Baby’s First Criterion

Chris and a whole host of film lovers are here with the perfect guide to get you started with the Criterion Collection!

by Chris Eddleman.

The last straw was the Disney Corporation of course. Frankly, it was to be expected as they trample across the landscape of art, consuming and homogenizing, gobbling up works, and churning out endless iterations of IP, a palatable paste when once there was challenge and wonder. They don’t want you to own anything they’ve made, they want art, content, as service. And they want control. 

This is to say, after Disney Plus debuted, people were beginning to notice some strange things happening to the movies they were featuring. Disney made some little edits here and there to finished movies, to make them more family friendly. To me, the tipping point was Splash. I had found a clip where Darryl Hannah was running back to the ocean after kissing a bewildered Tom Hanks. And when she turned around, hair had been crudely added to the entire back of her body, seemingly sprouting from her shoulders. This was, of course, to cover up any iota of nudity, as Disney Plus is marketed very strongly to families. 

Was I absolutely upset about covering up this particular instance of nudity? I mean, not exactly. I wasn’t crushed that I was deprived of seeing Darryl Hannah’s backside. I was more just concerned with the stewardship of the Disney Corporation. Can a work of art be subject to this kind of change whenever its impassive overlord feels like it’s necessary? It felt wrong to me, like if someone took whole paragraphs out of my essays years after they were finished. And just like that, I decided streaming services were ultimately not a force for good. They give you rented content that THEY own and can change at their will. This is going to come back and bite me a little bit later in the piece but bear with me. 

This was when I began my foray into physical movies. The only way to ensure the movie I wanted to see, the movie as released, the movie as originally intended, was to grab a Blu-Ray and hold onto it. This pushed my decision to pick up the disk-drive PS5, for the ability to watch 4K UHD movies. This pushed my decision to start grabbing Lord of the Rings, some Scorcese flicks, some newer favorites. But, my physical media love quickly sidled me into the purveyors of fine boutique physical DVD and Blu-Ray releases—The Criterion Collection.

I don’t want to get too into book report style history stuff, so we’ll make this quick. Criterion began in the 80s as a movie distribution company for notable feature films, unbridled by contemporary popularity or country of origin. These include many films that critics consider to be the greatest movies of all time, and in some cases are impossible to find in physical media beyond the Criterion release. They first started with LASERDISCS, before eventually moving to DVDs and BluRays as the format du jour changed. Now that doesn’t sound too exciting but, they also massively influenced the way home videos were presented. They pioneered the letterbox format to preserve the style of older movies, as well as director (and critic) commentaries available alongside the features. Literally, “special features” as a film concept came from the work Criterion did. It’s clearly a company that, at the very least, cares about films as art and considers them worthy of preservation. 

Since getting into Criterion movies, through physical releases and their somewhat recent streaming app, the Criterion Channel, I’ve found a lot of camaraderie with folks on Twitter who are also big fans of their releases. While my experience could be anecdotal (mostly comics folks I met who are also cinephiles and Criterion fans), I’ve found folks who bond over Criterion movies to be incredibly welcoming and sweet, which clashes with the stereotype of cinephiles as stuffy and pretentious. Criterion has two one-day 50% off flash sales on their physical releases each year, while Barnes and Noble have two FULL-MONTH 50% off sales. These sales are kind of quarterly Christmases for the Criterion fans, as we agonize over what to pick off of our wishlists and scramble to share our picks on social media. And, again anecdotally, I’ve found a lot of kinship during these, as no one seems to argue over the merits of one movie over the other, simply commenting with derivations of “Hey good picks!” on a picture of several new BluRays spread over a table. 

But while I like them as a company in general, they’ve been rightfully critiqued in the past for lapses in diversity, especially including Black directors. Since the linked article’s been written, there’s been pretty clear efforts to include more Black directors but, more work can always be done. There’s also quite a gender gap, as only 7% of directors included in the collection were women as of that article. 

The above could certainly be seen as a contributor to why it might be difficult to get people into Criterion movies but, I think the main contributor is what I touched on early- people think that these movies are overly pretentious or impenetrable. I honestly thought that too for a while! I’m the kind of guy who loves a Fast and the Furious as well as a Kurosawa, and I thought they would only get more difficult to watch from there.

However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that tons of these movies, while from another culture or another time, were in general, primarily made to entertain. The Seven Samurai is an incredible work of filmmaking, but it wasn’t just made to be contemplated as some artistic exercise. It was made to dazzle, to entertain an audience! It’s an older film, but it contains colorful characters and rousing action scenes. And I find that to be true with many of them. Granted, you’ll always have some slightly more difficult-to-get-into movies than others. I don’t expect everyone to take to and enjoy Jeanne Dielmann, an incredibly lengthy movie about a Belgian housewife in the 1970s going about her somewhat mind-numbing schedule, even if I did. For every art-house movie, there’s a noir or an action movie that simply could not be denied. 

