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The 12 Days of Christmas, Day 5

Each December, the XLR8R staff takes a few minutes every morning to spout off about what we'd like to see wrapped up and under the tree come December 25. Today, Ken Taylor drools over classic films with the Janus Films Presents: Essential Art House Vols. I and II boxed sets.

When it comes to preserving the quality and spirit of classic films on DVD, there’s really only one name in the game: The Criterion Collection. So, a couple of years back, when Criterion teamed up with the esteemed Janus Films distributor (responsible for bringing most of the world’s best films to the U.S.) on its 50th anniversary, cinephiles the world over had their collective breath taken away with the release of Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films, a show-stopping 50-DVD set of literally some of the greatest films ever made. But for many folks, myself included, the $650 price tag shot us right back into a glum reality.

Fast-forward to now, and Criterion has made the smart move of packaging select Janus films into easy-to-afford—and for beginners, easy-to-access—six-DVD packages. The first set, Essential Art House Vol. I, is a great introduction to the series, and, for a burgeoning film buff, the perfect entry point into studying some of cinema’s master directors.

Start with Roman Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, and you’ll begin to understand the meaning of suspense. This examination of class struggle and male-female dynamics set on a weekend boating excursion is a master-class in building cinematic tension, made all the more surprising by Krzysztof Komeda’s incredible jazz-hued score. Then jump to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and get the same lessons upon which Quentin Tarantino built his out-of-time storytelling style. Kurosawa’s four-perspective look at the subjectivity of truth is a metaphor for filmmaking itself, putting an entirely unique spin on the samurai film genre.

And that’s more or less the way these directors worked: They often took genre films or classic stories (such as Beauty and the Beast and Lord of the Flies, as directed by Jean Cocteau and Peter Brook, respectively) and imbued them with original angles, both cinematically and philosophically. Grand Illusion is essentially a prison-break film, but in Jean Renoir’s hands, its story is handled ever so delicately, and has been hailed as a touchstone of the poetic realism movement. Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is another fiercely creative look at relaying history, using memory and dreams to piece together the tale of an aging professor as he’s about to receive an award for a life’s work that he now finds meaningless.

Essential Art House Vol. II, while not available until early February, packages another six Janus classics: Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Anthony Asquith’s Pygmalion, and Federico Fellini’s La Strada. Each of them—and their makers—holds a special place in the history of cinema, and since they’re the even more refined selections of the whopping 50 Years of Janus Films set, they come with the absolute highest of recommendations. Masterpieces—no matter what time of year you decide to dig into them.

MSRP: $99.95 each box set; $19.95 individual titles

Day 1: Keurig Platinum B70 single-cup coffeemaker
Day 2: Score! Merge Records: The First 20 Years
Day 3: Low Self-Esteem by Katie West
Day 4: New Balance 420 and PF Flyers' Number 5
Day 5: Janus Films Presents: Essential Art House Vols. I and II
Day 6: Kenwood TT756SL 2-Slice Radio Toaster
Day 7: The Ghostly Box
Day 8: Pentax SMC DA* Series 16-50mm F2.8 and 50-135mm F2.8 DSLR lenses

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