Good movies suddenly available on Criterion

The Criterion Channel added a lot of good movies at the beginning of September. Here are some of the best:

Most of these are part of one of more collections – mostly New York Stories.

A+ The Crowd (1928), part of the series New York Stories

Of all the films in my All-Time Great Films list, King Vidor’s silent masterpiece by far the hardest to find and see, so you should catch it now. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary. Read my appreciation.

A+ Do the Right Thing (1989), New York Stories

Spike Lee’s masterpiece just may be the best film ever about race relations in America. For a 30-plus-year-old film, it feels very much like the here and now. By focusing on a single block of Brooklyn over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things right) about race relations in America. And yet this beautifully made film is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. Read my Blu-ray review.

A+ To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Lubitsch Touch

The Nazis conquered Poland with frightening speed. But they prove no match for Carol Lombard and Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II comic masterpiece. As a married pair of egotistical stars of the Warsaw stage, Lombard and Benny lead a theatrical troupe of slightly lesser egos as they outwit the gestapo. A rare screwball comedy that’s willing to get serious when the story demands it. Read my Blu-ray review.

A+ The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Starring Deborah Kerr

Clive Wynne-Candy is an officer and a gentleman. A career soldier in His Majesty’s army, he believes in following the rules of combat–even against an enemy willing to commit atrocities. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp follows Wynne-Candy from his dashing youth to a somewhat foolish old age. Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger provide warmth, heartbreak, laughs, and several viewpoints on what it means to be a soldier and a decent human being. Read my essay or my Blu-ray review.

A The Apartment (1960), New York Stories & Five by Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder won a Best Picture Oscar for this serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both attractive women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a minor white-collar worker who rises in the company by loaning his apartment to company executives—all married men–for private time with their mistresses. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves. Read my Blu-ray review.

A Sunset Boulevard (1950), Five by Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history.

A- Shadows (1959), New York Stories

Men are real jerks. That’s the big takeaway of John Cassavetes’ 1959 feature debut. With no main plot but multiple subplots, Shadows follows several young Manhattanites, mostly male, as they drink, argue, fight, talk about culture, and try to get laid. But it’s a woman, Lelia Goldoni, who steals the film with her outward bravado and inner vulnerability. The dialog, like Charles Mingus’ score, is entirely improvised.

A+ Black Narcissus (1947), Starring Deborah Kerr

This very British melodrama by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger places a handful of nuns in an abandoned fortress far up in the Himalayas. The presence of a good-looking white man (David Farrar) causes problems with two nuns trying to hang onto their vows (Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron). Cinematographer Jack Cardiff works his magic with three-strip Technicolor, creating a semi-realistic world where riotous colors fight with repressed grays. Warning: The film is considerably racist. 

B+ Putney Swope (1969), New York Stories

Before Robert Downey, Jr., there was just plain Robert Downey – maker of absurd, offensive, and very independent comedies. In this 1969 feature, the single, token black executive in a Madison Ave. ad agency accidentally becomes the top dog. Suddenly, this meek “negro” becomes a militant black, and things get very surreal. Even Mel Brooks gets into the cast.

B+ Speedy (1928), New York Stories

Set and partially shot in New York, Harold Lloyd’s last silent movie provides plenty of laughs, even if it isn’t amongst his best. The story involves his struggle to help his girlfriend’s father keep his small streetcar line, but that’s just an excuse to do Lloyd routines in Big Apple locations. We get a sequence in Coney Island, a cameo with Babe Ruth, and (of course), a great streetcar race. Read my Blu-ray review.

B+ Cluny Brown (1946), The Lubitsch Touch

Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film takes a very funny swipe at British rigidity while also celebrating England’s role in stopping Hitler (the movie is set in 1938). Jennifer Jones plays the title character, a plumber’s niece who would rather fix a pipe than just about anything. Of course, it’s not proper for a young woman to repair sinks, so her uncle sets her up as a maid in a wealthy home. Charles Boyer plays a Czech refugee who sees nothing wrong with a woman plumber.

B+ Ninotchka (1939), The Lubitsch Touch

Thanks to the great Ernst Lubitsch, Greta Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny. She plays a loyal Russian Communist who comes to Paris to supervise three bumbling comrades messing up government business. But she’s soon charmed by both capitalism and Melvyn Douglas. Billy Wilder’s script nails the absurdities of Communism: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”

B+ Frances Ha (2013), New York Stories

This Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach comedy studies that period when you realize that you’re actually an adult. The title character (played by Gerwig, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Baumbach) has been out of college for a few years, but she’s living on unrealistic dreams, and unlike her best friend, doesn’t seem ready to make that difficult transition into maturity. There’s no plot; just an assortment of incidents–jobs, places to live, men to sleep with–as she moves slowly and reluctantly into true adulthood. The result is quirky, touching, and funny.

B+ Stalag 17 (1953), Five by Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder’s POW movie is no Grand Illusion, but it’s an enjoyable comic mystery adventure. There’s a stool pigeon in the barrack, and information is getting to the Germans. Everyone suspects its Sargent Sefton, because he’s an amoral outcast and a wheeler dealer who trades with the guards. We know he’s not the informer because he narrates the picture and he’s played by the film’s star, William Holden. Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck provide most of the comedy as a sex-obsessed prisoner and his much smarter pal.

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