One can always expect a rewarding year from the Criterion Collection, yet the company seemed to stand at a crossroads in 2013. The usual talk of physical media’s impending death may be an ongoing irritant for such reliable producers of essential home-video content, yet that notion was disproven largely by the upswing in viable competitors for cinephiles’ limited dollars. Olive Films continued to rise despite a slightly slowed output, failing to match Criterion on extras for its releases but meeting the label’s mission to make available the ignored, in some cases even going bolder than Criterion in preserving the post-’67 work of Jean-Luc Godard. Cohen Film Collection came from nowhere to snag prestige titles like D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” along with deep cuts like Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Two Men in Manhattan.” And for those of us on this side of the pond, the increasingly mouth-watering array of films offered by the UK’s Masters of Cinema label has practically demands saving away for a region-free Blu-Ray player and import costs for discs.
Despite this ever-growing pool of competition, however, Criterion found its own ways to rise to the challenge. The company’s partnerships with other distributors, some new, others strengthened, resulted in a slew of great acquisitions and, in the work done with IFC Films, a direct pipeline for contemporary films to hit DVD on Criterion first, thus increasing the chance of their coffers being filled to work on more obscure fare. Shifting costs and demographics resulted in the introduction of a dual-format standard that includes a DVD and Blu-Ray in every new release. And the ever-increasing finesse and sophistication of Criterion’s restoration work made for a year in which one could count on one hand the number of titles that boasted less-than-stellar transfers, perhaps the only truly unfortunate example being a vexingly poor upgrade of Max Ophüls’ great “Madame de…”
The biggest breakthrough, however, was a matter of sheer quantity: 2013 was the year that Criterion committed in earnest to the box set. Issued here and there in Criterion’s past (not counting their numerous bare-bones Eclipse releases), massive compilations become something of the norm this year, with many such sets in the list below. The range among these compilations was as impressive as their contents: a collection of idiosyncratic, revealing world cinema sat against the belated availability of a legally buried master. Then there is the matter of the Zatoichi box set, a gorgeous high-definition behemoth that raises one’s hopes for future releases of gargantuan, one-fell-swoop grabs of a filmography. (My own hopes, particularly in light of a recent, similar French release, are for the complete Éric Rohmer.) All in all, it seems as if the label has opened a new chapter in its history, and their best work this year bears out their renewed, expanded commitment to delivering top-notch work to its customers.
10. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP
I’m loath to include upgrades in any showcase of Criterion’s great yearly offerings, but exceptions can always been made when an old DVD edition is given such a thorough clean-up that its included movie becomes practically a new film, and when the film itself may be the best of all time. The Archers’ “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” comes from a comic strip, but it plays like a great 19th-century novel, an expansive work that condenses an entire history of a nation even as its minute character focus crystallizes that history. Its lush cinematography is one of its strongest attributes, and the new DVD and Blu-Ray editions elicit the best of a masterpiece, with the red of the British flag and the shimmering gray of expressionistic age makeup given their fullest definition. A batch of new extras confirm this not merely as a mild improvement but a total revision.
9. MONSIEUR VERDOUX
Props to Criterion for following seemingly no pattern but its own in releasing the catalogue of Charlie Chaplin. No one else would have put out “Monsieur Verdoux” before “City Lights,” yet it is “Verdoux” that most benefits from the legitimization of that elegant “C” stamp. The great director’s most misunderstood film, “Monsieur Verdoux” is, in truth, the greatest, blackest satire of American cinema, a work that punctures the postwar high with a reminder of the inextricable link between wounded fascism and unchecked capitalism. Underneath it all, however, is one of the great character studies, a work that plays on Chaplin’s humanism to dig deep into an anti-human story, contextualizing the political content around the textured, terrifying psychology of its central character. Even now, parts of it are scandalous in their acidity, and one can only hope that its boosted profile will not only expose people to Chaplin’s best film but to make many reconsider their often simple notions of the director.
8. REPO MAN
A number of labels devoted to cult films either started or had their breakthroughs this year, all of them all but openly angling to be the Criterion of trash. As if to remind the kids who was still boss, Criterion put out one of the great cult films, Alex Cox’s seminally punk “Repo Man,” in a package filled to burst with extras and so perfectly designed that the box itself seemed a bonus; truly, Tyler Stout’s line-heavy, self-consciously “cool” drawing style has never been more appropriate. The film, of course, is near-perfect, a snotty rant against corporatized product homogenization (it would make a good double bill with the “Starbucking” of this year’s “The World’s End”) that takes equal aim at the shiftless layabouts who fancy themselves rebels against that system. Maybe the greatest pleasure of all is the option of watching the film with its infamous clean version, littered with such terrific euphemisms as “melonfarmer.”
7. PIERRE ETAIX
Criterion kicked off its year of ambitious box sets with this, a collection of the features and shorts by a French filmmaker long entangled in legal hassles that kept his films unseen. Now modest when stacked against some of the releases from later in the year, this set nevertheless introduced a filmmaker who not only begged comparisons to Chaplin and Tati, but earned them, with films of a delightful but charged wit that may not scale the heights of his inspirations but shows clear understanding of their minute attention to comic detail. Less a work of restoration than resurrection.
