Summer at Cinematheque Ontario: Fifty years of Janus Films

As much as the Criterion Collection has long been called "film school in a can," this summer's Janus retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario is looking to be "film school not in a can." Or to put it better, why sit on your couch with a fifty dollar DVD this summer, when you can be down at the AGO watching some of the greatest motion pictures ever made, on a big screen with an appreciative audience?

For fifty years, independent distributor Janus Films has been releasing film after film that have gone on to be considered the artistic watermarks of the medium. And now all summer long, Cinematheque is celebrating the anniversary by screening the best and the brightest.

The complete programme is available here, but for my money, the ones you simply cannot go on living without seeing are:

The 400 Blows - Francois Truffaut's first feature, a searing highlight of the French New Wave, and possibly the finest performance ever given by a junior actor for the big screen (Jean-pIerre Leaud). Screening June 29 and July 26.

La Belle et la Bete - Think Beauty and the Beast is about dancing teacups (or Ron Perlman in a mullet)? You need to see this transcendent work of cinematic fantasy, which defined the art form of on-screen magic for decades to come. Screens July 3.

Jules et Jim - in which I confess my Truffaut crush. Two men fight over one perfect girl in the streets of Paris before the Second World War. Will leave you blushing with the sheer cinematic sensations contained within. Screening June 29 and July 20.

Kwaidan - Four cinematic ghost stories in anthology form make up Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 feature, with stunning imagery and more than a few profound chills. Screens July 23.

Playtime - OK admittedly, you'll either love it, or want to murder me after you see it, but few films of the era can compete with Playtime for exuberent and comical experimentation with the form. Screens August 18.

Rashomon - the film that put Akira Kurosawa on the map tells the story of a rape from multiple conflicting points of view, forever destablizing our relationship with the "reliable" narrator in cinema, and launching Toshiro Mifune on his path to stratospheric superstardom. Oh: and best photography ever. Screens June 30 and July 5.

The Seventh Seal - Long before he played chess with Bill and Ted, Death was tailing Max von Sydow around Sweden in the worst days of the Crusades. The real stunner here is the seeming nihilistic void at the center of this tale, which turns out to be, of course, quite the opposite. Screens July 24 and 27.

La Strada - Try not to fall in love with Giulietta Masina's legendary turn as plucky, down-on-her-luck Gelsomina. I dare you. Also contains Anthony Quinn's best performance, which given the length and variety of his career, is really saying something. Screens July 19 and 31.

Tokyo Story - A seminal piece of Japanese cinema and Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece, Story quietly ponders the human equation through Ozu's careful contemplation of the emotional equivalent of artistic "negative space." OK, that makes it sound complicated, when what I should be saying is "it's just so goddamned good." Screens August 10.

And, of course, no Janus series would be complete without the film that I consider to be the greatest ever made: Akira Kurosawa's 1954 lodestone, Seven Samurai. Screening on July 9, and a whopping three and a half hours long, Seven Samurai has a pretty spectacular Criterion DVD on the shelves right now and gets trotted out at the Cinematheque at least once a year, and I still have to see it on the big screen every chance I get. Kurosawa's breathtaking vision - archetypal heroes, brazen social commentary, and landmark action choreography - explodes off the screen in ways that are simply impossible in the home theatre, no matter how big your TV is. The real fun is in the economy of the language, especially given the corpulent running time; you'll never notice the minutes and hours slide by until you're knee-deep in the rain-soaked, mud-splattered grand finale. Truly deserving of its status as a cinematic legend.

Think I missed one? Argue away!

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