12 Classic Films to Watch on the Criterion Channel
The cinematic canon is vast and daunting, spanning decades, countries, and various runtimes. A film can be as short as a few minutes or as long as 10 hours, depending on the filmmaker and their intent. How do you even start when services like Netflix predominantly carry movies from the 1970s and on, and mostly busy themselves with their own original content? The Criterion Channel is an alternative streaming service that aims to make those cinematic staples more accessible for $11 a month. Films on the service are organized by director, style, decade, genre, and any number of small yet meaningful categories, and titles, like any other streaming service, come and go by month. To try to narrow down the best of Criterion's vast library for a list is a bit of a fool's errand, and everyone's idea of an "essential" film is different. Nonetheless, here are 12 films that this critic finds to be both essential and perfect for quarantine watching.
Beauty and the Beast (1946)
Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of the beloved children’s fairytale brings viewers into a magnificent dreamscape that feels like a storybook. The film stays mostly faithful to the original story, while adding a uniquely French moodiness to the Beast. Cocteau’s imagery would later be borrowed for the 1991 Disney animated classic, but the brilliance of this version is that it manages to feel animated without color or the aid of Hollywood songwriting. It’s a singular oddity, unrivaled by time.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
“Do you look down on all women or just the ones you know?” Nicholas Ray’s Hollywood-set noir is full of iconic lines like this. In a Lonely Place is an old-fashioned thriller, with legendary stars Humphry Bogart and Gloria Grahame heading its gifted cast. The film tells the story of Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter with a scary temper and murder allegations poisoning his burgeoning romance with Laurel Gray (Grahame), a would-be starlet swimming with doubts. Bogart volleys effortlessly from a hopeless man in love to a ticking time bomb, throwing punches without a second thought. A classic movie night isn’t complete without this noir staple.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Herk Harvey’s low-budget horror classic is a perfect exercise in “less is more.” This spooky, cerebral ghost story tells the story of a woman haunted by a truth she’s afraid to face. The film, made on a $33,000 budget, makes a simple story come alive with foreboding atmosphere and hypnotic organ music. Everything about the film is lightning in a bottle -- Harvey never made another feature film and star Candace Hilligoss was never given another top-billing role. Despite this, the film lives on as muse to countless genre directors, cementing its legacy in the cinematic canon. Carnival of Souls is a rewarding watch for even the most reluctant horror fan.
Daisies is a film that addresses the universal question: How would you react if your government was a constant disappointment? This absurdist film from the Czech Republic is one of the early comedy classics written and directed by women. With Daisies, iconic Czech New Wave director Věra Chytilová crafted a rebellious narrative that challenged the austerity of life behind the Iron Curtain. The film tells the story of Marie I and II, two young women who have made the decision to be “bad.” They achieve this by drinking heavily, eating with reckless abandon, and flirting with all the men around. Stars Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová didn’t go on to do many more films, but their influence can be felt in modern female-centric comedy like Garfunkel & Oates and Broad City.
Barbara Loden’s naturalistic portrait of an aimless woman drifting through life has only recently been lauded for its realistic storytelling and innovative style. Loden writes, directs, and stars in the story of Wanda, a woman who finds herself entangled with a bank robber after losing her job. Like much of the films made in the wake of the restrictively moralist Hays Code, Wanda deals with the shifting roles of women in modern American society. It directly challenges the inherent virtues of being a wife and mother while shining a light on the unique economic concerns poor women must consider while navigating their lives and trying to assert their independence.
Paper Moon (1973)
Living legend Peter Bogdanovich has a catalogue full of comedic and dramatic classics, from The Last Picture Show (also available on Criterion), What’s Up, Doc? (which leaves Criterion at the end of the month), and later gems like 1985’s Mask and 2001’s The Cat’s Meow. But Paper Moon, starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, is a classic film that hasn’t had nearly enough recent discussion. It tells the story of a shiftless drifter who finds himself taking on the role of father for a young, troublemaking girl. Together, they swindle their way through the midwest, making friends and causing chaos along the way. Tatum O’Neal became the youngest actress ever to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role.
Jeanne Deilman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Chantal Akerman’s essential examination of womanhood lives up to every bit of its hype. But in this time of quarantine, it gains new relevance as a long, calming film that keeps viewers' company for over three hours. If long movies aren't your thing, this is likely the time where those feelings change. The film imitates life as the titular heroine begins to slowly unravel through small cumulative household tasks in a confined world that is uncaring of individuality and sacrifice. Hopefully, this Belgian classic will never be remade. Its permanent place on the Criterion Channel is worth the monthly fee.
Losing Ground (1982)
Kathleen Collins’ 1982 existential drama is one of the most underseen classics of Black cinema. It tells the story of Sara (Seret Scott), a philosophy professor doing research on the feeling of “ecstasy.” Frustrated with her childish husband (Bill Gunn), she searches for answers in books as she develops new love for her body and unique sexuality. Collins expertly externalizes the internal journey of self-discovery with wisdom, curiosity, and maturity.
Mona Lisa (1986)
This underseen Neil Jordan film is one of cinema’s greatest contemporary neo-noirs. The film stars beloved character actors Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins, but newcomer Cathy Tyson is the real star here. She plays Simone, a Black sex worker in London with a mysterious past and missing friend. Her race and the nature of her job make her doubly vulnerable, so when George (Hoskins) is released from prison he becomes her bodyguard and driver. After a rocky beginning, the two begin to bond and soon George falls in love with Simone. For a moment, the film feels like a love story. But naturally, nothing is as it seems.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has carved out a niche for himself telling stories about troubled men and women crashing into each other’s lives. His 1990 romantic comedy Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is perhaps the most simplistic of his many narratives. A recently released mental patient (Antonio Banderas) falls for an actress (Victoria Abril) and decides to hold her hostage until she loves him. The actress has been on a downward spiral for a while, fighting drug dependency while accepting a lesser role in a goofy thriller. Despite the squeamishness of its premise, Almodóvar crafts a sweet, surprisingly innocent romance. His superpower as a director is making even the most unpalatable stories go down with a splash of color and a childlike optimism that shapes the motives of his characters.
Sally Potter’s Orlando is the original queer costume drama, with a uniquely sexual playfulness within its period-appropriate rigidity. The film, based on the novel of the same name by Virginia Woolf, tells the story of nobleman Orlando as he drifts through life in search of love and purpose. Eventually, Orlando finds themself changing gender rather abruptly, forcing them to live within a patriarchal social structure as a woman. Both versions of Orlando are played beautifully by actress Tilda Swinton, whose work emphasizes the social performance of gender. Orlando falls in love with both men and women, prioritizing their self-actualization and emotional expression above all other concerns. The film highlights the fluidity of gender without shying away from the way governments are built to marginalize masculine gender presentation above all else.
Ghost World (2001)
As we approach the 20th anniversary of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, its staying power in the cinematic canon is unquestionable. The film, adapted from Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel of the same name, perfectly encapsulates the '90s deadpan alt-girl archetype. It tells the story of Enid (Thora Birch) who finds herself drifting away from her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) after high school graduation. Arriving near the end of Daria’s influential tenure as Queen of Apathy, Enid is the perfect deconstruction of the character. Enid’s coolness gives way to a fear of emotional intimacy that threatens to stall her life forever. Though the premise is bittersweet, Ghost World is deft as tempering the sour with just enough sweetness to help it go down.
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