The Criterion Collection is the best film library in the world for international pictures and arthouse cinema. We have already discussed movies that should be on Criterion as well as the collection’s most baffling releases. Right now the collection contains over 850 films in its vast catalog. Here are our top ten seminal selections of the lot.
It’s impossible to point to a more influential Japanese film than Seven Samurai. From the assembly of the team of heroes to the final climactic battle, the film is infused with lighthearted humor and compelling drama. Akira Kurosawa’s tale of seven ronin (unemployed samurai) defending a poor village from bandits is often imitated and will never be equaled.
The film shows off masterful pacing for a three and a half hour story. Perhaps it works so well because the narrative fits into a three-act structure, with a prologue and an epilogue to bookend the main plot. It also doesn’t hurt that a cast of memorable characters propel the story forward. Takeshi Shimura shines as Kambei, the leader of the ragtag crew, and Tôshiro Mifune delivers a career-defining performance as Kikuchiyo. Even the hapless peasants and vicious bandits deliver, especially as the fighting reaches a climax.
Seven Samurai is ultimately a story of sacrifice and self-determination. In post-war Japan, these characters and the circumstances resonated with the audiences reeling from a complete reconfiguring of the power structure in the war-devastated nation. It is a timeless film that any fan of movies should certainly watch at least once. [Robert Mitchell]
12 Angry Men
Sidney Lumet’s courtroom tale is the most important and riveting legal drama in cinema history. While most stories of this ilk tend to focus on the apprehension of criminals or their prosecution, 12 Angry Men takes a hard look at the people who actually make the most crucial decision in any matter of law: the jury.
What makes 12 Angry Men essential is how it takes a story made for the stage and turns it into something engagingly cinematic. The incredible camera and editing work transforms a setup that hardly ever leaves a single room into a dynamic piece of thrilling filmmaking. It also doesn’t hurt that the cast are all putting in some of the best work of their careers, particularly Henry Fonda as the sole dissenter in the group.
12 Angry Men is not only a vital piece of cinema history; it should be mandatory viewing for anyone with an opinion on the criminal justice system. It stares into a corner of our culture that we don’t often like to discuss but is vital to our continued existence as a fair society. Unfortunately, 12 Angry Men may be a little more optimistic than the real world. But isn’t that also what movies are for? To show us how we should be instead of how we are? 12 Angry Men definitely deserves your attention for no other reason that it allows for some hope in this seemingly hopeless world. [Drew Dietsch]
Federico Fellini is one of the greatest directors of all time and 8 1/2 is his masterpiece. This tale of a filmmaker’s journey at the end of his life is filled with surreal dream sequences and elaborately staged set pieces. Characters come and go and time is constantly manipulated as the main character is consumed by his own fantasies. It’s a brilliant film and one of Italian cinema’s greatest achievements.
Marcello Mastroianni plays Italian director Guido Anselmi who winds down the last days of his life by attempting to make his final film. He undergoes treatments to fight liver disease and fantasizes constantly about his past and the women who have influenced his life. He is a liar and a manipulator, and each time he loses himself in dreams we see more of his character unravel.
8 1/2 is easily one of the most influential films in the Criterion Collection catalog. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Martin Scorcese credit Fellini’s magnum opus as one of their favorites and many others have stated the same. The Great Beauty is just one of the other Criterion Collection films that mirrors it in characters and themes, but there really is nothing quite like the original. 8 1/2 is a must-see and absolutely one of the greatest movies ever made. [Andrew Hawkins]
Being John Malkovich
Prior to his Being John Malkovich, most people knew director Spike Jonze for his work in music videos or as the producer of MTV’s Jackass. Then, with an amazing script by the always-brilliant Charlie Kaufman, Jonze became a critical darling overnight. Being John Malkovich blew the minds of critics and started Jonze career as a movie director. His second and third films, Adaptation and Her, were also penned by Kaufman.
What makes Being John Malkovich so great is its depth of emotion and willingness to be bizarre. The central premise is that puppeteer Craig (John Cusack) discovers a tunnel in an office building that puts the tunnel’s inhabitant inside the mind of actor John Malkovich for fifteen minutes. When time is up, the person gets dumped on the side of the Jersey Turnpike.
Featuring Malkovich as himself and a great supporting cast including Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich is thought-provoking and funny. It’s a weird movie with a lot of heart, which seems to be a specialty of both Jonze and Kaufman. It’s a special film that deserves a place in the Criterion Collection because it’s technically brilliant while also being very watchable and relatable. Malkovich’s portrayal of himself is the standout performance, but everything about this movie seems to be crafted with love. [Danielle Ryan]
A Hard Day’s Night
A Hard Day’s Night is one of my favorite films of all time. I didn’t have to see it on Criterion Collection Blu-ray to know that. I’m a Beatles fan, which makes owning this movie a real no-brainer. But even if you aren’t a raving Beatles fanatic, this likely deserves a spot on your Blu-ray shelf.
A Hard Day’s Night is more than just a vehicle for some of the best songs The Beatles ever wrote. It’s a masterful comedy, a goofy and absurd movie that makes a strong case for The Beatles as a comedy troupe. Ringo Starr is certainly no John Cleese, but the movie knows it and plays to the strengths of each Beatle. The film is nearly plotless — The Beatles come to London to shoot a televised concert with Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) in tow. Hijinks and music ensue.
