The Criterion Component: The TFS Staff's Essential Discs
Like many other film aficionados, we love The Criterion Collection. An amazing home media label which over the years has released a wide assortment of films from various eras, countries, and genres - restoring them with pristine audio and video transfers (some even reference quality), tons of special features including filmmakers, actors, creative personnel and scholars surrounding each title, and packaging designs that, in some cases, become the new face of the film as it is reborn for a new generation of fans.
Our staff has decided to highlight some of our favorite Criterion titles that every serious film fan should add to their home libraries, or at the very least watch for the first time (many of these can be streamed on FilmStruck). While at this current point in time there are nearly 900 titles, we've selected a couple that are, in our eyes, essential for a variety of reasons. And hey, if there's ever a time that a *flash sale* should happen, these would definitely be good bets to consider.
Marcelo Pico's Picks
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story (1968-1972)
This massive box set chronicles BBS Productions’ strange trip through the late 60s and early 70s, and how it played a key role in the New Hollywood movement. Seven BBS films are included here, which vary from all-time classics; Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show, to little-seen oddities; The King of Marvin Gardens, Head, A Safe Place, and Drive, He Said. Head pops out from the set, prime for rediscovery, serving up a drug-laced, fourth wall-bending spectacle starring The Monkees, co-written by Jack Nicholson, and directed by Bob Rafelson. Like any fine Criterion package, the BBS set offers plenty of historical context; one tidbit being just how vital a part Nicholson played in several of BBS’ productions, serving as actor, writer, and also making his directorial debut with Drive, He Said. The documentaries in the set tell the tales of what went on behind the scenes and what went into the making of these quintessential films, featuring recent interviews with key players like Rafelson, Nicholson, Karen Black, Ellen Burstyn, and Peter Bogdanovich. There are several Criterion box sets worth your time, but if you’re looking for a series of films with solid retrospective bonus material covering the New Hollywood movement, you can’t go wrong with this.
Modern Times (1936)
Modern Times probably isn’t the best place to start if you’re diving into Charlie Chaplin films. The 1936 film was the Little Tramp character’s final outing. It served as a transition point for Chaplin; who was not only going from silent films to sound, he became more fearless as a director, going on to tackle more politically-charged (The Great Dictator) and somber (Limelight) works. Chaplin’s early classics The Kid, City Lights, and The Gold Rush — all of which are in the Collection — are as essential as Modern Times and need to be seen to form the foundation for the emotional send-off of Chaplin’s the Little Tramp. What makes Criterion’s release of Modern Times a vital part of any film-lover’s collection is the vast amount of archival footage and making-of features included on the disc. The commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson is a treasure trove of knowledge and the breakdown of the practical effects work is jaw-dropping. The Modern Times Criterion disc, both the film and the features included, serves as a testament to the genius of Chaplin himself, as director and performer, making it an important part of the collection.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Upon its initial release, The Night of the Hunter was not considered a hit with audiences or critics. Because of the lackluster response, it became actor Charles Laughton’s one and only directorial effort — which, in retrospect, is one of cinema’s greatest travesties. It wasn’t until years later that The Night of the Hunter garnered the acclaim it deserved. Critics gave the film a reappraisal and it was eventually inducted into the National Film Registry in 1992. It’s inclusion into the Criterion Collection was a no-brainer, few films fit the criteria to be inducted into the ever-growing list of “important classics” as The Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum, in a truly iconic role, plays Harry Powell, a preacher with “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his knuckles. He marries a widow and terrorizes her children in what turns into a macabre fairy tale, traversing good and evil — Powell’s “Love and Hate” speech rings true by the film’s end. On the disc itself, amongst the archival interviews and newly-produced analysis of the film is the engrossing, two-and-a-half hour feature film documentary "Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter”, which provides an extraordinary, fly-on-the-wall look at the making of the film.
Persona is a visually hypnotic masterpiece from director Ingmar Bergman that should rightfully serve as a cornerstone for your movie connection, as it’s an essential part of the entire Criterion Collection. Bergman revolutionized how cinema perceived the identity of self through experimental techniques — from the editing, to the cinematography, through to the acting — Persona feels as fresh today as it did when it was first released in 1966. Bibi Andersson plays a nurse caring for an actress, played by Liv Ullmann, and the two isolated themselves at a seaside cottage. What follows is a mind-bending journey into each character’s psyche. Inside and out, the actress and the nurse share more than words, they share each other’s personalities and get lost within their shared identity. A landmark film in Bergman’s canon, Persona resides alongside several of his other classics in the Criterion Collection, including The Seventh Seal. The bonus features on the disc provide some insight on the making of the film and the film’s seemingly inscrutable themes. To top it all off, the 2012 feature-length documentary Liv & Ingmar, detailing the relationship between Bergman and Ullmann is also included.
