David Ehrlich July 11, 2013
It can be extremely difficult to acknowledge The Criterion Collection without sanctifying it, and it doesn’t take long for most cinephiles to simply give up trying to divine the difference (this isn’t the place to provide a primer, but readers unfamiliar with the world’s most essential boutique home video distributor should give their Wikipedia page a read).
Whereas most home video companies simply squeeze their films onto your TV, the noble folks at Criterion take the slippery and ephemeral experience of cinema and make it something to hold, keep and appreciate. Immaculately restored, beautifully packaged and stuffed with original bonus features, Criterion doesn’t license films so much as canonize them. I don’t think that it’s being needlessly dramatic to suggest that Criterion has a significant impact on the legacy of each film they release – a seal of approval as well as a very real act of film preservation on both technical and commercial levels, Criterion’s DVDs and Blu-rays provide definitive editions of established classics (“Seven Samurai”), save lesser-known works from certain obscurity (“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm”) and elevate modern masterpieces into the film firmaments (“Yi Yi”). While Criterion’s vital Hulu channel has allowed the company to embraced the wide and uncertain world of streaming video, their physical releases – numbered and exquisite fetish objects at a time when video discs most often come in envelopes – remain the most convincing reason to keep tangible media alive.
As of this writing, Criterion has released 664 titles since the dawn of the DVD era, many of which have since been re-released as Blu-rays (people said that porn would be the determining factor in the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray bloodbath, but the smart money always knew that Criterion would point the way forward). They’re not cheap, but Criterion’s mystique is a direct byproduct of their commitment to quality, and fans know that their dollars are being well spent. Of course, fans also know that, twice every year, Barnes and Noble hosts a massive 50%-off sale, where the entire collection is available at, um, 50%-off. And guess what, folks? There’s one going on right. Now.
So with that in mind, I thought now would be the perfect time to assemble the ultimate buyer’s guide, a list of the 50 greatest Criterion Collection releases from the post-laserdisc era. This was hard. Very hard. I asked King Solomon for his thoughts and he immediately threw himself out of the nearest window. But I did it anyway, because there’s nothing a Criterion addict loves more than trying to complete an impossible list.
An important note about the criteria used: This is not a list of the best films in The Criterion Collection. This is a list of the best Criterion Collection releases (as determined by one obsessive collector, with an assist on some of the capsules from Calum Marsh), and while my love for the films themselves was overwhelmingly the most important factor in determining these rankings, everything from the quality of the transfer to the depth of the supplemental material and the beauty of the packaging was considered. Obviously that made it more difficult for standard-def releases to make the cut, and – in order not to fill the list up with Criterion’s incredible box sets – bang for the buck was a factor as well. The question I always returned to was “how important is it to own this particular edition?” It’s not lost on me that only one of these films was directed by a woman, and you can read my thoughts on that subject here.
So without too much further ado, please enjoy this list. Many of the capsules have been lifted and tweaked from my various Criterion writings over the years (my Criterion Corner column began at the now sadly defunct Cinematical, and moved to Moviefone and then Movies.com before landing here), and I’ve provided links to the original posts where appropriate.
Prepare yourselves for the very best of important classic and contemporary cinema!
50.) “THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS” by Wes Anderson (2001)
THE FILM: With the Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson may not have created America’s favorite family (though they’re not far from it), but – for all of their wealth and strict eccentricities, he may have created its most honest. A beautifully measured portrait of disappointment and second chances that somehow straddles the divide between family album and fairy tale, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is the rare film that makes us love how strange we are while appreciating how strange we’re not.
WHY THE CRITERION EDITION IS ESSENTIAL: Criterion’s deluxe edition of “The Royal Tenenbaums” was something of an olive branch between Wes Anderson enthusiasts and cinephiles who were less smitten with his idiosyncratic style. The gorgeous packaging (designed by Anderson’s brother) houses a bevy of great bonus features, all of which are touched by the kind of involved candidness that I suspect Wes Anderson may never offer again. His audio commentary alone makes this a must-have for anyone who enjoys his films, and Albert Maysles’ contributions to the disc are just icing on the cake. And if you can go through life without having this film in arm’s reach at all times, then you’re not… most of the people I know.
