So you’ve got yourself a shiny new subscription to the Criterion Channel, eh? Or eyeing that free trial, thinking “Pfff, who needs another streaming service.” Well let me guide or convince you, wary film enthusiast!
Though I’m still exploring the breadth of what the service offers, I was immediately struck by some of its available gems, both part of the curated monthly programming and the mainstay selection. Haphazardly and at my whim, I humbly suggest…
Dragon Inn (1967) King Hu
I recommend this movie to everyone, all the time. King Hu’s 1967 wuxia might be seen as a precursor to his epic A Touch of Zen four years later, but really I think this is the man at his best. Following a power struggle between Chinese generals, the victor looks to end his opponents bloodline by hunting down his surviving children. No loose ends, right? The fleeing offspring are to be ambushed by secret police at, wait for it, Dragon Gate Inn (the film also goes by that title sometimes). Various parties cross paths at the dusty retreat, and few are who they seem to be…
Hu might be known for his three hour epics, but Dragon Inn shows him working economically. Though not taking place solely in the titular inn, the limited scope of the production allows Hu to show off his eye for intimate drama and intrigue, and really his phenomenal sense of pacing is distilled to the under-two hour runtime. The gradual build up of intrigue and mystery to action and drama would serve as a means of cutting his teeth for subsequent films, ones running well over three hours.
For a lot of folks sometimes you say “Hey watch this Taiwanese film from the ’60s!” and they just yawn and look right through you, but Dragon Inn is unapologetically kick-ass. It’s kung-fu filmmaking before it became pulpier and cheaper (not always a bad thing), where the filmmaking came first and the thrills second. Luckily, Dragon Inn delivers both.
Pale Flower (1964) Masahiro Shinoda
One of my absolute favorite films, I pitch Pale Flower to unsuspecting potential-viewers as the Japanese Taxi Driver, but with yakuza. C’mon, you know you want to watch that!
Muraki is as hard-boiled as they come, fresh out of prison following time done for a gangland hit. Immediately we’re struck by Muraki’s narration — a noir staple — where it becomes clear that the man just doesn’t play well with others. He wanders the Tokyo streets in almost a trance, watching people (“dumb beasts”) go about their days like automatons, mitigating the value of their lives behind his dark sunglasses. He’s a psychopath in the literal sense of the word, detached from those around him. Though not everyone.
Stalking gambling dens by night, Muraki meets Saeko, a similarly-dispassionate and mysterious young woman. The two hit it off in the way that two drifters do, and a well of intrigue, as well as Muraki’s yakuza day-job, begins to deepen.
Pale Flower is a gorgeous black-and-white production, with a somber score of smooth jazz that was all the rage in Japan at the time. Like Dragon Inn though, for as much craftsmanship as is on display, Muraki busts a head or two to keep the pace lively. And Pale Flower features a scene of violence pivotal to the plot that is one of the most haunting and operatic scenes I’ve ever experienced in a film; a simple hit is elevated to the levels of Greek tragedy by music and sound design, as well as the framing and slow-motion pacing. It’s insane how good this movie gets.
The Great Beauty (2013) Paolo Sorrentino
Channeling Fellini, Paolo Sorrentino’s perusal of parties and pomposity in present-day Rome could go far on its looks alone. Sweeping camera movements track the gorgeous streets and Roman architecture, accompanied by a haunting and beautiful score. But a beautiful city needs beautiful people, even if they are a bit hollow on the inside.
Jep Gambardella is officially a senior citizen, but that’s not slowed him down a bit. Models flock to him at parties, men vie for his attention and approval, and it all just seems so fake to the man. He coasts through these soirées, reaching the point in his life where one takes a breath and thinks, and decides whether they’re happy with how it’s all played out.
I think of all the films I mention here, The Great Beauty has the most potential to bore you, dear reader. Certainly, it’s not a short movie, a bit under two-and-a-half hours, and there’s not a real zinger of a plot to hook you. It’s a meditation more than a mission. But for those longing for foreign sights and sounds, and an affinity for Italy, The Great Beauty is a bit of travel-porn. It might even affect you!
Dead Man (1995) Jim Jarmusch
American critical darling and all-around slow-movie enthusiast Jim Jarmusch might not be everyone’s cup of tea. There’s a pace to his films that, if you’re just not into it can lump him into the negative cliche of “slow, pretentious, and pointless art filmmaking.” I certainly disagree, but I can see the angle there. But give Dead Man a chance and maybe you’ll feel differently! It’s Johnny Depp as an existential accountant-turned-outlaw! Or a poet, maybe!
Traveling west for what he thought was a desk job, William Blake with his nervous urban disposition quickly finds himself on the wrong end of a six-shooter and somehow manages to come out on top. Injured and fleeing the scene he meets Nobody, a sarcastic and strange Native American who is just sure that Blake is actually a reincarnation of William Blake the poet. The two embark on a bit of limbo-like wandering through the American West, all the while pursued by violent bounty hunters. They even meet Iggy Pop!
Dead Man is often cited as an “Acid Western,” or Psychedelic Western. Those sorts of labels can often feel like a grad student looking to make a mark, but with Dead Man you really do get a… trip. With elegiac guitars by Neil Young roughing out the score, and a cast of minor characters not unlike those found in films by the Coen Brothers, Dead Man is a meandering romp of revisionism and spirituality, all while maintaining a bit of the rootin’ tootin’ attitude and action of the Western genre.
All 26 original Zatoichi films
“Whoa there Sam, slow your roll. Got no time for any of your nonsense let alone twenty-six damn movies about… What?”
Zatoichi, the blind masseur-turned-swordsman! Throughout the original films, Zatoichi wanders the Japanese countryside during the early 19th century, coming across bandits and gamblers, assassins and babies, women-in-need and men-distressed. And he solves all the problems in, give or take, ninety minutes.
The Zatoichi films (starting with The Tale of Zatoichi in 1962) are sort of like the original Marvel Cinematic Universe. Okay, maybe not, but they’re interesting for reasons similar to Marvel’s spandex spectaculars for the way they operate as, basically, a big TV series. Zatoichi the character becomes increasingly familiar to the audience as we watch him across these films, all of which stand alone but benefit from knowing the cheeky masseur’s past and principles. We get to see a character developed across dozens of hours of footage and content, much in the way Marvel’s heroes have grown with their audience over the course of more than a decade.
For me when I went through them for the first time, the Zatoichi movies became a sort of comfort food. They aren’t always excellent and sometimes they can feel a little redundant, but they’re always charming. Shintaro Katsu as the titular swordsman can appear goofy and rambling, but always alert and subverting the low expectations of those around him. There’s satisfaction in watching him go through similar beats with different characters, and always getting caught up in some wild scheme or action. The Zatoichi movies are popcorn for samurai aficionados and old souls at heart; action, humor, and drama that never takes itself too seriously and proves that even fifty years ago people went to the movies, more often than not, just to have a good time.
So whether you’re looking for some light katana carnage or an existential experience, clearly we’re just skimming the surface of what the Criterion Channel has to offer. And given the extensive plans for rotating content during the opening month alone (detailed here extensively by our own Hubert Vigilla) there should be no shortage of classic and obscure cinematic discoveries to be made.