberly exiting a courtroom to a throng of reporters, having just endured her father’s sentencing for collaborating with the Nazi war machine. Immediately following, we meet a woman practically transformed, the witty life of a small party, drunk despite and because of her father’s fate, and it most likely has something to do with the way in which we’re supposed to judge this woman unfairly, as all the men in her life do, including Devlin, the man with whom she falls in love upon the eve of her first dangerous mission working for the U.S. government as a spy, a job she’s cajoled into by Devlin, the man she loves who also represents the patriarchal systems dooming her to the dichotomy that’s oppressed her throughout her whole life as much as the weight of her father’s sins. Notorious coils in on itself, its vortex-like narrative a function of its characters’ ethical decisions, and its characters’ ethical decisions a function of the narrative Hitchcock puts into play, almost as an inevitability. Wherever one aligns Notorious in the canon of Hitchcock films hardly matters: The Master has you where he wants you. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Anyone who owns a pet reserves a blindspot in their brain for what, if anything (it must be something), runs through that pet’s mind when sitting there—simply there—staring blankly into the middle distance, or at a recliner, or at the front door, or at a wall. It must be something they’re thinking of, because the contrary, that their mind is blank, that they are functionally doing nothing, bears too many disturbing truths, too much incomprehensible stasis, for us to grasp. Between thinking and not thinking, your dog resides, and you resist the terror of confronting that reality. That place. Abbas Kiarostami, however, lives inside that liminal space.
In his final film, the Iranian icon chose 24 pictures—the metaphor so on-the-nose you soon forget it’s there—one painting (Brughel’s Hunters in the Snow) and 23 of his own photographs, to digitally animate in order to “imagine,” as the film’s title cards put it, what occurred in the immediate chronological frame surrounding the once-immutable image, four or so minutes before and/or after. Mostly black and white, a few bedazzled with muted colors, the photos not only luxuriate in Kiarostami’s penchant for picturesque images of nature foregrounded or even limned in man-made borders, structures, and various edifices, but prominently feature animals—birds, so many birds, but also dogs and cats and deer and lions—sitting around, for the most part just yawning and staring, mostly doing nothing. It is, like so many of Kiarostami’s films, a deeply meditative undertaking, as exposed to overwhelmingly moving bouts of emotion as it is to somnambulance. Kiarostami welcomed both, and in many ways the two were inextricable from one another. To enter with Kiarostami the spaces his animations exist within, to truly give in to their languid rhythms, is to reach into the ordinary and find something sublime.
To describe what happens in the frames amounts to something of a spoiler, too, as futile as fighting off sleep somewhere around the 16th segment, but if given enough patience, each picture’s animation provides a self-sustaining narrative, as well as, in many cases, an unexpected ending leaden with tremendous emotional weight. Whether Kiarostami intended this to be his last project or not, 24 Frames is both exactly what one could have hoped before he finished, and nothing like what anyone would imagine he’d succumb to. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Norman Jewison
The racial animosity depicted in director’s Norman Jewison’s Best Picture Oscar winner, about Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), an African-American homicide detective from Philadelphia who stumbles upon a murder mystery in a podunk Mississippi town, tips over into a poignant commentary on art imitating life. Poitier refused to shoot on location, fearing retaliation from southern racists, and even a quick pickup shoot in Tennessee was cut short after Poitier began receiving threats. The genius in Sterling Silliphant’s adaptation of John Ball’s novel, then, is in the borderline anal manner in which he balances social commentary and plot progression. Pretty much every scene contains a new piece of information towards solving the murder case, as well as a damning portrait of racial animosity. The contentious working relationship between Virgil and the local chief of police, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), never resolves cleanly; In the Heat of the Night is smart enough to know that prejudices entrenched within multiple generations will not disappear overnight, if at all. Even moments of bonding between colleagues never steer clear of the racial divide between them. There’s a glimmer of hope in the very final moments, but Jewison always has a handle on his uncompromising tone.
Criterion’s new transfer on Blu-ray looks spectacular, respectfully condensing DP Haskell Wexler’s grainy, docudrama look to 1080p resolution. The disc retains the mono sound mix, but Quincy Jones’ blues score is transcendentally vibrant within the lossless DTS track. Most of the extras from previous home video releases are ported over, however we do get an extensive new interview with Norman Jewison. —Oktay Ege Kozak