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What to Watch on the Criterion Channel

From early Coen brothers noir to Hollywood studio-era gems to masterpieces of world cinema, the newly launched streaming service is the go-to destination for movie lovers   

Paramount/Circle Films/RKO Radio Pictures/Ringer illustration

Despite assurances that he wasn’t wearing a turtleneck or smoking a Gauloises in his appreciation last week of the Criterion Channel, Brian Phillips did come off as a bit of a “fancy-pants cinephile” in rattling off titles from The Spirit of the Beehive to Zatoichi—and that’s OK. By throwing their hat (I’m imagining a fedora worn at a rakish tilt, à la unofficial Galouises spokesman Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s sub-zero thriller Le Samouraï) into the online arena, Criterion—North America’s most venerable home-video brand, from LaserDisc to Blu-ray—has positioned itself as both a peer and a foil to content colossuses like Netflix as well as Apple and Disney’s upcoming streaming services. To say there’s a lot to choose from amid the Criterion Channel’s nicely curated mix of canonical back-catalogue titles, monthly, site-specific programs, and abundance of accessible scholarly supplements is an understatement. For now, here’s a list of 10 terrific movies demonstrating the sprawling historical, aesthetic, geographical, and cultural range of its initial offering.

Ace in the Hole

“A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top” said Mark Twain. Billy Wilder’s superbly nasty black comedy illustrates this aphorism perfectly. Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a journalist who stumbles across the story of a lifetime when he discovers a man trapped by a cave-in in the New Mexico desert. The hapless victim becomes the shameless reporter’s “ace in the hole,” while the hole itself becomes the center ring in a media circus (“the big carnival”) that just keeps spiraling out of control. Loosely based on the true story of the doomed explorer Floyd Collins (whose entrapment earned his chronicler a Pulitzer Prize) but styled by Wilder as a timeless fable about greed and exploitation, Ace in the Hole is as vicious and irreverent as classic Hollywood ever got, bowing to nobody in its righteous cynicism. As Jan Sterling’s opportunistic Lorraine sneers: “kneeling bags my nylons.”

Blood Simple

Like I’m not going to recommend the one Coen brothers movie on the site (so far). On its 35th anniversary, Joel and Ethan’s rookie effort looks more and more like one of their most perfectly realized works. “If that’s their first movie, we’re all fucked,” says Bill Hader in an interview attached to the film. (The Criterion Channel’s “Adventures in Moviegoing” clips, which feature talking heads ranging from Guillermo del Toro to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are generally very entertaining.) What holds up best about Blood Simple, besides its vice-tight plotting and the rotten charisma of M. Emmet Walsh’s evil, manipulative private eye Visser, is the sheer exuberance of the Coens’s visual style, which culminates in the unforgettable image of bullet holes puncturing—and then, through stylized back-lighting, illuminating—a pitch-black room, which transforms a tense cat-and-mouse setpiece into an exercise in abstract expressionism.

The Elephant Man

I sometimes think that John Hurt’s performance in the title role of David Lynch’s sublime biography of the deformed English freak-show performer Joseph Merrick (renamed John in the script) is the greatest piece of film acting I’ve ever seen. From deep beneath layers of latex makeup, Hurt inhabits a highly specific physical and behavioral characterization, while also conveying the essential, universal loneliness of the human soul. (Hurt’s wounded, hysterical conviction when Merrick moans “I am not an animal … I am a human being” withstands any attempt at parody.) As a bridge between Lynch’s underground origins with Eraserhead and his big-studio misadventure on Dune, The Elephant Man is fascinating on a historical level, but, like The Straight Story, it’s also frequently mischaracterized as “atypical”: From the proto–Laura Palmer locket photo of Merrick’s mother that opens the film to its droning sound design and morbidly transcendent ending, it’s more like a template for three decades’ worth of brilliant variations.

Experiment in Terror

One of the Criterion Channel’s first curated programs is Columbia Noir, which spotlights 11 titles from the studio that made its reputation in the 1950s churning out tough, entertaining genre pictures. The series is an embarrassment of riches and features hard-cut gems like Jacques Tourneur’s nightmarish wrong-man thriller Nightfall and Fritz Lang’s rogue-cop drama The Big Heat, but the crown jewel is Experiment in Terror, which was directed by Blake Edwards as a follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Edwards is best known as a master of slapstick comedy, but he turns the screws expertly in this intense, epically plotted procedural about a sting operation against a psychotic bank robber. The opening scene of a woman ambushed in her garage by an intruder is startling and unsettling. The mix of methodical investigative protocol and aberrant psychology against a twisty San Francisco backdrop (including a climax at Candlestick Park during a Giants game) anticipates Bay City thrillers from Dirty Harry to Zodiac.

Kaili Blues

The surprise box-office success of the Chinese director Bi Gan’s mesmerizing new drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night—which picked up hype last year on the festival circuit for an astonishing 59-minute tracking shot that splits the difference between art-house rigor and the weightless thrills of the Oculus Rift—means it’s a good time to check out his 2015 debut. I actually prefer Kaili Blues to its successor, both because its plot about a doctor searching for his nephew accrues genuine emotional resonance in contrast to Long Day’s more oblique romanticism, and because its own show-stopping 40-minute take—much of it mounted on a motorcycle winding through mountain roads before moving to a train—is not just directorial flexing, but rather works to map a series of social, political, and geographical relationships. Bi has a gift gift for bewitching enigmas and virtuoso technique, and he is poised to become one of the most important Chinese filmmakers of the new millennium, just like super-fan Jonathan Demme predicted.

