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The Criterion Shelf: Criterion Channel Essentials

Five of ThatShelf.com's writers help you get started on your journey into The Criterion Channel.

New to the Criterion Channel and at a loss as to where to begin?

The treasure trove that the Criterion Collection presents is quite daunting, although its superb curation does help you at least browse easily through all its many offerings.

If you’re looking for key works in the realm of arthouse cinema, myself and That Shelf writers Pat Mullen, Rachel West, Colin Biggs and Barbara Goslawski have looked through the Channel’s permanent gallery and put together list and reasons for why you should start with these.

In alphabetical order:

 

Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)

Bil Antoniou: The life of a Byzantine iconographer in monochrome for three and a half hours in black-and-white and Russian doesn’t sound like a party, but Andrei Tarkovsky’s grand work on the life of Andrei Rublev must be seen, recently restored to its original length. Focusing on the medieval Russian monk who ended up painting some of the most influential icons to hang in eastern Orthodox churches, the film is gorgeously photographed and eerily mystical, factoring in influences of the pagan cultures and Tatar invasions that permeated 15th century Russia.

 

An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)

BA: Jane Campion’s masterpiece tells the heartbreaking story of Janet Frame, a famous New Zealand author who was subjected to years of electroshock therapy after being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. During a time when doctors everywhere were looking for new ways to break ground in the ever-widening field of psychoanalysis, Frame was singled out for her extreme shyness and instantly declared mentally unstable until her work literally saved her life.

Based on her three autobiographies, the film starts from her childhood with her large family, through to her teen troubles and finally to the place of peace and eventual success that she finds as an adult and an artist. Kerry Fox is mesmerizing in the lead, and Campion never lets the pace flag for a moment in the film’s epic running time.

 

L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

Pat Mullen: My favourite of Antonioni’s films. Both it and Red Desert are essential Criterion viewings, as they demonstrate how Antonioni, like his contemporary Federico Fellini, was at the forefront of European art cinema. Whereas Fellini’s films evoke a style and flair for magical realism that go beyond the post-war Italian neo-realism, Antonioni’s films take the poetry of daily life to new heights.

The way that L’Avventura uses cinematic space and time remains invigorating sixty years later. Watching the long takes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, I got a thrill thinking that the experience must have been like sitting in the first audience to screen L’Avventura. His work in Red Desert is equally essential as his first colour film: it uses a muted palette to evoke bleakness and alienation better than a drab black-and-white composition ever could. Plus, Monica Vitti is sensationally good in both films. Spend your summer with Monica!

 

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)

Rachel West: The timeless fairy tale is visually stunning in Jean Cocteau’s take on the classic French tale. With sparse dialogue, the story is largely told in pantomime and features stunning costumes and Baroque set pieces. Cocteau’s visual effects and camera tricks that were astonishing for the era make it one of the Criterion Channel’s essential viewings.

 

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1947)

Colin Biggs: The matte paintings that serve as the backdrop for Black Narcissus are perhaps the most significant practical effects of Hollywood’s Golden Age. These murals, painted on glass to better control the colour and conditions for filming, create a haunting cliff face illusion that made it look like Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) towers over the world. It is so convincing that audiences believed that Kerr actually rang the church bell in India. The backdrop that gave such detail and depth to the shots by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell still hold up after 70 years. The film won Academy Awards for art direction (Alfred Junge) and cinematography (legend Jack Cardiff).

It depicts a group of nuns invited to start a school in the mountains of the Himalayas, who find the elements and their ignorance of local culture (captured by the abhorrent use of brownface) could make their stay difficult. The convent serves as a place of retreat and solitude, but also as a lightning rod for the madness already present in the sisters. This place of earthly pleasures drives a wedge between Sisters Ruth (Kathleen Byron) and Clodagh once Mr. Dean (David Farrar) arrives and throws all of the nuns off-balance. Ruth’s faith is not as ironclad as the other nuns, so when Dean dismisses her advances, he inadvertently sets off a terrifying climax. This wordless sequence recreates the feeling of being chased but unable to run, where Sister Ruth corners Sister Clodagh on the cliff’s edge, staring her down, resembling less a woman of the cloth than a demon.

