The best films on the Criterion Channel right now

Now more than ever, the world needs quality cinema. These are the kinds of movies that implant themselves in your brain for weeks and months, inspiring you to ask deeper, introspective questions about things like life, love, death, humanity, and a host of other topics. Or maybe the film in question is just so bizarre that there’s no way you could ever forget it, even if you wanted to. For all your elevated cinema-viewing needs, make some room for The Criterion Channel. You won’t be disappointed.

The Criterion Channel is a streaming app launched by the folks at the Criterion Collection, a prestigious film distributor and restoration house with a focus on arthouse, foreign, and classic cinema. The Criterion Channel is available on most iOS and Android devices, Roku, FireTV, Xbox One, and Samsung Smart TVs. Annual subscriptions run $99, or you can opt for the monthly $11 package. New Channel subscribers also receive their first two weeks for free. Like most streaming platforms, however, the Channel’s curation is always changing, with new films, shows, and supplemental features being added regularly. We’ve narrowed down the best films you can watch right now.

If you’re looking for suggestions for other streaming platforms,  we’ve also rounded up the best movies on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney+.

Fish Tank on the Criterion Channel

Fish Tank (2009)

In Fish Tank, British writer/director Andrea Arnold’s directorial debut, a turbulent coming-of-age story unfolds over the cramped and littered apartment block of a littered Essex. Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a 15-year-old with ambitions of breaking out of the slum where she lives with her mother and younger sister, and into a world of professional dancing. Mia’s tough exterior, savage attitude, and sexuality are thrown into a cyclone when her mom’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) enters the picture. He’s charming, witty, and is always trying to get Mia to crack a smile. What starts as an innocent curiosity for both parties quickly evolves into something more emotionally and physically complex.

Jarvis and Fassbender are at the top of their game in this richly layered character study, where our greatest focus is Mia’s unraveling psyche and wherewithal — her stoicism fades and infatuation blooms as the new guy in mother’s life edges closer and closer.

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Genre: Drama
Stars: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Director: Andrea Arnold
Rating: NR
Runtime: 124 minutes

Watch on Criterion

Philip Baker Hall in Secret Honor

Secret Honor (1984)

Adapted from Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s play of the same name, Secret Honor feels like an intimate and unhinged one-act play with no end, with a rambling madman at its center. Philip Baker Hall leads the one-man show, playing Richard Nixon on the cusp of a complete mental breakdown. Behind closed doors in his regal home, Nixon records a series of alcohol-bolstered audio memoirs, his emotional disposition rocking violently between bouts of paranoia, anger, and unbridled regret.

Known for masterful ensemble works like Short Cuts and The Player (also on the Criterion Channel), director Robert Altman ditches multiple swaths of overarching dialogue in favor of an ultra-claustrophobic view of Baker Hall’s riveting performance. The camera moves and swings with Hall, but never ventures outside the four walls of the character’s hellish cell. Secret Honor is a blistering and manic film that hits hard from the beginning and doesn’t let up until the credits roll.

Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Genre: Biography, History, Drama
Stars: Philip Baker Hall
Director: Robert Altman
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

Watch on Criterion

8½ (1963)

Life imitates art in Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece, , a sprawling surrealist comedy about a film director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) in the throes of an artistic crisis. Suffering from writer’s block on the cusp of his latest film production, Guido’s mind devolves from intense, philosophical ramblings about his new masterpiece into childhood memories — specifically, his adolescent years spent in a Catholic school and his experiences with a local prostitute. But the more the director wishes to escape into his personal recollections, the more the industry movers and shakers want him to hone his role as a director, socialite, husband, and lover.

