Every month, the Criterion Collection asks a friend – a filmmaker, a programmer, a writer, an actor, an artist – to select their ten favorite movies available from the Criterion Collection and jot down their thoughts about them. The entries (from people like Jane Campion, Jonathan Lethem, and Sonic Youth) are often surprising, and always entertaining.
Big thanks to Aaron, Kristina, and Ruth for organizing the Criterion Blogathon and for allowing me to craft my own Criterion Top Ten List. I love lists. Not in the sense that they represent any kind of canonical statement of anything, but in the way that they reflect certain perspectives. Good lists say as much about their authors as they do about the films they include, and Criterion’s Top Ten Lists are loaded with as many insights about their “friends” as they are about the films themselves, making those lists doubly valuable to us cinephiles. In truth, when picking between the hundreds of masterpieces amassed by Criterion, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a bad Top Ten and I’m not sure anyone reads a Criterion Top Ten List to applaud or gripe about what got included. I read them to see what speaks to these individuals and what personal insights or connections they can share. Isn’t it great to see how classy Roger Corman’s keeps his Top Ten, how absolutely characteristic Chuck Klosterman’s List proves to be, how amazing is Kim Newman’s choice to include The Human Skeleton, and how utterly greedy Guillermo del Toro is by stuffing 21 films into his Top Ten? I love it.
My Criterion Top Ten List has been a thornier process than I imagined, with only about half of my initially considered titles actually withstanding the months-long screenings and re-screenings done to prepare a list I feel fairly confident in. In selecting these 10 films, I asked myself why I liked them, why they stay with me, why they resonate, and how I came upon them. In doing so, these films not only reflect my tastes in film but also trace my relationship with the Criterion Collection over the last 15+ years. It includes the third Criterion title I ever bought and one that I saw for the first time less than 3 months ago. There are themes: unrequited love, seriocomedy, ensembles, meticulous production design, dream sequences, widescreen black and white. And there are, for me, many surprising exclusions. No Godard, no Kurosawa, no Powell and Pressburger, and no Maddin. There’s no Days of Heaven, The Firemen’s Ball, Close-up, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, A Night to Remember, The Tin Drum, Good Morning, Les misérables, Divorce Italian Style, The Night of the Hunter, the Flamenco Trilogy, Forbidden Games, The Battle of Algiers, Il Posto or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, if just for the DVD’s menu screen. (I’m already way over 10 films just talking about what didn’t make the cut!) But the best thing about this Top Ten List is knowing that it’s not permanent, that I might reach into some box set later tonight, read Criterion’s next monthly announcement, or simply grow into being a slightly different (and hopefully better) person and find myself connected to another film that forces its way into my imagination and onto this list.
For the moment, here is my Criterion Top Ten List, arranged for ease of reading (and not for ranking) and including a plain text portion that I imagine would accompany each title in the usual fashion of the Criterion website and an italicized portion that serves as a more personal annotation for each selection.
L’avventura portrays the imperceptible erosion of the soul in stunningly deep grayscale, every frame gorgeously diminishing its upper class lotus-eaters – obscuring their faces behind windblown tresses, making them small against rugged landscapes, sublimating them to the collective impulses of riotous crowds and self-indulgent party-goers. Antonioni proves fiercely moral in his treatment of these slow, spiritual deaths, wringing out tragedy in each averted glance and defeated sigh. The combined fragility and determination of Monica Vitti is irresistible.
There’s something to be said about being first. Once I had discovered the Criterion Collection, I quickly began the process of blind buys, with the first being L’avventura. I knew nothing of Michelangelo Antonioni or the films he made. In fact, I think L’avventura may have been the first true European art film I had ever seen. And while I don’t consider myself a fan of Antonioni and may not even consider L’avventura my favourite film from his body of work, L’avventura was and remains a revelation. It was ponderously slow and its characters were hardly likeable, being weary, superficial, and capricious; but the film was nevertheless compelling and every moment was captivating. (Criterion’s Blu-ray up-grade is a wonder, picking out every monochromatic fleck and shade.) Antonioni depicts the film’s spiritual crisis like a hard winter, one that sparkles and flatters itself in the daylight while it silently numbs and freezes the dazzled. Vitti is spell-binding, giving the film depth and sympathy through her pouting apprehension and her uncertain sense of alarm, a canary in a bourgeois coalmine sensing dangerous levels of ennui. I had never cared for characters like these. I didn’t even know such movies could be made. L’avventura was one of the first signposts on a long and ongoing journey through art cinema and, for that, its holds a special place in my Criterion Collection. (Plus, the Criterion edition includes one of my favourite extras – Jack Nicholson reading Antonioni!)