49.) “KISS ME DEADLY” by Robert Aldrich (1955)
THE FILM: Cold War noir with a red hot temper, Kiss Me Deadly is the labyrinthine tale of private eye Mike Hammer (not to be confused with his Japanese reincarnation Maiku Hama), a dirty private dick who picks up a sultry hitchhiker on the side of a midnight road. The opening credits have barely crawled backwards before she’s dead and he’s on the hunt for “The Great Whatsit,” a MacGuffin so elusive and cataclysmic it makes The Maltese Falcon look like a Rabbit’s Foot.
What follows is grim and acerbic stuff, even for a genre in which men are murderers and dames are, um, slightly more voluptuous murderers. A.I. Bezzerides’ script perverts Mickey Spillane’s comparatively toothless novel into a mean series of slaps and shakedowns as Hammer ricochets around L.A. in the hopes of tapping into something big. Aldrich suffuses his scenes with a fatalistic inertia, rigid and unyielding frames suggesting that each character is every bit the bile-hearted scumbag Hammer assumes they are. And Hammer himself is the biggest bastard of them all, filled out by a primitively generic Ralph Meeker who’s hoping to find the American dream at the end of this nuclear nightmare. I’m in the minority who believe that the film spins its wheels for far too long, but all is forgiven with a nasty and nihilistic finale that cements Kiss Me Deadly as a noir as fitting for the end of the genre as it is for the end of the world. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: You don’t just get a top-notch commentary and a brilliant transfer, you also get the hyper-controversial alternate ending and a wealth of neat insight into Mickey Spillane.
48.) “PATHS OF GLORY” by Stanley Kubrick (1957)
THE FILM: Perhaps the most powerful and tragic anti-war story the movies have ever known, ‘Paths of Glory’ stars Kirk Douglas as a French World War I colonel forced to confront his army’s unforgiving leadership after three of his men are court-martialed for their failure to complete a pointless suicide mission. Kubrick tackles the exceptional (if hyper-functional script) with deceptively complex aplomb — to study the the framing of the interrogation scenes is to see the legendary director master his medium before your eyes. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Because it articulately and convincingly makes the impossible case that this is Stanley Kubrick’s best film. Between Gary Giddins’ excellent commentary track and a mess of great interviews for additional insight, Criterion’s release might encourage you to reconsider one of the most compulsively considered filmmakers of all time.
47.) “DAYS OF HEAVEN” by Terrence Malick (1978)
THE FILM: Still Terrence Malick’s best film, “Days of Heaven” is an infinite tragedy, a film that’s at once both unspeakably beautiful and bluntly matter-of-fact. A hardscrabble romance, a “timeless American idyll,” a portrait of the American soul frozen in amber… it’s all of these things and more in 94 minutes of indelible imagery, narrated by what might be the most perfect voiceover in film history.
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: It isn’t easy to do proper justice to Nestor Almendros’ brilliant cinematography, but Criterion was up for the challenge. The DVD was a mandatory addition to the boutique label’s roster, but the Blu-ray… ah, the Blu-ray. Every cloud has its own dimension, every hue of those endless magic hours is just right. And any home video release that includes major face time with Jack Fisk, Haskell Wexler and Sam Shepard is obviously worth a blind-buy.
46.) “PARIS, TEXAS” by Wim Wenders (1984)
THE FILM: “I knew these people, these two people. They were in love with each other. The girl was very young, about 17 or 18 I guess and the guy was quite a bit older. He was kind of raggedy and wild. And she was very beautiful , you know. And together they turned everything into a kind of an adventure. And she liked that. Just an ordinary trip down the grocery store was full of adventure. They were always laughing at stupid things. He liked to make her laugh and they didn’t much care for anything else because all they wanted to do was be with each other. They were always together and he, he loved her more than he ever felt possible. He couldn’t stand being away from her (ah) during the day when he went to work. So he’d quit just to be home with her. Then he got another job when the money ran out. And then he quit again. But pretty soon she started to worry.”
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: You had me at “Wim Wenders audio commentary.” But it’s the deleted 8mm footage that will really stick with and slay anyone who loves this movie as much as I do.
45.) “THE TRILOGY OF LIFE” by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971 – 1974)
THE FILMS: Essentially, these three films provide a looking glass through which viewers can peek into Pasolini’s personal Narnia— he spirits us into this beautiful world, eminently possible in its own way, and then closed the portal forever. Between his self-criticism and his Salo, Pasolini was essentially saying that we can see these places, but we can never hope to visit them, ourselves.
