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It was an odd question.

Let’s say you must lose all material possessions except for ten of your Criterion Collection Blu-Rays. Which ten titles do you keep?

key_art_criterion_collection

I rolled my eyes and shrugged the question away. There is no way I could ever limit myself to only ten Criterions! But the silly question inspired me to really think about the movies I have via The Criterion Collection. Which are my absolute favorites? Which titles do I watch the most? Which do I value above others? Could I narrow it down to only ten movies? Would I have to organize them in some order of preference? No. I would not be able to rate one more valued than the other.

My friend did not frame her question with the context of a desert island. If she had I would have countered back with obvious challenges of having a monitor, BluRay Player and electricity to run both. No. The question was simply which ten I would keep above all others. Ideally I would smuggle a few more titles with me. Yes. I would most definitely find a way to sneak a few more under protection under my hoodie. No one would be the wiser. Most certainly not the friend who posed the question. After much contemplation, here are my most treasured members of my Criterion Collection

 

Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1974 Cover Design: Fred Davis

Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1974
Cover Design: Fred Davis

I think there tends to be one common thread in the choices I have made from my Criterion Collection: Identity. It seems to me that the idea of identity is at the core of all we pursue in life. One could easily argue that food gathering, sex and conflict are the shared drivers for the beings called human, but it is within the pursuit of these needs that much of our respective identities take form. It is both amazing and a little horrifying how identity is challenged and altered by drivers, circumstances and experiences. Films that delve into the psychology of identity vary in genre and philosophy, but often provide endless interpretation.

Surreal films like Buñuel’s Belle de jour, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Polanski’s Repulsion, Altman’s 3 Women and Breillat’s Fat Girl find new ways of exploring the inner workings of how our identity forms, survives and sometimes crumples. Allegorical, metaphorical and symbolism reign supreme in these films. Repeated viewings offer fresh perspectives and understanding. A documentary like Grey Gardens works brilliantly in the hands of the Maysles Brothers. The use of Direct Cinema offers insights into mother / daughter dynamics as well as a humanistic study of adapted survival. Altman’s Nashville is satire, but as this experimental epic unwinds the ideas of damaged identities are pushed by societal and cultural pressures that have only become stronger in the 40+ years that he made his film. Don’t Look Now is far more than a horror film. It does haunt and stirs dread, but it also captivates in its eloquence of exploring human nature under the sway of reawakening hope.

  • Don’t Look Now
  • Nashville
  • Belle de jour
  • Repulsion
  • Grey Gardens
Antichrist Lars von Trier, 2009

Antichrist
Lars von Trier, 2009

 

"But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn't know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there's anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman..." Little Edie makes a stand. Grey Gardens Mayflies, Hovde, Meyer 1976

“But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman…”
Little Edie makes a stand.
Grey Gardens
Mayflies, Hovde, Meyer
1976

 

America caught in a scary moment points us to an even more horrific future... NASHVILLE Robert Altman, 1975

America caught in a scary moment points us to an even more horrific future…
NASHVILLE
Robert Altman, 1975

Two other common elements are the uncomfortable mixture of humor and horror. Lars von Trier’s controversial Antichrist offers up skin-crawling levels of disturbing images that are almost impossible to watch — yet the elements of dark humor and surrealism move our attentions away from the grotesque. If we look, listen and think — the strange film offers perspectives on a number of topics from cultural misogyny, the intimacy of marriage and the tragedy of grief. Nashville, 3 Women, Fat Girl and Grey Gardens allow us to chuckle as much as they make us squirm.

  • Antichrist
  • Fat Girl
  • 3 Women
"1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1..." 3 Women Robert Altman, 1977

“1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1…”
3 Women
Robert Altman, 1977

 

No one's victim... Fat Girl / À ma soeur! Catherine Breillat, 2001

No one’s victim…
Fat Girl / À ma soeur!
Catherine Breillat, 2001

  • Persona
  • Black Moon

I am not assigning these titles in any particular order because I am unable to really rank one of these films over another. Each film is exceptional, but some do work better than others. Louis Malle’s experimental and surreal Black Moon is of interest despite itself. This film is very much a reflection of European tension and confusion resulting from sociopolitical revolutions, challenges and fears of its time. Much of the political has been lost over time. What remains is a tipsy and uncomfortable take on Alice in Wonderland. The film may be flawed, but it is extraordinary.