The embellished and ornate brilliance of Eisenstein’s final works are a wonder. This allegorical biopic stands between the anachronistic portraiture of silent cinema, the overwhelming magnification of German expressionism, and the constructivist ethic that rooted Eisenstein. It’s difficult to imagine a more hyper-composed, over-determined film than Ivan the Terrible, as every painterly frame seems to tell its own story. The only blemish to this masterwork is that we lack a Part III to admire as well.
Early in my Criterion collecting days, I sought to fill in my shelves quickly through Ebay lot sales. It proved an ingenious step in my filmic education, as it inevitably put into my hands films that I might not have otherwise picked up alone. I was certainly cautious about the Eisenstein: The Sound Years box set, being wary of the director’s didactic approach, however the opening coronation sequence had me enthralled, with its extravagant costumes, its pointed use of close-ups, and its muttering, conspiratorial tone. I had never seen a film like it before (certainly not a sound film like it), and haven’t seen another like it since. Eisenstein seems to make a silent film in the sound period, pulling out every trick of set design, lighting, composition, and performance without any fear of overstatement. By all rights, it’s not a film I think should succeed, yet it does, using the heightened drama of silent film as the expressive engine for Ivan’s ambition and mounting paranoia. Eisenstein’s genius was deciding not that the demonstrative style of silent film was too much for the sound era and needed to be turned down, but that its arch-volume needed to be turned up! The lightning strike of Ivan the Terrible came at the perfect time, emboldening me to pursue new and different works of film art with the promise of finding something wonderful and unexpected.
If melodrama conveys an emotional truth unhindered, then the films of Wes Anderson might be the melodrama of hindered emotions, where the anxiety of social and personal judgement is itself an emotional truth to be investigated and contrasted with our desires to love, rage, and mourn. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson perfectly puts his trademark, hand-crafted world-building into the service of a complex network of familial relationships to create a true ensemble piece, one where each character’s arc is convivially dependent on the rest. Charmingly honest and rich in fastidious detail, it’s easy to identify with Eli Cash’s admission, “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know?”
One of the things I love about film fans are the particular premises or themes to which they always find themselves drawn. I know people who love movies about magicians; movies set in single, finite locations; and movies featuring white, male iconoclasts being heroic in the desert. I have friends who love giant monsters destroying cities, documentaries about vivacious old people, and anything with a dance-off or a training montage. One of my soft spots is reunion movies, and The Royal Tenenbaums is my favourite. In fact, my love for Wes Anderson’s third feature extends beyond its reunion context to a whole host of subjects that pull at me personally. It’s a film about fathers and sons and the brief time we have with our loved ones. It’s about peaking early and discovering you’re neither as talented nor as intelligent as you once fancied yourself. It’s about coming to terms with the reality that life has a bad habit of not following the rules you’ve been taught to respect. It’s about pining for someone from afar, jealousy, and the fear of rejection. It’s about creating, collecting, and finding joy in small details. And its funny – I still crack up at the line, “He’s taken off both shoes and one of his socks and … actually, I think he’s crying.” (I remember being the only person in a packed theatre howling at the line.) Anderson wears his influences on his sleeve (from Charles Schultz to J. D. Salinger, Jean-Luc Godard to The New Yorker, on and on) to create what Matthew Zoller Seitz refers to as mosaics made of mosaics. It is a comedy of tragedies made dramatic by a stellar soundtrack and a superb cast. Alec Baldwin’s hushed narration grounds the film, like the voice of a parent designed to soothe a distraught child and encourage a fearful one, reassuring me as I laugh through my tears. The Royal Tenenbaums has an unexpected poignancy that has left a permanent mark upon me, like the BB trapped in Chas’s hand.
When I try to picture French cinema as a single image or idea, I inevitably imagine poetic realism and a handsome Jean Gabin darkly dressed, with his wavy hair blowing in the salty air and his gaze conveying the distance in spirit that afflicts him. And as I look around the Collection to see where this image derives from, I surprisingly find Remorques, where the irascible romance of Gabin’s screen image is matched by the exquisite beauty of Michèle Morgan and the faithful regret of Madeleine Renaud. With thrilling action and tragic emotion, Remorques is a melancholy standard of one of cinema’s great leading men.
