I've never liked Fellini. There are just too many circuses, midgets and clowns for my taste. He relied on them in the lazy way Jud Apatow falls back on a dick joke. Sure, I understand that Fellini was trying to invoke a certain moodiness—conjure the grotesque—in films like La Dolce Vita and La Strada. But when I think of circuses, I think of fat-fingered kids shoving fried dough into their mouths by the fistful.
It’s obviously impossible to ignore the influence of Fellini as a director, however deep my anti-circus animus may lie. That's why I have no issue with his films being included in the Criterion Collection. As their literature states, Criterion is in the business of canonizing “important classic and contemporary films.” To be released by Criterion is the benchmark of excellence. Their 25-year-old catalog includes indispensable work from masters including Cocteau, Renoir, Maysles, Kubrick, Cronenberg, Godard, Kurosawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, Sturges, and, of course, Fellini.
It's an impressive list of talent, which is why you can imagine my surprise when I arrived at the director responsible for film #40 in their catalog. Michael Bay. That's right, Michael Bay, the dung beetle of cinematic vapidity, best known for his unparalleled skill at rolling oversized balls of shit into our nation’s cineplexes. If you’re not familiar with his work—is this possible?—Bay is responsible for Bad Boys I & II, Pearl Harbor, and Transformers, not to mention the career of Megan Fox. (She hates him too). Currently, Bay is remaking The Birds, which I'm assuming will be re-imagined to include a bikini-clad Maxim covergirl who blows away blood-sucking zombie pigeons with a grenade launcher.
Bay’s end-of-times explosion porno, Armageddon, is the aforementioned #40, and thank your lucky stars because its been digitally remastered for all of posterity. Now you can appreciate the full scope of Bay's inanity while partially losing your hearing—and your will to live—in ear-shattering Dolby surround sound. What’s more, Criterion's Armageddon comes equipped with all those bonuses that cinephiles and academics have come to expect including previously unreleased footage, “Michael Bay’s gag reel,” and the Aerosmith music video “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Could there be more fitting a film than Armageddon to be bookended by Criterion's #39 and #41, Tokyo Drifter and Henry V?
Assuming that the inclusion must be a mix-up of some sort, I went through their entire catalog and with the exception of a couple of oddities—Robinson Crusoe on Mars comes to mind—most of Criterion’s selections are solid. You just can't argue, after all, with The Third Man, Wild Strawberries or Seven Samurai. But as you jump forward in time, many of Criterion's contemporary picks become much more dubious. And now, here are The Ten Most Dubious Films included in the Criterion Collection:
10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – Director Wes Anderson, 2004
Wes Anderson doesn't make movies anymore. He creates overly precious paintings inhabited by emasculated man-children who knit sweater vests to the accompaniment of Belle & Sebastian while fantasizing that they're macho enough to skin a caribou with a pocketknife. The set pieces to The Life Aquatic are stunning, but watching this film is like visiting the Natural History Museum. It's a beautiful building, but most of its pleasures are filled with lifeless things.
9. Night on Earth – Director Jim Jarmusch, 1991
Where Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law have found a well-deserved place on the collection, should Criterion really canonize every constipated misstep Jarmusch makes just because, well, he's Jim Jarmusch? It's like including Mel Brooks' Robin Hood—Men in Tights out of respect for Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. They should have called this overly-stylized snoozefest Two Hours and Eight Excruciatingly Pointless Minutes on Earth. In the end, it takes longer to get through Night on Earth than it does for Jarmusch to blow-dry his 15 pounds of hair.
8. The Man Who Fell to Earth – Director Nicolas Roeg, 1976
Would anybody really have noticed this movie were it not for its star, David Bowie? Sure, Bowie looks amazing, basking in the glory of his androgynous peak, but this film embodies the goofy excesses of the 1970s. LSD-inspired montages. Gratuitous nudity. Enough cheesy synths to fill two albums by Emerson Lake and Palmer. Roger Ebert says The Man Who Fell to Earthis “preposterous and posturing” and for once let's give him credit. As the screenwriter of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Ebert knows a thing or two about the preposterous.
