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Here's a list of my 10 favorite Criterion titles. This isn't a list of the 10 greatest films (in my opinion) released by Criterion, rather, it's a list of the films that I love coming back to the most.
The individual films in Kieslowski's trilogy are great when viewed apart, and form an absolute masterpiece when viewed as a whole. The themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity were simply used as the jumping off points for stories that encompass nothing less than all of life's sadness and beauty. The characters of Blue, White, and Red seek to be alone, only to find their connections to others strengthened. They seek companionship, only to be lost in a foreign land where they can't be understood. They seek understanding in others, only to find reflections of themselves. A different cinematographer is very effectively used for each film, and the music of long-time Kieslowski collaborator Zbigniew Preisner provides a spectacular soundtrack. I can't recommend this trilogy enough.
I feel incredibly fortunate to live in a time when this film is available in such pristine condition. Renoir's The Rules of the Game is the greatest entry in a filmography full of masterworks. A bittersweet comedy, as the more every character tries to reach for their desires, the further they pull away from happiness. For a film that runs under two hours, Rules of the Game contains a staggering amount of layers in its images and narrative, so that a first viewing leaves one in awe, and a second viewing will be too pleasurable to be the last.
In The 400 Blows, Truffaut creates an irresistable character that you cannot help but love. When every figure of authority in Antoine Doinel's life is seemingly out to punish him, and it's constantly made clear to him that he is a troublemaker and a burden, it's not surprising that he chooses to run away from home. During every step of his journey, we wish for him to get a break, and we laugh and cry along with him. It's almost unbelievable that this could be a director's first full-length feature, as this story of a child shows maturity that, to this day, escapes most veteran directors.
My absolute favorite Kurosawa film, Ran is an epic in every sense of the word. A movie that appreciates with every subsequent viewing, Ran is filled to the brim with jealousy, envy, betrayal, revenge - all the hallmarks of an operatic story that keeps you enthralled from start to finish. The camera's position, far away from the action and employing a telephoto lens to zoom in to medium shots, gives the viewer a sense of not missing a single part of the story about a king who loses his kingdom to his sons and to the sins of his past. That Kurosawa shows the weight of that past on the kings shoulders, without employing a single flashback, is a testament to the director's ability to tell a story and to the acting skills of Tatsuya Nakadai.
Ingmar Bergman employs a masterful performance by Gunnar Bjornstrand to tell the story of a priest whose crisis of faith erupts into death and denial. Sven Nykvist captures, to startling effect, the churches wherein tall windows illuminate the austere interiors with enormous beams of blinding light, and stark exteriors with frozen lakes and gently falling snow. This is, in my opinion, Bergman's most beautifully filmed black and white film, even as the priest's simultaneous denial and acknowledgment of God paralyzes him into submission when he cannot save his congregation and cannot leave it for the woman whose love could restore his being.
On the eve of the end of World War II, Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds captures the tragedy of a man whose life is caught between the prospect of a life of continual warfare and one of renewed peace. Zygmund Cybulski is heartbreaking in his portrayal of the man, as he struggles with his perceived responsibility to uphold the freedom of his own country, when he knows that to continue to fight will mean that he will never again be truly free, himself.
In my opinion, My Own Private Idaho is, without a doubt, Gus Van Sant's greatest film. River Phoenix, also in his greatest performance, plays a boy whose life takes him across cities and countries, while, in his heart and in his dreams, he yearns for the home and the mother that he never had. He has narcolepsy, which causes him to have to rely on those around him to care for him; a situation that would seemingly grow more complicated for him when he loses his best friend to adulthood.
Jean-Pierre Melville's late-career masterpiece captures the madness of the Great War, as it was fought by the French Resistance. Moving from safehouse to safehouse, constantly fighting only to not be discovered, the individuals of the Resistance continue to struggle, knowing that their only victory could be that they did not betray the French cause. Shot in blues and grey-greens, with characters that wear the trench coats and fedoras that would soon belong to the French gangsters that Melville portrayed in his other great films, Army of Shadows bleakly captures a secret world that Melville himself had once lived in.
Like many of the other films on this list, Solaris cannot be fully appreciated without a second, or even a third, viewing. A dense, deep film that runs nearly three hours, Solaris takes place on an alien world that is populated by the memories of its characters. Such a film seems to fit perfectly into Tarkovsky's milieu, a body of work that also includes Ivan's Childhood, which took place in the title character's dreams nearly as much as it did in the desolate, war-torn "real" world. With beautiful camera work, extended lengths of silence, long takes, and a meditative pace, this film is not for everyone, but will greatly reward the patient viewer.
Roman Polanski's debut feature takes place on a lake, has only three characters, and says more about relationships, fear, jealousy, and hatred born from competition than most movies can with cast of dozens. Brilliantly shot and edited, with takes that reflected its jazzy soundtrack, Knife in the Water is one of the greatest film debuts of all time.