17. Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Alexander Mackendrick
Importance of the Film: With the possible exception of Casablanca, no other film in memory contains as many classic quotes as Sweet Smell of Success. Boasting one of the best hard-boiled screenplays ever, written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, Alexander Macendrick’s masterpiece is as cynical and dark as they come.
Burt Lancaster has never matched the intensity of Broadway gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, who merely wants to get ahead in his career, but who is clearly no match for the larger-than-life Lancaster.
This is a noir film about the dark underbelly of Manhattan celebrity news, but like many of the films on this list, it did almost no business at the box office when first released, deemed by many to be too dark for 1957. Today, what stands on its own are the performances and that amazingly memorable script.
Essential Criterion Features: Released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2011, Sweet Smell of Success came with an exclusive new digital restoration and a new audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore. Of special interest are the new video interviews with director James Mangold and film critic Neal Gabler about legendary columnist Walter Winchell, the inspiration for the Hunsecker character.
These extras are great in their own right, but the real treasure in this set is the documentary Mackendrick: The Man Who Walked Away, made in 1986 and featuring interviews with Mackendrick, Lancaster and producer James Hill.
16. Rebecca (1940) Alfred Hitchcock
Importance of the Film: Alfred Hitchcock is one of the top directors in the Criterion Collection, with no less than seven titles to his credit. But only Notorious (also on Criterion) comes close to the combination of suspense, romance, mystery and elegant production value that Rebecca provides. It also the only Hitchcock film that ever won a Best Picture Oscar. While a much more serious film than many of master’s later efforts, Rebecca remains his best blending of so many distinct genres at once.
Essential Criterion Features: Criterion released Rebecca in 2001 as a double-disc DVD set loaded with bonus features, and subsequently released a generous 5-disc box known as Wrong Men & Notorious Women: Five Hitchcock Thrillers in 2003. Both sets are currently out of print.
Many of the extras include vintage behind-the-scenes tidbits, such as the questionnaire used in a 1939 test screening of the film, casting notes and phone interviews. But the commentary from film scholar/author Leonard Leff, and the vintage radio features, including interviews with author Daphne du Maurier and David O. Selznick, make this a comprehensive treatment of a classic Hitchcock film.
15. The Red Shoes (1948) Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Importance of the Film: The directorial team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is a definite favorite of the Criterion Collection, with one or both of their names attached to 10 different films, but The Red Shoes is the one that shines the brightest of them all.
Color was such an important aspect of what Powell and Pressburger created, and this story of a young ballet dancer obsessed with becoming a prima ballerina, and how it leads to tragedy was one of the best uses of color in the 1940s. The Red Shoes won two Oscars, for music and art direction, and was nominated for best picture, screenplay and editing.
Essential Criterion Features: Criterion outdid itself years after the original release of The Red Shoes in 1999 by re-releasing it on a newly-packaged single-disc Blu-ray edition in 2010. The Blu-ray is an amazing way to see this true Technicolor masterpiece, with director Martin Scorsese giving a demonstration of the restoration process in his introduction.
The set includes a unique audio commentary by Ian Christie, and interviews with Shearer, the cinematographer, composer and Scorsese. You also shouldn’t miss the documentary Profile of “The Red Shoes” about the making of the film.
14. The Wages of Fear (1953) Henri-Georges Clouzot
Importance of the Film: Even if you avoid films with subtitles at all costs, you won’t mind making an exception for The Wages of Fear. The film’s first hour in a dismal South American town slowly sets the stage, but once the two trucks loaded with highly flammable nitroglycerin begin a 300 mile journey over the trickiest of mountain roads, Wages of Fear becomes the ultimate exercise in how to build tension. Clouzot was often considered the French Hitchcock, and two years later he solidified that reputation with Diabolique.
Essential Criterion Features: Criterion upgraded Wages of Fear to Blu-Ray in 2009 with a restored HD transfer and a newly-improved translation of the English subtitles. Noteworthy features include a 1988 interview with actor Yves Montand and the featurette, Censored, with a look at the cuts made to the film prior to its 1955 U.S. release, but the true highlight for most will be the 2004 documentary on the director’s career, titled Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Enlightened Tyrant.
13. Shoah (1985) Claude Lanzmann
Importance of the Film: It took more than a decade to complete, and the resulting documentary is over nine hours in length, but the experience of seeing Shoah is like no other. Claude Lanzmann uses no archival footage and nothing is re-enacted. He instead conducts the most thorough examination of the horrors of the Holocaust imaginable.
Testimonies detailing what happened in Auschwitz and Treblinka, for instance, are unforgettably told with heartbreaking clarity. It is an education, with multiple perspectives given from Holocaust survivors, as well as the Nazi perpetrators of the mass murder. Shoah is without question, one of the most thought-provoking, powerful and important documentaries ever made. To say it is emotionally overwhelming is an understatement.
Essential Criterion Features: It was an event when Criterion lavished its treatment on Shoah as a 6-disc special edition DVD box and a 3-disc Blu-Ray set in 2013, featuring a new, restored 4K digital film transfer. Three insightful films by Claude Lanzmann are included, totaling over three and a half hours, with an interview with Lanzmann from 2003 about two of them.
