The Criterion Collection preserves and distributes films that are regarded as highly influential and esteemed in the canon of cinema. These are my top picks.
Fanny & Alexander
It was difficult to choose one Bergman film that has stood out among the rest, but this semi-autobiographical film is one of his finest. At a length of five hours and twelve minutes, watching it is no small investment, but I guarantee it is well worth the time. Shot in lush color with the revolutionary Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, it is like any of his work: visually stunning. Fanny & Alexander is an exceptional meditation on childhood, capturing the magic of Alexander’s imagination, and the infinite pain of losing and becoming.
Robert Altman’s 3 Women is one of the best and certainly most unsettling psychological dramas ever made. Sissy Spacek plays a seemingly naive young woman who becomes increasingly obsessed with her co-worker and roommate, a talkative and somewhat more experienced Shelley Duvall. The score is ominous, Sissy Spacek is both believable and frightening in her transformation during the second act, stealing the show. It is a film that haunts you at night, that lingers in the recesses of the mind long after the closing credits.
René Laloux and Roland Topor had collaborated previously, the most notable short film being Les Escargots (The Snails), but their films were lacking in the vision that Le Planete Sauvage would have. Fantastic Planet is an extraordinary piece of work, a psychedelic animation feature, unlike anything that had been released before. It is centered around the planet Terra, inhabited by an advanced species called the Traags, who, despite their advanced technology and elevated consciousness, can be ruthless. They have adopted a smaller species as pets, the Oms, who begin to threaten their way of life. It is a bizarre trip of a movie, essential viewing for any fan of sci-fi or animation.
To me, Le Bonheur (Happiness) is Agnes Varda’s magnum opus, which is not an easy title to give, considering an oeuvre as impressive as Varda’s. She was one of the leading filmmakers of the French New Wave, not often given the same credit as Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, but just as vital and important to the movement. Le Bonheur is consistently shot in a vivid color palette, which, in the beginning, signifies a perfect love, but by the end contrasts with the tragic outcome of the film. It is about what one person would do to find their happiness, even if it is at the cost of another.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Following the martyr Joan of Arc during her trial and execution, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s work is nothing short of a masterpiece. Maria Falconetti gives a mesmeric performance as Joan in what would be her only film role. Just one look at Falconetti’s face, seeming to convey all the pathos and humanity in the world and it’s easy to see why this film has endured the test of time. Dreyer utilized the close-up in a way that must have been shocking to first-time viewers. One close-up is followed by another, magnifying the anguish of Joan and the depravity of her persecutors. Although silent, it is as captivating as it was all those years ago.
The Exterminating Angel
There are few figures in the avant-garde with work as iconic and recognizable as Luis Buñuel’s. Un Chien Andalou, a sixteen minute short and collaboration with none other than Salvador Dali, was hailed by the French Surrealist movement and has been regarded as one of the most significant films to have ever been made. Buñuel’s legacy did not stop there. He continued his career well into the late nineteen-seventies. The Exterminating Angel is just as unmistakable as Un Chien Andalou. The film centers around a dinner party at a mansion, the guests gather for a seemingly ordinary and sociable evening. Later that night they grow tired and fall asleep in the music room, only to find in the morning that they are incapable of leaving the confines of the area. The barbarity of the guests is demonstrated as they do anything to escape and survive.
Another must see for any fan of psychological horror, Polanski’s Repulsion is arguably one of his most distinguished films. His second feature-length stars Catherine Deneuve as a manicurist of humble means. Living with her sister in London, Catherine is socially awkward and rather emotionally vacant, responding to the advances of men with trepidation and disgust. As the film progresses it is clear that she is sexually repressed and traumatized, most likely due to an event in her childhood. Her older sister leaves for a vacation, leaving Deneuve to her own devices and increasingly fragile state of mind.
My Night at Maud’s
My Night at Maud’s is Rohmer’s third installment in his Six Moral Tales, each film revolving around a character facing a moral dilemma. In this case, it is Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a stout Catholic who runs into an old friend (Antoine Vitez) during the holidays. Antoine introduces him to the divorced and irresistible Maud (Françoise Fabian) who is liberated in every sense of the word. Jean-Louis’s beliefs are tested when a blizzard strands him at Maud’s apartment. He begins to fall for her but has already declared his love to a younger, more chaste woman. He has to choose between what he believes to be right, and his primal hidden desires. My Night at Maud’s will both enchant and break your heart.
Les Diaboliques, roughly translating to The Devils, was a film just as important and innovative to the horror genre as Hitchcock’s Psycho. It is undeniable that Hitchcock saw and was inspired by Les Diaboliques. Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the film follows a boarding school that is run by an abusive headmaster (Paul Meurisse,) who is cruel to the children and unfaithful to his wife. His mistress and wife, discover a simpatico with one another, united by their shared pain and hatred of the man. They conspire to murder him, but naturally, it doesn’t go as planned.
What would modern cinema be without Jean-Luc Godard? The answer: not as it exists today. Another prominent French New Wave filmmaker, Godard is most celebrated for his film À Bout de Souffle (Out of Breath), but Weekend is by far my favorite. A bourgeois couple takes a trip to the countryside in what becomes a surreal nightmare. Weekend is a black comedy that relies heavily on the absurdity of the circumstances and eccentricity of the characters for laughs. There are times when it is no longer funny but plain uncomfortable to watch, testing the limits of the audience.
I hope that as I see more films, my list will change and develop over time. I continue to be astounded by the scope and humanity an actor’s face can contain and the sweeping and enveloping sound of music.