In last week’s ScreenTime column I teased the future, promising to write about Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, out everywhere this weekend. I had planned to talk about the incredible cast; how I consider The Dark Knight to be one of the only recent films I’d call an all-time classic; and, naturally, the expectations – both creative and financial – for Rises. Then I got to thinking … isn’t every film writer on earth going to be writing about this movie? And did Nolan even really want to make this movie? Word was that he did not. That at some point someone came to him and said something like “Generations of Nolans will be able to live off of the profits of this single movie.” That he had to make the flick. That it’d be career suicide if he didn’t follow up one of the all-time most successful major film productions with a sequel. All that in mind, I decided not to write this week’s column about The Dark Knight Rises (or even the new season of “Breaking Bad”). Sure, I’m still totally excited about the film. And sure, I could write some awesomely lustful things about Bruce Wayne’s new love interest, played by Marion Cotillard. Or maybe something fun about the movie’s villain, played by Tom Hardy, who was remarkable in a Nicholas Winding Refn flick called Bronson a few years back. But, instead, I’ve chosen to once again babble on about the Criterion Collection, as they are currently having one of their amazing half-off sales at Barnes and Noble stores around the country.
While in the past I’ve written at length about my favorite Criterion releases, or specific Criterion releases that have changed my idea of cinema-as-art, this time around I plan to highlight something else the folks at the CC offices do oh-so-well, and that’s their unique ability to offer after-the-fact attention to the early work of new-ish, youngish, fresh-ish movie maker of the days. The little-known movie that came out before the movie that made the waves. The flick that earned virtually no revenue in the theaters but impressed the right person – or persons – at a festival somewhere. The small, artsy beginnings that deserve to be seen, and without the Criterion branding, might’ve just been lost to time and apathy. So here they are, our 10 favorite Criterion releases that highlight the early, little-known work of today’s masters.
10. It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (Richard Linklater, 1988) - In order to secure the very modest funding for his artform-altering 1991 classic, Slacker, Linklater had to prove his abilities. He did so by making this film, which is available as a bonus disc on Criterion’s Slacker release. Plow has proved to be an inspiration to DIY filmmakers ever since that Slacker reissue, inspiring many of the still-recent Mumblecore movement heroes. In it’s way, it’s a great first work.
9. Hunger (Steven McQueen) - Before he made last year’s amazing Shame, McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender made this movie, about IRA hunger strike leader Bobby Sands. It’s beautiful and gritty and a visionary first piece of long-form work. And, had the Criterion Collection not shown it their light, very few people outside of Cannes would’ve ever seen the movie.
8. Permanent Vacation (Jim Jarmusch, 1981) - Jarmusch’s first feature film will likely only be of interest to you if: (A) You really like Jim Jarmusch; and (B) You really like Manhattan. Available only as a bonus disc with Criterion’s Stranger than Paradise release, Vacation helps us understand where the auteur’s vision began while also showing us a version of New York City – where artists can live for cheap and the streets are dirty and seemingly forgotten – that will never exist again (and sadly wasn’t captured much while it was around). The first serious work from one of today’s best artists, available only from Criterion. Shot by Tom DiCillo and starring John Lurie.
7. Solo Con Tu Pareja (Alfonso Cuaron, 1991) - Long before Cuaron made the best Harry Potter film and the best modern sci-fi film, 2006’s Children of Men, he made a colorful, beautifully edited sex farce called Solo Con Tu Pareja in Mexico. Moderately successful in its homeland, the film did nothing in the U.S., only gaining fans as Cuaron’s career took off, not seeing a proper U.S. release until the CC crew put the movie out. Turns out it’s the first masterpiece from one of today’s best filmmakers.
6. Crumb (Terry Twigoff, 1994) - Sure, a lot of people know this flick, about underground comic Robert Crumb, now and a lot of people love it. But when Crumb was released, it was a very small movie that very few people knew about. The movie came out on DVD and VHS and gained a cult following good enough to get Zwigoff a career, but, still, the movie was absolutely a cult film that few knew about. By giving Crumb a re-release, Criterion has helped the movie find a new audience in today’s less-prudish youth. A masterwork of endurance and Weird America storytelling.
5. Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach, 1995) - Not the Will Ferrell film about soccer but the movie that jumpstarted the career of one of today’s best American writer / directors, Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale). A college classic that was a cult favorite on VHS and then a forgotten film during the early DVD age. Finally, Criterion released the movie on DVD and BAM, Baumach was again getting his movies made.
4. Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) - Criterion’s latest stroke of reissue genius, this incredibly well written, highly stylized crime/buddy dramedy from the guy who did Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting did decent in the UK and hardly sold a ticket otherwise. DVD sales for the original version of the film have been next to nothing in the U.S. until the Criterion edition hit a month or so ago. Now the film is suddenly being called a “90s classic” by cinephiles. And rightfully so. The power of the C. A beautiful, complex, creative film whose reputation will only continue to swell.
3. Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990) - No Stillman, no Lena Dunham. And maybe no Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach, either. Certainly no HBO’s “Girls.” Despite starting a lot of careers, influencing a generation and getting an Oscar nomination, Metropolitan remained a cult film for years and years, selling less than $3 million at the box office. Despite a brief Laserdisc release, the movie was VHS-only until the mid Naughts. After Criterion put the movie out on DVD it’s reputation grew and grew, and now more people have seen it than ever before.
2. Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996) - Sure, Anderson’s first feature was well known before the Criterion folks prettied it up a couple of years ago. That said, Bottle was typically written up as the minor work that preceded Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. This because the original VHS and DVD transfer of the movie looked ridiculiously horrible. And because we knew little about the movie. When Criterion did their edition of the film it quickly became one of the collection’s biggest sellers, not just presenting the film to a new generation, but renewing interest in Anderson-as-modern-genius.
1. George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000) - Essentially a student film that didn’t win any notable festival awards or Oscar nominations, and only made $42,000 at the box office, David Gordon Green’s debut movie is one known by every worthwhile cinephile and film student in the country. It’s a big, beautiful original on par with American classics like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven in reputation. And, without the attention Criterion showed the movie immediately, there’s a good chance that very few people would know about poor George and his friends. Criterion has done a whole lot of good things in the film community, and picking up on movies like George Washington is one of the best, as Green went on to run with the opportunity that came from the CC exposure, making some of the best movies of the last 10 years, including All the Real Girls, Undertow, Pineapple Express and Snow Angels.