8½ has an undeniable undertone of autobiography, a recurrent device that Fellini would continue to explore over the years, a theme perhaps best realized in his 1973 film, Amarcord.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Genre: Art House & International, Drama
Stars: Brunello Rondi, Tullio Pinelli, Marcello Mastroianni
Director: Federico Fellini
Rating: NR
Runtime: 135 minutes

Watch on Criterion
Screenshot of Chungking Express

Chungking Express (1994)

Writer/director Wong-Kar-Wai is perhaps most famously known for films like The Grandmaster and In the Mood for Love, but 1994’s Chungking Express helped to truly engrain the auteur as an international visionary. Our story is split in two, each side depicting the tribulations of Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Cop 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), police officers with love troubles. Cop 223 is dumped by his girlfriend but vows he will give her one month to return. In the meantime, he takes to buying cans of pineapple with a May 1 expiration date (the day the month will pass) and pining for a local drug-smuggler (Brigitte Lin). Cop 663, after a breakup of his own, begins frequenting a train-line snack station. His flight attendant ex-lover goes to meet him there, but Faye (Faye Wong), a shop employee, informs her that it’s his day off. She gives Faye a key to 663’s apartment, which Faye uses to break into the officer’s home, where she takes to cleaning and decorating. Oh, and she’s falling for 663.

Worlds collide, stories weave, and characters cross paths in this unconventional but utterly mesmerizing film that was really nothing more than an exercise for Wong-Kar-Wai. The director whipped the story together and shot the film in less than two months, while he was taking a break from editing his historical epic, Ashes of Time.

Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Genre: Art House & International, Comedy, Drama
Stars: Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Director: Wong-Kar-Wai
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 103 minutes

Watch on Criterion

Close Up (1990)

Writer/director Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up is equal parts docudrama and masterful character study. Hossain Sabzian begins to pose as Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a disguise he uses against the Ahankhan family to bribe and undermine them. When Mr. Ahankhan finally catches onto Hossain’s ruse, he reports Hossain to a local journalist. Hossain is exposed and goes to trial for his deception. It is during his hearing that we’re presented with a whole new side to the story, where the film evolves into a standoff of moralistic conflicts.

Close Up is based in part on actual events that occurred in Northern Tehran over 40 years ago, but Kiarostami’s film feels surprisingly modern. Conflict of identity, large-scale gaslighting, and both personal and political justice are themes that ring truer now more than ever.

Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Stars: Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Rating: NR
Runtime: 98 minutes

Watch on Criterion
Irene Jacob from Double Life of Véronique

The Double Life of Véronique (1991)

Irène Jacob mesmerizes as the titular Véronique, and her double, Weronika, in the deeply layered The Double Life of Véronique. Our story takes place in both Poland and France and first centers on Weronika, a choir singer, as she comes into her own as a successful soprano. At the height of a solo performance, key events occur, which introduce us to Véronique, a French music teacher living in Paris — a sad woman who begins falling in love with a puppeteer, Alexandre (Phillipe Volter). To say more of the story would be doing it a disservice. It’s one to be experienced without the details.

We will say that director and co-writer, Krzysztof Kieślowski, crafts a masterful duality of performances, settings, and themes, with recurrent motifs in both Sławomir Idziak’s painterly cinematography and Zbigniew Preisner’s profound score.

Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Genre: Art House & International, Drama, Romance
Stars: Irène Jacob, Philippe Volter, Claude Duneton
Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski
Rating: R
Runtime: 96 minutes

Watch on Criterion
Eraserhead

Eraserhead (1977)

The feature film debut of writer/director David Lynch, Eraserhead is a surrealistic tale about the horrors of parenting, repressed desires, and whatever other metaphors you can plug into Lynch’s weird blueprint.

When Henry (John Nance) joins his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), and her family for a very odd dinner, Mary informs him that she is pregnant. Only a few cuts later, and we are introduced to the baby, an otherworldly creature that quickly falls ill. Suffering an emotional breakdown, Mary leaves Henry alone with their ailing creation, where a deluge of nightmarish visions begins to consume him.

Eraserhead can be interpreted in several haunting ways, but above the symbolism, the film introduced the world to the dreamlike narratives, strange dialogue, and droning soundscapes of its auteur, David Lynch. The film was financed by Lynch and the AFI Conservatory, which is where it was also shot. Production was on-again/off-again over a period of five years, where at times the cast and crew even lived on-set. Their efforts were noble, and the product of their labor quite extraordinary, if not totally out of this world.

