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Seven Great Criterion Collection DVDs

Going until the end of the month, Barnes and Noble is offering a whopping 50 percent off Criterion Collection films.

For those unfamiliar with the brand, Criterion is a cross between a film preservation society and a bunch of AV-philes. They take movies old and new, mostly global yet also Western, then clean up the image, add a slew of extras and release the DVDs. Some films are long lost to current audiences, such as the recent release of Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, others are more in-depth, glamorous editions of  mainstream fair, like the special edition of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.*

*I’m putting my distaste of "Benjamin Button" in a footnote, because if I alluded my feelings to it in the paragraph, I’d probably have to mention the Nazi’s in Night Train are kind of sympathetic, because it was before the Germans went for the UK and, well, like Pearl Harbor being released in July 2001, a product of it’s time (but unlike Pearl Harbor, it’s a great film). Either way, "Benjamin Snooze Button" is my three word review -- and I like pretentious film! And I like David Fincher! What the hell happened?

If my version didn’t make particular sense, here’s the mission statement/about us from the Criterion Collection website:  http://www.criterion.com/

Since 1984, the Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films, has been dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. Over the years, as we moved from laserdisc to DVD, Blu-ray disc, and online streaming, we’ve seen a lot of things change, but one thing has remained constant: our commitment to publishing the defining moments of cinema for a wider and wider audience. The foundation of the collection is the work of such masters of cinema as Renoir, Godard, Kurosawa, Cocteau, Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Fuller, Lean, Kubrick, Lang, Sturges, Dreyer, Eisenstein, Ozu, Sirk, Buñuel, Powell and Pressburger. Each film is presented uncut, in its original aspect ratio, as its maker intended it to be seen. Every time we start work on a film, we track down the best available film elements in the world, use state-of-the-art telecine equipment and a select few colorists capable of meeting our rigorous standards, then take time during the film-to-video digital transfer to create the most pristine possible image and sound. Whenever possible, we work with directors and cinematographers to ensure that the look of our releases does justice to their intentions. Our supplements enable viewers to appreciate Criterion films in context, through audio commentaries by filmmakers and scholars, restored director’s cuts, deleted scenes, documentaries, shooting scripts, early shorts, and storyboards. To date, more than 150 filmmakers have made our library of Director Approved DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and laserdiscs the most significant archive of contemporary filmmaking available to the home viewer.

Now, onto the list!

Seven essential Criterion Collection Discs (Out-of-print favorites, such as early John Woo, Spinal Tap, and others are not included). And yes, I realize I’m leaving out a lot of great works. This is a short list. Go to the website and find more.

This list is more about films that wouldn’t be available in good editions or at all if not for Criterion.

7. The 400 Blows – François Truffaut – 1959
One of the most artful, endearing, and influential films of the French New Wave, Truffaut’s highly personal film remains one of the best “Coming of Age stories” ever made for its human touch, gritty, hounest emotional moments, and the ambiguity of it's famous last frame. Only mildly dated (as in it takes a minute or two to readjust to the filming vocabulary of the era) compared to other films of its era, The 400 Blows is a very easy film in a sometimes daunting canon of “art Cinema” to watch and enjoy. (Also on Blu-ray)

6. Great Expectations – David Lean – 1946 
Probably the greatest book-to-film adaptation of all time, or at least in the top five. It’s a work that succeeds as a film just as much as it does as a re-figuring of the narrative: It translates the prose to cinema, not just the words to dialogue. The opening scene on the moor could be out of a horror film; its atmosphere and mood are genuinely scary. It also manages to do something Dickens could not: provide an actual ending.

5. For All Mankind – Al Reinert – 1989
Released 20 years after the U.S. walked on the moon, this is a documentary about the space program by the people who were in the atmosphere. Yes, this is a film with actual honest to god, traveled in space, astronauts talking about what it’s like to be in space. Intelligent, hopeful, and truly (not in an adapted by Hollywood way) inspiring, it’s one of the best documentaries ever made. (Also on Blu-ray)

Watch it for free here:


4. The Rules of the Game – Jean Renoir – 1939 – and Grand Illusion - Jean Renoir – 1937
Two works within a three-year span from the same director that almost always wind up on lists of the top 100 films of all time (and usually one makes the top 20, if not both). It’s like Inception and The Dark Knight times 100. So yeah, I’m bending the rules of the list a bit. Both of these are available only via Criterion, both underwent intense restoration, and both are accompanied with great extras and information about the films.

3. Paths Of Glory – Stanley Kubrick – 1957
The box set of his work begins with 1961’s Lolita, but for Kubrick fans, this is where he truly made the leap from good into the discussion of greatest ever. Always referred to as one of the great war/anti-war films of all time, the one common word used is “powerful,” and it’s easy to see why. The performances, storytelling, and themes all add real power and increase the audience’s sense of injustice to greater heights by this film than maybe any other in cinema history. (To be released this fall, also on Blu-ray).

2. Rushmore – Wes Anderson – 1998
The first film by Criterion I bought, Rushmore -- along with Fight Club and the title at #1 on this list -- remains my gold standard for a DVD. The movie has immaculate image quality, the commentaries feature people who care about the film enough to speak honestly about it and the added extras enhance the film rather than just add background to the production. The art design and menus add just a little bit of an extra oomph to make the disc all the more endearing. It’s like a great album of music with a great album cover, something about the overall package makes it all the better.

1. Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa – 1954
So the villagers are a bit melodramatic in the first hour, and the film is in black and white with an aspect ratio, so it doesn't feel particularly cinematic … and those are about the only complaints I can come up with. The editions (from the original one disc, to the three disc, and now the Blu-ray) of the film that Criterion has released have always been at the forefront of the technology, featuring the best picture quality possible, and as the technology of the discs increased, so too, did the sound, extras, and with Blu-ray, the image quality. If not for Criterion, the film would only be available on two-tape VHS editions of awful quality, or, gasp, Laserdisc! Seven Samurai tops the list not necessarily because it’s the best film or disc, thought those are perfectly good reasons. Mostly it’s because of the film’s quality, its overall importance to film history, and what the end product is, a great film in the hands of people who care about cinema, like Criterion.

Go get yours now! Follow David via the digital high podcast, on twitter @ineverlovedyou3 or formspring him at Radiofreedave.


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