The company Criterion Collection began restoring and rereleasing classic, art house and foreign films in 1984. Since then, the word “Criterion” has become synonymous with quality movies. The collection includes some of the greatest films ever made, from big-budget Hollywood classics such as “The Silence of the Lambs” to international art house masterpieces like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
In 2019, the company took its first step into the digital world with the Criterion Channel, a streaming service dedicated to delivering high-quality Criterion restorations at a more affordable price. Since purchasing a year-long subscription to the Criterion Channel, I’ve seen many incredible movies that otherwise might have slipped under the radar. So, to celebrate the channel’s second birthday, here are 10 incredible movies to begin your Criterion journey. Movies are listed in chronological order.
“The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)
Carl Theodor Dreyer captures lightning in a bottle with “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” one of the greatest silent films ever made. The movie approaches Joan’s story with a different perspective: while most portrayals of Joan’s story involve an armor-clad warrior with a divine mission to conquer, Dreyer chooses to focus on her trial and subsequent execution. Most of the film is shot in startling close-ups of characters against the sparse white walls of Joan’s prison. Maria Falconetti gives one of the best performances in cinema history as the titular martyr using only her face. Rather than feeling limited by its 1920s technology, this film seems emboldened, as if sound would have compromised its purity of spirit. “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is a prayer on celluloid and is essential viewing for anyone seeking to dive deeper into cinema.
“Pather Panchali” (1955)
While “Pather Panchali” tells the story of an impoverished family living in a rural Bengal village, nature is the main character of Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece. Nature can be both a force of nourishment and a force of destruction, just as society can be a bastion of community and a force of oppression. In one particularly impactful scene about halfway through the movie, a deluge of rain catches the young Apu (Subir Banerjee) and his older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta) as they are relaxing by the river. In the downpour, Durga begins to dance. As she twirls, her long hair whips around her and sends raindrops flying in every direction. From his perch on a nearby tree, Apu stares transfixed at the beauty of the scene below him. At this moment, we are all Apu, gazing at the aching beauty that is “Pather Panchali,” and we too are left speechless.
“Nights of Cabiria” (1957)
Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is a Roman prostitute with a heart of gold. She can stand her ground in a fight, she’s proud to own her own house and she doesn’t need anything from anyone. Yet under her tough exterior lies a sweetness, a naivete that complicates her efforts to escape her life as a prostitute. Federico Fellini’s characterization of Cabiria feels like an homage to Charlie Chaplin and his recurring character of the lovable tramp who never loses his optimism and humor, no matter how unfortunate the situation. Very few directors could successfully balance the comedy of Cabiria’s antics as she wanders around Rome with the tragedy she faces. Masina’s performance is gorgeously multilayered and complex. From moonlit Roman alleyways to swanky private nightclubs, “Nights of Cabiria” showcases Fellini and Masina at their best.
Though Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954) is widely regarded as the best samurai movie of all time, the emotional impact, sparse visuals and unique narrative structure of Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” gives it a real run for its money. Tatsuya Nakadai delivers one of his finest performances as Hanshiro Tsugumo, an aging samurai who arrives at the palace of a wealthy daimyo and asks to perform ritual suicide on his property. The daimyo, suspecting a con, decides to call Hanshiro’s bluff by forcing him to follow through on his request. Little does the daimyo know, Hanshiro has another motive entirely. “Harakiri” is a scathing critique of the samurai Bushido code, in which warriors preferred death to dishonor
Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is the story of a young nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) who is charged with taking care of an actress who has suddenly gone mute (Liv Ullmann). As the two women grow closer to one another, their personas begin to meld together until they can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins. The film is a mind-melting glimpse into the indescribable part of the human soul that we bury deep within us.
“A Woman Under the Influence” (1974)
“A Woman Under the Influence” is a hurricane of raw emotion in under 10 scenes. Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) is a magnetic, yet mentally unstable mother of three. As her behavior grows increasingly volatile, her husband Nick (Peter Falk) struggles to keep the family together. The movie is a tragedy of love without understanding. Nick and Mabel love each other fiercely, yet they can’t see how to help one another. Rowlands delivers a stellar performance, and director John Cassavetes crafts a film so human that there’s beauty to be found in the pain. It is a perfect representation of the golden age of American independent cinema.
In an unknown place at an unknown time, a man with no name leads two others to a destination they cannot even begin to comprehend. Such is a plot that only Andrei Tarkovsky could pull off. “Stalker” is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale in which the three men travel through the Zone, a place where the laws of physics do not apply. They search for the Room, where one’s deepest desires are granted. Walking headfirst into the unknown, they place all of their faith in a man who knows not much more than themselves. Through the film’s profound philosophical intentions and its gorgeous and mesmeric visuals, Tarkovsky manages to lull the viewer into a trance and knock them off of their feet.
“Paris is Burning” (1990)
“Paris is Burning” is a snapshot of the ballroom scene of 1980s New York City, in which queer BIPOC communities were free to express themselves without fear. The film is a celebration of love and strength in the face of oppression. The legendary children of the ballroom lie on their beds, surrounded by cutouts from Vogue magazine, dreaming of acceptance, wealth, beauty and fame — things they know they will not have. We lost an entire generation of queer people, especially queer people of color, to AIDS and the disproportionate violence committed against those communities. Yet here they live on, with their dreams, laughter and struggle immortalized on film. Their willingness to fight has paved the way for future LGBT youth to be their authentic selves and to know that there is no limit to how high they can fly. In the age of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” this film serves as a reminder of how far LGBT rights have progressed in the last 30 years and that the fight is ongoing.
“La Haine” (1995)
“La Haine” is over 20 years old, yet it feels like it could have been released last month. It follows three young men, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Hubert (Hubert Koundé) and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) as they wander the streets of Paris, waiting to hear news about their friend who was brutally beaten by police. Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Paris is gritty and dark, depicted in stunning black and white cinematography, and the soul of “La Haine” is the searing anger of rebellion against an unjust system. The film tells the story of a world that has turned its back on these three boys, labeling them criminals from the day they were born. As Hubert puts it, “It’s about a society falling. On the way down, it keeps telling itself: ‘So far so good … So far so good … ’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”
“In the Mood for Love” (2000)
Since moving into adjacent apartments, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) pass one another every day on the way to the noodle shop. Over and over again, they come within inches of each other on the stairwell, and for a fraction of a second, their eyes meet. This single glance carries more intensity than most car chase scenes. Eventually, Mr. Chow and Su Li-zhen come to the realization that their spouses are having an affair with one another. The two form a bond around their shared heartbreak, only to find love where it isn’t welcome. “In the Mood for Love” manages to be an intensely romantic movie without a single kiss. Rather, Wong Kar-Wai finds the romance in an accidental brush of hands, in the looks that his two protagonists give one another when they think they aren’t noticed, in the deep reds of Su Li-zhen’s curtains and in the cigarette smoke of the noodle shop.