And so, with that in mind, it’s understandable that the Trilogy of Life is, at its core, escapist cinema. The stories that comprise these three films were all initially devised as a form of escape — the young narrators of Boccaccio’s “Decameron” are seeking solace from the ravages of the Black Death, the pilgrims of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are all hoping to be diverted from their travels, and Scheherazade’s storytelling in “Arabian Nights” parlays an escape of a much more literal nature, as she spins tale after tale in order to postpone her execution. But in translating these formative texts into his own unique cinematic language, Pasolini doesn’t bury himself in the past so much as he uses recognizably historical modes to carve out new realms from old ruins. There’s a casual joy to these films that lights the way towards their pointed social critiques without fixating upon them, a thoughtfulness to the frivolity that assigns every naked body a meaning beyond its beautiful shape. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTAL: One of the most beautiful home video releases ever assembled, Criterion’s box set comprehensively captures one of the most salacious chapters of a legendary career, providing unfathomably perfect shape to a trio of movies that was too hard to find for too long, and demands to be seen uncut.
44.) “VIDEODROME” by David Cronenberg (1983)
THE FILM: James Woods is Max Renn (and Max Renn is pretty much James Woods), the sleazy programmer of a niche Toronto TV network that’s desperate for edgier content. One day, his techie “patron” is scanning the airwaves with the station’s enormous satellite, and happens upon a scrambled signal called Videodrome. It’s a strange bit of smut beamed from a place too insidious to imagine (spoiler alert: it’s Pittsburgh), and Renn is soon so entranced by the footage that he determines to uncover the mystery behind the transmission. What unfolds is like a Haruki Murakami novel by way of Hershell Gordon Lewis, a messy movie that rushes headlong into (O’)blivion. Here we are 27 years later and ‘Videodrome’ still feels ahead of the curve — a cathode freakout that has yet to bear the full fruit of its slimy prosthetic prophecies.
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: You get two different audio commentaries, including a classic track that lumps together the ever-talkative James Woods with Blondie singer Debbie Harry. But hardcore “Videodrome” freaks will stay for the great featurette on Rick Baker’s special effects wizardry, the uncut presentation of “Samurai Dreams” and the seven minutes of unfiltered Videodrome transmissions (complete with Cronenberg commentary). It hasn’t always been a sure thing that “Videodrome” was going to assume its proper place as one of the most important films of the 1980s, but – thanks in part to Criterion – its stature no longer seems in doubt.
43.) “SHOAH” by Claude Lanzmann (1985)
THE FILM: It’s “Shoah.”
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: “Shoah” needs to be readily available. Not just for cinephiles or Criterion nuts or for Jean-Luc Godard to trash, but for everyone and forever. I speak less to the quality of the filmmaking than I do the film’s value as an essential historical document, a testimony that we cannot afford to sacrifice to the banal upkeep of digital technologies. It’s appalling how difficult it was to get ahold of Claude Lanzmann’s essential historical document, the former scarcity of which underscoring the significance of what might ultimately be Criterion’s single most important release (my apologies, “Tiny Furniture”). You may not ever feel compelled to pop this in on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but we all ought to own it. Either this or “Histoire(s) du Cinema.”
42.) “A HOLLIS FRAMPTON ODYSSEY” by Hollis Frampton (1966 – 1979)
THE FILMS: If you came across experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton in a dark alley, you’d probably be a bit startled, and not just because he’s been dead for almost 30 years. The man looked like he was 70% LSD, with a few wisps of hair running across his balding head and a beard so thick that even an editor of his skill couldn’t seem to cut it. By the time he finished his career with Magellan, a 36-hour monstrosity intended to reimagine the history of cinema as it should have been, it’s likely that Frampton had lost it completely. But his legacy endures, in part because his exploratory tinkerings maintained a warmth rare in such nonnarrative works, and in part because his structuralist confections made questioning the cinema as fun as watching it. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Introducing Hollis Frampton to a wider audience remains one of Criterion’s great (perhaps even charitable) achievements. The world needed “(nostalgia)” in 1080p, and now we have it. Maniacal laugh.
41.) “THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN” by Orson Welles (1955)
THE FILM: With the exception of his most well-known and well-regarded film, his debut “Citizen Kane”, Orson Welles films are nearly impossible to find in good quality and in their original form. “Mr. Arkadin”, or at least the version of “Mr. Arkadin” that Welles had intended to make and release, was long thought to be lost to time and rights issues in much the same way that “Magnificent Ambersons” and “The Other Side of the Wind” continue to be—we thought we’d have only a botched version if one at all. This set is an crucial historical corrective.
