Today we'll look at 5 of the best Criterion films available digitally that are also considered by this blog to be part of The Essential Films.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Possibly Bergman's most well-known film. Even if you've never seen the film (which if you haven't ... why not?), the imagery is iconic. There is not a cinephile that does not recognize the famous shot of a Swedish knight playing chess with Death. Bergman explores his usual themes in this piece (God, Death, Existence, etc.), but does so against the backdrop of a knight returning home from the Crusades, only to see that his country has fallen into disrepair. Plague and religious fundamentalists are tearing the country apart, and Death is literally stalking him. Antonious, the knight, decides to challenge Death to a game of chess in hopes of delaying or preventing his inevitable demise. Thankfully, with the plague, Death is quite busy, allowing Antonious to stumble upon a pair of hapless traveling actors. While the film may seem bleak, this segment of the film is warm and hopeful. Perhaps not all is lost? This does not deter the film, or Bergman, asking confronting the audience with deep questions about religion, mankind and God.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
One of the essential French New Wave films. The great film critic Roger Ebert once said that just as modern audiences flock to the films of Quentin Tarantino, Godard's audiences flocked to see him in the 1960s. Long before Pulp Fiction shook the cinema world in 1994, films like Godard's Breathless were influencing audiences and future filmmakers world wide. While the story of a car thief trying to convince his girlfriend to live with him in Italy after he kills a police officer is interesting, the main reason one watches Breathless all boils down to one word: Style. A big part of the French New Wave was that the filmmakers of the movement were dissatisfied with what they felt had been stagnant filmmaking. Being a visual medium, Godard and his contemporaries pushed the camera into places, angles and shots it had never been before. Most, if not all, of the film is shot handheld and the results are fascinating, even by 2011 standards.
Director: Andrey Tarkovskiy
Most readers may be more familiar with the 2002 remake directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney. While perhaps not as captivating as the original, Soderbergh's remake has many positive qualities in both story execution and visuals. What's fascinating about both films is that they have the exact same story: a troubled psychologist travels up to an isolated space station orbiting a new planet to investigate strange occurrences; however the results that both Tarkovskiy and Soderbergh produce are quite different. Tarkovksiy's original adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's science fiction novel is slow and methodical, but these are not negative qualities. The visuals are arresting and the acting is captivating. This film haunts you and forces you to watch it again immediately.
The 400 Blows
Director: François Truffaut
One of this blogger's personal favorites. 400 Blows tells the story of the young and misunderstood. Even by today's standards, gritty neo-realistic storytelling such as this is rarely seen, let alone in the 1950s. Another product of the French New Wave, this certainly ranks as one of the best films ever made. The story follows 14-year old Antoine Doinel, and his misadventures as a troubled youth. Always in trouble at school with an emotionally absent mother and a physically absent father, Doinel acts out constantly. Is he merely seeking attention, or is this a cry for help, or perhaps is he lashing out against his environment? This film will leave you deep in thought with its ambiguous and beautiful ending.
Director: John Ford
When you mention John Wayne's name, many films come to mind: The Searchers or Rio Bravo or even the original True Grit. All wonderful films, but true cinephiles know that the film that made Wayne a huge star was Stagecoach. Wayne had been toiling as a Hollywood actor for years before John Ford cast him as the immortal Ringo Kid in this star-making movie. But it's not just Wayne (who delivers the macho character we're so used to) that makes this movie come to life. The supporting cast made up of Claire Trevor, John Carradine and Thomas Mitchell, among others, also contribute a great deal. And lest we not forget the great John Ford, one of Hollywood's greatest directors, at the helm of this western masterpiece. The scenes of the stage coach racing through the desert are worth the price alone, rivaling any modern day action sequences.