Barnes and Noble’s Criterion Collection 50% off sale starts today, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the mass selection to choose from. To add, if you were to look at other people’s lists, you’ll see at least 20 films where a big named filmmaker considers it to be “the best film of all time.” That being said, if you’re still growing your collection or starting one, this list is for you. This list contains ten recommendations that I feel are essential to anyone’s collection. I won’t be including well-known films such as The Princess Bride, any of Wes Anderson’s films, or Do the Right Thing because you may already have them in your collection. So with that, let’s dive into some essential films of the Criterion Collection.
1- Bicycle Thieves (1948, dir. Vittorio De Sica)
An unemployed Italian man, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), finds work hanging posters around Rome. To get this job, Antonio sells his family’s bed linens to purchase a bicycle, which is stolen on his first day of work. The rest of the film is Antonio and his son looking for his bike and the thief. Even though the plot is simple Bicycle Thieves paved the way for the emotional depth of characters in film. The depth encompasses all characters on screen, whether the character is minor or major. There is a clear defining voice and feel for every character. Rarely do you see such delicate care about the characters, in films from 1948 or even 2020. In total, it is a well-made piece of cinema. The reverence Bicycle Thieves has with filmmakers and buffs alike is well deserved.
2 – Rififi (1955, dir. Jules Dassin)
Rififi is as much a heist film as it is a triumph. Despite Jules Dassin’s blacklisting by Hollywood for political prosecution, he continued to direct in France. The plot is about four ex-cons conducting a diamond heist. I wouldn’t consider Rififi to be the best heist film, but I believe it has the best heist in a movie. During said heist, you will be filled with tension and amazement by the unconventional means of how the heist is accomplished. The heist itself is only 28 minutes but will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time. It’s a masterclass in how to show a heist on film and is why we have great heist films such as Mission: Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven.
3 – 12 Angry Men (1957, dir. Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet methodically crafted a masterpiece from beginning to end. It’s about 12 men that are passing judgment on a Puerto Rican teenager for the murder of his father. This film from the Criterion Collection archives will take you through the perspective of all 12 men. It’s a contained thriller that will enthrall you from start to finish, and leave you at the end with a strong emotional whiplash. Once the dust has settled, the jurors begin to introduce themselves to one another. I have never seen another film where it keeps you hooked, and then ends it with character introductions in an effective manner. For a film made in 1957, the underlying social commentary on representation and discrimination is still as relevant today as it was then.
4 – House (1977, dir. Nobuhiko Obiyashi)
While this is definitely one of the more bizarre films in the collection, you will enjoy yourself from start to finish. This movie follows a Japanese schoolgirl with six of her classmates as they go to her aunt’s country house. Once there they encounter strange spirits that begin to take them out one by one. I like to refer to this as a fever dream Scooby-Doo. It is certainly one of the most revered cult classics that the Criterion Collection has to offer. One thing I would recommend is going into House blind. Overall, this is a fun film and will make you want to start a second viewing as soon as the credits roll.
5 – A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)
The film picks up as soon as the movie gets to our star Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith. “Lonesome” Rhodes is an up-and-coming entertainer that’s discovered in an Arkansas jail. Larry rises in media power and falls just as fast. The way this film evolves from beginning to end is astounding. This film is an experience you can’t divert your eyes from. Just like House, it is better to go in as blind as possible, because the magic of the movie is how we see it in action. It’s a blast and is well-deserving of your time and money.
6 – Black Orpheus (1959, dir. Marcel Camus)
This film adapts the Greek myth of Orpheus, but adds bossa nova to it. It’s a film that’ll have a smile on your face from start to finish. The film takes the tragedy of the myth and turns it into something positive, which is rare. To add, this film is one of the more interesting films when you add historical context. When this film premiered in 1959 at the Cannes Film Festival, it competed for and won the Palme d’Or against a lineup of stellar films including The 400 Blows. Black Orpheus is a Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award winner that you won’t regret adding to your Criterion Collection.
7 – Eraserhead (1977, dir. David Lynch)
According to my friends who haven’t seen Eraserhead, it is “the film with the guy with the hair”. After your initial viewing, your perspective on cinema may change drastically. David Lynch makes an intriguing, dark, artistic, and polarizing film designed to make you think. Lynch was able to make a film in the way he wanted it and had nothing holding him back. Eraserhead will stick with you no matter how long it’s been since you watched it. I watched this film in high school, and I still think about it every day.
8 – The Player (1992, dir. Robert Altman)
This film is about a Hollywood executive that murders a writer and has to deal with the aftermath of it. It’s a film that will grip you from start to finish. Altman has never shied from showing a mirror to society and how ugly it is, and The Player serves as Altman’s mirror to Hollywood. Each watch after your initial viewing you’ll find little bits and pieces you missed before. I’ve seen it personally about six times now and am still discovering new things about it. I can’t recommend this one enough, and it is deserving of your time.
9 – Stagecoach (1939, dir. John Ford)
You will learn two interesting things in Stagecoach. For one, stagecoaches are where we get the phrase “shotgun” from when you enter a car. Second, Stagecoach introduces audiences to the Duke himself, John Wayne. Much like Wayne, Stagecoach is the grandfather of the western genre. Without this film, we wouldn’t have classics like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and A Fistful of Dollars. The plot involves a group of strangers traveling in a Stagecoach from Arizona to New Mexico. Although Stagecoach is a little dated, it would make for a great addition to your collection.
10 – La Haine (1995, dir. Mathieu Kassovitz)
In a racially and culturally volatile France, La Haine chronicles a black man, an Arab man, and a Jewish man. This film shows how diverse members of France’s population deal with marginalization and prejudice from the police or other French citizens. The film itself doesn’t hold back on issues that were prevalent at the time and gives you a lot to think about. La Haine is just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago in 1995.
There is definitely a lot to the Criterion Collection, and these ten films do not capture the entire scope of what it has to offer. I hope this list can make it easier for you to start or add to your collection! – Jacob Mauceri
What do you think of these films? Are there any glaring omissions I made on my list? What do you plan on buying during this Criterion Collection sale? Let me know in the comments!