Art House Redux

Compared to the heyday of 1960s art cinema, when imports made up ten percent of the U.S. film market, today’s theatrical film scene offers American audiences far fewer international films to choose from. Having said that, 2006 was a very good year for international art cinema. But I’m not referring to new movies in release—though films like Water, Casa de Areia, and Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles certainly gave cineastes reason to celebrate.

A greater cause for celebration has been fifty years in the making: the golden anniversary of Janus Films, the revered “little” distributor that exerted such enormous influence on American film culture. Janus began with first-run titles like The Seventh Seal and The 400 Blows, then expanded its library to include earlier masterpieces from Cocteau and Renoir to Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, feeding the appetite for art cinema in the sixties and seventies on college campuses and film societies throughout the U.S.

Now, a half century later fifty of those great films are back—not just in a massive box set of DVDs from the Criterion Collection called Essential Art House (Janus having partnered with Criterion back in the 1980s when it launched its laserdisc line), but also in newly struck 35mm prints screened first at the 44th New York Film Festival and now circulating to repertory theaters like the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

If that were not cause enough for cheers about this past year, consider the acclaim that has greeted the release of Jean-Pierre Melville’s tense wartime thriller, L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows). (N.B. this is not a revival or re-release, but a restoration of the 1969 film, which was never released in the U.S. until now.) The New York Film Critics Circle has named it the best foreign film of 2006, and by the time you read this column I am certain many critics around the country will have included it on their top-ten lists.

Melville’s epic about the French Resistance, drawing from his own experiences during the German Occupation, is regarded as the crowning achievement in a legendary career. Melville was an early auteur in the postwar French film industry, a maverick director with his own studio years before Godard and Truffaut took up cameras. If Army is your introduction to his work, I recommend that you search out his crime thrillers, especially Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Samourai (1967), and Le Cercle rouge (1970)—offbeat, minimalist films that influenced not just French New Wave directors but later auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarentino, and John Woo. Melville’s anti-heroes are the ultimate in cool, though their existential impassivity may take some getting used to. Today I have a much greater appreciation for high-rolling, fifty-something Bob Montagné than I did twenty-five years ago. (Of course, having attained the same age as Melville’s hero may have much to do with that new appreciation.)

I began this column with a tribute to Janus Films. Before I conclude, I want to commend a newer distributor, Rialto Pictures, for its own contributions to restoring classics of art cinema to their former glory. Soon to celebrate its tenth year in business, Rialto has been described by Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times as “the gold standard of reissue distributors.” This is the company that brought us The Battle of Algiers, Elevator to the Gallows, and now Army of Shadows, as well as more than thirty other films during its first decade. Thanks to Rialto Pictures, other lost or forgotten international classics will be coming to theaters in 2007, looking as good as new. Don’t miss them.