With the Academy Awards creeping up on Sunday, this week’s biggest home video title is, unsurprisingly, one of the night’s most nominated pictures. But that’s not all that’s out there: Criterion Collection releases of two 1960s masterpieces (one you’ve probably heard of, one maybe not so much), a fascinating new documentary on actors and acting, and a powerful dramatic performance from one of our favorite comedians.
She’s the Best Thing In It : Mary Louise Wilson is a lifelong character actor and Tony Award winner, aged out of even her specialty work, who went back to New Orleans to teach college acting. That’s no easy task for a novice, and one of the film’s key virtues is how director (and Philadelphia screenwriter) Ron Nyswaner captures the hesitancy and tension of the teaching process. He counterbalances her story by talking to several other great character actors about their craft (including Frances McDormand, Melissa Leo, Valerie Harper, and Tyne Daly), using the life of one actor to consider the actor’s life. Informative, enlightening, and heartfelt, it’s a lovely little documentary about the kind of performer we too often take for granted.
I Smile Back : Rehab narratives are a dime a dozen, so director Adam Salky lucks out in casting Sarah Silverman, who turns in an astonishingly raw and unguarded performance as a wife and mother who can no longer hide her drugs, booze, and extramarital affairs. The script (by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan, from Koppelman’s novel) offsets its predictability with keenly observed scenes from suburban life, and Silverman fits into them snugly, creating tiny tragedies everywhere she goes, as fragile and tenuous as an open wound. It shouldn’t be a surprise when a great comic actor is a great dramatic actor, but Silverman is nonetheless smashing in this sensitive drama. (Includes interview featurette.)
Spotlight : Director Tom McCarthy chronicles the Boston Globe’s landmark investigation of sexual assault in the Catholic Church much as his protagonists did – quietly, doggedly, yet undeniably effectively. It pulses with intelligence and the thrill of a job done well (perhaps only a certain kind of person gets a charge out of watching reporters trawling through musty old directories; guilty as charged), but it’s also no black/white hat story; it’s a picture about moral responsibility within not only the church, but institutions like the Globe that are supposed to keep watch over them, and too often fall down on the job. Its critical reception and Oscar success might make it sound like empty prestige, but it’s an uncommonly rich and well-told picture, where little details and relationship nuances become clearer with additional viewings. (Includes featurettes.)
I Knew Her Well : Godard famously described the history of cinema as “boys photographing girls,” and Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1965 masterwork makes an awfully strong case for that notion. Told in a loose-limbed, vignette-heavy style, it’s a freewheeling character study, focused on Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli), a sexy, carefree hedonist from the sticks who tries to make her way in the city as a model/actress. Along the way, she accumulates men of all stripes: kind and nasty, sweet and exploitative, charming and sleazy. Criterion’s box copy describes it as “an inversion of La Dolce Vita,” which sounds about right; it’s inventively photographed and snazzily sophisticated. But it also shares that film’s cynicism about celebrity and the ugly, transactional nature of that beast. (Includes new interviews, archival audition footage, and trailer.)
The Graduate : Mike Nichols’ 1967 comedy/drama – newly restored and special edition-ed by the Criterion Collection – was one of the key instigators of the New Hollywood movement, and as such, it’s hard to work up much of anything new to say about it. But a fresh viewing reveals that much of what’s stuck in the popular memory is all but confined to the first 30 minutes and the last ten, though the innovative use of pop music and inventive cutting reverberate throughout. Yet what’s strongest is the overall sense of displacement, the way Nichols uses off-angles, flash cutting, discombobulated sound, and general unsteadiness to create both empathy and detachment, and then ferociously tears those devices down with the rawness of Elaine’s discovery scene and their subsequent fight in his room in Berkeley. And even the iconic moments maintain their impact; you can watch this movie a dozen times and keep making discoveries in Ben and Elaine’s expressions in that famous penultimate image. (Includes audio commentaries, new and archival interviews, featurettes, screen tests, and trailer.)