To the relief of cinephiles still suffering from withdrawal after FilmStruck’s untimely demise last fall, the Criterion Channel launched today, meaning the majority of the Criterion Collection’s catalogue of classic art-house cinema (over 1,000 films) is now available for streaming. So, where should you start? In the interests of relative brevity, we chose one masterpiece each from 50 illustrious directors. And then, to encourage completists, we listed all the other films by each director that are also on the channel. Consider these as starting points, cinematic gateway drugs to the work of the most important filmmakers of all time. You could get lost for days.
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)
With Truffaut, why not start at the beginning? This 1959 drama is the French New Wave master’s feature debut and arguably his most personal film, based as it is on his childhood. One of the most interesting things about the Criterion version is the archival material included: excerpts from interviews with Truffaut from the ‘60s, newsreel footage of a screening of the film, and audition footage of its stars.
More Truffaut on the Criterion Channel: Antoine and Colette, Bed and Board, Confidentially Yours, Day for Night, Jules and Jim, The Last Metro, Les mistons, Love on the Run, Shoot the Piano Player, The Soft Skin, Stolen Kisses, Two English Girls, Une histoire d’eau, The Woman Next Door.
Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder)
Wilder is often lauded for crowd-pleasing fare like The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, and those are definitely masterpieces, but your appreciation of Wilder will deepen when you realize how wonderfully dark and cynical he could be as well. The Apartment is one of his best in that regard, but he was getting pitch-black years before that — all the way back to Double Indemnity and 1951’s Ace in the Hole, his scathing follow-up to Sunset Boulevard and one of the first films to question the dynamic between a reporter and his story. It’s the only Wilder on the channel right now, but it still feels relevant to the way our news cycle makes the news as much as reports on it.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
In remaking Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (available on Criterion Blu-ray, but not on the channel; no Sirk movie is on the service yet), Fassbinder came up with something entirely his own. His most accessible film, Ali is a moving masterpiece about a widow (Brigitte Mira) who falls in love with a young Arab man (El Hedi ben Salem). Fassbinder takes the structure of Sirk’s melodrama and expands on it to comment on the racism simmering under the surface of West Germany in the ‘70s. His delicate framing and work with character are on perfect display here in a film that doesn’t subvert the emotion of the source material so much as repurpose it with more anger and poignancy.
More Fassbinder on the Criterion Channel: The American Soldier, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Effi Briest, Chinese Roulette, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Fear of Fear, Fox and His Friends, Gods of the Plague, Katzelmacher, Lola, Love Is Colder Than Death, The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, Querelle, Satan’s Brew, Veronika Voss, World on a Wire.
The Apu Trilogy (Satyajit Ray)
There was a time when it seemed possible that three of the most important films of all time would never be seen in a quality format again. The original negatives were burned in an infamous 1993 fire in the Henderson’s film lab in South London. Criterion sought for years to reconstruct the films and eventually released their 4K restorations in 2015. This is a trilogy in which each film more than stands on its own, and yet they become something transcendent when viewed together. Panther Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar are perfect examples of Roger Ebert’s belief that great films are empathy machines, ways to experience lives and perspectives we otherwise could not.
More Ray on the Criterion Channel: The Big City, Charulata, The Coward, Devi, The Elephant God, An Enemy of the People, The Hero, The Holy Man, The Home and the World, The Music Room, Rabindranath Tagore, The Stranger, Three Daughters.
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica)
Show us someone who has taken a film-theory class and we’ll show you someone who has probably seen Bicycle Thieves. It’s been de rigueur for decades for a reason, serving as a portal to discussions of framing, perspective, and tone for generations. One of the most beloved films of all time, De Sica’s 1948 Oscar winner tells the simple story of a hardworking man whose bicycle is stolen, but it does so in such a simple, effective way that it effectively rewrote the rules of film grammar.
More De Sica on the Criterion Channel: The Age of the Medici, The Children Are Watching Us, Umberto D.
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel)
There are several films starring Catherine Deneuve in the Criterion Collection, but this is one of her most iconic roles, and a good starting point for investigating the career of a filmmaker who can be a little daunting. Deneuve plays an ordinary French housewife who ends up working in a bordello in this stylish commentary on class and sexuality, one of Buñuel’s biggest hits upon its release in 1967.
More Buñuel on the Criterion Channel: The Exterminating Angel, Robinson Crusoe, Simon of the Desert, Viridiana.
Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Few directorial debuts announced a new talent as loudly as 1984’s Blood Simple. Over the next decade or so, the Coens would have one of the best career runs of their generation, knocking out beloved films like Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and Fargo, among others. Much of their skill was on display from the first scene of this incredible noir starring M. Emmett Walsh, Dan Hedaya, and Frances McDormand. The special features are great here too, including a discussion with Bill Hader, star of HBO’s Barry (which is clearly inspired by the Coens’ brand of dark comedy), along with contributions by Walsh and Dave Eggers.
Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)
Cinema’s enfant terrible broke through on an international level with this 1996 stunner about a newlywed in a Scottish village whose life is upended after her husband is paralyzed. Watching it now, after all the stories of Von Trier’s aggressive on-set behavior and after absorbing all the seeming misogyny in many of his subsequent films, is different from first seeing it in 1996, but his films remain worthy of dissection and discussion. And no one can deny the power of Emily Watson’s work here, which netted her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. (She should have won.)
More Von Trier on the Criterion Channel: Antichrist, The Element of Crime, Europa.
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)
It’s difficult to top the opening sentence of Criterion’s own description: “There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless.” Indeed, the DNA of Godard’s 1960 international smash hit is in not only the French New Wave that would follow but so many of the critically beloved films of the ‘60s and ‘70s as well. The narrative doesn’t really matter here; it’s the tone that Godard strikes, one that’s constantly aware of itself as an object of art, fashion, and sexuality. Godard injected art cinema with a playfulness it hadn’t really seen before, opening the eyes of hundreds of filmmakers.
More Godard on the Criterion Channel: 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, All the Boys Are Called Patrick, Charlotte et son Jules, Every Man for Himself, Le petit soldat, Masculin féminin, Tout va bien, Une histoire d’eau, Vivre sa vie, Weekend.
Brief Encounter (David Lean)
Sir David Lean will always have a bust in the film hall of fame for the way he redefined epic filmmaking in works like Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia in the ‘60s. Long before that, however, he made several more intimate films with Noël Coward, the best of which is the heartbreaking Brief Encounter from 1945. Based on Coward’s play Still Life, it recounts the story of a chance meeting in a train station of two strangers stuck in miserable marriages that they can’t leave. It would be hard to count how many films Brief Encounter has influenced over the years. See where so much of the romantic-drama foundation was poured.
More Lean on the Criterion Channel: Blithe Spirit, Great Expectations, Hobson’s Choice, In Which We Serve, Oliver Twist, Summertime, This Happy Breed.
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
Criterion is often accused of skewing a bit too much toward European and American cinema, but it has embraced one of Asia’s most essential modern filmmakers, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, with a nice sampler of his remarkable career. You can watch films spanning the entire breadth of his career, from an early work of the ‘80s all the way up to his last film, 2018’s 24 Frames. Certified Copy plays with perspective and form while never losing track of the two fascinating performers at its center. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell star as two people who at first seem to be getting to know each other, but then the movie turns in a way that makes us think they’ve known each other for quite some time. It’s a film that comments on the way relationships are presented onscreen without ever coming across as pretentious. It’s both intellectually and emotionally stimulating, and it’s one of the best films of the decade.
More Kiarostami on the Criterion Channel: 24 Frames, Close-up, Taste of Cherry, Where Is My Friend’s House?
Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles)
Where does one start with Orson Welles? If you have access to his entire oeuvre, Citizen Kane is the logical opening salvo, but that – as well as some of the other more widely known classics – is not on the Criterion Channel. Instead, we have Chimes at Midnight, Welles’s 1965 riff on Sir John Falstaff. Largely dismissed upon its release, Chimes has developed a following over the years and was restored by Janus and Criterion in 2015 for a new generation to discover.
More Welles on the Criterion Channel: The Complete Mr. Arkadin, F for Fake, The Immortal Story, Othello.
Cléo From 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda)
Varda recently passed away at 90, leaving even hard-core cinephiles wondering if they had seen enough of her influential work. How important is Varda to film history? Roger Ebert put it perfectly when he wrote about her relationship to the French New Wave in 2012: “Varda is its very soul, and only the fact that she is a woman, I fear, prevented her from being routinely included with Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, and for that matter her husband Jacques Demy.” Cléo is probably her most popular and accessible film, blending documentary and fiction techniques as the director captures the texture of life for a woman in the Paris of the ’60s in a way that only she could.