This is by far the entry that most surprises me and the last to find inclusion in this Top Ten List. It’s less a comment on the film’s quality and more a statement on my finally acquiescing to the influence it has upon me. As I whittled down this list, the lack of French cinema became an increasingly glaring omission. I love French films, like any true film fan should. Struggling to settle on any single film, I began questioning what I identified in my imagination as the epitome of French cinema, and the image of Jean Gabin in Remorques proved unshakable. Gabin is the prototypical leading man here. He is dashing in dark, fitted clothes; noble amid the wind and the rain; sympathetic in his conflict between duty and passion. Men admire him, and women love him. As he walks along the windswept beach with the lovely Michèle Morgan, her curly golden locks blowing in the wind and conveying her unpretentious, natural beauty; we are allowed to peek at Gabin’s character unburdened by the weight of his loyalties to his tugboat crew and the dangers of the sea, sequences which are punctuated with documentary-like footage and highly effective miniature effects, and the pressures of his wife’s devotion, contained within the couple’s increasingly expressionistic apartment. Remorques is a simple, concise tale of a working man troubled by his own modest success; perhaps not a pillar of French cinema or poetic realism, but one that has cast a minor spell over me.
Few films are as heart-aching as Wong Kar-wai’s ode to unrequited love. Between Tony Leung’s sad, puppy-dog eyes and Maggie Cheung’s waltz-inspiring hips, Wong Kar-wai lets us eavesdrop into a deeply passionate, yet decidedly reserved affair, one that finds its fragile tenderness described in the slow curl of cigarette smoke and the translucent delicacy of a jade cup and saucer. Gabriel Axel similarly attends to the power of objects, where an elegant and sumptuous French banquet cooked by a skilled and devoted chef proves to be spiritually transcendent to a small sect of elderly Danish Lutherans. Both films are utterly gorgeous.
What fascinates me about In the Mood for Love, beyond its beautiful stars, its fantastic music, and its oblique story-telling, is its highly tactile quality. As the emotional intimacy of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s characters slowly intensifies, the gap in their physical intimacy becomes more agonizingly prevalent, making the merest touch, such as the resting of a head on the shoulder of another, staggering. Longing for contact, Wong Kar-wai sets his film in a meticulously constructed reproduction of 1960s Hong Kong that is built out of countless mundane items – typewriters, wallpapers, lamps, dinnerware, clocks – objects that he then anoints through the most sensuous lighting. Light is reflected from the hard edges and smooth surfaces of laminates and plastics. Light imbues trails of cigarette smoke and jade cups. Light is absorbed into brick faces and fabrics, revealing their textures. Through its luxuriant production design, In the Mood for Love creates spaces that demand contact, that need to be touched yet cannot. I am seduced by this tactile environment and left wanting, always outside of the film’s alluring spaces, just as the film’s protagonists find themselves so very close yet so widely apart. It is the set design of unconsummated passion.
To be truthful, I’m partly motivated to pair these two films by necessity, being unable to omit any other films from this list, but in doing so I’ve come to see their connection. Gabriel Axel imbues the food of Babette’s Feast with comparable power to the seductively tactile world of In the Mood for Love, attending to the opulence of each dish by shooting them as if they were a series of small vanitas and elaborating on the love and devotion invested into them by the carefully observational view of Babette’s work and the fine performances of the dinner guests who partake of their spiritual, as well as physical, nourishment. And like In the Mood for Love, Babette’s Feast utilizes our intrinsic distance from the film’s material world as means to better appreciate the immaterial connections between its characters, exchanging the non-physical affair of Wong Kar-wai’s couple with the thawing of old grievances and the restoration of a community shared among the banquet guests and between them and a higher power. In a sense, Babette’s Feast is something also like the reunion films I adore, as characters settle old grudges and rekindle past loves. I am so profoundly moved by the pure generosity exhibited that I literally cry every time I watch Axel’s film. It’s corny and hokey, but unfortunately true – Love is the secret ingredient to both of these films.
A simple story involving a corrupt chamberlain killed by seven steadfast samurai, the woman they love, the ally who betrayed them, the official who used and abandoned them to further his own plot, the ronin hired to lead a band of mercenaries in killing them, the ronin’s wife who awaits her redemption from a local brothel, a brawny farmer with aspirations of becoming a samurai, another chamberlain (this one kidnapped and sleepy), the last remaining henchman to an eradicated yakuza family, a former samurai-turned-vagrant who aims to bring a just end to the conflict, and (let’s see, who else … ) a rather scrawny-looking chicken. If it all sounds overwhelmingly complex, it would be but for the casual grace and disarming charm of Kill!‘s star Tatsuya Nakadai and the expert hand of its singular director Kihachi Okamoto, who blends period action, broad comedy, tragic melodrama, intertextual references, and near self-consciousness into a tone and style unlike that of any other filmmaker.