Anyone who ever tried to watch scratchy VHS rips and scarcely improved DVDs of Satyajit Ray’s work must stand in utter awe when one of his films comes out on a Criterion disc. The yellowed, distorted images that previously marked the only condition in which many could view his work has been replaced by true monochrome in breathtaking clarity. “Charulata,” like the other Ray films so far released by Criterion, is not a work of poverty-focused neorealism but a study of a stagnant but yearning bourgeoisie, with frames of decadently decorated prisons that are given further thematic depth for their superficial beautification. With newly sharpened edges and dimensions, the film makes plainer how trapped its protagonist is within her loveless, ordained marriage, and how much the frame comes alive when she feels the doomed possibility of love with another.
5. ON THE WATERFRONT
The thought of Criterion preserving an already enshrined, well-kept classic might have seemed a waste of resources, and as if responding to such thoughts, the label put out one of their most thorough packages for Elia Kazan’s masterpiece. Not only is it stuffed with extras—a commentary track, numerous interviews, an hour-long documentary and visual essays, among other goodies—but its restoration comes with one’s choice of aspect ratios, giving one the chance to see the film as it would have been framed across multiple presentation formats. It is far-fetched to think that Criterion might have done this as some kind of dare to Jeff Wells to find something to whine about, but isn’t it pretty to think so?
New Hollywood may have stabilized the studio system in the ‘70s with more socially oriented, angrier films, but it is the 1960s that saw the most truly experimental works ever allowed by the studio system. Case in point: John Frankenheimer’s demented, nightmarish “Seconds,” a work of fractured style and multifaceted, metatextual thematic content (its narrative of people being “reborn” to fit into society featuring a cast of formerly blacklisted performers led by the most infamously closeted actor in Old Hollywood). Criterion’s 4K restoration brings out the fullest in the cinematography of the legendary James Wong Howe, a noble feat if ever there was one.
3. THE WORLD CINEMA PROJECT
Arguably even more ambitious a collection than the massive Zatoichi tome, The World Cinema Project links six movies seemingly along no more meaningful connection than their status as World Cinema Foundation efforts. And certainly, the diversity of location is reflected in genre and style—Korean satirical thriller rubs shoulders with Turkish melodrama and Mexican social-realism. But the multinational menagerie contained within is truly united by its capacity to illuminate the social and even aesthetic conditions of filmmakers in neglected pockets of cinematic production. Let us hope that a new volume can be a yearly occurrence.
2. INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION
“Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” is a great and entertaining film that somehow fell through the cracks even as its daring satire is undiluted in its populist pleasure. It may not be, by any measure, the best film Criterion put out this year, but the level of care devoted to a forgotten gem is perhaps the best illustration of the company’s charge, to not only showcase the desired classics of cinephilia but to reintroduce films into the cinephile’s lexicon. The included extras, as much treatises on director Elio Petri’s entire career as this single film, are a stirring call to discover a once-popular but now-obscure auteur.
1. 3 FILMS BY ROBERTO ROSSELLINI STARRING INGRID BERGMAN
Criterion tends to release the work of Roberto Rossellini in bundles, in collections of like films that only further emphasize how distinct each batch is from the rest. Jump from the War Trilogy set of neorealism-defining works to the late-period historical films made for television, for example, and it is hard to think that the same filmmaker made both. Criterion’s latest collection of his films, a trilogy of works made with Ingrid Bergman, is yet another singular moment in Rossellini’s career, a bridging work that reconciled with ethereal, spiritual wandering the split between Hollywood glamor and social-realist grit. “Stromboli,” “Europe ‘51” and “Journey to Italy” are essential works, not the first modernist films but the films that jumpstarted the modernist impulses that would pay off in works from Antonioni’s alienated ‘60s films to the ebullience and cheek of the early Nouvelle Vague. Not that the set would need them to be a must-own, but the avalanche of extras more than sweetens the pot.
Best of the Rest:
Not to leave out the fine contributions to home video of other distributors, be sure to check out the following:
“The Big Parade” (Warner Bros.) for perhaps the greatest silent-film transfer I’ve yet seen and for its convincing advertisement for Warner’s as-yet-uncommitted plan to bring more of their oldest masterpieces to Blu-Ray; “The Big Gundown” (Grindhouse Releasing) for doing justice to one of the great spaghetti westerns and for heralding the arrival of a potential vital new home-video provider; “How Green Was My Valley” (20th Century Fox) for presenting possibly the best of John Ford’s films with such a perfect transfer that perhaps those who see it will be too absorbed by its sumptuous compositions to carp about it “taking ‘Kane’s’ Oscar;” “Prince of Darkness” (Shout! Factory) for being the most crucial of the label’s many great John Carpenter releases, providing a revelatory transfer to the long-neglected home-video treatment of the director’s most experimental feature; “Keep Your Right Up” (Olive Films) for a continued commitment to releasing the later work of cinema’s greatest director; “The Grandmaster” (Mei Ah) for being conveniently region-free so as to make it easy to import the full Chinese cut of this great and tragically Weinsteined film; “The World’s End” (Universal) for treating one of the best English-language films of the year to an almost embarrassingly rich slew of extras; “Wake in Fright” (Drafthouse Films/Image Entertainment) for bringing out the full, terrible beauty of one of the great horror films of all time; “Breaking Bad: The Complete Series” (Sony Pictures) for gathering the already-excellent season sets into a package with even more extras to entice the collectors; and “The Terminator” (MGM) for fixing a botched transfer of a great ‘80s genre film that one hopes portends good things for MGM’s upcoming “Robocop” remaster.