In evaluating any creative endeavour the value of quality is regularly seen as being of the highest importance.
As a culture there is a desire to quantify cultural products in a way that is often antithetical to the intentions of the collaborative efforts involved in realising a creative vision, such as film, from script to screen.
In discussing film – and any media – the fascination with lists and rankings often distract from the wonder viewers can experience when they come across a work that brings about powerful emotions.
In an ever-expanding market of content, the markers of trusted authority and reliability remain helpful in informing audiences of great works from the past and present. While the prestige of winning an Academy Award may be considered to make a film ‘the best’ of its kind, the home video / streaming releases distributed by The Criterion Collection have come to be considered in a similar vein.
Described as important classic and contemporary films, The Criterion Collection releases are more than just a status symbol for cinephiles. Going to great lengths to package films with additional features and commentary tracks, Criterion’s are not marketed as a means of elitist snobbery, but as tributes to films that remain resonant with audiences long after their initial theatrical runs.
Available on the FilmStruck streaming app (in certain regions) and to purchase as physical media, the growing list of Criterion releases should give every movie lover unseen references to be across, while providing the uninitiated with a guide through some of the landmark releases in film history.
With close to a thousand titles given The Criterion Collection seal of approval, here are ten films to begin a life-long appreciation of cinema.
The Silence of the Lambs
Best known for the iconic performance of Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel is actually a sequel. Made six years after Michael Mann first introduced Dr. Hannibal Lecter to cinematic audiences in Manhunter, the psychological thriller is much more than Hopkins’ brief but enduring role. Revolving around rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a series of gruesome kidnappings lead the FBI to consult Hannibal – ‘the cannibal’ – in order to hunt down Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). While by contemporary standards the diagnosis of the villain’s psychosexual disposition may seem retrograde, the atmosphere and superbly drawn characters in Ted Tally’s screenplay irrespectively makes The Silence of the Lambs one of the best films of the 1990s and furthered a legacy that led to additional adaptations of Harris’ work – none of which have managed to replicate the brilliance of the 1991 Best Picture winner.
Bowling for Columbine
Almost two decades on from the titular high school massacre, Michael Moore’s seminal documentary on gun violence in America is a dispiriting reminder that things have not progressed. Going beyond the superficial finger pointing performed ritually following what has come to be seen as an inevitable ritual, Moore’s polemical look at the role played by the media in cultivating fear and the struggles faced by the economically vulnerable in society are far more than political platitudes of ‘thoughts and prayers’. With the current US administration largely unwilling to take serious action on combatting gun violence due to the influence of the NRA, Moore’s ‘mad as hell’ approach has been accused as being self-serving, but given the context of Trump’s America, Bowling for Columbine is a time capsule that has far more to say now than its original release in 2002.
Two Days, One Night
Few films end perfectly – Two Days, One Night is an exception. Directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Marion Cotillard stars as Sandra, a woman returning from mental health leave in Belgium given a weekend to rally the support of her fellow workers or face losing her job so that the remaining employees receive a bonus. While the routine of pleading to the empathy of fellow men and women facing their own financial and personal interests could result in an audience endurance test, the individual responses Sandra faces are dramatically compelling with reactions ranging from abuse for seeking charity to tearful embracement by workers wanting to do right by one another. Crippled by the weight of her health and an economic system that pits workers against one another, the humanistic tone provided by the Dardennes and Cotillard’s Oscar nominated portrayal ultimately provides an unexpected but incredibly gratifying conclusion to a simply brilliant film.
Gaining huge acclaim for his 2013 American slavery drama 12 Years a Slave, British visual artist Steve McQueen’s first foray into feature filmmaking was a bold take on another event from recent history. Set during ‘The Troubles’, Hunger depicts the final days of political prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), who views his involvement in the second IRA hunger strike as an act of martyrdom in securing a united Ireland free from British interference. Unconventional in avoiding the familiar tropes of historical biopics, the artistic vision of McQueen finds beauty in the profane, along with existential impact in the film’s defining 17-minute one-shot conversation between Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) detailing the implications of dying for a cause that has seen countless lives lost in bloody conflict. Much like all of McQueen’s feature films to date, Hunger resists histrionics in favour of focussing on the internal struggles of characters consumed by forces beyond their control.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
The collective output of Monty Python has left a huge mark on the comedy world through the television series Flying Circus, numerous albums and most memorably on film. Taking on the life and times of Christianity’s human-divine figure in Life of Brian, the Python treatment of the enduring religious and historical figure is less the blasphemous pejorative alleged by fundamentalist, but rather a satirical examination of the blind devotion and internal conflict rife throughout all organised religion. In ridiculing the misinterpretation of scripture, the closing musical sequence set during a crucifixion is a perspective of brevity everyone would do well to take heed of – ‘always look on the bright side of life’. In a mark of the film’s legacy, the comedic take on the accidental Christ figure Brian makes it near-impossible to look at any religious period piece without being reminded that contrary to belief, “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”.
