Last spring a new streaming channel called FilmStruck was announced, and it’s finally here. It features many of the titles from the Criterion Collection, a distribution company that caters to cinephiles and collectors by releasing great films on deluxe DVDs and Blu-rays, and now via the internet. Movie lovers who’ve been disappointed with Netflix’s selection (as a recent New York Times article complained) should be thrilled with FilmStruck’s impressive library.
It’s bad news, however, for Hulu subscribers, as Hulu has housed the Criterion Collection for years, and, yes, those titles are now leaving. Hulu will have to step up with its own movie library—or at least original programming—to continue competing.
FilmStruck has a two-tiered pricing structure. Viewers can subscribe to just FilmStruck for $6.99 per month. This tier offers some great films, including some classic Criterion titles as well as some more recent arthouse flicks, but it’s still fairly limited. True movie buffs will want to pay for the Criterion tier, at $10.99 per month—or the slightly discounted $99 per year—for access to all the hundreds of titles, from Adaptation to Zatoichi, and including much of Criterion’s current DVD and Blu-ray library, accessed instantly.
As of now, owners of the latest version of AppleTV can download an app for access on smart TVs, but a Roku app is still in the works. Additionally, the company promises more new movies coming soon. We will keep you updated on any changes, but meanwhile, here’s a selection of 12 great movies you can access on the service, some on the FilmStruck tier and some on the Criterion tier. Or, you can simply watch Martin Scorsese’s great three-hour documenary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) for some ideas.
Black Girl (Criterion)
Celebrating its 50th anniversary with a crisp new restoration, Black Girl (1966) is often considered to be the first African feature film to be seen in the West and elsewhere. It was the directing debut of Senegal-born author Ousmane Sembene, who went on to become a highly respected filmmaker the world over, and who died in 2007 after his final masterpiece Moolaade. In Black Girl (originally titled La Noire de...), a naïve Dakar girl, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), gets a job as a nanny for a French family, and is excited that she will get to travel with them to France. Unfortunately, once there, she is unceremoniously turned into a maid, never even getting to leave. Her mistress is a permanently clenched, angry woman (Anne-Marie Jelinek) who looms like a snapping threat. Meanwhile, her ambivalent husband (Robert Fontaine) drinks too much, perhaps understandably.
Sembene shows Diouana’s story with flashbacks to her days in Dakar, with a handsome suitor (Momar Nar Sene). Though the movie is filmed in black and white, these scenes burst with vibrancy, such as when Diouana cheerfully and rebelliously walks a balancing act on top of a solemn war memorial. An African mask figures into the story prominently, becoming both a prop and a metaphor. In the final scene, a small boy dons the mask and follows, like a ghost, the white family’s father, after an unpleasant errand. Running only 65 minutes, the movie is compact but extremely potent; Sembene’s simple camera setups articulate great poetry. It’s a movie of dashed hopes and unexpected beauties, and it’s a masterpiece.
Jean Vigo was born in Paris and died at the tender age of 29, having made only four films whose combined running times don’t quite reach three hours; his entire output can be viewed in one remarkable sitting. If he had lived in more contemporary times, he may have been an icon, like James Dean, Bruce Lee, or Tupac Shakur, but even so, his influence has rippled far and wide across film history. He was reportedly the son of an anarchist, and is widely considered one of cinema’s greatest poets, creating images and emotions far more powerful, beautiful, subtle, and memorable than most others that have ever tried to pick up a camera.
L’Atalante (1934) is his longest film, running a tidy 89 minutes. It concerns a barge captain, Jean (Jean Dasté), who marries and promptly marches his bride, Juliette (Dita Parlo), to the barge for another long river journey. His first mate is the uncouth but jolly, tattooed Père Jules (Michel Simon), with his orangutan arms and mashed-potato face. While Juliette doesn’t even have time to take off her wedding dress before beginning her life as a barge wife, it’s Père Jules who must learn to trust her in his man’s domain. Their scenes together are sweet and touching, and it’s Père Jules who comes to the rescue when Juliette runs off to Paris and discovers the City of Lights’ downside. Though many scenes are realistic, with remarkable use of the barge’s cramped space (often overrun with cats!), Vigo also uses dreamy, overlapping images and magical realism to beautiful effect. It’s surely one of the most gorgeous masterworks in the history of cinema.
The Battle of Algiers (Criterion)
The first thing you’ll hear about Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) is that not a single inch of newsreel footage was used in it. Everything was shot specifically for this film. And yet, it seems strikingly immediate, so dangerously up-to-the-moment, that it feels stolen. It takes place in Algiers, from 1954-1962, as French Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) attempts to stop the National Liberation Front, a group that commits brutal acts of terrorism throughout the country. In one astonishing sequence, three Arab women disguise themselves as European women, walk into clubs and cafes, plant bombs in handbags, and quietly leave.
One shot shows a woman with mixed feelings about her task, but she still goes through with it. There are other unforgettable sequences, but Pontecorvo doesn’t let anyone off too easily. The French also use underhanded tactics on their side, and both sides are shown as capable of cruelty and barbarism. In this world, victory is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to keep. Though the movie is now 50 years old, it could not be more vital. Brahim Haggiag plays National Liberation Front leader Ali La Pointe, and the great Ennio Morricone provided the music score. Pontecorvo went on to make the excellent Queimada (1969)—also known as Burn!—starring Marlon Brando.
