Three Colors: White
I saw Blue for the first time when I was in film school. I checked out a VHS tape from the library and watched it on a twelve-inch TV/VCR. The movie finished and I sat staring at the dark screen while the tape auto-rewound. When it reached the beginning, I pressed “Play” and watched it a second time. When it stopped the second time, I turned everything off, went to bed, and stared at the ceiling. A week or so later, I finished the trilogy and thought, If these are called movies, we need a new name for everything else.
I’ve never seen music sewn through film so deeply, as if the actors were thinking the soundtrack while they were acting. However he did it, Kieślowski caught the chaos of being human without the mania (for instance, the elderly woman carefully disposing of recyclables). His films are life-affirming for the jaded—they are the smartest and sexiest of unintentionally philosophical films, never talking down or forgetting to entertain. And the ending of Red—well, isn’t that the ending of everything?
A Christmas Tale
I sat next to someone called Arnaud Desplechin at a dinner once in Paris. At home a week later, I saw a movie called A Christmas Tale. It was jaw-dropping, immediately one of the best films I’d ever seen. I got up from the couch thinking, Who in God’s name directed this thing? At the TV, I flipped over the DVD case and shrieked. I’d been sitting right next to him and hadn’t said a thing. I was distraught—like someone who decides not to buy an eight-dollar painting at a thrift shop only to find out later that it was a Picasso.
Surely A Christmas Tale is built on one of our sturdiest clichés, that of a dysfunctional family reuniting for the holidays. But that’s where everything you’ve ever seen before ends. There’s not a filmic technique that isn’t employed to its fullest, no trick Desplechin is afraid to pull. Every beat is specific, there’s not a written false note, and it has some of the ballsiest acting on any side of the Atlantic. I only wish I had known all this when I was sitting next to the man. C’est la vie.
The Thin Blue Line
As if Dallas needed another reason to be avoided. One of the scariest movies ever made, this is the story that drained the quirky from the bodies of Errol Morris’s two previous films. With the Rashomon-like changing re-creations, the doomy circularity of Philip Glass’s score, the dead-wrong psychologizing of the Dallas detectives, and some of the greatest dialogue ever not written for film, The Thin Blue Line builds a sense of impending dread better than the clicking incline of a dilapidated roller coaster. It illustrates how comprehensively police can be blinded by the avenging desire of an enraged community. The contrast between personalities is pronounced. Even from prison (for a different crime), David Harris can’t stop smiling. And Randall Dale Adams is incapable of a smile—his eyes wide, still unable to believe this isn’t a dream. But just like Adams’s attorney Edith James says, quoting the judge: “What do you care? He’s only a drifter.”
The Night of the Hunter
My favorite genre: movies that are for children that are not for children at all. (And when Mike Patton, with Fantômas, covered one of its songs on the band’s 2001 album, The Director’s Cut, an even darker veil was pulled over the film.) This film sends me back to summer nights down South, running through the woods long after the dinner bell rang. I’d freeze on the line between our glowing yellow porch light in front and the deeper woods behind. The compact blackness of those deeper woods terrified me, but it hypnotized me more. The Night of the Hunter’s river sequence and the title sequence of To Kill a Mockingbird are the truest portrayals of childhood that have ever been captured on film.
Harlan County USA
This isn’t so much a movie as it is a galvanizing force. So rarely is there such unambiguous demarcation between good and evil, and all the more so in a documentary. There’s so much here that you can’t believe you’re seeing so close: pickup trucks crunching into strikers’ feet away from the camera, billy-club cracks you can hear.
The characters couldn’t be painted with brighter colors, as if they were drawn with Truman Capote’s pen. The baddies are cartoonishly bad: the emotionless Duke Power executives, their burned and disfigured power attorney, and the henchman Basil Collins, more grinning snake than man (greatest villain in film history?).
The hero miners shine, still covered in coal dust. Black and white folks fighting together—if ever a movie could get you up out of your seat cheering on the protagonists . . . And for sure these are country people, but they’re canny too. That they know the danger they face is confirmed when one of the miners’ wives reaches into her ample bosom to pull a pistol out from her brassiere. If this weren’t a documentary, it wouldn’t be believed.
The Silence of the Lambs
Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill, the most comprehensively overlooked performance of the nineties. That he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actor category—Jack Palance won that year for City Slickers (and did push-ups onstage)—is criminal.