WHY THE CRITERION EDITION IS ESSENTIAL: For obvious reasons: Criterion is doing the lord’s work by seeking out material like this and cobbling together the most complete versions of great films possible. – CM
40.) “THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” by Charles Laughton (1955)
THE FILM: The Reverend Harry Powell is certainly one of the scariest villains in film history, but at the same time he’s also a total cartoon. Indelibly played by Robert Mitchum in a performance so hammy you’re not sure if you should watch it or eat it for Christmas dinner, Powell is a child’s worst nightmare. A serial killer in the guise of a transparently twisted religious leader (with “LOVE” and “HATE” iconically tattooed across his knuckles, which is totally not insane at all), we meet Powell as he’s being released from his latest stint in prison, which ended with the discovery that his cellmate hid a big ol’ pile of money somewhere, and his two young kids may be the only living souls who know where it is. So Powell seduces the children’s mother, as you do, and begins pressing them to reveal the location of the cash.
Charles Loughton, delivering what is widely regarded to be the most striking directorial one-off on record, renders Powell like the greatest Scooby-Doo villain there never was, casting severe shadows and falling down flights of stairs. Powell is indefatigable, hiding around every corner, under every bed, a man lit like a monster by the single-source genius of Stanley Cortez. He moves with the logic of a child’s nightmare, but he feels all too real and relentless to not be an ever-present threat. Reverend Harry Powell is every terrifying thing that’s waiting for little boys and girls in the adult world, but no one gets to choose when their childhood ends. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: The definitive release of one of American cinema’s greatest cult classics, Criterion took it upon themselves to gussy up a classic that was teetering on the brink of obscurity, and their deluxe release – which includes a transfer that perfectly nails the appropriate grain texture – assures Laughton’s only directorial effort its proper place in the cannon.
39.) “BY BRAKHAGE” by Stan Brakhage (1954-2003)
THE FILMS: Gathering some of the most vital and invigorating experimental shorts ever made—as well as, in the case of “The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes”, the most difficult to endure—this collection makes a compelling case both for both the historical significance of Brakhage’s work and, more impressively, the continued relevance of his contributions to the cinema in general.
WHY THE CRITERION EDITION IS ESSENTIAL: Top-notch transfers and a beautifully packaged set go a long way to making this a favorite of the label, but its best quality is as curation: cinephiles needed an introduction to Brakhage, and this set is the perfect primer. – CM
38.) “THREE FILMS BY HIROSHI TESHIGAHARA” by Hiroshi Teshigahara (1962 – 1966)
THE FILMS: Three classics from one of Japanese cinema’s boldest surrealists, but the real treasure here is “Woman in the Dunes.” Adapted from a typically warped Kobo Abe novel, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s masterpiece begins with an entomologist named Junpei trawling across some remote sand dunes in search of rare insects. When he misses the last bus home, the local villagers lead Junpei to the only available room in town, which just happens to be at the bottom of a ladder that drops into the deepest dune around, at the bottom of which lives a ferociously oversexed young widow. It all seems like a pretty great deal, until Junpei wakes up the next morning to find that the ladder is gone, and he’s stuck down there, forever.
Good news: Sex! Bad news: Living in a pit of waterless purgatory. What a dilemma! And one I think we’ve all had to face at one point or another. Shot in luminous black and white like a commercial for a perfume that reeks of death, “Woman in the Dunes” only grows more erotic as it becomes increasingly terrifying. The imagery is unforgettable, but the film lingers under your skin because it gets sand in all the worst places, vividly illustrating how quickly we can adapt and dispose of the things and people who seem to give our lives their meaning. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: The great works of one of Japanese cinema’s most under-appreciated masters collected in one elegant box (that feels as though it were designed by the filmmaker himself), complete with a smattering of helpful video essays and a comprehensive collection of Teshigahara’s short films.
#37. “2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER” by Jean-Luc Godard (1967)
THE FILM: Made at the pinnacle of Godard’s early period and arriving just before his sudden break from traditional narrative filmmaking, “2 or 3 Things About Her” represents one of Godard’s most intriguing fusions of essayistic experimentation and standard dramatic practice, resulting in a film that’s both deeply heady and emotionally compelling—a fertile middleground he’d not return to until the early 1980s, a period Criterion has unfortunately neglected.
