Each month, the Paste staff brings you a look at the best new selections from The Criterion Collection. Much beloved by casual fans and cinephiles alike, The Criterion Collection has for over three decades presented special editions of important classic and contemporary films. You can explore the complete collection here.
In the meantime, here are our top picks for the month of October:
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Year: 1993 (Cronos); 2001 (The Devil’s Backbone); 2006 (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Reminder: There are three Blu-ray discs packaged up in Criterion’s Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro. If this seems like a curious note to start off with, then you haven’t gotten your mitts on this box set, which is more beautifully adorned than pretty much anything in the Collection’s vast array of multi-title offerings. Pop the top off and lift the gilded folds, and you’ll find resting beneath them a textured booklet designed to look like a tome reclaimed from the dust shelves of a disused library—and within that booklet you’ll find a series of tremendous essays on the great Guillermo del Toro, plus his best films, Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth, not to mention a whole passel of sketches and scribbles from del Toro’s own mind, capturing in ink the phantasmagorical images and ideas swirling around in his noggin. You could spend hours just mucking around with the bundle’s physical accoutrements without spending a minute watching the actual films.
So basically we’re just doing right by the consumer. The truth, of course, is that if you’re the type to buy Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro, you’ve probably already seen these three movies, and you might even own two of them on Criterion. Buying the set, then, is kinda like a double dip, except it’s not: It’s a quadruple dip at the very least, a release that’s so overloaded with extras they practically justify the pricetag without taking the Blu-rays into account. It goes without saying that Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro is a must for anyone with an affinity for del Toro’s work and a love for his sources of inspiration—skeletons, spirits, haunts, Hitchcock, Goya, and monsters—but the presentation is so damn gorgeous that you’ll probably want to pick it up even if you’re just a casual admirer. —Andy Crump
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
The same year that saw American cinema classics Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz released gave us legendary Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi’s sublime masterpiece of Japan’s “monumental style.” In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, with Imperial Japan at its most jingoistic, the director has quietly retreated from the looming threat of bellicose nationalism, choosing instead to craft an exquisite cinematic monument to traditional kabuki theatre.
Mizoguchi’s camera is a wonder—moving with the same elegance and aching patience of kabuki—and the Criterion team’s restoration and 4K transfer is stunning, the best that could be struck from reclaimed positive and negative prints of the 1939 film. Nearly 80 years later, Chrysanthemum reveals itself to be as subversive in regards to gender as it is so politically, with a heartbreaking story of one woman’s unrequited sacrifice sure to leave viewers shaken. —Chris White
Director: Luis García Berlanga
It’s a tough life being an undertaker and a tougher life being a garroter, which just adds to the layers of political commentary in Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner. Oh, sure, things look pretty sunny for José Luis, el enterrador, but the film is about climbing social and professional ladders, wherein the higher Luis’s lead ascends, the worse off he becomes. He’s got a sweet apartment, a wonderful wife, a pretty awesome father-in-law, and job duties that he rarely if ever has to carry out courtesy of the Spanish government’s capital leniency. But come the day that he actually has to do that job, he freaks out, because anyone would: It’s no small thing to kill a man, and that’s exactly what José Luis gets paid for. How he gets into that kind of a pickle is the sum total of The Executioner’s macabre delights, the film masterfully taking the demonstrably unfunny business of state sanctioned murder and turns it into a black hearted chuckle fest. —AC
Director: Carol Reed
Often dismissed by critics as a misfired sequel to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich is an unexpected delight—the sort of forgotten gem Criterion has consistently rescued from obscurity since it first started distributing library-edition DVD sets in 1998. Night Train is a brisk comedy-thriller with elaborately staged set pieces worthy of James Bond and expertly played comedic relief. Of note, Nazis make one of their very first Worst Bad Guys Ever appearances in the film, though the film’s aim is to give its audience a great time, not wartime propaganda. Stage actor-turned-director Reed is early in his career here (he’d go on to win an Oscar for Oliver!), and his energy guides all-in performances from stars Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison and Paul Henreid. This is a must-have addition to any film library—the perfect dinner party film for cinephiles. —CW
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Andy Crump: Let’s face it: Guillermo del Toro has never made a better movie than Pan’s Labyrinth, and it’s easy to see a future where he fails to top it. It’s a perfect film, both within and without the context of his body of work—the film itself is flawless, but it also best captures the particulars of his style and interests as a filmmaker. It’s dark as hell, too—just fast-forward to Vidal (Sergi López) murdering those two innocent farmers—but front-loaded with fantastic craft and beauty to offset the hideousness of the film’s violent period backdrop. Even the things that aren’t actually beautiful, are, by virtue of the extreme care that went into seeing each of them fully realized.
