The Best Criterion Collection Films of All Time

The Criterion Collection is a hallowed name for any self-professed movie fan. Founded in 1984, the company has overseen remastered versions of well over a thousand films in the past three decades — including classics dating back to the silent era.

With its main audience composed chiefly of dedicated cinephiles, Criterion has garnered a reputation for re-releasing some of the most important films in cinematic history. The number of films stocking the Collection knows virtually no bounds, from the works of auteur directors from the 1910s to more recent international releases of the past few years.

From Italian neorealist dramas to French New Wave crime films, from beloved silent classics to cornerstones of the American indie movement, here are 20 of the best and most important Criterion releases of all time, as well as where they are currently streaming.

Stranger Than Paradise

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Image Credit: Samuel Goldyn Company

Willie (John Lurie) is a self-styled New York hipster surprised to find his younger Hungarian cousin (Eszter Balint) visiting him. As the two cousins spend time together, their mutual hostility towards each other slowly subsides, culminating in two road trips to Cleveland and Florida with Willie’s best friend, Eddie (Richard Edson).

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The Beginning of an Era

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Image Credit: Samuel Goldyn Company

Accompanied by a heavy dose of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” Stranger Than Paradise is often considered the start of the indie film scene in the US. The definition of a minimalist film, Jim Jarmusch completely subverted the traditional film structure, setting the stage for practically every American filmmaker that followed (Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and Steven Soderbergh, to name just a few).

Streaming on HBO Max.

Eraserhead

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Image Credit: AFI Center for Advanced Studies

Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is an average man in an industrialist dystopian city. Forced to care for his deformed child that may or may not actually be human, Henry endures increasingly bizarre hallucinations that seem to reflect his troubled mindset.

A crown jewel of the midnight movie phenomenon, Eraserhead seemed like the seamless bridge between the films of Luis Buñuel and the later American indie films of the ‘80s. Released during a time when mainstream films like Star Wars were all the craze, David Lynch’s breakout movie is still just as daunting and strange as it was in 1977.

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Much Praise

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AFI Center for Advanced Studies.

Most have praised it, a select few have decried it, but there’s no denying Lynch’s penchant for constructing an ambiguous narrative filled with unforgettable imagery and a dream-like atmosphere.

Streaming on HBO Max.

Breathless

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Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

After killing a policeman in the countryside, a wannabe gangster who idolizes Humphrey Bogart (Jean-Paul Belmondo) journeys to Paris to convince his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) to run away with him to Italy.

French

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Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

Along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Breathless is seen as the film that kicked off the famed French New Wave. With its incessant cuts, terse dialogue, and borderline unlikable main character, it’s one of the most brilliant and recognizable of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, as well as the movie that made him a worldwide sensation in the early ‘60s.

Streaming on HBO Max.

In The Mood for Love

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Image Credit: USA Films.

In early 1960s Hong Kong, two neighbors (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung) begin to suspect their significant others of having affairs behind their back. Seeking solace in one another, the two slowly form a romantic attachment to each other — a love that can never be as they swore to keep their relationship strictly platonic.

Romance

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Image Credit: USA Films.

A romance as gripping and effective as David Lean’s Brief Encounter, In the Mood for Love is possibly Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece, though similar arguments can be made for his other films, like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (both of which are also in the Collection). Regardless, it’s the primary achievement in Hong Kong cinema, one of the most stirring romance films in recent decades.

Streaming on HBO Max.

The Night of The Hunter

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Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

In 1930s West Virginia, a devoutly religious serial killer who poses as a preacher (Robert Mitchum) marries a widow (Shelley Winters) upon learning that her bank-robbing husband (Peter Graves) buried a fortune somewhere on their property.

A Tragedy

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Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

It’s nothing short of a tragedy that legendary actor Charles Laughton only directed one film in his entire lifetime. An unbelievably impressive debut, it bears all the hallmarks of not only a talented director — but an ingenious one as well. Part fairy tale, part Southern Gothic horror, there has never been another film like it.

Streaming on Philo (premium subscription required).

The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie

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Image Credit: Rialto Pictures.

Resolving to have a quiet dinner together, six bourgeois friends are continuously met with interruptions that prevent them from enjoying their meal — each of which is stranger and more absurd than the last.

Surreal

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Image Credit: Rialto Pictures.

Criterion offers a ton of surrealist movies — but one can’t bring up surrealism without discussing Luis Buñuel, one of the pioneers of avant-garde film in the first place. Many of Buñuel’s other films in the Collection are certainly worth watching as well (especially Belle de Jour), but Buñuel’s fierce take on the upper class stands the test of time as one of the most savage and humorous movies of his career.

