If you’re like us, you’ve followed “event TV" as far as it will go. The Parks & Recreation reunion special offered a welcome bit of hope and positivity, but Tiger King lingered like too much McDonald’s after a hangover. Meanwhile, you've caught up with everything on your watchlists on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. You even took a few chances with TV shows your friends absolutely swore were good—and they were! But they’re done now too. (Why is Fleabag so short?) That means it’s time.
You still haven’t watched the classics, but now you have no excuse. You have plenty of time and no other plans. And, seriously, they’re really good! Even the ones whose synopses sound like a plate of lukewarm vegetables have something to offer in terms of entertainment, information, and yes, education. (There’s a reason they're considered classics, after all.) Criterion has served as a shepherd for world cinema’s greatest achievements for more than 35 years, and The Criterion Channel—their streaming service, which was launched last year—offers a curated collection of world-class titles to explore, whether you’re an amateur movie fan looking for the basics or a diehard cinephile looking for deep cuts and unearthed discoveries.
To get you on your way, we’ve collected a shortlist of absolute masterpieces—call them the basics, or the essentials—to get you going.
1. M (1931)
Fritz Lang’s first sound film follows a serial killer of children, as well as the community, authorities, and even the criminal underworld that enlists in a desperate search to find him before he strikes again. Lang’s film is dramatically tense, visually striking, and thematically rich. M offers a vivid—and, as history would teach us, timeless—portrait of a society’s response to evil, even as it attempts to juxtapose the police’s increasingly frantic attempt to make an arrest with a melancholy, surprisingly humanistic portrait of the perpetrator’s life.
2. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Vittorio De Sica directed this neorealist drama about a poor father in post-WWII Rome whose bicycle is stolen after he gets a job requiring one to paste advertising bills. Like many of the films on this list, its story and themes still resonate today, from Antonio’s desperate efforts to find (and keep) work to the seeming indifference of the powers that be—and the world at large—to his meager needs to support his family. By shooting on location and utilizing untrained actors as its stars, De Sica captures a time and place in Italian history while dramatizing a timeless struggle for people on the edge of poverty.
3. The Red Shoes (1948)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger enjoyed one of the most prolific and fruitful collaborations in the history of British cinema, and The Red Shoes ranks among their most important, beautiful, and heartbreaking works. When a prodigiously talented ballerina comes between the composer she loves and the director who considers her his muse, beautiful art and tragedy go hand in hand. The film features some of the most sumptuous, dreamlike imagery ever captured on film as well as one of the defining portraits of artistic struggle: Life, or work? Powell and Pressburger’s film unfolds like a stage play, jumping off the screen and tugging at your heartstrings.
4. Rashômon (1950)
Akira Kurosawa co-wrote and directed this incredible, perpetually-relevant drama about a rape and murder, told from the widely-differing perspectives of four witnesses. As Kurosawa’s story shifts to provide one account after the next, the audience comes to appreciate the specificity of each, and how the nature of truth itself is inextricably linked with our subjective experiences. Its template has been long-imitated, but Rashômon both sets up the provocative, intriguing question—What really happened?—and acknowledges that there’s no clear or easy answer.
5. The Wages of Fear (1953)
Henri-Georges Clouzot directed this French thriller about four down-on-their-luck Europeans hired to drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerin across rough mountain roads to an American oil well. A riveting look at the lengths men will go to free themselves from financial and personal entanglements, Clouzot’s film set a new standard for melodrama on screen upon its release, spotlighting man’s helplessness in the looming shadow of fate.
6. Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick directed this adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s novel of the same name, about a French Colonel who defends his soldiers of cowardice after they refuse to embark on a suicide mission during WWI. As the outraged Colonel Dax, Kirk Douglas’s star wattage only shines more brightly upon the injustices the enlisted men face while their superiors send them to certain death, and when they fail, blame them for a lack of valor. An extraordinary anti-war film that also manages to depict war with a realism and immediacy never previously seen.
7. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Not to be confused with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, which parodied this cornerstone of classic international cinema, Ingmar Bergman’s film depicts a chess match between a medieval knight (late icon and longtime Bergman collaborator Max Von Sydow) and Death, who arrives to take his life. Seeded with complex, questioning ideas about morality, belief, and the nature of faith, Bergman’s film delivers some heady stuff, while also showcasing exceptional acting and cinematography. While it's admittedly less funny than Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, it's considerably more rewarding—both artistically and philosophically.
8. The 400 Blows (1959)
Inspired by events from his own life, François Truffaut’s debut film offers a prototypical coming-of-age story for young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a latchkey kid whose troubles at home and school lead to more serious trouble than he is able to understand. Truffaut’s tender, honest portrait of Antoine’s life becomes a universal template upon which audience members can project their own adolescent experiences, as the filmmaker captures the whimsy and sadness of growing up with transcendent sensitivity.
9. Breathless (1960)
Following his nouvelle vague (French New Wave) colleague Truffaut’s lead, Jean-Luc Godard wrote and directed this jazzy drama about a carefree, Humphrey Bogart-idolizing criminal (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who shacks up with an American girl (Jean Seberg) while evading the cops. It seems unbelievable that the camera and editing techniques in the film were revolutionary at the time, but Godard’s jump cuts changed the way we look at linear time onscreen forever. Meanwhile, Belmondo is the essence of dangerous cool, while Seberg became an instant icon with her pixie haircut and New York Herald Tribune punchline.
10. La Dolce Vita (1960)
In the film that popularized the term paparazzi, Federico Fellini offers a bustling portrait of Italy as it teeters on the precipice of modernity, viewed through the eyes of a tabloid reporter. As Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) contemplates whether to succumb to a glamorous and empty life of celebrity or the more noble pursuit of knowledge as a novelist, he’s tested by a series of decadent scenarios that repeatedly, and inevitably, confront him with the inescapable humanity he will face, whichever he chooses.
11. The Leopard (1963)
Luchino Visconti directed this elegant, understated drama about an Italian Prince, Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster), who witnesses intriguing and unpredictable—but inevitable—changes as his generation gives way to the next one. Lancaster commands the screen as he regards his children and heirs with bemusement, scorn, and eventually acceptance as their wants and ambitions come to symbolize a changing regime, and changing values, across the culture in which he maintained power.
12. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy directs one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking movies ever made, about the daughter (Catherine Deneuve) of an umbrella saleswoman who falls in love with an auto mechanic (Nino Castelnuovo) before he is sent off to war. The candy-coated musical is stunningly beautiful as Deneuve and her co-stars sing every single syllable of dialogue, carrying their romantic yearning through trials and tribulations toward a bittersweet, stunning finale.
13. Playtime (1967)
Jacques Tati had played the clumsy, good-natured Monsieur Hulot twice already by the time he mounted this (for its time) budget-busting, virtually plotless comedy following him and a young American tourist through some of the biggest and most elaborate sets French audiences had ever seen. Tati’s masterwork—filled with a delicate and understated but increasingly hilarious series of intricately choreographed sequences—is deceptively challenging given how subtle it is. But it’s the kind of film that encourages multiple viewings, forcing you to scour those wide 70mm frames for action and piece together a throughline.
14. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee offered a brilliant slice of life in New York City—and harnessed black rage—in this simmering portrait of a Brooklyn neighborhood that descends into violence on the hottest day of summer. While playing an aimless pizza delivery man, Lee creates a panorama of contemporary black life, as the people of color on this particular block reckon with the encroaching influx of white residents as well as their own expectations, biases, and burdens in a society that too frequently perceives them with hostility. Do the Right Thing is as exhilarating for its virtuoso filmmaking as it is infuriating for its accuracy.
15. In The Mood For Love (2000)
Considered one of the best Chinese-language films of all time, Wong Kar-wai’s drama follows two neighbors who begin to develop feelings for one another after discovering that their spouses are having an affair. Sumptuous cinematography by the great Christopher Doyle paints the dimensions of their fragmented marriages, and the tender, bittersweet connection that blossoms between them in vivid colors, while performances by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung convey the simultaneous heartbreak of their separate relationships dissolving opposite the uneasy relief of a romance to which they dare not yield. It's a tremendous date-night choice that delivers transcendent cinematic art.