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This is a list of what would be my top 10 Criterion films, but like a lot of other like-minded Criterionites, it's more than just 10 films with the selections emphasizing an overall theme or director.
My Criterion Wishlist:
American Hot Wax, Mississippi Burning, The Parallax View, The Triplets of Belleville, Freaks, High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank, Escape From Alcatraz, The Last Detail, Sneakers, Downfall, The Stepford Wives ('72 Version), Heist, The Insider, John Woo's Better Tomorrow Series, Ghost World, The Usual Suspects, State and Main, What Dreams May Come, Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam
One of my all time favorite films and my first introduction to Charles Chaplin. I first discovered this as a $1.99 VHS out of the KMart bargain bin from my hometown when I was 7. I remembered sitting down to dinner (which wasn't made of boiled leather shoe) and watching those legendary scenes: the shoe dinner, the dance of the dinner rolls and the cabin teetering on the brink of destruction by cliff (which in itself, gets the heart racing). Chaplin is, and always will be one of my heroes. This goes for all Chaplin films here on out too.
One of the greatest films of all time, bar none. One of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, bar none. One of Charle Chaplin's greatest films of all time, bar none. I could go on and on and on and on about how much I love "City Lights", but simply put, it's one of the best films I've ever seen. It's funny, it's poetic, it's sweet. It's a movie where everyone can find something they like. Whether it be the opening introductory of Chaplin's sweet but naive Little Tramp getting caught up on the unveiling of a city landmark to that legendary boxing scene. There's such a sweetness to this movie that's instantly likable. It's the Little Tramp's determination to restore a woman's eyesight that he goes to such extraordinary lengths. Plus that f**king ending makes me cry every time. My eyes are starting to water as I write this.
In his first full length feature, Chaplin was willing to hedge his bets on making a film exclusively starring a comic actor. The results paid off exquisitely as Chaplin plays the Little Tramp, raising an orphan (Jackie Coogan) in the slums when unlikely events threaten that relationship. At a brisk 60 minutes or so, Chaplin raises the stakes dramatically. For me, it reimagined the Little Tramp not just as a comical buffoon but a human being deserving of happiness. However, the comedy is not forgotten and in one of the film's more delightful moments, watch the Tramp & the Kid scam homeowners with a window breaking ruse that backfires on them hilariously.
Chaplin was a gutsy filmmaker to make a movie during such a politically sensitive time, by lampooning the Third Reich in a way that was still funny but also remarkably intense with such a strong message that he delivers in the film's unforgettable climactic speech. The scene with the globe has so many interpretive layers to it, that you'll find yourself constantly peeling away at it. For me, the scene where Hynkel and Napaloni constantly one up each other is comic hilarity. I also love that sequence where Chaplin's barber is whacked on the head and halfheartedly dances down the street in a happy daze.
Chaplin's technical prowess and comical choreography is most evident here, and it's his most fully realized work as an examination of the institution and the little man. The institution being the heartless corporation where Chaplin's factory worker is both literally and figuratively a cog in the wheel. That sequence where he experiences a full mental breakdown is brilliantly staged and I love when he performs before the restaurant. It's fitting that this is Chaplin's last official appearance of the Little Tramp, that genial character who experiences a situation and upon it's ending, moves on with his life a little wiser and a little more humble. Only this time, he gets a female companion in sweet outlaw Paulette Goddard as they walk off into the sunset.
I'm a big fan of Wes Anderson and will consider this his most definitive work, constantly following his themes of familial dysfunction that we've seen in much of his work before and after with shades of Hal Ashby thrown in. Anderson is a man who mines the humor out of melancholy with a dry wit, but also a hell of a kickin' soundtrack to boot. I can't think of a film he's made, that hasn't had appropriate mood music to his films. Plus what a cast. You can't beat that sequence where he corrupts his grandsons for the better, to the tune of Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard". Plus that ironic exchange where Royal (Hackman) tells his grandsons how he ended up in the hospital is hilarious. Gene Hackman has never made a scoundrel so likable. Dare I suggest that it might be the swan song of Hackman's already legendary career?
