18. Hopscotch (1980)
Hopscotch is a a comic espionage film concerning a CIA agent being chased by his former colleagues when he threatens to go rogue by publishing his unrestrained memoirs. It was taken from a novel from bestselling author Brain Garfield and directed by Ronald Neame, a respected but hardly cutting edge British director. It starred Walter Matthau and Britain’s Glenda Jackson (reunited after the light comedy hit, House Calls).
It’s a good film of its type but this is an especially odd duck to be in the Collection. Why is it there? Maybe because it’s a smooth and professional entertainment and Matthau was a marvelous actor on the stage of world cinema and, hell, Criterion needs to make a little money sometimes too.
19. Eating Raoul (1982)
This black comedy is one of the sunniest nasty films ever made (John Waters would be proud) and a lighter, but welcome, entry in the collection. Director/star Paul Bartel and then-wife Mary Woronov (an Amazonian former “Warhol Superstar” and an innately kinky presence) had met making the cult film Rock ‘n Roll High School in 1979. They married soon after (and cooked up, so to speak, this gem.
Paul and Mary Bland are a celibate couple who express their mutual love via a shared interest in food. They want to start their own restaurant but Mary just barely makes a living as a hospital nutritionist and recently unemployed Paul, a self-proclaimed wine expert, is an odd fit in the job market. They stumble upon the idea of luring “perverts” (i.e. just about anyone interested in sex ) through kinky personal ads and killing them for their money.
The big problem is body disposal and thus enters Raoul (Robert Beltran), a low, but attractive, hustler willing to take the bodies off the couples hands (selling them on the sly to a dog food company). Raoul also has a thing for Mary, who is more interested than she thought possible. This can’t end well.
Black comedy is an art and this film manages to keep the viewer rooting for the Blands and laughing at them even though they are really monsters. Sadly, Bartel didn’t have much longer to live so this is his monument and is one of the most “fun” films to grace the Collection.
20. White Dog (1982)
Director-writer-producer Samuel Fuller was one of the most colorful characters in world, let alone U.S. cinema. A tiny, grizzled dynamo, eternally clenching a cigar in his mouth, he was rough and unsubtle and confrontational but was also humane and tolerant of those who live on the margins of society.
Many of his best known films are in the Collection (including The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor and Pickup on South Street), all genre pieces that have grown in stature over the years. Why should another Fuller film be an unexpected entrant into the Collection? Well, White Dog, the film that concluded Fuller’s career, has always been a hot button.
Taken loosely from a novel by French author Romaine Gary, the plot centers on a young actress (Kristy McNichol ) who discovers and takes in a large, wounded white German shepherd. As the dog recovers it turns out that he is white in more ways than one. His former masters had trained him to attack and kill black people! Refusing to accept the advice of a veteran dog trainer (Burl Ives) to destroy the animal, she turns the dog over to a black trainer (Paul Winfield) for retraining.
This sounds like the makings of an inspirational story but Fuller’s theme is the fact that racism poisons everything it touches. The film does not have a happy ending. Paramount Pictures took one look at it film and went ballistic. Outside of a token release in a few cities, the film was thrown in the vault and not taken out until a few cable showings many years later which led Criterion to select it and give it the widest audience it has ever known.
It’s sad that the studio execs couldn’t see that this film condemns the very thing that they were afraid of it being labeled. Somehow, though, that all fits in with Fuller’s career.
21. Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)
“Funny” is not a word generally associated with life in the former Soviet Union. Perhaps that’s a big reason why this whimsical picture from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki was such a delightful surprise.
The story concerns a fictional Siberian rock group, the Leningrad Cowboys (played mostly by Soviet rock group, the Sleepy Sleepers), who decide that the key to making it big is to tour the U.S. since anything can be a hit there. Well, that turns out to be a mistaken idea but that doesn’t stop the group, who look like punk rockers by way of Nanook of the North, from trying.