With that spirit in mind, I have a few picks that I’m going to recommend as a first foray into Criterion movies, whether you stream or pick up one of their fantastic physical releases (seriously, the cover arts alone are worth the price of admission, especially during one of their sales). I’ve also invited some of my movie-loving friends to submit some picks too because as we know, it takes all sorts. 

I hope you the reader tries some of these out. As movie-making companies continue to devour each other, independent art is getting harder and harder to bring to a wide release, and physical releases are getting rarer. Companies seem to prefer to simply stream movies, as it becomes more profitable to make true ownership a thing of the past. Regardless, I think consuming varied art contributes to a well-rounded person, and maybe we should all watch some movies produced in times and countries that we’re less familiar with. With that being said, here are my varied options for dipping your toe into Criterion. 

Chris’s First Pick: The Princess Bride

Hey, remember when I said these movies aren’t all pretentious? I think the best example of this is the crowd-pleasing favorite- The Princess Bride. Chances are you’ve probably already seen this movie and didn’t even realize you’d watched a Criterion Collection film! So ha, perhaps you’re already well on your way to watch all of Dekalog or whatever. But if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, it’s one of my favorite adventure films. A story-within-a-story, we’re given a rousing tale of adventure and love told via kindly grandfather to his sick and clearly-not-interested grandson. 

Just as I was when I first saw this, the grandson is slowly converted as time goes on, as the one-liners and swashbuckling action win him over. It’s kind of a story about the power of stories, which sounds like an incredible cliche, but it ends up just being very earnest in its silliness, and timeless in its presentation. It might not be one of the really “arty” releases, but I think it’s a good toe-dip for someone who might not have seen too many of Criterion’s other releases.

Chris’s Second Pick: Police Story

I didn’t necessarily intend my picks to be viewed in sequential order but, now that I’m writing them out it seems like maybe a good suggestion. Maybe you haven’t watched too many subtitled films. That’s okay! I know it can take some getting used to and for some folks, subtitles are not particularly helpful for accessibility. But for folks who are able, the ability to overcome the “1-inch barrier” you’ve got some great films ahead of you. 

Starting in this case, with the Jackie Chan-helmed (written, directed, AND STARRING?!) movie Police Story. It’s got a fairly simple story about crime and revenge, but the clear reasons to watch are in the physical and spoken humor that Chan and his co-stars (including the amazing Maggie Cheung) convey. Also, this is Jackie Chan as his absolute most ridiculous, performing stunt after stunt in a way that clearly shows he has no regard for and possibly a disdain for his own safety. The climax contains probably the most ridiculous stunt that I’ve ever seen, and I’m not sure how the man is alive afterwards. It’s tight action, it’s hilarious comedy, and again I have to reiterate it’s NOT stuffy or pretentious.

Chris’s Third Pick: The Seventh Seal

You know what? Maybe you’ve watched a few of these and decided that you wanted to get whole-hog into some Criterion. Or heck, maybe you’re the kind of person who learned to swim by jumping in the deep end. Anyway, let’s do a 1-2-3-into the pool and talk about one of my favorites of all time- The Seventh Seal

Unlike the first two movies I recommended, The Seventh Seal is pretty moody. It’s a dark tale of a knight (played by the incredible Max von Sydow) returning from the Crusades, an adventure that turned sour and showed him the true awfulness that the world can conjure. And even upon returning home, he arrives to a plague-addled land, death at home just as death was abroad. 

Also, throughout his travels to return home in his own land, he plays a game of chess with literal Death, trying to stave off his demise as he struggles with the meaning of life and God. It’s an incredibly dour film but, even the plague and witch-burnings are occasionally interrupted by levity, as two actors from a traveling troupe are joined by the knight and his squire on their travels. 

It’s a film about death and mortality, about the wages of sin and the uncaring attitude of the Almighty. It’s pretty gosh darn dark but, it’s hauntingly beautiful and widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It’s maybe not a great first Criterion, but I think it should be an early stop on the journey.

Rob’s Pick: Häxan

Maybe my favorite movie-watching experience I ever had was on my birthday a couple years back, when my housemates got me fancy fondue, and we put Häxan on the projector. Häxan is a weird flick. At 1922 it’s still in the era when basic genres were forming, and so it’s not quite documentary, not quite mockumentary; it mixes historical description with fictional illustrations of those historical descriptions.

And those historical descriptions are of what late Medieval and Early Modern people thought about witchcraft, so it’s pretty wild.

