C What’s Good: What to watch on the Criterion Channel for January 2020


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!

Mad Max (1979) George Miller

I think I’m solidified in my opinion that Fury Road, the long-gestated fourth film in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic saga of gravel roads and interesting leather clothes, is unquestionably the apex of the Mad Max films. I think all of us here at Flixist are pretty big Fury Road fans. I’ve certainly said my piece. And even before Miller’s 2015 triumph, The Road Warrior in 1981 would establish the tropes and iconography that the Mel Gibson vehicles would be known for. Hell, Thunderdome gave us Master Blaster and a smattering of strange Tina Turner-fueled wonder. But as a wise tree once said, never forget your roots.

The original Mad Max would take the world by storm in elevating the ozsploitation film to the levels of pop cultural sensation despite its meager budget, following in the footsteps of films like George Lucas’ Star Wars (can you fathom that at one point that was an indie film?). Today the name might not conjure the same financial empire that Disney so rigorously maintains, but Mad Max remains one of the most influential films of its kind, carving out a sunny and rough apocalypse the likes of which would bleed into comic books and video games as well as films.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Alexander Mackendrick

Barry Levinson’s 1982 coming-of-adulthood film Diner features a character who only speaks in quotes from Sweet Smell of Success, which has always read as a perfectly plausible and natural character to me. After you see this movie, how could you not want to live it over and over again?

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a fast-moving low-level press agent in Manhattan, working any angle he can to climb the ranks. Cozying up to newspaper mogul JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) would seem to be a sure bet for coming up in the world, though the Hearst-like tabloid man isn’t the kind of pushover Falco might hope for. 

Sweet Smell of Success is New York jazz and ’50s Americana in ways that few films encapsulate, but really it’s the script you stay for. This movie fires dialogue like bullets. It might be Burt Lancaster’s greatest performance, commanding those around him with the sort of powerful presence we’d see in Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, or Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Sweet Smell is considered classic film noir, though unlike most others of the era it isn’t about detectives or smoky shootouts. Hunsecker doesn’t need guns; “You’re dead, son, get yourself buried.” 

Hardcore (1979) Paul Schrader

The Criterion Channel is featuring Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s urban masterpiece (from Schrader’s screenplay) this month as well, but we all know Taxi Driver, right? A little lesser known movie is Hardcore, an early directorial effort from the legendary writer and, in many ways, a similar riff on the Taxi Driver formula.

Cemented by George C Scott’s terrific lead performance, Hardcore follows a simple, religious man’s confrontation of the modern world’s decadent underbelly. Jake VanDorn (Scott) is a successful, devout businessman in Michigan whose daughter disappears on a school trip in California. Finding traces of a connection to Los Angeles pornographers, VanDorn takes it upon himself to track down his daughter and pull her from this pit of immorality before serious damage might be done.

Though it reads like a potential sleaze-fest, Hardcore doesn’t overindulge in explicit content the way a 21st century viewer might expect; Schrader’s film gets down to the nitty-gritty, with its fair share of harsh violence and drama, but never feels like the exploitation films it centers around. Instead we get an early example of Schrader’s running commentary on faith, and the ways in which it can contort and guide people down a given path. Jake VanDorn is a man whose sense of Christian morality regulates his control over his daughter, perhaps pushing her to rebel in her flight from home. It’s equal parts streetwise-thriller and character study. And if nothing else, we get George C Scott in a sweet Hawaiian shirt.

The Double Life of Véronique (1991) Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski

There would almost seem to be an intrinsic link between stories of doppelgängers and doubles and the cinematic medium. You figure, when you’re watching a film you’re living someone else’s life for some 90 minutes, experiencing what they feel and do, and perhaps taking a bit of their (fictional) existence to heart, in turn taking what was only “pretend” and making it real.

Polish filmmaker Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski’s early-’90s story of two women, Weronika and Véronique (both played by Irène Jacob) leading different lives across different countries taps into the same sort of connected-disconnect we as filmgoers experience, relating his characters’ disparate movements and actions in ways unfathomable to the characters themselves. Weronika’s life in Poland as a singer might not seem to tie in with French Véronique’s love life and melancholy, yet KieÅ›lowski paints the two women as sides of the same coin; connected by nature, yet never facing each other.

Dreamlike to the maximum, Double Life is enthralling also a gorgeous work of art whose warm and saturated color palette alone makes this worth a watch. Not to mention Jacob’s complete embodiment of these two characters, displaying a everything from stunning beauty to depressing naïveté as someone caught up in one of life’s mysterious cycles that we just can’t understand.

Clearly not slowing down for the New Year, the Criterion Channel is continuing to churn out great curated series, and maintaining a steady rotation of new releases both from the Criterion Collection and beyond. It’s also refreshing and nice to see “big films” like the aforementioned Taxi Driver or Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange receive some highlighting on the Channel’s main page. As an easy means for subscribers to revisit such classics, this is a win, but more importantly the big names serve as potential gateways for new cinephiles. Maybe a curious viewer hasn’t even heard of 12 Angry Men, let alone its legendary director Sidney Lumet. Well, the Criterion Channel’s got them covered, with recommendations to boot. 

It’s the sort of inclusivity that I think keeps this service at the peak of quality, never presuming to be above appreciating a movie simply because of its popularity or “common” status among longtime movie buffs. As always, the Criterion Channel proves to have something for everyone.