Digital Polyphony

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Top 25: Favorite Criterion Movies


Criterion has a fun little series on their site where people who love film (from famous directors to bloggers to comedians) give us a list of their favorite Criterion Collection movies. Not their favorite films, mind you, but a list of their personal favorite movies that Criterion has put out. Some are put on because they are an achievement, others because they were influenced by them, some just because of uniqueness. Seeing as how The Criterion Collection is the essential source of great cinema, it's only natural for film lovers to go through and find some of their favorite films. If you've never heard of The Criterion Collection, then shame on you. They've only been around for decades and given us the best quality versions of the best films of cinematic history.

As I read through a lot of these Top Lists on their website, I started to think "Hey, I like movies, and I've seen quite a lot out of Criterion the past 13 years or so since I started really buying thier DVDs. So why don't I take a crack at it?"

Of course, I haven't seen every single movie in, or formally in, The Criterion Collection. If someone has, then I tip my proverbial hat to them, but I doubt that has happend. So this is a list of the movies on Criterion that I've seen. More importantly is the reasoning for them, some are personal films I have a hsitory with, some I just greatly appreciate, some introduced me to certain filmmakers and genres I never knew before and some are just damn good movies.

Notes: I'm including out of print movies, but only if I saw them first on Criterion and they had an impact. As awesome as The Silence of the Lambs, Straw Dogs or Hard Boiled are, I saw them first elsewhere and knew them well enough beforehand.

That's kind of a standing rule: I had to have seen the movie first, or at least come to appreciate it, through the Criterion Collection.

Also another standing rule: Only one film per director (though I put some box sets in here on occasion). That's easier said than done, especially when you have massive collections like the Kurosawa films.

25: Videodrome

This is a great first entry because it kind of embodies what I just lined out. The only Cronenberg movies I had seen is The Fly and Dead Ringers, both on VHS back in the 1990s. Then along comes my Criterion obsession and I found myself watching Videodrome and, to a lesser extent but just as utterly crazy, Naked Lunch. I think what impressed me most was that Videodrome was as old as it was. We're talking 1983, yet it still looked magnificent and felt socially relevant. And there's a vagina in a torso so you got that too.



24: Peeping Tom

The best thing about Criterion, though, is opening the door to films you never thought about even watching. Peeping Tom just kind of creeped up on me. It was dubbed, in my cinema history book in college, as the "British Psycho." Me being such a huge Alfredy Hichcock fan, how could I resist? Still, I had a lowered expectations, which makes Peeping Tom my first lesson about Criterion early on: don't lower expectations. Peeping Tom is a creepy little film about a creepy little man who loves women in a particular and creepy way. It's one of my personal favorite thrillers.



23: Knife in the Water

Easily one of the best debut films for any filmmaker, Roman Polanski's taught thriller, Knife in the Water, is not just a polished chiller full of tension and tension (something Polanski is a master at) but what I took away from it most was the cinematography. It was 1962 and the film was shot nearly entirely on a boat. Not a "soundstage" but on actual open water. This sense of being "lost" is a running theme in a film full of subtext and emotional complexities. An early example of a master at work, Knife in the Water is one of Polish cinema's finest films. I tend to revist Polanski's work a lot, notably Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby (recently re-released by Criterion I might add) but this one is another that is just as intense, if not perfect.

22: Mona Lisa

After a couple of small splaces, director Neil Jordan made bigger waves with Mona Lisa, mainly in thanks to an utterly brilliant performance by Bob Hoskins. This was the first time I really saw Hoskins in such an unabashed, ruthless and rather dark way. He was always Eddie from Roger Rabbit to me, but the man is one of the best English character actors of his era and Mona Lisa arguably his best work. It's an odd film, frantic most of the time, but it's so clearly Jordan: simple story, complex and incredibly deep charaters that might have you love them one minute and loathe them the next. 



21: The Life and Death of Col. Blimp

Before Michael Powell jumped in to the world of Peeping Tom, he and his filmmaking partner, Emeric Pressburger, were busy making British cinema masterpieces. The duo was known for absolute quality, and Criterion has given them great justice with superb releases of films like Black Narcissus (the other contender for my Powell/Pressburger choice), The Red Shoes and I Know Where I'm Going. But for sheer ambition, this bit of satire (though very subdued satire) had a lot to say on top of being a sweeping melodrama. Generation gaps, the military, or simply growing old, it's a film I took a chance on, then went on to watch every Powell/Pressburger film I could get my hands on.


