Few things are more exciting for hardcore cinephiles than the semi-annual Barnes and Noble Criterion sale. For a few precious weeks a year, super high-quality Blu-Rays of obscure and influential classic films are on the relative cheap. Most noteworthy: they look really, REALLY pretty.
Most Criterion-heads are lining up to pick up A Hard Day’s Night, Red River, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and other newer (fiction) releases—as they should because they’re all awesome releases. But how about a little love for the documentary?
Maybe you don’t think docs have a ton of rewatch value, and maybe you’re right in some cases. Criterion’s A+ supplements and video quality—not to mention the timelessness of the films they choose—ought to be enough to sway you in the right direction. But if they aren’t, we’re diving a little deeper into ten of the best Criterion documentaries ever. Half off, folks! Let’s go buy some docs!
This one came out just a few months ago. It’s Criterion spine number 699 and Errol Morris’s first film in the collection. Telling both the stories of quantum physicist Stephen Hawking’s life and his impossibly complex research, A Brief History of Time‘s biggest achievement might just be its accessibility, which is enhanced by Criterion’s dual-format package.
A documentary about the life of a artist, Crumb hardly sounds groundbreaking, but it’s also a film that spits gleefully in the face of a simple characterization as that. Robert Crumb’s life and work are both wild—WILD—and Criterion’s treatment of director Terry Zwigoff’s film is exceptional.
Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle
The Eclipse Series are always worth a look, and this one features a pretty incredible one-two punch of Phantom India and Calcutta. The former is six hours long and wildly immersive. While he was filming it, he was so taken by the title city of the latter that he broke it out into a separate, more streamlined, and overall better 90-minute film. In addition to these two, the set also features some Malle shorts, and two other feature-length docs—all worth watching and studying.
A great music documentary from the Maysles Brothers (who have no shortage of other films in the Criterion Collection) turns into something else when the the cameras turn toward the infamous Altamont Speedway concert, where a riot broke out and the Hells Angels spilled some blood. This might be the best music documentary ever made.
Hearts and Minds
The DVD version has been available for years, but only last month, Criterion upgraded the comprehensive and horrifying Vietnam War doc to Blu-Ray. Made at the peak of public fury over America’s involvement in that conflict, it feels quite precient—its lessons as necessary then as they are today.
This is easily one of the five greatest documentaries ever made. A three-hour masterpiece from director Steve James that follows two Chicago-based teens as they follow their NBA dreams, the late Roger Ebert famously said it was about much more than basketball, it was about “life itself.” Do what you must to see it immediately if you haven’t so already, but be warned: the Hulu Plus streaming edition doesn’t come with the two brilliant and informative commentaries (one of which features the two main “characters”—Arthur Agee and William Gates) on Criterion’s DVD edition.
Yes, Naqoyqatsi—the third film in Godfrey Reggio’s image-and-sound-driven series about the changing world—is less than stellar, but as a complete piece of art, this project is absolutely essential. It’s also f’ing gorgeous and unlike anything else in the colllection, anything else you’ve ever seen.
Wim Wenders’s dance documentary is unique to the collection—Criterion’s only title ever released on 3D Blu-Ray and DVD. But even if you haven’t added an extra dimension to your home theater, Pina is still worth owning. It’s a beautiful film, and Criterion’s release features some great features, including a commentary from Wenders himself.
The Times of Harvey Milk
Robert Epstein upped the ante in the found-footage documentary subgenre with this Oscar-winning portrait of America’s first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk. You might think you know this man’s life after seeing Gus Van Sant’s 2008 fictionalized take on Milk, but that film is child’s play compared to this great film.
The War Room
Political docs—nee, political films in general don’t get much better than Hegedus and Pennebaker’s The War Room. A totally hands-off, talking-head-free depiction of then Senator Bill Clinton’s campaign for president, it made stars of James Carville and George Stephanopolous. Criterion’s edition features a great bonus feature: Return to the War Room, which looks at the influence of the film and the campaign it depicts 16 years later.