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Genre: Drama, Horror, Special Interest
Stars: John Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph
Director: David Lynch
Rating: R
Runtime: 89 minutes

Watch on Criterion
Screenshot of the titular monster from Godzilla

Godzilla (1954)

Even if you’ve never seen a Godzilla film, you know who the monster is, or have at least heard his name. The reptilian terror has been cemented in our international fabric for decades, and it all goes back to this 1954 film, Godzilla (originally titled Gojira), co-written and directed by Ishirô Honda.

After several shipping vessels are destroyed, an elder informs the investigative unit that Godzilla, a lore-based sea monster, is the culprit. It just so happens that the man is correct, as soon enough the creature re-emerges and begins wreaking havoc on Tokyo. Godzilla popularized the kaiju film genre (Japanese monster movies) and is also famous for its political commentary, specifically around the use of nuclear weapons. Godzilla himself is stirred from his deep-sea slumber by hydrogen bomb testing, which actually serves to strengthen the creature that we watch destroy entire cities. Godzilla also depicts a nation in crisis, with political leaders, scientists, military, journalists, and civilians all banding together (as well as butting heads) in their shared response to the monster’s rampage.

Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
Genre: Drama, Horror, Sci-fi
Stars: Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
Director: Ishirô Honda
Rating: NR
Runtime: 96 minutes

Watch on Criterion
Harlan County USA (1976)

Harlan County USA (1976)

Director Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA is a loaded and gritty documentary about the 1973 Brookside Mine strike, where a band of Southeast Kentucky miners rallied against the Eastover Mining Company. When Eastover refuses to sign a new union contract, strikes quickly give way to protests and near-guerilla warfare, with much of the violence enacted by a gun-touting militia on the side of the Eastover boys.

The film has a major in-the-trenches vibe that comes from Kopple’s key decision to leave out narration and let the miners and their kin do the talking. The story they weave is one of big business versus the common folk, familial strife, terror, and sorrow, but also hope and inspiration. Kopple herself spent a number of years with the families we see and hear from, learning about their struggles and proving her own worth and intentions as a filmmaker to the community.

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Genre: Documentary
Stars: N/A
Director: Barbara Kopple
Rating: PG
Runtime: 103 minutes

Watch on Criterion
Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas (1984)

Austrian auteur Wim Wenders has several films on the Criterion Channel, and rightfully so. Every Wenders epic is intricately crafted, lovingly acted, and (in most cases) beautifully photographed by the late-great Robby Müller. Paris, Texas may represent one of the best realizations of Wenders’ directorial vision.

From a script by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, the film is about a silent nomadic wanderer named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton). After wandering through the deserts of West Texas, Travis eventually blacks out from the grueling heat. While he’s unconscious, a German doctor who examines him finds a phone number on his person and calls it. It turns out the digits are for Travis’ brother, who is living in Los Angeles with his wife and a young boy — Travis’ son. What follows is an unraveling of identity, family ties, and lost love, set against the harsh sunlit backdrops of both Texas and LA.

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Genre: Art House & International, Drama, Romance
Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clement
Director: Wim Wenders
Rating: R
Runtime: 145 minutes

Watch on Criterion
Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson from Persona

Persona (1966)

Ingmar Bergman is another industry name that most are familiar with, whether you’ve seen one of his films or not. For those who haven’t, Persona is a great place to start. The bulk of the narrative was conceived in hospital by Bergman over several weeks, while the writer/director was recovering from a bout of pneumonia. Our story focuses on Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), a stage actress that has stopped moving and speaking, and her live-in nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson). In an effort to pull Elisabet from her fugue state, the duo retreat to an idyllic seaside cabin where Alma tends to the actress. As the film progresses, Alma’s psychological state starts to crumble as the worlds of both women begin colliding in unforeseen ways.

Featuring top-notch performances from both Ullmann and Andersson, Persona would go on to influence countless filmmakers. Bergman’s dualistic themes of psychosis, sexuality, and identity can be traced to epics as recent as Robert Eggers’ seaside horror film, The Lighthouse. In fact, this is a fitting comparison, as Persona is often recognized as a kind of experimental horror film.

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Genre: Drama
Stars: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Rating: NR
Runtime: 81 minutes

Watch on Criterion

Editors' Recommendations