It’s time to cast an eye on the Criterion Collection, a distribution company renowned for giving cult, classic and world cinema a new lease of life…
Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro have come out recently and spoken of the importance of physical media and the dangers of everything shifting to digital. The art of film curation and preservation is something one company, in particular, seems to exceed above all else. For the niche market of cinephile collectors, Criterion also has a pop cultural relevance very few others can match. The Criterion Closet videos, which see artists across all spectrums (but predominantly film) invited to look through a tiny closet jam-packed with films under the Criterion label and select a few choice gems which influenced them greatly.
In the few high street venues where physical media is sold, you may have noticed the curated labels like Arrow, BFI and Criterion (among several others). For the most part, the best labels pick up a title for their collection and give it a nice restoration and transfer. In Criterion’s case, there’s often a fair amount of supplementary materials. It’s reflected in the price of course, with Criterion among the more expensive but once in a blue moon (sadly rarer in the UK than the US) you’ll see offers come up. Their selections are often great cinema but never less than interesting.
Regardless of whether you want to watch these on physical or just stream a version (they have a streaming channel now) here are 20 films from the Criterion Collection that are a great way to get into the label…
Guillermo del Toro is a passionate cinephile who is always championing the big screen experience, physical media and film preservation as well as the study of cinema history. So we can’t miss the opportunity to recommend one of the great director’s own films which made the Criterion cut. It’s del Toro’s star-making vehicle, Cronos, a low-budget but incredibly stylish and visually stunning vampire film that wears his cinematic upbringing on its sleeve. Made in Mexico the film also features Ron Perlman at an interesting stage in his career where he popped up in non-US pictures, including City of the Lost Children. Del Toro has refined his narrative storytelling since, but Cronos still remains beautifully grisly and engaging.
Much like del Toro, Nolan’s passion for preservation and dedication to shooting on film over digital (as well as practical over CGI wherever possible) is rare. He’s on Criterion of course and his first feature film, Following is one even a number of Nolan aficionados still haven’t watched. It’s well worth it as despite the rough edges it’s got every stamp of Nolan’s storytelling abilities. It’s a rare piece of paranoia cinema from him too, evoking cinema of the 60s and 70s as a writer follows people out of fascination and gets more than he bargained for. This is also a film that will inspire aspiring filmmakers who want to know how to make a film with no money.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s contemplative sci-fi masterpiece is a must-watch for cinephiles looking to break away from the trodden path of traditional narrative. Playing at a languid pace, you slowly begin to realise you’re being acclimatised to the grim world laid before you on screen, following the titular Stalker (essentially a guide) and the two men he’s taking into ‘The Zone.’
The core story is simple but the film is laden with philosophical questions, and ambiguity and takes its time to capture the textures and details of the world. It’s been analysed infinitely and has countless different interpretations but above all, Stalker is a film you feel that takes you on your own journey. Even if it doesn’t hit you the first time it leaves a mark that may just lure you back for another go (as it did me).
It would be remiss of me to call this Hitchcockian. The fact is, Henri-George Clouzot’s film was so effective, it managed to shape the way even Hitch would approach his own mystery thrillers, elevating him to a new level. Diabolique is a murder mystery burning with tension and paranoia as a wife and mistress of an abusive husband hatch and carry out a plan to kill him. As the wife begins to crumble under the guilt, the body vanishes and she loses a grip on her sanity. The entire build-up from the moment of the murder to the final act payoff is masterful and the iconic final horror scenes in particular are skin-crawling. Vera Clouzot (then wife of the legendary director) is the leading lady and her performance is phenomenal, brilliantly supported by Simone Signoret.
The Piano Teacher
We can’t look at selections from a curation of exceptional cinema and not include something starring Isabelle Huppert or directed by Michael Haneke for that matter. The Piano Teacher is an intense psychological erotic thriller with Huppert as a brilliant but emotionally damaged teacher who maintains a fearsome aura. A young pianist becomes infatuated with her and she revels in wielding power over him until there’s a shift in the dynamic and everything flips. It’s dark, intense and odd, but every quirk of Huppert’s character is born out of the relationship with her cruel but frail mother. Huppert is, as always, dazzling, complex, sexy and enthralling.