"Just a minute, please." Black Moon Louis Malle, 1975

“Just a minute, please.”
Black Moon
Louis Malle, 1975

As for the other beloved titles that I would creatively find a way to retain…

  • The Innocents
  • Videodrome

It would be challenging to think of two films that are more hinged to the times in which both were made. And yet, both of these Cult Film remain powerful and equally unsettling. Repeated viewings are never dull. Revisiting these two movies is as much fun as it is disorienting.

"What are you waiting for, Lover?" Videodrome David Cronenberg, 1983

“What are you waiting for, Lover?”
Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1983

  • Band of Outsiders
  • In the Realm of the Senses
  • Wings of Desire

The ideas of identity are taken to whole new levels with the three films listed above. Each of these movies are totally unique. And each of these iconic films offer three very different experiences. The only one I feel the need to defend is Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses. Does he push the use of unstimulated sex and violence too far? Yes, but that is also his point. If you are over 18 years of age, this movie offers an astounding and masterful study of the horrors of sexual obsession and repression.

"Now is the time for a digression in which to describe our heroes' feelings..." Band of Outsiders Jean-Luc Godard, 1964

“Now is the time for a digression in which to describe our heroes’ feelings…”
Band of Outsiders
Jean-Luc Godard, 1964

It hurts my feelings to imagine my world without Dressed to Kill, Harold and Maude, Satyricon, 8½, Jules et Jim, Red Desert or Valerie and her Week of Wonders. But I can only get away with sneaking so much. Even if I were to slip into my Large sized hoodie — it would most likely be obvious if I had more than 5 titles hidden behind the zipper.

"But no sooner was she back on shore, when..." Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964

“But no sooner was she back on shore, when…”
Red Desert
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964

But who am I fooling? I would most definitely try to sneak Gates of Heaven into my ownership. Hell, I would also grab Branded to Kill and Eraserhead. I would then make a run for it. I’m sneaky like that.

"You’ve been badly trained." Branded to Kill Seijun Suzuki, 1967

“You’ve been badly trained.”
Branded to Kill
Seijun Suzuki, 1967

Matty Stanfield,  7.21.2016

One too many epiphanies had driven my resistance down. Feeling down had taken a sharp turn toward depression. I had pulled a blanket from the closet, turned out the lights, closed the blinds, took to sofa and prepared to lose myself into a movie. But had it really come to this? Yes, it had.

"I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know..." Nicole Kidman The Hours Stephen Daldry, 2002 Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

“I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know…”
Nicole Kidman
The Hours
Stephen Daldry, 2002
Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

It was already unfolding before my eyes. Nicole Kidman, two pockets filled with stones and a prosthetic nose were floating toward death. Ed Harris and Julianne Moore fell and swooned into their respective doom. Meryl Streep would soon be compressing into a tidy mess in her kitchen as Jeff Daniels stood by in a stupor of blonde confusion. And here I was watching the grim human sadness that is The Hours. To make it all the worse, I was suffering the added indignity of watching it all via an outmoded DVD. The 2003 DVD can’t seem to keep up with the 2015 huge flatscreen TV. Every image is a bit washed out and hazy.

"always the years between us, always the years. Always the love. Always the hours..." Nicole Kidman readies to descend. The Hours Stephen Daldry, 2002 Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

“always the years between us, always the years. Always the love. Always the hours…”
Nicole Kidman readies to descend.
The Hours
Stephen Daldry, 2002
Cinematography | Seamus McGarvey

I sat up and decided to take matters into my own hands. I held the Universal Remote with a firm and fully articulated grasp. I pressed “Eject” with a sturdy resolve. Our sad copy of the depressive Stephen Daldry was quickly returned to its cracked jewel box. I’ve never been a half-measure sort of person. I seem to either go all the way or no distance at all. But I would not define myself as “extreme.” That isn’t too say I am not capable of excess. I am. It was at this point I opted for a movie that might lead my attentions in an altogether different direction.

As I slipped our Pillow Talk blu ray into the player I suspected I might be making a mistake. No one can accuse Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s grandfather of understatement when it comes to his 1959 pop cultural cinematic landmark. On the one hand this film could be discussed as a gender identity politic comedic study — and on more than a couple of levels. With hindsight, the idea of Rock Hudson as a ruthless ladies man is beyond irony — Pillow Talk becomes more than a little meta when applied to ideas of sexuality.

"It's what goes on when the lights go off!" Pillow Talk Michael Gordon, 1959

“It’s what goes on when the lights go off!”
Pillow Talk
Michael Gordon, 1959

But on my other hand this move movie is just a silly romp that was most likely dated even when it arrived on CinemaScope Screens across the world. This box office hit scored more than a couple of Oscar nominations and a win! Yes, Pillow Talk was awarded an Academy Award for best original screenplay. It also gave Doris Day and Thelma Ritter Oscar nods for their respective performances.