Critics have oft alluded to Black Narcissus as Powell and Pressburger’s most sensuous film, but it’s also effective as a reminder of a nations’ sins. As the nuns head down the Himalayas and abandon their failed convent, it would be easy for viewers to interpret the scene as Britain leaving India, one of the last vestiges of Britain as an empire. To borrow a phrase from Dave Kehr, who covered the film for Criterion, “these are not images of defeat, but of a respectful, rational retreat from something that England never owned and never understood.”

 

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Barbara GoslawskiGodard’s lament on the death of cinema charts the dissolution of a marriage alongside the violent clash between art and commerce. Shot in glorious Cinemascope, this masterwork of the French New Wave is both his most expressive and most self-reflexive – an apparent contradiction in terms that he effortlessly eradicates with his complex weave of imagery. Cinematic references and insider jokes abound as even the colour scheme evident in the foundation of Cinemascope (red, yellow, blue) is featured in every scene.

Contempt fixates on the fragility of love relationships while, in fact, the very tenuous nature of cinema itself is examined. American producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance) wreaks havoc on director Fritz Lang’s planned film of Homer’s Odyssey. Screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli), caught in the middle, loses sight of what’s important, and in the process causes undo strain on his marriage to Camille (Brigitte Bardot).

Teeming with visual metaphor, it is the quintessential art film – a vivid, passionate voyage that conjures a prototypical meta-film. From its outset the film announces that its film-within-a-film structure is tethered to its film-about-filmmaking essence. Crucial to any considerations of classic cinema, Contempt is also the perfect introduction to Godard’s body of work. It is perhaps his most emotional testament, boasting one of the most achingly haunting soundtracks in cinema.

 

Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne, 1945)

BA: To say that this film is pure cinematic poetry is just not a good enough way to describe it, but any description using mere words does not encompass the great artistic breadth that this beautiful French classic spans. Directed by Marcel Carne, it is an epic of European cinema that is still today, deservedly, a landmark classic. Told in two parts (during its production, occupying Nazis put time limitations on French public gatherings, which were no longer an issue when it was released), it film tells the tale of a wise and bountifully loving courtesan (Arletty, giving a grand performance) and the four men who love her.

We watch as fate guides these many characters back and forth between their love affair with both her and with their own lives. Full of poignant exchanges that seem to catch on film those wonderful moments in life when the stars seem to be shining just a little bit brighter and the world is caressed by a sweet, intoxicated breeze.

 

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

BA: Fantastic entry in the French New Wave genre filmed by Agnès Varda, who uses real time to tell the story of a sexy cabaret singer waiting for the results of a biopsy test. From 5:30 until 7:00, she hangs around her apartment, goes out and buys a hat, goes for a drive, rehearses with her accompanist, visits a model and meets a stranger in the park. The film keeps sharp record of the time for the whole 90 minutes, and if you watch the clock on your wall you’ll notice that the whole thing is perfectly synchronized.

It’s not a gimmick movie, though; Varda keeps everything light and fun and bathes all of Paris in a beautiful silvery sheen with her gorgeous black and white camerawork, leaving the audience with more to appreciate than the film’s technical finesse. Corinne Marchand is marvelous in the lead, plus look for a cameo by the film’s composer Michel Legrand.

 

Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

BA: One of the smartest and most emotionally moving films in the Kiarostami canon, this incredible mixture of documentary and dramatic recreation hits depths that will linger with you for days. Its narrative is inspired by the real event of a down on his luck man who allowed himself to be mistaken for successful filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, becoming close with a wealthy family after promising to make them key figures in his forthcoming project. When he is found out and arrested, the court case that follows shows both a humorous look at the near-nonsense of celebrity culture and where it can take us, but also takes us to the places that human compassion and understanding can go.

Some of the footage is actually the real situation, other moments are recreated with the real figures involved. It’s not difficult to figure out which is which, but it also does not matter in the least if your guess is wrong. The whole thing moves smoothly through the experience and features moments of incredible poignancy.

 

(Federico Fellini, 1963)

BA: Following the huge success of La Dolce Vita, Fellini finds himself pressed to make another film but is devoid of inspiration. Instead, he makes a film about a director (Marcello Mastroianni as the maestro’s alter ego) who has just made a hugely successful film and can’t find the inspiration to make another. The film he’s trying to make ends up being the film you’re watching, and through a series of personal confrontations, deliciously weird dream sequences and life-affirming revelations, we all go on the artistic journey with him.