Brian De Palma’s masterful Antonionian/Hitchcockian thriller might just be his best work. A sound technician is out in the dead of night recording sounds for a film. Of course, much like Gene Hackman in The Conversation, he records more than he bargained for after a politician ends up drowning after an apparent blowout causes his car to career into a lake. John Travolta gives one of his best performances as he gets drawn into a dangerous web of intrigue. De Palma shoots with his inimitable style but never lets the narrative suffer here in favour of style. He keeps a tight grip on the rising paranoia, right up to the stunning finale.
Wim Wenders casts his German eyes onto a distinct realm of American country and delivers a poetic, beautiful and unique piece of cinema. The fusion of European style and Southern state American landscapes is dazzling, particularly with the dazzling colours captured in Robbie Muller’s lens. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) emerges out of the desert with seemingly no memory about what he’s been doing but is found by his brother. After reuniting with his young son, Travis goes on a road trip with his boy to find his estranged ex. Stanton gives the performance of a lifetime and so does Natassja Kinski, backed up by one of the best screenplays ever written by Sam Shepard. On top of everything is a simple but evocative score from Ry Cooder.
Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick is a good American alternative to Wenders, able to capture humanity even in darker moments in a way that feels haunting and poetic. Best exemplified by his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven. The latter is a beautiful slice of time and life as a steel worker flees Chicago after accidentally killing his supervisor. With his lover, they end up in Texas working for a wealthy farmer and Bill (Richard Gere) soon plots to have Abi (Brooke Adams) marry the enamoured farmer (Sam Shepard) to get hold of his fortune. The film goes into dark caveats driven by greed, jealousy and murder but Malick’s gaze makes it feel like an evocative painting or poem brought to life.
On the Waterfront
A film which turned Marlon Brando into one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and with that, brought a newfound approach and intensity to screen acting rarely seen before. The tale of a former promising boxer turned dock worker who struggles against the corrupt mob-run union, among whom is his brother (Rod Steiger). Elia Kazan was a director way ahead of his time, able to make films with grit and intensity that became more normal in the New Hollywood era. Brando is mesmerising but he’s well matched by Steiger, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.
It’s a way of life. Mods clash with rockers in the early 60s in the film spawned from a classic The Who album. Jimmy (Phil Daniels) works a dead-end job and finds his only solace with his fellow Mods who tear around Brighton, clashing with their rival rockers. Frank Roddam’s film beautifully captures the era but envelops it in an exaggerated gloss befitting of a film stuffed with thumping incidental musical numbers. The cast is also rife with young rising talents of the era like Daniels, Phil Davis, Ray Winstone, Leslie Ash as well as legit rockers like Sting and Toyah Willcox.
I blind bought this recently with fair confidence in the Criterion seal of approval. As it turned out, the purchase was rewarding as Pale Flower is a stunning Japanese film noir gem. Masahiro Shinoda’s film sees a gangster released from jail who takes up with his old game, wiling away hours in gambling dens. There he meets a thrill-seeking woman and the pair form an instant fascination with each other. The slow-burning and brooding film could be in danger of losing the audience were it not for the stunning and meticulous composition of every frame. Ryo Ikebe is pure stoic cool well countered by the stunning Mariko Kaga who manages to evade simple damsel in distress or femme fatale categorisation with skill.
Woman in the Dunes
Sticking in Japan, the 60s was a great era in Japanese cinema with directors starting to broaden their horizons beyond Samurai films and shomin-geki (common people dramas, popularised particularly by Ozu). We still had some greats in those but also fantastic crime thrillers, noir films, horrors, erotic fantasies and more. Then there were less definable avant-garde films which broke new ground, often leaning heavily on stories which felt like fables or folk tales brought to life.
Woman in the Dunes is a film that feels unique, as an entomologist finds himself unwittingly trapped at the bottom of a large sandpit with a woman. The film really captures its setting brilliantly making you feel the discomforting heat and sand. For so much of the beautifully shot film, we’re trapped with two people who sweep away the daily surges of sand in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s masterpiece and Eiji Okada (as the entomologist) and Kyoko Kishida (as the woman) are both great.
Matthieu Kassovitz’s blistering crime thriller brought Vincent Cassel to worldwide attention. La Haine captures youth in revolt in a tumultuous Paris, as riots break out after a youth is beaten by police. Vinz and his friends find a gun and the escalation toward inevitable tragedy begins. We’ve seen this story before but never with such intense immediacy or visceral style. Kassovitz takes an almighty step with this sophomore directorial effort and though he was never able to match the sheer power of La Haine he can at least say he delivered a bonafide top-tier film of the decade.