Nelson Maddaloni: It’s easy to see a future where del Toro fails to quite match the lengths and strides he made in Pan’s Labyrinth. While I don’t think that he’s a bad director, he hasn’t quite matched himself with this film, though I do agree that this captures his best interests and exemplifies some of his favorite themes.
It’s easy to see why Criterion’s packaged this with Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, despite that they’re already in the Collection, in that they share clear concepts: Supernatural elements against a political backdrop, the resistance to authoritarian figures and an ever-growing aesthetic sense of the macabre. I would argue that Pan’s Labyrinth insists we do what Terry Gilliam recommends during our viewing of his Tideland: to see horror through the eyes of a child. It is the only way to explain some of the more black and white elements of the film. Not to condone fascism or fascists, but Captain Vidal is almost all monster, and nothing interesting else—though I suppose that’s intended—even though I’m unsure if Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) knows the full ramifications of the Spanish Civil War, seeing him as an alien and monstrous force in the role of step-father, rather than as soulless fascist. I’m just not sure if that analogy translates. But, that said, the film is also a riff on what has to be one of Del Toro’s favorites, Spirit of the Beehive, in their shared Frankenstein(1931) imagery. At least that’s my current take on it. I mean, I think the film is magnificent.
AC: You know what? I’m going to err on the side of Gilliam, too. Watching Pan’s Labyrinth with a child’s frame of mind is almost a necessity; del Toro’s decision to tell his story through Ofelia’s perspective enhances the effect of both the film’s elements of phantasmagorical wonder, and the sobering impact of its real world horrors. The cruelty she sees in her daily existence takes on a greater clarity, and the flights of fantasy an expanded awe, by consequence. It’s in the viewer’s best interest to try to level with her point of view as closely as possible. All the better to enjoy del Toro’s meticulous, spellbinding construction, though he makes movies with an uncommon ease that erases the visible seams of his effects work.
Funny that you should bring up Vidal, who I agree is monstrous through and through. Every time I watch this movie, I’m struck by his final request before Pedro executes him, and in that brief moment I feel for the son of a bitch. I’m not shedding any tears for Vidal, but that flash of unexpected fatherly affection is vital to what makes so much of del Toro’s cinema succeed—not just Pan’s Labyrinth, but Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, the Hellboy films, and Crimson Peak. (Hell, why not throw in Pacific Rim as well, because it’s awesome.) That underlying compassion and humanity, that sense that del Toro cares even about the villain of the piece—it makes perfect sense in retrospect. del Toro loves monsters, and if Vidal is a man, he’s nonetheless monstrous.
NM: It is almost a necessity, terrifyingly so, otherwise the reality of the Spanish Civil War sets in. Almost all of these characters’ struggles seem hopeless in the face of horrific realities. It’s a huge risk, I would argue, in crafting a film like this from the viewpoint of a child. It may be one of his biggest risks he’s ever taken as a filmmaker, actually, which is why I may regard this as his greatest work: Like it was all building to something of this nature.
The nature of cruelty in the film is hard to imagine, even from a child’s perspective. I don’t mean to bring up Gilliam again, but his body of work has to have been an influence on del Toro—Time Bandits and Tideland and even Brazil, wherein characters must become lost in their imaginations because the alternative is almost too horrifying to face. Likewise, del Toro takes the horrors of reality and throws in escapism, which have their own unique horrors if you don’t follow the rules, of course. That’s something I appreciate: There are some definite rules to follow in del Toro’s universe. It’s fanciful but orderly all the same.
AC: “Fanciful but orderly.” If I ever write the book on Guillermo del Toro, I may steal that.