Graduate top of your quarantine class! We break down essential movies worth watching on the streaming service.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 17, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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While movie theaters are closed and release dates have been pushed, there’s no better time to catch up on classics you might have missed over the years. And now, with the Criterion Channel (which, like most streaming platforms changes their offerings on a monthly basis), you can! The streaming platform, a sister of the Criterion Collection that has been preserving classic and significant films on home video for decades, is dedicated to film as an art form and cultural legacy.

Unsurprisingly, much of what the Criterion Channel features are titles that could be deemed culturally significant and vital to the study of cinema. But it's great at providing context and bonus features for their content, too. Organizing the channel around themes that range from German Expressionism to Columbia Noir, the service is highly curated. Each theme then includes an introduction from an expert, and many films offer interviews with directors, supplemental documentaries, analysis, and more.

With that in mind, we’ve devised a crash course film school for your quarantine viewing. And don't worry, if you fall asleep during lecture, no one will be there to reprimand you.

Essential Starters

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Any film school worth its salt will start you off with films that have provided the tenets of modern movie-making. Here are just three. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

This evocative silent film launched German Expressionism onto the global stage and changed film forever. It follows a demented doctor (Werner Krauss) who uses a carnival sleepwalker (Conrad Veidt) to perpetrate a series of ghastly murders. Using light and shadow to reflect new levels of psychological interiority, it fundamentally altered modes of cinematic expression.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Director Sergei Eisenstein is considered the father of modern film-editing, and nowhere is his work more potent than in this Soviet film about a battleship mutiny. It’s crucial for introducing the concept of montage to audiences and filmmakers alike, as well as demonstrating the emotional potential of editing. And the famous Odessa Steps sequence has been referenced in everything from The Untouchables to The Godfather to Star Wars.

Metropolis (1927)

This Fritz Lang masterpiece is considered one of the most influential silent films ever made. The tale of a populace divided between underground laborers and the rich who live in a city of splendor grants it a Marxist bent that remains potent today. That combined with its incredible sets and Futurist art direction make it a crucial text for modern science fiction and fantasy films.

Legendary Directors

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We’ve picked two very famous and two lesser-known directors whose work we think you should know among the hundreds of influential artists.

The 39 Steps (1935)

Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock is best known for chilling classics like Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo. But we’ll recommend this title from his earlier career working in Britain because it contains all the essential hallmarks of a Hitchcock film, from a central MacGuffin that motivates the suspense plot to its tale of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary intrigue. It follows Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as he stumbles upon a conspiracy that sends him on a chase across the Scottish moors. It’s a wrong-man thriller that presages Hitchcock’s most famous works, most notably North by Northwest.

Within Our Gates (1920)

Though not well-known today (and infrequently taught), Oscar Micheaux is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker. This is his earliest surviving film, and some consider it his answer to Birth of a Nation in its depiction of lynching and its frank examination of racial politics.

The Great Dictator (1940)

There’s no shortage of genius work from Charlie Chaplin, much of it featuring his iconic Little Tramp character. But this seminal work features an eviscerating caricature of Adolf Hitler, as well as a tweak on Chaplin's own famous comic persona. Chaplin was ahead of his time satirizing fascism and Hitler, but his final impassioned speech is one of the most hopeful moments in cinematic history.

Never Fear (1950)

Though she rose to fame as a star of noir pictures, Ida Lupino deserves to be known equally for her directorial accomplishments, films that often tackled taboo subjects with documentary realism. Never Fear is one of her most personal projects, given its portrait of a young dancer struggling with polio, which Lupino also once fought herself.

Classic Hollywood

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They don’t call it the Golden Age for nothing.

His Girl Friday (1940)

This Howard Hawks screwball comedy is renowned for its zippy, whip smart dialogue. Rosalind Russell stars as reporter Hildy Johnson opposite Cary Grant as her ex-husband Walter who embroils her in a news story in an attempt to win her back.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

It’s one of two classics from “Hollywood’s Greatest Year” on this list, and a template for all political dramas that came after. Jimmy Stewart plays the idealistic Jefferson Smith, an everyman Senator who goes up against the establishment, most notably in a filibuster of inspiring proportions.

Stagecoach (1939)

Though he’d been working for years, John Wayne became a bonafide movie star as “The Ringo Kid” in this beloved John Ford Western. This tale of a group of strangers thrown together on a trip across the Old West catapulted the Western from B-movie serials to Hollywood gold.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

While much of Golden Age filmmaking is marked by a sparkling veneer, we can’t forget the darker side of that equation as pervading senses of cynicism and disillusionment brought film noir into being. This story of temperamental screenwriter Dixon Steele (a career high performance from Humphrey Bogart) and a romance that falters when he becomes the prime suspect in a murder case is one of the most haunting, pitch black entries in the entire canon.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Elia Kazan revolutionized filmmaking and acting with his directorial emphasis on realism and social issues. He discovered Marlon Brando, thrusting him to fame in A Streetcar Named Desire, but this dockside allegory for Kazan’s role in the HUAC hearings is perhaps their most enduring collaboration.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

It’s impossible to make this list without a Billy Wilder entry. Almost equally impossible is landing on which one, but we’ll opt for this comedic masterpiece that stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as jazz musicians masquerading as women opposite a divine Marilyn Monroe.

