30 Best Movies on The Criterion Channel Right Now

30 Best Movies on The Criterion Channel Right Now

June 10, 2024

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The Criterion Channel is great for watching old classics, but as a streaming platform, it’s also full of recent movies (that will hopefully one day become classics). This list is for the best movies you can stream on Criterion that are recent (mostly released in the 2010s with one or two 90s movies).

21. The White Balloon (1995)

best

8.7

Country

Iran

Director

Jafar Panahi

Actors

Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee

Moods

Emotional, Gripping, Heart-warming

There’s a universe of hard-hitting emotion hiding in Jafar Panahi’s deceptively simple debut feature, which follows a seven-year-old girl’s attempts to buy a goldfish before Nowruz, the Persian New Year, dawns. From start to finish, her shopping trip only takes 80-something minutes, and all of the action is confined to a couple of Tehran’s streets — but, because we experience The White Balloon in real-time through determined young Raziah’s (Aida Mohammadkhani) perspective, her simple quest is transformed into a perilous and profoundly emotional odyssey for audiences. Every emotion — from fear to wonder — is magnified through Raziah’s eyes, so much so that an unfortunately timed gust of wind comes to feel like a punch in the gut, and the sight of a fluttering banknote a euphoric miracle. Co-written by master of the Iranian New Wave Abbas Kiarostami, The White Balloon wrings expansive humanism out of its tiny canvas.

22. L’Argent (1983)

best

8.7

Country

France, Switzerland

Director

Robert Bresson

Actors

Alain Aptekman, Caroline Lang, Christian Patey, Didier Baussy

Moods

Intense, Raw, Slow

With his final film, octogenarian master filmmaker Robert Bresson found the violent, chilling truth in that old cliché, “money is the root of all evil.” L’Argent extends the simplicity of its title (literally, “Money”) into the fabric of the film, using an extremely bare style to track the devastating domino effect that a childish ruse has on one man’s life. When a shopkeeper realizes two schoolboys swindled him out of 500 francs with a counterfeit note, he decides to pass the problem on by paying delivery man Yvon (Christian Patey) with the false note. But when Yvon tries to pay for his lunch with the money, the police are called and his life unravels.

This is just the start of L’Argent’s clinical exploration of the meanness and littleness of man’s greedy spirit. Yvon’s downfall is chronicled with matter-of-fact coldness: everything onscreen is minimal, from the precise cinematography and frugal editing to the non-professional actors’ expressionlessness. This detached style encourages us to absorb all the bitter emotion of the story, which feels — in such an economical format as this — like a moral tale as old as time, but no less cutting.

23. Oslo, August 31st (2011)

best

8.6

Country

Denmark, Norway, Sweden

Director

Joachim Trier

Actors

Aksel Thanke, Anders Borchgrevink, Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

This masterpiece from Norwegian director Joachim Trier is a clear-eyed movie that takes place in one day in the life of a 34-year-old. Anders, a recovering drug addict, gets to leave his rehab facility for the first time to take a job interview. He visits friends, tries to meet his ex, and goes to the interview. With every interaction, you get to know him more and understand that what he’s going through is shared with everyone he meets. At 34, Anders feels it is too late to turn his life around, and so do his friends. He just happens to be a drug addict.

24. Streetwise (1984)

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Martin Bell

Actors

Dewayne Pomeroy, Erin Blackwell, Lulu Couch, Patrice Pitts

Moods

Mind-blowing, Sunday, Thought-provoking

Martin Bell documents the lives of youth living in the streets of Seattle in the early eighties with profound empathy. It’s a type of filmmaking that doesn’t judge or condescend, but seeks to capture the humanity of its subjects. The result is a film bursting with life and laughter, and although tragedy lurks around every corner it isn’t over-sentimentalized or exploited, taking a backseat to the compassionate depiction of everyday moments. 

The audience is left to its own devices to pull together the extent to which these youth have been failed by a broken safety-net and the expired promise of an American dream. These ideas rise to the surface naturally and serve as a testament to the power of the documentary form when it’s loosened from the grip of mawkish narrators and sugary moralizing.

25. The Piano Teacher (2001)

best

8.6

Country

Austria, France, Germany

Director

Michael Haneke

Actors

Anna Sigalevitch, Annemarie Schleinzer, Annie Girardot, Benoit Magimel

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Depressing

Based on the Austrian novel, The Piano Teacher is as brilliant and as disturbed as its protagonist. The film follows Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the repressed masochist in question, and the trainwreck of a relationship that she develops with her student Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel). Their dynamic is undeniably toxic. Austrian auteur Michael Haneke frames each scene with clinical detachment, but it is absolutely brutal how the two characters try to assert control over each other, engage in sadomasochism, and repeatedly violate each other’s boundaries. Huppert’s heartrending performance fully commits to the merciless treatment Erika receives. But more tragic is the way Erika’s unusual relationship could’ve freed her, could’ve helped her process her abuse, and instead, reinforces her repression. It’s scary to make yourself vulnerable by admitting your desires, only for them to be used against you.

26. Gap-Toothed Women (1987)

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Les Blank

Actors

Lauren Hutton, Lauren Moore, Sandra Day O'Connor

Moods

Feel-Good, Heart-warming, Lovely

Despite the amusing specificity of its title, this lovely documentary from director Les Blank is really for all of us. Through the example of gap teeth — a physical feature many of the participants here report being made to feel self-conscious about — the film makes a rallying call to embrace ourselves and all of our physical “flaws.”

