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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.
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.
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!
As a musician (I played bass in punk bands through high school and college, it counts) I absolutely love films that celebrate music and the people who create and perform it. These two films are so very similar in my mind. Both period pieces that perfectly recreate a very fleeting time period in music history with equal parts humor and sadness, shot beautifully by masterful filmmakers, and both launched their relatively unknown leads into stardom.
Alex Cox is a true punk rock filmmaker in rank with Derek Jarman, and all of his films exude both the chaotic energy and humor of punk rock but also the beautiful elegance of a supreme artist. The My Way sequence encapsulates that all at once.
The Coens are true American originals who spin simple yarns into epic poems. I never expected this film to arrive under the wacky C banner but boy does the release beyond do the film justice.
Lubitsch & Sturges are the high priests of the comedy film. There is no one better, wittier, or smarter. Each develop their own worlds within their films full of familiar faces and less than subtle sexual politics that I would gladly give up everything to live in.
I would be remiss if I didn't represent the French New Wave...
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.
And I recently had Anna Karina personally sign my Criterion edition of this film. So that's pretty special.
Day for Night, oddly enough, is seen as an end to the New Wave and was certainly the death nail in the relationship between Godard and Truffaut, but I will never fully understand why that is because it such a joyous film that simply celebrates filmmaking itself. What more could you want?
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.
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.
When I discovered Jean Vigo he split my brain in half and completely rewrote the history of film I had been taught. Watching his (sadly few) films today are a revelation that fill me up with energy enough for five armies to go off and make my own films like him.
And Guy Maddin is living proof that it can be done. That in the digital age you can still make films aesthetically informed by filmmaking of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s and make absolutely beautiful, personal, and relevant art that is just as timeless as Vigo and the films that came before him. Guy Maddin and Jean Vigo are the filmmakers I strive to be every day.
Okay, so that's nine 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 being 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.
I have saved slot number 11 (normally reserved for Spinal Tap) to champion my very favorite Laserdisc titles that have made the leap from 12" to blu, never forgetting that there is still a massively untapped library of films and commentaries only available on Criterion Laserdisc releases.
Other beloved LD titles that haven't made it over:
A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies
Bad Day at Black Rock
Orson Welles' Othello
Arsenic & Old Lace
It's A Wonderful Life
Bram Stoker's Dracula
The Princess Bride
From Russia With Love
Crimes & Misdemeanors
Adventures of Baron Munchausen
A Night at the Opera
Monty Python & the Holy Grail