20: My Life as a Dog

Criterion has, what I like to call, a set of "touching" films. They're those films that kind of move you, play with your nostalgia as you think of your own youth. Usually it's coming of age, or simple stories of overcoming hardships. Movies like Cinema Paradiso or Criterion's own The Spirit of the Beehive are good examples: movies about children and their own worlds. My Life as a Dog is Lasse Hallstrom's masterpiece.



19: Shock Corridor

Oh man, does Criterion have a hell of a set of Sameul Fuller films. Pickup on South Street and the Naked Kiss are just as fantatsic, but for some reason Shock COrridor that I keep thinking back to. I think it's just that one scene,the one where our lead, who doesn't begin "crazy" as he infiltrates a mental hospital, really loses his mind and we see the visual representation of what he's seeing on film. Shock Corridor probably isn't an obvious or popular choice, but there was something about it that just hit the right way.



18: The Blob

Speaking of good collections of things, cult and camp is abound with Criterion. I was first going to put up Fiend Without a Face as sort of a "cult" choice, but then I remembered...I didn't actually see The Blob until the Criterion Collection released it. It's a better, more fondly appreciated film, and I simply have to include it. The "cult" films that Criterion puts out are all worth your time, so check this classic out as well as the likes of Carnival of Souls, The Atomic Submarine, Gojira (That's Godzilla, you know) and Blood for Dracula.



17: Grand Illusion

Sure, Rules of the Game is considered his masterpiece, but honestly, I've never been a fan. Jean Renoir, to me, has made better films and Grand Illusion is mind. It's a classic tale of a prison with a really bad guy running it, but it's how it's told and the characters you come to meet, not to mention Erich von Stroheim's astounding villainous performance as Rauffenstein. It's one of the first "prison" movies ever made and kind of set the bar high, not to mention establish tons of elements that later films like Stalag 17, The Great Escape, The Hill and Cool Hand Luke would make their own. None of those really had a Stroheim, though, and that's the one major thing that has stuck with me with Grand Illusion

16: Short Cuts

What does it take to get a little appreciation around here? For some reason, filmmaker Robert Altman just seems to be overlooked when people talk about great filmmakers. I know I overlooked him until I spicked up this little gem, Short Cuts, then realized it was the same guy that directed The Player which I already saw, loved, and had no idea who Altman was. Ah, the early years of a film nerd. Short Cuts is arguably the man's best, or at least most daring work. It's also a huge cast. Anyone who was anyone in the early 90s seems to be in this thing, including Huey Lewis.


15: Wings of Desire

There's something truly haunting in Wings of Deesire. Maybe the starkness of the black and white, the almost serene quality of the pacing as though you're in this strange, fantasy world. Well, you kind of are. I mean, you have angels all around and Columbo doing his best Peter Falk impression. Wings of Desire is like visual poetry, something with that little "extra" of meaning and purpose as you watch it. This one isn't just a personal choice, this is seriously one of Criterion's single best film that every film fan should see.



14: This is Spinal Tap

I debated putting this one one, but I honestly don't think I ever saw This is Spinal Tap until, one lazy summer day with no college classes, I went out and just rented it. Then finally, after all those years, I finally got all the jokes and references that I never fully grasped. It may not have been the actual Criterion edition I saw, but I was made aware of it by looking at the catalog of Criterion and saying "Wow...Spinal Tap? Really? Is it really that good or is this just another Michael Bay Criterion BS release?" Well, I hunted it down and finally watched it, really one of those movies they don't show you in any film classes but really should. It set the standard for mock-documentaries.

13: Blow Out

Where was this movie all my life? Seeing Blow Out...FINALLY seeing Blow Out I shoudl say, was like a revelation. Only until I saw it did I really have a fine apprecation for Brian De Palma. Sure, he made some nice movies, Mission Impossible, Scarface and The Untouchables are all engrained in pop culture at this point, but I never saw him make a film like Blow Out. It reminded me of another under-appreciated thriller, Coppola's The Conversation, and it's certainly John Travolta's best I mean, he actually acts here. A look in to obsession and mystery, just the way I like it, and now one of my favorite additions to my ever-growing Criterion library.

