In retrospect, last week’s gift guide for movie geeks was seriously lacking in one important element: it needs more Criterion. The Criterion Collection, as you presumably well know, is the preeminent home video label for film nerds, lavishing their second-to-none skills of restoration and supplementation on titles both well-known and obscure. So yes, a week-late addendum: if you’re shopping for cinephiles, a title or two from the Criterion Collection should do the trick.
Alas, which titles? At 600+ films (and growing monthly), sifting through the collection is a daunting task. Thankfully, the label is more than happy to help out; one of the most enjoyable time-killers on their site is their section of Top 10s, in which film fans from across the spectrum — directors, screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, comedians, critics, etc. — select their ten favorite Criterion titles, often with concise mini-reviews for each. After the jump, in a bit of meta list construction, we’ve picked out ten of our favorite folks from that page, and a few of their recommendations as well.
Few filmmakers are as immediately identified with Criterion as Anderson, whose entire filmography (save one title, The Fantastic Mr. Fox) has appeared under the Criterion banner. When approached to make his list, Anderson decided “to simply quote myself from the brief fan letters I periodically write to the Criterion Collection team.” His selections include The Friends of Eddie Coyle (“It’s not upbeat”), The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (“The man who plays Louis cannot give a convincing line reading, even to the ears of someone who can’t speak French — and yet he is fascinating”), and his #1 pick, Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De… Of that disc, he writes: “This interview with Louise de Vilmorin on the Earrings of Madame De… DVD is very funny. She is already mesmerizing and charming and unlike anybody you’ve ever met — and then she starts talking about the movie. She hated it, in fact? Max Ophuls made a perfect film.”
Coen Brothers favorite, Boardwalk Empire star, and recent Saturday Night Live host Buscemi sings the praises of Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence (“Each film is made with a love, passion, and style unique to John, and inspiring to the rest of us”), William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (“This title never comes through the spell check unscathed”), and Man Bites Dog (“It’s not for everybody, but it genuinely shocked me while I laughed my ass off”). His favorite is John Schlesigner’s Billy Liar : “An early sixties, black and white British gem from John Schlesinger. Tom Courtenay plays a dreamer who wants to bust out of his small town with the help of Julie Christie. One of the saddest endings to a comedy I’ve ever seen. I saw John Schlesinger give a Q&A after a special screening at the Film Forum, and he said he didn’t feel that the ending was sad at all, just appropriate to Billy’s character.”
Pan’s Labyrinth director Del Toro refused to be tied to the “unfair, arbitrary, and sadistic top ten practice,” electing instead to present ten “thematic/authorial pairings.” The results include two Preston Sturges titles (“These are masterful films full of mad energy and fireworks, but Sullivan’s Travels also manages to encapsulate one of the most intimate reflections about the role of the filmmaker as entertainer”), two Kubricks (“Kubrick was a fearsome intellect. His approach to filmmaking and storytelling remains as mysterious at it is compelling. The illusion of control over the medium is total”), two Gilliams (“Terry Gilliam is a living treasure, and we are squandering him foolishly with every film of his that remains unmade”), and, in the top spot, the Kurosawa trio of Throne of Blood, High and Low, and Ran . “Kurosawa’s being one of the essential masters is best represented by these, his most operatic, pessimistic, and visually spectacular films,” Del Toro writes. “Try and guess which is which.”
The distinctive director of The Piano and Holy Smoke has two of her own films ( An Angel at My Table and Sweetie ) in the collection. For her list, she picked Fellini’s La Strada (“His shots and storytelling are so at ease and elegant, it’s as if he’s thinking his shots through a camera in his mind and straight onto a screen”), Godard’s Contempt (“Funny, chic, beautiful Brigitte Bardot (for god’s sake) and haunting”), Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (“He blazes through the hypocrisy at the heart of our bourgeois lives mercilessly — no one is sacred, no ideal or moral is spared”), and Lilana Cavini’s The Night Porter (“A film that made an enormous impression on me” — no kidding). Her #1 is shared by many: Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai . “I like to see this film once every few years,” she writes. “I love it for its balance of humor, drama, and its deep affection for our noble and flawed natures. When I remember the film I smile and enjoy very much the breadth of the characters, all the beautiful courageous, broken and romantic samurai. I too want to be one of those samurai, and I want to make such a strong and kind film.”
Yauch isn’t just “MCA” of the Beastie Boys; he’s also a filmmaker (directing several of the Beasties videos and their concert film under the pseudonym Nathanial Hörnblowér) and indie film mogul (his Oscilloscope Pictures released such acclaimed films as Dear Zachary, The Messenger, Meek’s Cutoff, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Bellflower, and the forthcoming We Need to Talk About Kevin). He mostly uses his list for a free-form essay on working with the company (“Sometimes I get free DVDs from Criterion, but not always. I wanted to get one of each, you know, like the whole collection, but they said, ‘No, Adam, we don’t do that.’), but his titles include Anderson’s Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou , Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come , Kurosawa’s Sanjuro and Yojimbo, and Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (“I don’t know what to write. I just love this movie”). Like Campion, Yauch picks Seven Samurai for “that #1 spot”: “C’mon, I gotta tell why this movie is good? You tell me!”
