Film snobs, report immediately to your local pharmacy and pick up a large bottle of Vitamin D. You shall not see the sun for quite some time.
From the ashes of FilmStruck (RIP) comes the best streaming service for hardcore cinephiles ever. The Criterion Channel, an off-shoot of the DVD and Blu-ray shingle Criterion Collection, is finally here and it is a dream come true.
Approximately 1580 movies that form the basis of the world film canon are now but a click away. Most of the foundational film school classics are represented, but there are also unexpected oddball choices. Wisely, Criterion is using its curatorial instinct to make the channel feel more programmed than just a gigantic content drop. Its front page features a highlighted director (Agnès Varda, who recently died, makes for an appropriate current choice) plus there are some films collected by theme. There is even a "calendar" of double features. (The titles don't go away if you miss the day, but it's nice to think that there's a movie waiter out there serving you.)
Much attention has been given to a new acquisition, a cache of older films from Columbia Pictures collected as Columbia Noir. The eleven titles currently available (none of them household names) are presented as "Season One."
Additionally, there are roughly a billion extra features and commentary tracks; most of what is on Criterion's sleek home video releases are here. There is also new programming, particularly interviews with film directors like Guillermo Del Toro and Barry Jenkins, as well as cinephile personalities like Bill Hader and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (For the most part, they yap about a movie they love, then you can click over and watch the thing.) There's also a nice film school 101 where different cinematic techniques (dissolves, narrative symmetry) are discussed by some scholarly egghead, pegged to specific titles.
Sounds great, right? At $11 bucks a month it's not that expensive, as these things go. There's also a 14-day free trial, and a price break at $100 if you buy for a full year.
But when you finally type in your credit card number it is going to be overwhelming. What, you ask, is the best stuff? Luckily, I am here to help.
As a snooty pants cinephile with the film school diploma to prove it, let me tell you that narrowing the Criterion Channel's enormous offering was painful. But I did it! To my dismay, many of my all-time favorites who have work on the channel did not make my top 25. No François Truffaut, no John Cassavetes, no Alfred Hitchcock, no Andrei Tarkovsky, no Ingmar Bergman. Allow me to cancel myself.
Still, this list gives you a nice range of styles and points of view, plus a few lesser-known picks. So dim the lights, put on your beret and start streaming.
1. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini), 1963, Italy.
Alphabetical order works wonders here as 8 1/2 is something of the ur-Criterion movie - a renown classic from a titan of international cinema with iconic imagery and groundbreaking narrative devices. Plus it's about a self-absorbed filmmaker who would assume his movies would live in a place of prominence in a "collection" just like this.
Marcello Mastroianni is Guido Anselmi, a libertine director suffering a creative block. He's got enough self-awareness to realize this is mostly a first world problem, but still egotistical enough to let it play out as an earth-shattering drama. Fellini's bold visual swoop zooms through spa villages and movie sets, in and out of fantasy sequences and childhood flashbacks. This is sumptuous cinema at its finest. (Watch here.)
2. Black Narcissus (Emeric Powell and Michael Pressburger), 1947, United Kingdom.
A gorgeous technicolor drama set in a convent high in the Himalayas. Deborah Kerr is trying to stay focused on her Godly duties, but with handsome David Farrar keeps coming around it gets difficult not to drop her habit. Jean Simmons and Sabu co-star.
Powell and Pressburger did not shoot on location on the Indian subcontinent but instead leaned into the use of marvelous matte paintings and dramatic interior sets on the massive Pinewood Studios soundstages. As such, this tale of repressed longing has an even more exaggerated sense heightened reality. (Watch here.)
3. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard), 1960, France.
Nearly 60 years on, Breathless (and the other films of the French Nouvelle Vague) still has the crackle of youth and rush of ingenuity. Like the rest of us, the Criterion Channel programmers respect this movement as foundational to film snobbery, so many titles of the era are represented. There's certainly room to debate if Breathless is the best of the bunch, but it's certainly the most jam-packed.
