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, and check out some of our top titles this November:
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
When the wealthy commit crimes, the world goes on turning like normal. When the less wealthy commit crimes, the world goes bananas. In Kenji Mizoguchi’s A Story from Chikamatsu, the crimes of the former outweigh the crimes of the latter, but that hardly matters to anyone other than karma. Kyoto-based scroll-maker Ishun (Eitaro Shindo) steals into his maid’s bedroom to hit on her despite her repeated refusals to be his plaything, and he gets away with it on the back of social mores that let him get away with it. Meanwhile, his apprentice Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa) embezzles from Ishun, gets caught, gets simultaneously and falsely accused of banging the very same maid, and winds up locked in attic. Crime is crime, but at least Mohei steals from a rich dude for a good reason: Ishun’s long-suffering wife, Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), asks him to help her secure a loan for her brother after being refused by Ishun. So it’s really Ishun’s own damn fault. He’s a creep, too. Mohei’s crime is victimless, but he pays for it, and so does Osan, in 1700s ignominy.
A Story from Chikamatsu ranks lower than Mizoguchi’s more highly prized films, like Ugetsu and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, but works as a precisely calibrated morality play in which death isn’t the worst of all evils and “justice” is fickle, a concept best defined by the public eye. (It’s also a better “filmed play” than most, being based on an old joruri play and diligently filmed in such fashion that, as noted in the terrific essay Haden Guest wrote to accompany the Blu-ray, “recalls the fixed position of a theater audience before a stage.” That at least takes planning and imagination.) —Andy Crump
Director: Billy Wilder
In one of the many valuable archival cast and crew interviews found in Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of Billy Wilder’s iconic comedy Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon, while doing a terrific Wilder impression, recalls the phone call he received pitching him on one of the main roles in the film. Lemmon thought the premise—of two prohibition-era jazz musicians (Lemmon and Tony Curtis) having to disguise themselves as women and infiltrate an all-female band in order to get away from the mob—to be as hacky as it sounds. But, he points out, it was Wilder, so he went with it, all the while wondering if this great writer and director has finally cracked.
It’s hard not to sympathize with Lemmon: It is a silly premise, but with Wilder behind it, it can easily become comedy gold. The sexism inherent in the story of course hasn’t aged well. Likewise, Wilder and frequent co-writer IAL Diamond briefly have the male musicians in drag sympathize with the opposite gender after being groped by a slew of men, but it’s nowhere near enough to compensate for the rest of the runtime spent on Lemmon and Curtis ogling the girls, complete with an especially uncomfortably long ass shot of Marilyn Monroe. Yet it’s hard to deny the terrific timeless comedy Wilder puts on display. The chemistry especially sizzles between Lemmon and character actor Joe E. Brown, whose clueless millionaire mommy’s boy ironically delivers the famous final line of the film. Their sub-plot involving Brown courting Lemmon is the film’s true gem. (Focus on that instead of the flat romance between Monroe and Curtis; the two apparently hated each other, and it shows on screen.)
Some Like It Hot is one of the most stunning black-and-white comedies ever made, with a deft mix of bright and lively lighting and stark contrast found in the old-school gangster flicks Wilder admired so much. That’s why Criterion’s new transfer is important: The incredibly crisp look gives us more detail than we’ve ever seen from this classic before. Although I find the grain in the previous Blu-ray release to contain some old Hollywood charm, it’s hard to deny just how clearer the film now looks. Most of the extras from the previous physical media releases were ported over, but the real special feature here is an hour-long candid and loose interview between Dick Cavett and Billy Wilder. Fans of the film’s eye-catching dresses should be interested in a new documentary about the costume design. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: David Byrne
Like almost everything David Byrne conjures—most recently, his tour behind solo album American Utopia and his 2012 art piece/book How Music Works—True Stories, the man’s only narrative feature, both revels in and calmly nods to the jubilation of eccentricity. His aforementioned tour is as triumphantly, meticulously assembled as Stop Making Sense, and his book, which he explains in its intro is meant to be a series of chapters able to be read in whatever order one chooses, simultaneously lives up to its title with academic rigor, and fantasizes, awestruck and child-like—as only Byrne can pull off—about the magic of sound. So it is with his True Stories, a celebration of a fictional Texas town, upon the eve of its big sesquicentennial, serving as a bigger celebration of the “specialness” of each and every one of us. Only Byrne could hold aloft such a contradiction, claiming that every single person is equally eccentric—that every single person should be celebrated, together, for being so different. He’s nothing if not magnanimous.
