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It's hard to narrow my favourite Criterion titles down to a measly ten, but I stuck to the ones that had the biggest impact on me over the years. These movies are all too good to rank from one to ten, so I've presented them in alphabetical order.
I first saw this, totally on a whim, in 1997 on Sundance Channel, and was instantly entranced by Wong Kar-Wai's charming little tale of several lost souls in crowded Hong Kong. Who could not love Tony Leung imploring his sliver of soap to have more confidence in itself? And "California Dreamin'" takes on a whole new meaning after you see this film; years later when I hear the song I can only think of kooky, flaky Faye.
I don't think you will ever see a more beautifully photographed film, not to mention one that's more thoughtful and quietly hypnotic. Kieślowski's ambitious tale of duality is told masterfully, and the beautiful Irène Jacob brings such charm and grace to Weronika and Véronique, two young women who, despite being complete strangers living far away from each other, share an indescribable spiritual bond.
This remains the single most life-affirming movie I have ever seen, but one of the most gut-wrenching and darkly funny too. Underneath the gimmick premise of a 20 year-old kid falling in love with a 79 year-old lady is the story of how a sad, alienated boy was transformed by a vivacious free spirit. The way Harold's hilarious "suicides" are offset by Cat Stevens' hopeful songs like "Don't Be Shy" and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" further add to this film's enormous affability.
It's ironic how as I've drifted further from a Catholic upbringing towards atheism I've become drawn more and more towards Scorsese's film about the life of Christ, filtered through the imagination of Nikos Kazantzakis. It's one of the greatest stories imagined in human history, and the way Scorsese portrays the characters - having the actors speak in their normal accents was an inspired idea - and brings Kazantzakis's smart and apt coda to life remains a daring and intensely personal statement. I'd even call this his greatest achievement on film.
David Thewlis's Johnny is a character that sticks with you. Angry, misanthropic, incredibly well-read, and masking crippling self-loathing behind an abrasive, confrontational attitude, his grim journey over the course of a few days in London is enthralling as he interacts with other nocturnal denizens. His rant towards Brian the security guard is devastating. "You can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. And humanity is just a cracked egg. And the omelet...stinks."
Is there a movie that has as much fun being pretentious as 'Pierrot le fou' does? Godard's post-modern commentary is countered by such playfulness in the writing, the gorgeous, pop-art colour schemes, and especially the winsome personalities of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina. Especially Karina, she is an absolute wonder in this film. Her ebullient performance of "Jamais je ne t'ai dit que je t'aimerai toujours" in the flat with Belmondo, with a dead gangster in the next room, remains one of my favourite movie moments, ever.
Confession: I hadn't read Raymond Carver until I bought the 'Short Cuts' tie-in book in 1993, six months before I saw Altman's film. Not only was I immediately drawn to Carver's succinct writing style, but Altman was so attuned to Carver's oeuvre that even when he was writing his own little additions to the script he absolutely nailed that tone perfectly, capturing the sadness and wry humour of so many characters. "Here's to lemonade."
If I was to name a #1 in this list, 'Three Colors' would be it. Seeing them for the first time in 1996 was the most profound movie-watching experience of my life. Three beautfully written and photographed films, each inspired by a colour in the French flag - Liberté ('Blue'), Égalité ('White'), Fraternité ('Red') - and featuring incredible performances by Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Kieślowski's greatest muse, Irène Jacob. Each is powerful on its own, but 'Red' ties it all together with its meditation on chance and fate, capped off by a spellbinding final half hour.
This one is my most recent choice, having just seen it this past year, and I was left blindsided. At the beginning a young woman is found dead in a ditch, and for the rest of the film Agnès Varda slowly and compassionately pieces together the events that led to the tragedy. Sandrine Bonnaire bravely portrays Mona, a non-conformist with the courage to set out and live her life on her own terms, only to have the world crush her time and again. An unforgettable character.
One of the funniest movies I have ever seen, featuring one of the greatest male leads ever in Richard E. Grant's Wthnail. A simple premise, in which two slovenly actors head up from London to a cottage in the Lake District, where hijinks ensue, but thanks to Bruce Robinson, so witty and so quotable. This movie has stuck with me so much that when strolling the Cumbrian countryside a couple years ago, I kept wanting to ask the first local I saw, "We've gone on holiday by mistake. Are you the farmer?"