A big part of what makes this film so heartening is that so many of the women featured here (including model Lauren Hutton) have come out on the other side of loathing their gap teeth, giving us a tangible example of what it looks like to love yourself in spite of other people’s opinions about your body. What’s more, even within a limited runtime, Blank finds space to devote to exploring other aspects of the featured women’s lives — their art, professions, religious practices — and thereby quietly expands the film’s focus from physical beauty and onto the myriad beauties of life itself. It’s an ironic pleasure that Gap-Toothed Women ultimately refuses to define its subjects by the very feature described in its title, and instead gives us this life-affirming shot of wisdom for the ages.

27. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

best

8.6

Country

Japan, New-Zealand, United Kingdom

Director

Nagisa Ōshima

Actors

Alistair Browning, Arthur Ranford, Colin Francis, Daisuke Iijima

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Intense

The tragic irony of war — that, if battling soldiers had been born in any other time or place, they may well have been friends with each other — takes center stage in this brilliant drama set in WWII-era Java. It’s a theme best encapsulated by Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto in his film debut), the bushido code-following commandant of a Japanese POW camp: “How wonderful it would have been if we could have invited all of you to a gathering under our cherry trees,” he muses to the titular British Lieutenant Lawrence (Tom Conti), one of his prisoners.

Lawrence is the camp’s mediator, and not just because he’s fluent in Japanese; in the culture clash microcosm that is the camp, he is uniquely understanding of his captors’ way of life. That earns him special privileges of sorts from the camp’s often brutal enforcer (Takeshi Kitano), but this pales in comparison to the instant partiality with which the charismatic Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enjoys, courtesy of a smitten yet deeply repressed and tormented Yonoi. This psychosexual undercurrent bubbles furiously throughout Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, deepening its (already poignant) lamentations about war’s humanity-stripping effect and the self-imposed prisons that are honor and shame.

28. The Limey (1999)

best

8.6

Country

United States of America

Director

Steven Soderbergh

Actors

Allan Graf, Amelia Heinle, Barry Newman, Bill Duke

Moods

A-list actors, Character-driven, Gripping

The bare bones of The Limey’s story — vengeful Cockney ex-con Wilson (Terence Stamp) flies to LA to investigate the suspicious death of his daughter Jenny — are gripping enough, but what Steven Soderbergh does with them elevates this neo-noir thriller into something utterly singular and stacked with layers upon layers of meaning. An icon of London’s Swinging ‘60s scene, Stamp is pitted against laidback symbol of ‘60s American counterculture Peter Fonda (as Jenny’s sleazy older boyfriend), giving their face-off grander cultural stakes. The extra-textual significance of the casting is deepened by Soderbergh’s ingenious references to the actors’ heyday: in flashbacks to Wilson’s happier past, for example, we’re shown the actual Stamp in his younger years (courtesy of scenes borrowed from 1967’s Poor Cow).

The Limey is also a brilliant showcase for editor Sarah Flack’s technical inventiveness: though the narrative is largely linear, the film cuts to and from scenes and sounds at unexpected points, giving the film an almost David Lynch-like sense of eerie fragmentation. Conjuring up a nightmare LA atmosphere isn’t all the editing does, either, as the film’s puzzle pieces are expertly reassembled to reveal an emotional gut-punch of an ending. In short, this high point in Soderbergh’s filmography is a must-see for any fan of cinema.

29. La Ceremonie (1995)

best

8.5

Country

France, Germany

Director

Claude Chabrol

Actors

Christophe Lemoine, David Gabison, Dominique Frot, Isabelle Huppert

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Dark

La Cérémonie is the kind of thriller you can watch repeatedly and glean new insight from each time. Right from its first scene, there’s something puzzling about the buttoned-up Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) that narrows your focus and pulls you in. What’s remarkable is that, even after the secret Sophie’s keeping that seems to explain her strangeness is revealed, our intrigue never dips. Director Claude Chabrol and his cast construct a gripping twin character study and biting social commentary around that initial hook, as Sophie finds a kindred spirit in the equally uncanny Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), who opens her eyes to the slyly patronizing way Sophie’s employers treat her.

The film’s study of class relations is always subtle, never veering into over-pronounced territory. That much is clear from the fact that, although some of Sophie’s employer’s family are quite likable, you still understand the ways they’re inextricably embroiled in the film’s quiet indictment of the power dynamics that rule this lofty mansion. More nuance comes by way of the strikingly nonchalant ways evil is depicted in La Cérémonie — just another example of the movie turning something expected (violence is foreshadowed early on) into something that remains viscerally shocking, no matter how many times you watch it.

30. Drifting Clouds (1996)

best

8.5

Country

Finland, France, Germany

Director

Aki Kaurismäki

Actors

Aarre Karén, Antti Reini, Clas-Ove Bruun, Elina Salo

Moods

Absurdist, Easy, Funny

An early gem from Finnish maestro Aki Kaurismäki, Drifting Clouds is a deceptively simple story. The aftermath of job losses for wife Ilona (Kati Outinen) and husband Lauri (Kari Väänänen) holds a series of misfortunes, all of them tests to their marital bond. But this is only the beginning: as with Kaurismäki’s endearing use of flat irony and detached performances by regular actors of his, things can only get worse before they get better. Humanism has always shined through the director’s films, and this first part of a “Finland” trilogy makes no exception to the rule: the fact that labor and closeness are the two main themes (and are equally important for one’s survival) already elevates the absurdist comedy to something way more caring, engaged, and ultimately, tender.

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