Monday, September 25, 2023

My Top 10 Criterion Films: Redux

Five years ago, one of the first pieces I wrote for InSessionFilm was my Top 10 favorite Criterion films that I own. Recently, I joined Zita Short and Kristin Battestella to discuss some of our favorites, and my old list was brought up. This made me realize that I should review my list and update it since I have many new ones. Some of the films listed here also come from the old list while there are new additions to this one. In alphabetical order, here are my favorite Criterion films that I own. 

Breathless (1960)

Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking film that helped ignite the French New Wave is now available for 4K, but I’ve had the original dual DVD/Blu-Ray release for a while. It still feels fresh and original and a piece of art that can be rewatched repeatedly. Video essays by critics Mark Rappaport and Jonathan Rosenbaum, a documentary on the making of Breathless, and the actual story by Francois Truffaut whom Godard used as the script among the special features of this cinema-altering movie from which everyone now takes some inspiration. 

Citizen Kane (1941)

It’s Orson Welles. It’s considered the best film ever made in American cinema. It remains a staple of how far the bounds of filmmaking can be pushed and it took a 26-year-old freshman in the business to show it. So much extra content is part of the set that it would take a lot of time to get through all of it and is well worth it. More than eighty years later, Welles’ rise-and-fall tale of a newspaper magnate remains an incredible movie I can rewatch and learn more about with every viewing.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

Filmed in Armenia while under the very repressive boot of the Soviet Union, Sergei Parajanov would take the life of musician/poet Sayat Nova and tell his story through the interpretation of Nova’s works. It is a story about Armenian repression and symbolizes what they still felt as a people being silenced. Parajanov himself would be imprisoned for some time. Yet, this unorthodox, abstract movie is a standout and drives emotions that other international films just don’t produce. 

The Complete Jacques Tati (1949-74)

It’s probably my favorite piece of Criterion that I own because it’s someone’s filmography by a director who is rarely mimicked today. Jacques Tati, the French Chaplin, used sound and physical gags in his highly choreographed films from Jour de Fete to his Swedish TV film finale, Parade. Tati was a writer-director-producer who thought of everything as he wanted but paid a hefty price when Playtime, arguably his best film, failed financially because the production costs skyrocketed past its original budget. Mon Oncle, which won the Oscar for Best International Feature, is personally my favorite film of his. It is one film in one disc at a time, thick as a book.

The Decalogue (1988)

Originally a TV mini-series on Polish television, Krzysztof Kieślowski made ten short films with each episode based on the Ten Commandments. Not religious, it tells a tapestry of stories from individuals living within an apartment complex and touches on many themes with every emotion. Two of them were given extended cuts – A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love – and released to the world as samples of what Decalogue is. Here, Kieslowski made a broad appeal to his later films that would allow him to go outside of Poland. 

M (1931)

Fritz Lang’s psychological thriller, ninety-two years old, remains one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen. Peter Lorre may have made his name in Hollywood with The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, but it will be this performance as a child murderer on the run that will be foremost in his repertoire. The disc also has the English remake of M from 1951 and an interview with Lang in 1975 featuring the now-late William Friedkin. This was one of my first Blu-Rays of Criterion and it remains a chilling film. 

Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman’s shocking film baffled me on my first viewing. The insert of an erect penis, the explicit talk of sexual relations with a minor, and the sudden appearance of a film camera are just part of Bergman’s montage that he originally was to be titled Cinematography before the studio demanded a real title. Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson are on an island as a nurse cares for an actress who has suddenly fallen mute. His radical editing merges two faces into one and explores the concept of identity from a deep conscious level not performed on screen at the time.

The Rules Of The Game (1939)

Jean Renoir’s comedy of manners was also one of the first Criterion movies I bought. His satire against the French bourgeois was so scandalous that theaters that showed it were attacked and the movie was withdrawn to make cuts. It was butchered, then banned by Vichy France in the Second World War, and then left to be forgotten. However, time became friendly to Renoir and the film was rediscovered and rebuilt to a more faithful original version. Recently, the 4K-UHD rerelease gave a new cover; I own the cartoon cover which fits Renoir’s criticism and is considered among the greatest films ever made in the world. 

Shoah (1985)

It is the most important documentary ever made about the Holocaust. Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour testament to those who survived the horrors at Treblinka and Auschwitz, as well as the Warsaw ghetto. No archival footage was used. Lanzmann doesn’t just talk to those who survived, but even among the surviving Nazi guards using a hidden camera as they did not want to be recorded. All four discs on Blu-Ray are demanded to be seen and heard by those who lived it and who were guilty of complicity in the most vile crime ever committed in the world.  

Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994)

The last set of films by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski was a towering success and showed the amount of freedom he received since the fall of Communism. The French flag themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity set the stage for three different stories that interconnect at the right times. Juliette Binoche, Irene Jacob, Julie Deply, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Zbigniew Zamachowski starred in this amazing slate of work with insight by noted Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf, interviews with some of the cast and crew, and the post-career documentary, I’m So-So, with Kieslowski himself made before his death.

Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)

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