25 Unexpected Treasures of The Criterion Collection

9. Head (1968)


Anyone who has ever collected video box sets to any degree knows that some unusual titles may end up in a collection . An example from Criterion Collection comes from an entry entitled “The BBS Story,” a box that chronicles the glory days of one of the best New Hollywood film production companies.

Well, everything begins somewhere and BBS started by creating Head. Before there was a BBS movie company, producer-director Bob Rafelson had been one of the minds behind the pop music comedy series and band,“The Monkees”, remembered today as one of the key influences on music video.

After a two-year run and lots of hit records the show was cancelled and the group appeared to have run its course. Well, Rafelson wanted to go into the movies and his friend, actor Jack Nicholson wanted to continue his ride to the top that had started with 1969’s Easy Rider.

Together they concocted a film version of the Monkees TV show and pitched it to Columbia Pictures , who were eager to try and continue the hits the group had given their record division. The studio must have decided later to call it a day since they let the film die with little promotion. It has since become a cult item, mostly among the music set.

The plot? It literally has none. It is a disconnected series of random episodes starring the group and an utterly surreal bunch of guest starts (including Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, Timothy Carey, Frank Zappa and Teri Garr).

Two things give the show’s intent away: early in the film the screen fills with tiny TV images while the Monkees sing a self-deprecating ditty (“the money’s in/we’re made of tin”) and, throughout the course of the film, the image of a hand changing an old fashioned TV dial intercut with film clips shows that this film is a satire of television culture and a big kiss-off to a product created mostly by and for TV: The Monkees! By a stroke of irony, Monkees fans past and present are now the ones that most cherish this film!


10. Mr. Freedom (1969)


The Criterion Collection is neither a film school nor a non-profit organization but there are times when it could be mistaken for either/or. One of those times might be the Eclipse set celebrating the works of French-based American expatriate photographer- turned-film maker William Klein. (Eclipse was Criterion’s cut rate label.)

Any but the most hard core indie film scholar might be forgiven for not knowing the name since Klein made but three fictional films, all satires of popular late 1960s culture seen from the perspective of one who had chosen to live permanently abroad but was observing his homeland with little affection.

His first, Who Are You, Polly Mcgoo? (1966) is the best known. It was a pointed look at the fashion world but 1969’s Mr. Freedom may best show where Klein’s head was really placed. The title character is a superhero, like Captain America or Superman, but far more gauche and infinitely more right wing.

Mr. Freedom decides that he must rid France of Commies and leftists of all types, even if it means destroying most of France’s culture and landmarks! Those who weren’t around then may not know of the lack of respect many nations felt toward the US, and which was shared by many Americans.. Mr. Freedom fully shows that moment of self contempt.


11. The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

The Honeymoon Killers

Sometimes timing just isn’t right. In recent years true crime stories have been prominent in pop culture. Though there’s always been some interest in the sub-genre, it hasn’t always been the sure-fire subject it has been recently.

If The Honeymoon Killers had come out ten or twenty years later than it did it might have been a big hit. As it was, the film had to settle for cult fame long after the fact, too late to help director Leonard Kastle get financing for another feature. This was his debut and his swan song.

The film is based on the infamous killing spree undertaken by a sleazy hustler (played by Tony Lo Bianco) and the fierce, obese nurse (Shirley Stoler) he meets through his usual scam: lonely hearts advertising in the newspaper. The pair realize that they have found true love (or something like it) but must make a living so they decide to continue the man’s racket with the woman posing as his sister. But things start to take a murderous turn when the woman decides, out of a combination of greed and jealousy, that the women targeted must die.

This unlikely tale has caught the attention of several film makers since (including the creators of 1996’s Deep Crimson, another film in the Collection). However, this is the one to beat. The minimalist black and white style gives the film a nerve-wracking feeling of verisimilitude and though stage actor Lo Bianco is perfect as a man living off his sleazy good looks, it’s Stoler who makes the film.

Neither a beauty nor a lightweight, she was never destined to be a star and was often reduced to playing a mean, fat, often psychotic woman, such as Mrs. Steve in “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.. However, she had two great moments in film, Italy’s Seven Beauties and this film. Her stroke of luck was to have greatly resembled the monstrous real life character, of which she made the most, and Criterion has immortalized it.


12. Maidstone (1971)


Another of Criterion/Eclipse’s forays into arcane cinema is the box set dedicated to the films of Norman Mailer. Many know the multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning author as one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. Far fewer know that he frantically tried to crash the film world.

There are some talented people who want to make it in film but who just don’t have the vibe to make it all happen. Add Norman Mailer to that list. Though he eventually (and disastrously) tried to go mainstream, most of his film work was done independently, and Mailer was the whole show every time (such as it was).

The critics massacred his first two films, Wild 90 and Beyond The Law (both 1968) but a few tried to make a case for Maidstone, Mailer’s look at politics and assassination in a turbulent time. The writer-director-producer also played the lead role, a presidential candidate.

Like the other films, Maidstone seems to have been improvised as the film was shot with Mailer having more to say than anyone else. Well, it may not be Ibsen but it is a fascinating look into a great psyche (which seemed to be having a bad moment at the time).


