8. Paths of Glory (1957) Stanley Kubrick
Importance of the Film: Stanley Kubrick made great films in nearly every genre. In 1953, he made his first feature, Fear and Desire, focusing on the subject of war. In 1957 he took on the war genre again with Paths of Glory, and war was a theme he would re-visit 30 years later with Full Metal Jacket.
However, very few films in cinematic history can match the overall power of Paths of Glory, in which Kirk Douglas plays a French World War I colonel who tries to define three of his soldiers accused of cowardice by two demented generals. It was such an indictment of the French military that it was banned for 20 years by the French government.
There are landmark scenes indelible in cinematic history. One of which is Kubrick’s lengthy reverse tracking shot of Douglas walking through the long trenches. In the end, Paths of Glory may be the most powerful and gripping anti-war film ever made.
Essential Criterion Features: Criterion released Paths of Glory on Blu-Ray and DVD in October of 2010 with a new and gloriously-restored HD digital transfer and an audio commentary by critic Gary Giddins. There is an excerpt from French television about real-life WW I executions and video interviews with Kirk Douglas, James B. Harris, Jan Harlan and Christiane Kubrick. Seeing this classic in a crystal-clear transfer is what really matters though. Collectors: this is for you.
7. Bicycle Thieves (1948) Vittorio De Sica
Importance of the Film: Known by many as The Bicycle Thief, the Italian title translates as “Bicycle Thieves.” It is considered one of the best examples of Italian neorealism. Director Vittorio De Sica effectively shows the effects of hunger and poverty in post-WW II Rome, but just as powerfully he provides one of the sharpest portrayals of a father-son relationship ever shown on film.
This is the story of the lengths a father will go to provide for his son in desperate times, and the downward-spiraling consequences those actions have. It is dark, beautifully shot and heartbreaking, leaving the viewer with a feeling of helplessness. To embrace its charm and magic is to appreciate cinema on a whole different level than today’s fast-paced Hollywood entertainment. It also won the Oscar for the best foreign language film in 1949.
Essential Criterion Features: Bicycle Thieves was released as a 2-DVD set by Criterion in 2007 but it is not yet on Blu-Ray. It does have a restored digital transfer which looks so much clearer than other DVD releases of the film, with a rare optional English-dubbed soundtrack and an improved English subtitle translation.
There are memorable interviews with actor Enzo Staiola, screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico and film scholar Callisto Cosulich. Life As It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy is truly a must-see, a new look at the history of Italian neorealism.
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Th. Dreyer
Importance of the Film: Carl Theodor Dreyer created this silent masterpiece that starred Renee Maria Falconetti, whose memorable face is a permanent fixture in cinematic history. This was Dreyer’s last silent film and his first to be widely-recognized. It also may be the best silent film ever made.
Based primarily on transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial, Falconetti is seen without makeup and almost entirely in close-up throughout. Her silent performance transcends traditional movie acting, holding the viewer in utter fascination simply through her facial expressions and conviction.
With all respect due to Dreyer for his artistic vision, this is really her film from start to finish and, surprisingly, it was the lone performance of her career. Brace yourself for how graphic this film from 1928 actually is, and how brutally powerful the experience.
Essential Criterion Features: When it was first released, Dreyer never chose a final score for the film. He instead opted for various pieces of music performed live. With composer Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light in the Criterion edition providing the perfect original background music, and medieval texts from which to experience the event, it becomes more than just great silent cinema.
The result is simply stunning. The digital restoration transfer from the original version is still excellent even on DVD. The disc also includes a history of the film’s many versions. It has been in the Criterion Collection since the 1999 DVD but has yet to receive an upgrade.
5. Tokyo Story (1953) Yasujiro Ozu
Importance of the Film: If you’re unfamiliar with director Yasujiro Ozu’s work, here is where you should begin. The plot sounds very simple. Elderly parents visit Tokyo primarily to see their adult kids, but are treated with disrespect and aloof behavior from the onset of their arrival. Instead, their children seem so self-absorbed and distant that the parents must resort to other forms of excitement. Surprisingly, only their daughter-in-law, a widow, spends any quality time with them and shows a sincere interest in their visit.
With Ozu, it was all about observing middle-class characters and how they interact and react to common situations, and he did it better than anyone. To observe the magic of Tokyo Story is to observe a master filmmaker at his most concise and brilliant, and the brilliance is in its simplicity.
Essential Criterion Features: Tokyo Story received an upgrade to a dual-format Criterion edition in November 2013. The 4K digital restoration and a new English subtitle translation were welcome enhancements, but the 2-hour documentary I Lived, But… about director Ozu’s life and career, still intact from the original 2-disc DVD release, is by far the highlight if this package.
Stay though for Talking with Ozu from 1993, a 40-minute tribute to the director, and the informative audio commentary. They are all essential parts of this classic set.
4. M (1931) Fritz Lang
Importance of the Film: Fritz Lang in 1931 used the new sound medium to sprinkle unique elements into this psychological thriller, the director’s very first sound film. Written with his wife at the time, Thea von Harbou, it is difficult to believe that such a challenging screenplay ever saw the light of day at that time.
