The Criterion Collection
The term “superhero” wasn’t coined until 1917, but they had been around before. Louis Feuillade, who cranked out film serials in the 1910s, included early versions of them, including the titular star of 1915’s “Judex” — a caped avenger who, rather than take down all criminals, works on just one: an unscrupulous banker who he drugs and imprisons. Not long before the “Batman” TV series, he was dusted off for Georges Franju’s 1963 French remake and embodied by stiff American magician Channing Pollock. What was once a 12-part, five-and-a-half hour epic was crammed into 97 densely nutty minutes, and one that’s less into the dour, basically sociopathic hero than the villain: a slinky thief played by Francine Berge.
Franju is best known for the bone-chilling horror “Eyes Without a Face,” whose centerpiece is an extended experimental surgery scene. He was a stylist whose work, as Geoffrey O’Brien puts it in “Judex”’s liner notes, was like simultaneously watching a “documentary and a dream come to life.” Plenty of weird, impossible events creep up, but they’re presented with a deadpan naturalism that makes them seem stranger still. Chief among these is Judex’s dreamlike introduction, in which he crashes a society party in a giant, ornate bird mask. Franju intended his “Judex” to be in part a tribute to silent era filmmaking, and while he’s not averse to dialogue, he allows long stretches to go by without sound — no music, no chatter, just arresting images. In fact, given that silent cinema was routinely accompanied by musicians or foley artists making racket, it’s at times more silent than silent-era cinema.
Franju — who co-founded the storied film club the Cinematheque Francaise with Henri Langlois — only made a handful of features, and another helping of shorts, many of them experimental documentaries. Two are included as bonus features on this set, both nearly as powerful as his 1949 breakthrough, “Les Sangs des Betes,” a gory look at a slaughter house. “Hotel des Invalides” examines war trauma by looking at statues and disfigured veterans. “Le Grand Melies” is a profile of film pioneer Georges Melies that’s as inventive as its subject, restaging parts of his life along with clips (along with some overlap with Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”). As it looks back to the medium’s infancy, it looks forward to the future Melies made possible.
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The Weinstein Company didn’t do right by James Gray’s heavy, luxurious look at 1920s New York City, despite the presence of Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. A big screen is the ideal place to soak in the muted colors and copious close-ups of Cotillard’s anguished face. But at least you can see it. Cotillard plays a Polish woman whose arrival in America is ruined when she runs afoul of Phoenix’s dangerous musical hall impresario/pimp.
Some were introduced to Ryan Gosling with “The Mickey Mouse Club.” To the rest of us, it was his turn as a Jewish yeshiva student-turned-Neo-Nazi skinhead in this blistering drama. Celebrate the actor’s forthcoming progeny by watching his breakthrough performance, where he deftly balances confidence and inner turmoil as his character wrestles with killing a banker.
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