In the Mood for Love
Adored by contemporary critics as one of the best works of cinema, the praise afforded to Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wei’s 2000 drama In the Mood for Love is perhaps overstated. Whether or not it is worthy of such praise however is an ancillary factor to the reality of it being a mesmerising example of how affecting movies can be. Revolving around a relationship between a woman and man whose spouses are involved in an unseen affair, the manner in which cinematographer Christopher Doyle captures the light and movement of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, accompanied by Shigeru Umebayashi and Michael Galasso’s evocative score is one of the most beautiful sights audiences are likely to come across in any film. Cited by Barry Jenkins in his acclaimed drama Moonlight, In the Mood for Love is not a traditional love story, but in just under 100-minutes it will affect the heart and soul.
Coming to prominence with his financed on credit cards, counter cultural touchstone Clerks, Kevin Smith’s return to independent film following the poor box office return of Mallrats saw the underrated creative talent deliver his finest film to date with 1997s Chasing Amy. Made for just $250,000 and featuring breakthrough performances from Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams, Chasing Amy features many of the trappings that Smith has regularly drawn upon with pop culture references and scatological humour, yet at its core the film is about understanding the dynamic nature of human sexuality. While contemporary criticisms have raised issues with the film for focussing on a queer story through the experience of a straight white male, the depiction shown on-screen presents a universal message that comprehension, not condemnation of the things we don’t fully understand, along with the pitfalls of jealousy, leads to a stronger understanding of who and how we love.
The Night of the Hunter
The fear of the horror genre is often represented through monsters that tap into the routine fears of everyday life. But in making the monster someone who could pass as any member of society, the angst of danger within suburbia has been a recurring theme for many filmmakers, including Charles Laughton in his only credited directorial effort, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter. Based on the real life events of Reverend Harry Powell, Robert Mitchum gives a chilling performance as a killer out to terrorise a local widow and her children. Laying the foundation for the spate of domestic thrillers throughout the late 80s and early 90s, the film’s iconic ‘LOVE – HATE’ tattoos have long been apart of popular culture both directly and indirectly in the work of Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and The Simpsons. With Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift drawing comparison to The Night of the Hunter, the classic thriller remains a significant feature more than six decades later.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Whether you are a devout believer or ardent atheist, the story of Jesus Christ is ingrained in world cultures. Fascinated by the subject of religion throughout his career, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 period drama The Last Temptation of Christ has the appearance of the story known by many, but told in a way rarely seen. Finding inventive ways to impart the human frailty of the divine figure through Paul Schrader’s screenplay adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ titular novel, Willem Dafoe’s portrayal garnered accusations of blasphemy in showing the Christian messiah as mortal. However, in highlighting a side to Jesus that relates to the fallible struggles of mankind, the film transcends ideological divides to be of great value for believers and sceptics alike. Accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack from Peter Gabriel, the final moments of the near three-hour epic are some of the most joyous ever put on film.
It may seem rather trite by contemporary standards, but the manner in which Akira Kurosawa presents varying accounts of the same event in Rashomon was revolutionary in 1950. Adapted from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s short story In a Grove into a screenplay co-written by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto, what could be reduced to a by the numbers procedural fit for 42-minutes plus commercials on network television becomes a study in determining the truth when each testimonial to a murder contradicts. Who is telling the truth? What do people have to hide? What actually happened? All these questions and the very nature of epistemology and ontology are on display in Kurosawa’s classic of Japanese filmmaking in which the uncertainty of reality is paired with a visual look to match the film’s tone. Cited throughout film history and popular culture, the stylistic choices of employing a non-linear structure and unreliable narrator have become somewhat cliché; but to understand the influence of the techniques, it is essential to be across the original source.