I’m running contributions from some of my favorite film critics, writers, and theorists from around the internet for the next few weeks. Each writer is listing their top 10 from the Criterion Collection. The Criterion Top 10 Series kicks off week two with a contribution from Steve Habrat of Anti-Film School. Steve is brimming with enthusiasm for all cinema, but he’s truly an ace regarding grindhouse, exploitation, and retro aesthetics, as well as horror. In fact, many of you may remember that Steve has previously contributed at tdylf with Miracle on 42nd Street, a retrospective on New York’s 42nd Street movie scene. Steve has also been featured on Total Film online under “3 Cool Film Blogs to Visit”; GuysNation; Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights; Furious Cinema; and the Grindhouse Cinema Database. You may find him on Twitter @antifilmschool.
STEVE: When John first asked me if I’d be interested in contributing a list of my favorite Criterion Collection titles, I enthusiastically agreed. Picking ten titles from Criterion’s enormous catalogue would be a breeze. Boy, was I wrong. Selecting just ten titles proved to be extremely challenging, especially as I started extensively searching through their website, jotting down films that I thought sure would rank among my favorites, only to quickly delete them from the list as another masterpiece revealed itself. As a massive fan of horror movies, Rosemary’s Baby, Eyes Without a Face, Fiend Without a Face, Haxan, and First Man into Space were all heavily considered, as were some essential art house masterpieces like 8 ½ and Bicycle Thieves. I figured Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was a sure thing, as was Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring AND Winter’s Light. I had a hunch that Vera Chytilova’s Daises and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter would slip in there somewhere. And I figured my taste for extreme cinema might manifest itself with the selection of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, perhaps one of the most shocking titles Criterion has to offer. While the selection process wasn’t easy, I managed to narrow my bulging list down to just ten films. So, without further ado, here is my list. Enjoy!
1. Godzilla (1954)
Being a huge fan of the horror genre and monster movies, I have to reserve my top spot for the king of monsters—GODZILLA. Time hasn’t exactly been kind to the king of monsters, as Toho’s endless string of sequels have diminished the big guy’s symbolic power and turned him into a bit of a laughingstock. But if you go back to the post-WWII Japanese original, you find a nation still coming to terms with the horrors of the war and the sublime power of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There isn’t an ounce of camp to be found. Brilliantly directed by Ishiro Honda, the apocalyptic Godzilla remains a hair-raising vision that is capable of sending some major chills. The special effects still look fabulous, the miniature sets are still convincing, and the acting is top notch, especially from Akihiko Hirata, who plays Serizawa, the one man who may be capable of stopping Godzilla’s reign of terror. As far as science fiction and horror from the Atomic Age go, Godzilla is a nightmarish vision of a world paralyzed with fear of this devastating new weapon. I absolutely love it.
2. The Last Picture Show (1971)
In the line of films that came out of New Hollywood between 1968 and the early ‘80s, the most prevailing, dreary, and unforgettable is undoubtedly director Peter Bogdanovich’s portrait of a gasping west, The Last Picture Show. About as haunting and nostalgic as motion pictures can be, The Last Picture Show is a glimmering example of how to use atmosphere to maximum effect. You just can’t shake the boarded-up shops, peeling diners, and rickety pool halls of Anarene, Texas—a place where everyone knows everyone, and the major topic of the day is last night’s high school football game. This is one of those rare films that ushers the viewer through the screen and onto the windswept streets of a ghost town. You practically feel the dust in your eyes and the wind whistling through your hair. And then there are the characters—played flawlessly by Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd—which instantly feel like teenagers we’ve known our entire lives. And how could I not mention the superb ‘50s country western that echoes through nearly every scene? After you see it, The Last Picture Show will linger like an apparition for the rest of your days. I would consider this one of my favorite motion pictures of all time.
