Let’s Talk About the Criterion Channel

NOTE: I am not getting paid to write about this. I just think it’s neat.

These days, streaming services are a dime a dozen. You can’t roam the Internet without stubbing your toe on one of them, the lousy things. Every network/studio/distributor and their dog is getting a service of its own, making it even harder for you to decide which services to pick and choose from. With the way they’re multiplying, you just can’t have them all. This is why I want to direct your attention to a streaming service which actually deserves said attention. This, you see, is a place where you’ll genuinely find stuff you can’t find anywhere else. This is The Criterion Channel.

(insert dramatic fanfare here)

So What Is It, Exactly?

TCC is a new streaming service — less than a month old, actually — run and stocked by The Criterion Collection, AKA the world’s largest curator of classic cinema and modern arthouse/international features. Criterion isn’t entirely new to the streaming game, having contributed to the library of the now-defunct FilmStruck, which had a similar arthouse focus. That website shut down in November 2018, much to the dismay of cinephiles everywhere. And they weren’t wrong to be upset: these are films that the streaming giants like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon carry in a limited capacity, if at all. It’s difficult for people to see older, obscure movies if they’re restricted to theaters and physical media. In today’s media landscape, where a sparkly but average-quality blockbuster seems to get spit out every few weekends, it’s more important than ever to preserve film history and interest in independent filmmaking.

TCC was announced just weeks after FilmStruck went down, and it was launched on April 8 of this year. It’s essentially FilmStruck 2.0, especially in regards to how the films are presented. The service doesn’t just sort its films by genre or make suggestions based on your previous viewing history (although that would be a nice feature to have in the future). Nor does it present you with a broad category of films with only loose connections between them, as Netflix often will (“Casual Viewing,” Netflix? How is that supposed to help me?). Criterion sells itself on being “thematically presented,” with various collections centered around a specific individual or theme.

What Does It Look Like?

When you first enter the website’s main page, you’re greeted with a simple layout that’s easy on the eyes. A dark background, a header showing off new releases, and rows of rectangular thumbnails. Pretty standard setup. The differences start to show through once you take a look at what the channel offers.

Screenshot_2019-05-01 Browse - Criterion Channel
An example of how the website looks in a desktop browser. Taken at 70% scale.

Going to the thumbnail row titled “Recent Collections,” the first item we find is a sampling of David Lynch’s work: four feature-length films accompanied by several shorts. They’re all packaged together on one page. The next collection is titled “Columbia Noir,” consisting of twelve film noirs released by Columbia Pictures between 1945 and 1962. A 15-minute introduction video comes along with them, giving you some background and education on the films in question. These are just two of the many collections made by the channel. In addition to spotlighting directors and genres, they have multiple ongoing series that are even more specialized:

  • Adventures In Moviegoing: A famous actor, director or author discusses their careers/influences and presents a collection of films which have inspired them, giving a brief introduction to each one.
  • Short + Feature: A short film and a main feature are paired together to highlight the common theme they share, whether that be confrontation with one’s mortality, mysteries unfolding aboard a train, or…pigs?
  • Double Feature: Similar to the above, two films that share something in common are presented as a pair. Sometimes the link is straightforward, but not always — how does a kung fu flick from the late 70s owe its existence to a French New Wave musical? You’ll have to watch them and find out.

The Best Thing About It

I think TCC’s biggest asset so far isn’t just the collection of content that it offers, but the extra features which go along with that content. After all, the service isn’t just here to provide entertainment: it’s got enough supplemental material to fill several film studies courses. Let’s return to that David Lynch collection for a minute. Upon further inspection, it actually comes in two parts. Part One is simply “The Films,” but Part Two is “Lynch In His Own Words,” and it includes a few different interviews with Lynch from various points in his career. Most of the collections have one or two little bonus videos giving you some more knowledge about the films in that collection.

Let’s say you want to take a deep dive into a specific film. That’s what the “Criterion Editions” section is for. You get not only the film itself, but several extras that you can watch afterwards for a more in-depth discussion of that film, how it was made and what its impact was. For an example, let’s use Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M, a haunting thriller about the manhunt for a child murderer in Weimar-era Berlin. With the Criterion Edition available on the service, you get a lovely restored print of the film and over an hour of extra featurettes. There are interviews with crew members and documentaries on the film’s use of sound and the various cuts and restorations it has undergone over the decades. You can even watch a ten-minute “abridged version” that was filmed for a French television program in the 1980s. Most of these come straight from the original Criterion DVD, which I think is pretty cool. Special features are the one thing you don’t get with streaming services, or even with most digital releases. Incorporating them here is something unique and worthwhile.

Final Verdict

There are multiple reasons why TCC might not be for you. It’s still a work in progress, lacking in features that we take for granted on Netflix and Hulu. There’s no recommendation or download feature yet, nor is there a “continue watching” option: you have to remember where you were in the movie if you need to step away for a while. And of course, you may find it hard to get into if your film tastes are more mainstream. But I’d suggest giving it a try for a month or two if it sounds like something you would be interested in. Personally, I’m quite pleased with the service so far. It’s an easy-to-use website that takes the basic streaming model and improves on it with supplemental materials and the unique approach of grouping by theme. Best of all, it gives lesser-known movies a home where they can be properly enjoyed at last. I hope it sticks around for a long time, and I can’t wait to see how it develops in the future.

That’s all for now! Thank you for reading!

— Dana

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