International Influence

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While Hollywood gets all the love, we can’t forget the crucial role international cinema played in developing the art form.

The Rules of the Game (1939)

While Hollywood in the late 1930s often glamorized life, this Jean Renoir film proved a searing commentary on the callousness of the European upper classes.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Italian neo-realism widely influenced Hollywood, convincing directors to inject their work with a greater degree of gritty, docu-style naturalism. This brutal story of the challenges of life for one man and his son in post-war Italy remains one of the most sterling examples.

Rashomon (1950)

We see director Akira Kurosawa's cinematic techniques reflected in everything from Star Wars to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This psychological thriller plays with the nature of truth and time through its tale of a murder from four different points of view. It upended film language and made Japanese cinema a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

This kaleidoscope tale of an umbrella shop owner’s daughter and her love for a garage mechanic is a lush, unorthodox musical. It heavily inspired La La Land and helped prove that musicals still had a lot to offer filmmaking beyond their traditional, opulent roots.

Game-Changers

While film is always evolving, some of the most significant disruptors to Hollywood filmmaking came from abroad.

Black Orpheus (1959)

Re-telling the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice during Carnival in Rio de Janiero, this Academy Award winning film became a veritable international event and kicked off a bossa nova craze across America.

Breathless (1960)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the French New Wave, which both paid homage to classic American genres while blowing up techniques entirely. This tale of young lovers on the run embodies the breathless iconoclasm of a new generation of filmmakers, including director Jean-Luc Godard.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Director Agnes Varda was an essential pioneer of the French New Wave, as exemplified by this real-time portrait of a singer awaiting the test results of a biopsy. It imbued the female experience with the artful, verité style of filmmaking signature to the New Wave.

8 ½ (1963)

Widely considered one of the greatest films about film ever made, this Fellini masterpiece centers on a director in the throes of an artistic crisis. Its crisscrossing between the lifelike and the dreamlike pushed the envelope for what was possible on screen.

The Rise of New Hollywood

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Fueled by changes abroad and a new generation of filmmakers, in the late 1960s, Hollywood gave birth to a style of filmmaking that redefined its output and earned the moniker “New Hollywood.” 

The Graduate (1967)

With its non-traditional leading man, its exposure of a widening generation gap, and unforgettable pop score courtesy of Simon & Garfunkel, The Graduate proved youthful audiences were hungry for stories that reflected their own lives.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

This Best Picture winner changed the game for African-American representation in Hollywood. Sidney Poitier stars as formidable detective Virgil Tibbs, who becomes embroiled in a murder case in a racist, hostile Southern town. Alongside To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it propelled Poitier to the coveted position of top box office star of the year, amply proving black actors had as much box office appeal as their white counterparts.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

Wunderkind director Peter Bogdanovich was one of the most elemental voices of “New Hollywood,” but this frothy ode to 1930s and 40s screwball comedies is his most joyous. It’s a clear example of how much “New Hollywood” owed to and admired the best of Old Hollywood. Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand star as two strangers who get mixed up in a jewel heist.

Post-Modern Classics

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Beginning in the 1980s, Hollywood moved to a more corporatized model of filmmaking, while major artists around the world found new ways to revisit classic techniques and tell stories more personal than ever.

Raging Bull (1980)

Perhaps our greatest living director, Martin Scorsese made the definitive boxing movie with this bruising depiction of toxic masculinity inside the ring. Robert De Niro stars as fighter Jake LaMotta in an Oscar-winning performance. With its black-and-white cinematography and deft storytelling, it used the old Hollywood playbook to create something utterly new.

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Even in the modern era, female directors are fighting for a modicum of the respect or opportunities of their male counterparts. Julie Dash is one such figure who deserves widespread recognition for her multigenerational storytelling rooted in black femininity. This poetic film follows a family of black women in the Gullah community off the coast of South Carolina.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Alfonso Cuarón has become a cinematic force to be reckoned with, but there’s something effervescent early coming-of-age story. It shot Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna to international fame and proved there was an appetite for sensual, even raunchy storytelling melded with emotional resonance.

Congratulations! Once you view these films, you now have a degree from the EW Criterion Channel crash course film school!

Note: This list was devised with the April 2020 titles available on Criterion Channel, but you can always substitute other films with similar resonance, directors, etc.

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