When it comes to films released by the Criterion Collection, we’d all struggle to narrow our favorites down to only ten, but we probably wouldn’t have quite as hard a time as Guillermo del Toro. The director of Mimic, Hellboy, and Pan’s Labyrinth characteristically takes it to another level, bemoaning the “unfair, arbitrary, and sadistic top ten practice,” crafting instead a series of “thematic/authorial pairings” (and in first place, a trifecta) for his Criterion “top-ten” feature. The list, whether he meant us to take it linearly or not, runs as follows:
- Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, High and Low, and Ran, the Emperor of Cinema’s “most operatic, pessimistic, and visually spectacular films.”
- Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Fanny and Alexander (theatrical version), which “have the primal pulse of a children’s fable told by an impossibly old and wise narrator, both “ripe with fantastical imagery and a sharp sense of the uncanny.”
- Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, both of which “depend on sublime, almost ethereal, imagery to convey a sense of doom and loss: mad, fragile love clinging for dear life in a maelstrom of darkness.”
- David Lean’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, two “epics of the spirit [ … ] plagued by grand, utterly magical moments and settings” and laced with passages that “skate the fine line between poetry and horror.”
- Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil, the work of a “living treasure” who “understands that ‘bad taste’ is the ultimate declaration of independence from the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie” and tells stories in elaborate worlds “made coherent only by his undying faith in the tale he is telling.”
- Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and Kuroneko, a “perverse, sweaty double bill” fusing “horrors and desire, death and lust” that, when del Toro first saw them at age ten, “did some serious damage to my psyche.”
- Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Paths of Glory, which “speak eloquently about the scale of a man against the tide of history, and both raise the bar for every ‘historical’ film to follow.”
- Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and Unfaithfully Yours, “masterful films full of mad energy and fireworks, but Sullivan’s Travels also manages to encapsulate one of the most intimate reflections about the role of the filmmaker as entertainer.”
- Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr and Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, the former “a memento mori, a stern reminder of death as the threshold of spiritual liberation” and the latter “the filmic equivalent of a hellish engraving by Bruegel or a painting by Bosch.”
- Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, “the two supreme works of childhood/horror [ … ] lamentations of worlds lost and the innocents trapped in them.”
Having already featured a tour of del Toro’s man cave and a tour of his imagination by way of his sketches here on Open Culture, it makes for a natural follow-up to offer this tour of his distinctive cinematic consciousness. A director since his childhood back in Mexico (then equipped with his dad’s Super 8, his own action figures, and a potato he once cast as a serial killer), he went on to study not filmmaking, strictly speaking, but makeup and special effects design. The resultant mastery of visual richness, especially in service of the grotesque, shows up even in his earliest available works, such as the 1987 short Geometria we posted a few years ago.
Del Toro’s next feature, a fantasy adventure set in Cold War America called The Shape of Water and involving a fish-man locked away in a secret government facility, will no doubt make even more use of all the tastes the director’s favorite Criterion films have instilled in him: for grand spectacle, for freakishness, for the uncanny, for “mad, fragile love,” and for sheer disturbance. May he continue to do “serious damage” to the psyches of his own audiences for decades to come.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.