Rushmore is brilliant because it's the only kind of film that could be made independently by Wes Anderson. If a film like this, were made through the Hollywood dream factory, it'd be continually rewritten, straight to DVD crap where every creative decision was done by committee, in order to satisfy a teen demographic. Anderson goes a completely different route by going for an untraditional coming of age film via a complicated love triangle between an precocious prep schooler (Jason Schwartzman), a widowed teacher (Olivia Williams) and a blatantly unhappy millionaire (Bill Murray). This is the movie where Bill Murray reinvents himself as an actor, going from that Bill Murray-esque character we all know and love as a cinematic smartass, to an indie film staple who's consistently full of surprises. This is the ultimate coming of age movie.
I remembered catching this with a girlfriend at the time and loved this film. Initially we were going to see a Steve Carell film called "Dan in Real Life" when she made it clear that she wanted to see this film. Boy am I glad that she picked this one. It's very much an Anderson film, containing all his directorial trademarks about family dysfunction and a rockin' soundtrack, but the only glaring difference is it takes place throughout the countryside of India. Every character is often a fictional surrogate to Anderson, much like Owen Wilson here. I particularly love the use of the Kinks' music bookending the film.
Not a lot of other people like Bottle Rocket, but it's not a movie that's easy to love. It's a movie that really put Anderson on the map: the sense of adventure, a permanent underdog so passionately naive about their cause (co-screenwriter Owen Wilson) and an unlikely setting, which is the wide open spaces of Texas. I love that the main characters, lead by Dignan (Wilson) are almost childlike adults.
I'll be first to admit that I didn't think much of Life Aquatic at first. But it's not a film that's easy to want to like at first. But it's Anderson going slightly beyond his comfort zone by adding some action and some intrigue but also his sense of humor. Bill Murray undoubtedly is the man's muse. Plus Murray kicking ass against the pirates on his boat: amazing stuff.
For the gangster & crime theme, I went with this pair of 70's era dramas. I have a couple things in common with George Higgins, writer of the book upon which this film is based. We were both born on the south shore of Massachusetts and both raised in Rockland, Massachusetts. But Higgins and I also seem to be aware of the soul crushing despair of a New England winter. Peter Yates brilliantly manipulates that into the underrated "The Friends of Eddie Coyle", a total antidote to "The Godfather" and a movie that clearly inspired later Oscar-worthy Boston-set crime films like "The Departed" and "The Town" by decades. Watching both Boston and the South Shore in stark 70's day and night on film, is nostalgic, despite the grim subject matter of loyalty versus survival. Robert Mitchum, after many years as a well known cinematic tough guy, is wise casting here by not being the "star" of the film, but a true ensemble player who nails down the part of a tragic man surviving on the fringes of the criminal underworld. Mitchum is committed to the part: the way his hairstyle appears as if he just rolled out of bed, the way he lugs around the picture to his Boston accent when he talks about how some guys are lucky about moving to Florida. Mitchum knew how to play a tragic Bostonian well, and I've known my fair share of people like Eddie. Peter Boyle was one of my favorite actors, and he plays a perfectly subversive bartender here, constantly playing sides to watch out for himself. What makes this film hit all the more for me, is the ending scene at the bowling alley, a place where I spent many a youth playing pool or going bowling.
Continuing on the gangster & crime theme. Of all the Cassavetes films, this is my favorite one. Cassavetes was known as a guy who wanted "life" in his pictures as he displayed in "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Faces" among them. There's no bullshit to a Cassavetes movie because he's going to expose the ugly side to life that many of us escape to the movies to forget. I liked how he tried to apply that principle to a gangster picture, and he does it swimmingly in a film that totally missed the mark with movie audiences who didn't want to understand it. Ben Gazzara is perfect as Cosmo, a "proud" strip club owner who's nothing more than a bullshit posturing, degenerate gambler who gets himself into hot water AGAIN with the mob. Seymour Cassel is also fantastic as a whimpering company man but my particular favorite was Timothy Carey's gangster heavy, another company man with more depth than his own associates, given that he's sympathetic to Cosmo's cause. Plus the sequence where Cosmo is chased down at the house, is incredibly terrifying.