It would be unfair to claim that this movie isn’t clever and equally amusing. It is. However it is not particularly witty. The plot is about as flimsy as it gets, but it is the performances, editing and sheer goofiness that makes this iconic movie so much fun. Thelma Ritter is the movie’s most valuable player. As she snarks and complains her way through the various hyper-color sets — Thelma not only advances the thin plot she continually comments on it. Her hang-over ridden character’s head is hurting not only from booze but from the woozy level of sexual repression going on all around her. Tony Randall is, well, Tony Randall. It works here.

"...this may come as a surprise to you, but there are some men who don't end every sentence with a proposition." Doris Day and Rock Hudson Pillow Talk Michael Gordon, 1959 Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

“…this may come as a surprise to you, but there are some men who don’t end every sentence with a proposition.”
Doris Day and Rock Hudson
Pillow Talk
Michael Gordon, 1959
Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

But the film really belongs to Doris, Rock and the creative split screen utilization. The telephone politics and party line of the late 1950’s might not be known to us, but we catch on pretty quick. Rock Hudson hams it up and seems to be poking the screen at his real life gay buddies. It is impossible not to chuckle, but it is Doris who really amps it all up. Ms. Day’s capacity for facial mugging seems to know no bounds. Her petite figure, bright blue eyes and deep red lips constrict and pulsate to unbelievable extremities. She is never wonky or goofy, but she totally camps her reactions and timing as if she were a tightly wound fashion doll ready to explode. A performance like this would be the thing of “Anti-Comedy” — but framed within the multiple frames of Pillow Talk she manages to trick out her performance that seemed to rival any other performance given in 1959.

Poor Jan is about to take facial mugging to a whole new level... Doris Day and Rock Hudson Pillow Talk Michael Gordon, 1959 Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

Poor Jan is about to take facial mugging to a whole new level…
Doris Day and Rock Hudson
Pillow Talk
Michael Gordon, 1959
Cinematography | Arthur E. Arling

But all the double entendres, facial mugging and idiosyncratic editing began to take their toll on my troubled soul quicker than I expected. Once again I pressed the eject button. I decided to direct my mind toward  Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Diablo Cody’s acidic Young Adult. This movie almost fools me every time. How? I really should know better. I’ve seen it more than a couple of times. The thing is that it always makes me laugh. I guess I remember those comical moments over the reality that interlaces each one.

"Sometimes in order to heal a few people have to get hurt." YOUNG ADULT Jason Reitman, 2011

“Sometimes in order to heal a few people have to get hurt.”
YOUNG ADULT
Jason Reitman, 2011

I had skipped seeing this film when it was released. I was worried that it would smack of the same ick-twee that ruined both Juno and United States of Tara. Stop. Don’t complain or correct me. I know that the number of folks who love that movie and show well out number those of us who didn’t. But any sense of reality was tossed out the window to earn laughs. Young Adult is actually one of my favorite films of 2011. I was sorry I had not supported it at the cinema. As the story of Mavis‘ journey back to her hometown and that this entails began I worried that this disc might have been a poor choice for my day.

It is never clear if Charlize Theron’s Mavis suffers with Borderline Personality Disorder or if she is simply a truly cruel and self-involved functioning addict. It is to the film’s makers credit that it is never articulated. Theron’s movie role choices are often questionable from an artistic standpoint, but when she does manage to find her way into a good role, she plays it with gritty conviction. This is most definitely the case with Mavis. In more than a few ways, the actor actually goes beyond the power she conveyed in 2003’s Monster. The role of Mavis may not offer her the same obvious challenges, but it does lay out a gambit of challenges that most actors would fail. Theron is truly brilliant in this role.

Ewww. A baby. Charlize Theron YOUNG ADULT Jason Reitman, 2011 Cinematography | Eric Steelberg

Ewww. A baby.
Charlize Theron
YOUNG ADULT
Jason Reitman, 2011
Cinematography | Eric Steelberg

Mavis‘ story offers only a bit of insight into why she is so self-involved and raging. This is a woman headed toward 40 with the emotional intelligence of spoiled High School Princess. Each scenario in which we experience Mavis pushes up the level of uncomfortably so that we do laugh, but those laughs come at the expense of the characters on the screen. Cody, Reitman and Theron never back down. Just when we think there might be some hope for the protagonist the film zooms in on Mavis‘ deeply rooted delusions. This hard-edged study of human failing was not going to be as depressing as The Hours, but in some ways it was going to be equally soul-daring.