The plot is more picaresque than not but all the better for it as one effervescent episode tumbles into another a la A Hard Day’s Night.This one was such a hit that it produced a sequel (Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses) and a concert film (The Total Balalaika Show) since the fictional group decided to stay together and become the real thing! This is one of the most popular recent Criterion selections and, though it is offbeat for the Collection, that is quite understandable.
22. Walker (1987)
Alex Cox is a boldly original director and, like most bold originals, quite divisive. Still most famous for the true-life punk “romance,” Sid and Nancy, (once in the Collection but now out of print due to rights issues) and scabrous satirical black comedy Repo Man (still in the Collection),he continued to question society’s values with the ostensible bio-pic Walker.
The story centers on William Walker (Ed Harris), an American soldier of fortune who managed to briefly become the dictator of Nicaraguain the nineteenth century. This is no conventional biography and it is quite clear that Cox is using the story to mirror of U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of the governments of several Central and South American.
Cox employs a number of deliberate anachronisms in order to point out how history keeps repeating itself. It was too much to expect the general public and mainstream critics to accept the film but Criterion found a ready niche for it, as ever.
23. The Rock (1996)
If there is one film that could give Heaven’s Gate a run for its money for Most Controversial Criterion Title it might well be The Rock. Is this film another mammoth flop that that changed the film industry? Far from it, as this was one of the biggest hits of its year. And one whose inclusion upset many a Criterion fan since while it was thought of as a decent film of its type it was not a great of world cinema.
Part of the problem that it is a product of director Michael Bay, a film maker few critics champion, and certainly not one whose name would be considered on a par with Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Renoir, or several of the other illustrious names in the Collection.
Though part of the reason for its inclusion might have something to do with a limited arrangement the company had with Hollywood Pictures, the film’s distributor, Criterion insists that the choice was made in order to illuminate an area of cinema the Collection rarely explores.
The plot concerns a rogue military man and his minions who have stolen a supply of poisonous gas rockets. Having taken over Alcatraz, including 81 hostages, they are planning to start shooting at targets like San Francisco. It will take a crack elite team to fix this!
OK, this is not a film for the philosophical set, but Bay and the screenwriters guide the story expertly and the cast (including Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage and Ed Harris) is first rate. Frankly, Criterion’s willingness to include The Rock and films like it show that the company doesn’t just want to be an ultra-tasteful cinema advocate.
24. The Beastie Boys Videos (2000)
Many think of film as meaning full-length features. Thankfully, the emerging interest in short films has caused many of those interested in film to consider the product as a whole and how it all works together, regardless of length. One form that still needs more reconsideration, at least in some quarters, is the music video.
Though there were rare examples of the form appearing randomly in earlier decades, music video, in the U.S. anyway, was a product of the 1980s and the advent of MTV. One group that benefitted from the rise of MTV was the Beastie Boys. While the group may not have been a musical revelation they had the good luck to have their songs staged for video by budding (now Oscar-winning) director Spike Jonze, among others. The resulting videos were quite striking.
Criterion decided that the group’s videos would be a perfect vehicle for a project they wished to facilitate. The eventual package features over 100 alternate angles and editing choices, as well as remixes from other artists covering the group’s songs. T
o this end, the two-disc set allows the participant to understand the way videos, and, by extension, film itself works by allowing the user to make numerous choices, just as a director and editor would in creating a film project. The result is a unique and worthy project for the open-minded Criterion fanand all others interested in film.
25. Tiny Furniture (2010)
It’s “Girls,” the movie! Well, not literally, but not far from that. The HBO TV hit “Girls,” a project from actress, writer and director Lena Dunham debuted in 2012 but two years earlier she had created the film which was to be her breakthrough into wider popular culture. That film was Tiny Furniture.
The story features the actress-director as a recent college grad who has not a clue where to go with her life and moves back in with her family. She has painfully funny growing up adventures in a neurotic sort of way.
OK, maybe she is still doing this same story but the point is that she’s good at it and Tiny Furniture was a refreshing entrance into the film making world. What makes the film a surprise is that Criterion chose to include a contemporary film from someone with no real resume. The company was taking a real chance on Dunham and her film and it paid off!
Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film,cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years. You can visit his blog at Stream of Dreams.