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For me the criterion collection is an endless source of inspiration, enlightenment and discovery. Here, in no particular order, are 10 titles that changed the way I look at movies forever.
If Lubitsch were still alive, I would yank off his ascot and slap him in the face with it for showboating. Trouble in Paradise is an absolutely seamless comedy and frankly it's depressing. It's too brilliant. It's too sophisticated. It's too perfect. Every line of dialogue sparkles. Every performance shines. The pacing is superb; especially for the period. The tone (elegant yet trashy, romantic yet ironic) is simply inimitable. It is the peak, the apex, the absolute final word on bedroom comedy and it never gets old. As a viewer I adore it. As a filmmaker, I think it's an unconscionable statement of self-congratulation...that I hope to one day replicate in my own way.
It may be a cliche to include Breathless on my list, but watching it makes me giddy every time. Godard has never been one of my favorite filmmakers and yet this movie epitomizes the spirit of experimentation, youth and wonder, that filmmaking is all about. I think Godard probably believed that he could change the world with this film and in a sense he did, since cinema was the world to him and let's get real: movies were never quite the same after Breathless. I love how spontaneous it is. The pacing is so uneven, the tone shifts so abrupt, and yet everything comes together to form a cohesive whole.
I'll confess that I'm a sucker for stories about disenfranchised, curmudgeonly yet lovable old people. This is possibly the ultimate. The film is buoyantly melancholy. Bergman probes the harsh realities of old age with a disarmingly wistful touch, and the first dream sequence blows my mind. It's a risky stylistic gambit that pays off.
Notwithstanding the unbearably campy encounter between Dennis Franz and Nancy Allen, I never get tired of watching this movie. De Palma's painstaking re-working of classic cinematic motifs and penchant for pushing the envelope may not be for all tastes, but Blow Out is arguably his most complete cinematic statement. The dream-like narrative sucks you in, while his bravura technique forces you to ponder the methods of the film itself. Travolta's Jack Terry is the ultimate De Palma protagonist: a voyeur who is forced (like us) to become a participant in a narrative that deliberately draws attention to itself as a work of fiction. The 1 hour interview between Noah Baumbach and De Palma is also fantastic.
After watching this film, I quickly went out and watched all of Melville's other crime pictures. This one is still the coolest of the bunch. Who could resist this understated, modish existentialist 60's French/Japanese/American crime mash-up? Every time I climb into my car in the rain, I remember Alain Delon with that ridiculously large key ring. His performance is almost absurdly stoic, but it works. He was the ultimate Melville leading man and this was their best picture together.
Bunuel at the peak of his power. Deneuve is radiant and he takes her on a surreal journey that has real potency; largely because it is entirely plausible. Disturbing and uncompromising in its subject matter, but somehow the humor comes through. The ending is ambiguous in the best way. Absolutely timeless.
This one is also so good that it's depressing. Three people trapped in a sailboat on the open sea. The setting is ingenious. The characters are messy and unpredictable and yet their shifting behavior is entirely logical. Most impressive is Polanski's creative blocking of what are essentially just a string of conversations. The movie always feels like it's in motion. The camera work never grows repetitive and the film is completely cinematic even though the actors are essentially enacting a play.
In 1960, "Psycho" caused a paradigm shift in America that helped convert many of Hitchcock's critics into reluctant admirers. This picture had the reverse effect on Michael Powell, who had been one of the most decorated filmmakers in the United Kingdom: it nearly ruined him. Even today it packs a punch. Carl Boehm is heartbreaking and frightening. The movie wrings provocative drama out of what could have just amounted to an exploitative exercise in shock tactics -- and it has less blood and gore than Psycho.
I discovered Eric Rohmer through the Criterion Collection and this is the one I keep returning to. There's something incredibly fresh about the milieu of the story and the chemistry between the actors. I can't believe how long some of the scenes run and yet manage to hold attention. Although the central characters spend most of the film debating philosophical questions about the nature of human interaction and purpose, it never feels didactic. It's simple and unsentimental, but somehow a warmth and humanity comes through. One of the great movies about how we relate to one another.
If only there was someone like Jacques Tati who was willing to push the comedic envelope this far today. I think Terry Jones said that "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" made him realize that comedy could be beautiful. Playtime had the same effect on me. Tati's ambition is so huge it borders on megalomania. The movie is hilarious, but also highly conceptual and it forces you to think about the things you are laughing at. Tati forgoes plot and character identification for a style that places every precisely timed and meticulously choreographed moment under a comedic microscope in jaw-dropping 70 mm. The ending reframes the movie's bleak view of modernization and brazenly suggests that humanity will still prevail. It's a one of a kind experience.