Sunday, May 26, 2024

Highlights From The Criterion Channel, Part 1

Through the first five months, I’ve been on a tri-weekly dose of films from the Criterion Channel as it has reached three full years of business. Still finding new films to watch and getting reacquainted with many others, the continuing themes every month diversify the taste buds of how great this streamer is regarding international films. As I currently make my list based on what I have seen so far, here are some works that have already impressed me through the first third of the year. 

 

Harvey (1950)

I never thought I would be so delighted to watch a film about a man and his friend, the invisible six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey. James Stewart has the charm to sell this idea to people, even though they look at him as delusional and funny in the head, but it really works. Yet, his kindness and eccentricity make him not the problem, but the ideal person in a world full of worry where someone who is normal will turn into a stinker of a person. I’d be curious how this film would be made today. 

 

High And Low (1963)

I completely forgot about this movie and what a steady hand Akira Kurosawa has when it comes to modern noir. It’s an incredibly high stakes game when the son of a chauffeur who drives around a wealthy corporate executive is kidnapped and the executive is forced into paying the ransom. The film is cut into two halves: the kidnapping and the manhunt by detectives to find who could have been so daring to do this. It isn’t without flash or a score that keeps playing throughout. Kurosawa likes it natural and in its normal state, which makes the suspense all so real.

 

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974)

Director Barbet Schroeder and his cameraman Nestor Almendros went to Uganda to interview the notorious despot at the height of his power. Schroeder asks questions, Amin gives his answers, and Amin tells them to film his life; whether it be a cabinet meeting or a planned exercise for the “invasion” of Israel. (He orders the camera to film the flying helicopter above them and complies.) Amin on the surface looks like a buffoon, a cartoon character like Chaplin in The Great Dictator, but the evil he brought is undeniable. In fact, when he asked Schroeder to cut over two minutes of film he disapproved of and Schroeder said no, Amin rounded up all the French visitors and kept them as ransom until those minutes were cut. Schroeder obliged. 

 

The Vanishing (1988)

It is not a whodunit, but a whydunit and what the fate was for the missing woman in this psychological thriller from the late George Sluizer. The story surrounds a young Dutch couple who drive to France on vacation and stop at a rest area. The woman goes into the gas station…and does not return. With no witnesses who say they saw her, time passes, and the boyfriend becomes deeply obsessed with her disappearance, while another man who knows what happened decides to play mind games with the anguished lover. The ending itself fulfills its pledge as one of the most terrifying films ever made – and it’s done without any blood spilled. 

 

The Celebration (1998)

The first film from the Danish Dogme 95 movement, Thomas Vinterberg’s dark comedy-drama stripped down any signs of a vast production – natural lighting, digital film, hand-held camera, on-location shooting – and put all its energy into a family’s scandalous accusation and the strong performances that come with it. When a patriarch turns 60 following the suicide of his daughter, the weekend feast is upended by the eldest son’s claim that he and his deceased sister were abused by him. Vinterberg is able to work with the shocking claim and the farce of familial gatherings and personal faults in one of the more refreshing movies of the time. 

 

The Lives Of Others (2006)

Winner for Best International Feature at the Oscars in 2007, the German Cold War drama by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck opens the chapter of the East German Secret Police – the Stasi – in its final years. A high-ranking officer (Ulrich Muhe) is ordered by the Minister of Culture to spy on a writer because the Minister seeks to have the writer’s girlfriend all to himself. Loyalty to the state is tested as the officer must do his job while trying to help the writer without exposing himself. It is an exceptional piece of intrigue in the deepest shades of gray in which the culture of fear of being spied on was deeply heightened, up there with other great Cold War spy dramas like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. 

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