Jean-Paul Belmondo is a small-time criminal who hides out with his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) after he shoots a police officer. But it isn't really about the plot. It's the breezy way the film was shot and cut together, with zero regards for "the rules" of stodgy existing cinema. The camera rolls along the busy Parisian sidewalks, incorporating scenes with non-actors. It lingers in the bedroom as lovers chat, wasting the afternoon, jump-cutting past the boring parts even if that reminds you that you are watching a movie. A lot of this won't seem shocking now, but for its time it was absolutely revolutionary. (Watch here.)
4. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai), 1994, Hong Kong.
Wong Kar-wai's best film is a dizzying whirl of romance and beauty in the seedy world of Hong Kong crime, moody police officers, and fast food joints. This was "presented" in the United States by Quentin Tarantino when he was at his most influential, and the mix of deadpan humor and energetic camera movement was a clear inspiration. Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a sad cop collecting cans of pineapples to deal with a recent breakup (it's complicated) who then meets up with a woman in a blonde wig on the run from baddies. Faye Wong is a Mamas and Papas-loving greasy spoon counter girl who falls in love with a different sad cop and cleans up his apartment when he's out.
This is another example of a traditional plot being tossed in favor of style; every possible freeze-frame in this frame is worthy of being blown-up, printed out on glossy paper and hung on a wall. (Watch here.)
5. City Lights (Charles Chaplin), 1931, USA.
One of cinema's first auteurs, Chaplin's City Lights (one of his many features and shorts on the Criterion Channel) is his most emotional and sincere, while still being hilarious. If you worry that today's ADHD conditioning with the apps and the tweets and the snaps may not be conducive to silent movies, know that Charlie Chaplin didn't become the biggest icon in moviedom by being a bore. His Little Tramp persona is more than just pratfalls and physical comedy, there's a finely tuned sensibility of setting up jokes for big payoffs.
City Lights finds the Tramp caught in the whirlwind of modern living. He's in love with a blind girl who sells flowers by the side of the road and sometimes finds himself in the good standing of a millionaire (but only when the millionaire is drunk). The centerpiece is a highly choreographed boxing match where the jokes still land decades later. (Watch here.)
6. The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov), 1957, USSR.
The Soviet Union. A country that didn't exactly work out as planned. But you know what? They made some outstanding movies. Many are available on the Criterion Channel (from works by early cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein to head-trip master Andrei Tarkovsky) but one you shouldn't miss is wartime melodrama The Cranes Are Flying.
Two young lovers have their courtship interrupted by Nazi invasion and soon Veronika (the beautiful Tatiana Samoilova) finds herself hastily married to her true love's cousin. He's a jerk and poor virtuous Boris is at the front and things at home are terrible. I'm not going to lie and say this has a happy ending, but the dazzling camerawork, crisp black-and-white cinematography, and courage on the faces of these terrific actors still, somehow, make this an uplifting, if emotionally draining film. (Watch here.)
7. Elevator To The Gallows (Louis Malle), 1958, France.
Though he had many bigger movies later in his career, 24-year-old Louis Malle's debut is too slick and stylish to be denied. A mistaken identity thriller set over the course of one night in Paris, Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet are lovers who think they've cooked up the perfect crime. Naturally, it all goes wrong for the dumbest reason possible: getting stuck in an elevator. This sets off a chain reaction of increased tension through dimly lit streets all set to Miles Davis' moody and highly influential original score. (Tracks from it were used in recent Cannes Film Festival hit Burning.)
Crime doesn't pay but man it sure looks cool. (Watch here.)
8. Eraserhead (David Lynch), 1977, USA.
The mother of all midnight movies, David Lynch's fever dream of dread, parenthood, and God knows what else calls to cinephiles in the middle of the night. Its availability via a click of a remote on the Criterion Channel is a miracle for those of us who had to watch this on duped VHS tapes.
Filmed piecemeal over many years, Eraserhead is set in an industrial wasteland that dips in and out of realism. There are moments of levity and terror which involve not-quite-dead chicken dinners, a shrieking not-exactly-human baby and a chanteuse inside a radiator with creepily puffed-out cheeks. Lynch has never stated definitively what his movie is actually about, and while it is certainly difficult to describe, once you are in it, it does make a weird kind of sense. In heaven, everything is fine. (Watch here.)