My Life as a Dog
A troubled young boy with a terminally ill mother is sent away to live with relatives over the summer, moving to a rural town. It’s the film which really launched Lasse Hallstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). In a way so befitting of Sweden’s best bittersweet dramas, My Life as a Dog is funny, touching, poignant and tragic, never afraid to hit the audience harder in places than an American film would dare to dream of. Fans of Hallstrom’s work and his ability to pull tonal shifts effectively will certainly be enthralled by his breakout film (having previously been synonymous with many of Abba’s videos). At the centre is a remarkable performance from then young actor, Anton Glanzelius.
Mike Leigh veered his kitchen sink drama specialism into an odyssey which remains his most cerebral and (at times) ethereal film. Naked casts David Thewlis as an antisocial manic depressive ailed by acute neuralgia who absconds to London to avoid a beating. He reconnects with his ex but spends the film driving aimlessly, largely during listless nights through the grimier backwaters of London where he encounters an eclectic group of people, attempting to find some intellectual match and meaning from them (but for the most part failing).
Leigh’s nihilistic protagonist needs nothing less than a tour-de-force performance and on that front, David Thewlis delivers arguably one of the most exceptional of all time. Johnny is a character of persistent repugnance who never makes that journey to progression or redemption. He’s awful, and yet he’s impossible to look away from and Thewlis manages to unzip the facade in certain moments to reveal the fractured being beneath the self-destructive behaviour. Likewise, though Leigh has often opted for a simple and grounded visual, in Naked he and Dick Pope make the London nightlife look otherworldly.
Do The Right Thing
Spike Lee’s greatest work remains fresh and vibrant to this day. Do The Right Thing is a bright and colourful film brimming with bold characters and style. Inner City Brooklyn sees tensions simmer between rival racial communities with a commonality of being pushed asunder by the wealthy factions of the City. Lee with the guise of a film that appears breezy and entertaining, manages to punch home some authenticity as he looks at poverty, crime and racial tension. A film of groundbreaking style and the perfect balance of comedy and powerful moments of drama.
Terry Gilliam’s stunning fantasy riffs on Orwell’s 1984 with a darkly satirical and farcical edge. The fact that the film’s gleeful silliness scythes the growing bureaucracy of the era (especially 80s Britain) but feels prescient and truthful should probably be disturbing. In truth the real world today is just as daft and unfathomably stupid as the world Gilliam depicts, and just as corrupted by morons lets loose to run countries and institutions. Be…very…afraid. Gilliam’s sci-fi comedy might just have called it as well as any serious entrant in the genre. Prescience aside, it’s visually resplendent with brilliant performances from its cast of esteemed character actors.
Cries and Whispers
To this point, Ingmar Bergman had delivered a long list of exceptional cinema but had only previously framed three of those works of art in colour. When using colour he tended to go bold, but never more so than his fourth colour picture (steeped in intense bleeding reds), Cries and Whispers. Familial drama and existential angst are well-worn in Bergman’s repertoire but no less effective here. Two sisters reconnect with their terminally ill sister and the relationships fracture as years of repression burst out. Their performances are all superb from a host of Bergman stalwarts but Harriet Andersson is astonishing.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
A late silent-era film from Carl Theodore Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc is an incredible work of art. Holding unforgettable images and a cinematic style decades before its time, the film successfully manages to portray the complex emotions of the story as well as any silent film. Much of that is helped by the evocative performances which take a more realist approach than had been the norm. As the titular Joan of Arc, Maria Falconetti’s performance is hauntingly brilliant.
The King of Gallic cool back in the ’60s, Alain Delon, stars as an assassin in a film that paved the way for countless stoic lone heroes with a code who come into trouble when they break their own rules. Le Samourai was hugely influential on John Woo as well as films like The Driver, Drive, The Transporter and David Fincher’s recent, The Killer. Jean-Pierre Melville’s stunning-looking thriller takes its time to go up through the gears but continually dazzles thanks to its inimitable style (in everything from the costumes, and cast to the technical aspects).
What’s your favourite Criterion film? Let us know on our social channels and hit me up @jolliffeproductions…