What I’ve learned from watching the best films of all time.

Anna Karina in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie

(A note: I have recently added YouTube links for several of the films I mention. Dip your toe in for free!)

I mentioned last month that I’ve recently acquired a new app for my Apple TV. The Criterion Channel is the streaming version of the Criterion Collection of super-elite movies that have been restored, saved or otherwise rescued from undeserved obscurity. For $99 a year you can watch the films, along with thousands of profiles, commentaries, interviews and other extras connected to them.

As a film buff, this has been comparable to my marriage or the birth of my children in terms of the degree to which it has improved my life.

A little background: my brother is an even bigger film fan than I am (he studied film at NYU), so as a teenager I’d end up sponging his enthusiasm for the true greats. I’d always been into the kind of mainstream movies you’d find down the local Odeon, but thanks to Andrew I was the only person in my school who had seen Citizen Kane, Les Enfants Du Paradis and The Seven Samurai.

I continued to watch great films when they became available, but that meant waiting for them to appear at one of London’s repertory cinemas, such as The Scala or the NFT, or on TV (often interrupted by ads), or on video (alas, I often had better things on which to spend a tenner). Years later, my wife and I would go to see Hiroshima Mon Amour or the NFT’s Carl Dreyer season, but once we had kids that became increasingly difficult.

So things went a little off the boil. My brother would ask me to bring Criterion Edition DVDs back from work trips to LA, but they now seemed dauntingly obscure, and there were almost too many to know where to begin rekindling my interest.

That all changed this year when HBO became HBO Max, incorporating a good chunk of Turner Classic Movies’ offerings (Cassavetes, Dr Zhivago, Giant etc.). I was surprised at the extent to which this thrilled me, but I was genuinely delighted at having dozens of proper classics available at the touch of a button, especially under cinema-free lockdown.

Then my film buff (screenwriter) neighbour reminded me of the Criterion Channel, which had launched a year earlier. I had a look, signed up for the free trial, and have barely watched anything else since.

I started off somewhat at random, checking out films I’d heard of but hadn’t quite got around to watching. The channel has a handy section called ‘Art-House Essentials’, so I could see what they regarded as the classics di tutti classics, and quickly got a bit obsessed by Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho The Bailiff, Ugetsu, 47 Ronin etc). I was surprised to discover that very, very slow Japanese films about making a decision to avenge a samurai master are indeed my jam.

After a few of those I decided I needed a bit more structure, so I looked up the famous Sight and Sound list of the top 100 films of all time. It’s a survey they take every decade, when the year ends in a ‘2’ (I’m already slightly giddy at the thought of the 2022 version), and incorporates a list voted for by international critics, and another 100 voted for by directors who aren’t Michael Bay.

I can’t remember how many of the two lists I hadn’t seen (many films make both lists, but there are quite a few that only feature in one or the other. For example, directors like John Cassavetes much more than critics do), but I think it was close to fifty, and included masterworks (obviously) from directors whose work I had never seen. Among these, Robert Bresson has three films on the lists, including Au Hasard Balthazar, Pickpocket and A Man Escaped. Antonioni has L’Avventura and L’Eclise. Tarkovsky has Andrei Rublev, Mirror and Stalker. The list literally goes on and on.

The really interesting ones were the one-offs from directors I hadn’t even heard of. Have you seen Satantango, Bela Tarr’s 7-hour-20-minute black-and-white Romanian film about the disintegration of a community farm? Of course not, but it’s fucking brilliant! Honestly! Or Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a 3 1/2 hour film about the day-to-day routines of a Belgian housewife and occasional prostitute (also utterly brilliant)? Well, you’re missing out. Close Up, The Colour of Pomegranates, The Earrings of Madame de…, Yi Yi. The very best of Taiwan, Iran, Senegal, India…

It’s been a journey that has taught me much, so here are eleven lessons I’ve been able to take from The Criterion Channel to the rest of my life:

  1. Don’t judge a film by anything until you’ve seen it. Yes, I know avoiding Adam Sandler movies (except for Punch Drunk Love and Uncut Gems) is good advice, but if you let your preconceptions dictate your tastes, you’re going to miss out on a lot. Dismiss obvious dross, but if you can keep an open mind you might find yourself wondering why a film about the Romanian abortion system of the late-1980s is as affecting and heartbreaking as anything Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made.
  2. I was surprised at how many of these films were derided or even hated on their initial release (I read the Wikipedia page of each one). It might just be a difference of opinion, but the makers of movies whose work went unappreciated for years were often reassessed to the very top table decades later. So don’t worry if everyone thinks that what you do is shit; you might just be ahead of your time.
  3. The experiences of humans are universal. Films made long ago about stories set long ago in far-off locations can be just as relatable as films shot down the road this year. If you want proof try Andrei Rublev, a Russian film made in the sixties about a fifteenth-century painter of churches. It’s full of entirely understandable bravado, jealousy, risk, despair, shame, hope and triumph.
  4. Other people saying things are great forces you to look a bit deeper for that greatness. These films are what the biggest film fans, with the greatest contextual knowledge, consider to be the best of the best of the best of the best. They didn’t all float my boat, but there was at least something great to be found in each one. I have found the same with lists of great albums, or pictures in the National Gallery.
  5. Some of the films seemed to find themselves in this company accidentally. Sure, their makers set out to produce something good, but did the director of La Maman et la Putain think his work would be considered alongside The Godfather or Battleship Potemkin? Unlikely.
  6. Oddly, this exercise has really made me want to make a film of my own. Perhaps it’s a symptom of how easy the true greats make greatness appear to be, but I honestly come away from them thinking it seems quite possible to add my own little offering to the list (I am clearly deluded).
  7. I was writing a novel at the same time as watching these films, and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that immersing my mind in brilliant characters, masterful stories and irreverent structure was very helpful for steering my own work in better directions.
  8. Many of the greats are films that are unlike anything that came before, and in many cases, anything that came since. The degree of originality still obvious in 1929’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is jaw-dropping. I know it’s easier to be original in the earlier days of an art form, but some of these films would still be stunningly fresh today.
  9. Almost all of the films took me into a world I had never experienced: the charming insanity of A Woman Under The Influence (1970s LA); the terse choppiness of a disintegrating marriage in A Journey To Italy (1950s Naples); the inside of an alien something-or-other in Stalker (1970s Russia). Deeply immersive, one and all. If you’re feeling cooped up, escape into a great film.
  10. You can become cine-literate in a few months. Some days I watched three of the films (Buster Keaton’s work, Zero De Conduite and Partie de Campagne are all well under an hour). I have yet to manage the ten hours of Shoah, but that’s only because I can’t find it. One or two a day would help to flush the Star Wars prequels out of your system.
  11. Things change. Look back at previous versions of the list and you’ll see that fashions for certain directors have come and gone. I think the critics have become more international, as have tastes in general, so there’s less Chaplin and Keaton than there used to be. And of course newer films are added that didn’t exist ten years before. It’s fascinating to see which of those made the cut, especially as many passed me by, even in years that I considered myself an avid film buff.

But not as much of a film buff as I am today. Thanks, Criterion Channel, and all the filmmakers who have committed something so wonderful to celluloid.