9. Fantastic Planet (René Laloux), 1973, France and Czechoslovakia.
The Criterion Channel does not, as of yet, feature too many animated films, but luckily it has this one, a bizarre head trip that almost defies explanation. Set in the distant future, humans are brought to another planet by giant blue beings called Draags. The humans are kept as pets or left to roam free like wild animals. By some accident, one of the pet humans is allowed to receive an education (which is beamed into the Draags' mind in a particularly groovy sequence.) He escapes and tries to lead a resistance.
This film, which mixes '70s sci-fi book cover imagery with the art nouveau style, is drenched in weird sex and violence and is an altogether must-see for cult film lovers. The psychedelic funk-jazz-rock score by Alain Goraguer adds to the wow factor. (Watch here.)
10. The Firemen's Ball (Miloš Forman), 1967, Czechoslovakia.
A marvelous comedy that mixes deadpan political satire with slapstick, this was one of director Miloš Forman's final Czech movies before the Communist regime silenced him and he sped away to Hollywood (to make two Best Picture Oscar winners in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus.)
The Fireman's Ball collects all of a repressive society's absurdities into one place: an annual small town party. The village elders are all leches who make the beauty pageant contestants nervous and the prizes for the big raffle mysteriously keep disappearing. There's boozy humor up top but more serious anger underneath which led to the film being banned. (Watch here.)
11. For All Mankind (Al Reinert), 1989, USA and Outer Space.
Dim the lights, grab a large box of Crunch 'n Munch and sink into the couch. There are a thousand documentaries about the Apollo moon landings, but very few could be classified as art. Director Al Reinert took acres of NASA footage and made a collage of the lunar trips, assembling them as one journey. The footage is (ahem) out of this world, but set to Brian Eno's original score it becomes ethereal and melancholy. (You have absolutely heard some of this music before.)
Disembodied voices are heard throughout. This is from interviews Reinert did with many Apollo astronauts, but what they are saying doesn't always sync up with what you are seeing, and very quickly you lose track of who is saying what. As the voyage continues it becomes less about individuals an more about all mankind. (Watch here.)
12. Häxan (Benjamin Christensen), 1922, Sweden and Denmark.
This is definitely one of the weirder ones on the Criterion Channel: Häxan is a silent mix of narrative and documentary about the topic of witchcraft. Some sections are scholarly deep dives about medieval lore, some offer vignettes about folktales involving Satan and how the possessed were cured in olden times. A concluding section offers "modern" science as debunking tools, showing how what would have at one time been considered the devil's handiwork can now be explained through psychiatry.
Sounds potentially tedious, but the crafty shooting style and creative art direction make this a must-see, particularly for anyone who is into horror movies. A second cut, made in 1968, was called Witchcraft Through the Ages and featured narration by counter-culture author William S. Burroughs and a jazz score featuring prog rock violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. (This version is available to stream as well.) (Watch here.)
13. Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman), 1975, Belgium.
The time has come for you to watch Delphine Seyrig peel potatoes.
Jeanne Dielman is one of the more notorious art films out there, in that most people either absolutely love it or can't get past the 20-minute mark. The three-hour-and-21-minute movie is a deliberate provocation. A single mother is shown in the grueling tedium of her routine. She cooks, she cleans, she keeps things together for her child, she has men come over to pay her for extremely unsexy sex.
Yet it is somehow mesmerizing. Eventually, something rattles and our quiet hero does something out of the ordinary. (I shall not spoil the one bit of action in this movie.) Once you've seen it you can congratulate yourself then dive into the mountains of essays devoted to its subversive brilliance. (Watch here.)
14. Kwaidan (Masakai Kobayashi), 1965, Japan.
A luminous, three-hour collection of, for lack of a better term, ghost stories. Kwaidan collects four tales from folklore, one more eerie and beautiful than the last. Each of the four chapters has a terrific "aha!" twist, and creepy imagery involving long manes of black hair, spirits in snowstorms, blind musicians with protective calligraphy scrawled all over their face and visions in a cup of tea.
The bold use of color and rich, painterly images have wowed cinephiles for decades. It's one of the most beautiful things you'll ever see. But I'll be honest, this is a great one for streaming. Watch one section, take a break, watch the other. Stretching it out might actually work to the movie's benefit. (Watch here.)
15. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt), 2006, USA.
Here's another one where, let's face it, nothing happens. Two friends meet up, take a walk through the woods and soak in a bathtub. That's it, that's the movie. For long stretches, they don't even talk.