Not currently streaming, but available on VOD.

Tokyo Story

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Image Credit: Shochiku.

Traveling to Tokyo, an elderly retired couple (Chishū Ryū and Chieko Higashiyama) resolve to visit their adult children in the city, only to find that their kids now have seemingly little inclination to spend time with their parents.

A Heart Breaker

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Image Credit: Shochiku.

Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking and meditative films in the Collection, Tokyo Story is Yasujirō Ozu’s crowning achievement as a director. Melancholic and gutwrenching in so many ways, it’s a movie that leaves you evaluating your own relationship with loved ones — making you ask the all-important question, “Am I using my time on this planet wisely with the people I love dearly?”

Streaming on HBO Max.

Pather Panchali

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Image Credit: Janus Films.

In the 1910s Bengali countryside, young Apu and his family must contend with their impoverished economic situation. As their finances grow worse over time, the family resolves to support themselves and make do any way they can.

First of Three

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Image Credit: Janus Films.

The first film in Satyajit Ray’s beloved Apu Trilogy, Pather Panchali is one of those directorial debuts that bear no signs it was made by a first-time filmmaker. Instead, it exists as a uniquely whole and fully-realized film — a heartrending depiction of how a family’s mutual love and support can rise above the most dire of circumstances.

Streaming on HBO Max.

Dr. Strangelove

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Image Credit: Columbia.

When an unhinged American general (Sterling Hayden) orders planes carrying nuclear weapons to bomb Russia, the neurotic president (Peter Sellers) and his cabinet try to recall the planes before it’s too late.

Criterion has slowly amassed a decent amount of Stanley Kubrick’s films over the years. While we’re also partial to Paths of Glory or The Killing, Dr. Strangelove seems like an important milestone in the iconic director’s career — a segue from his earlier career to the more genre-based films from the late ‘60s onward.

Cold War

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Image Credit: Columbia.

A sharp political takedown of the Cold War and nuclear arms race, it’s still eerily funny now nearly 60 years later, even at its most downbeat and depressing.

Streaming on Philo (premium subscription required).

Yi Yi

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Image Credit: Shinya Kawai.

Over the course of one year, a Taiwanese family endures a variety of personal issues in their private lives — from downtrodden patriarch NJ (Wu Nien-jen) and his spiritually reborn wife Min-Min (Elaine Jin) to their emotionally uncertain daughter (Kelly Lee) and laconic, film-obsessed son (Jonathan Chang).

Minimalism

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Image Credit: Shinya Kawai.

An introspective yet sprawling look at the daily lives of an increasingly disconnected family, Yi Yi is a taut, minimalist film that’s just as gorgeous to look at as it is to emotionally experience.

Not currently streaming, but available on VOD.

Do The Right Thing

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Image Credit: Universal.

As the hottest day of the year raises tension between the inhabitants of a Brooklyn neighborhood, an escalating conflict between the white owners of a pizzeria and their Black customers eventually culminates in racially-charged violence.

Spike

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Image Credit: Universal.

Do the Right Thing was the film that propelled Spike Lee from indie sensation to Hollywood stardom. Unconventional in its narrative structure and unrivaled in its fierce social message, it’s one of the most closely studied American films there is. It continues to rank highly as one of the definitively best American films of the ‘80s — and likely one of the best of all time.

Streaming on Paramount+ and Starz.

M

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Image Credit: Nero-Film A.G.

As a brutal child murderer (Peter Lorre) runs rampant in Berlin, the city’s occupants — including top police investigators and their criminal counterparts — join forces to catch the killer.

Released during the final days of the German Expressionist movement, M is Fritz Lang’s magnum opus, boasting a career-defining performance from Lorre and some of the most artful direction of Lang’s career.

Human Monster

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Image Credit: Nero-Film A.G.

Opposite the ‘30s Universal horror films, M showed the world that it wasn’t Dracula or Frankenstein we needed to be afraid of — the worst monsters are often those that pass by us unseen in the streets.

Streaming on HBO Max.

Bicycle Thieves

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Image Credit: Corinth Films.

After his bicycle is stolen — jeopardizing his chances of holding down a job — a desperate father (Lamberto Maggiorani) and his young son (Enzo Staiola) set out to find the thief and reclaim the all-important bike.

Not Much

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Image Credit: Corinth Films.

What The 400 Blows or Breathless is to the French New Wave, Bicycle Thieves is to Italian neorealism. Largely uneventful in its plot, Vittorio De Sica’s father and son story shows you don’t need an action-laden script to make a compelling film. Often, the simpler the story, the more the audience can relate.

