Any serious film buff knows the Criterion Collection focuses on making quality editions of classic and influential films available to the aficionado for home viewing. And while legendary filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Terence Malick and Orson Welles are well represented here, Criterion also offers choices for everything from a romantic evening in, to escapist fantasies, to of-the-moment documentaries to satisfy even the harshest amateur critics.
Think of it as the library at one of the most international and quirky film schools around. But with a list now nearing 1,400 films, narrowing down your choices can be a daunting task. But it doesn’t have to be.
Here are the top 25 classic films from the collection, ones designed to showcase the best work of a director you may not be familiar with while also keeping you glued to the seat.
Top Twist and Turn Film from the Criterion Collection
Dealing with sensitive subjects in a frank manner was a hallmark of many of the films directed by Otto Preminger. His battles with the censors were legendary and frequent, often over the use of words and images that are part of the everyday lexicon. His 1953 film The Moon is Blue was targeted by censors over its use of the word “virgin,” while 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm (starring Frank Sinatra) could not be shown in many cities because of its realistic portrayal of the impact of drug withdrawal. Both times, Preminger went to court and won, and his work is credited with liberalizing what can be portrayed in mainstream film.
His 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder is what critics call the best pure trial movie ever made, offering more twists and turns than a season’s worth of Law & Order episodes.
Jimmy Stewart plays the attorney who defends an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering his wife’s rapist, in a story based on a real-life 1952 Michigan case that was turned into a novel by the defendant’s attorney. In another bit of trivia, the film’s trial judge is played by Joseph Welch, the Army lawyer famous for his confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy, where he asked the senator, “Have you no sense of decency?”
Top Women-Centered Film from the Criterion Collection
Director Paul Mazursky made his name writing witty comedies, all of which took place either in New York or Los Angeles, but it is his New York-based An Unmarried Woman (1978) that marks the high point in the career of actress Jill Clayburgh.
The screenplay, about a woman learning to live again after her husband leaves her for a younger woman, is a strikingly resonant and woman-centered film that earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and for Mazursky’s screenplay. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Clayburgh’s performance as Erica, “Nothing less than extraordinary,” while the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael praised how the film dealt with recognizable people in everyday situations. The film is an unflinching look into the sexual politics of the 1970s.
Top Comedic Thriller from the Criterion Collection
Whether it was as adman Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, or as the multiple identities he takes on in Stanley Donen’s 1963 thriller Charade, may be the most underrated quality of Cary Grant’s performances was his subtle sense of humor.
Sure, Charade offers banter between Grant and the legendary Audrey Hepburn, along with a healthy dose of romance, as the film was shot on location in Paris. Here Grant stars as a conman, or government agent or vengeful brother, depending on the day, as he tries to protect Hepburn from three men bent on recovering a fortune stolen by Hepburn’s dead husband.
Part romantic comedy, part spy thriller, and part heist movie, Charade shows that the later performances of Grant (he only performed in two more films in his storied career) pack all of the charm of the roles that made him famous. Charade also boasts an Academy Award-nominated score by Henry Mancini.
Top Foreign Film Box Sets of The Criterion Collection
Fans of foreign films will find plenty in the collection to occupy their viewing time. The Lone Wolf and Cub series box set from Japan offers six movies of chanbara, essentially well-choreographed animated movies of samurai combat. Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara focus on the filmmaker’s collaboration with screenwriter Kobo Abe, whose adaptation of his own novel Woman in the Dunes is the standout here. The films blend the mundane and the Kafkaesque with stunning effect.
Another box set: Three Colors by Kristof Kieślowski offers the films Blue, White and Red, the filmmaker’s examination of the qualities defined by the three colors of the French flag. Those colors stand for the tenets of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—as the films study how our lives can be shaped by profound disruption. This 1990s trilogy is often credited with inspiring a boom in American interest in foreign film.
Top Documentaries of The Criterion Collection
The collection also offers plenty to recommend for fans of documentary filmmaking. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker teamed up to direct The War Room, the story of the 1992 presidential election campaign as the film follows the upstart Clinton campaign on its improbable march through scandal and setback to November victory. Consultant James Carville’s mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” focused the campaign message, and the film helped cement the careers of consultants Carville and his partner Paul Begala, and a young advisor named George Stephanopoulos, today the chief anchor of ABC television’s Good Morning, America and This Week programs.
Pennebaker also created two of the most notable rock and roll films ever made.
Don’t Look Back follows Nobel laureate Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, his last tour as an exclusively acoustic performer. In addition to the insight into one of America’s greatest songwriters, the film offers fans a glimpse into one of the earliest examples of the cinema verité, behind-the-scenes style of documentary filmmaking that still dominates the genre today.
His other noteworthy concert film, Monterey Pop, documents the Monterey International Pop Festival held during the 1967 Summer of Love, and features burn-the-house-down performances by an eclectic group of performers including Otis Redding, Simon and Garfunkel, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, and The Who. One of Pennebaker’s camera operators at Monterey, Albert Maysles, teamed with his brother David and fellow director Charlotte Zwerin for Gimme Shelter, which follows The Rolling Stones on their raucous 1969 American tour. The camera notably captures the murder of a fan by Hell’s Angels at the free concert held at the Altamont Speedway, a moment that can be seen as the final death knell of 1960’s optimism.
Top Low Budget Highly Intimate Films of the Criterion Collection
While it’s tempting to think of contemporary directors like Wes Anderson (whose 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums is a Criterion pick) as innovators, much of what Anderson does builds on the legacy of filmmakers like John Cassavetes, whose work is represented in the Criterion collection by an anthology John Cassavetes: Five Films.
His style focused on presenting the actors—often including Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands—in naturalistic scenes, typically shot with a hand-held camera. As an actor himself, Cassavetes the director, gave his performers tremendous latitude in interpreting the script, and he largely ignored the idea of Hollywood’s star system, preferring to work with friends and shoot using a modest budget. The resulting films feel intimate, personal, and almost uncomfortably insightful. The collection includes perhaps his best received work, the 1974 A Woman Under the Influence, which garnered Cassavetes an Academy Award nomination as best director and was one of the first 50 films chosen for the National Film Registry in 1990.
The Top Action Film of the Criterion Collection
No movie list would be complete without one action movie, the kind meant for summer weekend nights and the largest tub of popcorn imaginable. That honor on the Criterion list has to go to the 1998 Michael Bay film Armageddon.
In a summer when there were two movies about killer comets obliterating life on Earth (Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact was praised for being a more plausible scenario, but Armageddon prevailed at the box office) Bruce Willis leads a team of roughneck oil drillers into outer space. With its nods to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a good sense of humor, and then state-of-the-art visual effects, Armageddon is the perfect popcorn movie to test out the performance of your new 4K TV.
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The Top 25 Films from the Criterion Collection and where to stream them:
- Anatomy of a Murder
- An Unmarried Woman
- Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
- Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx
- Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades
- Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Perl
- Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons
- Lone Wolf and Cub: White Heaven in Hell
- Woman in the Dunes
- Three Colors: Blue
- Three Colors: White
- Three Colors: Red
- The War Room
- Don’t Look Back
- Monterey Pop
- Gimme Shelter
- The Royal Tenenbaums
- A Woman Under the Influence
- The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
- Opening Night
- A Constant Forge