C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for December 2019


C What’s Good is the monthly follow-up piece to our C What’s On round-up of the Criterion Channel’s monthly programming. Leaping off of the hard work done by our own Hubert Vigilla, I hope to select a few favorites or interesting picks and convince you they’re worth your time!

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Peter Yates

It’s such a terrible thing to say, because it can only come across as dismissive and ignorant of the amazing work being done today… but they don’t make ’em like this anymore. 

As far as crime films go, the ones we got in the ’70s were just straight up raw. With production codes loosening and eventually being abandoned in the ’60s and an American political climate tearing itself apart over international wars and domestic corruption, how else was a guy supposed to make a buck the honest way? You tell ’em, Coyle!

Eddie “Fingers” Coyle is a tired, middle-aged arms salesman for local hoods in Boston, facing a prison stretch from the film’s outset. Reaching the point in his life where he’s gone a long way with little to show for it, Eddie goes through the motions of criminal life, feeling the pressure and allure of informing on his longtime hood colleagues

Eddie Coyle is just sad, sad, sad. It’s a film with what I believe to be star Robert Mitchum’s absolute finest performance–no small feat in a career of great acting–and a melancholy atmosphere fed by so much of both Peter Yates’ direction, and the time in which the film was made. There’s intent in the detachedness of the film, the lethargic and mundane pace at which Eddie makes gun drops, meets with suppliers and clients, and tends to his home life. The bleakness of facing prison, leaving his wife to fend for herself and their children, is the sort of heartbreaking realism that would color so many of the classic American films that would emerge from the New Hollywood era.

The small-scale tragedy of Coyle’s plight is the sort of bitter deglamorization of criminality we saw so recently in Scorsese’s masterful The Irishman; in the line of work Eddie’s been saddled with, friends like these might be as useful as a hole in your head.

Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980) Les Blank

Until about a week ago I couldn’t have told you this film existed, but what happens when it’s Thanksgiving, you’re hungry, and you have a minuscule window to catch a short movie? You turn to the Criterion Channel.

Clocking in at just 50 minutes, legendary documentarian Les Blank’s examination of that most-crucial of flavors might be dismissed as minor fare by anyone turning a casual eye to Ten Mothers. Looking at the titular onion’s historic role in cuisine as well as natural remedies, Blank turns his camera to the absolute fanatics who champion the pungent plant as a cure-all, a cultural symbol, and just damn tasty.

Ten Mothers isn’t a transcendental piece of cinema, though there’s craft on display for days with Blank’s playful editing and title cards, as well as the glut of mouth-watering and vibrant footage.

Something Wild (1986) Jonathan Demme

The late, great Jonathan Demme left us with an incredibly eclectic body of work. From iconic Talking Heads concert doc Stop Making Sense to a remake of The Manchurian Candidate, transplanting our political anxieties from communist takeover to post-9/11 domestic terror, Demme’s style is irreverent, soulful, and unpredictable.

Which is why Something Wild is the single greatest encapsulation of his work.

As a conservative and bland young businessman, Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) is living the Reagan way until he crosses paths with Lulu (Melanie Griffith), a fiercely-independent force of feverish life and sexuality that up and throttles his straight-laced world. The two wind up road-tripping from Charlie’s NYC job, running across the strange and beautiful episodes that color the quieter parts of the country. Eventually crossing paths with Lulu’s criminal ex-husband (Ray Liotta), things get… wild.

Always one for great music, Demme populates Something Wild’s soundtrack with everything from Jimmy Cliff to New Order, casting his bit characters that dot Charlie and Lulu’s odyssey with as much care as his leads receive. I find, like the Coen Brothers, Demme understood the importance of having everyone who appears on screen in your film deliver something memorable, whether it’s the way they speak or carry themselves, or even an expression on their face. For the minute they’re on screen, that person is your movie, and that movie needs to keep the audience entertained and engaged. Something Wild does that with its eyes closed.

Wings of Desire (1987) Wim Wenders

Writing Wings of Desire in here almost feels like cheating. For as far back as I can remember, Wim Wenders’ late-’80s meditation on the detachment we can feel from the people around us–and the way love can reevaluate all of that in a heartbeat–has been my go-to, no hesitation second favorite film of all time.

Bruno Ganz as the (literal!) angel Damiel wanders the streets of Berlin, divided into East and West during those final years of the Cold War. We glide through parlors and libraries, angels invisible to the human eye observing and notating the thoughts and goings on amongst Berliners. We even pop in and out of the life of Peter Falk, playing a fictional (?) version of himself, on location for a film shoot in the German city. 

Eventually lovestruck by trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin), Damiel becomes transfixed and obsessed, longing to make a real connection with the human world.

Wings of Desire is the single most-affecting film I’ve ever seen. It’s a beautiful movie, both literally and figuratively. Wenders’ usual cinematographer, the genius Robby Muller, sat Wings out. Instead shot by French cinematographer Henri Alekan, the film ebbs and flows like the somber angels we follow, with stark black and white photography giving the film an archival quality.

Moreover, Wings of Desire is a beautiful movie in spirit. It maintains a sadness that can only double back on a heartwarming fondness for life; a meditation on what it means to live and love, or even be human to begin with. The Berlin Wall is a faded memory at this point, but the specter of division is something all too relevant today. For the holiday season, a time where even the least-sentimental of us can give a pat on the back to a stranger or maybe enjoy a Christmas song or two (at least before hearing it for the hundredth time while shopping at a Target), Wings of Desire feels nothing but appropriate.

Our first year with the Criterion Channel is coming to an end. Since its launch in April the Channel has been a major source of my obsessive movie watching, providing a convenient library of good stuff to turn to when in a pinch and in need of a movie. I’m finding, for the holidays, I’m turning to rewatching a lot of old favorites, and the service is no less rewarding for revisiting than it is for discovering. I finally sat down to rewatch Police Story the other day (now I can see Police Story 2!) and am itching to give Carl Dreyer’s classic spook-fest Vampyr a go again. Nothing says merriment like silent cinema!

Because it is the holiday season, and a lot of us are increasingly retreating to our hopefully-warm homes for the early sunsets of the soon-to-be Winter, I’m finding a great streaming service like the Criterion Channel to be even more valuable. Why trek through the slush and cold weather when I can watch all 26 Zatoichi movies from the comfort of my bed! A reminder that movie theaters are and always will be the best way to watch a movie. But for those other times… The Criterion Channel might be next best.

Happy holidays!