Since 1984, the Criterion Collection has prided itself on sharing the best in world cinema to home audiences. Criterion-selected films are supposed to have artistic, cultural, or technical merits. There are a handful of films, however, that either lack these elements. That, or they are less impressive than another work from the same filmmaker. These are the Criterion collection entries that have many of us scratching our heads.
What is it about Michael Bay’s Armageddon that makes it such an odd fit for the Criterion Collection? Is it the shoddy acting? The barely-there script? The overblown hype that surrounded the film on release?
Well, it’s all of that. There is nothing about it that feels right in the collection. People have been very kind to the movie since its release, praising it as a brawny blockbuster that shows others how it’s done. Some even say it’s one of the most important action films of the 90s. People have grown to cherish the movie. But upon close inspection, you see all the failings of the film and all the failings that afflict so many Bay projects. That’s not to say he hasn’t made a terrific big summer movie before. He has, it’s called The Rock. Armageddon just doesn’t offer anything that makes it required watching. Even by Bay standards, it is lacking in so many ways. So it sits oddly next to other Criterion films. It’s a mess and not even a very interesting one. [Brandon Marcus]
Even the Criterion Collection has plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about the ’90s. In 1997 Kevin Smith was at what would be the climax of his career. His previous two comedies, Clerks and Mallrats had carved him a strong place in the 90s indie scene. Today, it is horrifying to imagine that at one point Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino were once considered peers. But in 1997 Smith was enough of an interesting voice that his third movie, Chasing Amy was first released on a Criterion Collection Laserdisc.
Chasing Amy is Kevin Smith at his most vulnerable. It was his best attempt to make an honest story. In a lot of ways, Chasing Amy was ahead of its time. The script feels proto-mumblecore. Most of the discussion of human sexuality being more than just a binary of gay and straight was groundbreaking at the time. The movie also has the very best Silent Bob soliloquy.
But Chasing Amy is simply too merely okay for the Criterion Collection. He still doesn’t show much more flair for the camera than he did in Clerks. Too much of the drama is lost in pop culture references that certainly seemed a lot funnier in 1997. Smith just cannot resist descending into his usual toilet humor – stories of cunnilingus scars, claims that Star Wars is racist, the comic Bluntman and Chronic, etc. If Smith had grown with Chasing Amy, maybe the film would deserve a place. Instead its main historical place is on the long road to movies like Tusk. [Eric Fuchs]
Lars von Trier should win some kind of award for pretentiousness. While some of his films have merit (Melancholia and Dogville, for example), his 2009 examination of the rift between genders was mostly garbage.
Antichrist has some things going for it. For starters, the acting by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe is excellent. The film is also beautifully shot, and some of the imagery is beyond haunting. The special effects are stellar, especially in the film’s disturbing climax. All of these, however, do not make Antichrist compelling. For most of its runtime, the film focuses on the central couple discussing theoretical ideas about men and women. Sometimes they argue. Sometimes Dafoe sees horrifying animals in the woods. Not much else happens.
Antichrist is gorgeous but overblown; the film’s script and pacing drag everything else down. There are better examples of von Trier’s work out there. This Criterion pick feels a bit off. [Danielle Ryan]
My Own Private Idaho
My Own Private Idaho is Gus Van Sant’s ode to the American hustler. This is an odd choice for a Criterion Collection title due to the fact that while it does come from the man who brought us Good Will Hunting, it’s not particularly good. This is a movie that fails to even be culturally relevant to the subculture it fetishizes.
If Criterion wanted to stack their deck with at least one great work from every historically significant director, they should have stuck with Mala Noche and maybe tried to get the rights to Drugstore Cowboy. The problem with My Own Private Idaho is that after the tragic death of actor River Phoenix, it has now become a postmortem career case study. Aside from seeing Keanu Reeves riff on dialogue and direction that makes Bram Stoker’s Dracula seem masterful and a ridiculous pantomime performance from Udo Kier, this movie barely has any real merit whatsoever.
Gus Van Sant drew heavily from Shakespeare’s Henry IV for this but it doesn’t translate well. The narrative is convoluted and the overall presentation suffers from a lack of cohesive storytelling. My Own Private Idaho may have earned plenty of prestigious awards and nominations for its time, but these days it feels like nothing more than a niche cult film. At least Criterion can say they have released a film partly written and directed by River Phoenix. [Andrew Hawkins]
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
David Fincher is one of the most consistently excellent directors of the modern age. His continuing experiments with visual effects has been some of the most groundbreaking and subtle work the field has ever seen. However, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of the few times where Fincher’s flair for special effects eclipsed the actual film.