Not much can be said about this movie that hasn’t been said already—except perhaps a reminder of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s genius. He and Demme have the actors using the tightest possible eye lines, and in doing so draw the audience into conversations the brutality of which is all the more strengthened by this compositional straightforwardness. And I’ll never forget production designer Kristi Zea’s masterstroke of terror in the design of Buffalo Bill’s torture basement. Amid the moths and carefully positioned mannequins, near the skin suit and Bill’s sewing machine, is a couch with a quilt thrown over the back. The quilt is made of panels, and in each panel is a swastika. It’s a Nazi quilt . . . Enough said.
In the Mood for Love
You feel from the first moments that this movie will make no mistakes. I remember those claustrophobic rented rooms and the host family always laughing and cooking and playing mah-jongg. Compositions are boxed in on the left and right, which ups the energy of each scene, igniting these characters because they’re given so little space.
Wong Kar-wai designs this past world meticulously, then casts it with messy realness and makes it turn . . . Messy realness saves his two leads. Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai float on air. They are as gorgeously put together as any two humans out there, and here give a clinic on the power of performance restraint.
Cinematographer Chris Doyle adores Cheung: captured by his slow motion, her beauty is written into the record books. This is a love story that crawls. Every breath taken by these two characters is counted. You’ve got to get into the masochistic pleasure of dying for something to happen that may not. What does happen? Torrential downpours soaking 1960s Hong Kong, Nat King Cole haunting the background of an incredible score, and a parade of the most gorgeous dresses ever zipped up the back of an actress.
The most visual of all world events was for so long reduced to television coverage. In Tokyo Olympiad, it was finally handled by an artist of the caliber the event deserved. With our one TV channel, the Olympics were a big deal in my house. For two weeks, bedtimes and TV time limits were thrown out the window, and we youngsters rejoiced. But what I saw then on NBC couldn’t prepare me for the radically elevated portrayal Kon Ichikawa achieves. His film offers the Olympic events as the compositional feasts they were, not just a score tally. (Also, the best movie ever to fold laundry to.)
Another imperfect perfect film that came slithering into my late-adolescent consciousness at just the right time. I was a disciple by the end of the opening titles (alone worth the price of admission).
This thing is a bath of Cronenberg’s cold, polite, Torontonian style, and thus makes the story’s insanity that much more insane—the form of the movie pressure-cooking the content. And what better way to dramatically illustrate this repression explosion than a scene wherein Dr. Icy Veins himself, Jeremy Irons, pounces across an operating table in a spasm of drug withdrawal, belly flopping onto his unconscious patient to rip off her mask and suck anesthetic gas.
This is a film featuring twin prescription-drug-addicted gynecologists dressed like Star Wars Imperial Guards who use H. R. Giger–esque, Josef Mengele–level–scary surgical instruments to operate on the “abnormal genitalia” of women they mistake for mutants. Now, if that’s not one for the whole family, well, I don’t know what is! (See Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts for obvious inspiration.)
The Black Stallion
Kelly Reno gives one of the three greatest performances by a kid (next to Anna Paquin in The Piano and Victoire Thivisol in Ponette). Watch him be his own stuntman on an island with no hospital, a production with no net. Kelly Reno is a beast of an actor, and then controls beasts himself. The present crop of abs-obsessed, fake-tough actors should tremble before him. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel shoots this movie effortlessly but still drenches it in beauty.
David Gordon Green
I have to put this one on, if only to celebrate the efforts of a few twenty-four-year-old friends just out of film school, ganging up to turn our college house into a summer camp and haul a Moviecam Super America around the dirt lots of North Carolina, making a movie none of us knew would have any impact on anyone anywhere. I remember how ecstatic we were to find out Criterion was releasing us on video. At such an early time in our careers, that Criterion liked our first film made us feel like we had a place at the table with our heroes. What a way to begin!
Bret Easton Ellis’s Top 10
Bret Easton Ellis sent us his ten favorite Criterion films in alphabetical order, with the caveat that his list “could have been different last week and it might be different next week.”
Caitlin Kuhwald’s Top 10
Caitlin Kuhwald designed the covers for Criterion’s editions of Heaven Can Wait, The Thief of Bagdad, and Amarcord. She lives in Oakland, teaches illustration at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and is a full-time freelance illu…
James Schamus’s Top 10
James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columb…
Ana Lily Amirpour’s Top 10
Ana Lily Amirpour is an Iranian-American director, writer, producer, and actor best known for her award-winning debut film, the Persian-language vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014).