by Ashley Naftule
It’s that most wonderful time of the year, cinephiles: the Barnes & Noble’s 50% Criterion sale! It’s a time for film lovers to rejoice and for their wallets to weep leathery tears. In the interests of enabling all you degenerate film collectors out there, here’s a list of six classics that should be a part of everyone’s film library. Most of these should still be in print, so take advantage of that 50% off while you still can.
The final film by French master Robert Bresson. It uses Bresson’s signature style of flat, naturalistic acting (no other filmmaker has used The Kuleshov Effect to such stirring effect) to tell a compelling story (loosely inspired by Tolstoy) about the evil men do for money. With its cleanly shot compositions, stately pacing, and striking imagery, it’s a great introduction to one of France’s most distinctive auteurs.
WR: Mysteries of the Organism
What do Communist revolutions, ice skating, orgasmic science, Tuli Kupferberg, and Wilhelm Reich have in common? They’re all a part of Dušan Makavejev’s madcap, Dadaist countercultural classic WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Mixing on the street interviews with performance art happenings and fictional portions depicting a people’s revolution, the film is a riotous depiction of sex, anarchy, and acid-damaged ’60s weirdness. Make this a double feature with Makavejev’s even more incendiary film Sweet Movie (also a part of the Collection) and you’ll have hours of taboo-breaking, mind-melting cinema to enjoy.
Fair warning: if neither of these films makes you uncomfortable at any point, you probably have a few screws loose.
Six Moral Tales
Box sets can be pricey, but this one is worth every penny. A collection of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, it’s jam-packed with classics like Claire’s Knee, My Night At Maud’s, and Love In The Afternoon. While Rohmer was a part of the French New Wave, his films stood out for their emphasis on writing (his screenplays crackle with as much wit, subtext, and tension as a fine stage play) and lovely seasonal landscapes. Rohmer possessed a keen visual eye, but didn’t employ the kind of visual experimentation and techniques that Godard, Truffaut (esp. in his Shoot The Piano Player), and Agnes Varda were running wild with in their films. If this were New York rock music, consider Rohmer the Grizzly Bear to their TV On The Radio – he’s the pop classicist with an eye and ear for structure.
David Thewlis’ work in Mike Leigh’s Naked is the kind of performance that other actors would kill for. He does such a great job getting under the skin of sociopathic drifter Johnny that every frame he’s in in Naked could be considered a mic drop. It’s the kind of performance that would make an early retirement from acting well-deserved.
If watching Thewlis stomp and brood and glower and rant his way on a psychogeographic trip through London in Leigh’s opus isn’t enough of an incentive to watch Naked, the film has other hooks to drag you in. The clever and thoughtful screenplay, for one. And Leigh’s darkly lit mise en scene is a great depiction of a dank and dirty England, a place full of walls with rotting show posters, tight stairwells where strangers can accost each other, and gleaming office buildings devoid of life. The film’s a slice of life, a moment of history caught in amber, before London became a CCTV-riddled Orwellian landscape.
But for real, though: you’ll never look at Remus Lupin the same way again.
If Louis Malle’s 1975 film Black Moon isn’t the weirdest film in the Criterion Collection, it’s got to be a close second. Malle himself was a strange director – despite producing a run of fantastic movies, the French filmmaker’s individual style and philosophy was hard to pin down. Most directors would reveal their identity if you watched five minutes of their footage – the same can’t be said for Louis. Malle seemed to completely subsume himself in his work. From Elevator To The Gallows to My Dinner With Andre, the man could pivot from noir to existential angst to World War 2 drama to romance without missing a beat. But he did make two strange films that seemed to be uniquely his own: Zazie Dans Le Metro and Black Moon. It’s hard to imagine either film springing from the mind of anyone else.
Black Moon is a baffling beast of a movie. A young girl fleeing from gask mask-wearing oppressors finds herself in a country manor overrun with unicorns and talking animals. The tone of the film is a pervy fairy tale – like Walerian Borowczyk trying to adapt Alice in Wonderland. Full of weird moments of eroticism, cryptic plot twists, and the monstrous voices of the animals (never have talking animals sounded more genuinely animalistic than they do in this movie), it’s a film that gives even batshit crazy classics like House a run for their money as the Collection’s top WTF release.
Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast may be his most well-known film, but it’s not his best. That honor goes to the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy. Reuniting with his Beast star, Jean Marais, Cocteau recasts the story of Orpheus in modern France. Marais plays Orpheus as a public intellectual, a French poet who’s literally in love with his own death. All the elements of the Orpheus legend are there: the trip to the underground, “don’t look back”, the bard’s violent end. But Cocteau spices it up by adding new surreal elements to the mix: his signature walking-through-mirrors shots, the underground’s strange bureaucracy of individualized Deaths, the convoluted methods Orpheus employs to not see his resurrected Eurydice. It’s a haunting, gorgeous B&W film that feels mythic yet modern in its sensibilities. If you only watch one Cocteau, make it this one.