Lists such as this one are grounded on limited realities. Such lists always begin with the assumption that the reviewer has somehow seen every film available and has a wealth of information lodged away in the mind, ready to be pulled out and laid down as law. This is certainly not the case; though I have seen a fair number of the films in the Criterion collection, I have not seen them all. The Criterion Collection is for people who are passionate about film. The people who have seen a movie 10 times over and could watch it another 10, who crave the explanation of a long essay and adore an exhaustive commentary from the director and cast. When Criterion decides to offer a title, they clean up the image to the finest quality available, put in hours of research on extra materials, and contact capable film scholars to pen essays which place the film in a context of importance. What eventually emerges is a definitive edition of the film. Clocking in at almost 500 titles, to pick a mere 20 from the prestigious list is a daunting task. After carefully perusing the list, I've culled the top 20 films that exemplify the Criterion tradition and commitment to archiving and presenting films worth watching. Each film listed below has remarkable picture quality and supplemental features, and each gives back more than what is put into it by the viewer.
This list is unordered since it represents the cream of the Criterion crop.
Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1969)
For years Andrei Rublev languished in semi-obscurity as only eagle-eyed film buffs found it playing now and then at a handful of art house cinemas across the country. No longer, as Criterion has perfectly rendered a definitive copy that preserves the extraordinary length of the film. This film is perhaps Tarkovsky's greatest work, a detailed look at the life of a Russian icon painter, though the film deviates from historical fact frequently. The various sections of the film meld together into a complicated look at the difficulties of Russian life, which are forever evident, a solid bedrock for the problems that would emerge later. While watching a three-hour Russian drama about an icon painter might not sound like Saturday morning fare, rest assured, even for those adamantly opposed to religion, the film contains some of the most moving imagery ever committed to celluloid.
The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Th. Dreyer (1928)
While it would be impossible to divorce the religious aspects of this film from the cultural significance, this desperate look at a woman who is willing to perish for her beliefs is moving and devastating. It's not for the faint of heart, as Joan is bullied and threatened with death, all the while holding fast to her convictions. The black-and-white cinematography puts Joan's trial into stark relief as her lovely face, streaked with tears, finds the light as if by magic and draws us in completely. This film was thought to be lost for many years, until a copy was unearthed in 1981 and brought to international attention yet again. The original music being long lost, the recently-penned Richard Einhorn score contains some of the most truly beautiful music, and was inspired by the film itself.
Rushmore, directed by Wes Anderson (1998)
Rushmore is easily the best of Wes Anderson's films, a carefully crafted vision from one of the best new American directors of the '90s. A young man named Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) finds himself too busy enjoying school to attend to the mundane nature of actually graduating and getting anywhere with his life. Throw in a crush on a teacher and a friendship with a sad sack played by Bill Murray, a host of strange characters and fantastic music, and you've got a good look at quirk done right. Nobody other than Cameron Crowe and Quentin Tarantino understands the importance of a good soundtrack quite like Anderson, and Rushmore comes close to perfection in the musical department. Funny, heartwarming and intensely likable, Rushmore is the ideal film.
Chasing Amy, directed by Kevin Smith (1997)
Kevin Smith accidentally made a good film, far beyond his meager abilities as Hollywood's unloved cousin and his usually unwavering devotion to sexual obsession and unappealing dialogue. His plots lack verve and his characters fall flat, with the notable exception of Chasing Amy, a film so devoted to exploring the real problems of love and sexual fluidity in the 1990s that it's almost unimaginable that Smith wrote it. Ben Affleck stars as a straight man in love with a lesbian who refuses to be labeled, and try as he might to be open-minded, finds himself struggling with the realities of their relationship. The film is riotously funny, subtle when it needs to be and over-the-top when it suits it, a class act through and through as actor after actor turns in a stellar performance.
Mon Oncle, directed by Jacques Tati (1958)
Rarely does a film delight with such ease as Mon Oncle, a French film by Jacques Tati. Tati won a host of awards for this film, including the Academy Award for Foreign Film, and it's easy to see why. A young man is growing up surrounded by sleek modernity, his uncle lives in a madcap traditional house, and the two find themselves in a myriad of hilariously amusing situations as they explore their city together and separately. Constant running gags at the expense of the uncle are always lighthearted and amusing as he bumbles his way through daily existence much to the delight of his nephew.