13. Two Lane Blacktop (1971)

Two Lane Blacktop (1971)

If ever there was a film made outside of its own time, it would have to be the existential Two Lane Blacktop. Director Monte Hellman is perhaps the sparest director ever to work in the Hollywood mainstream. If there was ever a wasted moment, or even a word, in a Hellman film it would take a detective to find it.

His early, too little seen westerns, Ride in The Whirlwind and The Shooting (both 1967) have recently joined the Collection but his magnum opus, Two Lane Blacktop, has long been present.

The minimalist story tells of two young men known only as the Driver (pop star James Taylor) and the Mechanic (rock star Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys) who roam the country in a deceptively beat-up-looking car, challenging the gullible to race for pink slips.

The car is really a speed demon but the duo seems to find no pleasure in winning or their aimless, directionless lives. Animation comes into those lives for a few days in the form of two people who cross their paths: GTO (a superb Warren Oates), an older, loquacious driver who takes them up on their challenge for a longer race and the Girl (Laurie Bird), a woman who turns out to be not quite as aimless as the men.

This film gives the viewers blank after blank to fill in for themselves but the anomie of the characters seems quite genuine. Their lives are nothing; they are going nowhere at 100 mph. This kind of thing can (and has) driven many viewers up the wall but many others adore it.


14. Sweet Movie (1974)

sweet movie

The 1970s were a liberal and liberating decade and one of the most vibrant and uninhibited voices of that time belonged to Yugoslavian director Dusan Makavejev. He was fascinated by sex and violence in that order (with one often leading to another in his films). He harnessed these elements to a wild sense of extreme and rather vulgar humor.

Perhaps best remembered for 1967’s Love Affair, or The Case of The Missing Switchboard Operator or 1971’s WR: Mysteries of The Organism (both in the Collection), his most extreme opus was Sweet Movie. It was a film that divided many, though several tipped the balance to the negative side of things.

What is this film about? Well, lots of sex in lots of unusual configurations. This is not hyperbole since the film is virtually no more than a parade of outré sexual episodes. This film truly wouldn’t be made in the mainstream today. Should it have been? There is no definitive answer to that. This film, like any bold statement, will delight or horrify–or both.


15. Watership Down (1978)

watership down

In recent years there has been a recognition of the potential of the animated film as a vehicle for telling stories beyond the scope of traditional live action cinema. Long thought of as a medium for family or children’s entertainment, Japanese anime has shown that this form can be used in an adult manner.

Criterion hasn’t shown much interest in the animation to date but the induction of this film and the stop-motion picture, The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson), shows a new potential interest. This film was a forerunner of the more mature animation of today and how else could Richard Adams’ acclaimed, philosophical, best-selling novel have been brought to the screen?

The story concerns a warren of rabbits seeking a safe new home after one of their number has a vision of impending destruction lurching towards the group. The tale becomes a meditation on survival in a fierce and hostile world with a number of religious overtones.

Make no mistake: this is no film for children! In fact, the only humor comes by way of a whimsical bird voiced by Broadway star Zero Mostel. Like so many interesting films, it wasn’t noticed particularly on release but its reputation has since soared and now it’s in the Criterion Collection.


16. Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980)

Bad Timing (1980)

Bad Timing is a daring film from an edgy moment in cinema history. The director is cinematographer-turned-director Nicholas Roeg. Always a gentleman with an eye for images, he often constructed his films into a pyramid of them. Several of his early films are in the Collection but this may be the boldest.

The plot involves an ill-fated “romance,”set in elegantly decaying Vienna, between an intellectual psychoanalyst (singer Art Garfunkel during his brief stab at a film career)and one truly wacked out woman (Roeg inamorata, Theresa Russell).

The story is told in flashback as a police inspector (Harvey Keitel) tries to piece together the fragments of a really sick relationship. The film’s distributor tried to disown it and it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, to say the least, but anyone watching it will know that something astonishing has been seen.


17. Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate

There may well never have been or will be a film whose inclusion in the Collection has caused the stir created by this one. Heaven’s Gate is one of the most infamous films of all time. Thanks to near unanimous critical brickbats the film lost virtually all of its 40 million dollar investment (a huge, huge sum at that time), ended the great film production company United Artists and pretty much destroyed the last remains of New Hollywood and the domain of the auteur director.

The film had gone wildly over budget since then recent Oscar- winning director, Michael Cimino, insisted that every detail had to his exacting specifications. Too bad he forgot to include a compelling plot. The story centers on the real-life Johnson County War, which took place in 1892 Wyoming, as old-time ranchers and newcomer settlers battle for control of the land.

Kris Kristopherson, French star Isabelle Huppert, and Christopher Walken head a star-studded cast. The sets, costumes, cinematography and visual effects are all top notch and the film has some great set pieces (if the dance/roller skating party scene had been in a better picture it would be a classic).

Some now want to claim the film is a misunderstood masterpiece but it seems more like a cake made with all the best ingredients which was either mis-mixed, overcooked, or fell in the oven. There are some good things in it for certain, but the overall project is a mess.