And yet ... it's absolutely riveting. One friend is completely off the grid, the other, while still idealistic, maintains a job and is about to become a father. The two talk and exchange ideas. There's a dog with them. The Oregon forest is gorgeous. The original score by Yo La Tengo is moody and evocative. There is a pointillist brilliance to this microscopic film that lends it a kind of unexpected gravitas. When it ends (after only 76 minutes) you feel as if you've witnessed something important even if you can't quite put your finger on it. (Watch here.)
16. Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray), 1955, India.
With no one telling him he couldn't, first-time director Satyajit Ray and a crew of novices adapted a classic Bengali book and made one of the most exuberant, lyrical and breathtaking movies ever made.
Shot on location and eschewing the codes of typical Indian cinema of its time, Pather Panchali is the spiritual grandfather of a million independent coming-of-age films from around the globe. Its debut in the Museum of Modern Art was a big step forward in getting critics to pay attention to movies from more ignored corners of the globe. Two follow-up films (both available on the Criterion Channel, in addition to many other Ray films) formed The Apu Trilogy, a rich chronicle from a time and place quite unlike our own. (Watch here.)
17. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa), 1954, Japan.
By this point in the list, it's possible that you're thinking, "Gee, a lot of these movies sound 'gorgeous' and 'lyrical' but is there anything with any pep?" Well, it's time for some good old fashioned Japanese swordplay, and one of the most killer films of all time.
Seven Samurai (remade as The Magnificent Seven) stars Toshiro Mifune leading six other warriors to defend a village against no good jerks who are stealing all the grain. Getting to know each of the characters and their specialties is a juicy treat and the final showdown is one for the ages. Good luck finding a serious list of "all-time best movies" that doesn't have Seven Samurai high on the chart. It's three-and-a-half hours (all of it awesome) so be sure to clear out a nice chunk of time to watch it. (Watch here.)
18. Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch), 1984, USA.
There was once a time when Manhattan's Lower East Side wasn't all banks and artisanal mayonnaise shops. It was dirty, it was edgy, it was dangerous and it was bursting with low-fi creativity. Its finest film artist was Jim Jarmusch. He still makes outstanding movies (Adam Driver in Paterson to give a recent example) but his early, deadpan not-quite-comedies-but-what-else-do-you-call-them movies have the punch of youth. John Lurie is a local nobody whose cousin, Eszter Balint, comes to visit from Hungary. They hang out for a bit then she goes to Cleveland. Then Lurie and his buddy drive to go visit her. This sounds like I'm making it up but it's what actually happens. It's more about the rhythm; the unbroken, flat, master shots stitched together with cuts to black. It's the music on the tape recorder. It's the ugly cheap restaurants and the weird people they find on their trip. You either get Jarmusch or you don't, and the best way to check is with this early masterpiece. (Watch here.)
19. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves), 1968, USA.
Late 1960s counter-cultural theater heads uptown to Central Park for this hippest of indefinable films. A film crew is documenting a director (this film's actual director) and his actors as they try to improvise their way through a scene. They are watched by a second film crew. A third one comes in to watch it all and sprinkled in are interviews about the meaning of art and sexuality. It's all extremely wheels-within-wheels (or screens within screens) but once you get on its wavelength it is both insightful and comic.
African-American actor, dancer, documentarian and current affairs host William Greaves self-financed the project which screams out late 1960s, but the movie didn't get seen much outside of festivals and museums until, of all people, actor Steve Buscemi stumbled upon it in the 1990s. He showed it to Steven Soderbergh and the two got it back out there, then into the Criterion Collection in 2001. (Watch here.)
20. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami), 1997, Iran.
We movie snobs can argue into the late hours over what is the best work by Persian grandmaster Abbas Kiarostami. My pick is Taste of Cherry, set almost entirely in a car as a guy, Mr. Badii, drives around looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide.
It's not quite as dark as it sounds, but it isn't exactly a comedy either. There is a Goldilocks and the Three Bears aspect to the story. The first person Mr. Badii picks up is a young soldier. After some initial confusion, he refuses the proposal. Next up is a religious scholar. The two men discuss the moral implications of the request at length. Finally, a third man, a taxidermist, seems more willing. He was once suicidal himself, and also really needs the money Mr. Badii is offering. The film's long conversations are punctuated by silences and images of the car shot from a great distance. Taste of Cherry is a movie with a clear aesthetic aim and is relentless in its pursuit. (Watch here.)
