The Criterion Collection has a very enjoyable series called Top 10s where they invite filmmakers, film critics and theorists, and just good ol’ fashioned celebrities to list their Top 10 from the Criterion Collection. It’s a really unique series because you get great insights into what has influenced these people. For instance, Steve Buscemi lists John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence at #10, and states:
I have been under the influence of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and their extended family in film ever since I saw a retrospective of Cassavetes’s movies at MoMA soon after he died.
Is it any surprise at all that Steve Buscemi, a stalwart of 90’s indie cinema, would hold such reverence for John Cassavetes, the Godfather of independent cinema? Guy Maddin lists Clement’s Forbidden Games at #1 and Häxan at #10. If you’re familiar at all with Maddin’s films- silent film homages which generally place a magnifying glass on childhood trauma- you realize the imprint that these films had on him. Admittedly, I’ve only seen approximately half of the Criterion Collection, around 250 films or so in their catalogue. Here’s my stab at the Criterion Top 10.
The Fire Within (1963)
It’s emotionally stirring. From Louis Malle’s standpoint, it’s deeply personal- one of the most incredible examples of an artist baring his soul for all to see. Maurice Ronet is astounding as Malle’s on-screen mirror image. And the artistry is excellent- I love the deft touch with which Malle employs French New Wave techniques. There’s a totality of despair here that’s rarely been seen in film, either before or since.
Kurosawa’s masterpiece about the cold, impervious nature of bureaucracy was the first Criterion film that inspired me to dive into the extras. And it was there that I learned about the choreography between the foreground and background in Kurosawa’s films. It opened up a whole new world for me because films stopped being about story and started being about so much more- the artistry, the cinematography, the editing, and everything in-between. And who better to coax the humanity out of Takashi Shimura’s government official than Kurosawa? Who better to drive home the character arc?
The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Sometimes, you watch a film and it transpires in such a way that you find yourself smiling at its cleverness. This wasn’t the first Buñuel film that I saw from the Criterion Collection. That honor goes to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It wasn’t exactly my favorite, though it’s a very, very ,very close second to The Phantom of Liberty. It’s just the one that I appreciate the most, the one that made me grin from ear to ear as the whole chicanery-filled episode unfolded.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
In many ways, this is the film that started it all for me. Bergman dared to ask questions in this film that I’d wrestled with for the bulk of my life. Why are we here? Is there a God? Do strawberries and milk go together? These were the same questions that most people struggle with at some point or another, and he’d done so with dazzling visual contrast and a young actor who you might have heard about- his name is Max Von Sydow. I’d never seen anything like it. It holds a very special place in my heart.
Peeping Tom (1960)
It’s amazing how quickly you can know that you’re going to love a film. It takes between 15 minutes and a half hour most of the time for me. In the case of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, I went nuts for it before the first scene was done. Call it a technical knockout. The Freudian overtones are hilarious. Case in point- the photo I’ve chosen there. He’s stabbing that woman, the object of his desire, with one of the legs of his tripod. Many critics compare it to Hitchcock’s Psycho, and rightly so- murder, Freudian overtones, and parenthood gone horribly wrong permeate Powell’s film.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
This was the film that finally made the lightbulb go on over my head with respect to silent cinema. I’d seen a handful of silent films (most notably a few Charlie Chaplin movies) and it simply hadn’t clicked for me. Then I watched Carl Th. Dreyer’s phenomenal masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. By the time I had completed it, my whole world had changed. I didn’t think it was possible to use a camera in this way. I didn’t think it was possible for a silent film actress like Maria Falconetti to convey the tale of the classic French heroine without uttering a single word. The disc comes with an original opera (Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light) created as a companion piece for the film. I recommend watching with the opera on.
I Am Curious—Yellow (1967)
A friend of mine is in his early 60’s and was a film student when I Am Curious—Yellow came out overseas. He always recommended it to me as some sort of carnal Holy Grail. And sure enough, that’s true. I suppose it’s a little tame by today’s standards but not by much. By 1967 standards, it must have blown people away. What he didn’t tell me is how much it’d appeal to the dime store sociologist in me. It is as experimental a film as you could ever hope to find- part art film, part pure sexual charge, part sociology of 60’s youth revolution, and part sociology of Swedish class systems in the mid-20th century. For good measure, there’s even an appearance by Dr. Martin Luther King. You don’t find many films like that in theaters today.
The first Godard film that I watched served as something of a French New Wave primer for me. You could name more stereotypical French New Wave films to serve as an introduction to the genre, but not many. It works so well as a post-modern film. Godard never lets you forget that you’re watching a movie (about making a movie). Throw in the languid opening tracking shot; the archetypal roles for folks like Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang, who all seem like they walked in straight from Central Casting; the color coordination infused by Godard; and you’ve got precisely the type of film that the Criterion Collection exists to glorify.
Pépé le Moko (1937)
There’s never been an actor that more perfectly embodied the poetic realist movement than Jean Gabin. He is the epitome of hopeless, disillusioned cool in a hopeless world. More importantly, no less than Casablanca owes a great deal to Pépé le Moko. In short, this film was an integral piece in blowing the barn doors off of the American film noir. Just when I thought I had been to the apex of French cinema, Pépé le Moko reminded me that there are miles to go before I sleep.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
What I find so remarkable about this film is that Herk Harvey set out with a teeny, tiny budget. It was a B-movie sized budget. All that was asked of him was that he make a squirrely horror flick that might scare a few people. Herk Harvey’s answer to the clarion call of the studio’s trumpet was to make a film that had roots in the films of Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau. He made a horror art film. It is the Little Engine That Could of horror movies. I think I can be an art film, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can… The resulting film churns out one creepy item after the next, whether it’s ghosts rising from their watery tomb to dance; the eerie stark white face that haunts Candice Hilligoss; the organ music; and on and on. It’s all there.
Honorable Mention: Closely Watched Trains, Harikiri, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, Shoot the Piano Player
And my apologies for focusing so much on one specific era. I thought I was doing well by limiting myself to one Bergman; one Malle; one Buñuel. It turns out I should’ve been theater-going age from 1957 to 1967.