Best of Criterion’s New Releases, August 2021

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Best of Criterion’s New Releases, August 2021

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, anything, to discover, find all of our Criterion picks, check out some of our favorite new releases from August and, hey, since many of us have a lot more time on our hands, browse through the 100 best offerings currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Ashes and Diamonds

ashes-and-diamonds-poster.jpg Year: 1958
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Stars: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska, Waclaw Zastrzezynski, Adam Pawlikowski
Runtime: 103 minutes

A Polish cinematic milestone, Ashes and Diamonds is a strikingly specific vision of a nation’s tumultuous political identity and a universally relatable look at rebellious youth. Zbigniew Cybulski—proving himself the James Dean of Poland with his messy coiffed hair, dark shades, tight clothes and sexy-sad swagger—becomes an emblem of post-war Poland thanks to director Andrzej Wadja and cinematographer Jerzy Wojcik’s framing. Cybulski’s screw-up, doubting assassin Maciek finds himself crouched in spiraling shadows, confronted with overbearing religious imagery and in the arms of bartender Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), who matches his alluring disaffection tit for tat. Capturing the controlled chaos of war through celebration and political jostling rather than through combat, Wajda’s adaptation of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel is a dense ideological text and a black-and-white visual feast. The Germans have been beaten, but what do the Communists have in store? The war wreaked havoc on the landscape and architecture, but what will be built on the ruins—and is it worth pining for what was ruined? Long takes involving controlled actorly physicality, like the assembly of a gun or the sliding/lighting aflame of liquor shots, immerse you just as intensely as some conspicuously artsy and imagery-laden frames yank you right back out. It’s a negotiation, a pessimistic trial-and-error that understands that any step forward necessarily gambles taking a couple steps back. Disaffection is natural; cynicism is easy; beauty and commitment are rare, fleeting and admirable…if you can find them at all. But despite the pain and hardship (and there’s plenty to go around here), Wajda’s film still finds things worth struggling for.—Jacob Oller


Original Cast Album: Company

original-cast-album-company-poster.jpg Year: 1970
Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Runtime: 53 minutes

As a distributor known for highly curated, prestige selections, the Criterion Collection has plenty of releases that, while undeniably important to cinema, appeal to what one might call a “finely honed” audience. Of course, that makes releases like D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company all the more thrilling for those of us whom “musical theater,” “cast recording” and “behind-the-scenes documentary” represent some elusive, near-mythical mélange of a sweet spot. Shot over the course of one marathon recording session by the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Pennebaker’s documentary captures some faces you might recognize, a few voices you will, and plenty of lesser known—especially some 50 years later—people in the midst of doing the basic, yet crucial (especially at the time) work of capturing the magic of a stage musical in the much sturdier, “forever” medium of studio recording. As is often the case with Criterion, just having this documentary widely available again represents its own milestone, but along with new audio commentary by Sondheim, new conversations and interviews, the extras of Original Cast Album: Company include its own “proof of influence”—the 2019 Documentary Now! episode parodying the original film (and the cast reunion a year later). At just 53 minutes, Pennebaker’s film is worth watching even if your own cinematic sweet spots occur far removed from musicals and recording studios.—Michael Burgin


After Life

after-life-poster.jpg Year: 1998
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Stars: Arata, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima
Runtime: 118 minutes

There is no better shepherd for guiding the souls of the dead into the great beyond than Hirokazu Kore-eda, who just might be the world’s gentlest living filmmaker. No matter his subject, whether petty theft and kidnapping (Shoplifters) or murder (The Third Murder), Kore-eda sees people as people in all their complexity, for better and worse, good and ill, perfect and flawed. His films aren’t interested in judgment. He doesn’t force people into binaries and make them either heroes or villains. The man cares, considerably more than civilized society as his films portray it. (So maybe he does judge, but institutions are more deserving of judgment than the people living under their authority.) After Life, Kore-eda’s second narrative feature, lays the foundation of his humanity in the most extreme circumstance possible: Death and what comes next. When people shuffle off their mortal coil, they stop at a way station and are asked by a team of spiritual counselors to choose their happiest memory to take with them to the other side. On making that choice, the memory is turned into a film, and the dead relive that moment from here to the end of time, experiencing this moment on a loop with no memories of the rest of their life. Endless happiness. Endless joy. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a single moment. What would you take with you into the hereafter? Everyone’s pick is different and they make those picks for different, sometimes surprising, reasons, but no matter what Kore-eda’s cast carry into their eternities, he treats them all with the same tenderness that has defined his career since.—Andy Crump


Beasts of No Nation

beasts-of-no-nation-poster.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Stars: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Afadzi, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike
Runtime: 136 minutes

How lush, how painful, how empty. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation adapts Uzodinma Iweala’s novel into a bleak drama about men, the military and power masquerading as a traumatic coming-of-age tale. Led by the spectacular combination of Abraham Attah (young villager-turned-child-soldier Agu) and Idris Elba (the power-hungry Commandant that turns him), Beasts of No Nation may not fully transport us into the mind of its young lead, but its intense stare as tragedy unfolds is enthralling nonetheless. Sequences of hallucinogenic color and period-that’s-final throwaway violence help visually explain the intoxicating nature of the armed forces, as boys and men alike struggle to maintain their humanity amidst war. The indoctrinating danger of leaders, especially those preying on the disenfranchised, offers the film’s most striking and near-Shakespearean drama—Elba finds a very specific kind of charismatic evil that’s easy to hate and understand—but never is the film more moving than when it errs on the side of the childlike. Kids poking their heads through TV sets as they put their imaginations to use or operating firearms in desperate attempts at mercy—these are what tear Beasts of No Nation away from the predators and give it back to those that, as we see by film’s end, they can never fully warp.—Jacob Oller