*7. Man Bites Dog – Director Remy Belvaux, 1993*
This Belgium mockumentary tells the story of a serial killer and the demented film crew that assists him in his crimes. Though it intends to be a clever satire on the media's obsession with violence, you'll be begging for mercy—more desperately than the film's victims—after sitting through an hour and 36 minutes of over-top-top gore, disembowelment, and murder. It’s like Saw for gaffers and film school geeks. You get the point 20 minutes and two gang rapes into the film and will walk away wondering why people keep trying to out-shock A Clockwork Orange.
6. The Last Days of Disco – Director Whit Stillman, 1998
Really? This thing? All of Stillman's films revolve around the "urban haute bourgeoisie," AKA self-absorbed cokeheads in pleated khakis who are afraid of black people and never shut the fuck up. Stillman directed three films and this one differs from his others (Metropolitan and Barcelona) as being the one where the protagonists dance to Sister Sledge and get herpes. It takes place in 1981, roughly two years after the actual last days of disco, but that's a minor quibble in a film whose script includes lines like “I think Scrooge McDuck is sexy.”
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Director David Fincher, 2008
It's appropriate that this film is about a man who is aging backwards since you'd need to regress to the mentality of a nine-year-old who’s feeling emotionally vulnerable because he lost his Pooh bear to appreciate it. The special effects are certainly impressive, but who thought it was a good idea to base a three-hour film on a gimmicky short story penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald? It's so melodramatic and heavy-handed you'll swear it was written by the same hack responsible for Forrest Gump. And of course it was.
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Director Terry Gilliam, 1998
Johnny Depp mumbles his way through this incomprehensible and depressing mess of a film. Halfway through your head will begin to pound, like one of those nights when the hangover hits before you’ve stopped drinking. Some of the film's camera trickery—not to mention Ralph Steadman's artwork—are things to behold. But ultimately, Thompson's trademark wit is somewhere miles off screen getting its stomach pumped. Gilliam, who was so brilliant with Brazil and Time Bandits, seems to capture the essence of an older, more angry Gonzo (the one who liked to throw hand grenades on his ranch) as opposed to the wide-eyed cynic found in Hunter's classic novel.
3. The Rock – Director Michael Bay, 1996
Ugh. That’s right. I failed to mention up top that there are not one, but two Michael Bay films in the Criterion Collection. It's the kind of shock-inducing information you need delivered in increments. If they wanted to include an Alcatraz movie, uh, why not Escape from Alcatraz? Perhaps Criterion felt they needed a couple of signature “explosion” films to represent the genre. But given that logic, why not throw in Every Which Way but Loose to represent the “truck driver with an orangutan sidekick” genre too?
*2. Chasing Amy – Director Kevin Smith, 1997*
Even if you're grading on a Kevin Smith curve, Chasing Amy is a doozy. Let's be honest, Clerks and Dogma were far from being works of art either, but at least they didn't feature gratuitous pouting by Joey Lauren Adams. For film historians, Criterion has been kind enough to include some bonus “Bluntman & Chronic” artwork as an extra.
*1. Armageddon – Director Michael Bay, 1998*
Et tu, Criterion? Wikipedia informs us that Michael Bay “donated his Bar Mitzvah money to an animal shelter” when he was a kid. I'm willing to bet he added this autobiographical footnote himself, perhaps during a lull on the set of Armageddon while waiting to blow up a helicopter. I don't buy it either. It's the type of line I picture him using to pick up women, right after applying Chapstick to make sure his lips are glistening. “That’s right baby, I’m a successful director, but I’m an activist too. I donated my Bar Mitzvah money to an animal shelter.” Maybe it's the line he used to get two of his films included on the Criterion Collection too. I love you Criterion. You have impeccable taste. But if you add Transformers to your catalog you're going to lose all credibility.