Some names turn into shorthand for quality. There are super-luxury cars, for example, and then there is a Rolls-Royce. The closest film enthusiasts get to Rolls-Royces is on screen—I would single out From Russia With Love (1963), Arthur (1981) and Withnail And I (1987) for truly memorable appearances of the Rolls—and therefore it isn’t a car, but a collection that revs our engines. The brand we mention in hallowed tones belongs to a company restoring and curating the finest and most significant films. It is a name that comforts, and instills confidence, and that name is Criterion.
It is an American company famously known for releasing the definitive restorations of classics in world cinema as well as edgy and thrilling current cinema, and any Blu-ray disc marked “The Criterion Collection” is often the finest available version of that film. The special features are sensational, and the covers are cleverly designed and lovingly created works of art in their own right.
This Monday, they became a channel. The Criterion Channel—available at CriterionChannel.com—is a streaming site bringing us the mighty Criterion library, the way it deserves to be watched: On a whim, we can dive down a rabbit hole burrowed by Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, or find out what films most influenced the inventive American siblings the Safdie brothers. It’s all there, and it’s all ours.
Like a too-wondrous library, it is hard to know where to look, which is where Criterion’s smartly tailored playlists come in. There are sections of all shapes—like a diverse playlist called “Booed At Cannes” featuring iconic movies the famed festival didn’t immediately love. Plus, delightful wine-and-cheese spreads like “Double Feature”, pairing distinctly different films across space and time. One, for example, features two highly disparate masterpieces in choreography, Jacques Demy’s swoon-worthy musical The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and John Woo’s martial arts cracker Last Hurrah For Chivalry.
Naturally, I’m going overboard. This is hysterical hyperbole for a service that—at the time of writing—is less than an hour old. Yet the Criterion Channel isn’t entirely new; several of these playlists and categorizations existed under the very same names as a subset of a wonderful streaming network called FilmStruck. Owned by the once-indispensable Turner Classic Movies, FilmStruck was a thing of joy: so much joy, in fact, that Warner Bros. Entertainment, the company behind it, could never properly monetize it and reach the viewers it deserved, heartbreakingly shuttering the service in November.
From its ashes (and, hopefully, having learnt valuable streaming lessons) rises the Criterion Channel, and while this service has officially been launched only in the US and Canada, as of now it is working in India—provided you are registered via a US address and credit card. (In contrast, Filmstruck worked beautifully but required a VPN in order to pretend the viewer was logging in from the US.) I would suggest you ask a stateside friend or relative to make you an account. This pleasant state of affairs could be “rectified” at some point, but, for now, the movies are around.
The launch line-up includes: a compendious retrospective of Agnès Varda, who died on 29 March; a showcase of the great Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, from Bicycle Thieves to Rocco And His Brothers; an improbably Shakespearean double-feature with Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet paired alongside Ernst Lubitsch’s rollicking farce To Be Or Not To Be; and a selection called Killer Couples, about the deadliest of on-screen lovers, featuring The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Eating Raoul (1982) and Sightseers (2012). Hundreds of Criterion titles are available already, with more promised: As of now, a search for “Satyajit Ray” brings up over two dozen titles.
It remains to be seen how it functions, and how well its apps work across platforms, yet I’m rooting for Criterion already, as may have been signalled by the advertorially gushy tone of this column. Cinema is an education, and here we have important cinema complete with context, conversations and even lessons—I would recommend Prof. David Bordwell’s series, Observations On Film Art, to anyone interested in what makes movies move us.
Existing streaming networks appear disinterested in the classics, Netflix in particular. Mubi provides a challengingly finite selection of 30 films for a 30-day period, and is great for world-cinema roulette, not knowing where you may land up. There are, however, times you’re headed specifically for Rainer Werner Fassbinder or/and Charlie Chaplin.
In the montage announcing the new service, a clip of Henry Fonda from Sidney Lumet’s timeless 12 Angry Men—where he asks “What was the second feature?”—is used to introduce the Double Feature section of the Criterion Channel. While that was a solemn film about a murder trial, this appropriation feels perfect. The next movie to watch is a matter of life and death.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.
He tweets at @rajasen