Streaming on HBO Max.

City Lights

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), a homeless Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) tries to raise the money necessary for an operation that could grant the girl her sight back, leading him to an eccentric, depressed, alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) for help.

Chaplin

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Image Credit: Warner Bros.

It’s worth pointing out that every one of Charlie Chaplin’s most notable films are in the Criterion Collection. However, few are as celebrated as the 1931 classic, City Lights. Every bit as humorous as Chaplin’s other films, it also contains his strongest leading performance. (It’s impossible not to well up seeing his face when he spots his love interest through the shop window at the very end of the film).

Streaming on HBO Max.

The Seventh Seal

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Image Credit: Janus Films.

Upon their return from the Crusades, a philosophical knight (Max von Sydow) and his misanthropic squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) journey through Sweden as the bubonic plague rages around them. Playing a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), the knight gains a new perspective on life after meeting a troupe of actors trying to survive the chaotic landscape.

Bergman

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Image Credit: Janus Films.

Like many directors we’ve discussed on this list, Ingmar Bergman has a number of noteworthy films lining the Criterion Collection. Yet his most famous is this, his existential medieval drama that stays grounded enough for all viewers to connect with. It’s a life lesson wrapped in a film, as haunting and starkly beautiful as any film you can find in the Collection.

Streaming on HBO Max.

The Wages of Fear

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Image Credit: Cinédis.

In desperate need of work, four European migrants accept a dangerous, near-suicidal job transporting nitroglycerine-filled trucks through the Mexican countryside, navigating across narrow, pothole-scarred dirt roads that could mean disaster at any moment.

Suspense

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Image Credit: Cinédis.

A lesson on how to create suspense, The Wages of Fear is more than just a thriller. Henri-Georges Clouzot offers an analysis of greed, redemption, and the limits of friendship. The resulting film — nail-bitingly gripping throughout — speaks for itself.

Streaming on HBO Max.

The 400 Blows

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Image Credit: Les Films du Carrosse.

Ignored by his parents and constantly finding himself in trouble at school, 14-year-old Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) gradually spends his time stealing, lying, and devoting himself to petty crime in 1950s Paris.

French New Wave

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Image Credit: Les Films du Carrosse.

The movie that ushered in the French New Wave, few directors have ever accomplished what Francois Truffaut did with The 400 Blows. A study of adolescent and youthful angst, it’s the cinematic equivalent of A Catcher in the Rye, every bit as compelling as Salinger’s oft-taught novel.

Streaming on HBO Max.

8 ½

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Image Credit: Cineriz.

Facing mounting pressure to reveal what his new project will be, a successful filmmaker Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) has to overcome a crippling creative block, all the while dealing with various issues in his personal life — including friends begging for work and past romantic relationship that went nowhere.

Best Effort

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Image Credit: Cineriz.

Federico Fellini’s other accoladed films — Amarcord and La Strada — also deserve praise and attention, but 8 ½ remains the director’s best effort. Striking a great middle ground between a realistic narrative and more loosely-plotted surrealist piece, it’s an intimate look at an artistic mind at work: mysterious, difficult to interpret, and impossible to fully understand.

Streaming on HBO Max.

Beauty and the Beast

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Image Credit: Janus Films.

After her elderly father is sentenced to death for picking a rose in the mysterious Beast’s (Jean Marais) garden, the beautiful young Belle (Josette Day) agrees to take her father’s place. As time draws on, the Beast becomes increasingly infatuated with Belle, with Belle herself slowly drawn to the Beast, in spite of his temperament and animal-like behavior.

With the exception of a select few filmmakers, Beauty and the Beast showed that the rest of the world’s directors were playing in a sandbox while Jean Cocteau built castles. It’s a visually stunning film and one of the most influential in French cinematic history — the perfect example of how to make a mainstream surrealist film without overwhelming your audience.

Streaming on HBO Max.

Seven Samurai

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Image Credit: Toho.

In 1586, a peasant village hires seven rōnin to protect them from bandits preying on their crops.

Such a Contribution

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Image Credit: Toho.

There is no mentioning the Criterion Collection without mentioning that world-renowned Akira Kurosawa. One of the most famed directors in global cinema, the technical innovations Kurosawa introduced in his career are unrivalled, his contributions immeasurable.

In this, his three-hour seminal work, he used every trick in the book, including more than a few he created himself, to transport viewers back to medieval Japan, all the while creating the first modern action film. It truly is a one of a kind masterpiece.

Streaming on HBO Max.

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Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).