Consider the story: a pudgy serial killer of children (and pedophile) is portrayed as a tragic victim, accusing an entire tribunal of vicious onlookers of being sicker than he is. Ultimately, the audience feels a degree of sympathy for him, while Lang chooses to show no killing in this film. Every gruesome detail exists only in the viewer’s imagination.
In M, we consider Peter Lorre’s pleading confession, “I can’t help what I do!” Lorre’s standout performance was more complex than any serial killer seen in movies at that time, with a memorable confession in the finale. Lang himself considered M to be his finest work.
Essential Criterion Features: In May 2010, Criterion upgraded their DVD edition of M with a newly-restored HD digital transfer on Blu-Ray and many extras. Audio features include the recovered English language version of M and a commentary by German film scholars Eric Rentschler and Anton Kaes.
The highlight, however, is the 50-minute film conversation with Fritz Lang, made by director William Friedkin. Also noteworthy is a documentary on the physical history of the film. All of this is topped off with a vintage 1963 interview featuring Fritz Lang himself and written bonus features including the script for a missing scene.
3. The Third Man (1949) Carol Reed
Importance of the Film: Even people who have never seen The Third Man are well aware of its three most famous elements: its darkly-lit atmosphere, Anton Karras’s familiar zither theme throughout the soundtrack, and the mysterious villain Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles).
The Third Man received an Oscar for best cinematography in 1951, along with nominations for best director and film editing, but Welles’s five-minute appearance is still what people remember most. From his famous and long-awaited entrance, stepping out of the shadows of a streetlight, to his famous one-minute “cuckoo clock” speech. Everything about Harry Lime is memorable.
But there is much more to The Third Man than Welles. Director Carol Reed hit all the right notes visually, and few directors ever used lighting as effectively as he did here. And how can anyone forget the climactic sewer chase? It all adds up to an unforgettable cinematic experience that Reed never duplicated.
Essential Criterion Features: The Third Man, surprisingly, is difficult to find on Criterion these days, with both the Blu-Ray and DVD DigiPack edition from 2008 currently out-of-print.
The set is a highly sought-after collector’s item, with a restored HD digital transfer and a huge amount of bonus features, starting with a video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, actor Joseph Cotten’s alternate opening voice-over narration for the U.S. version, and two audio commentaries. Probably the best overall feature of the set is the tremendous 90-minute 2005 documentary, Shadowing “The Third Man.”
2. The 400 Blows (1959) Francois Truffaut
Importance of the Film: Looking at it now, it is hard to believe that this was the first feature film that Francois Truffaut made. It only received one Oscar nomination (screenplay), but it did win Truffaut best director at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
Here is where we are first introduced to Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud). Certainly Truffaut’s most personal work, Doinel represents a semi-autobiographical characterization of his own childhood, growing up in 1950s Paris.
Léaud’s performance is remarkable, and although he runs away from his various situations, rebels against authority, steals, lies and gets caught plagiarizing, we still can’t help but pull for him. The final scene, where Antoine escapes from the detention camp and runs blindingly, while the director’s camera tracks him, then zooms in on his face in a freeze-frame is one of the most singular images in celluloid history.
Essential Criterion Features: The 400 Blows is included in more editions (6) than any other film in the Criterion Collection, the cheapest being the single-disc Essential Art House DVD with no extra features; the biggest being its inclusion in the 50-DVD box set, Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films. The most feature-rich package, however, is the most-recent dual-format Blu-Ray/DVD set with a newly-restored HD transfer.
The best bonus extras include two audio commentaries and excerpts from 1960 and 1965 interviews with Truffaut. Also significant is the highly-collectable Adventures of Antoine Doinel 5-disc box set, featuring all four of the Truffaut films featuring the Doinel character.
1. Seven Samurai (1954) Akira Kurosawa
Importance of the Film: While Akira Kurosawa was inspired by John Ford westerns, he in turn inspired a host of Hollywood remakes, particularly The Magnificent Seven in 1960 in which guns were used instead of samurai swords.
This story is about a village of poor farmers that succumb to evil bandits, as their people are killed, robbed and raped on a yearly basis. Knowing it is futile to fight the bandits themselves, they get Kambei (Takashi Shimura) to assemble a group of samurai to help them. Over the course of the film, we get to know the unique personalities of each individual samurai, with the impulsive hot-head Kikuchiyo (played charismatically by Toshiro Mifune) being the standout character.
Regardless of the genre Kurosawa was working in, he was always an accomplished storyteller, and this film is a fast-paced 207-minute showcase of what he did best. With action, suspense, humor, visual mastery and character depth, Seven Samurai is truly one of the greatest films of all time.
Essential Criterion Features: Seven Samurai is another film that appears repeatedly throughout the Criterion catalog, in the Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films 50-DVD box set and the now-out-of-print 25-disc AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa collection. But the 2-Blu-Ray, 3-disc DVD editions stand out with the most coveted special features, including two great audio commentaries by film scholars and a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film.
For true fans of the great director, the 2-hour video conversation with Kurosawa and Oshima titled My Life in Cinema is the finest treat of all.
Courtesy of all the pictures used in this article goes to The Criterion Collection.
Author Bio: Mark works as a technology trainer for a school district in Port Huron, MI. He likes documentary, extreme cinema, independent films and mystery/thrillers. He also likes collecting dvd/blu-rays.