12: The Wages of Fear

I saw it on the shelf for years. I loved the title: "The Wages of Fear." Just had a cool ring to it, but the description did nothing for me. But then I saw the filmmaker: Henr-Georges Clouzot. Wait a minute, didn't I just see a film he did? Sure did...two in fact. Le Corbeau and Diabolique. Well, this one seemed different, but it turns out it really wasn't. In fact, while the man is great a suspense, The Wages of Fear is probably the best use of playing and toying with an audience I've ever seen. We're talking classic "bomb under the table" here...and it's literally explosive. If it weren't for Criteiron, I'd never know who the hell Clouzot even was, another one of those "not really mentioned in classes" filmmakers...boy would I have missed out.

11: The Passion of Joan of Arc

It's rare for a silent film to legitimatly move me. Not a "shedding tears" type of movie, but something that makes you realize the profound ideas and themes it lays at your feet. The Passion of Joan of Arc is such a film. I really only watch silent films if they're recommend to me, and in this case it was recommended to me by a book. I can't recall which one, but I know it discussed the film and its use of close-ups and the fact that the story is adapted from the actual trial notes of Joan of Arc. I grabbed it up, because back then trying to rent a movie like this is impsosble so I had to buy it, and just became mesmorized by it all, as though I was a juror watching the trial or a witness to the fall of Joan. A masterpiece in every respect.

10: The John Cassavetes Set

The Criterion Collection has a great assortment of boxed sets, but I don't know if there's any set as important as the John Cassavetes set. With Criterion taking five of his best films and giving them such a wonderful treatment, they not only give us a great sense of preservation on a cinematic history level, but allow others to become exposed to his work. Before Criterion, I only saw one Cassavetes film, Gloria. His other films were kind of scattered and sometimes hard to find. Then along comes Criterion with five essentials spanning his entire career, considered the "birth" of independent cinema.

Plus, the film are damn good too. Check out Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie for your first stops. They're essential.

9: Sullivan's Travels

I didn't even know who Preston Sturgess was until I saw this film. You see, in film history and classes and all that you might learn about at a school, guys like Sturgess sometimes get overlooked. Maybe they're too under the radar because you can't talk about and cover everything in a lecture or textbook. Sullivan's Travels is just one of those things you "discover" and I know I did - taking a chance and picking it up not because of Sturgess but because of Joel McCrea, who I had just watched during a Hitchcock-binge in Foreign Correspondent and was curious what else he had done (thanks IMDB which I also had recently discovered around the same we're talking about 2000/2001 here).

I think most people would have discovered Sturges and Sullivan's Travels thanks to Sturges' previous film, The Lady Eve, which also starred Veronica Lake. Nope...Joel McCrea. 

8: Umberto D

Yeah...a man and his dog. This movie just hit a chord with me. I was already a big fan of Vittoria Di Sica (and Italian Neorealism in general) and after seeing Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief depending on who you talk to...never got that) and being consumed by it in film class, I went out of my way to find another of his films. Not surprsingly, Criterion had them (they didn't have Bicycle Thief at the time, though they do now). I didn't think it possible, but I came to love this more than the first one I had seen from De Sica. Sometimes a bit tough to watch, Umberto D. is well worth the lumps in your throat.  


7: Brazil

It was the first film class I ever took. The professor was going through filmmaking processes, and this time it was about editing. If you know the history of Brazil, then you already know where I'm going with this, but to make a long-story short, there are a few different versions of the film, notably a "love conquers all" ending and the original cynical and dark ending. We only watched clips, and I simply had to know what the hell this weird-looking, crazy movie was all about. Brazil was only released in a big deluxe set at the time, which I think is now condensed now, and I had to shell out a bit more than I wanted for it. But it was worth it as I watched the film twice the weekend I bought it. And I still go back and watch it on a regular basis these days, only with the correct "dark" ending. That "love conquers all" ending is cheesily awful.

6: The Alfred Hitchcock Set - Wrong Men and Notorious Women

I don't know if this is around any more, I think Criterion releases these individually now, but before I sat and watched this box set full of Spellbound, Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps and what quickly became one of my favorite films, Notorious, but I had just started getting in to the man's work and this 2003 set just came at the right time. I knew of his popular films, but these five films are really only known and appreciated by Hitchcock fans, I think. If I were to choose one film for this slot instead of the whole set, it would certainly be Notorious, because in that I just saw a side of Hitchock's craft that I felt I hadn't appreciated up until them, and now I can't help but notice in every one of the man's films I watch.