WHY THE CRITERION EDITION IS ESSENTIAL: Though it arrived just before the time when Criterion started releasing everything on Bluray, this standard definition transfer is nevertheless the best the film has ever looked, and it shed some much-needed light on what is maybe the best film of Godard’s 60s period. – CM
36.) “THE MUSIC ROOM” by Satyajit Ray (1958)
THE FILM: A film about the transportive powers of art that is in itself a powerfully transportive work of art, Satyajit Ray’s “The Music Room” is perhaps the cinema’s most beautiful rendering of a man entombed by his own passions. Ray favorite Chhabi Biswas stars as Biswambhar Roy, the aging landlord of a once-valuable estate who hasn’t left the house, has completely withdrawn from the world, the end of a decline that began when — in his younger days — Roy’s love for traditional Indian music overpowered his concern for a modernizing world with which he refused to keep pace. He spent his dwindling fortune on concerts in his lavish music room, inviting friends and rivals alike to enjoy the fine performances he’s arranged for them. He enjoyed such events at the expense of everything else in his life, and eventually their memory is all he had left.
So Biswambhar Roy has lost his edge a little bit, but — cue the Lester Burnham voiceover — it’s never too late to get it back. A small, self-contained film from India’s most revered filmmaker, “The Music Room” is moored by memory and the devouring power of joy in a world that can think only of progress. It’s a notion that Ray evocatively illustrates with the rare visual command he honed while making the Apu Trilogy, the enchanting sets and refined flares of symbolism helping to create a rich inner life for his tormented hero. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Boasting one of Criterion’s most lustrous black-and-white transfers, this great disc also includes an invaluable 131-minute documentary that shows Ray at work.
35.) “THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE” by Victor Erice (1975)
THE FILM: Without “The Spirit of the Beehive” there probably wouldn’t be a Guillermo Del Toro (I’ll leave judgements as to the severity of that hypothetical tragedy up to you). A haunting yet ineffably beautiful fairy tale about two young girls who are attempting to make sense of the world in post-Franco Spain, Victor Erice’s greatest film begins with a print of “Frankenstein” being wheeled into a rural village, and resolves with a sense of wistful wonder that resonates with even today’s most film-saturated viewers. The Castilian landscapes are so scarred and barren, but by the end they feel like home.
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Given that Erice is still not much of a revered figure here in the States, it was hardly inevitable that we were ever going to get access to his most vital work, let alone in such fine fashion. This is one of those films that often proves formative for those who watch it, the kind of movie that you might want to tuck in a corner and hang onto for your kids, real or imagined. Criterion’s edition isn’t especially stuffed (and a foreign-region Blu-ray is available), but it makes for a solid primer on a great Spanish filmmaker, and you’ll be glad to have instant access to it for the rest of your life.
34.) “THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK” by Rob Epstein (1984)
‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ is an effectively concise portrait, a story told with the brevity of a purpose beyond question. Rob Epstein’s documentary would rather be a judge than a mediator, and in 88 hypnotic minutes it lays out the legacy of its subject in a fashion as direct and unapologetic as Harvey Milk, himself. Milk — as the world remembered when Gus van Sant distilled his legend into an impassioned but comparatively useless biopic — was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. He was innervated by the revolutionary vibes he felt emanating from the angled streets of his adopted home (late 1970s San Francisco), and he soon found himself the outspoken voice of America’s marginalized gay community.
The narrative Epstein carves is so neatly organized that it almost feels self-perpetuated, and his decision to rely on a small number of memorable subjects rather than a panoply of talking heads underscores the personal effect Milk had on those he knew. To that end, Milk, while naturally credited as the film’s lead, isn’t actually on screen all that often. He appears in candid pictures and pivotal clips (one hilarious bit of footage involving Milk stepping in some precisely planted dog crap illustrates his raw talent as a politician), but Epstein is more concerned with the change Milk sparked, and the lingering aftermath of his unshrinking pleas for hope (original).
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Criterion spared no expense on this (sadly still relevant) release, putting a must-own version of this must-watch film into stores across the United States. The disc is loaded with passionate and informed talking heads, but is truly worth owning for the collection of Milk’s audio recordings that were ultimately excised from the film.
