Cinephiles know Criterion as a company specializing in film restoration and creating definitive editions of significant films. First they were curators of classic cinematic treasures on laserdisc, then DVD, and now Blu-ray. Criterion has been the respected leader in its field since the 1980s. It is considered an honor for any film to be bestowed the Criterion treatment.
What follows is the best of the best. For anyone new to the Criterion Collection, there must be a starting point. These selections represent truly iconic films with the finest assortment of bonus features ever assembled.
Here is a sampling of how eclectic this collection really is, with titles taken from many of the greatest filmmakers, but no more than one title from any one of them. Nearly every genre is covered, and nearly every decade. World cinema is also generously represented here, as are the early greats. This list is truly an essential beginner’s guide, as well as one for the cinephiles among us to savor.
25. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) Richard Lester
Importance of the Film: Timing was everything for this showcase of the Beatles in their most magical year of 1964. This humorous and playful look at a day in the life of the most wildly-popular musical group ever, did everything right. It was entertaining and fun, and not to be taken seriously. The Beatles played themselves as semi-rebellious, semi-sarcastic idols of their generation, and all four of them have memorable moments in the film.
A Hard Day’s Night’s importance in cinema history is obvious. Watching it some 50 years later also provides a lesson in the culture of that time, not to mention what it did to shape the entire upcoming music video format. A Hard Day’s Night received two Oscar nominations. One for original screenplay and another for original score.
Essential Criterion Features: Criterion released two different editions of A Hard Day’s Night simultaneously to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film: a single-disc and a 3-disc dual-format edition.
Both have a host of bonus features, but the dual-format edition includes the excellent 2002 documentary Things They Said Today, with director Richard Lester and Beatles’ producer George Martin among others, and Richard Lester’s Oscar-nominated short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. These and three other featurettes make it the most essential packaging of the film to date.
24. Brazil (1985) Terry Gilliam
Importance of the Film: Terry Gilliam has become a favorite of Criterion enthusiasts (with five titles now in the collection), and this may be his most focused effort. Unlike Orwell’s 1984 which it is often compared to, Brazil presents a vision of a dystopian society that is both humorous and satirical, but it is still ultimately bleak in its own right.
Jonathan Pryce as main character Sam Lowry stands out, along with a memorable Katherine Helmond as Pryce’s controlling and plastic-surgery-obsessed mother who continues to look younger throughout the course of the film. The sheer number of memorable parts from a cast including De Niro, Hoskins, Holm and Palin would be enough to recommend it, but it is also visually mind-blowing. This one must be viewed more than once to grasp its complete attack on the senses.
Essential Criterion Features: Brazil was originally released as a big 3-DVD box set in 1999, featuring both the 142-minute final cut on disc 1 and the 94-minute “Love Conquers All” version on disc 3 with all of the Universal Studios changes that Gilliam refused to make. It is interesting to contrast the complete edition with the alternate opening and the controversial happy ending that Universal wanted to release.
The memorable audio commentary by Gilliam and a fascinating documentary, The Battle of Brazil, which goes into depth about the various struggles that ensued prior to the film’s release, are the highlights of this essential set. In 2012, Criterion re-released Brazil in a 2-disc Blu-ray edition with all of the previously-produced extras from the box set.
23. Three Colors: Red (1994) Krzysztof Kieslowski
Importance of the Film: Red, white and blue are the three colors of the French flag, and Trois Coleurs: Rouge is the third and final film in the Three Colors trilogy by Polish-born director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Ultimately the last film he ever made, and widely-regarded as the best of the three, Red stars Irene Jacob as a striking model who meets and forms a unique relationship with a cynical retired Swiss judge. This is a judge who carefully monitors the private phone conversations of his neighbors.
Very few films will ever capture life-as-art as effectively as this, and Red provides the perfect bookend to Kieslowski’s trilogy and his esteemed career. Red received three Academy Award nominations in 1995, for director, original screenplay and cinematography.
Essential Criterion Features: Three Colors: Red comes as part of the amazingly feature-packed Three Colors 3-disc Blu-ray collection, some features which are different from those included in the also-excellent Miramax edition. The Criterion Blu-ray boasts a new HD digital restoration, but what film buffs will truly appreciate is not one but three “cinema lessons” from Kieslowski himself.
There are also new interviews with Irene Jacob, producer Marin Karmitz and editor Jacques Witta and the thorough 1995 documentary, Krzysztof Kieślowski: I’m So-So . . . about the director. This documentary alone makes the set well worth owning. See the trilogy together though, because the three colors are essentially a complete experience.
22. Hoop Dreams (1994) Steve James
Importance of the Film: Widely regarded as one of the best documentary films ever made, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams is relatable to so many viewers, whether it be from the point of view of potential or current athletes, any athlete’s parents and family, or even those knowing little about amateur sports.
There is something here that will appeal to everyone, because it is about much more than just sports and dreams. It is the true story of two similar yet different inner-city teenagers living in Chicago: William Gates and Arthur Agee, both young basketball players planning to get college scholarships and reach the NBA.
The documentary follows their life paths which zig-zag into different directions, and the results will surprise you. Its running time of 171 minutes is the result of more than 250 hours of gathered footage. Hoop Dreams received an Oscar nomination for best film editing in 1995, but surprisingly did not get nominated in the Documentary category.
