Top 10 Criterion Titles

by John Hunter McClung

Created 08/24/17

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  • A knight (played by Max von Sydow) begins to return home from a decade of battle in the Crusades only to encounter Death on a remote beach, where they begin a game of chess that will continue in various locations and will end with a group of seven characters participating in the dance of death. With The Seventh Seal, Bergman asks questions of life, death, salvation, and damnation while never forgetting to entertain the audience. Moving seamlessly from one great scene to another, the film contains as much humor as it does heavy themes. Its ultimate message is one of fellowship in the face of uncertainty.

  • The Coen brothers’ tribute to the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene stars Oscar Isaac as the title character, a struggling musician loosely based on Dave Van Ronk. As we follow Llewyn Davis through a week of his life, it becomes clear that much is happening yet little is changing. Featuring a fine folk soundtrack that takes us to “another day, another time,” the film is also an artistic work of symbolism perfectly complemented by gloomy cinematography.

  • Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara star, respectively, as a widowed father and his grown daughter, an only-child, in this beautifully bittersweet tale of arranged marriage in post-WWII Japan. Their close relationship is at the heart of Late Spring, which is one of the saddest films about finding happiness ever made.

  • Director Francois Truffaut once referred to Alain Resnais’s short-subject Holocaust documentary Night and Fog as both “the greatest film ever made” and “the most noble and necessary film ever made”. In 1955, Resnais commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Nazi concentration camps’ liberation by filming the abandoned grounds of Auschwitz and Majdanek. By contrasting this color footage with grainy black-and-white archival footage shot by S.S. officers and Allied liberators, Resnais contemplates our collective memory of the Holocaust ten years after the fact. His ultimate observation is one of the cyclical nature of human violence as he implies that history could repeat itself in the absence of education: “we turn a blind eye to what surrounds us and a deaf ear to humanity’s never-ending cry”. While there are words of warning and a plea for humanity to be found in Night and Fog, perhaps the film’s most admirable quality is the level of near-objectivity that its subject matter is approached with. The possibility of true human objectivity may be debated and the documentary genre may create a fine line between reality and its representation, but Night and Fog is honorable as a war film for not dramatizing or sensationalizing the horrors of the Holocaust. Rather than make war into entertainment, Resnais made a film that is thought-provoking instead of action-packed, presenting more questions than answers. This is perhaps best exemplified by the sequence of Nazi officers testifying in court that they are not responsible followed by a photograph of a Holocaust victim with a puzzled look on his face as the narrator asks “who is responsible?”.

  • In 1940 Spain, a misunderstood six-year-old girl sees the movie Frankenstein and is forever changed by it. Perhaps the most eerily atmospheric film ever made, The Spirit of the Beehive is a slow-paced masterpiece that both fully understands the deeper meaning behind a horror classic and richly rewards patient viewers with one of the best endings in all of cinema.

  • Less than half an hour long yet highly influential, this 1960s French sci-fi film is a tale of time travel told entirely in still images. In the aftermath of the third world war, a man is selected to be the subject of an experiment that will send him to both the past and the future in order to obtain aid for the present. What he finds instead is a woman he loves but who he cannot spend time with. Rather than use the time travel genre as a clichéd vehicle for escapism, director Chris Marker presents a wholly unique film in which time itself is a metaphor for the barriers between people who want to love each other.

  • This Academy Award-winning example of Italian neorealism tells the heartbreakingly simple story of a man’s search for his stolen bicycle as he struggles to support his impoverished family in post-WWII Rome. Perhaps the saddest film ever made, Bicycle Thieves is also a beautifully photographed work of art that ultimately values human relationships over material possessions.

  • This French New Wave classic stars Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel, the cinematic counterpart of director Francois Truffaut, who based this first chapter in The Adventures of Antoine Doinel on his own rough childhood. What could have easily been a drama about neglected youth feels more like a comedy about mischievous children, although The 400 Blows (whose title is a rough translation of a French idiom meaning “to raise hell”) does not fit easily into any one category.

  • Starring Peter Sellers in three different roles (including Strangelove himself), Kubrick’s Cold War comedy turns our greatest fears of nuclear annihilation into a ridiculously hilarious reminder to find the humor in any situation, despite anxiety (hence the phrase “stop worrying and love the bomb”). Featuring both classic quotes (such as “no fighting in the war room!”) and silly situations (such as an RAF captain ordering a soldier to shoot open a Coca-Cola machine in order to have enough change to call the U.S. president from a pay-phone), the film even manages to parody public distrust of science by reimagining fluoridation of water as a Communist plot.

  • Both hilarious and sensitive in its approach to matters of sexuality and race, this work of social realism from the British New Wave follows a loveably awkward teenager (played by Rita Tushingham in her debut role) as she befriends a young gay man who helps her deal with her pregnancy following her brief romance with a black sailor. Few films can hope to identify with social outcasts as honestly and humanely as A Taste of Honey, a film which hints at the idea that the individual search for personal identity and the collective struggle for social justice are often connected.

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