Filmmaker Essentials: The Criterion Collection
For us filmmakers, information is key. We either learn by making films or by studying how the masters made theirs. In a lot of ways, we’re pretty lucky. For us, homework is watching movies.
Since the early-1980s, Criterion has been collecting some of the most influential classic and contemporary films (currently on DVD and Blu-Ray), and has paired them with unmatched packaging and special features. They include essays and documentaries, commentary tracks, and mind-blowing restorations - many of which are approved by the directors themselves!
That said, their cinematic alumni includes Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, and François Truffaut - and that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Their collection of over 850 films is literally a treasure trove of eye-opening and informative content. They will change the way you watch and make movies.
We’ve got a collection of our own. We’re embarrassed to say how many, but here’s an intro to some of our favourites. We’ve scavenged our shelves to find something for everyone, and to make sure each and every film has something that can improve your filmmaking.
Class is in session.
The Game (1997) - To Storyboard or Not to Storyboard?
David Fincher’s jigsaw puzzle of a film follows Michael Douglas as a businessman who’s been given a life-changing game for his 48th birthday. The more he plays, the deeper he slips into the rabbit hole, questioning as to whether the encounters that threaten his life are part of the game or his day-to-day existence.
Fans of Christopher Nolan will find something to love here. The film’s twists and turns are masterful in subverting expectations, and the ending will have you sweating like you're in a Key and Peele skit. You’ll lose count of the reversals at play here.
Those stoked by Fincher’s process will enjoy a special feature that looks into 4 key scenes and their storyboards, all with Fincher’s commentary. Heck, it’s like he’s showing them to you himself. Your dreams have come true.
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) - The Sweet Sound of Great Dialogue
Writer/directors will marvel at the dialogue on display here. Filmmaker and writer Alex Mackendrick showcases his flair for rapid-fire and memorable one-liners that reveal the twisted motivations of his charming, yet intimidating cast of characters. The moody black and white images suit the ink and paper life of a manipulative press agent desperate to win a gossip columnist's respect. It’s a beautiful look into 1950’s New York.
Packaged with the film is a great interview with filmmaker James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line) as he recalls life under the tutelage of Mackendrick and the lessons learned along the way. He shares some of his mentor’s rules for filmmaking and character creation that you’ll instantly want to thumb-tack to your wall. Some pearls of wisdom include: “The start of your story is usually the consequence of a backstory”, and “Feelings should be seen through purposeful action.”
Sullivan’s Travels (1941) - A Trip Back to Comedies with Substance
Where Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success uses its dialogue for sinister slings between characters, Sullivan’s Travels keeps you on your toes with its back-and-forth wit. Jokes fly at such speed and precision that multiple viewings further elevate the genius of its filmmaker and writer Preston Sturges. In fact, without him, writer/directors like Woody Allen, The Coen Brothers, and Wes Anderson would never exist. He was Hollywood’s first.
Films like Sullivan’s Travels aren’t made anymore, which is why it’s worth seeing. Comedies nowadays are filled with improv and simplistic, bland cinematography. This film takes us back to a time when they were Hollywood’s tentpole films. It’s a smart brand of ha-ha that is neither high or low brow. It’s a mix that can satisfy any audience while still communicating a message that will surely connect with every filmmaker struggling to figure out their place within the industry. Sturges’ films give a voice to the rich and poor, the aristocrats and the butlers, drawing no lines between a person’s worth and their wealth.
If you find yourself mesmerized by what he’s done, there’s a great 75-minute documentary produced by PBS on Sturges’ life and how he carved out his own path in a Hollywood that saw writers and directors as two different and separate things.
Chungking Express (1994) - Your Ticket to Unconventional Structure
Frustrated with predictable plotlines and romance? Unsure of how to go about doing it differently? Chungking Express is your filmic tour guide to a world of celluloid away from the beaten American path. This foreign film, directed by the incomparable Wong Kar-Wai, follows two separate romances as they blossom and wilt, defying every expectation that homegrown films have programed us to predict.
While the special features are great, simply viewing the film will open your mind to a new and different approach. It’s rare to find films like this from American filmmakers, but recently Barry Jenkins, writer and director behind the critically lauded Moonlight, listed the works of Wong Kar-Wai as one of his main influences. Maybe the melancholy, yet heartwarmingly nostalgic sentiment laced throughout his films will inspire you to explore the cinematic road less travelled.
Repo Man (1984) - The No-Rules Reminder
Our last pick for this take on the Criterion Collection is one for the punk rock filmmakers. Repo Man is a testament to the fact that bat-shit crazy films can be made. If you’re feeling disillusioned by the over-lit, over-glamorized, and cookie-cutter films that the Hollywood factory line is cranking out, we can assure you that you’ve never seen a film like this. It may just be the source of inspiration you’re looking for.
Made on a meagre budget in some of Los Angeles’ most grungy locales, Repo Man, tells the tale of two men, varying in age and philosophical outlook, as they repossess a mysterious Chevy Malibu with otherworldly abilities. Yeah, you heard that right.
Like watching a Tarantino film, Repo Man, reminds you that there are no rules to our profession, and that the weirdest of stories can be told as long as they find a means to captivate their audience. Break the rules, but don’t forget to make us care.
The film is paired with an awesome making-of doc that not only discusses how the concept was brought to life, but also interviews director Alex Cox and his creative team as they share their difficulties in making such a unique and anti-establishment film. After all, some of the best filmmakers are rebels.