Tonight I want to highlight a boutique film company that is very important to me. The past few decades have seen the rise of companies like Shout Factory, Arrow Video, and Masters of Cinema. These companies are dedicated to highlighting and restoring important films, porting over commentaries, interviews, and documentaries to shed light on creation and interpretation of each piece. There’s one, however, that is very special to me.
I’m talking, of course, about The Criterion Collection.
Considered the final word on home video releases, the collection is dedicated to highlighting important filmmakers and films that might not otherwise get the attention they deserve. Loving restorations and extensive dedication to director involvement have allowed them to not only release gorgeous stories, they’ve allowed levels of insight into the craft of creating a film that might not otherwise be available to the masses. Each film is designed to be a class in a box, a way to grow your understanding of the film and all the context surrounding it. With each purchase my understanding has grown and flourished, expanding my knowledge while creating an emotional tie to certain films.
The Criterion website contains several top ten lists from prominent creative figures, from directors and actors to musicians, and I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight my personal top ten. This isn’t a list of what I consider the absolute best films they’ve released. Rather, it’s a list of what I personally love from my own collection and consider must-see pieces of art (and one that’s just too ridiculously fun to ignore). These are in no particular order, so don’t read meaning into the billing.
- Persona: Ingmar Bergman has made some of the most influential films of all time, but complete disregard for traditional structure in Persona is game-changing. After being treated to an intro that only makes sense on multiple viewings (and maybe not even then), the plot begins and dives into the relationship between two women. Bergman was in the hospital when he wrote this script, afraid he would die and confronting his own identity, so it fits that he would create something revolving around a nurse and her charge. This was a wild evolution for him, taking his ideas about death and distraction to a whole new level and influencing so much weird cinema that came after. While most have decided that The Seventh Seal is his best film, I would make a stand for Persona because of how much it forced new ideas and themes into cinema that have had a lasting effect. We’re still dealing with cartoon gags about playing chess with Death, but brilliant filmmakers like Cronenberg and Lynch have taken notes from this film and worked its themes into their own works. This is a must-see for anyone interested in the roots of modern non-conformist filmmaking.
- Black Narcissus: How many films can trot out the fact that it made nuns erotic? Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have become known names in the early days of color film and cinematic design, making use of matte paintings and new technology (for the era) to create a visual feast for the eyes and tell small stories that seem larger than life. With Black Narcissus they created a masterpiece. The atmosphere of the culture affects the characters as it affects the audience, the fog and flowers and whorehouse-turned-monastery ekeing away at their closely-held ideals forcing them to either adapt or abandon their quest. This is also a film about desire and lust, an early example of a male being objectified and misunderstood as an object of sex and sex alone. Few films can be shown to have this much visual design, shot on sets and backed by artwork and careful flower placement to create a wholly atmospheric film. There’s conflict but no plot, narrative design but sporadic piecework for an arc. It’s a stunning accomplishment to make something this engaging in this structure.
- Ikiru: Most consider Seven Samurai or Yojimbo to be Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece. You might see some stand up for The Hidden Fortress or Ran. Me? I plant my feet firmly in the camp of of Ikiru. While most of his offerings feel important, both to the art of film and to storytelling, Ikiru feels personal and loving. I had no idea what I was in for, buying this one blind to check it out, and I spent most of the last half hour suppressing tears. I’ve long enjoyed the study of death in film, but rarely do I see it utilized for such a small and uplifting story. A man, confronted with his own mortality and wasted lifetime in bureaucracy, steps out into the world to find meaning and a cause to champion. There are few people that don’t want to end their life with meaning and fulfillment, and to see a man go to bat for something as miniscule as a public park for children is astonishingly sweet and touching. If left to hands other than Kurosawa, this might have come off as cloying. Instead, it’s deeply inspirational and hits right to the heart of me.
- House: You have no idea what kind of crazy you’re in for. Most don’t even believe they’ve seen what they just saw on completing the film. All parts Suspiria, Carrie, and Scooby-Doo in the Japanese countryside, the film was very much inspired by an eleven year old and it is blatantly obvious. I spent so much of the film confused. There is a moment, one that either makes or breaks the film for you, and it involves a cat meowing and playing along with the score to the film on a piano. Other weirdness has occurred at this point, but for some reason this feels like the moment the audience dives into the deep end. All parts of disturbing, hilarious, frightening, and unnecessarily erotic, the film skips between genres at wanton abandon. It’s a blast and a half to watch each and every time I pop it on to show someone. Some films are important, either culturally or in the narrative of cinema, but some are just too goddamn fun to ignore.