La Ciénaga

Lucrecia Martel’s humid and hallucinatory period piece Zama was fourth on The Ringer’s list of the best movies of 2018. Next up, the Argentinian auteur is working with Björk on a live show in New York City (a much better use of her talents than getting lazily recruited by Marvel). For all her current acclaim, however, I’m not sure than Martel ever really topped her 2001 debut, La Ciénaga, whose title translates to “the swamp” and which plays as a mixture of nouveau riche horror show and slowed-down zombie comedy—call it The Discreet Charm of the Living Dead. Set on a decaying country estate gradually rotting in the sun and infested by buzzing insects as well as a swarm of extended family members, the film is hilarious in a stoned, deadpan sort of way, although its sleepy atmosphere belies a jagged, jabbing sense of social critique. An early image of a suntanned chest impaled by the shards of a broken wine glass becomes an emblem of Martel’s ability to draw blood from her subject matter.

La Jetée

“This is the story of a man, marked an image from his childhood.” So begins Chris Marker’s seminal short film, which pieces together a series of still photographs to tell the story of a time traveler whose ability to access the past is determined entirely by the strength of his memories. The more he remembers, the deeper he goes: Marker’s lucidly dreamy montage is what it’s like to watch with eyes wide shut. More than any of the other French New Wave arty variations on sci-fi to emerge in the 1960s— including Godard’s Alphaville, Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, and Resnais’s Je T’aime, Je T’aimeLa Jetée rewired the genre in terms of style and philosophical content. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys is a hybrid remake/homage, but there are trace elements of Marker’s masterpiece in The Terminator, Primer, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. To fully parse La Jetée in terms of what its 28 minutes say or suggest about photography, war, romance, history, death, and temporality itself would take a lifetime, but it’s also compelling as an in-the-moment viewing experience. Each black-and-white frame is striking, dynamic, surprising, and tragic; they mark you forever.

Mur Murs

The outpouring of social media tributes to the late French director Agnès Varda when she passed away in March at the age of 90 was an example of a great artist receiving mainstream props, mostly posthumously (kudos to the Canadian feminist film journal cléo, which takes its title from Varda’s brilliant, real-time drama Cléo From 5 to 7, for organizing a comprehensive retrospective in Toronto last year). The Best Documentary Oscar nomination for 2017’s Faces/Places, co-directed by Varda and the French artist JR, helped that film reach a wide audience, but there are far better examples of the filmmaker’s artistry on the Criterion Channel, such as 1982’s Mur Murs, a study of Los Angeles street art that anticipated Faces/Places’ study of the connection between aesthetics and community. At a time when American inner-cities were being vilified in American media, Varda travelled to Compton and trained her camera’s curious, attentive, appreciative lens on a series of murals whose defiance, beauty, and simple existence demolished dominant narratives about Los Angeles’ black and Chicano populations.

My Brother’s Wedding

Rushed out of the editing room and long-unreleased, Charles Burnett’s second feature after the epochal and more widely canonized Killer of Sheep doesn’t equal its predecessor’s melancholy poetry, but it’s still essential as a work of probing individual portraiture and as a rejoinder to its maker’s unfortunate legacy of industrial marginalization. Its protagonist, Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas), is a young African American man living in Watts and at loose ends in his personal life and unable to envision a future. His inability to act decisively is either a sign of helpless self-absorption or a conscientious attempt to be all things to a demanding collection of friends, family members, and neighbors.

Alternately nervy, funny, rambling, and devastatingly concise (the last scene’s brutal symbolism stays with you), My Brother’s Wedding is, above all, representative of a strain of American independent cinema conceived and produced in opposition to (and largely in spite of) the surrounding pop-culture climate. Its rediscovery and restoration (the version here is a 2007 director’s cut) represents the kind of earned, cathartic happy ending that Burnett wisely avoided in his own work.

Touki Bouki

The mandate of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema project is to throw light on neglected and underseen masterpieces of world cinema, and Criterion’s decision to stream the contents of both of their WCP box sets is a generous gesture. Djibril Diop Mambéty’s debut feature centers on a young couple, Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), who dream of departing Dakar for Paris and scramble to locate funds (a self-reflexive plot point given the historical reliance of Senegalese cinema on European subsidies). The duo’s mutual restlessness is encoded in the film’s fleet, synaptic editing rhythms, while their longing for an idealized New World plays out on the soundtrack as Josephine Baker sings dreamily of “Par-ree.” A flop on its initial release, Touki Bouki has long since been reclaimed by critics as a work of potent postcolonial commentary (a sight gag including a human skull is viciously funny) and its iconography was recycled by the Carters as part of their 2018 world tour promotion. Criterion’s presentation includes a thoughtful interview with the Mauritanian auteur Abderrahmane Sissako, whose excellent satires Bamako and Timbuktu derive from Mambéty’s pioneering example.