For many movie lovers, December is a time to catch up on all of the great movies that they missed throughout the year, with a particular eye toward likely Award Season contenders that will begin grabbing headlines and monopolizing conversations at the start of the year. And while the Criterion Channel’s narrow focus on older and global cinema precludes them from being a usual go-to during a time so utterly dominated by the cult of the new, many of their offerings will necessarily add invaluable context to the latest and greatest from Oscar hopefuls such as Guillermo del Toro, Jane Campion and more.
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Finally returned to us after his deserved success with The Shape of Water in 2017, Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro presents us with Nightmare Alley (2021), a film that is somehow simultaneously among his most uniquely idiosyncratic oddities and among his most mainstream and familiar. A remake of a classic Fox Noir – and a highlight of the Criterion Channel collection of the same name – it is a stylish, haunting and utterly sumptuous fable of the perils of ambition and greed with a murderer’s row of A-list talent lending a hand in front of and behind the camera. A strange and sordid melodrama that recalls the similarly scandalous Freaks (1932), Edmond Goulding’s 1947 original remains as powerfully, evocative and mesmeric as it was when it was unfurled onto an unsuspecting public all those years ago.
Although not exactly my idea of Holiday viewing (especially when Psycho, Hitchcock’s only Christmas-set feature, is conspicuously missing from the proceedings), Criterion’s Hitchcock for the Holidays collection is undoubtedly the best assemblage of masterpieces on the entire streaming service (a statement that I certainly do no make lightly). Jam-packed with certified classics and hidden gems, the highlight of the bunch is likely Vertigo, the movie that famously overtook Citizen Kane (1941) a decade ago to become the so-called “best movie of all-time” in the latest Sight & Sound critics poll. An icy self-examination on obsession, abuse and desperation, this thrilling mystery film stands as a sort of Rosetta Stone of the acclaimed “Master of Suspense’s” entire filmography.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
For as much love as was lauded over La La Land in 2016, I simply couldn’t understand the appeal: not when a movie like Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg exists as its obvious muse. A tender observation of the evanescence of love, this Left Bank musical tracks the divergent paths of two young lovers whose relationship cannot possibly take the strain of the different directions that their lives are moving in. And here, Demy does in a still, snowy moment what Damien Chazelle had to blow up into an entire climactic fantasy. Less, however, is undoubtedly more with these movies, and those similarly unmoved by the smarmy tinseltown romance would do well to track down its French forebear.
Seven Beauties (1975)
With so much of the Oscar conversation being consumed by talk of Jane Campion – this year’s likely Best Director frontrunner and, once upon a time, only the second woman to even be nominated by the Academy in that category – this month’s death of Italian auteur Lina Wertmüller, the first woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, hit all the harder. A visionary director capable of delving into the Human depths of her oftentimes reprehensible characters, her wealth of movies remain some of the most engrossing ever committed on film. And while there are plenty of exceptional features to choose from on the streaming service, her masterpiece is easily the one that earned her her historic Oscar nomination in the first place: her harrowing WWII drama Seven Beauties, which relays the story of an Italian POW interred by Nazis and forced to come to grips with man’s inhumanity to man in order to survive.
An Angel at My Table (1990)
2021 really is the year of Jane Campion. In addition to her new film, which is likely to dominate much of the awards conversation in the months to come, this has been the year when homebound cinephiles have rediscovered her maligned 2003 psycho-sexual thriller In the Cut (a fascinating, if only partially successful, deconstruction of 1980s / 90s sex thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct that’s currently streaming on Netflix). And while I can’t exactly point Criterion Channel subscribers to that unique genre capstone here, there is nevertheless plenty of Campion to go around. Preceding her celebrated The Piano by three years, An Angel at My Table, swept the New Zealand Film and TV awards, inspired protests at its lack of formal recognition at the Venice Film Festival and established Campion as a powerful emerging talent in the West. A biography of uncommon skill depicting the life of acclaimed New Zealand author Janet Frame, it remains one of Campions major (and majorly overlooked) works that more than deserves the kind of second life now afforded to her other, more widely-accessible films.