- Eraserhead: Look, David Lynch is the strongest case for continuing midnight movie culture’s continuation and this is his platform. At times both funny as shit and disturbing as all get-out, Eraserhead is a brilliant debut from a director that continues to push boundaries and ask more of his audience than simple viewership. Touching on topics of fatherhood, sexual frustration, and fear of the American industrial force, he weaves these together in a waking nightmare of black-and-white cinema. Lynch has held onto his darkly comic sensibilities throughout his career, but seeing the beginning shows that he now only has a sense of humor, but knows how to weaponize it to force the audience to step back and consider what they have just seen. His particular ouvre isn’t for everyone, and I’ve come across people that genuinely hate him in my time, but for those that find something to mine in the depths of his sentimentalities there are infinite possible interpretations of this masterwork.
- Moonrise Kingdom: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know most people cite other films as his best and most of them are in this collection. I don’t care, I love this one the most. Moonrise Kingdom is nigh-on perfect from start to finish, dripping with his favorite types of visual panache and utilizing his narrative favorite hits to sell a sweet little story about love and growing up. This was one of my earliest exposures to Wes Anderson and it struck hard. It’s goofy, it’s funny, and it contains some of the most incredible cinematography he’s ever pulled off. Some of his ideas are used for gags, but underneath lies a near perfect interweaving of music, performance, imagery, and emotion that leaves no room for the audience to ignore what they’re feeling. This remains my favorite Wes Anderson film, and one of my favorite films to date. As a bonus, the Criterion extras are fun and designed to play with the props from the film for a great little experience.
- Stalker: Religious, post-apocalyptic, mutated, and logical, Stalker is a crowning achievement for director Andrei Tarkovsky. There’s a streak of faith running under the plot of this one, with the character work taking a front seat to the plot that surrounds the Stalker himself. This is a bottled story that sprawls over a large geographic area. Tarkovsky experiments with different color palettes and settings, moving between sepia tone and muted color to place an atmosphere of desperation over the culture he’s displaying. Part beautifully contemplative character study, part dark science fiction film, and all showing off from Tarkovsky, this is the best of his films.
- Pan’s Labyrinth: Guillermo Del Toro has been on the radar of cinephiles for a long time, but this is where his skills became something widely known on an international scale. Both a fairy tale and a cautionary warning about the effects of fascism, the intricate moves between the real and surreal are borderline masochistic in execution. His worlds are something he treasures, but I’ve always held onto the idea that Pan’s Labyrinth is the most special to him. It holds onto his influences and fascinations while telling a very human story about a child that wants to escape the dark surroundings she’s had no say in. I have to recommend buying this film in the box set, Trilogia de Guillermo Del Toro. It contains his other two Spanish language films as well as a stunning book, introduced by Neil Gaiman, and it is the most stunning release of this film that any fan could have asked for.
- L’eclisse: So many cite L’avventura as the best work of Michelangelo Antonioni, but I always found the hollow passion of this film to be more engaging. None of his ennui films are an easy watch, but there’s an innate sadness to L’eclisse that I connected with on a personal level. A harsh view of fleeting romance and attraction, the film shines a harsh light on depression and isolation. One of the most incredible ideas in the film is that someone can love a person, but wish that they loved them more and just can’t. Antonioni spent a lot of his career working with this idea of faux romantic entanglement, the idea that a momentary attraction and action can mean nothing to two people that desperately wish it did, but it feels like he peaked here. Focusing on his muse, the stunning Monica Vitti, he runs her through the wringer of silent emotion and detachment. All of his films are hard to watch, but the emotional themes of L’eclisse leave a mark.
- Kwaidan: Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? How about an anthology film? I pop this one here and there just to sit back and enjoy it. Based on the short story collection of the same name, it’s a weird little movie about ghost hair, marriage, and face-painting that reminds us all to remember the ears. It’s not an easy movie in a lot of ways, clocking in at three hours and moving with a slow deliberation, but it’s a lot of fun and weirdly engaging in its own way. Some films are important because you want to see something shocking, something culturally important, or something artistically astounding. Some stuff, though, is great to toss on because you want to have a great time. This is one of those films, and when you couple that with the stunning visual designs of the stories it becomes something you’ll want to watch over and over.