3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
There are plenty of films out there that one could label “emotionally draining,” but none reach the shattering levels of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Told in mostly extreme close-ups, this silent masterpiece is a stinging work of art—one that intimately follows the final hours of Joan of Arc as she is placed on trail, aggressively interrogated and taunted by a panel of seething judges about her mission from God, and finally, marched to the stake to meet her tragic end. Dreyer smartly forces the viewer to remain close to Joan, barely every presenting a comforting wide shot to offer a bit of distance from the relentless torment. Bringing this poor woman’s suffering to life is Reneé Jeanne Falconetti, who keeps us spellbound with her terrified stare and her endless stream of tears as she tries to defend herself. You just won’t be able to forget her wide eyes as she endures beatings from all angles. It’s perhaps one of the greatest performances ever put on celluloid. If you ever hear anyone claim that they can’t watch a silent film, point them in the direction of The Passion of Joan of Arc. I guarantee they won’t be able to pry themselves away from it.
4. Seven Samurai (1954)
It’s tough to sort through the Criterion Collection catalogue and not select Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as a favorite. I have to admit that I was tempted to select Yojimbo, which is another film that is a great deal of fun, but this is the Kurosawa picture that won out. A film that is the very definition of epic, Seven Samurai not only displays gorgeous cinematography and pulse-pounding set pieces, but it also demonstrates Kurosawa’s impeccable storytelling, which locks you in from the first frame. At just over three hours, it gives you plenty of time to immerse yourself in this world. By the end, you’re completely invested in the fate of the small farming village threatened by bandits, and the development of our seven heroes just absorbs you further. Don’t be fooled though, as Kurosawa keeps you on the edge of your seat with hugely influential action sequences that slash and tear with extreme force. Leading this charge is Toshiro Mifune’s phony samurai, Kikuchiyo, and Takashi Shimura’s battle-tested leader, Kambei—two characters you instantly fall in love with. If you’re someone with a hearty appetite for action and adventure, you must get your hands on a copy of Seven Samurai. There is a reason this is considered one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.
5. M (1931)
In 1931, Fritz Lang released M, a harrowing psychological thriller that follows a child killer as he attempts to evade capture by local authorities and bloodthirsty crooks. Made eighty-three years ago, M hasn’t lost an ounce of relevancy, as the film stands as a grim moral debate on how exactly authorities should handle an individual that commits unspeakable atrocities. Do we label them as sick and send them to a mental facility where doctors will treat them? Do we lock them in a prison cell and throw away the key? Or do we simply execute them for the crimes they have committed? M understands there is no easy answer to these questions, and it allows the debate to kick up serious fireworks in the final stretch. Lang simply lays all these questions on the table, yet it refuses to pick a side, leaving the viewer alone to decide where they stand on the subject. If you watch M today, it’s impossible not to be reminded of real life monsters—everyone from the Son of Sam to the Night Stalker come to mind as the story progresses, which strengthens the film’s thrills tenfold. Just as morbid and urgent as it was when it was released, M remains a white-knuckle thriller that draws you in like a moth to a light bulb. Also, seek it out for Peter Lorre’s chilling performance as the killer. He will haunt your dreams.
6. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Imagine if a group of fashionistas got together with some film students and decided to make an art house horror movie. It might look something like director Peter Weir’s Rorschach test of a film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Telling the tale of a group of girls that mysteriously go missing during a school picnic at a local geological formation, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a period piece unlike any other. It is nearly impossible to pin the film down as it sways between soft-focus dramatics and slithering supernatural horror. The best part—and the one that will certainly enrage the mainstream viewers out there—is that it offers absolutely no explanation or concrete conclusion for the disappearances. Is it supernatural? Is someone responsible? Weir certainly isn’t telling us, and he is well aware that this lack of an explanation settles in the viewer’s gut like a rock. While it’s certainly not a film that appeals to everyone, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a surreal vision that lodges itself in your brain like a sliver.