A/V is at the front here. James L. Brooks is known for many things, from films like "Terms of Endearment" and "As Good As It Gets" to producing TV hits like "The Simpsons" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". But "Broadcast News" easily stands out as one of my favorites, turning a camera on the news world of the 80's, but still maintaining all those Brooks trademarks. This film is about the desire for either human relationships or career success, played well from it's leading cast in William Hurt as a newscaster who looks better than he converses and Albert Brooks as a field reporter clamoring for Hurt's job, both men in love with a career-driven producer in Holly Hunter. The scene where they're cutting a segment seconds before it hits the air, truly hits home for me as a guy who works in the industry.
Criterion has seriously nailed down one of the best collections ever. They're preserving television in it's infancy with strong, raw, character-driven pieces of work fueled by an industry in it's early years. I don't think you could get that kind of dynamite talent from it's cast like Paul Newman, Piper Laurie & Rod Steiger among many, many others or the work of directors like John Frankenheimer or the brilliant social commentary in writer Rod Serling, most famously known as the creator of "The Twilight Zone". "The Comedian" is a real standout, with Mickey Rooney's sociopathic, bloodthirsty tyrant of a comedian ever to disgrace the small screen. I love the exchange between Edmond O'Brien's washed up scriptwriter and Rooney's Hogarth, when the scriptwriter finally tells Hogarth that he's the kind of empty monster that he'll always be. Just to see Hogarth, even for just a glimpse of a second, finally realize someone is right about him, is priceless.
I'm a fan of John Travolta but creatively, I think he's always done his best work when he works with interesting directors, and unfortunately, that doesn't happen enough. I think "Blow Out" is a real treat, because Travolta easily blends into De Palma's framework here, as a Hollywood soundman who thinks he recorded a murder. I love the style of this film, and De Palma is such a good craftsman with his shots, that each shot is lovingly crafted and polished. I love that meta-cinematic opening, which could really be De Palma's making a statement on his career choices at that time after coming off a string of bloody, slasher-driven thrillers & horror films like "Phantom of the Paradise", "Sisters", "Carrie" and "Dressed to Kill" by establishing us: the viewer into watching a genre film we only think we're watching before De Palma humorously unveils what's behind the curtain. It's a meta-cinematic joke at it's best. Plus John Lithgow, who has enjoyed a long and varied career, makes vivid work as a quiet, psychotic hitman.
For surrealism, came the following 2 films released one year after the other. When I first heard of the premise of "Being John Malkovich", I thought it was one of the strangest premises I've ever heard for a film. Therefore, I had to see it. To think of John Malkovich, respected Oscar-nominated thespian, to make a film about being inside his head, starring John Cusack, one of my favorite actors, I had to see it. This film came out in a year that entered us into the millennium by upending 1990's film, with non-traditional American cinema like "American Beauty", "The Sixth Sense", "Fight Club" and "Dogma" to count but a few.
My father and I were only two of five people in the theater, and I absolutely loved this film. It's a complete head trip and that's obviously Gilliam's intention, to make the audience feel as if they're experiencing the ongoing head trip that Gonzo & the Doctor experience. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are smartly cast in the go-for-broke roles here. Gilliam didn't so much as understand Thompson's book but fully embrace it with a stream of consciousness narrative that's filtered through Thompson's Gonzo surrogate.