For fans of jidaigeki and chambara, it would be understandable to consider The Sword of Doom (1966) the preferred title within the Collection when evaluating Kihachi Okamoto’s work, but for who know Okamoto’s other works, particularly his many brilliant satirical films of the 1960s, Kill! is actually the more representative movie and possibly the more satisfying work for devotees of the director such as myself. I appreciate comparisons between Okamoto and the great comedy director Ernst Lubitsch as both men were able to apply a deft touch that ordered the madcap high jinks of their films in carefully poised narratives and heartfelt gravity. With so many characters and performances, so many twists and turns to its plot, there’s a lot to enjoy in Kill! Watching Kill! is like seeing an array of favourite sword-fight movies all at once. It’s based on the same source material as Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962), features its own Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), reunites Okamoto and Nakadai from their collaboration two years earlier with The Sword of Doom, pairs Nakadai and a bamboo sword to recall their linkage in Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962), and features an impoverished samurai wandering up the main street of a ravaged village that looks conspicuously familiar to the one in Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961). This intertextual content contributes here to Okamoto’s characteristic tone of just-avoided self-consciousness, something he often courts with through his frequent use of close-ups, his blocking of characters in positions of near direct address, and their often unsure and puzzling inquiries that almost feel aimed at us, the audience. I feel like Nakadai could glance over at me at any point and wink, just because he could, because we all know that this is a movie, and because we’re all here to enjoy ourselves. That’s not to undercut the gravity of Kill! or of Okamoto’s other films. Rather, it’s a reassurance – tragedy, like comedy, is here, ready and waiting to be revisited. Okamoto plays at a cheeky game, but it’s a sincere one and Kill! represents it in its most crowded glory.
The most eminently re-watchable noir in the Criterion Collection, Pickup on South Street pits mercenary capitalism against Cold War patriotism. The film crackles with hardboiled cynicism, sweaty desperation, and doomed love, laying bare the hot-tempered mind that imagined and executed this action meller. Fuller is in top form here. From his constantly quotable dialogue to his pitch-perfect casting to that fantastic dockside shanty, Pickup on South Street never misses a mark or an opportunity.
Richard Widmark incredulously asks a federal agent opposing a communist plot, “Are you waving the flag at me?” and I’m hooked. Hollywood of this period is full of actors I love to hate (Dan Duryea, Robert Ryan, even Fred MacMurray), but Richard Widmark stands head and shoulders above them, being able to achieve levels of loathsomeness that are bewildering (an irony as Widmark had a reputation for being a genuinely good person in his private life and proved to be a sympathetic actor in his later years). The petty ruthlessness of Widmark’s Skip McCoy is attractive in its single-mindedness – I can’t blame Jean Peters for inexplicably loving the guy because I’d like to have a drink with him myself, such is Widmark’s unforgiving charisma. Fuller’s dialogue is full of smarm and bravado, but Pickup has bite as well as bark, with violent acts (particularly against its female characters) that are as terrible and cruel as they come. Sam Fuller never took half-steps and his street smart walk down South Street proves it in every dingy frame.
All That Jazz
Two explorations of the artist’s psyche. Two dreamscapes of the aesthetic impulse – one that struggles to take shape, another that burns too brightly. Each stands on its own as a vision of creativity’s glory and burden. Together, they peek at some universal alchemy of memory, desire, and insecurity within us all, one intrinsically tied to the need to create in the face of our mortality.