21. Vagabond (Agnès Varda), 1985, France.
Vagabond begins with a frozen body of a young, female drifter. We then "meet" the people who saw her in the moments leading up to her death, and work our way back through her final days. Sandrine Bonnaire's Mona is a fiercely independent woman who rejects society. She stays on a farm, she chills with a professor, she interacts with a maid. She is neither good nor bad, and the same could be said for most of the people on her journey. It's just that the world can't function if too many people behave like Mona, so the elements begin to conspire against her.
Though technically a downer of a movie, there are many gorgeous and tender moments, and some of the most riveting images in director Agnès Varda's whole career. There are a lot of French movies on the Criterion Channel (and on this list) but if you are looking for a place to start that doesn't show off like the films of the Nouvelle Vague or something too grand like The Rules of the Game or Children of Paradise, this might be it. (Watch here.)
22. Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg), 1971, Australia.
Cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg cuts from sleek, modern Sydney to the untouched outback in this very tactile, naturalist masterpiece. A father brings his children, a teen daughter played by Jenny Agutter and a scampy son played by Luc Roeg, to the middle of nowhere, then kills himself. The kids are forced to find their way back to civilization and on the way they encounter an Aboriginal young man (David Gulpilil) on his tribal coming-of-age exploration. Together they battle the elements.
Nearly every movie on the Criterion Channel is there because their creators understood that film is a visual medium and didn't waste the opportunity to tell stories with striking images. Walkabout is in the top percent of the top percent for movies that wow you with their look. (Watch here.)
23. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders), 1987, West Germany.
Captured in Berlin just before the wall came down, Wings of Desire is one of the most essential works in world cinema. Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander are two angels who roam the city, listening and, when they can, helping people with their troubles. An early scene of Ganz wandering a public library is one of the most heartbreaking but also funny sequences you'll ever see. Soon our main angel falls in love with a trapeze artist (why not?) and decides to give up his immortality to be with her. The film moves from black-and-white to color as he makes his transformation.
Peter Falk plays himself as a fallen angel who walks among us (I believe it!) and a marvelous sequence takes place at a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert. Wenders later made a sequel called Faraway, So Close! that didn't quite work, but was miles better than the wretched American remake City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. (Watch here.)
24. Yi Yi (Edward Yang), 2000, Taiwan.
A recurring theme on this list is "oh, it isn't so much about the story." Well, Edward Yang's final film, Yi Yi, is an epic multigenerational yarn about Taiwanese family over the course of a year and just dripping with juicy twists and turns. It begins with a wedding and ends in a funeral, and in between, there are all the ups and downs of life. It is a fundamentally nice movie, with a spring in its step even when some of the characters are in tumult. There are bouts with drunkenness, spiritual crises, economic upheavals, and precocious kids who always carry cameras around. Yet these problems are met and conquered with warmth, and Yang's admiration for his characters (as well as for the city of Taipei) is infectious. (Watch here.)
25. Zorns Lemma (Hollis Frampton), 1970, USA.
The Criterion Channel is the best game in town for art films but there are not, as of yet, too many options for "film art." I'm talking non-narrative, experimental, this-should-be-projected-on-the-wall-at-a-museum type stuff. But they have some (including the great Armenian bathe-in-its-beauty visual poem The Colour of Pomegranates) and top of the list is Hollis Frampton's very formal, mathematics-based, Zorns Lemma.
This hour-long film is a visual recitation of the alphabet. Each letter is represented by a printed word, usually, a sign (Bakery for B, for example) filmed for a brief flash in New York City. The alphabet loops, new signs arrive for new letters, but soon letters are "dropped" and replaced by images that don't necessarily have an obvious connection to that letter. Soon your mind starts playing tricks. Which letter will "leave" next? And what is happening in each new replacement image? (Will that wall get painted by the time this is all done?)
This may sound like gobbledygook, but it is surprisingly engaging, and absolutely the type of thing you want to put on in the background at a party. (Watch here.)