I don’t expect Santa to come down my chimney, but I do expect a lot of good movies to come down my Internet connection next month. The Criterion Channel will offer a lot of movies worth watching.
Here are just some of the movies, and some of the collections of movies, that will become available next month on Criterion. I can’t give you the URLs for the specific films and collections because each one will go live on the starting date mentioned.
The Best of Mae West, available starting December 6
It’s hard to find Mae West movies these days, and that’s a shame. Screenwriter, movie star, and comedienne, West became the queen of the pre-code era, delivering lines like “Goodness had nothing to do with it” and “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just happy to see me.” But once the censors grew teeth, her career took a slow dive. Her best films were her first two, She Done Him Wrong (1933), I’m No Angel (1933).
Cary Grant Comedies, available starting December 27
According to David Thomson, Cary Grant “was the most important actor in the history of the movies.” I don’t completely agree, but over four decades, this extremely handsome British import was the perfect leading man for drama, action, and, of course, comedy. This selection has 15 comedies, two of which are also in the Mae West selection above, and those were her best. Also in the collection and worth watching: The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and Holiday. I should mention that I never cared for Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or Arsenic and Old Lace.
Individual movies arriving in December
A- Harold and Maude (1971) with the short The Extraordinary Life of Rock, available starting December 1
At a time when young Americans embraced non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helps considerably. But I do wish screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion.
A Days of Heaven (1978), available starting December 3
The story seems a better fit for a 74-minute, 1940s B noir, but Days of Heaven isn’t about story, and only moderately about character. It’s about time, place, atmosphere, and arguably the Bible. The time is around 1916, and for most of the film, the place is a large, uniquely beautiful wheat farm on the Texas panhandle. Through the yellow of the wheat fields, the haze of the sun, and the smoke of early 20th-century technology, Days of Heaven creates a sense of something that is not quite nostalgia, and not quite a dream, but a reality seen through the haze of distant memory. See my longer commentary. Part of the collection Three by Terrence Malick.
A- Sorry We Missed You (2019), available starting December 3
Imagine a food that you absolutely hate, but you eat it anyway because it’s good for you. That’s the experience of seeing Ken Loach’s grim but necessary attack on the gig economy. A man struggles to make money delivering packages. In theory, he’s an independent contractor, but he’s much worse off than an employee. His wife, a nurse, is also supposedly self-employed. Neither of them has time to take care of their children. With almost no happy moments, Sorry We Missed You is like an empathy bomb, forcing you to care for the working poor. Read my full review.
A- Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), available starting December 4
While everyone else was working hard to fill the new, giant Cinemascope screen, director John Sturges and cinematographer William C. Mellor saw how effective it was to keep it empty. Spencer Tracy stars as a one-armed stranger who comes to a small desert town after World War II and discovers how far people will go to keep a secret. Also available: Director John Sturges’ 1990 Laserdisc commentary track.
C+ 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), available starting December 19
This is not one of Ray Harryhausen’s best. Yes, his character-driven special effects still astound, decades after they became technically obsolete. But everything else feels flat and cheap. A spaceship returning from Venus brings home an egg that soon grows into a very large monster. Your heart goes out to the creature, not only because of Harryhausen’s excellent puppet animation, but also because the human characters are so badly drawn that you’re left with no one else to care for. You can choose between the original black and white or the colorized version.
A+ City Lights (1931), available starting December 26
In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. Sound came to the movies as Chaplin shot City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Read my Blu-ray review.
C+ Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), available starting December 28
In 1978, Michael Gates of Dawson City, Alaska stumbled on a huge collection of 35mm nitrate film, buried in a former swimming pool below a torn-down ice rink, less than 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Bill Morrison’s documentary tells two stories: One is about the discovery; the other about the town. They’re both good stories, but Morrison made two major mistakes that keep me from enthusiastically recommending the film. Alex Somers’ highly repetitive music score sounds like an exceptionally boring funeral dirge, while the use of superimposed intertitles in lieu of vocal narration creates an emotional distance. Read my full review.
B+ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), available starting December 29
A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only slightly echoes the play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Read my full review.
I don’t know when any of these films will leave the Criterion, but they’ll all certainly stay around into the New Year.