Sullivan's Travels, directed by Preston Sturges (1942)
Particularly poignant given our modern search for meaning in everyday life, Sullivan's Travels tells the tale of a man who is hell-bent on making a difference. A popular director attempts to escape from the boredom of producing Hollywood comedies and sets out to make the single most important film of the era, though circumstance seems to be so clearly against him. What could possibly go wrong? Murder, intrigue, and Veronica Lake all play a role as one man sets out to change the world. A tale that rings true yesterday and today, this film could be told again today as the themes of wealth and poverty, social relevance, and post-modern sensibilities are as timeless as always. Simply put, this is one hell of a movie, and anyone who's not seen it had better remedy the situation quickly.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, directed by Luis Buñuel (1972)
This strange little film follows a group of high-class friends and acquaintances as they perpetually attempt to sit down to dinner, only to be interrupted time and again. Luis Buñuel is at his best here, the film is rife with social commentary as well as absurdity in full measure. Meandering and fantastical, the genius of the film is that all the tension rests in whether or not these wealthy few will ever sit down to dinner, and how could anyone possibly make a film out of so very little? Buñuel shows us how it's done, elegantly and simply.
Grey Gardens, directed by Maysles Brothers (1975)
A strange and intoxicating journey into the ordinary lives of two aristocratic women dwelling in a decaying mansion during the fading days of their glory. The Beales, Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie, are cousins to Jackie Kennedy Onassis and find themselves all but forgotten in the America of 1975 where once their name and wealth gave them a place in the world. Left with little but their dilapidated mansion, the Beales continue to bicker and argue, flaunt and front as a strange and complicated relationship slowly emerges. The Maysles brothers are observers, and involved indirectly as they are frequently addressed or consulted during the film. First impressions are strong with this film as one is first confused, then shocked, then amused, and finally arriving somewhere back at the beginning to restart the whole process yet again.
8 1/2, directed by Frederico Fellini (1963)
The definitive film made about memory and our own submersion in the past as it confronts our future. Fellini is given over to nostalgia, but fails to cross the line into unbridled sentimentality, instead treading lightly as one man attempts to make a movie and remembers the women he has loved and who have loved him, even as the present threatens to slip away. The film within a film works as Fellini explores the problem when one suffers from a lack of creativity, and the constant search for happiness as one turns from one endeavor to another. The film is shot lovingly, and like any great work of art it is not only beautiful to look at, it is entirely engaging and enveloping.
In the Mood for Love, directed by Won Kar-Wai (2001)
Subtle and glowing, Won Kar Wai's films spill out slowly over time, and In the Mood for Love is no exception, as the classic problem of forbidden love between a married woman and a single man is given the Kar Wai treatment. The two are neighbors and over time develop a relationship of mutual interest as they plan a small revolution against the confines of their tidy, daily lives. The real star here is the perfect interaction between small moments of beauty, carefully constructed out of touchingly stunning imagery and music matched perfectly. Won Kar Wai is a master of the craft and can spin love out of what was once the empty space between two people.
George Washington, directed by David Gordon Green (2000)
An accomplished writer and director, David Gordon Green seems determined to release a film in every genre. His films often deal with the difficulty of growing up and the challenges that presents to every person who is unfortunate enough to have to make that transition. George Washington is direct, focused, and tightly written. The film relays the story of a group of small-town children who must help one another recover in the face of violent tragedy. Very much in the tradition of Terrence Malick, the film is drenched in beauty and quiet reflection, though the subject matter is dark and moody.
Brand Upon the Brain!, directed by Guy Maddin (2007)
Canadian director Guy Maddin's films are first and foremost about Guy Maddin, and Brand Upon The Brain! focuses in on a false half-remembered childhood spent in a lighthouse run by a crazy mother and a scientist father, surrounded by mystery, orphans, and child detectives. The major city release of the film boasted live sound effects, known as foley effects, and live narration, and this flair for the dramatic greatly enhanced the film. Yet without such additives it retains much worth seeing, as scenes are set in the eerie calm of an empty world, long deserted expanses of beach, or the creaking steps of the lighthouse as young Guy Maddin recounts his and his sister's fantastical experiences with love and loss among a passel of orphans.
Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)
Two Tarkovsky films on one list might be seen as bad form, but Solaris is a film that deserves to be seen, and seen again. A psychologist must travel to a distant space station to investigate strange hallucinations plaguing the team, but what will become of him once his own inner demons surface? No, this isn't the one with George Clooney's behind in it. However, what you will find is an elegant ghost story wrapped inside a science fiction story hidden within a cascade of color and the most beautiful cinematography one could ever desire. This film accomplishes what so many other films have tried and failed. Merging fantastical visuals with exploratory narrative, Solaris is a sprawling reward of a film to the worthy viewer, attempting to establish once and for all that there is much that even science cannot entirely explain.