Beautifully costumed by Piero Gherardi, who deservedly won his second Oscar for his work, the film is dazzling to all senses and full of many juicy moments for audiences to enjoy. It moves at a deliriously elegant pace and features excellent performances from the entire cast, especially Anouk Aimee as Mastroianni’s emotionally fatigued wife and Sandra Milo as his bubbly mistress. The biggest star has to be Fellini, of course, because for the entire two-and-a-half hours you never forget that his artistic genius is behind the camera.

 

Grey Gardens (David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, 1976)

RW: The Maysles’ documentary about the eccentric and reclusive Beale family – Big Edie and Little Edie – became a cult favourite. For all the over-the-top-ness of the Beales, the Maysles’ look at the fur coat wearing, tap dancing former upper class socialites now living in poverty at the crumbling Grey Gardens mansion is really a great social commentary on the end of an era. Endlessly parodied, it’s worth checking out the Documentary Now parody Sandy Passage with Fred Armisen and Bill Hader immediately after watching this.

 

Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976)

PM: If there’s one documentary—nay, Criterion film—that is worthy of being deemed “essential,” it’s Harlan County, USA. Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Oscar winner is, for my money, the best documentary ever made. A true product of heart, grit, and maxed-out credit cards, Kopple’s film immerses the audience in the standoff between the striking coal miners of Harlan County, Kentucky and the greedy fatcats unwilling to improve the lives of their hard-working employees.

The power of the film is best encapsulated in a scene in which 73-year-old singer Florence Reece rallies the troops at a town hall with a gravelly rendition of her labour ballad “Which Side Are You On?.” The song, one of many folk tunes that peppered the soundtrack, evoked an enduring spirit of Americana that let the film resonate with each fight to come. Kopple chose her side and Harlan County, USA was all the better for it.

 

Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944)

PM:  A good canon of Shakespeare on film is essential for anyone eager to explore innovation in adaptation. The Bard’s work is so widely adapted that the stage-to-screen endeavours easily separate the sheep from the goats. Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare classics are go-to staples for the Bard at his best. (Although I tip my hat to Ran, Chimes at Midnight, and Titus, too.)

This grandly ambitious Henry V put Shakespeare on a scale he had yet to see in the cinema, proving Olivier a true master of both stage and screen with an adaptation that remained faithful to the play’s many speeches, while embellishing the work with truly cinematic battle scenes infused with grit and valour. His “St. Crispin’s Day” speech remains one of his best feats as an actor or director. The film won Olivier a special Oscar, while the Best Actor and Best Picture honours that Hamlet brought two years later were equally deserved.

 

The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

BA: Critics have often told audiences that this rich adventure is the perfect place to start if you have little or no experience with foreign films, probably because it closely resembles American westerns and is the movie that Star Wars was based on. It is also a marvelous epic film by master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and probably his most enjoyable film. It begins with two bickering slaves (later to become droids) who are assigned to escort an exiled princess (have you caught up yet?) to safety with the help of a samurai warrior (Toshirô Mifune setting up for Han Solo). Their endless trek across feudal Japan makes for ecstatic entertainment.

 

Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)

BA: An epic of intimate proportions, beautifully directed by Alain Resnais. It’s mostly conversations, post-lovemaking, between a Japanese businessman (Eiji Okada, who learned French phonetically for the film) and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) on location making a film about the Hiroshima bomb. She tells him about her tragic love affair with a German soldier during World War II and the reprisals she faced from her village, opening herself up emotionally in a way that she hasn’t done in the years since it happened.

Marguerite Duras’s script is the height of erotic cinema, ages ahead of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover which was also based on her writing and made more than thirty years later. Like Antonioni’s L’Avventura, this unconventional film contributed to a new film language of story, image and character.

 

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000)

BA: Gorgeous film by Wong Kar-Wai about forbidden romance between two people caught in unhappy marriages. It’s 1962 in Hong Kong and Maggie Cheung and her frequently travelling husband have rented a room in the apartment of another family. Next door, Tony Leung and his wife are also in the same situation renting a single room. Plot isn’t the hot issue here (the film was actually made without a script), and the story isn’t really a big romantic opus with plot points that unfold with each passing movement. Here the mood is tranquil, the feeling is mellow, and Wong’s excellent use of period detail provides a great deal of the unforgettable substance.

