Stuck at home? Love movies? Here’s some excellent cinema available on the Criterion Channel subscription streaming service.
I’m back again with a follow-up to last month’s batch of picks, highlighting great films streaming now on the Criterion Channel website and app. The service is celebrating its first birthday this month, so treat yourself to a birthday gift: tons of great movies at your fingertips.
Leaving April 30 picks
The Criterion Channel site has a section highlighting the films that will soon be leaving the service. So push play on these titles quick!
The Grifters (1990) – John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening star in this smart and stylish take on Jim Thompson’s pulpy novel of small-time con artists hungry for more. (For more con artistry, try: House of Games.)
Hollywood Shuffle (1987) – Robert Townsend’s credit-card-funded comedy casts Townsend as a struggling young actor, tired of being typecast as thugs and drug dealers because he’s black. Keenan Ivory Wayans (In Living Color) co-wrote and co-stars. (For more comic angst about moviemaking, there’s always Adaptation.)
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) – Anton Chekhov’s play is performed on a barebones stage, in plain clothes, and it’s riveting. The cast includes Julianne Moore and The Princess Bride‘s Wallace Shawn. (For more offbeat theatricality, visit The Arbor.)
In the Heat of the Night (1967) – This Best Picture-winning classic is a solid crime story elevated by its brilliant performers, including Sidney Poitier and Oscar winner Rod Steiger. (For another Poitier classic, dry out with A Raisin in the Sun.)
Gas Food Lodging (1992) – Fairuza Balk and Ione Skye are sisters, tired of their truck stop town in Allison Anders’s Sundance Film Fest breakthrough. (For another classic American indie, try: Welcome to L.A.)
Newly Added picks
As if it wasn’t hard enough to zero in on a film in the catalogue to watch, here’s new stuff!
Red Sun (1971) – This month, Criterion is celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune. Best known for samurai flicks, like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, Mifune is an icon. For my Mifune pick, I thought I would go with a movie I haven’t seen yet. It’s a spaghetti western in which Mifune teams up with Charles Bronson (!!). Plus Terence Young, who did a handful of the earliest James Bond movies, directs. (Also, I need to watch the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai.)
Van Gogh (1991) – One of the best movies about an artist ever made. French rocker Jacques Dutronc acts out the troubled genius’s last days in this subtle drama from director Maurice Pialat. (For another dramatic gem from Pialat, check out the high school flick Graduate First.)
The Big Heat (1953) – Fritz Lang’s film noir gut punch. Glenn Ford is a square-jawed cop looking for revenge. Lee Marvin crosses his path as a psychopathic mob enforcer. (For more hard-boiled pulp, go with Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono.)
Taxi (2015) – If the pandemic is making you feel confined, be thankful you’re not Jafar Panahi. The Iranian government banned Panahi from directing movies or leaving the country for twenty years. He responded by making movies like Taxi, in which he acts as a ride-share cabbie in a car full of static mini cameras. (For more info on Panahi’s situation, check out his house-arrest diary This Is Not a Film.)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) – Nope, not the Adam Sandler movie. Frank Capra’s Great Depression-era comedy relocates small-town boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) to a newly inherited New York mansion. Jean Arthur is utterly delightful as a nosy newshound who falls for the big lug. (For another Capra classic with a traveling mister, try: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)
Picks by Great Directors
Here are some great flicks from director spotlight collections on Criterion Channel.
The 39 Steps (1935) – Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few directors who is as famous as his movies. Criterion highlights his early pre-Hollywood work in their “British Hitchcock” collection. This thriller, in which everyman Robert Donat is entangled in a web of spies, is a standout in the bunch. (For more Hitchcock espionage, try: The Man Who Knew Too Much [the original, naturally]).
Band of Outsiders (1964) – Jean-Luc Godard is the experimental madman of the French New Wave. His most recent films are so dense and stylistically distorted that first-time viewers should probably avoid them. But this early crime pastiche is playful and cool, with a side of melancholy. (For more quintessential ’60s Godard, try Pierrot le Fou.)
The Circus (1928) – Charlie Chaplin is an icon. His signature look and balletic moves are impossible to forget once you’ve seen them. But, let’s face it. Sometimes Charlie’s flicks can get a bit maudlin. On the other hand, The Circus is packed with great gags — and no heavy-handed tear-jerking. (For more purely brilliant slapstick from Chaplin, check out the short A Dog’s Life.)
Mur Murs (1981) – It’s been one year since we lost the great Agnès Varda. An indomitable and inspiring creative spirit, she is apparent in the every frame of her films. She made both features and docs. Mur Murs is a quirky nonfiction look at murals and street art in Los Angeles. (For another view of life in L.A. at this time, watch Varda’s brief feature Documenteur.)
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) – Herschell Gordon Lewis was the oft-touted Godfather of Gore. Maybe not the traditional model of a “great director,” but certainly an auteur with a specific vision. His breakthrough work was Blood Feast, a film whose defining scene involves a too-large cow’s tongue being ripped out of an unsuspecting victim’s mouth. Two Thousand Maniacs!, Lewis’s follow-up to Blood Feast, is full of more gory shocks. But it also has a more thoughtfully constructed story and humor. It involves a redneck ghost town that reappears every one hundred years to wreak havoc on, well, liberal snowflakes. (For more gory satire from HGL, try Color Me Blood Red.)
That’s it for now. Stay home. Watch movies.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.