Classic movie lovers will adore The Criterion Channel. With so many options to choose from, film buffs could stay busy for months watching movies from early innovators like Sergei Eisenstein and Carl Theodor Dreyer, influential visionaries like Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard, and modern auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and Pedro Almodovar.
It’s nearly impossible to narrow this embarrassment of riches down to just 10 movies. So for this list we’re casting a wide net to include films from different countries, years, and genres that shouldn’t be missed. Plus, with each recommendation at least one additional selection is included as well. But remember, these titles are just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully, they'll whet your appetite for everything classic film has to offer.
10 THE LADY VANISHES
The Criterion Channel’s selection of Alfred Hitchcock movies is limited to his earliest works. That means no Psycho, no Vertigo, no Notorious. But Hitchcock’s early movies are thrilling in their own right. Of the options available, 1938’s The Lady Vanishes stands out for its unique style and charm.
The movie centers on the mysterious disappearance of a woman on a train. Yet, what makes it stand out is its comedic elements, something that wasn’t as obviously present in Hitchcock’s other films. The movie has an impish tone that makes it all the more fun. If you enjoy a good Hitchcock film, Fritz Lang’s thriller M is also worth your time.
9 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Today, the most well-known version of Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s 1991 animated movie. Yet decades earlier in 1946, French director Jean Cocteau adapted the fairy tale for his own live-action film, and the results were magical.
Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast follows the basic outlines of the familiar story but creates a movie uniquely his own. The visuals are sumptuous and even with sparse dialogue, a great deal of meaning is conveyed through the performances and music. For more gorgeous visuals like those of Beauty and the Beast, check out Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos.
8 HAROLD AND MAUDE
Harold and Maude is an odd movie with a premise that probably shouldn’t work. Yet this touching fable casts an enchantingly original spell. Directed by Hal Ashby, the 1971 cult classic focuses on the romantic relationship between a death-obsessed young man from a wealthy family and a free-wheeling elderly woman.
It’s tart and innocent, knowing and funny. Plus it’s all backed up by a fantastic Cat Stevens soundtrack. For a more risqué take on the transgression of social norms, stream Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour starring Catherine Deneuve.
7 IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love from 2000 is a beautiful tale of connection and missed opportunity. It centers on a man and woman in Hong Kong in 1962 who come together in the wake of their spouses’ affair. The pair's relationship remains platonic, but their feelings for one another are palpable.
While the premise of this film could have been sensationalized, in the hands of Wong Kar-Wai it’s low-key and restrained, full of quiet emotion and beautiful visuals. Another artfully romantic film that’s pure pleasure to watch is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.
6 THE THIN BLUE LINE
The recent fascination with true crime movies and TV owes a debt to this 1988 documentary by Errol Morris. The Thin Blue Line tells the story of the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death row for a crime he didn't commit. The film is the first documentary to incorporate reenactments of events described by people involved with the case, something we’re used to seeing onscreen nowadays.
The film is remarkably compelling and undeniably entertaining, but it also demonstrated the way art can impact the real world; it led to a review of Adams' case and his eventual release. If you’re looking for other gripping documentaries, check out titles like Hoop Dreams, Don’t Look Back, and Grey Gardens.
5 BICYCLE THIEVES
Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves from 1948, also known as The Bicycle Thief, is a profoundly moving film. It centers on a man and his son’s search for his stolen bicycle in post-war Rome. It sounds simple, but the bicycle represents so much more than just a mode of transportation. The man’s job, which is a lifeline for his impoverished family, is dependent on the bicycle. If he can’t find it, he will lose his livelihood and the hope that comes with it.
The movie is candid and heart-rending as it follows the desperate man on his quest. Yet while the story is bleak, it’s still an emotionally rewarding watch. Another honest and sad film that’s worth a watch is The 400 Blows from French New Wave director Francois Truffaut.
4 MODERN TIMES
When it comes to cinema classics, it’s impossible not to mention Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin made hilarious and insightful silent movies that still hold up today and Modern Times from 1936 is one of his best.
Chaplin plays his signature character The Little Tramp as he goes to work at a factory and falls in love. The movie is a showcase for Chaplin’s singular talents as both a director and a writer. The Criterion Channel offers many other wonderful Chaplin films, including City Lights, The Gold Rush, and The Great Dictator.
Akira Kurosawa is one of the most important filmmakers of all time and it’s hard to go wrong with almost any of his films. Ran from 1985 was one of his later works and also one of his most accomplished. Kurosawa re-imagines the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear in medieval Japan in order to explore themes of loyalty, betrayal, power, and greed. The film is epic in scope with a compelling story, fantastic acting, and lovely sets and costumes.
Another Kurosawa film that shouldn’t be missed is Rashomon. Made in the early years of Kurosawa's career in 1950, Rashomon tells the story of a crime from several different characters' points of view — a narrative structure that has subsequently been used in many stories.
2 8 ½
It’s hard to describe Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. The 1963 film revolves around a director whose professional and personal life is in free fall. As things crumble around him, the director—a stand-in for Fellini himself —retreats into fantasy and memory. As a result, the film has a dreamy surrealist quality that speaks to the main character’s troubled mind.
While 8 ½ is a film about filmmaking, it’s relatable to anyone who has ever attempted to juggle the many moving parts of a complicated life. The Criterion Channel also has several other noteworthy Fellini films available including Juliet of the Spirits, La Strada, and Amarcord.
The Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman made many important films during his career, but 1966’s Persona is considered his masterpiece. The film centers on an actress who stops talking and the nurse who cares for her as she retreats to an isolated cottage by the sea. While that description makes the movie sound straightforward, there’s much more to it than that.
The film is mesmerizing with lovely imagery and a haunting tone that make its psychological exploration of identity all the more fascinating. Bergman was a singular filmmaker and fortunately the Criterion Channel includes many of his movies. Winter Light, The Seventh Seal, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly are a great place to start a survey of his work.