12. The Seventh Seal (1957) Ingmar Bergman
Importance of the Film: Those who haven’t seen The Seventh Seal still may be familiar with its most famous scenes, involving a chess game between the character of Death (in pale white face and a black hooded robe) and a disillusioned knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the crusades. However, as a film, there is much more to it than just the symbolic chess game.
The Seventh Seal provides a great example of many things: an allegory, an example of Ingmar Bergman’s most questioning and personal work, and a true arthouse film if there ever was one. It is also a great introduction to world cinema and finds itself on numerous all-time greatest film lists. Bergman’s classic film requires repeated viewings to truly grasp its many messages regarding God, faith and death itself. A truly-challenging, must-see movie-going experience.
Essential Criterion Features: Criterion upgraded The Seventh Seal to Blu-Ray in 2009, with and a newly-restored HD transfer, an optional English-dubbed soundtrack and a very informative commentary track by Bergman expert Peter Cowie.
The highlight of the set though is Bergman Island, an 83-minute revealing documentary on Bergman by Marie Nyreröd. This could have been released on its own and still would have been worth owning. Other treasures include a 1998 tribute by Woody Allen and an essential interview with Max von Sydow.
11. 8 ½ (1963) Federico Fellini
Importance of the Film: Anyone who has ever experienced writer’s block will understand the basis for Fellini’s exploration of a filmmaker with director’s block. 8 ½ was made when Fellini was 43, in the middle of a historic career, and it served as a mirror reflecting his own predicament.
The star of his film, Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), is also a famous director at a crossroads in his career, trapped between the expectations of producers and his film company, while drowning in relationships with the many women of his life. His next film has a huge budget, but he has no clue how to make it.
What remains more than 50 years later are the images, the characters, the faces, and the vivid musical score of Nino Rota. This is the work of a master director meant for true lovers of cinema. 8 ½ won Oscars for Best Foreign Film and costume design.
Essential Criterion Features: Criterion upgraded 8 ½ to a single-disc Blu-Ray in January of 2010, with a wide array of bonus features far surpassing anything in its previous Essential Art House release. Terry Gilliam introduces the film and the audio commentary features NYU film professor Antonio Monda and film critic Gideon Bachmann.
Noteworthy is the new restoration of the 52-minute film Fellini: A Director’s Notebook, created by Fellini. The Blu-Ray adds a new highlight, the documentary The Last Sequence, a 52-minute look at Fellini’s alternate ending for 8½. If you are a fan of the composer, there is also the revealing 48-minute documentary Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert.
10. Modern Times (1936) Charlie Chaplin
Importance of the Film: Modern Times was our last encounter with Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character, the Little Tramp, but it was also the first time we ever heard the tramp’s voice. Chaplin created this film in the time of sound pictures, but he felt that its message was best conveyed in a predominantly silent format.
There are words spoken (even sung) by the Tramp, and sound effects are heard, but most of what Chaplin had to say here about a modernistic world where humans are treated as mere cogs in a machine, is told silently. It was a commentary on economic class structure, technology and bureaucracy that still holds true today. Despite its message, it is also a lot of fun to watch, with a memorable collection of sight gags and slapstick humor which all put it among the very best films Chaplin ever made.
Essential Criterion Features: Modern Times is now available on a single-disc Blu-Ray, released in November 2010 with a newly-restored HD transfer and a new audio commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. Other notable features include a home movie featuring Chaplin, a featurette on the film’s sound effects and visuals, and “The Rink,” an early film from Chaplin from 1916. Where else but a Criterion edition would you find that?
9. On the Waterfront (1954) Elia Kazan
Importance of the Film: On the Waterfront collected eight Oscars in 1955 and it represents the finest work Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden ever did on screen, and Budd Schulberg’s screenplay is one of the best ever written.
Brando as Terry Malloy is an unforgettable study of an actor transformed by a character. His “I coulda been a contender” speech in the back of a car with his smarter brother Charley (Rod Steiger) resonates 60 years later as clearly as any lines from any film. And Cobb, as a monster union boss who Terry must work under, is the perfect embodiment of corruption and fear.
The themes of good triumphing over greed, and courage defeating cowardice are universal, as Terry becomes a hero for the ages. On the Waterfront is a must-see for anyone, and it bears repeated viewings.
Essential Criterion Features: It wasn’t until February 2013 that On the Waterfront found its way into the Criterion Collection, with a tremendous 3-DVD, 2-Blu-Ray 4K digital restoration and both a mono and alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack. What sets this apart from other Criterion packages are the two presentations of the film in different aspect ratios (1.85:1 widescreen and 1.33:1 full-screen) on separate discs.
Also highlighting the set are three documentaries, including the hour-long and enlightening Elia Kazan: Outsider, as well as a new look at the making of the film. There are also interviews everywhere, one with director Elia Kazan from 2001 and a new conversation between Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones.
The included booklet has Kazan’s 1952 testimony and one of the 1948 Malcolm Johnson articles that inspired the film. As far as must-have features go, this may be the best package Criterion has ever assembled.