As the breezes of February blow in, romance fills the air and the Criterion Channel is offering a wide range of films to get you in a lovey-dovey mood, including Desert Hearts, Pillow Talk, and A Room With A View. February also marks Black History Month, and we’ve got picks from pioneering Black filmmakers and show-stopping documentaries detailing the intricacies and culture of Black life in America, such as Losing Ground, Portrait Of Jason, and the seminal classic, Paris Is Burning. Finally, February brings in a new slate of streaming premieres to the platform, most notably Jerzy Skolimowski’s Oscar nominee EO.
Desert Hearts (1985)
Donna Deitch’s heartfelt debut takes us out to the Southwest in this queer cult classic. Desert Hearts is nearly a happy romance, about a New York professor who posts up in Reno for six weeks to speed up her divorce. When she arrives at the ranch, she meets the wild and empowered Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau), quickly becoming transfixed by her liberated approach to life and the openness of her sexuality. The two eventually begin a relationship against the Western backdrop, in one of the first wide-release films to portray a lesbian relationship in a positive light.
Following the Criterion Channel’s collection of early Jerzy Skolimowski films, his newest, Oscar-nominated film is making its streaming premiere on the platform. Nominated for Best International Feature, EO presents the world through the eyes of a former circus donkey, who establishes a new life trekking across the Polish and Italian countryside, encountering different people along the way. EO arrives on the streamer on February 21.
Phantom Lady (1944)
This month offers four features from noir director Robert Siodmak, the German-born helmer who brought his stark impressionistic style with him to the states and established the visual standards for the budding genre. The highlight among his works is Phantom Lady, in which one devoted secretary (Ella Raines) tries to prove the innocence of her boss, who’s been convicted of murdering a woman no one can seem to remember. While the storyline stands well enough on its own, Phantom Lady is spectacular in its gritty approach, imbuing the story with a hypnotizing eroticism. Another great pick from this collection is The Killers, starring Burt Lancaster and Eva Gardner.
Alma’s Rainbow (1994)
A long-hidden gem of ’90s independent cinema, Alma’s Rainbow makes its streaming debut on Criterion Channel this month. In the film, director Ayoka Chenzira charts one Black teenager’s coming-of-age in Brooklyn, as she’s presented with different models of womanhood. Rainbow Gold (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) has grown up under her prudish mother Alma (Kim Weston-Moran), who operates a hair salon in their home. Just as Rainbow begins to take an interest in boys, her free-spirited aunt Ruby (Mizan Kirby) returns from a lengthy stay in Paris, showing her another side of Black women’s sexuality and self-image.
Pillow Talk (1959)
Rock Hudson and Doris Day would go on to co-star in two more romantic comedies together after the knockout success of Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk. The scene is ’50s New York City, where self-made interior designer Jan Morrow (Day) constantly feuds with playboy Brad Allen (Hudson) over the use of their shared party line. However, a ruse is hatched when Brad sees Jan in person for the first time, and decides to charm her with the persona of well-to-do Texas rancher Rex. It’s a lighthearted flick perfect for dreaming up romance in the month of February.
Losing Ground (1982)
Kathleen Collins taps into the strife of marriage and a quest for self-discovery in Losing Ground, one of the first feature films directed by a Black woman. Seret Scott leads the drama as Sara Rogers, a philosophy professor pursuing an intellectual understanding of “ecstasy.” Her husband Victor (Bill Gunn), a painter, plans an idyllic trip to upstate New York where he can work. There, he meets an attractive woman named Celia, sparking jealousy in Sara. Over the course of the summer, the two embark on their own emotional and sexual journeys, all while trying to hold their marriage together.
Derek Jarman’s unique approach to gay storytelling and art is no better exemplified than in Caravaggio, a fictional retelling of the short life of Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Nigel Terry stars as the eponymous artist, who recklessly passes his days chasing thrills and bisexual romances. Tilda Swinton made her film debut as one of Caravaggio’s lovers, Lena, along with Sean Bean as Ranuccio. With little bearing on the actual life of the painter, Jarman uses his story as a framework to engage with sexual identity, self-destruction, and art with a deep sense of sensuality.
A Room With A View (1985)
Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch rallies against the repressive gender restrictions of Edwardian England in James Ivory’s A Room With A View. Also starring Julian Sands, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, and Daniel Day-Lewis, A Room With A View follows one woman’s romantic endeavors across Florence and Surrey.
James Baldwin: The Price Of The Ticket (1989)
The Criterion Channel has put together a collection on the incomparable James Baldwin, one of the most celebrated Black writers and social critics of the 20th century. This includes the cinéma vérité-style American Masters documentary The Price Of The Ticket. With intertwining interviews, public speeches, and Baldwin’s writing, the documentary from Karen Thorsen explores what it means to be Black, impoverished, and gifted in America.
Portrait Of Jason (1967)
Shot over the course of 12 hours in one night, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason seeks to get to the root of one man’s life. Jason Holliday, a gay hustler and aspiring cabaret performer, is the sole subject on screen, with off-camera questions posed by Clarke and her then-partner, Carl Lee. He sings, he sports boas, and offers insight into his life, dreams, and relation to other people. As Holliday recounts his own story, moments of humor quickly turn to heartache, as Portrait Of Jason explores a tragic and complicated man.
Say Amen, Somebody (1982)
One of the most acclaimed music documentaries of all time comes in the form of George T. Nierenberg’s Say Amen, Somebody, which delves into the culture and history surrounding Black gospel music in America. While the film takes a look at the state of the genre at the time, it focuses on a few integral artists, including Thomas A. Dorsey, Willie Mae Ford Smith, the Barrett Sisters, and the O’Neal Twins. The word that comes up time and time again when describing this documentary is “joyful,” as it gets to the heart of community, generational ties, and faith. Channeling a passion and soulfulness that can be found in any Sunday service, Say Amen, Somebody, invites anyone and everyone into the house of gospel.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
A necessary watch in understanding modern queer culture is Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, which documents the underground ballroom culture of ’80s New York City. This invaluable film draws connections between the Latinx and Black LGBTQ+ communities in Harlem and the prevalence of drag and the use of queer slang (ex: house, mother, shade, reading) today. Shot over the course of seven years, Paris Is Burning immortalizes the greats of ballroom and explores how community members established ways of protecting themselves from the harm of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and poverty.