What makes a classic film a classic? Landing on some critic's list? Currency among cinephiles over time? One possible definition is inclusion in the Criterion Collection, the movie-nerd benchmark for quality and erudition. This is, after all, the boutique imprint that releases nothing it doesn't endorse as worthwhile, and home-video home to carefully crafted editions from the oeuvres of cinema titans such as Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, Ozu, and Hitchcock. But Criterion doesn't, and shouldn't, just confine itself to the established canon. It has embraced wild cards (Michael Bay's Armageddon), new auteurs (e.g. Wes Anderson), and titles from emerging talents that might otherwise get lost in the mass-market straight-to-DVD slipstream. Criterion's recent slate of releases illustrates the vindications and uncertainties of handicapping greatness.
Wong Kar-wai's 2000 film In the Mood for Love isn't new to the collection—it was one of those titles that got in on the first ballot, so to speak, emerging on domestic DVD for the first time via Criterion—but it is out in a new transfer in a new DVD edition and, for the first time, Blu-ray. (All titles discussed are released both ways.) And really, Blu-ray is the way to get the most out of Wong's sumptuous visual feast. Wong's story (one of his most straightforward) involves the thwarted love affair of two people (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) thrown together in a crowded Hong Kong apartment house in 1962. Unhappily married to absent others, their attraction simmers under social convention and the eyes of their ever-present neighbors and co-workers, and never really comes to a boil. And yet there are few finer depictions of romantic longing on screen, as the gorgeous Cheung and Leung pass each other time and again—within arm's reach but never touching—in languorous slo-mo. And while Wong often shoots from inside closets or even under furniture, emphasizing their confining and claustrophobic surroundings, In the Mood remains his most visually ravishing film to date. Cheung's parade of high-necked, tightly tailored, vividly patterned cheongsam dresses deserves its own Tumblr feed.
You'll get little debate among film lovers that In the Mood for Love deserves the lavish Criterion treatment. You'll get more pushback, at least around here, regarding David Fincher's 1997 film, The Game. Mid-period Hitchcock recast for a new age, Fincher's film unobtrusively shadows depressive wealthy businessman Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) as he finds himself sucked up into an elaborate live-action game, a birthday present from his wastrel brother, played by Sean Penn. At first the game seems designed to add some adventure to his life, then appears out to wreck, and even end it. Douglas turns his usual rich-prick persona inside-out to good effect, and the director crafts a slick and twisty thrill-ride to go with it. The film's vaunted final twist is a good one, and yet The Game feels far less powerful and resonant than Fincher's more stylized calling card Se7en, much less his masterpiece to date, the endless conundrum that is Zodiac. If any Fincher film deserves the white "C" imprimatur, it's the latter.
In recent years, Criterion has offered more home-video debuts, often as the result of a partnership with distributor IFC Films. These are works on which the jury is still out, so to speak, at least outside the Criterion offices and other clutches of cinema cognoscenti. The jury may remain out on some of the titles. There is little question, at least around these parts, that Steve McQueen's 2008 IRA hunger-strike account Hunger deserves its straight-outta-the-box spot in the collection. There may be more grumbling here and there over, say, Lena "Girls" Dunham's precocious coming-of-age indie 2010 Tiny Furniture, or Joshua Marston's well-made but curiously inert 2011 Albanian feud account The Forgiveness of Blood (out Oct. 16).
Andrew Halgh's 2011 Weekend, just making its domestic DVD/Blu-ray debut on Criterion, doesn't necessarily feel like its timelessness is foregone but then neither is it out of the question. Halgh's second feature follows ordinary young Brit Russell (Tom Cullen) as he leaves a cozily domestic house party and heads for a dance club, where he meets Glen (Chris New). Waking from their ostensible one-night stand, they linger. Russell—bloke-y, semi-closeted, self-esteem on the low side—doesn't seem to feel he deserves much more. Glen—a budding artist, out and proud, and an active bed-hopper—avows that he doesn't want more. And yet there's something between them that neither can quite shake, even as the weekend extends and finds them testing the bounds of who they are and who they think they'd like to be.
It would be a misnomer to file this as a straight romance, so to speak. As Russell and Glen talk (and talk and talk), it's clear that their gayness makes a difference in how their stories, and their lives, are going to unfold from here, just as it makes a difference in how they talk about their budding relationship and how it moves from setting to setting. (Halgh shoots a number of dialogue scenes from a distance, as if eavesdropping or gawking the way an urban people-watcher might.) And yet the story of trust, of learning about yourself from someone else, and of that mysterious force called love is universal and captured with exquisite, patient detail. There are no pat answers, no false moves, and there's little trouble imagining it retaining its poignancy and everyday truths in a decade or three.