(My) Top Ten List

Criterion Banner FINALEvery month, the Criterion Collection asks a friend – a filmmaker, a programmer, a writer, an actor, an artist – to select their ten favorite movies available from the Criterion Collection and jot down their thoughts about them.  The entries (from people like Jane Campion, Jonathan Lethem, and Sonic Youth) are often surprising, and always entertaining.

Big thanks to Aaron, Kristina, and Ruth for organizing the Criterion Blogathon and for allowing me to craft my own Criterion Top Ten List.  I love lists.  Not in the sense that they represent any kind of canonical statement of anything, but in the way that they reflect certain perspectives.  Good lists say as much about their authors as they do about the films they include, and Criterion’s Top Ten Lists are loaded with as many insights about their “friends” as they are about the films themselves, making those lists doubly valuable to us cinephiles.  In truth, when picking between the hundreds of masterpieces amassed by Criterion, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a bad Top Ten and I’m not sure anyone reads a Criterion Top Ten List to applaud or gripe about what got included.  I read them to see what speaks to these individuals and what personal insights or connections they can share.  Isn’t it great to see how classy Roger Corman’s keeps his Top Ten, how absolutely characteristic Chuck Klosterman’s List proves to be, how amazing is Kim Newman’s choice to include The Human Skeleton, and how utterly greedy Guillermo del Toro is by stuffing 21 films into his Top Ten?  I love it.

My Criterion Top Ten List has been a thornier process than I imagined, with only about half of my initially considered titles actually withstanding the months-long screenings and re-screenings done to prepare a list I feel fairly confident in.  In selecting these 10 films, I asked myself why I liked them, why they stay with me, why they resonate, and how I came upon them.  In doing so, these films not only reflect my tastes in film but also trace my relationship with the Criterion Collection over the last 15+ years.  It includes the third Criterion title I ever bought and one that I saw for the first time less than 3 months ago.  There are themes: unrequited love, seriocomedy, ensembles, meticulous production design, dream sequences, widescreen black and white.  And there are, for me, many surprising exclusions.  No Godard, no Kurosawa, no Powell and Pressburger, and no Maddin.  There’s no Days of Heaven, The Firemen’s BallClose-upWhen a Woman Ascends the Stairs, A Night to RememberThe Tin Drum, Good MorningLes misérables, Divorce Italian StyleThe Night of the Hunter, the Flamenco TrilogyForbidden Games, The Battle of AlgiersIl Posto or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, if just for the DVD’s menu screen.  (I’m already way over 10 films just talking about what didn’t make the cut!)  But the best thing about this Top Ten List is knowing that it’s not permanent, that I might reach into some box set later tonight, read Criterion’s next monthly announcement, or simply grow into being a slightly different (and hopefully better) person and find myself connected to another film that forces its way into my imagination and onto this list.

For the moment, here is my Criterion Top Ten List, arranged for ease of reading (and not for ranking) and including a plain text portion that I imagine would accompany each title in the usual fashion of the Criterion website and an italicized portion that serves as a more personal annotation for each selection.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Seventeen Moments of Spring (Tatyana Lioznova, 1973)

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoVirtually unknown in the West, Tatyana Lioznova’s 12-part mini-series Seventeen Moments of Spring is Russia’s most popular and acclaimed TV production, playing annually to millions of viewers since its release in 1973.  Soviet spy Maxim Isaev (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), working in deep cover as a prominent SS officer named Max Otto von Stierlitz, receives direction from Moscow in February 1945 to gather information on peace talks rumored between the Americans and Nazis and frustrate any efforts that might allow the Germans to focus all their military power to the Eastern Front.  What follows is a complicated battle of wits set within the Nazi administration with mortal consequences for Stierlitz and all of the USSR.  This methodically suspenseful and widely successful espionage thriller celebrates the Russian war effort during World War II, valorizes the nation’s security agencies through the patriotic and canny Stierlitz, and subtly critiques Soviet bureaucratic authority in an era of thawing Cold War relations.

Includes the original version and the 2009 colorized version, with notes by historian Stephen Lovell.

Continue reading

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Twentieth Century Approaches (Igor Maslennikov, 1986)

Eclipse LogoIgor Maslennikov concludes his Sherlock Holmes cycle with his most ambitious adaptation, weaving together no less than four of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales into an epic film of spies and secrets.  Set against the backdrop of increasing tensions between European nations, The Twentieth Century Approaches sees Holmes and Watson return from apparent retirement to investigate foreign counterfeiters, track down diplomatic papers and submarine plans, and thwart German agents working on British soil.  Maslennikov contrasts Holmes’s highly personal and methodical approach to his investigations against the accelerating and arousing technological advances of mass media to produce an insightful and reflexive view of a changing era.

Continue reading

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Treasures of Agra (Igor Maslennikov, 1983)

Eclipse LogoIgor Maslennikov merges Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of the Four and his story “A Scandal in Bohemia” to create the fourth film in his Sherlock Holmes cycle, The Treasures of Agra.  Here, Holmes ruminates on having matched wits with Irene Adler, an American opera singer at the center of a potential scandal involving the hereditary King of Bohemia.  With Adler still occupying his mind, Holmes investigates the case of Mary Morstan, who searches for her missing father, an unknown benefactor who sends her a single pearl annually, and a missing family treasure.  Holmes traces the mystery back to grudges originating in colonial India, while Watson tries to keep his growing emotions for their client in check.  Culminating with a steam launch chase, The Treasures of Agra deftly blends locked-room murders and exotic detail with romantic longing, requited and unrequited.

Continue reading

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Igor Maslennikov, 1981)

Eclipse LogoSherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson explore the return of a monstrous ghost dog that curses the Baskerville line and threatens its only heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, freshly returned from Canada to assume his inheritance.  The pair travel to Baskerville Hall on the Devonshire moors and seek out a logical explanation for this supernatural problem, only to find a series of suspicious characters and blind alleys complicating their investigation, each delay placing Sir Henry farther into the beast’s deadly maw.  This adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular work is often considered the best of Igor Maslennikov’s Sherlock Holmes cycle, notable for its ominous exterior settings and its strong comedic content.

Continue reading

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Igor Maslennikov, 1980)

Eclipse LogoBased on “The Adventure of Charles Augustus,” “The Final Problem,” and “The Adventure of the Empty House” respectively, Igor Maslennikov’s only three episode film introduces to the cycle the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s greatest adversary.  In “The King of Blackmail,” Holmes is retained by an upper class lady to free her from the threat of scandal and the detective, assisted by Dr. Watson, puts himself on the other side of the law to retrieve a set of contentious letters.  “Mortal Fight” finds Holmes matching wits and fists with Professor Moriarty, culminating in their deadly battle at Reichenbach Falls.  In the closing episode “Tiger Hunt,” a still-mourning Watson investigates the murder of a young gambler, only to become a suspect himself, and then helps solve the case with some unexpected assistance.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson explores the depths of Holmes and Watson’s friendship, forged and strengthened in the face of mortal danger and personal sacrifice.

Continue reading