More Varda on the Criterion Channel: Black Panthers, Le bonheur, Documenteur, Lions Love (… and Lies), Murs murs, One Sings the Other Doesn’t, La pointe courte, Uncle Yanco, Vagabond, The Young Girls Turn 25.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Hardly anyone would argue that Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’s best film, but it’s incredibly accessible, which makes it an easier place to start than, say, the 6.5-hour Carlos. Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche as a famous actress being asked to reprise a role in the play that made her a star. However, whereas she was once in the ingénue role, she now must take the part of the older woman. As she rehearses with her assistant, wonderfully played by Kristen Stewart, who won the French equivalent of an Oscar for her work here, reality and fiction intertwine. Despite some third-act problems, this is a fascinating, haunting film, and a great way to sample how narratively daring Assayas can be.
More Assayas on the Criterion Channel: Carlos, Cold Water, Summer Hours.
Cronos (Guillermo del Toro)
The only one of the three films from Criterion’s Blu-ray Del Toro box set available on the Criterion Channel – The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth being the others – Cronos is the Oscar-winning director’s 1993 debut, a vampire film like only he could make. Federico Luppi plays an antiques dealer who finds a scarab that leads him into a nightmare. Del Toro’s brilliance in creating marvelous worlds with unforgettable effects is already on full display here.
The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
If you know the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski, it’s probably because you’ve seen his Three Colours Trilogy (Blue, White, and Red) and/or might have experienced his transcendent Dekalog, but it’s entirely possible this 1991 masterpiece slid under your radar. Correct that oversight. Irène Jacob stars both as a Polish singer and as her “double,” a French music teacher. Kieslowski’s use of lyrical, haunting visual imagery is breathtaking.
More Kieslowski on the Criterion Channel: Blind Chance, No End, A Short Film About Killing, A Short Film About Love, The Three Colours Trilogy.
The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin)
Anyone who says they don’t like silent films hasn’t watched enough Charlie Chaplin. Silent comedies are often parodied as mere exercises in physical humor – and that element is certainly a part of their charm – but Chaplin’s work transcended pratfalls and knowing looks to the camera. His best movies had more humanism and relatable emotion than the vast majority of the “talkies” that would follow. Perhaps the toughest part of being a Chaplin fan is picking one for newbies. No matter, they generally end up watching them all.
More Chaplin on the Criterion Channel: The Circus, City Lights, A Day’s Pleasure, A Dog’s Life, The Great Dictator, The Idle Class, The Kid, A King in New York, Limelight, Modern Times, Monsieur Verdoux, Pay Day, The Pilgrim, Shoulder Arms, Sunnyside, A Woman of Paris.
Grey Gardens (Albert & David Maysles)
When David and Albert Maysles were filming the Beales, did they know they had a cult classic in the making? For years, this cinematic portrait of two unforgettable women – Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, cousins of Jackie Onassis – was a cult hit, but it’s gained prominence over the past decade or so and is now regarded as an all-time-great documentary. The Maysles (and co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer) capture the decline of opulence in a way that turns their realistic approach into a commentary on the end of an era. This is what Camelot becomes: co-dependent former socialites stuck in their routines in a crumbling mansion.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais)
If you’re going to try to comprehend why the French New Wave mattered and gauge the impact it had on the filmmaking of other cultures, you need to know your Resnais, and this is his best film. Also his first, it stars Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada as a French actress and a Japanese architect who have an affair amidst the ruins of Hiroshima. It earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
More Resnais on the Criterion Channel: Le chant du styrène, Mon oncle d’Amérique, Muriel or the Time of the Return, Night and Fog.
Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa)
Even if Criterion had only a handful of Kurosawa films, it would still be difficult to choose between The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Ran, to name a few. So why Ikiru? Well, it’s an unqualified masterpiece, about a man with stomach cancer coming to terms with the end of his life. It’s hard to believe Kurosawa made it when he was just over 40.
More Kurosawa on the Criterion Channel: Too many to list.
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai)
Movies don’t get more hypnotic than this, a story of love and longing set in Hong Kong in 1962. Gorgeously shot by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin, In the Mood for Love also features career-defining performances by Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. The two play neighbors who develop an attraction to one another in a way that feels both deeply cinematic and completely human.
