One of the many features that makes the Criterion Collection amazing is their recurring Top 10 series. They ask various pop culture personalities (mostly film) to supply a list of their 10 favorite Criterion films. It’s a great way to learn about important and/or unique cinema. Most importantly, I love that it’s a synaptic slice of the writer’s movie psychosis. Criterion offers such a wide variety of genres, themes, and directors that choosing 10 specific films says something about your personality. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be presenting The Criterion Top 10 Series, a series of articles from many of my very favorite film writers, critics, and theorists on the internet and in my circle of friends. Strap yourself in because the next several days are going to feature some incredible writing about some equally incredible films. To kick it all off, here is my own Criterion Top 10.
1. The Seventh Seal (1957)
This was my Big Bang- the film that started it all. It completely revolutionized the way I look at movies. And it resonated so much with me because I had never seen a film that dealt so frankly with the subject matter. Everyone thinks about the afterlife, the meaning of their own lives (and all life), and why we’re here. We all want answers from above. Bergman whittled it down into a perfect metaphor, relatable to any and all.
2. The Phantom of Liberty (1974)
Buñuel’s statement here is pure existentialism, absurdity humorously wrapped in a shroud of meaningless meaning. That’s life whittled down to its bare bones, really, and Buñuel used his gleeful chaos to amplify the message. Along the way, he takes his usual aim at bourgeois conventions and social institutions. No Buñuel film is complete without the skewering of language, religion, class systems, and authority figures, and The Phantom of Liberty has it in abundance.
3. M (1931)
Fritz Lang’s work was integral in providing America (and the world) with both horror and film noir. He’s the Rosetta Stone for mid-20th century film. Lang is one of the very few filmmakers whose work influenced all others that came after it, joining a select class that includes Jean Vigo, Georges Méliès, and few others. And while he has other earlier films that were equally successful in laying the groundwork for the future of cinema (Metropolis is the obvious example), Criterion doesn’t have anything as early (or as impressive) as this link between German Expressionism and the rest of film history. And Lang’s M has the eerie honor of serving as a perfect snapshot of pre-Nazi German paranoia and the rise of the Gestapo.
4. Winter Light (1962)
Here’s the perfect extension of Bergman’s angst. His theological suffering (cinematically, anyway) first came to international prominence with The Seventh Seal, and then he came out clean and atheist on the other side after Winter Light. Just four years after The Seventh Seal, he was still wrestling with all of his demons, but he used the Trilogy of Faith to make a rather emphatic choice about his own beliefs. Winter Light was the apex.
5. Ikiru (1952)
One of the hallmarks of Akira Kurosawa’s work is his dedication to his rebellious spirit. Enter Ikiru, a sort of Japanese version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s an assault on bureaucracy, and a touching tale of a bureaucrat who realizes the error of his ways late in life. It’s a beautiful reminder that life is too short and nobody is going to care about your paperwork when you’re gone. And Kurosawa’s camerawork and thematic resolve is masterful.
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc is a transformative film, the kind of movie that opens doors for viewers. For me, it was a gateway drug to the films of Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Abel Gance, F.W. Murnau, and so many more. I didn’t realize just how powerful the silent medium could be. And yet, there was Renée Falconetti’s impossibly expressive face and Carl Dreyer’s camera bringing the martyr’s horrific plight to life.
7. The Fire Within (1961)
Louis Malle was a master of letting the camera give his subjects a deep humanity. It’s delightful in films like Zazie dans le Métro and Place de la République. In The Fire Within, it’s ruthless. Malle’s portrait of a suicidal alcoholic in his final days is so unrelenting. There’s nothing else like it on film and I guarantee you won’t find a more accurate depiction of depression. It’s beautiful in the totality of its melancholy.
8. Sullivan’s Travels (1942)
There are countless reasons to include Sullivan’s Travels. My love of director Preston Sturges demands his inclusion. As for why this film is so near and dear to me, it comes down to a single line uttered by John L. Sullivan. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
9. Kwaidan (1965)
I’m eight films deep in this list and I haven’t included two of my favorite genres- samurai films or horror. Kwaidan takes care of both categories. It’s the finest anthology horror you’ll find, and it’s an almost perfect representation of the classic Japanese representation of the supernatural.
10. Zéro de Conduite (1933) and The 400 Blows (1959), tie
It’s impossible to include one without the other, both French films focusing on restless youth in open revolt. The first, Vigo’s film, was boldly experimental and expanded the medium. Truffaut followed suit with his own classic, an iconic film of the equally influential French New Wave.
Just missed the Cut:
As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible to whittle down the Criterion Collection to just ten movies. Look at most Top 10s on Criterion’s site and lots of writers cheat by including 11th, 12th, and more films. Here’s what just missed my list, in no particular order:
The Phantom Carriage (1921), Pépé le Moko (1937), Hausu (1977), Brand Upon the Brain (2006), Closely Watched Trains (1966), The Firemen’s Ball (1967), The Exterminating Angel (1962), If… (1968), Grand Illusion (1939), Häxan (1922), Daisies (1966), Yojimbo/Sanjuro, I Am Curious—Yellow (1967), Head (1968), Last Year at Marienbad (1961)