 

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

BA: Chantal Akerman’s career of experimental works reaches its apex with this superbly daring film, a three-and-a-half hour look at the life of a Brussels widow whose routines make up the bulk of the action. We see her over the course of a few days going through her daily rituals, washing dishes, making dinner, doing her shopping and even turning the odd trick to help make ends meet. Akerman said that it was growing up in a traditional Jewish household that gave her the connection between routine and religious ritual, and somehow this spiritual connection between the two is felt even while watching this woman make her bed every morning.

Thanks to the solid camerawork following the low-key action, the repetition has a soothing effect; the attention paid to detail makes you wonder if a life of healthy upkeep really is all that mundane? Akerman finds the magic in the everyday, and it is remarkable.

 

Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)

BA: One of François Truffaut’s most beloved films, and probably his most famous after The 400 Blows. An Austrian scientist (Oskar Werner) and a French writer (Henri Serre) meet and immediately become best friends, inseparable from the word go. Werner is hot on the trail of love in his life, so their relationship naturally takes a twist in a new direction when their privacy is interrupted by the appearance of a beautiful woman (Jeanne Moreau) and they become a misfit trio of sorts. The war soon separates them, followed by their reunion where they realize that both men have deep feelings for Moreau in their own way.

Despite the suggestion of the title, the lady is the focal point of this ingenious character study that spans a thirty year friendship (in which, curiously, none of the actors ever seem to age), and no other woman would ever be written so richly in this manner of now-familiar storytelling. Catherine is enigmatic and boisterous, passionate and morally complex, and Moreau brings her to life with raging, red hot blood pumping through her veins. A magnificent achievement in the cinema of love, and a milestone in the French New Wave.

 

Mala Noche (Gus Van Sant, 1985)

BA: The writings of Walt Curtis inspired Gus Van Sant’s feature debut, a film that still holds up after two decades with the same fresh originality it had upon its first release. Tim Streeter is excellent as a time-waster in Portland whose creative energies are mainly channeled into his desire to have sex with a tough Mexican boy (Doug Cooeyate) who doesn’t return his feelings. Streeter’s desires are sublimated into a mercenary, unemotional sexual connection with the object of his affection’s friend (Ray Monge), but it’s never enough to quench his desire. Van Sant’s film has the look and feel of standard art-house student material: grainy black-and-white photography with the frame rarely lit in full, grungy production values and ragged editing, yet none of it feels like a pose.

There’s gritty lust in every scene, and surprisingly the characters are sympathetic despite their general aimlessness. Streeter’s fine performance puts across a man looking for a comfortable place to put his passion, and Van Sant makes sure that even the least plot-relevant situations mine the character’s energies to their fullest potential.

 

Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)

BG: Federico Fellini earned his second consecutive Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for Nights of Cabiria (following La Strada). This early masterpiece is pivotal to the understanding of the artist’s work. Steeped in the roots of Italian Neorealism, Nights of Cabiria also lays the ground work for his more fantastical, carnivalesque work that follows. This is the film Fellini made right before La Dolce Vita. Giulietta Masina (Fellini’s real life spouse) won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for her turn in the title role as Cabiria, a prostitute looking for true love in post war Rome. She defiantly masks the deep heartbreak at the core of her bleak existence.

In place of the lavish lifestyles presented in the films that follow, Fellini summons his early experiences with Italian Neorealism, particularly under the tutelage of Roberto Rosselini, to unravel a sharply observed drama of destitution, of people living on the outskirts of society, both literally and figuratively.  As a precursor to the fantastical world of La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria even hints at the freer visual style evident in the latter. With its circus-like cast of characters, Nights of Cabiria embraces the human comedy that is life – the realism of the film is peppered with wondrous moments, and the enchanted final sequence is must-see cinema.

 

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

RW:  Dreyer’s film is one of the silent era’s true masterpieces. With expressionist touches, the stunningly intimate close-ups of the film’s lead Renée Falconetti allow the actress to convey so much with just her eyes, it’s still an astonishing thing to behold more than 90 years after its release. Unlike other treatments of Joan of Arc, Dreyer’s focus is on the inner psychological workings of the woman through her trial, not the bloody battles and shining armour.

 

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

RW: There’s plenty of Kurosawa films that are more than worth your time, but Rashomon gets my vote as one of the Criterion Channel’s must-sees. The thriller’s narrative where the recollection of a singular incident is told from four different perspectives was radical and daring at the time of release made it an instant classic. While we now take the non-linear narrative structure for granted, Rashomon is also a masterclass is editing and cinematography, as well as Kurosawa’s ode to the silent film era. It’s also one of the best places to start easing yourself into Japanese cinema.

