Autumn starts in September, which means cooler weather for many people and cool shows on The Criterion Channel all the time. There are tributes to the British New Wave, the art film distributor Cinema 5, the director of photography James Wong Howe and more. Here are the seven best options.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
David Bowie’s first role as an actor is in this science-fiction drama (you might have heard of him). Up until this point, he was mostly known as a rock star who crossed genres and had looks that never went out of style. By 1976, Bowie had already gotten rid of his space-oddball Ziggy Stardust persona, but he hadn’t stopped changing his personas because of drugs in general, so playing a fallen alien who was destined for greatness seemed like a natural next step.
The movie is about an alien that looks like David Bowie and has a humanoid body. His planet is in trouble because of nuclear problems and he needs water very badly. He comes to Earth with the tools he needs to get rich and strong enough to send water back to his home planet and maybe find his wife and child. He gets famous as a musician. He makes a rocket ship. The movie is based on a book and the book is more interested in these parts of the plot—why they happen. On the other hand, the movie is a surreal, satirical look at life on Earth in the 1970s, especially life in the competitive and chaotic West, which is what our alien wants to be a part of, mission or no mission. It says a lot about fame and values, especially through the stylish, rich visuals of the best movies of the time.
Kes is a very British story that talks about ideas that might feel universal in 2022 and maybe did even when it came out in 1969. It’s about how Britain’s now-defunct Tripartite education system put working-class kids, especially those who didn’t do well on tests, at a disadvantage. If they were creative, imaginative, or sensitive, these traits were tried to get rid of. So they could become the low-skilled workers their country needed to fill low-paying jobs. Billy, the main character in this story, doesn’t think that’s enough.
He is picked on at home and at school, so he gets a kestrel, which is like a commoner’s falcon. Even though he is a commoner, he becomes its falconer and the bird becomes his friend. The story that happens is both sad and funny and it makes you think and have fun. It’s a movie that’s fun to watch first and none of its main ideas are ever made clear. It is beautifully shot, with images of the countryside next to dark industrial plumes that represent our main character’s inevitable future.
Death In Venice (1971)
Luchino Visconti, an Italian director, takes a short story about a holiday obsession that takes over everything and turns it into a film that is full of nihilistic existentialism. Death in Venice is the title. Gustav is an old German composer who takes a trip to Venice around 1911. He doesn’t know that the city is being destroyed by a plague until he gets to his resort. One by one, the people around him start to die of a disease that was not mentioned in the brochures. Gustav can’t stop thinking about the flu and how likely he is to catch it. Tadzio, a handsome young man, takes his mind off of these things. He follows Tadzio and his family all over the city, but he never talks to them. Instead, they pull him through the movie.
There is a documentary about Bjorn Andrésen, who plays the young man and is also in Ari Aster’s Midsommar as an adult. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is the name of that documentary, which is also coming to the Criterion Channel on September 19. Gustav’s obsession is dangerous and dangerous to himself. People watch with tense anticipation, hoping that Gustav doesn’t get close to this stranger and his family. This plague can’t move fast enough. All of this leads to a sad ending, at least for Gustav, but the journey itself is very well done and a good way to get to know the work of its director.
Pushing Hands (1991)
There aren’t many modern classics on the Criterion Channel in September. Instead, there are a lot of historical works. It will have to be an important piece from the 1990s. Ang Lee would grow up to be an artist who could look at the core of what it means to be American with poetic clarity. In The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, he looks at problems in the suburbs and in the country in a measured way. His first full-length movie is called Pushing Hands.
It doesn’t have quite the same ease and subtlety as some of his best later works, but it does have its charms. This story about an old Chinese man moving in with his son shows the kinds of things Lee seems most interested in talking about going forward. Cultures that don’t get along, expectations that aren’t met and disappointments at home. His next movie, The Wedding Banquet, would have this movie’s star and cover some of the same ground, but Pushing Hands is a great example of how an important storyteller can grow as an artist on a small budget.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Gimme Shelter starts out as a concert film about a Rolling Stones show at New York‘s Madison Square Garden and ends up as a documentary about the Stones’ Altamont Speedway Free Festival. This is meant to represent the matter-of-fact, guerilla documentary style of the Direct Cinema era. Altamont was an all-day concert where Santana, the Grateful Dead and other bands played. It was supposed to be a party for the anti-establishment counterculture, which grew out of the civil rights movement. It happened just a few weeks after Woodstock.
This free concert was supposed to be the West Coast Woodstock, a free-love party in the sun. However, the Hells Angels, a motorcycle club whose members are known for riding gnarly Harley Davidsons and not being hippies, were put in charge of security on purpose. It got really bad. People died. Young people. Artists were attacked—a fan punched Mick Jagger in the face as soon as he got to the field. One of the members of Jefferson Airplane was attacked by a Hells Angel. If you had bought insurance for the event, all of this is bad news. But if you’re watching a movie made by people (like George Lucas!) who had no idea any of this would happen, then the movie is almost a miracle. The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner and Jefferson Airplane are all in fighting shape, so there’s also music.
Pumping Iron (1977)
Before gym-focused influencers could send body dysmorphia straight to our phones and even our dreams, there was Pumping Iron. Arnold Schwarzenegger became a star with this movie, which was filmed in 1975 but wasn’t finished and released until 1977. This was years before his breakthrough role in Conan the Barbarian. It was first meant to show how a different, smaller actor went from being small to huge in the niche world of bodybuilding.
When the actor decided he didn’t want to change his way of life, the filmmakers had to change their plans. What took its place was a story about Schwarzenegger’s rivalry with fellow actor Lou Ferrigno, who would go on to star in the 1975 TV series The Incredible Hulk and voice the Hulk in the 2008 movie version. It also became the story of how they both got ready for the Mr. Olympia competition at the same time. Pumping Iron is an important part of the subculture it represents. It is impossible to say enough about how much Schwarzenegger‘s look and attitude have changed that sport. When you watch the movie, he often seems like a cruel bully who hurts his competitors’ mental health to the point where they don’t feel confident when they’re on stage with him. Not the stuff of a good best friend, but clearly the start of one of the most famous Hollywood action careers of the blockbuster era and a source of inspiration for guys who pose on TikTok even today.
From 1961 to 1974, Angola, an African country, fought a war for independence against the dictatorial Portuguese government. At the time, the Portuguese were forcing the people of Angola to grow cotton, which is something that dictatorial governments are known for.
Sambizanga is set during the first year of this war. It tells the story of an Angolan from the working class who is accused of being a dissident. He is arrested, put in jail and threatened with torture if he doesn’t give up his accomplices. We see how harshly he is treated in prison, how his wife tries to find out which prison has him and how the liberation movement fights for freedom.
Sarah Maldoror, a French-West Indian director, pushed the limits with this movie. It wasn’t legal to show in Portugal until years after it came out. She was important because she was one of the first women to direct a movie in Africa. She went on to have a successful career. Martin Scorsese put it in his Criterion Collection World Cinema Project. Physical copies will be available on September 27.
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Jessa Martin is the author of Nogmagazine, A professional in writing by day, and novelist by night, she received her bachelor of arts in film from Howard University and her master of arts in media studies from the New School. A Brooklyn native, she is a lover of naps, cookie dough, and beaches, currently residing in the borough she loves, most likely multitasking.