Matt Curione's Picks
One of the essential American films of the 1970’s, Robert Altman’s Nashville marked a pivotal moment for cinema as a whole. It’s here that Altman perfected his style of overlapping dialogue and stories to create the blueprint for ensemble pieces going forward. Anytime that someone calls a film “that director’s Nashville” it’s irrelevant, nothing will ever be Nashville. Even if you have a passing interest in the director, this is a must have Criterion release for your collection. Featuring a previously released but still fascinating director’s commentary and a feature length making of documentary, Nashville is one of the stronger American films in the Collection. Altman’s magnum opus is both epic and intimate in equal measure in a way that only this master director could achieve. The story follows more than 25 separate characters, each with their own arc. Essentially a country music musical, the soundtrack is to die for, with the songs being written and performed by the actors themselves.
A more recent Criterion release, Michael Mann’s debut feature was a gift from the cinematic gods. Thief might be the strongest theatrical directorial debut that I’ve ever seen, Mann’s aesthetic is fully formed even at this early juncture in his career. With his debut, Mann burst onto the scene with a story that many have told before but never with this much style and flare. The story of a seasoned safe-cracker who wants to do one last job, start a family, and get out, James Caan gives one of the best performances of his career. Caan isn’t the only one in Thief that knocks it out of the park however, as everyone brings their A-game. From Tuesday Weld as the love interest to Jim Belushi as Caan’s partner in crime to Robert Prosky (Last Action Hero) making his theatrical debut as the almost demonic villain Leo, these are some of Mann’s finest creations. Featuring some terrific and revealing interviews with Mann and the cast, the bonus features are well worth the price of entry. With such a perfect and well balanced debut, it’s almost baffling to think that Michael Mann would only improve over the next few decades to become the foremost maker of crime pictures.
Sydney Wegner's Pick
House of Games (1987)
There's always a sense of something dark lurking in the shadows as a psychiatrist, eager for some danger and mystery to pull her overworked mind out of her successful but routine existence, gets drawn into the world of a group of grifters. Like David Mamet's other movies, House of Games seems to exist in a parallel universe. Everything looks familiar but the way people act and talk is off-kilter and unreal. There's something hypnotic about the noir-esque lighting of the nighttime streets and hazy back rooms, the way the dialogue is so coldly delivered, the dark color palette and focus on hands touching dangerous objects with reverence or dominance, turning a deck of cards or a flick of the wrist into a tool of destruction. It's a story about a woman finding out what she's capable of, unlocking a secret power from some dark place inside herself. It's also about magic and bending reality and human nature, but on the most basic level it's an exciting mystery on par with any great classic. I've watched it a countless number of times but it never fails to seduce me, and even though I know what's coming I love getting conned again and again.
Rob Trench's Picks
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Gillo Pontecorvo’s defining work of third cinema is a retelling of the violent conflict which emerged out of Algerian insurgent groups fighting for freedom against the French from 1954-1962. Utilizing documentary techniques and newsreel-like cinematography (enough to cause viewers to question whether the images appearing before them are fact or fiction), The Battle of Algiers is a remarkable feat of cinema, still pivotal today in the face of war. This set has five incredible documentaries detailing everything from the film’s production to its relevance in a modern standpoint (The Pentagon would screen it in 2003 at the time of the Iraq War), interviews with directors very much inspired by the film (such as Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Mira Nair, and Julian Schnabel), and a lengthy, packed booklet with various in-depth analyses and reproductions of archival documents surrounding the film and its events. An outstanding production with an outstanding release, this is one must-have for every serious watcher of film.
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist drama (known as The Bicycle Thief to some) holds a special sense of significance for me, as it was the first Criterion disc I ever bought and one that is still just as emotionally impactful many years later. A simple story about a man who loses his means of employment and must go to great lengths to correct a massive injustice, it brings about a harsh reality, where life is lived in a series of moments, but the future holds no promise for a better tomorrow. I could have easily included De Sica’s later film Umberto D. as well, as much of a masterpiece and worth seeing, though the range of features on this Criterion edition (such as interviews with those who worked alongside De Sica and a comprehensive analysis of the neorealist movement in post-war Italy) make it a crucial offering, and one that will aid anyone interested in the subgenre. The film received an Blu-ray upgrade from last year with a stunning brand new 4K video transfer - the best it has ever looked.