33.) “DAVID LEAN DIRECTS NOEL COWARD” by David Lean (1942 – 1945)
THE FILMS: All four of the films collected in this great box set are compelling in their own right, but my heart beats for “Brief Encounter” (which was once available as a stand-alone Criterion disc, but has since been relegated to the Essential Art House collection). Imagine the last scene of “Before Sunset” stretched out to 95 minutes of heartbreak so thick and British you could spread it over a crumpet, and then take everything happy or hopeful out of that equation. That’s “Brief Encounter”, Lean’s smallest film and perhaps his best, the stiff and impossibly wistful portrait of an affair to forget between the two most ordinary pre-war Brits you could possibly imagine. She is Laura Jesson (the great Celia Johnson), a plain woman with a face of shadows so deep it’s as if her features were designed to hide secrets.
He is Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), a decent and well-spoken man who seems mildly perplexed by his attraction to the simple stranger he meets at the local train station when he’s asked to remove a piece of grit from her eye. Given that both are married, any sort of relationship between them is forbidden — not only for the obvious reasons, but also because it engenders thoughts of impossible lives, and reinforced with the strength of a hangman’s noose precisely how finite their respective worlds had become and how permanent their decisions have been. The trains leave every hour on the dot (and Lean’s locomotive lust has never been more sublime or suggestive than it is here), but they just go back and forth, forever. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: This is one of those great box sets in which everything is enriched by its context. Featuring some of the most compelling essays ever included in a Criterion release, the set also offers a great doc on DP (and future director) and interviews with the ever loquacious Coward on all four of the films (and that’s just off the top of my head).
32.) “BRANDED TO KILL” by Seijun Suzuki (1967)
THE FILM: “Branded to Kill” may not be the best Seijun Suzuki film (although, between you and me, it so totally is), but it’s certainly the most Seijun Suzuki film, a rabid bit of yakuza pulp that doesn’t deconstruct the genre so much as it fills it with bullets and leaves it for dead. For Nikkatsu, it was just supposed to be another assembly line B-movie about cold gangsters and hot women — for the director, it was a golden opportunity to air his grievances with the industry that stymied his talents by denying him access to more interesting scripts. On paper, the story was simple and familiar: The third-ranked assassin of the Tokyo underworld (“Chipmunk” Joe Shishido as Goro) botches a hit, becoming a target of the criminals he served and prey for the mysterious Number One. On the screen, it’s an unhinged blast of noir nihilism, a giddy rage of sex and death that willfully perverts its own twisted beauty and laughs at the funeral of the studio it killed. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: “Beast needs beast.” One of the most perfect transfers you’ll ever see.
31.) “IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE” by Wong Kar-Wai (2000)
THE FILM: On a purely aesthetic level, Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” is practically peerless: its sumptuous, expressionist cinematography—by none other than Chris Doyle, of course—is enough to make you want to simply sit back and bask in the style. Add to that the fact of its emotional maturity, intelligent conception of time and memory, and utterly heartbreaking ending, and you start to wonder whether this isn’t the best film of the past twenty years.
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Easily one of Criterion’s best-looking Bluray transfers. Just look at those colors. It also comes with a documentary about the making of the film, and the surprisingly heavy package includes the complete text of the story that inspired Wong’s script. It’s worth noting that this is one of the rare cases where the Criterion DVD is rich with extras that didn’t make it to the HD edition, but the lost featurettes can’t compete with the opportunity to see Doyle’s cinematography in glorious 1080p. – CM
30.) “HOOP DREAMS” by Steve James (1994)
THE FILM: An epic portrait of two inner-city Chicago youths who hope that basketball will be their ticket out of the projects, Hoop Dreams captures lightning in a bottle, following its subjects for long enough to practically visualize how cyclical poverty and violence reduce the land of opportunity into an empty promise. You don’t need Steve James (or me) to remind you that such problems are endemic to this country, but it’s unspeakably petrifying to witness such a comprehensive overview of how broken the system truly is. Even (or especially) those for whom the film is more of a mirror than a window are likely to be petrified by the film’s scope — if you make it through all three hours of James’ epic chronicle and still don’t feel moved to action, you simply haven’t been paying attention.
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Because America desperately needs this movie, and they need it in proper shape. Having said that, the twin commentaries (one with the kids from the film and one with the filmmakers) provide vital context to a portrait that could never fit in all that it had to say. If you, let’s say, watch “Hoop Dreams” on Hulu Plus, you’ll be especially desperate to own this disc. Save yourself the hassle and get it now.