More Wong on the Criterion Channel: Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, Hua yang de nian hua.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman)
Chantal Akerman’s work still hasn’t quite ascended to cinema’s Valhalla, but cinephiles know better. This 1975 examination of the gradual breakdown of the routines of an ordinary life turns everyday detail into something unforgettable, even transcendent. The Village Voice named it one of the 20 best films of the 20th century.
More Akerman on the Criterion Channel: Hotel Monterey, Je tu il elle, La chambre, Le rendez-vous d’Anna, News From Home, Saute ma ville.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
Cassavetes, one of the pioneers of ‘70s filmmaking, was lionized in a great Criterion box set that included five of his films, notably A Woman Under the Influence, with its searing performance by Gena Rowlands. That’s not on the channel yet, and a few other Cassavetes essentials, like Faces and Love Streams, are missing too. Luckily, his fantastic The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is here in two versions. It’s film noir like no one else could do it, featuring phenomenal character work by Ben Gazzara as a strip-club owner who runs into trouble with loan sharks.
More Cassavetes on the Criterion Channel: Opening Night, Shadows.
L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)
There are only a few films that one can point to and say that they literally changed the language of filmmaking. One such is Antonioni’s L’Avventura from 1960, a movie that heralded the challenging, elliptical art-house works of the ‘60s and ‘70s. What if someone could just disappear off the face of the Earth? That’s what happens to a young woman on a yachting trip, but L’Avventura is no mere mystery movie. It’s more about disillusionment and disenchantment with society, themes he would continue to explore.
More Antonioni on the Criterion Channel: Le Amiche, Blow-up, Gente del Po, Identification of a Woman, L’Eclisse, La Notte, N.O., Red Desert.
La Promesse (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Though Criterion has released several great films by the Dardennes, only one is on the channel as of this writing. In 1996’s La promesse, a young man realizes that his father has been making money on the backs of undocumented workers. The Dardennes’ blend of realism and fancy is a marvel to behold.
La Strada (Federico Fellini)
As with several filmmakers on this list, picking a single Fellini feels almost cruel, but a good place to start is with the unforgettable visage of Giulietta Masina. She plays Gelsomina, a woman sold to a circus strongman, played by Anthony Quinn. La Strada marks Fellini’s transition from neorealism to a more lyrical style.
More Fellini on the Criterion Channel: 8½, Amarcord, I Vitelloni, Il Bidone, Juliet of the Spirits, Nights of Cabiria.
The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitch’s acknowledged classics – Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc. – are widely known and loved, but Criterion offers a nice selection of his earlier films. Why not start with 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, in which a spinster literally disappears into thin air? A wonderful genre blend, it nimbly incorporates elements of comedy into the mystery. An underrated great.
More Hitchcock on the Criterion Channel: The 39 Steps, Downhill, Foreign Correspondent, The Lodger, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, Young and Innocent.
The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies)
Terence Davies is often cited as Britain’s greatest living filmmaker, and this 1992 autobiographical work is his best film. Rather than simply chronicle what life was like in ‘50s Liverpool, Davies delivers a movie that plays out like a dreamlike memory. Moments from childhood rise to the surface and then fade back again, often with perfectly chosen music to accompany them. A beautiful, lyrical, deeply poetic piece of filmmaking.
M (Fritz Lang)
A perfectly calibrated suspense film about a serial killer, unforgettably played by Peter Lorre. Lang’s style and framing revolutionized cinematic language and influenced a century’s worth of films.
More Lang on the Criterion Channel: The Big Heat, Human Desire, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader)
Writer-director Paul Schrader is known for his films about men on the fringes of society (see: Taxi Driver and First Reformed), but this is arguably his most visually striking work, about a man who merged his life and art. Ken Ogata plays Yukio Mishima, who committed public seppuku in 1970 to protest what he saw as the decadence of Japanese postwar culture. Challenging traditional forms of cinematic storytelling, Mishima is a modern classic.
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
Arguably the best movie of the aughts, David Lynch’s masterpiece is a dreamlike tale of Hollywood and horror. Naomi Watts plays Betty Elms, a woman who arrives in the City of Angels and meets a brunette (Laura Harring) who has lost her memory. Explaining what Mulholland Drive is “about” in a brief paragraph cannot possibly do it justice. It’s a mood piece, containing some of the most striking, unforgettable imagery of Lynch’s career.