There’s no simple way to put this - Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (aka Hausu) is one of the most batshit crazy movies in the entire Criterion Collection; possibly a contender for the most with its unforgettable, nightmarish finale. Best described as what would happen if you crossed an episode of Scooby Doo with Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and placed it in the backdrop of Japanese kaidan tales, House follows a young schoolgirl and her friends who go on a trip to visit a sick aunt in the country, and are immediately thrown into a scenario plagued with demons, haunted objects, and a spooky cat. Obayashi was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s Jaws to create a movie that would resound with a younger audience, and it indeed became a hit upon release in Japan in 1977, but was not seen in the U.S. until Janus Films bought the rights in 2009 and began screening the film in various arthouse cinemas - where it quickly attracted a new following. This release includes Janus’s restored transfer and a video interview with Obayashi, as well as one with his daughter who in fact contributed to many of the script’s shocking moments at a very young age. House is an essential cult film and one that every lover of weird films should own.
A mystery with no easy answers that’s also a meditation on the underlying ugliness that permeates under the most idyllic of scenarios, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (The Adventure) was initially booed at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, though it would later take home the Jury Prize and become something of a box-office sensation due to the controversy attracted. In her first film as a lead actress, Antonioni’s muse and real life lover Monica Vitti portrays Claudia, a woman attempting to understand the mysterious disappearance of her best friend during a boating excursion in the Mediterranean. In the search for her whereabouts, Claudia becomes romantically entwined with her friend’s lover (Gabriele Ferzetti), and as the film plays out, the sense that ‘someone’ is watching them indulge in this forbidden love cannot be shaken. Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of the arthouse classic includes an audio commentary from historian Gene Youngblood, a comprehensive analysis done by director Olivier Assayas, a nearly-hour long documentary on Antonioni from 1966, and an audio track of Jack Nicholson reciting Antonioni’s writings and reminiscing on working with the director.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
This gothic noir from Ingmar Bergman has been celebrated as a defining achievement for Sweden’s national cinema (and world cinema itself) for nearly 60 years now, and continues to enthrall and inspire new generations of audiences. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) a knight returning from the Crusades faces death incarnate (Bengt Ekerot) on a beach. Knowing his time is limited, the knight challenges him to a prolonged game of chess that picks up across various interludes, as Antonius attempts to save his soul from eternal damnation by carrying out one last noble act while he still can. The Seventh Seal is arguably Bergman’s masterpiece, and one which has been referenced countless times in pop culture; this disc includes a video introduction from Bergman himself, an audio commentary from Bergman scholar Peter Cowie (who also narrates a video filmography on the director’s notable films titled ‘Bergman 101’), a tribute from Woody Allen, and the documentary Bergman Island made by Marie Nyrerod that gives a rarely-seen, personal look at Bergman - released only a year before his death in 2007.
A notorious entry from master of body horror David Cronenberg, Videodrome concerns TV producer Max Renn (James Woods) - who comes across a strange transmission called ‘Videodrome’ where people are horribly tortured and murdered, that becomes an engrossing spectacle and dire obsession. Eventually its effects begin to spill out into Max’s life as he realizes the show is part of a larger global conspiracy, one where fantasy and reality become intertwined. This release is jam-packed with features including a commentary track from Cronenberg and another with Woods and actress Deborah Harry, Cronenberg’s 2000 short film Camera, the full unedited ‘transmissions’ from Videodrome itself, and best of all - a roundtable discussion between other horror maestros Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis, and Mick Garris. If you’re a big gore hound then it’s likely you already own this, but if you’re just getting into Cronenberg for the first time, Videodrome is the perfect entry point into the director’s filmography.
Nick Isaac's Pick
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Like, sometimes man...you just need a high...
...resolution transfer of bitching times with your good friends.
You need some good tunes, and someone to explain it all to you.
And, like, not just explain, but hang out like Richard Linklater does, ya know?
But once the smoke clears and you are no longer dealing with the chilliest hang out movie OF ALL TIME, what you have is one of the quintessential logs of how a movie goes from a box office bomb to a beloved cultural touchstone. An intensive documentary by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Kahane Cooperman (nee Corn) is presented alongside essay by Chuck Klosterman, cemented the significance of Linklater’s work. One of my favorite features is the original television version of the trailer, all grainy and and distorted, like I remember seeing it on MTV.
