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The Criterion conundrum.

The Criterion conundrum. (photo)

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A friend and I have a long-running argument about Criterion #40. If you’re one of those cinephiles as addicted to the “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” as we are, you probably already know where I’m going with this.

Nestled in between Seijun Suzuki’s “Tokyo Drifter” and Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” in the Criterion line-up is Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” sticking out like a sore thumb, and not just because of its bulky two-disc case, popular in the early days of DVD when it was first released.

For the record, I’m no fan of “Armageddon” (if I were to pick only one of Mr. I-Blow-Shit-Up’s films for the Collection, it would be the unrestrained Bayhem of “Bad Boys II”), but I am part of the small minority that believes it deserves its place amongst the Kurosawas and the Truffauts, not because of its quality, but because of that word “important” in Criterion’s mission statement — with “Armageddon” being a film that demonstrates the bloat of the current blockbuster era.

01042010_buttondvd.jpgBut you can count Newsweek‘s Daniel D’Addario amongst the thousands who side with my friend, disappointed that the Criterion Collection dare sully its good name with the inclusion of films like “Armageddon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and concerned that the addition of contemporary titles like “Che” will keep older one from getting released and threaten to bring the whole enterprise down.

To support his case, D’Addario gets Criterion’s president Peter Becker to offer something of a mea culpa about “Button,” admitting the “deal is an asterisk in Criterion history” since it was done at the behest of David Fincher — which shouldn’t merit an apology, since film students will be learning from the disc’s three-hour documentary for years to come. D’Addario frames Criterion’s recent deal with IFC Films (with whom this site obviously shares a parent company) as a sell-out move since titles like “A Christmas Tale” and “Gomorrah” are “decent enough… but classics?”

While there’s no accounting for D’Addario’s personal taste, there’s far more accounting of another kind that he doesn’t allow for. The DVD boom was a mixed blessing for Criterion, which was able to blossom beyond the roots of its forebear, the world cinema distributor Janus Films, and their incredible collection of Bergman and Ozu movies, among others. Criterion was able to evolve and champion new filmmakers like Wes Anderson, David Gordon Green and “Ratcatcher”‘s Lynne Ramsay while putting together killer packages for canon-approved titles like “Rules of the Game” or the first American home video release of Visconti’s “The Leopard.”

Meanwhile, other studios realized the value of their back catalogs and were more reluctant to license their films — in the laserdisc days, Criterion was able to give their full treatment to Warner Bros.-owned titles like “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane,” with the latter boasting an incredible collection of interviews with 35 filmmakers and collaborators that has yet to be replicated on any format since. (And don’t even ask about “The Magnificent Ambersons” laserdisc, the only place where Welles’ original vision of his butchered classic could be deciphered, still not available on DVD.)

01042009_ambersons.jpgArticles like D’Addario’s and Maclean’s writer Jaime Weinman’s would have you believe “Ambersons” and others of their ilk are getting bumped in favor of Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2007 drama “The Secret of the Grain” (one of my personal faves of the decade), but I’d argue just the opposite. Now that DVD sales have receded, it’s likely more studios will come to the table to license out films that will require a more specialized release and will find a comfort zone with Criterion.

It’s probably no coincidence that Focus Features inked a deal with them for a proper release of Ang Lee’s director’s cut of “Ride With the Devil” (as well as the recent, brilliant “Monsoon Wedding” disc with all of Mira Nair’s shorts), and their parent company Universal finally gave the go-ahead to a Criterion version of Leo McCarey’s long-neglected “Make Way for Tomorrow” (due out in February).

Just thinking of this makes me envy the years ahead for Matthew Dessem, an IT guy recently profiled by Roger Ebert who’s working his way through the Collection in order (he’s up to #95: “All That Heaven Allows”) and writing about it on his blog The Criterion Contraption.

It’s going to be a long time before he reaches titles like 2008’s “Revanche” (#502) and “Hunger” (#504), but something tells me when he does, he won’t be disappointed. Even if he is, he’s got Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montès” at #503 to keep him happy.

[Photos: Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in “Armageddon,” Touchstone Pictures, 1998; Criterion DVD cover for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; Criterion laserdisc cover for “The Magnificent Ambersons”]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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