I think for most of us Cinema Normies, the Criterion Collection is most importantly an opportunity for us to expand our horizons, to engage not only with movies we’ve never seen but with kinds of movies we have never seen. It’s a chance to experience things we’d never think to put on, or movies we never guessed existed. Without it, I’d still probably have eventually gotten around to folks like Bergman and Tarkovsky. Most of my favorite Criterion movies I’d still have seen some other way. I appreciate the editions of those films, the beautiful cases, the essays, the bonus features, but it’s stuff like Häxan that I’d recommend going for first. Find something weird. Find something that will give you a new kind of experience.

Reagan’s Pick: Funny Games

Wow those games sure aren’t funny! One of the first movies I watched when I got Criterion Channel back last April was Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). For those who are unaware, Funny Games is an Austrian film in which two young men take a family hostage in their own vacation home and psychologically torture them over the course of a night. It’s easily one of the worst times I’ve ever had watching a movie so obviously I loved every minute of it. 

Funny Games is a critique of the kind of film it is, it has you sit and watch what’s happening and then it condemns you for watching it, for enjoying it even. It’s a controversial movie, not everyone enjoys it. In fact, when it was screened at Cannes in 1997 one third of the audience had walked out by the end of the film. Personally, I think that the attendees of the 1997 Cannes Film Festival are cowards but that’s just my opinion. 

If subtitles aren’t your thing, Funny Games received a shot-for-shot remake in 2007 starring Naomi Watts and directed by Haneke himself. It’s pretty good! But honestly, if subtitles aren’t your thing you should probably work on that. There is after all, a literal world of film for you to explore. 

Bobby’s Pick: F For Fake

I used to believe that the documentary genre of filmmaking was very limited in its storytelling. That is until I watched F For Fake, which made me re-evaluate the genre and opened me up to the possibilities inherent in telling a story about a real-life figure, especially with its premise, where Welles’ recounts the story of famed art forger Elmyr de Hory, who was known for selling numerous pieces of forged art to art galleries. However, it is not just a retelling of his forgery; in a dramatic style that maintains the informative and “essay-like” nature of the documentary, Welles delves into the relationship between authorship and forgery. It is a must-watch that is intellectually stimulating yet enjoyable.

Justin’s Pick: The Third Man

I used to consider Orson Welles homework. 

We are all young and stupid once, right? Being the “Genre Kid” I was, more concerned with blood and scares than I was film history, I didn’t much see the point of Welles.

But then I actually saw the thing. Kane, that is. And it’s just…well, it’s everything they say it is, isn’t it? It’s instantly arresting and it’s propulsive and it’s FUNNY as hell. Nobody ever talks enough about how funny Citizen Kane is, do they? And the guy at the center. He’s everything they said he was too. It definitely shocked the young punk out of me and got me thinking about movies in a broader scope than I had before then.

That scope just widened once I bought my first round of Criterions. Amongst them being Carol Reed’s immensely entertaining The Third Man. This was a movie I had heard some of the TCM hosts talk about and even screen a few times during the heyday of that cable channel’s dominance over repertory screenings. And though much of that first round was too horror-based, The Third Man immediately stood out among them. Simply by being so goddamn COOL.

A sumptuous slice of post-WWII noir, The Third Man barely even features Welles but his presence rumbles through the whole of its story. A down-on-his-luck pulp writer (an adorably hang-dog Joseph Cotton) is summoned to Vienna by a former friend; the mercurial Harry Lime, the second of two iconic roles for Welles, even this early in his career. He is dangling a business deal before the broke author of “cheap novelettes” Holly Martins and, like always, Holly comes running to the beck and call of his former drinking buddy. Thing is, once Holly gets there, Lime is dead in the street, and basically everyone in Vienna, meaning the British, the Germans, AND Austrians (all themselves adjusting to their new tenuous peace accords) wants to know why.

By now I’m sure you’ve read about this film’s twisty delights, but to actually SEE them unfolding in front of you, in all of Reed’s plaintively pointedly directed glory is another matter entirely. On top of a score that will spring with you for days after and a script, co-written by pulp legend Graham Greene, that will haunt you, beautifully, for days longer still. It’s just a top to bottom gorgeous experience, packed into a disc set that offers up a whole other slew of delights. It just felt like an entire course on film and pulp history in one immensely fascinating package. 

Unfortunately, The Third Man Criterion is often hard to find now. Criterion has thankfully made the set available on Blu-ray as well, but even that edition doesn’t stay on the shelves too long. The film itself has also been made more widely available, either on streaming platforms or in digital editions. Marking a decided change from the days when I would have to anxiously await the next time Robert Osborne talked about it (and I could maybe TAPE it)! But I will always treasure my own personal copy because it showed me that I could see, and appreciate, more than just what I was willing to. That just because something was old didn’t mean that it wasn’t worth appreciating. Not too bad for some “cheap novelettes”, right? They are much more fun than any homework. 

Leave a Reply