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I have been collecting criterion films for the last five years. The same summer I got into Criterion (I bought Slacker and Short Cuts) was also the summer my life transformed (I got into much better physical and social shape), so movies, especially those under the "big C", hold a special place in my heart. Here are my top ten in the collection, and all are among my favorites of all time.
Before the summer of 2007, my favorite movie was Taxi Driver. I identified with the lonely, alienated protagonist, who, as one critic described, "seemed to speak a language only known to him." The achingly melancholy score and Paul Schrader's blatantly bleak script spoke wonders. That fateful summer, which I mostly spent walking up a storm by myself, I happened upon Paris, Texas. An intensely beautiful film about loss, sacrifice, family, and of course, alienation, like Taxi Driver, it is truly pure cinema: stunning cinematography, unforgettable music, and brilliantly written, acted, and directed. Unlike Scorsese's film, Wenders' and Sam Shepherd's vision has a glimmer of hope. The hope inspired me to become the social being I am today.
It clearly shows how optimistic I have grown over the past five years that my favorite movie went from Taxi Driver to Paris, Texas, to finally Wings of Desire. Wenders' masterpiece is in my opinion the most beautiful movie ever made, a lushly filmed black& white and color hybrid that is one of the most romantic, humane, universal, eloquent, and life-affirming films of all time. It also has a plot conceit simple and contrived enough to beget a dreadful romantic comedy starring Nic Cage and Meg Ryan. But please, see the original, and learn to read the subtitles. It isn't so bad once you start.
This magnificent intimate epic is probably one of the most obscure films to have as a favorite movie, but the story is anything but obscure and hard to relate to. In fact, the characters and universal situations are so timeless and authentic I think Yang was better off calling his film Life Itself. You have not truly lived if you have not seen this film.
There are so many movies about childhood, so many movies about children during times of poverty and war, so many about children encountering spirits and in thrall with films. Yet this film, despite covering all these bases, feels utterly unique, and above all shows the all-encompassing obsessions that haunt people of all ages. The enigmatic Erice has an elliptical style (similar to Terrence Malick) which implies and visualizes much more than it spells out, and it at times feels like a silent film, and therefore could not work as anything but cinema. Featuring Ana Torrent with possibly the greatest lead performance by a child, only equaled by her performance in Cria Cuervos.
This mysterious and endlessly watchable film would make a great double bill with my previous choice. Featuring one of the most idiosyncratic voiceovers (by the king of idiosyncratic voiceovers) and arguably the most arresting cinematography in the history of American film, it is also, in its spare, vague, romantic fashion, a great American novella about the destruction of land by men and the ugliness of human nature contrasted with the beauty of mother nature.
Ozu, despite having been dead for over 50 years, and who spent his life in a country I have never visited, at times seems like a great friend. Instead of presenting melodramatic, contrived situations at fast paces and with little time to just observe, Ozu seems to show you people just like you: flawed, not always true to themselves or the ones they love, but with glimmers of humanity, which sometimes show up when you least expect it. Tokyo Story is perhaps his darkest and most dramatic film, but also the most affecting and direct. Its length and deliberate style make it a difficult, but immensely rewarding, watch.
Forget Lord of Rings, Star Wars, or Toy Story. In my opinion the cinematic trilogy that towers above all else is Kieslowski's magnificent swan song. Each film is its own individual story, each representing the colors of the French flag, yet have enough linkages and thematic similarities to be companion pieces. Each film is haunting, humane, beautiful, re-watchable, and even at times funny. They truly make you feel elated to be alive.
Unfortunately this is the only film of the late master Ray to be in the collection. Still, it's as good a choice as any. A universal human story, with epic scope and depth of emotion despite its brief running time and narrow focus, it features one of the most strangely sympathetic protagonists of all time, and one of the most ingenious integrations of music and cinema. A masterpiece.
Are these the most literary films of all time, or the most cinematic novellas? Either way, these six films, four of them full length, represent the French New Wave at once at its most talky and most cinematic, at once at its most formalist and subtly radical, at its most chaste and yet most erotic. They could not have been made by anyone else.
Is this Bergman's best film? No. But despite the painful emotions, the graphic violence, the relentless bleakness, it's my favorite (after Persona, sadly not in the collection.) Intimate and engrossing, it is perhaps the best portrait of death in cinema, and one of the best portrayals of family. Brilliant, and strangely beautiful.
I really do not think Slacker is a better film than dozens of Criterions in my collection, but as my first, and in its own right an influential, endlessly quotable, and singular film, it needs to be in my top 10. In a way, this is Linklater's Eraserhead; he got more narratively dense, more accessible, more eclectic, and at times much, much more mainstream, but he never equaled this film for sheer uniqueness and bold artistry.