The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, directed by François Truffaut
What if you could watch someone grow up over the years, even if things didn't turn out quite the way you had hoped, much like an errant brother or nephew? Beginning with The 400 Blows, we are introduced to Antoine Doinel. Doinel is the lovable and loathable young man who we are given the ability to walk alongside as he wends his way through childhood, love, life, and marriage. Modeled on Truffaut himself, Doinel makes for utterly entertaining viewing. From his first moments, he is charming and carefree, yet often thinks only of himself or present desires. Doinel's endless ability to get himself in and out of scrapes is remarkable, and these films are fun to watch, most importantly. As a threshing floor for Truffaut's own troubles, they are intriguing, but the value here is in our ability to enjoy the films as they are, one man's life lived out in real time.
Knife in the Water, directed by Roman Polanski (1962)
Polanski's first feature-length film finds a married couple and a stranger adrift on the ocean, as tempers flare and confined quarters take their toll. This film marks the beginning of a long career and established Polanski as a writer and director to be reckoned with. Shot in black-and-white, the dialogue is curt and rife with tension as anger and anxiety dip and linger just below the surface. Worth five film schools rolled into one, the film is a case study in direction, acting, and how to set a scene. Stripped of any unnecessary frills, the film is a stunning achievement in simplicity.
Short Cuts, directed by Robert Altman (1993)
Altman is able to definitively craft a film from the first few frames to the final revelatory moments, and Short Cuts is one of his finest. The lives of a seemingly disparate group of strangers in suburban Los Angeles slowly begin to intersect as everyday events simmer and reach a boiling point in the heat wave. An all-star cast fills the screen from Tom Waits to Julianne Moore, Tim Robbins to Andie MacDowell, and more. With so many variations on a theme, one is never bored and such a lengthy time allows for more than a cursory glance. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film is based on the writings of Raymond Carver, and any literary aficionado will be thrilled to recognize long-forgotten short stories elegantly brought to the big screen.
F For Fake, directed by Orson Welles (1975)
A master work from the master himself, Orson Welles, leads the audience down a dark and gaping rabbit hole into a world of confusion and lies. The truth is somewhere between, hidden in plain site, but where is it to be found? Though some look down upon this film, finding it too obvious or tiring, there is much to be learned about pacing and red-handed sleight of hand. Too much said about this film can only destroy the powerful impact it might have, but beware, things are never what they seem and you are, for the moment, in the house of the master of misdirection.
Kicking and Screaming, directed by Noah Baumbach (1995)
Not to be confused with the soccer film of the same name, Kicking and Screaming tracks the lives of a handful of liberal arts college graduates through their first year out of school. If you were a witty, disillusioned post-grad living a half-life waiting for things to really begin, you might relate to this surprisingly observant and hilarious film from Noah Baumbach. Or there's always the possibility that you see through the façade and allow yourself to be merely disgusted by the rambling chaotic mess of a film. The film is hilarious, insightful, and if not a masterpiece then certainly a film worth seeing for what it is, a brilliant first step in the right direction.
Charade, directed by Staney Donen (1963)
One of Audrey Hepburn's finest films, Charade stands as a stunning mystery with the backdrop of continental Europe looming large. When Hepburn's husband is murdered, Cary Grant and Hepburn must unfurl a web of lies to find a huge sum of money before it disappears forever. The beauty of this international thriller is evident as Hepburn and Grant stroll in parks and by rivers, attempting to work through a complicated mystery where their lives could be on the line. The final showdown between villain and heroes is fraught with tension, and the reveal here is one of cinema's finest ever conceived. Interestingly enough, this film was never copyrighted correctly, which allowed it to be released almost immediately into the public domain.
Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman (1982)
A holiday film in the simplest terms, Fanny and Alexander is Bergman's masterpiece, the six-hour saga of a turn-of-the-century Swedish family torn apart by a death, lost in the memories of the past, and brought together through love. The plot itself takes time to unfold, and even then, takes a backseat to the sheer wonder of the world we are introduced to, cousins and aunts and a huge extended family enjoying Christmas, then again as they summer in the countryside. Bergman's obsession with religion is evident here, as well, the stark belief that religion is nothing more than a tool of oppression and in opposition to all that is good and wondrous in the world around us. Fanny and Alexander as children seem able to see the world as it is, a confusing place where their own power is limited, and we experience that alongside them. Perhaps the term magical realism could be applied here, as the children's world is not without a heavy dose of the mystical, from a strange mummy-like creation to the life-changing bit of magic that changes their lives forever. Fanny and Alexander is a gift of the first order.