Eject.

So I pushed in Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman. This twisted Danish film turned out to the perfect accompaniment for my blues. As strange as it is fascinating, Borgman presents the idea of home invasion as a folklore parable. van Warmerdam’s film plays out with stark efficiency. This is a tight and symmetrical example of cinematic storytelling that somehow manages to establish a constant threat of menace. The reason that this ever lurking danger is surprising because the film unfolds with a misplaced levels of orthodoxy.

"Please, come in." Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013

“Please, come in.”
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013

As I recall this movie came out of nowhere for me. I literally stumbled into the screening by default. I loved it then and I still love it now. Jan Bijvoet plays the title character. We meet Borgman as he is awakened from a slumber that might be closer to hibernation than rest. Like a demon, his determined vagrant emerges from a tunnel of various underground living graves. Nonplused and regimented, Borgman quickly wakens his sleeping pals and quickly escapes from the hunters who seem to seek to slay he and his kind.

I wonder if I could have a bath here. I’m a bit dirty,” he explains to a stern housewife. His polite directness seems to contradict his wild man appearance. He has walked up to the first suburban home that meets his satisfaction. It is an upper class home and well appointed. Luckily for her, the housewife smartly slams the door in his face. Without any sign of surprise Borgman strolls along until he finds a cold but wealthy looking bit of minimalist architecture that houses the poor family that accepts him in for a bath. He does not gain entry easily. A fight between the husband / father of the house takes place, but this only seems to ignite a greater need for access to their bathtub and home.

It is almost impossible to feel any empathy or understanding of the wealthy family as Borgman and his tribe begin to do what they will... Borgman  Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

It is almost impossible to feel any empathy or understanding of the wealthy family as Borgman and his tribe begin to do what they will…
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Borgman appears to be in charge of four others. It doesn’t take long to realize that this morose band of home invaders are most likely not human. They seem to illicit some form of powers over others and they might even have the gift of shape shifters. The children and their nanny seem to find Borman and his friends to be enticing beyond explanation. They easily accept he and his actions and demands with not even the slightest hesitation. The children and their nanny are not fully developed characters, but each seems to feel real. As Borgman‘s crew infiltrates their shared lives, their darkest aspects begin to shine through. The father and master of the house is also easily swindled into accepting / following anything that Borgman asserts or suggests. But it is Borgman‘s connection with the wife and mother that seems to hold the strongest grip. It is through this connection that much of the film’s menace emanates.

Is he planning to seduce or simply invade her dreams as well as her home? Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Is he planning to seduce or simply invade her dreams as well as her home?
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

By the time things take turns toward murder, seduction, suspicious implant surgery and other surprising bits of magic — the audience is not so much shocked as worried. It is an interesting and intoxicating mix of worry and curiosity. This unforgettable and grim little movie is spellbinding. It is difficult to even fully articulate why we feel worry or dread. Only the character of the wife is developed and she is not someone we trust or like. Clearly under Borgman’s influence she does manage a few moments of lucidity. When she expresses her fear and confusion it is unclear if she really and truly cares. She seems to know what is going down long before anyone on the screen or in the audience — she seems even more complicit than her children and nanny.

Momentarily forced into the role of The Hunted, Borgman quickly gathers his wits and sets out on a hunt of his own.  Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Momentarily forced into the role of The Hunted, Borgman quickly gathers his wits and sets out on a hunt of his own.
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Borgman‘s use of violence and horror is surprisingly demure. This is no typical horror film. In fact it is actually far less horror as it is a modern twist on the concept of folktales. The film smartly offers brief scenes that offer up allegory or parable but never to the point of the obvious. Although clearly a harbinger of doom, Borgman always artistically extracts his jollies with surgical precision. It is an unsettling and amusing view that provides insights with repeated viewings. This is a film that deserved far more attention than it received.

Even evil spirits need a bit of applause... Borgman Alex van Warmerdam, 2013 Cinematography | Tom Erisman

Even evil spirits need a bit of applause…
Borgman
Alex van Warmerdam, 2013
Cinematography | Tom Erisman

As the credits began to roll I realized that it taken me a while to find the correct film for my mood. Turns out that a depressing movie was a bad fit. A broad comedy even worse. A dark comedic character study certainly wasn’t the right fit. No, I found some solace from my blue day from a Danish film that pushes the boundaries of horror into something mythical, mysterious and subversive.

Matty Stanfield, 7.5.2016