More Lynch on the Criterion Channel: The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
There’s not enough horror on the Criterion Channel, but a classic of the genre is just sitting there, waiting for you to experience it. DIY filmmaking changed forever when George A. Romero got some friends and colleagues together to make a zombie movie that remains powerful a half-century later. Check out the copious special features, including Romero’s audio commentary as well as video of Guillermo Del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Frank Darabont discussing the legacy of Night of the Living Dead.
Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
Carol Reed is one of cinema’s kings of light and shadow. He knew how to use them to enhance the mood of masterpieces like The Third Man and this 1947 thriller, in which James Mason plays a political conspirator on the run, hunted by police throughout Belfast. Soon the whole world starts to feel dangerous and unsettling.
More Reed on the Criterion Channel: The Fallen Idol, A Kid for Two Farthings.
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)
The only Kubrick film currently on the channel is the searing Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas as a WWI French colonel forced to defend his men against a charge of cowardice after they refuse to go through with an order that would lead to their deaths. It remains a powerful indictment of what governments and militaries ask young men to do in combat.
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)
Years before he won an Oscar for Amour, Michael Haneke was a controversial voice on the international scene with several challenging flicks. This Grand Prix winner at Cannes in 2001 was one of his major turning points. Isabelle Huppert stars as Erika, the titular piano teacher, who starts up an affair with one of her students and then watches her life turn upside down. It’s not as abrasive as some of Haneke’s other work – Funny Games, for example – but definitely challenges traditional expectations and illustrates his skill with form. (As for special features, Huppert does commentary on selected scenes, and there’s a 30-minute interview with Haneke.)
More Haneke on the Criterion Channel: Benny’s Video, The Castle, Code Unknown, Funny Games, The Seventh Continent.
The Player (Robert Altman)
A lot of the best of Altman on Criterion is not yet on the channel, but you will find what many call his comeback movie, this scathing 1992 comedy/thriller about the movie industry. Tim Robbins stars as a studio executive who gets caught up in a web of paranoia and greed in a way that could only happen in Hollywood. Often cited for its famous unbroken shot and plentiful cameos, The Player is underrated as an example of tonal balance: Watch as Altman slides smoothly from dark comedy to noir elements to industry commentary and back to satire. It’s seamless.
More Altman on the Criterion Channel: Secret Honor, Tanner ‘88.
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
This sumptuous, gorgeous 1948 film stars Moira Shearer as a ballerina caught between love and career, but it’s more about visual flair. Shot in Technicolor, it won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Music and was voted one of the ten best British films of all time by the British Film Institute at the end of the century. When people like Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola are asked about their favorite films of all time, The Red Shoes regularly comes up.
More Powell & Pressburger on the Criterion Channel: Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going!, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Volunteer.
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
One of the most revered films of all time, this is a scathing examination of class in French society and a roller coaster in terms of tone and style.
More Renoir on the Criterion Channel: La bête humaine, Boudu Saved From Drowning, La chienne, A Day in the Country, Elena and Her Men, French Cancan, The Golden Coach, The Lower Depths, The River, Toni.
Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Almost everyone has seen the iconic shot of an exploding head, but you really should take the time to watch the rest of the film around it. Scanners, Cronenberg’s breakout hit, is a study not just of incredible supernatural powers but of how the world would respond if such really existed.
More Cronenberg on the Criterion Channel: The Brood.
The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman)
There’s enough Ingmar Bergman on the Criterion Channel to tide you over for weeks. But where to start? There are character pieces like Winter Light and Fanny and Alexander and more challenging films like Persona and The Virgin Spring. But it was his 1957 surreal masterpiece, in which a knight of the Crusades (Max von Sydow) meets Death on a beach and the two play a game of chess, that defined him as an international cinematic presence.
More Bergman on the Criterion Channel: So much. Watch it all.
Stagecoach (John Ford)
Some of the best Ford films in the Criterion Collection – My Darling Clementine, Young Mr. Lincoln – aren’t included on the channel yet, but you can still find one of the Western master’s most influential works, a film that established so many of the tropes of the genre that directors still play with today. Before 1939’s Stagecoach, the Western was an unheralded genre; Stagecoach not only revolutionized the form but introduced the world to a young man named John Wayne.
More Ford on the Criterion Channel: The Long Voyage Home, The Plough and the Stars.