7. Island of Lost Souls (1932)
I only recently saw Erle C. Kenton’s spooky Pre-Code monster movie Island of Lost Souls, but I must confess that it left my jaw on the floor. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the fact that this film was released in 1932—just one year after Universal Studios struck gold with their sanitized gothic classics Dracula and Frankenstein. Shockingly violent (though you never see a drop of blood) and boasting monster make-up that probably made Universal’s golden boy Jack Pierce—the man responsible for Boris Karloff’s famed Frankenstein make-up—drool with envy, Island of Lost Souls is erotic, disturbing, and peculiarly claustrophobic as Kenton’s camera wanders through the shadowy, overgrown jungle paths that seem to all lead right to Dr. Moreau’s feared House of Pain. And then there is star Charles Laughton, who plays Dr. Moreau as a smirking madman amused by his mad-scientist creations. He grins sinisterly as his ghouls howl in anger, chuckling as he notes to our hero, “they are restless tonight.” Completing this monster mash is Kathleen Burke as the pitiful and beautiful Panther Woman, and Boris Karloff, who shines through layers of make-up and fur as he peers at the audience and asks, “what is the law?”
8. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Much like picking a Kurosawa film, I had to select an Ingmar Bergman film for my list. While there are plenty of incredible works by the famed Swedish art house director, I picked the film that introduced me to the talents of Mr. Bergman—The Seventh Seal. One of the moodiest films I have ever seen, The Seventh Seal is a doom-and-gloom journey through a world that is close to the end. Plague is spreading across the land, flagellants march through jittery villages, women accused as witches are burned at the stake, and Death is locked into a fierce game of chess with a weary knight by the name of Antonius Block. While the darker themes certainly take center stage, Bergman still manages a sense of humor through it all, and he musters a few lighter moments with a group of traveling performers that offer the viewer some relief. When discussing The Seventh Seal, its criminal not to mention the performances, specifically from Max von Sydow as the battle weary Antonius Block, the knight who is desperately searching for God in all the apocalyptic chaos, and Bengt Ekerot as Death, the hooded specter who eerily carries out his work with the casualness of a man who just punched a time clock. While it may not be as dark and flat-out depressing as some of Bergman’s later work, The Seventh Seal is still a pitch-black exploration of faith and the absence of God.
9. Badlands (1973)
My personal favorite film directed by Terrence Malick, Badlands is a serene and poetic thriller based on a real-life killing spree that took place in 1958. Badlands tells the story of Holly, a teenager who develops a crush on Kit, a young greaser who works as a local garbage collector. One day, after loosing his job, Kit decides he is going to run off with Holly, but her strict father objects. This sparks a haunting killing spree that Malick frames like a fairy tale. The music seems like it should accompany a documentary about a whimsical safari, as Holly and Kit barrel towards the Montana Badlands where they can forever remain in their disillusioned little world. Featuring an impeccable pair of performances from a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Badlands is a dreamy road movie that never forgets to stop and take in the beauty of nature, even as a storm gathers on the horizon. While Badlands is Malick’s feature film debut, there isn’t a second of it that seems amateurish or unsure, making it seem like a film from a seasoned veteran with a firm grasp on their artistic vision. It’s a timeless slice of Americana that will continue to spellbind for years to come.
10. The Blob (1958)
Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob makes this list as sort of a guilt pleasure choice, which is why it sits at number ten. I personally don’t think The Blob runs with the greatest monster movies of all time, but I’m a sucker for drive-in fare from the ‘50s and this one is just hits all the marks. You can just envision a sea of darkened cars with young couples huddled together as the blob wrecks havoc in a crowded movie theater. How could you NOT have fun watching this? The Blob is a film that could only be made in the Atomic Age—a time when the giant ants of Them! reflected the paranoia of mutation caused by the bomb’s radiation, The Thing was a warning to watching the skies for UFO activity, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers shuddered with the thought of communism spreading through the conformist streets of McCarthy’s suburbia. While there have been many theories floating around about what The Blob is ultimately saying (Some, including myself, believe that the blob is a metaphor for communism creeping through sleepy suburbia, while others have observed that there seems to be an exploration of America’s fear of juvenile delinquency floating around in there, another observation that carries considerable weight.), the film is ultimately a fun little B-movie that is best enjoyed on a warm summer evening with your windows thrown open and a pretty date by your side.