Essential Criterion Features: Hoop Dreams was re-released on Blu-ray in March, 2015 with a new HD restoration. Life After Hoop Dreams is a new documentary that updates viewers on the two athletes and their families.
Every documentary should include an update like this. And don’t miss the two great audio commentaries: one with the two boys, and another with director Steve James and his fellow filmmakers. Another noteworthy extra is a series of segments from Siskel & Ebert which show how big of fans of the film the two critics were.
21. Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder
Importance of the Film: Ace in the Hole is far from being Billy Wilder’s most well-known film. In fact, there are many who would have never seen or heard of it if it weren’t for Criterion. But this film holds up as well, if not better, than any of Wilder’s other classics. Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum in one of his finest performances.
The story, based on true events regarding a man trapped in a cave, is well-known. So much so that it was satirized in an episode of The Simpsons. But there may be no film in history that portrayed the manipulation of the media by a reporter and, in turn, the manipulation of people by the media, as effectively as Ace In the Hole.
The theme is an important one that is as timely today as it has ever been, and this film was so far ahead of its time that it became prophetic. Wilder received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay.
Essential Criterion Features: Ace in the Hole was re-released in 2014 as a 3-disc dual-format Blu-Ray/DVD with a new 2K digital restoration. Feature highlights include Portrait of a “60% Perfect Man”: Billy Wilder, a 1980 documentary containing memorable interviews with Wilder, an interview from 1984 with Kirk Douglas and an informative audio commentary by film scholar Neil Sinyard. The definitive showcase of both the director and this one-of-a-kind film.
20. The Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton
Importance of the Film: Charles Laughton only directed one film in his career, but it was a memorable one. The Night of the Hunter features Robert Mitchum at his most menacing, creating one of the screen’s most memorable antagonists in Harry Powell, who is nearly as terrifying today as he was in 1955.
What makes this character so scary is that he is viewed predominantly through the eyes of two children, John and Pearl. This preacher is actually a corrupt killer, and there weren’t many films back in the 1950s doing anything like this. Far ahead of its time, it met with very little praise during its initial release, but it ages very well today.
Harry Powell first appears wearing a puritan hat and the words “Love” on the knuckles of one hand, and “Hate” on the other. With a visual beauty and sure-handed direction, Hunter grabs the viewer with its power, excellent performances, and an unforgettable villain.
Essential Criterion Features: The Night of the Hunter was released as a feature-packed set in 2010 with a new, crystal-clear digital transfer, and it has never looked better.
One of the set’s best features is Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” a 150-minute collection of outtakes and other footage taken behind-the-scenes. There is also an informative commentary and new documentary, but a lesser-known extra worth checking out is a clip from the The Ed Sullivan Show where the actors perform a deleted scene from the film.
19. Harold and Maude (1971) Hal Ashby
Importance of the Film: Hal Ashby was a rebel filmmaker, and in 1971 it took a rebel to make such a true oddity as Harold and Maude. Only Ashby’s second film, it is equal parts love story, black comedy, independent cult film, and timeless classic. This is a love story involving a 21-year-old aloof man and a 79-year-old free-spirited woman. Their initial common interest: attending funerals of people they didn’t know.
Many of the most humorous scenes involve Harold’s fake attempts at suicide, to his pretentious mother’s horror. Featuring a memorable soundtrack by Cat Stevens and a great screenplay by Collin Higgins, this is a film that is as much a part of the 1970s culture as anything made during that decade. It is also great fun to see with anyone viewing it for the very first time.
Essential Criterion Features: Harold and Maude found its way into the Criterion Collection in 2012 as a Blu-Ray and with a new digital restoration and an optional remastered stereo mix. Hal Ashby’s biographer Nick Dawson was the perfect choice for the audio commentary, which also includes producer Charles B. Mulvehill.
Intent listeners are also treated to an interview with Yusuf (Cat Stevens) and audio excerpts from seminars by Hal Ashby and screenwriter-producer Colin Higgins. Rarities like these make this the best packaging of this classic film yet assembled.
18. Breathless (1960) Jean-Luc Godard
Importance of the Film: The definitive film of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard put himself on the map with À bout de soufflé, aka: Breathless, his first feature. How influential was it? Look at what we have today.
The use of music-video-style jump cuts, a non-traditional sound mix, self-reflexive looks at the camera (long before the term “meta” was coined), hip dialogue, fast-paced camerawork often without the use of extras, a jazzy score and lots of attitude. Most of it all started here, including many of the techniques commonly attributed to Tarantino.
While the plot of Breathless is nowhere near as important as its sense of style, it follows the fairly traditional crime-thriller narrative of a criminal on the run from the police who has killed a cop. From there, Godard takes liberties with style and the lovers-on-the-run narrative, and makes a creation all his own.
Essential Criterion Features: Breathless came to Criterion DVD in a large 2-disc edition in 2007. It re-emerged as a 3-disc dual-format Blu-Ray/DVD set in 2010 with a restored HD digital transfer and many extras.
Interviews with Godard, actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, and director Jean-Pierre Melville are pulled from the archives, along with more contemporary interviews with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, assistant director Pierre Rissient, and director D. A. Pennebaker, but the highlight is the 80-minute 1993 documentary, Chambre 12, Hôtel de suede, about the making of Breathless.