A Brighter Summer Day (Criterion)
The great Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang died in 2007, at the age of 59, after having completed only seven films. Just two of these were released in any form in the United States, Yi Yi (2000)—which was my pick for the best film of its decade—and the equally great A Brighter Summer Day (1991). A four-hour epic, the movie is set largely in the early 1960s, and deals with the children of immigrants that fled China after a communist victory; unsure of their place in the world, these young people have begun to form gangs.
One of the many plots concerns the school-age girlfriend of a powerful gangster; after the gangster goes into hiding, a younger, more inexperienced gang member falls for her. They share a lovely afternoon at a movie studio, where she wins an audition based on her looks. But a shadow is cast over the experience as friends warn him of the danger he’s in. Other characters try to embark on singing careers; the title itself comes from an Elvis song, which leads to more conflict. Yang is one of the few directors in history that could simultaneously embrace realism and an immensely personal stylization. His effortless staging of scenes mainly involves long, sustained shots, but he also focuses on certain props and music cues. He manages to suggest an entire universe, uncertain, in flux, but unwilling to let go of hope. In its way, it’s as graceful an epic as The Godfather.
Chimes at Midnight (Criterion)
Orson Welles is often considered one of the greatest filmmakers in history, though just as often, the consensus is that he peaked with his first film, Citizen Kane. A look at the restored masterpiece Chimes at Midnight (1966), which was released in theaters earlier this year, will prove differently. Welles adapted five William Shakespeare plays, culling certain scenes together to tell the story of the supporting character Falstaff, a jolly scoundrel who pals around with young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) for a time, and then is betrayed in one of the Bard’s great, crushing moments (“I know thee not, old man”).
As with many of his later films, Welles made this on a minuscule budget, stopping and starting to raise more money, and saved by post-dubbing much of the soundtrack. Though it’s far from polished, it has a ragged beauty that few films can match. Moreover, it contains exteriors and battle scenes of such power and personality that today’s fight scenes, onslaughts of sound and fury, ought to be embarrassed. Welles’ deep-focus cinematography and striking angles still feel bracingly fresh, and impressively singular. None other than John Gielgud plays King Henry IV, Jeanne Moreau plays one of the only female roles, a “low woman” named Doll Tearsheet, and Fernando Rey plays one of the rebels. Ralph Richardson narrates.
The Last Laugh (FilmStruck)
Though the German Expressionist movement had many practitioners, few reached the heights of director F.W. Murnau. He died tragically in a car accident in 1931 at the age of 42, and only a small handful of his films are said to exist today. The Last Laugh (1924) is one of them, and it alone might be enough to secure his reputation. It’s primarily known for using no intertitles, for telling its story entirely in pictures. (It was a true, international experience, and a smash hit.) The celebrated German star Emil Jannings plays an unnamed doorman for a hotel; he’s a barrel of a man, decorated with an elegant head of white hair and a white mustache and beard, and proud in his uniform of many polished buttons and white gloves.
Unfortunately, getting old, the doorman loses his job and is demoted to washroom clerk. Since his uniform was a huge source of pride, he tries to lie to his family and friends about his shameful demotion, and winds up in a (nearly) tragic ending; the film radically switches to a positive ending that could be part parody, or part interior monologue. Murnau focuses on the physicality of the doorman, showing him becoming hunched over as his pride slips away, and showing buildings seemingly bending inward toward him. Gleaming surfaces are largely reflections, and the camera is constantly on the move, always exploring, leading, or following according to the moment. The German title was Der letzte Mann (“The Last Man”), but I think The Last Laugh works better.
Fritz Lang was a contemporary of Murnau’s, but traveling a severely different career path. In Germany, he made king-size crime and sci-fi epics with enormous budgets that attracted the attention of Hitler. In the 1930s, he escaped to France, then emigrated to Hollywood, where he was more or less placed among second-tier directors and makers of unserious crime films. Yet his singular vision, and his handling of paranoia and fate in the lives of his characters, has secured his place in history as one of the greatest of all filmmakers. Scholars agree that M (1931), his penultimate film before leaving Germany, is his masterpiece; highly stylized and deeply paranoid, it’s a murder story unlike any other.
Peter Lorre stars, in a performance that Charlie Chaplin called the best he’d ever seen, as child murderer Hans Beckert. His crafty, clever killings cause the police to double their efforts, thereby disrupting normal, underworld activity; so the other criminals take it upon themselves to catch Beckert to get things back to normal. The kangaroo court scene, with Beckert shrieking “I can’t help myself!” is unforgettable. In the early days of sound film, Lang was especially inventive in his use of offscreen sound and music cues (a few whistled notes of “Peer Gynt” warns of the killer nearby), as well as lighting and surfaces. It all adds up to a strikingly accomplished film, which points to children as the hope of the future.
Mulholland Drive (Criterion)
Apparently, Mulholland Drive (2001) was a TV pilot that Lynch failed to sell and then re-worked into a last-ditch feature film. Either way, it worked, and this finished effort has been called one of the best films of its decade. It’s a great film, highly erotic, very spooky, and profoundly puzzling; many smart people have spent hours trying to decipher its little clues, trying to clarify its deeper meaning. It begins, more or less, as a mysterious brunette (Laura Elena Harring) survives some kind of shooting and car crash on Mulholland Drive, and wanders, dazed, into an empty house. Then, sweet, naïve, angelic Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood, hoping to stay at her aunt’s place and try her hand in the movies.