One of Flavorwire’s favorite comics (and GOP debate live-tweeters), Oswalt is also a confirmed movie nut. Among his Criterion favorites: the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter (“One of the best horror movies ever made. The whole movie is shot inside the belly of a quivering, invisible demon — the 1960s, rotting in the sunshine of idealism and about to burst with flies”), Powell and Pressburger’s Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (“Imagine a big-screen version of Family Circus that manages to be a searing indictment of the American family”), and Fellini’s Amarcord (“God, I love huge breasts, and this one’s got two of the hugest-est. Also, it’s a coming-of-age teen sex comedy, but with fascism! Also, the boobs”). His top pick is The Killer , but he seems to just be showing off (“Out of print, but I’ve got it! Wheeee!”); in terms of the titles you can actually get your hands on too, we suggest the tough, compact, brilliant genre picture Blast of Silence .
The gloriously demented director of Drive, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising shows some less-than-surprising influences here: Videodrome, Flesh For Frankenstein (“the only film I’ve ever wished that I had made”), The Battle of Algiers (“I was twenty-four years old when I made my first film, Pusher (about the Danish drug underworld), and for it I stole everything I could, both visually and technically, from this film and Cannibal Holocaust“). He bookends the list with two thrillingly gonzo Japanese yakuza action films by director Seijun Suzuki: Branded to Kill at #10, Tokyo Drifter (“Unique, brilliant, fantastic! I love this movie!”) at #1.
Actor, commentator, and new podcast host Baldwin puts together a real greatest-hits list here, and his commentary indicates that he might want to think about another sideline as film critic. Included in his list are Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (“Making perhaps one of the twenty-five greatest dramas of the past thirty years, Lee is in Sidney Lumet territory here, by way of Paddy Chayefsky, by way of Huey P. Newton”), Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (“When Wes Anderson asked me to provide incidental narration to his film about the Tenenbaum tribe, I honestly could not make out what the film was about. It turned out to be a Wes Anderson film, which, in my mind, is the New Yorker magazine’s cartoon staff meets Jules Feiffer meets Preston Sturges. Or, perhaps, none of that”), Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (“Any film that propelled Gary Oldman to stardom is an important film, as I believe Oldman is the greatest film actor of his generation”), and, in the top slot, the indelible Z (“One of the most searing political thrillers ever made, and one of Costa-Gavras’s greatest.”)
Love her or hate her, the screenwriter of Juno and the upcoming (and terrific) Young Adult has got good movie taste. Of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused : “A film that seems to get more important every year, and I don’t mean that facetiously.” On Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box : “With those sad manga-heroine eyes and immaculate bob haircut, she’s become like Marilyn Monroe for nerds.” The Maysles’ Grey Gardens : “I don’t view this as a tragedy. There’s probably a Grey Gardens on every street in America.” Soderbergh’s brilliant and utterly inexplicable Schizopolis : “Totally balls-out and unapologetic.” And, in the top spot, Do The Right Thing again: “Heat rises off this film. Everything about it is hot: the iconic eye-searing color palette, the characters’ respective tempers, and, of course, Lee’s hyperstylized, sweltering Bed-Stuy simulacrum. But there ain’t nothing sluggish about it.”
Familiar from his killer supporting turns in David Mamet’s films and his memorably laconic voice-over for the opening of Magnolia, Jay — acknowledged as one of the world’s finest magicians — unsurprisingly finds a place for both Orson Welles’ terrific mediation on magic and fakery, F for Fake (“As a longtime student of deception, and occasional practitioner, I find much to admire in this playful paean to the psychology of the con”) and Sturges’ The Lady Eve (“My love of confidence games, card-sharps and great filmmaking makes this the most obvious choice on the list”). Also rating high for Jay are Secret Honor (“Everything I didn’t want to think about Richard Nixon was brought to life in a remarkable performance by Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s underappreciated classic”), Seven Samurai (“Criterion has reissued many of Kurosawa greatest films, and my list could easily have consisted solely of his titles”), and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps , of which he writes: “Hitchcock’s great mystery includes a wonderful character called Mr. Memory, not present in the novel by John Buchan. He was based on a drop-out know-it-all autodidact named W.J.M. Bottle, who was billed in vaudeville as Datas, The Memory Man.” Just the kind of oddball trivia we’d expect from Mr. Jay.
What about you? What are you favorite Criterion titles?