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I started buying Criterion films after renting various ones from a video store near my house that had a Criterion wall. I've never looked back since then. Here are 10 films that either sold me on the Collection, make me love the Criterion collection, or I'm glad Criterion released them to a wider audience.
This is easily my favorite film of all time and I'm glad there's a Criterion disc for it. It's a brilliant film that works on any number of levels; sci-fi flim, satire, action film, revenge etc. A movie like this shouldn't be this well executed. It should be a movie that's a direct to video goof off. Yet director Paul Verhoeven injects this film with as much humanity as he does tar black humor. That's what sticks with me is Murphy's quest to regain his humanity. .Everytime I watch this movie it gets better and better. The movie feels as timely now as it did then if some of the allusions and metaphors don't have the same punch . Still the rest of it is thanks to Verhoeven's direction and a cast of great character actors that clearly are having a great time making this film. There have been plenty of imitators but nothing that has come close to the original.
When I was preparing my classes to teach comics, one of the ground rules I wanted to make was not to use films to teach storytelling techniques. Then a week after making that rule, I saw The Wages of Fear for the first time. Clouzot's film is a masterclass in storytelling. The story of men transporting nitroglycerin is all about the build up. The first half of the film is spent showing the drivers and the lives they have and why 4 men would be take on the suicidal job of transporting nitroglycerin over hundreds of miles to put out a massive oil field fire. The second half of the film is all about the drive. The road is dangerous and their eventual destination is up a mountain. They can only go so fast or they'll cause the dynamite to explode. No film has ever exemplified Hitchcock's theory that a film is scarier when you see the bomb. Every minute is a grip your seat while these men try to get the nitroglycerin up that mountain. It's an incredibly well told story that anyone who wants to tell stories needs to watch at least once.
One of the great things about the Criterion Collection is buying things blind. You're guaranteed quality films or in some cases films you wonder why no talks about them because they're so brilliant. Shohei Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine is a film like that. Telling the tale of a serial killer's 78 days on the run, Imamura takes what could have been a by the numbers docudrama and turns it into a study of evil. He's aided immeasurably by Ken Ogata whose performance as the charismatic and amoral Iwao Enokizu is one for the ages.
One of the great things about the Criterion Collection is that they have so many great samurai movies. Even better is that they have a wide variety of the genre. It was really difficult coming up with this list and not putting more than one samurai movie on it. It seriously pained me not to include Kurosawa on this list though it's always hard for me to pick one Kurosawa that's my favorite or the samurai films of Masaki Kobayashi. However, I feel The Sword of Doom is easily the best samurai film ever made. Meant as the first film adapting a series of samurai novels, it's almost an anti-Samurai film. The main character kills without remorse and striking all who get in his way. It's brutal and Tatsuya Nakadai gives an amazing, intense performance throughout. There isn't any other samurai film like it.
I should start this off saying that this isn't my favorite Gilliam movie, which would be Time Bandits. However I've heard the term film school in a box used for Criterion films and if ever a DVD was that, it's the 3 disc Criterion set for Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It's amazing how much effort went into the making of this disc set. It goes over the genesis of the film, it's production techniques, and plenty of material detailing the struggle to get the film released. There's one disc where you can watch the version of the film that the studio approved, the "Love Conquers All" cut, and of course, the director approved cut of the film. This was the set that made me really appreciate the Criterion Collection and what it did. I would be lying if I didn't admit that I spent days going over every single one of the extras in this set. That's one of the things I love about Criterion releases; the wealth of material and presentation that make one want to watch everything on a release.
Years ago when I was youngster and I wanted to make movies, my parents gave me a film guide of movies to see that I looked through almost every day after I got it. One of the movies in the guide was titled Vampyr and had this photo of a man looking terrified while holding a candelabra. For years, I wanted to see the movie where this still originated. Thankfully, Criterion released a magnificent version of this film with great supplemental materials. This is easily my favorite vampire movie of all. There's something absolutely ancient feeling to this film. The terms that describe the atmosphere of the film best are "old world" and "dreamlike". There's a logic and surrealism to the film that make it seem like it's straight out of a dream. This film feels like a legend that came straight out of Eastern Europe. Also the scene where the main character witnesses his own funeral is one of the most terrifying things committed to film.
This is the first Godard film I saw and it's possibly my favorite of the French New Wave films I've seen (which admittedly isn't a lot). What I love about this film is that it's an absolute joy of a movie to watch. It's whimsical, it's funny, and there isn't a moment I hate. It's a movie about being young and wanting to be free. Who wants to go to class when you can be breaking the world record for running through the Louve? It made me fall in love with Paris and I hope that I get to visit the city some day. Actually I should state that Goddard's movies in general make me want to go to Paris.
It's amazing how almost 50 years after its release this film still retains it ability to be terrifying. No one makes psychological thrillers like this. Sure there have been copycats but nothing quite tops Polanski's ability to ratchet up the suspense or attention to detail. Rarely does a character's interior life reflect their physical reality but it happens in this film. Everything in this film from the sets to the cinematography is designed to be as fractured as Catherine Denueve's psyche.
Every time I see this movie, I fall in love with it more. If I ever met someone from another country who wanted to know what America is, I would pop in this movie. It's this perfect love letter to the mystique of American culture. Whenever I watch it, I'm always struck by how hip it is but never tries to be. It's filled with actual characters, the kind of people you could see on the street but might not ever interact with if you saw them. They talk like people you know but they live more interesting lives than you do. The interactions between Cinque Lee and the legendary Screamin' Jay Hawkins are simply classic. They're funny. They're knowing. They're the kinds of things that people say to each other at 2 in the morning. The dialogue between Steve Buscemi, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles involving the characters on Lost in Space is the kind of thing I know I've done with my friends. Every time I see it, I just want to go on a road trip and explore the mystery that's America.
One of the great things about the Criterion Collection is their dedication to cult films. I'm not talking about well known ones like Spinal Tap or Carnival of Souls, though both are Criterion discs. I am talking about the bizarre out of left field ones like Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the film that I've put on my list, House. House is a film that words only fail to really describe. I've taken to calling it a Scooby Doo episode from Mars but even that doesn't do it justice. It's weird watching this film and thinking how if anyone else but Obayashi had made it, no one would have made it this purposely strange. I know that I keep talking about how bizarre this movie but that's the reason I love it. One of the reasons you watch a movie is the experience of seeing it and House provides one. This movie provides hours of debate and my friends and I still talk about it even though it's months since we saw it in a theater. If anything, that's what I love most about the Criterion Collection exposing you to movies that you may not have given the time of day or even known existed about previously.