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Films that defined my life and shaped how I create.
If it wasn't for this film this list wouldn't exist. I probably wouldn't have seen half the films on this list if it wasn't for this film.
This joyous exploration of family, love, genius, and 70s rock music caught me at a prime age and was the very first Criterion disc that I ever owned. After catching the Criterion logos across this film, The Life Aquatic, and Chasing Amy, I went off and did as much research as I could into the Collection. Through that I discovered Godard, Bunuel, Costa-Gavras, Cocteau, Suzuki, Tati, DePalma, Lang, Sturges, Lubitsch, Cronenberg, and all the hundreds of filmmakers and artists who all gradually transformed me into the person I am today. This was my gateway film and because of it I'm where I am now and could not be happier. Thank you Wes and everyone at Criterion for laying out the breadcrumbs for me to follow.
I saw this freshman year of high school, at around 11 o'clock at night, and by the time the credits rolled I was within inches of a heart attack. At first the action of the story had me gripped, and then I began connecting personally to Gavras' political representations and then suddenly not only did it pay off exactly how I wanted but also how that little cynical voice inside my head knew it would have to end. A masterclass in music and editing. The pacing is relentless in a way that is pure entertainment. Many cheap political thrillers will advertise as "gripping, edge of your seat action"/"heart pounding!". Z doesn't make such promises yet beats them all at the game it started over fifty years ago.
Once in a blue moon there's a song or piece of art or maybe a meal that just seems to be so perfectly calibrated and tuned to you and your personal wavelength that it kind of takes you aback at first. Somehow there is just that rare perfect storm, gem of a film or novel or album that's been hiding in broad day light and by the time you find it and experience the power that it has to offer, you immediately begin cursing yourself for letting it evade you for so long. I lived seventeen years without The Fisher King in my life and that's way too long.
Luis Bunuel is the most inspirational director I've ever come upon.The final chapters in his "Truth Trilogy" (which started with "The Milky Way"), these films find Bunuel (and his wonderful co-writer Jean-Claude Carrier) at a fever pitch of creativity, running together dreams of ostriches, S&M, murderous priests, espionage, stage fright, naughty pictures, wild animals, and dinner parties set upon toilet bowls where you dash off halfway through to sneak a quick meal in a little room down the hall. Two of the last films he ever made and at that point there was nothing holding the man back. The best examples of surrealism on celluloid.
Walker was a blind buy, and the best that I've ever come upon. But coming from Alex Cox, I don't know why I would expect anything less. Very few films have as much re-watchability for me. Strummer's score is hypnotic, Harris is fucking insane, and Cox and Wurlitzer have one hell of a good time poking fun at our political choices in the 1980s. After seeing it three or four times, something suddenly just struck a perfect chord for me and by the time the village was burning down to Strummer's 'Brooding Six', I was just completely overtaken by the entire film in a way I've never been before or since. It was really a magical moment. As relevant today as it was in 1987.
In my mind this is the greatest film ever made. Well, tied with "Ghostbusters" at least (another lost Criterion film as a matter of fact...) It was just a miracle that it even turned out the way it did, everyone involved was at their highest and a lot of improvisation from Reed to Welles went a long way in crafting one of the best films ever made. I mean, Reed just found composer Anton Karas playing his zither in a restaurant and next thing you know you have one of the greatest scores (and opening title sequences) ever. The "cat-got-your-tongue" scene (not to give anything away) always has me grinning from ear to ear every time at the reveal. Pure magic!
Okay, here it comes, Alfred Hitchcock is the greatest filmmaker of all time. There I've said. And these two films are all the evidence I need of that. His first two American films, both made in 1940, wildly different material and tone to each, yet done in distinctively Hitchcockian fashion, and both ended up being up for Best Picture (Rebecca won). No one has ever been as consistently prolific, iconic, and influential as Hitch, and no one else will be.
