What is the best way to watch a classic film? That might sound like a silly question, but it’s a pressing one for modern movie fans faced with unlimited choice. In the past, there were two options: at the cinema or at home on the TV. Now, film fans have a number of devices and locations at their disposal for watching movies, and much more choice when it comes to where, when, how and what to watch. For nearly 40 years, home-video distribution company The Criterion Collection has been facilitating this choice, setting the standard in classic film restoration and release. So much so, that even if you’re not familiar with the brand, you will definitely have watched something influenced by their work. 

Starting The Collection

To put it simply, Criterion is best known as a boutique Blu-ray and DVD label that restores films generally considered classic or important. The films are loaded onto discs that include bespoke special features and come in unique packaging, and are presented with the highest possible standard of picture and sound. That is, however, selling the process short. 

Over the years, The Criterion Collection has come to be known as guardians of quality film who ensure there is always a place to watch all kinds of beloved movies in the best quality possible. Starting in 1984, the collection has spread across older home formats like VHS and LaserDisc, through to DVD and Blu-ray, and recently into streaming. 

Physical versions of the films are tantalisingly marked with a number on their spine, denoting their place in the collection. All films are up for consideration, but lovers of the collection still talk about Criterion’s work with director David Lynch on films like The Elephant Man, as well as their frequent eye-catching releases of Wes Anderson’s work, and the fact that they are the first place many see world cinema classics like Seven Samurai

With over 1,000 films officially part of the collection, many consider this the archive for movie fans who truly wish to absorb every part of a work of cinema. It’s a mark of excellence no matter your taste. Music fans can pick up the 4K restoration of A Hard Day’s Night and witness hours of unseen footage of the Beatles, in addition to award-winning documentaries about the band. Film historians can observe how decades-old works like The Third Man have been restored immaculately, or witness Matthew McConaughey’s audition for Dazed and Confused. On the other hand, you can simply use the Criterion mark as reassurance the next time you fancy viewing a classic. 

Inside The Process

Nearly four decades on from its founding, The Criterion Collection library comprises most cinephiles’ dream list. But what are the criteria for a Criterion film? When talking about their process, Criterion comment: “We aim to reflect the breadth of filmed expression. We try not to be restrictive or snobby about what kinds of films are appropriate. An auteur classic, a Hollywood blockbuster, and an independent B horror film all have to be taken on their own terms. All we ask is that each film in the collection be an exemplary film of its kind”. 

A glance at the official list backs up this variety: French New Wave classics like The 400 Blows sit alongside spoof comedies like This Is Spinal Tap and popcorn blockbusters like 1998’s Armageddon

It’s also far more than simply a crisp cut of the movie. “Each film release has a producer who oversees the entire process, from restoration to supplemental features to packaging,” they continue. “The producer researches available materials, conceives original supplements, and decides what features will truly add value to the appreciation of the film.” 

Many of the titles feature contributions from the directors and scholars, but there’s no set format: “(We) make them on a case-by-case basis, with the aim of enhancing the viewer’s experience of a particular film.”

Changing The Picture

So, is this just a haven for movie nerds? Don’t be so sure. Criterion’s existence virtually since the birth of home video means that it has helped shape film history. Lovers of physical media will know that extra features are a big part of any DVD or Blu-ray release – a concept popularised by Criterion’s early releases, long before those formats existed. Audio commentary, “Special Edition” restorations of films, and unique cover artwork were all hallmarks of Criterion releases well before they became an industry standard. 

Even those who only consume movies via streaming will notice the impact of the collection’s work. Regardless of how you watch a movie, it’s likely at one point you’ve watched something in “widescreen” format that allows the full picture to be present via black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. This process, known as “Letterboxing”, aims to preserve the film in the ratio the filmmaker intended. While not the first to feature it, Criterion evolved and popularised the method until it became the standard for VHS, DVDs and streaming presentations that came after. 

This embodies what makes Criterion so important to movie fans. The way we watch movies may change from year to year as technology brings the impossible to reality. However, what we enjoy about watching movies stays fundamentally the same: we want to be dazzled, moved and able to enjoy all of the artistry that’s unfolding on screen. In that sense, The Criterion Collection is more than a badge of honour for prestige movies; it’s a commitment to showing a film as it was always meant to be seen. 

Entering The Stream

Different brands and formats tend to go out of style as the culture changes. Innovations like 3D lost their lustre at the cinema, while home viewing has seen a seismic shift in the last decade. The best collections move with the times, and so while physical copies of The Criterion Collection are still available for fans to add to their shelves and adore, the philosophy of great movies you can dive into also came to streaming. 

The Criterion Channel arrived in North America in 2019, hosting Criterion Collection films and extra features alongside original content. This approach may initially seem at odds with the popular perception of streaming, where viewers binge movies one after another. But when everything is possible online, it stands to reason that fans who want to go a bit deeper should also have a place to call home. 

The collection has also made an impact in the world of social media. For twelve years, Closet Picks has been a regular feature on Criterion’s website and YouTube channel. In this segment, friends of Criterion are invited into the fabled Criterion Closet to pick a selection of movies that mean something to them. Guests include directors such as Hereditary filmmaker Ari Aster and Baby Driver’s Edgar Wright, as well as stars like Cate Blanchett, Ethan Hawke and Kim Cattral. It’s a pleasure to watch even those who make movies become giddy with excitement when picking their selections and revealing to the camera why their choices mean so much to them. One recent episode even began to trend on TikTok, with actor Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, The Flash) delighting posters with his quirky low-energy delivery. 

As with many of life’s greatest pleasures, from food to music, there are many ways to enjoy a good movie. For those who hold the art form dear, Criterion has become like a Michelin-starred restaurant, or a hallowed record label. Early versions of the releases are collector’s items, while online debates rage on as to what films ‘deserve’ to carry that famous label (Criterion welcomes emails recommending all types of titles). As long as there are movies to be watched, collections like Criterion will be bringing them to us, lovingly restored and enhanced by people as excited about them as we are.

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