A stranger (Byrne) dressed in colorful cowboy formal gear coasts into Virgil, Texas aboard his convertible, explaining both the history of Texas and the ecosystem of its small-town denizens, who all, in some form or another, owe their livelihood to Varicorp, Virgil’s primary employer and behemoth computer company. Accompanied by esoteric title cards and teensy vignettes, the stranger’s welcomed by Virgil folks as he tours around, meeting kind-hearted lothario Louis Fyne (John Goodman, source of inimitable warmth and light in an early role), or marveling at a woman (Swoozie Kurtz) who’s so rich he can spend her life in bed, fed the world via TV and magazines, or sitting wide-eyed at dinner with the owner of Varicorp (Spalding Grey) as he communicates with his wife (Annie McEnroe) through their children and describes, as their meal glows beatifically, what metaphysical wonders his company hath wrought. Throughout, Byrne acts extra-terrestrial, super-nice but odd, each line read pushed from his mouth as if he’s discovering words for the first time, endlessly curious and heedlessly non-judgmental. He is, in other words, Virgil’s Virgil, leading the viewer through an alien world that, turns out, is only alien to the tour guide. The rest of us, we recognize the consumerism and industrialism and romance and religiosity on display—it is, all of it, explicitly American, a sensation Byrne seems to both criticize and embrace as uniquely geared towards essentialism. True Stories contains both the promise and failure of the American way, people seemingly happy only if they’re given the wide open space—of Texas at that—to be themselves.
Aesthetically, True Stories mimics Byrne’s friendly weirdness and boundless worldliness. Ed Lachman shoots Texan vistas as if they’re the last bastion of paradise (seriously, the movie is surprisingly gorgeous), but Byrne is never far from artificiality, be it amidst a mock driving background, with his stranger yanking the wheel back and forth like he’s in a crappy sitcom, or submerged in a fashion show in which children dress like adults and adults wear suits patterned after brick walls and large ferns, smiling throughout as if all of this is very, very normal. In that push and pull, Byrne thrives: between the hyper detail of a thousand different characters and the expansive landscapes of a state riddled with social and political turmoil. Between grand gestures about humanity and a diminutive description of where he got his car from. All of it is beautiful, and all of it is a matter of perspective, and each of us have a perspective Byrne finds beautiful. For us struggling optimists, True Stories is ecstasy. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Along with their monthly releases of extras-laden gems (both lesser and well-known), Criterion occasionally releases something that’s several degrees more impressive than its usual fare. Last year, it was the mammoth 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012. This year, no offense to the Olympics, may represent the Holy Grail of boxed set film collections—Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. In Criterion’s own words, the collection is novelly “arranged as a film festival with opening and closing nights bookending double features and centerpieces” and “spans six decades and thirty-nine films—including such celebrated classics as The Seventh Seal, Persona, and Fanny and Alexander alongside previously unavailable works like Dreams, The Rite, and Brink of Life.” Ingmar Bergman is one of those masters whose influence has permeated film culture consciousness even as the average movie-lover’s actual experience with his work declines. (Media saturation is real.) Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema represents a unique opportunity to explore what made the director so beloved and respected in the first place. (And it comes with a 248-page book filled with essays that further explore and curate the “Festival” you’re attending, along with 30+ hours of supplemental content.) Set yourself a challenge for 2019—Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema awaits. —Michael Burgin