After recently seeing this screened in 35mm at a small theatre in Chicago my love affair with Pierrot le fou has never been as strong. Godard gone lose. Never before have I seen so much color, so much comedic violence, so much political satire. So free a filmmaker. This movie pops in every frame and you can just see in every moment, Godard's boyish grin from behind those dark sun glasses. He's like a kid in a candy store tossing Belmondo and Karina around like rag dolls in his technicolor circus, and you just can't help but love every second. So wild. So crazy. This is what I always imagined when I thought of the French New Wave.
What Gus van Sant has done here is truly a miracle. For 1991, the audacity, the shots, the imagery, the practical effects, the subject matter, the adaptation (Shakespeare's Henry IV & V by way of Welles by way of Van Sant) and the ensemble cast with everyone from Udo Keir to Flea. Not only did he film an entire barn falling from the sky (to symbolize an orgasm...) but he got a brilliant performance out of Keanu Reeves. This movie was just a huge revelation for me, emotionally as well as cinematically. And it will always stand as my favorite Shakespeare film.
I have an enormous love for films from the 30s and 40s. There is just a certain style that is only perceptible in that era that is so captivating and beautiful, whether it be in a Sturges comedy, a Korda romance, or dark thriller. Lang' s Mabuse follow up was one of the very first films to begin to capitalize on this style born out of the infantile sound age and captures the entire era to a tee. Yet there's moments so thrilling, images so horrifying, that unlike other films like M or Spies, there is a great feeling of timelessness to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. It seems to both capture a world that followed in its wake and stand completely on its own, despite being a sequel. This might owe a large part to the fact that this film was banned and heavily truncated across the world for decades and so the true, eerie, brain-exposed face of Mabuse has not been fully exposed to the world. Which only makes this very strange film all the more odd and unsettling.
Okay, so that's ten Criterion picks from adult me, but it's time to give 7-year old me the reigns for a moment...
As a kid my mom would entertain my brother and I through the summer with regular trips to the library and rent a new VHS tape each week. We blew through Mel Brooks, the Muppets, the Marx Bros, the Universal Monsters, Abbott and Costello and a strong helping of the Three Stooges by the time I was in second grade but I recall be exceptionally excited one day when we picked up this film. I knew nothing about it but my mom kept buzzing about the cast and how she hadn't seen it since she saw it on cable as a child herself. I remember just reading and rereading the list of names on the back over and over again trying to pick up on who I knew and who I could keep an eye out for. Within that one week we had it from the library I must have watched it at least three times, once with my mom and brother and twice on my own (and it's NOT a short movie!). It was just the greatest thing I had ever seen. For my thirteenth birthday my uncle bought me a copy of it on DVD which really helped get me through middle school. But it wasn't until freshman year that I got into Cinemassacre/AVGN that through James Rolfe's own love for the movie did I learn of its extended and lost road show version which I then spent years attempting to track down. As soon as Criterion announced their edition of the film I sent my mom the link in mutual celebration, parading the new 197 minute cut and just a few months later it was on our doorstep first thing. Needless to say I've watched it countless times since and have gone through all the supplements at least twice. I also own the 188 minute Laserdisc and dual VHS as well as the original soundtrack record. It's simply a glorious film. High art? No, but a cinematic triumph and important piece of film history no doubt. It's the kind of movie that can just put a smile on my face, cheer me up when I'm in a bad mood, get me through writing a term paper, or help me survive the worst illness. It's at the top of a shortlist of "Feel Good" movies for me that features the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Young Frankenstein and I would definitely put it very high on a list of the greatest comedies of all time without question. It always irritates me to see this film faced with derision and I honestly didn't even know this film had detractors until it's Criterion release. But none the less it's the gayest of romps and received what I can quite clearly call the definitive Criterion treatment. Not only is the film preserved beautifully in 4k on bluray, but it also features a hugely important restoration of what was very nearly considered a lost extended version of the film (the definitive if you ask me), has a strong commentary track, a never ending wealth of supplements and brand new artwork to boot.