And this is one of my favorite cover reinterpretations, stealing visual cues from the pool hall and the films own upcoming bicentennial. It perfectly captures the experience of a high schooler's notebook and he visual motifs of variety shows from the 70’s.
I dig it, man.
Marcus Irving's Picks
Tokyo Drifter (1966)
I'm not going to lie, I had a very tough time following Seijin Suzuki's 1968 film Tokyo Drifter. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, maybe it actually doesn't make sense, maybe I'm dumb. Probably a little from all three. That still didn't distract me from absolutely loving every second of it.
An abstract crime film with nods to the spaghetti western genre (among others), Tokyo Drifter plays out like a painting. The visual component of each frame is more important than the words. There are multiple sequences put in that don't seem to make any sort of narrative sense, rather just a beautiful image. Arguably, the most memorable and striking scene, wherein our whistling hero Tetsu fires pink shots at unseen targets against a stark black background lasts mere seconds. The final gunfight is one of the most elegant to be found in the whole Criterion Collection.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Serial killers on screen are usually shot in a very stylish, almost fetishistic way. Rarely are they portrayed as realistically as in Man Bites Dog. Benoît Poelvoorde gives a brilliant-in-its-restraint performance as Ben. He's a boring average joe who's murderous tendencies are presented in a casual manner usually reserved for one talking about his collection of kind of cool looking rocks. It's shot in a faux documentary style. Two filmmakers are following Ben around capturing his shootings and stranglings in a matter of fact way, even joking around and pitching in occasionally when needed. Man Bites Dog captures the mundanity that must exist in real life serial killer's lives. They can't all be tortured, plotting geniuses like John Doe in Se7en. Sometimes they are just boring dudes looking for something to do.
Sarah Jane's Pick
The 400 Blows (1959)
I feel odd having to justify why this is a classic because it just is. Period. Truffaut’s first (!) film really packs a wallop. It’s a story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young Parisian kid, trying to navigate life with parents who don’t really give a shit about him. He’s in trouble at school and with the law and, eventually, gets sent to a home for troubled kids.
Truffaut’s semi-biographical story is one of the cornerstones of the French New Wave. Stark, honest, and beautiful, the film was life changing for me when I saw it at 18. I had always loved movies throughout my childhood but this one (and Lynch’s Blue Velvet) ignited my deep passion for film that has never left. Truffaut revisited Antoine Doinel for three more films over a 20 year span. They are all definitely worth a look.
Manish Mathur's Picks:
Belle de jour (1967)
Luis Bunuel’s erotic, mysterious, and unsettling drama/satire has the look of a creamy French pastry. The look of the film is so soft and colorful that it can only hide a rotting core beneath it. French icon Catherine Deneuve stars as Severine, a picture perfect Parisian housewife bored of her porcelain doll lifestyle. She escapes to elaborate S&M fantasies, and then spends her days at a brothel. Bunuel keeps the film in an absurdist limbo, where reality and fantasy collide. The sexual escapades are bizarre, with only a glimpse at their origin. The film is quite stylish, with terrific costume design from Yves Saint Laurent. Deneuve’s expressions seem blank but betray a mind that is always somewhere else. Belle de jour is a mystery box film, where the answers are actually just questions. It’s the rare film that is both feminist and misogynist, presenting its heroine as she is seen by the world and how she sees herself. The world can be cruel and it is all too easy to internalize and fetishize that cruelty.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Martin Scorsese talks about The Red Shoes being an inspiration for his boxing masterpiece Raging Bull. And the influence is clear, especially in the editing and the themes of professional obsession. In The Red Shoes, directors-writers-producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger bring their audience into the harsh backstage world of ballet. The beautiful sets and costumes pop off the screen in Technicolor, the performances on and off the stage are passionate, and the music is swirling and magical. The film features a full ballet in the middle that transforms into a dream ballet far removed from reality. It’s quite an achievement and a hallmark of British filmmaking. The camera and the editing capture mood and atmosphere, creating a nightmarish landscape of desire and longing. An obvious influence on Black Swan, The Red Shoes is an influential but under-seen 1940s classic.
That's it for our Criterion recommendations. If you have any other suggestions you feel are also worthy of being considered essential, be sure to leave a message in our comments section!