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s films often present a challenge for budding cinephiles, who might blanch at the prospect of 160 minutes’ worth of Russian sci-fi. Trust us, it’s worth it. Solaris may be more widely known, but Stalker is his masterpiece, a film nearly impossible to describe in a single paragraph. Suffice it to say it’s a visual and tonal experience that simply mesmerizes the viewer. You won’t feel the length, and you won’t feel the same after you see it.
More Tarkovsky on the Criterion Channel: Andrei Rublev, Ivan’s Childhood, The Mirror, Solaris, The Steamroller and the Violin.
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)
As people drool over the supercool trailer for Jim Jarmusch’s upcoming zombie film, The Dead Don’t Die, take the chance to acquaint yourself with his early work, starting with this 1984 breakthrough, starring John Lurie and Richard Edson. Jarmusch redefined independent cinema in the ‘80s with his spare style, filled with long takes and deliberate, unhurried plotting. His films are more about creating a mood than conveying a traditional narrative, and this is where that brand really began.
More Jarmusch on the Criterion Channel: Dead Man, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Permanent Vacation.
The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris)
There aren’t enough good documentaries on the Criterion Channel, but you can sample three nonfiction films from one of the form’s masters, Errol Morris. Arguably his best film remains this 1988 masterpiece that defined true-crime documentaries for decades to come. Morris uses his camera to document the indictment of Randall Dale Adams, who was accused of murdering a cop in Dallas. With his unmatched skills as an interviewer and an unforgettable Philip Glass score, The Thin Blue Line remains a riveting piece of filmmaking.
More Morris on the Criterion Channel: A Brief History of Time, Gates of Heaven.
Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu)
Like so many of Ozu’s films, Tokyo Story is both specifically Japanese and possessed of a universal emotional resonance. Ozu regulars Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara star in a story of generational differences amid societal change. It’s a deftly simple story of an old couple going to visit their grown children in Tokyo, but there’s so much buried in the framing and pacing. It becomes the kind of film that can be paused and analyzed scene by glorious scene.
More Ozu on the Criterion Channel: More than two dozen other titles.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy)
Why do people still watch Jacques Demy? Well, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has a cinematic energy that’s unlike any other film. The only musical on this list, it features a luminous performance from Catherine Deneuve as the daughter of an umbrella-shop owner who falls in love with a mechanic (Nino Castelnuovo) who gets sent to fight in Algeria. Utterly unique.
More Demy on the Criterion Channel: Bay of Angels, Donkey Skin, Lola, A Slightly Pregnant Man, Une chambre en ville, The Young Girls of Rochefort
The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Henri-Georges Clouzot is one of the best suspense directors of all time, and his two most famous films are Criterion Channel must-sees. The terrifying Diabolique is just as good a starting place, but if you’re in the mood for something different, try The Wages of Fear, a movie that has lost none of its power to thrill. The premise alone is perfectly thrilling: Four men take a job driving explosive nitroglycerin over a mountain pass. Every bump could be their last moment on Earth. It’s a model of how to produce tension through narrative and pacing.
More Clouzot on the Criterion Channel: L’assassin habite au 21, Diabolique.
White Material (Claire Denis)
There aren’t enough female directors on the Criterion Channel, so don’t skip the service’s only work by the amazing Claire Denis. In this 2009 drama, Isabelle Huppert stars as a white woman living in Africa who watches her life and family legacy collapse as a civil war threatens her way of life.
Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
One of the best movies of the ‘80s, Wings of Desire is about longing and what it means to be human. Bruno Ganz, in an unforgettable performance, plays an angel who can hear the thoughts of the denizens of Berlin and decides to give up his immortality to join them. One of the most poetic, lyrical films ever made.
More Wenders on the Criterion Channel: Alice in the Cities, The American Friend, Buena Vista Social Club, Kings of the Road, Palermo Shooting, Paris, Texas, Pina, Tokyo-ga, Wrong Move.
Yi Yi (Edward Yang)
How do you pick between Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day? They’re both modern masterpieces by Taiwanese director Edward Yang. Yi Yi is his final film, a nearly three-hour epic about a middle-class family in Taipei. It’s a film that balances detailed realism with Yang’s gorgeous sense of framing. Both beautiful and genuine, it’s a perfect place to start exploring modern East Asian cinema.
More Yang on the Criterion Channel: A Brighter Summer Day, Taipei Story.