I’ve been thinking about doing this post for a while, and these days of shelter-in-place seem like as good a time as any. The Criterion Collection interests me because it seems to have a sensibility. It isn’t picking the best movies (imo!) or even the best lesser-known movies deserving a wider audience. I imagine the titular “criterion” as something closer to, “I want more like these.” So that’s what this list is: at least somewhat lesser-known, underseen films which, while they may not be the very best of their genre, have a look and an attitude I want to see more of. With the genre films (which I guess we have to consider the religious films also…) I’m also saying that I think these are worth seeing if you care about movies but don’t necessarily care about horror or religion.
I’m not going to bother listing which of these are streaming where, but a quick search should turn that info up. I know I’ve ranted about the greatness of many of these at length (links are to my reviews) but, well, maybe some people missed it. Surely that’s the only explanation as to why they’re not more popular!
ETA: BIGGER STRONGER BETTER MOAR.
1943, Jacques Tourneur: I Walked With a Zombie. Haunting, image-driven, using Caribbean customs for their own sake and not solely for what they mean about white people. I talked about this movie in my Doxacon presentation.
1943, Mark Robson: The Seventh Victim. Man, 1943 was a good year for legendary producer Val Lewton. IIRC this is the movie that prompted his famous retort, to a studio head who didn’t want him to make “message pictures,” “I’m sorry, but we do have a message, and our message is that death is good.”
1943, Henry King: The Song of Bernadette. What hagiography should be. Challenging, and beautiful without being saccharine.
1961, Kent Mackenzie: The Exiles. Genuinely surprised this black-and-white classic portrait of American Indians in Los Angeles isn’t already in the collection. A lot of the films in my list are kind of “if you like art films, consider this genre film,” but this one is the opposite, an art film type thing for people who love Carnival of Souls. Speaking of which….
1962, Herk Hervey: Carnival of Souls. An unsettling genre classic which captures the feeling of being lost in a world made for other people. Criterion already has The Face of Another and this offers a similar feeling, I think, with more-genre, less-literary tropes–the carnival instead of the mirror.
1967, Jack Hill: Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told. It is!!! A truly bonkers living-family-haunts-own-house tale.
1976, Tobe Hooper: Eaten Alive. This is a stand-in for other mist-hung neon madness-mouths like Pumpkinhead. Not a “great film” (Pumpkinhead is probably better tbh) but a very film.
1978, Charles Burnett: Killer of Sheep. Slice of life, with all the violence, surrealism, doomed romance, and bleak comedy that phrase should imply. Lol Criterion went with To Sleep with Anger–which is a fascinating movie, but the difference between that one and the more knifelike and disheveled Killer is a nice synecdoche of the difference between me and them.
1980, William Friedkin: Cruising. I don’t even care. I’ll bite the head off a bat. I’ll put Cruising in the Criterion Collection.
1981, Abel Ferrara: Ms. .45. If you only watch one rape-revenge film (and I don’t really think I want to watch more than one) it should be this almost Expressionist tale.
1981, Michael Wadleigh: Wolfen. A completely satisfying genre horror flick (that opening kill scene!) and also a subtle portrait of New York City as refuge under threat. All the Edward James Olmos scenes are flat-out unforgettable. I talked about it a lot in my Doxacon thing and I’d say it’s maybe especially relevant if you’re an art-film person who wants to know what horror movies do that other genres don’t, and how they do it.
1982, Lou Adler: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Iconic rock rise-and-fall teen drama for the riot grrrl within.1982, Slava Tsukerman: Liquid Sky. Another movie which may not be “good,” but you gotta admit that it’s great. The queer extraterrestrial style explosion you need and want in these, our troubled times.
1985, Susan Seidelman: Desperately Seeking Susan. I realize they already canonized Michael Mann but I’m going with my vision here and pushing you toward this imo Mann-influenced comedy a la femme.
1985, Fritz Kiersch: Tuff Turf. The movie John Hughes might have made if he took himself less seriously. A surprisingly violent, weird little comedy, and although I think Criterion types often pretend it’s not about the actors, this has James Spader and Robert Downey, Jr. at their 1985iest.
1986, Alain Cavalier: Therese. Another one I know I’m always telling you to watch. A stark, mystical and emotional portrait of the Little Flower of Lisieux.
1987, Marek Kanievska: Less Than Zero. My favorite stylistic thing here, aside from all of it, is the way people talk like their sentences are strips of ticker tape from some other movie, randomly floating from their mouths. Gorgeous film, an Afterschool Special which gives so much easy aesthetic pleasure.
1988, Tim Burton: Beetlejuice. This is one of those movies that isn’t at the top of its genre, but it has that certain something–a wigginess, an unexpected and delightful quality–and in spite of its huge popularity upon release I sense that it has fallen off the radar of ’80s horror and horror-comedy buffs.
1993, The Hughes Brothers: Menace II Society. A rise-and-fall gangster genre film + interrogation of what movies and spectacle can mean to us, this is total Criterion bait and it also happens to be artsy, subtle, and deeply moving.
1993, Allison Anders: Mi Vida Loca. Hard-bitten women in a hard-biting world. If Jaime Hernandez’s Widows/Speedy-centered comics were a movie.
1995, Abel Ferrara: The Addiction. The ’90s were infested with artsy pseudointellectual vampire movies. This is the most heartfelt, the most visually striking, and–although I usually say intelligence doesn’t matter–the most philosophically incisive.
2004, Gidi Dar: Ushpizin. A tale of hospitality, with enough edge and grime that I forgive its ultimate message of “the Lord scatters rewards on the faithful in this life, in the way that they want!”
2011, Whit Stillman: Damsels in Distress. I know Criterion has a bunch of Stillman but they have so far neglected this, my very favorite of his films, an antidepressant in tulip colors.
2015, Anna Rose Holmer: The Fits. I can’t stop talking about this ecstatic film–what if Angela Carter and Audre Lorde had a divorce, but then a baby, and that baby was a movie?
2015, Robert Eggers: The Witch. Unquestionably the greatest horror film of the ’10s. It has that strangeness, that willingness to throw in things that don’t need to be there (I’m thinking especially of the possibly-possessed little boy reciting the Song of Songs) but which deepen the film’s theology and its anguish. Every frame and incident are unforgettable, no joke. To call it “an American Beyond the Hills” is a bit smarmy and tbh unfair to The VVitch‘s uniqueness, but I do think if you are haunted by one of those movies you should also watch the other.
2017, Bruno Dumont: Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. I called this Vatican City’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, and I stand by that. It’s phenomenal.
2019, Jordan Peele: Us. Enthralled by ’80s horror but not trapped in mere homage; political but not reducible to a politics or a “team”; not flawless by any means, but I would watch a million more movies with this film’s conviction and style.