5: M. Hulot's Holiday

I can't remember at all what made me pick up M. Hulot's Holiday. It might have been the name Tati which was briefly talked about in some French Cinema class I took, or maybe I just liked the box art on one of the trips to the video store (Borders, which had a great supply of Criterion DVDs I loved to browse and where most of these selections can be traced back to). Either way, it could be my favorite comedy of all time. Well...ok The Big Lebowski's up there too...and Ghostbusters...and Some Like it Hot...and Blazing Sadd...ok you get the point, but MY point is this movie just wowed me. So simple yet so effective, Tati created something that reminded me why I love Chaplin and Buster Keaton so much: just great visual comedy perfected.

4: La Strada

Fellini, Fellini, Fellini. He's a name often taught in film schools, appreciated by scholars and loved by cinema snobs. He was a master who kind of ran the gaumut in styles and approaches to film. Some are odd and bizzare, others are straight-forward and simple. La Strada is the latter, and it just hit all the right chords for me (and made me realize I preferred early Fellini more than later Fellini, though I appreciate both equally). It's really what Italian Neorealsim is all about, and boy is it an emotional rollercoaster. After marathoning Fellini films for a few months many years ago, I pretty much came to the conclusion of this one being my favorite.


3: Le Samourai

Oh Jean-Pierre Melville, I could watch his films all day. Everything I love about mysteries, ganster flicks, heist flicks noir...I feel these are the perfect representation of that. Army of Shadows, Le Circle Rouge, Bob le Flambleur and many others are under the Criterion wing, but my favorite is Le Samourai. Melville's films are often stark and a bit bleak, even for thrillers and noir, but Le Samourai has the addition of an incredible performance Alain Delon is the one thing that just slightly puts Le Samourai above all those other great Melville movies for me.  


2: Seven Samurai

Consider this entry the all-encompassing entry for samurai cinema. Seriously, if I included all the samurai films I love on this list, it might as well be a Top 25 Samurai Flicks. No distributor has done more for the samurai film genre than the Criterion collection and I can think of no film better suited to represent an entire genre than Seven Samurai. Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece isn't just on here as a representatives, though. It's also on here because it was the first samurai film I saw while learning the history of film in college. It's also the only film I can think of that I've bought three separately times: the original Criterion release, the repackaged one years alter with the gorgeous new transfer, and the blu-ray edition. 

1: The Third Man

What were we studying? Angles. Dutch angles, if I recall. The class was about cinematography...or maybe it was a class where we were learning about visual metaphors. Something like that. Either way, the teacher showed a scene - the reveal of Harry Lime. Oh, you know the one. A darkened doorway at night, a light comes on from above and shines a light right on Orson Welles' face, then the chase is on. It's a wonderfully shot scene of anticipation.

I had to see more than just that one scene. It turns out, the entire movie was as good as it, and The Third Man changed everything. It was the first Criterion DVD I ever bought, it was the first that really made me start getting in to Noir, and Welles, and Joseph Cotton, and Carol was the catalyst to it all; the film that made me realize I was a film lover.

Now, if only I realized that Criterion was losing its rights to the film and picked up that damn blu-ray a couple years back. Sometimes, you just kick yourself.



What, not Truffaut? No Godard? What about Ozu? Well, I can't include everything, but Criterion was a bit slow in getting French New Wave films when I was learning it, so I watched most of those well beforehand, and Ozu...well, I had to stop somewhere (and if you want a choice from each, Jules et Jim, Pierrot le Fau and Floating Weeds would be my choices). You'll probably notice a lot of these entries have me mentioning film classes, well that (learning about film and discovering many on the list above) all kind of happend around the same time, so it's only natural.

This is also an odd list in that Criterion has some of my favorite films ever (Recently Rosemary's Baby or On the Waterfront for example, or classics like Hard Boiled, Straw Dogs or Anatomy of a Murder) in their library over the past many years, but  I just feel wrong in including them. It's an emotional response, I suppose, as in to what I do and don't give credit to Criterion for making me fall in love with these films. I still try to watch a Criterion film a week. Usually picked at random but these...these seem to be the ones I go back to as well. Even as they add more and more, and my backlog extensive, these would be the ones I would go to first if I ever felt the urge to just want to sit and watch a great movie and relive that experience of seeing it for the first time once more.

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