Thursday, January 6, 2011

Criterion Collection Contest Calamity!

Like any respectable cinephile, I'm a huge fan of the Criterion Collection. Those folks DOMINATE the classic/arthouse DVD market with their artfully-designed, beautifully-restored, feature-rich releases. Their catalog is second to none, featuring many of the best films ever made alongside a selection of interesting, important, or just plain quirky movies spanning the history of cinema.

So, when Criterion announced a contest based on the popular Twitter hashtag #lessambitiousmovies, you know I had to jump in with both feet.

The premise, such as it was, was as follows: People on Twitter had been posting humorous "less ambitious" movies for the better part of a day. Basically, you'd take a film's title and find a funny way to decrease its scope, scale, intentions, or morality, then post them to Twitter with the appropriate tag. Some examples that I wrote include: No Country Music for Old Men, There May Be Blood, and American History eXam.

Then, after that game had been going on for a while, Criterion created a contest based on their own version, limited to titles within the Criterion Collection, tagged with #LessAmbitiousCriterion. Winner(s) would receive a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray or DVD of their choice. So, as I mentioned, I started throwing out ideas almost immediately.

Fairly quickly, I came up with three rather solid ideas:

  • 1 Thing I Know About Her (based on Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which I reviewed here a few months back)
  • The Guy Who Came In From The Cold (based on Ritt's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold)
  • The Milky Way Bar (based on Bunuel's The Milky Way)

Finally, a few minutes after my initial creative flurry, I stumbled upon Renoir's Boudu Saved From Drowning and came up with Boudu Left To Drown. At the time, I didn't rate that entry above any of the other jokes I'd come up with. I actually favored the first two, though, in retrospect, I can see how easy those jokes were.

Flash forward to just a few hours ago, and Criterion announced the five winners. Lo and behold, my tweet about Boudu made the grade! I was thrilled to win a Criterion-sponsored contest, as I'd entered several over the past few years and never rated as much as an honorable mention. But after the win came the REAL difficult part: Going through all 559 spine numbers listed in Criterion's catalog and choosing just one solitary DVD to receive.

I decided to limit myself to films I'd already seen, both to avoid getting a movie I might not like and to narrow the scope of my choices to make the decision more manageable. But as I flipped through the 25 pages of available titles, I discovered that I'd seen a minimum of three movies per page, leading to around 60 choices once I accounted for titles I already own.

Eventually, through much hemming, hawing, and special feature comparing, I whittled the potential picks down to five finalists:

  • The 39 Steps: A great British-era Hitchcock picture, yet one that I haven't yet acquired as it is not included in any of the Hitchcock box sets I own. My love for Hitch is, well, obvious, and The 39 Steps is one of his tightest, wittiest, and most enjoyable films.
  • Sullivan's Travels: A film by one of Hollywood's first big-time writer/directors, Preston Sturges. Sturges had an incredible hot streak in the early forties, writing and directing roughly seven fantastic, subversive, quick-witted movies within only four years. Sullivan's Travels is one of tbe best of the bunch, and also inspired the title of the Coen Bros O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • The Seventh Seal: One of Ingmar Bergman's first truly global successes, this is a film weighed down a bit by its lofty canonical status but which, nonetheless, is full of moments both thoughtful and humorous. A knight, returning from the crusades with his cynical squire, plays a game of chess against Death, with his life on the line. The game continues as the knight journeys home, with the people and places he encounters changing his outlook on life.
  • The Double Life of Veronique: A beautiful bit of magical realism (or perhaps realistic mysticism?) by the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski, Veronique is a charming, well-plotted, and pleasantly challenging story of two women -- one French, one Polish -- who are, somehow, connected as though two faces of a coin. The whole thing is buoyed by Irene Jacob's incredible performance as Weronika/Veronique.
  • Ikiru: A touchingly human tale from Japanese icon Akria Kurosawa, Ikiru features Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as a bureaucrat who searches for his life's purpose after learning that he is terminally ill. While the story may sound clich√©, the film's unique structure and Kurosawa's deft touch combine to make this a heartfelt, inspiring classic of world cinema.

In the end, I based my decision not on which of these films I love most, as that would be a tough call, but rather on which of the films most helps to fill a hole in my DVD collection. I've got plenty of Hitchcock, as I've demonstrated, and only a few months ago I purchased two Kurosawa films (Yojimbo and Sanjuro) during a huge Criterion sale at Barnes and Noble. There is a Preston Sturges box set available -- though not from Criterion -- and it contains many of the great films from Sturges's hot streak as well as Sullivan's Travels, so that would probably be a better way to get that film. Veronique is a very good film, and can rightfully be called a modern classic, but I can't tell whether I really want to own the film, or just have a MASSIVE crush on Irene Jacob and her lovely performances therein.

So, after eliminating the competition, I decided to request The Seventh Seal, even though it is not the most entertaining or emotionally resonant film on my short list. Rather, I chose The Seventh Seal because, of the Bergman films I've seen, it is the one I've liked best, and because, in an admission that will kill my cinephile cred, I own no other Bergman films. Not Wild Strawberries, not Smiles of a Summer Night, not even Fanny and Alexander (which I haven't even SEEN.)

At any rate, I'd like to thank Criterion for putting on this contest, and (of course) for choosing my entry as one of the five winners (all of whom did a great job). If you want to look back on all of the entries, many of which are BRILLIANTLY funny, search Twitter for the the hash tag #lessambitiouscriterion or click here.

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