I adore both these films and feel the need to pair them not simply because of the obvious debt Fosse owes to Fellini, but because of how these films compare and contrast within my personal experience. Yes, both films delve wildly into the artist’s imagination, with 8½ focusing on a distracted and unfocused creativity while All That Jazz observes an artist overwhelmed by his visionary spirit, but these sumptuous, stream of consciousness fantasies provide a personal fascination given how similar they are yet how differently they came to me. 8½ was a film I was excited to see (another eBay lot purchase), but it left me flummoxed after its initial screening. I simply didn’t get it and the whole thing left me frustrated and annoyed at the mess Fellini had offered up as art cinema (although I did love Mastroianni’s sunglasses right away – an obsession that still remains with me). Still, 8½ didn’t give up on me and I didn’t give up on it. I listened to the Criterion edition’s commentary, read the booklet’s essays, listened to lectures on 8½ in film classes, and watched it again and again, each time getting more from it until eventually I was entranced with every moment of Fellini’s artistic crisis-turned-psychoanalytic pageant. On the other hand, I actively avoided All That Jazz, having no interest in musical theatre nor with watching histrionics hoof it before the footlights in sequined top hats and tails. I was eventually forced to see Fosse’s film in a course on modern musicals and was promptly blown away, having all my preconceived prejudices dispelled by the darkness, the rawness, and the sheer sexuality of All That Jazz. I was immediately besotted with Fosse’s film and the shakiness of Roy Scheider’s vocals could not dispel my infatuation. It’s simply a happy accident that these two films are so similar and that I can pair them up, leaving me to fit yet another title into this Top Ten List.
Presented in that favourite of New York tropes – the hottest day of the year – Spike Lee sets racial tensions simmering until it all eventually boils over. Do the Right Thing is an overwrought fable in the best spirit of classic Hollywood and Thornton Wilder, punctuated by Scorsese-like cinematic urgency, conscious hip hop insistence, and a polyvocal perspective on race. Powerful and sincere, Do the Right Thing remains an unfortunately relevant film and one deserving of renewed attention.
When I was old enough to become interested in music of my own, I quickly discovered hip hop and for me there was a holy trinity – the party rock anthems of Run-DMC, the violent realism of NWA, and the unwavering dissent of Public Enemy. “Fight the Power” was Public Enemy’s battle cry and from within my tweenage life in an ethnically-diverse, middle class public school, Public Enemy was my first introduction to systemic racism and the raging opposition of those who felt victimized. (Elvis was “straight up racist” and “motherfuck him and John Wayne”?!? My mom loved Elvis! Why would my mom love someone who was a racist?!? These Public Enemy guys were mad.) It would be years until I was old enough to watch Do the Right Thing, eventually seeing it through Criterion’s edition and being struck by its sense of cinematic history, dazzled by its feverish composition and editing, awed by its ensemble cast, and saddened at the end of a life and the near unraveling of a community. The Criterion Collection’s double-disc release is stacked, with the Public Enemy music video, the Cannes press conference, and Chuck D’s booming announcements on the commentary track standing as my favourite features across the entire Collection.
Masumi Karukawa’s performance as Sadako is among the strongest in the Collection, playing an abused and unappreciated common-law wife treated little better than a domestic but who gradually finds a subtle agency over her life following a home invasion and a sexual assault. As the snow falls two-thirds of the way through Intentions of Murder, the film shifts into a strange unreality, where death and violence reveal themselves in a fantastical winter environment and this psychological slow-burn reaches its unpredictable crescendo. Absolutely gripping.
This is my most recent Criterion discovery, having screened it less than 2 or 3 months ago to finish off the Pimps, Pigs & Prostitutes box set. Intentions of Murder is clearly an Imamura film, managing to be both clinical and provocative at the same time, but the presence of Masumi Karukawa makes it even more notable. Karukawa is an unlikely leading woman and an unusual object of fixation for the many men that surround her character, yet there is some ineffable quality to her that makes her attractive, an inscrutability in her reticence that demands exploration, a modesty that seems to thinly belie something deeper and perhaps darker. For most of the film, Karukawa’s Sadako fumbles through her situation, unsure about how to improve her position and unaware of the minor steps she is taking to wrest her fate from the grip of others. Later in the film, a moment comes when snow begins to fall and we watch one cable car leave and another arrive, and with that the film seems to magically change. We enter an uncertain world, one where Sadako begins assuming responsibility for her condition and where a dangerous atmosphere settles in under her will to power. Strange environments are found, with the undulating icescape of the mountain tunnel standing as possibly the film’s most unusual and disquieting space, and characters die in their pursuit of Sadako, one death in particular being as sudden and graphic as I can bring to mind. In its way, Imamura’s film manages to combine the suffering melodrama of the Japanese woman’s film with neurotic, Hitchcockian fatalism, creating an unsettling atmosphere that bristles throughout with foreboding possibilities. Stories of female empowerment rarely come as grimly disturbing as Intentions of Murder.
Thanks again to Aaron, Kristina, and Ruth for organizing the Criterion Blogathon. This has been an even more rewarding process than I anticipated and I certainly recommend crafting your own Criterion Top Ten List. Please be sure to check out the rest of the Criterion Blogathon and its impressive array of participants and posts.