No other way to describe genuinely great drama than this pairing. There's a reason why this film is so damn popular amongst the Top 10 Criterion list. But it's also a damn fine film, with finely tuned performances from Tony Curtis & Burt Lancaster. Curtis as the desperate, tenacious Sidney Falco and Burt Lancaster as the alarmingly calm J.J. Hunsecker. Curtis' character is such a phony that you know he's bad news by how much bullshit he spews, but you can't get any worse than Hunsecker, who would so much as shake your hand as jam a machete into your back and light you on fire. I'd associate Hunsecker with the best of cinematic villains like Norman Bates, Anton Chigurh and Hannibal Lecter. I love how two men, at the height of their careers as leading men, went so against type as genuinely bad people. It was a bold move and practically unprecedented for actors at that time, which only makes me gain more respect for the two of them. From what I understand, people didn't appreciate this film as strongly as they should have. Plus you can't get any better (or worse) than Hunsecker's icy stare with a light smile. It's the sinister tone under that stare. I just love that moment when a two bit publicist snickers at a telephone conversation Hunsecker is having, and all Hunsecker does is simply stare at the man, long after the conversation is over.
Such a good film with such a satisfying ending but a brutal one nonetheless. The idea that one man tries reasoning with a group of savages, only to realize, it's fruitless when all they do is push him around. But when the harassment elevates to a level of relentless wrongdoing, that there's no turning back for either the hoodlums or the wimp when he decides to use brain over brawn. Deeply controversial during it's release, Sam Peckinpah's movie is a classic examination on themes of intellect and masculinity. Hoffman is damn fine in the part as David Sumner, because it's so frustrating to see the man, who can't see the forest through the trees until he finally does. The irony is almost poetic when David, in some strange way, finally realizes his wit is far stronger than the group of hoodlums together. The ending just showcases the real nature of what people do in desperate situations. To watch the dumber-than-dogshit thugs out of their element when they become casualties of David's calculating brilliance, is just genuinely great.
For San Francisco is this trio of 90's era films, all entertaining in their own way. I love this film. I just do. I remembered catching it in theaters to a sold out show, and uncomfortably sat at the front row looking up. But it's such a strong film and it managed to squeeze by in theaters. Unfortunately thrillers this taut, don't get made that often, especially with a film starring Michael Douglas, directed by David Fincher. I guess it was said that Seattle was an alternate location in which to set the film. But Fincher wanted San Francisco (he's from the Bay Area) and preferred the old money feel to San Francisco. Often enough, San Francisco is depicted almost as an Eden-like cinematic postcard that a rare film like "The Game" dares to explore its more lurid side. Notable exceptions being "Sucker Free City", "Zodiac', "48 Hours" and this film. For me, it's the cinematography of this film that I really loved, and that unnervingly creepy sequence where Douglas' character finds himself back in his mansion to the tune of Jefferson Airplane. Scary stuff. But this is a movie in which you think you have things figured out, and then the film throws you off for another loop. All I'll say, is I didn't expect the country of Mexico to suddenly figure into the twisted role play that Douglas' character gets embroiled.
Another San Francisco-set film that I know full well, my fellow Criterionites will stop reading this list as soon as they see this inclusion, setting off a series of verbal barbs questioning my moviegoing tastes, will deflect Criterion's motto of "classic and CONTEMPORARY films" and say "Why don't you just include 'Armageddon' while you're at it?!". But this is my list and I'll cry if I want to. However, I really like this film. It's entertaining, it's got a strong cast and Michael Bay and cinematographer John Schwartzman have never made San Francisco look more like a postcard than here. But not all movies are supposed to make you feel depressed or thoughtful, some should just entertain as "The Rock" sets out to do. Bergman it is not. But what it does have, is a cast headed by Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris with a glittering parade of tried and true character actors like John Spencer, David Morse, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn, Philip Baker Hall and Tony Todd among them. I love that Ed Harris' villain is a lot more complicated than he seems, even if he's about to do a monstrous deed. Plus let's face it, in an era where reboots of superheroes and young adult franchises dominate the multiplex these days, a lot of star-driven, franchise-free actioners are hardly made these days unless there's merchandising or sequel potential involved. Plus the bigger the action movie, the younger the stars look, which is why I like "The Rock" all the more. Arguably, this might be Michael Bay's best-reviewed movie of his career.