 

Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)

BA: More art house brilliance from Michelangelo Antonioni, here making his first film in colour. Monica Vitti stars as a disillusioned young wife and mother who, following a car accident, wanders about the industrial landscape of her husband’s factory in search of what seems to have gone missing from her life. It doesn’t have the marvelous thrust to its opening that L’Avventura‘s missing girl plot had, and it’s hopelessly pretentious, but Antonioni’s tastefully elegant framing is, as always, stunning.

 

Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

BA: Kenji Mizoguchi applies his emotionally palpable style to a Japanese legend that has been retold for centuries, finding endless depths of poignancy in its basic story of revenge and redemption. A local governor angers his superiors by being generous with his populace in a way that goes against standard law. Ousted from his position and in need of a quick escape, he sends his wife and two children ahead in the hopes that they will reach safety before him.

Unfortunately, she falls into the hands of rough brigands who separate her from her young, sent to a remote island and forced to work in a bordello, while the children are exiled elsewhere and made to be slaves at the estate of a minister’s brutal bailiff. The years pass, the children grow, and never forget their origins or their desire to go back to their family, but the film’s true tragedy is that some things, once lost, can never be recovered thanks the cruelty of time.

 

Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, 1955)

BA: This beautiful, lyrical comedy-drama inspired countless imitations and even a Broadway musical (A Little Night Music). A beautiful but lonely actress (Eva Dahlbeck) invites her lover, his wife, her ex-lover, his wife and son to her mother’s country villa to play out a game of mix-and-match with the couples, hoping that the end result will work out in her favour. Ingmar Bergman injects a lovely sense of poetry into the dialogue, presenting a more starry-eyed and loving portrait of humanity than he had ever shown before in his more turgid dramas.

 

Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)

BA: For my money the greatest film ever made.  An elderly couple travel from their small town to the big city of Tokyo to visit their successful children. Their son can hardly be bothered with them, while their daughter indifferently passes them off to her widowed sister-in-law, the only one of the group who treats the couple with any genuine affection. Heartbreaking in its sincerity, the film is graced with gorgeous cinematography and a wonderfully light touch for even the harshest aspects of the drama. Those looking for great character study have rarely had it this good.

 

The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

RW:  Those in search of suspense should look no further than the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot. Between The Wages of Fear, Le Corbeau and Diabolique, the Criterion Channel already has you set up for the ultimate triple bill. With The Wages of Fear, Clouzot’s thrilling premise about four men who take a job driving an explosive load of nitroglycerine over a bumpy mountain pass is the most nail-biting thanks to its brilliant pacing.

 

White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)

BAClaire Denis returns to the continent of her youth in a harrowing account of an unnamed post-colonial African country, torn apart by civil war with its inhabitants in constant danger for their lives. The magnificent Isabelle Huppert plays the proprietress of a plantation who insists that the rumours of battle are overstated and that the panic is unnecessary, desperately trying to keep her workers from leaving but unable to prevent it. Instead she looks to hire temporary workers until the situation tides over, but the process of merely going into town to get money and then traveling to remote parts of the city to find people to work for her is a journey that puts her life in danger at any turn. It doesn’t help that her husband (Christopher Lambert) is no longer interested in their property, and her son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) has no interest in hard work.

The violence that this much-abused world indulges in is never graphically exploited by the director, but is put forward quite honestly, while the commentary on European presence in Africa is thoughtfully provoking but never didactic. One of the most powerful films ever made on its subject, and one of the best of its year.

 

Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

BA: Ingmar Bergman’s probing, sensitive drama stars an excellent Victor Sjöström as a professor who is nearing his twilight years. On a road trip with his vindictive daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) towards a ceremony that will honour his career as a doctor, he ruminates on his life, about what made it fulfilling or frustrating in an exquisitely filmed Mrs. Dalloway-like fashion. Along the way they pick up a spirited young woman (Bibi Andersson) and her two boyfriends who inspire more memories of his youthful days. Bergman’s films would often be this deep, but very rarely would they ever be this delicate again (at least for those of us who think that the woman mutilating her genitals with cut glass in Cries and Whispers was just a bit too much).

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