A Hard Day’s Night is one of the most seminal British films of the 20th century, inspiring music videos for decades to come. The Monkees and their on-screen dynamic are rooted in this movie. It’s a masterpiece, but that’s only half the package. The restoration is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and the new stereo and 5.1 audio tracks were mixed at Abbey Road Studios. [Travis Newton]
The Night of the Hunter
Genre actor Charles Laughton only directed this one feature film in his lifetime. The Night of the Hunter was a box office bomb that faded into obscurity for a time. When it was rediscovered years later, it was recognized as one of the most gorgeous and haunting horror films of its time.
The story follows two children who run afoul of a murderous preacher looking for a hidden fortune. The preacher is played by Robert Mitchum, a tough guy actor who would become infamous as the menacing Max Cady in Cape Fear. Mitchum is even scarier in this film, terrorizing the children with his signature switchblade.
But what makes the movie is its visual style. Laughton brings a dreamy and sometimes surreal quality to this downhome horror yarn. There are numerous shots that stand as incredible still images on their own. For this reason, you must own The Night of the Hunter. It is a stark and evocative treat to the eyes. [Drew Dietsch]
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Long considered an essential read about excess, the failure of the counterculture movement, and the rise and fall of the American Dream, Hunter S. Thompson’s novel was considered unfilmable for a long time. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 90’s that Terry Gilliam was able to get all the variables together to put on screen what people were only able to visualize on the page. While it wasn’t a financial success, it’s become not only a cult classic but has been made part of the Criterion Collection.
What’s notable about the Criterion version of the film isn’t just the quality, but it’s the extras. Specifically, it’s amazing to see how involved Hunter himself was over the course of making the film. Audio commentary by Hunter, correspondence between him and Johnny Depp, a mini-documentary about Hunter meeting with the filmmakers and cast, and a 1978 BBC documentary that shows the first initiatives of getting the novel made into a movie.
All these extras highlight the love and effort poured into what’s now considered a classic film, and further cement this as a worthy representation of the madness, bleakness, and hope of Thompson’s seminal work. [Bob Aquavia]
David Cronenberg is one strange director, and his magnum opus on exploitation and pornography is especially strange. Videodrome tells the story of Max Renn (James Woods), a sleazy TV producer who stumbles across a channel of genuine rape, torture, and murder. He begins a twisted relationship with masochist Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry). He shows her one of the Videodrome tapes and things start getting very, very weird.
Sure, Videodrome features lots of body horror, a creepy stomach vagina, gun hand, and living video tape. But it also includes James Woods’ incredible performance, great cinematography, and one intense and mind-bending story. Harry is actually pretty good as well and brings a lot to her character besides basic masochism.
Videodrome is a special part of the Criterion Collection because its meta examination of entertainment doesn’t go easy on anyone. It’s brutal, and anyone who watches Videodrome is changed by it much like Max is changed by watching the tapes. This movie asks us why we consume the things we do so readily. It’s done with a deft touch and is smart enough to be challenging without being pretentious. It’s a pinnacle of bizarre cinema and one of several Cronenberg entries in Criterion’s catalog. [Danielle Ryan]
If you’re a fan of satirical sci-fi, Brazil may be a life-changing movie for you. It certainly was for me. I grew up watching Monty Python and knew Terry Gilliam as the guy who did their animations. But my dad, also an avid consumer of Python and sci-fi, showed me Brazil.
This is one of those movies we cinema geeks tend to talk up. We’ll hound our friends and family until they finally break down and see it, and their reactions are almost never satisfying. As whimsical and funny as Brazil may be, it’s also a mean-spirited and aggressively weird experience. It takes a twisted sense of humor to love Brazil. For all his irreverent humor, Terry Gilliam possesses a dark mind and a knack for bitter stories. Brazil is bitter and breathtaking in equal measure.
This Criterion release feels satisfyingly complete. It contains Gilliam’s preferred cut and a shorter cut with a different ending. The shorter cut is nothing more than a curiosity, but it’s interesting to see how a movie studio takes a film like Brazil and tries to make it more palatable. [Travis Newton]
The Seventh Seal
The Seventh Seal is an incredible film and one of the greatest stories ever captured on celluloid. Ingmar Bergman’s existential tale of a crusader’s return home to find his country overrun by the Black Plague is astounding. Everything in this film from its apocalyptic tone and score to its uplifting yet morose and dour tone is amazing. It’s one of the greatest films ever made.
Antonious Block returns home to Sweden after years of fighting in the Crusades. Max von Sydow portrays the night as a stoic and ponderous soul pursued by the literal embodiment of death. As he progresses towards his ultimate end, a band of performing travelers cross paths and they all journey together as Death closes in.
Bergman’s films are almost always challenging and filled with strong dramatic themes. This movie is not light entertainment by any means. I have seen this one countless times, and while it is one of my favorites it still takes focus and attention with each watch. The Seventh Seal is a powerful and significant film, and it absolutely is one of the best titles ever released on the Criterion Collection. [Andrew Hawkins]