The moment any film buff hears the word “Criterion”, they immediately think of some of the best movies that cinema has to offer. For 27 years The Criterion Collection has been the Rolls Royce of the home movie industry. What has distinguished Criterion from other companies is not just the presentation of its releases – its renowned covers (which have inspired fake ones), high quality transfers, and extensive, intelligent, rare supplements. What further separates them is that they don’t just blindly release any movie – they release the pinnacle of classic and contemporary cinema.
In other words, they are curators. But like curators they aren’t just content to bring their brand of attention to established cannon classics. What makes them such a thrilling company to follow is seeing what contemporary, independent, foreign, or forgotten and underappreciated movies they pick. Because just by picking them they almost immediately guarantee these movies become new canon. When the company announces the next movie they are going to release you pay attention because it means that that movie matters.
Not everyone is familiar with The Criterion Collection, however. Some people have never heard of them, some people are perhaps on the verge of making their first purchase. So, where does a Criterion Newbie start?
I thought I would present a list of 10 Criterion Blu-Rays I think would be ideal to help get a Criterion Collection going. These are by no means necessarily Criterion’s best films, nor are they in some cases movies I love as much as others. They do, however, represent a selection of accessible films that allow any fledgling Criterion collector a good jumping off point to further explore their catalogue.
If you want more talk and appreciation of The Criterion Collection be sure to check out the Criterion Forum, David Ehrlich’s “Criterion Corner” tumblr and series with Movies.com, or Blu-Ray.com’s discussion group.
Honorable Mentions (Blu-Ray): The 400 Blows, 8 ½, Charade, The Great Dictator, Modern Times, Hunger, The Killing, The Rules of the Game, Stagecoach, Sweet Smell of Success
Honorable Mentions (DVD): Bicycle Thieves, Brief Encounter, Children of Paradise, Grand Illusion, Notorious, Rashomon, Sullivan’s Travels, Written on the Wind, Rebecca, Wild Strawberries
Days of Heaven
Criterion is famous for its stunning transfers, so it’s always a pleasure when they train their technical skills on movies with gorgeous cinematography. I’m pretty sure if you look up “gorgeous cinematography” in the dictionary, Terrence Malick’s and DOP Nestor Almendros’ Days of Heaven will be there. Admittedly, the movie’s pace may not be for everyone, but Malick is a film buff favorite and it’s such a stunning, visual Blu-Ray HD treat that it’s hard not to recommend beginners to pick this up to see what Criterion can do.
Dazed and Confused
Taking a precursory glance at Criterion’s catalogue it’d be easy to knee-jerkishly snort “artsy fartsy” in derision at their selections. Look closer though and you’ll see the Collection has a lot of lighter, more contemporary mainstream and fun fare as well. Like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. It’s a perfect, nostalgic-filled way to inject a little levity into your starter’s library.
Fritz Lang’s M is one of the greatest movies ever made and one that remains unbelievably fresh and un-aged considering it was made in 1931. You shouldn’t own this just because this is Criterion, you should just own it, period.
The Night of the Hunter
Ignored by audience at the time of its release, actor Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort The Night of the Hunter has become widely considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time, with one of the greatest villains and greatest Robert Mitchum performances. It’s a gorgeously shot, lyrical, influential dark fairy tale that is in many ways quite unlike anything else in cinema. It’s movies like this, with stunning black and white cinematography, that Criterion does best.
Paths of Glory
Everyone needs a little Stanley Kubrick in their collection. Everyone has different opinions as to which movie it should be. When it comes to Criterion, his powerful anti-war film Paths of Glory is the one to go with.
Wes Anderson may not always be my cup of tea, but it sure is Criterion’s. They have continued to champion him as a modern independent filmmaker to watch by giving almost every one of his movies the Criterion treatment. Their love of him shows that for all their love of sophisticated art cinema, they’ve also got a big quirky, indie heart. Rushmore - widely regarded as his best movie – should jolt a refreshing bit of humor and fun into a collection.
Even more than Wes Anderson, Criterion loves Akira Kurosawa. Like, a lot. Of all the Kurosawa Criterion releases though, Seven Samurai has sort of become one of its prize horses. It makes sense. The movie is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made. In fact, it speaks so much for itself, Criterion’s cover is particularly understated. You’ll get little argument from movie aficionados that this is a Criterion must-own.
The Third Man
The Third Man is another must-own. Orson Welles’ coolest performance, the Harry Lime theme, the best cinematic adaptation of a Graham Greene novel (though I am also partial to Noyce’s The Quiet American and Lang’s Ministry of Fear) and The British Film Institute’s choice for greatest British Film of all time. The American Film Institute has also laid claim to it on several of their lists. Fair warning though, this Criterion is actually out-of-print, so you may need to do a bit of hunting.
Criterion is no stranger to the weird, horrific or graphic. After all, they’ve released Anti-christ, House and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom to name a few. David Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome is a good entry point to The Collection’s more bizarre and difficult selections. It’s also an incredibly unsettling and trippy movie with great special effects. Hands down, one of Cronenberg’s best, most interesting and most prophetic.
The Wages of Fear/Diabolique
Yes, I am totally cheating. Yes, you can totally question why Henri-Georges Clouzot gets the “two movies” exception on my list when Kubrick, Malick, Altman, Kurosawa, Hitchcock and Anderson don’t. It’s just so hard for me to choose between the two of these. The Wages of Fear is one of the most suspenseful, intense, nail-biting movie experiences I have ever had. Diabolique is one of the best, creepiest psychological thrillers/drama ever made. You’d do good to have either disc in your library – preferably both.
Now, the remarkable thing about The Criterion Collection is that it features such a wide array of diverse and eclectic films that everyone has their favorites, and everyone will inevitably have a completely different list than my own. I welcome you all to share your own Top 10 choices in the comment section below.
Note: All Images courtesy of The Criterion Collection