Granted, the effects in Benjamin Button are praiseworthy. But that’s about all in the movie that is worth celebrating. The story is a surprisingly saccharine one, especially considering Fincher’s penchant for colder and more complex narratives. The performers all do decent work but nothing that deserves special mention. They are all undone by the intrinsic whimsy of the story, and Fincher is not a director suited to whimsy.
This isn’t a terrible film by any means but it’s a rather unremarkable one. Yes, the effects are a big part of the movie but I’d argue they are the only part that matters. That’s not quite enough to warrant inclusion in the Criterion Collection. Not to mention that other Fincher films like Zodiac, Fight Club, The Social Network, and Seven are much more important. [Drew Dietsch]
While Fish Tank is a powerful coming-of-age story, much of it feels cobbled from other films. In particular, scenes of teen drinking and parental negligence feel reminiscent of The Poker House and Thirteen. Mia’s disturbing relationship with her mother’s boyfriend feels plucked almost directly from the 2002 graphic novel Diary of a Teenage Girl. (Diary was made into a film in 2015.)
Fish Tank gets a lot right about adolescence, but it’s strange and meandering. Mia’s desire to be a dancer is pretty tragic, as the dancing in the film is awful. Whether it’s supposed to be good or not is never explicitly shared with the audience, and that hurts the film’s credibility. The acting in Fish Tank is pretty good, but the film otherwise feels like every other indie coming-of-age story about a teenage girl. It’s not terrible, but it feels like a quilt of other movies, and that doesn’t deserve a Criterion release. [Danielle Ryan]
What did Michael Bay do to get The Rock out on Criterion? What sort of inside baseball led to one of the 90’s most ridiculous action films becoming a part of the most prestigious movie library in the world? I just can’t help but think the real reasons behind this deal film fans and hardcore cinephiles will never know.
Sean Connery is the core element of what makes The Rock watchable. While the movie is somewhat entertaining in cheap and easy ways with it’s absurd action sequences and cliches, Michael Bay’s dumb opus is a downright stinker. Not even an amazing gallery of 80s and 90s b-movie greats can save this one.
The Rock has its moments, but in no way should it have ever gotten the Criterion treatment. Even though the film features brilliantly over-the-top moments from Ed Harris, Tony Todd, Michael Biehn and of course Nicholas Cage, it’s still stereotypical schlock. Michael Bay managed to get this and Armageddon on Criterion Collection, but I doubt he’ll manage to score another. [Andrew Hawkins]
The Thin Red Line
Terence Malick is a divisive figure in the film world; critics either love him or hate him. His 1998 war film, The Thin Red Line, is equally divisive. Released the same year as the critically lauded Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line just doesn’t have the same emotional impact as Private Ryan. They are two very different kinds of war movies that may merit unnecessary comparisons. Even with those comparisons removed, The Thin Red Line isn’t deserving of a Criterion collection release.
War movies don’t have to be action-packed to be good, but almost nothing happens in The Thin Red Line. The movie drags on for hours, and the gorgeous nature shots aren’t enough to keep a person from dozing off. The acting is mixed as well. One scene where Woody Harrelson’s character is horribly injured ends up being more comedic than tragic because of the acting.
The Thin Red Line is pretty and it has some pretty intense ideas about the nature of war. Other than that, there isn’t much going for it, and definitely not enough to have a Criterion release. [Danielle Ryan]
The Darjeeling Limited
Wes Anderson has struck some kind of magical deal with the folks over at Criterion. His entire filmography is available – or will be – through their company. Honestly, most of his films deserve that treatment. He’s made more than his fair share of masterpieces. However, The Darjeeling Limited is not one of those masterpieces.
Don’t get me wrong. The Darjeeling Limited is a pretty fine film on its own merits. The cast is enjoyable and the circumstances of the plot keep you intrigued, but there’s not a huge sticking point with the movie once it’s over. It works and it’s satisfactory but doesn’t have the staying power of The Life Aquatic or the expert craftsmanship of Fantastic Mr. Fox.
That’s really the big argument against The Darjeeling Limited: it’s just not near the same level of excellence as most of Anderson’s other work. There’s no reason not to watch the movie but it feels like a perfunctory addition to the Criterion Collection because of Anderson’s other films. [Drew Dietsch]
Lena Dunham isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She’s been accused of oversharing on more than one occasion, and her debut feature, Tiny Furniture feels like just that: oversharing. Tiny Furniture is semi-autobiographical and features Dunham as a girl fresh out of college who doesn’t know what to do with her life. While it may strike a chord with some, others can find the movie to be whiny at best. Dunham’s existential angst feels hollow, especially when she has continued in the same vein in her other works.
The movie is technically quite well done, which is impressive given its shoestring budget. It’s an indie marvel with regards to the technical aspects, but that’s about it. Only time will give us a chance to re-examine Tiny Furniture and decide if its’ as pretentious and entitled as it seems. [Danielle Ryan]