Sidenote: I got to meet actor William Forsythe (Dick Tracy, Once Upon a Time in America, Raising Arizona, Boardwalk Empire) at a horror movie convention called Rock and Shock, and played agent Paxton in this movie. I had him sign my Criterion edition of this movie and he was surprised to even know there was an alternate cover to the movie, as he only recalled the movie poster one. He admired the Criterion one quite a bit. He was quite a good guy and the kind of guy that you could get a beer with. Coincidentally Tony Todd (Capt. Darrow) was at the convention too, but I wasn't able to land his autograph.
This is not an easy film to stomach, which seems to celebrate eccentricity as normalcy in the Crumb household. But it's also a great examination of a man's art that's alternately viewed as perverse or brilliant. You get the sense that Crumb just doesn't care, because he's just a man doing what he's doing. People may not agree with it, but what's he care? Terry Zwigoff will always be one of cinema's most unique directors, finding intrigue in the odd (See Ghost World or Louie Bluie) and entrusting an audience to understand it.
Can't go wrong with John Woo's earlier stuff in this pairing. I first caught "Hard Boiled" as part of a double bill at my brother's old apartment in San Francisco. I don't think my jaw has dropped any further than what I saw here. This is an intense film, imagining gunplay as poetry. I don't think John Woo has ever made a strong film as he has in his Hong Kong period, given this film and "The Killer" are two incredible films. Chow Yun-Fat's character is a badass cop personified, and that scene where he slides down the stairs in the tea house is just fantastic. Anthony Wong, always great at playing bad, does not disappoint as a ruthless mobster.
Another incredible actioner from Woo and Yun-Fat. I think this is a marvel of editing and sound, given two particular standout sequences where the mob descends upon Yun-Fat's character's house, or with the failed sniper chase. There's something cruel to be said about this film, given the ironic ending.
For the late great Charles Laughton both in front of and behind the camera but for a trifecta or horror and suspense. One of my all time favorite horror movies and easily one of the least well known. I'm so glad Criterion put out a much needed version of this film. I only wish more people knew about this chiller, which was groundbreaking for it's time with special makeup effects. I love Charles Laughton's performance, because he's not an archetypal mad scientist in Dr. Moreau. He's someone who is so singlemindedly attached to his science that he's just a ruthless asshole. From his introductory scene where Moreau is on a boat and takes in Allen's character, where Moreau comes off as civilized, pragmatic and restrained to later in the film when he's bossy, demanding and sinister. On the surface, he's harmless but underneath, he's anything but. This movie's also an achievement of mood and production design. I love it's cinematography.
Easily the first movie boogeyman. Robert Mitchum makes for an intense performance as a psychotic preacher hellbent on terrorizing two children for money. I loved Lillian Gish, who redefines mother cub as a badass. Sadly, actor Charles Laughton, in his one and only directorial debut, was making a movie that people didn't understand yet. I love the film's shot composition and the music. It's just a really, really great film altogether.
One of the greatest horror films ever made, and yet, one of the most forgotten when people think of horror. This is the only kind of movie that could be made independently at the time. "The Sixth Sense" owes a HUGE debt to this film if you ask me. I loved that the "Saw" writer/director team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell crafted "Insidious" in the same manner during that film's third act, because you knew they were paying tribute to Harvey's one and only feature length film (Wan and Whannell even went further with a more obvious homage in the "Insidious" sequel by showing a clip from the film on a TV set). It's got a hell of an ending (ahead of it's time) but everything that builds up to it, is all the more terrifying.
I couldn't resist this. This is subtle humor at it's finest by trying to mine humor out of all those awkward moments. Christopher Guest and his company are known for inventing the mockumentary, which all started with Rob Reiner's landmark comedy about a fading rock band. Anyone who has seen and appreciates this film, understands it's numbered inclusion.