29.) “DO THE RIGHT THING” by Spike Lee (1989)
THE FILM: The controversy that surrounded “Do The Right Thing” upon its release in 1989 completely missed the point of the picture: this isn’t a battle cry or call to violent action so much as a response of frustration and indignation to the basic problems of getting by in the world and living among other people. It isn’t a movie about hate—though it does concerning the reality of dealing with hate every day—but about life in all its vitality and strangeness and complication.
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Universal’s 20th Anniversary Bluray edition completely botches the color scheme central to the movie’s aesthetic, making Criterion’s (sadly out of print) DVD the definitive version of this film. – CM
28.) “BELLE DE JOUR” by Luis Buñuel (1967)
THE FILM: Séverine Serizy: By night a bored bourgeoise housewife with a lame but functional marriage. By day, a high-end prostitute with a penchant for punishment and humiliation. Buñuel, who was compelled by Freud but ultimately scoffed at the totality of his conclusions, had by 1967 already made a career of exploring the facets of human nature that society felt compelled to ignore or extinguish, but with “Belle de Jour” he finally found a character unfit for his particular brand of torture, as she would have enjoyed it too much.
Shot in the soft and centered fashion that Buñuel so often relied upon in order to prioritize his ideas over his aesthetics, “Belle de Jour” is nevertheless among the filmmaker’s most fetching works — erotic in a way that seems incapable of modern cinema, tawdry in the way that defines it, and eventually willing to sacrifice its momentum for mystery as it comes full circle. I could have devoted 20% of this list to Buñuel, but, for whatever reason, this leapt out at me as the one to own. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: David Downton’s cover art is among Criterion’s best, and makes this a shelf standout, but my favorite thing here is an 18-minute video essay starring “sexual-politics activist” Susie Bright, who focuses this no-holds barred look at the film through a very particular lens. Bright is fiercely intelligent, and should effectively unmoor any readings of the film that have become a bit too settled and secure.
27.) “VIVRE SA VIE” by Jean-Luc Godard (1962)
THE FILM: It isn’t hard to understand why “Vivre Sa Vie” endures as one of Godard’s most widely beloved early films: much like fan favorites “Breathless” and “Band of Outsiders”, “Vivre Sa Vie” emphasizes the breezy French romanticism that would define the nouvelle vague in the public imagination, and even if it ends on a note of severe tragedy, it proceeds in general absent the overtly academic tone Godard would adopt through most of his career. As a result this is one of Godard’s least dense works, but its lack of difficulty makes it an ideal entry point for budding cinephiles to this day.
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: Curbing many of his stylistic tendencies—the roaming, handheld camerwork, the on-set improvisation, and so—that had characterized his work to date, Godard set to work on “Vivre Sa Vie” with a more predetermined aesthetic; as a result this is easily the best looking of Godard’s early films. Criterion does it justice with a superb transfer. – CM
26.) “THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS” by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)
THE FILM: From the top drawer of the “More relevant than ever” file we have Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers”, a ground-level portrait of colonial resistance unlike anything else ever committed to film. Shot in gritty black & white on the streets of the Casbah, Pontecorvo’s film uses the transformation of a politically radicalized criminal (Brahim Hagiag as Ali la Pointe) as his primary means of chronicling the Algerian struggle for independence against occupying French forces that scarred the area throughout the 1950s.
The film depicts an urban stripe of guerrilla warfare, episodically observing (and arguably championing) a variety of violent methods by which the Algerian people retaliated, from gun drops and hordes of hostile little kids to women smuggling bombs through checkpoints, returning to the face of Ali la Pointe to hold things together. The film is occasionally derailed by some hokey moments (often the result of Pontecorvo’s run-and-gun production as well as his amateur cast), but the mass participation of the Casbah makes “The Battle of Algiers” feel like the story is coming directly off the streets, and the conviction of all its players makes it hard to tell which of them is fighting the good fight. (original)
WHY THE CRITERION IS ESSENTIAL: This is one of the most loaded special editions that Criterion has ever released, a double-stuffed package rife with historical docs, interviews with filmmakers as disparate as Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, and a featurette containing commentary from U.S. counterterrorism experts. Most vital of all is “Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers,” a documentary in which the director returns to Algiers 30 years after its independence, providing an essential contrast to his landmark film.
SEE THE TOP 25 ON PAGE 2!
Calum Marsh, Criterion collection, Criterion Corner, David Ehrlich, Kiss Me Deadly, List, Stanley Kubrick, The royal tenenbaums, Tokyo story, Top 50