When streaming became a viable method for watching stuff at home, it was presented as the great equalizer. You can see anything you want, whenever you want! Of course, that's not entirely true — ask anyone who has gone hunting for a specific older movie and discovered it's not available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or elsewhere.
The Criterion Channel, the digital extension of art film distributor the Criterion Collection, fills a lot of those gaps. Most of the popular streaming services don't dedicate much bandwidth to movies that are more than 50 years old, or not in English, or not in color. When I was a budding movie nerd, I would have killed for a library as comprehensive and intuitive as the Criterion Channel, and it has made this period of self-isolation a whole lot more vibrant.
Here's why any movie nut needs to get the Criterion Channel.
Old movies. Go to Netflix's "classics" section and it's about as barren as a gas station DVD bin: Sure, they've got a few of my favorite movies — Once Upon a Time in the West, Taxi Driver, Tootsie — but it's mostly (weirdly enough) public-domain WWII propaganda films. I can find just one movie from the 1940s — that'd be Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946) — and none from the 1950s or early 1960s. (And I suppose we could argue whether included titles like Philadelphia or What's Eating Gilbert Grape are even old enough to earn the "classic" designation.) Hulu's classics offerings are just as middling. Amazon Prime has a better track record, including a lot of long-forgotten B-movies and exploitation films, though they're not always presented in the best quality prints. Criterion, meanwhile, has hundreds of films from every era, from the silents to the early talkies to the golden age of Hollywood to the envelope-pushing movies of the '60s and '70s.
Organization. Most services haphazardly separate their film libraries by genre, and even then it's not always accurate — one time I found Alexander Payne's caustic satire Election in the "romantic movies" category. But the programmers at Criterion put a lot of care into their presentations, packaging films into highly specific categories: Right now, they offer a package of films starring Rita Hayworth, a gritty collection of noirs produced in the 1940s and '50s by Columbia Pictures and 13 features that were scored by the great Quincy Jones. It gives the library a sense of careful curation; this isn't just a random grab bag of whatever stuff they could get the rights to. Beyond that, you can easily adjust your searches alphabetically, by year, genre and even by country of origin.
Supplemental materials. One of the pleasures of disc media is the extra content that was included — deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes documentaries, trailers, alternate soundtracks. None of those special features carry over to streaming sites, but Criterion has changed that. Many of their movies come with filmed introductions from critics and filmmakers, as well as making-of documentaries and commentary tracks (don't miss the infamous one for The Limey, in which director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs fight on mic about whether the movie is any good). The service also offers multiple versions of films that have been re-edited or modified over the years: You can choose to watch Ingmar Bergman's miniseries Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny & Alexander in their shortened theatrical versions, and pick between multiple versions of Orson Welles' famously troubled 1955 thriller Mr. Arkadin.
Expiration listings. It's happened to all of us: You pause a movie midway through, and when you go back to finish it, it has expired from the streaming service you were watching it on. The Criterion Channel has expiration casualties, too, and as dozens of new titles are added each month, an equal number are taken down. But at least the fine folks at Criterion have devoted a separate page letting you know what's expiring at the end of the current month, giving you a few more weeks to cross titles off your to-watch list before they go away.
And finally, some recommendations:
Cane River (1982) The only film by director Horace B. Jenkins, this low-budget drama made with an all-black cast and crew was long thought lost. It was recently rediscovered and is now available to stream for the first time.
Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) An arthouse classic that has been out of print on home video for years, this landmark surrealist film from Jacques Rivette is a loopy, dreamlike three-hour trip.
Japanese cinema Akira Kurosawa tends to be most folks' introduction to the classic films of Japan, and while Criterion hosts a majority of his films, they have so much more — films by great directors like Yasujiro Ozu, Nobuhiko Obayashi and Seijun Suzuki, as well as influential genre franchises like Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood.
Silent films If you've never seen a silent film but have always meant to give it a shot, Criterion Channel has a cool selection in the best possible quality. Brush up on influential classics like Battleship Potemkin and The Passion of Joan of Arc, the early shorts of Charlie Chaplin or the work of groundbreaking black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
The Three Colors trilogy (1994) Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live, and his so-called "three colors trilogy" — Blue, White and Red — is a thrilling, genre-defying masterpiece about time, love, destiny and coincidence. You might find yourself watching them all in a single sitting.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) I've been meaning to tackle Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 14-part crime saga for some time, and now that it's streaming in its entirety, I might finally get around to it.
Directed by David Lynch Plunge into the strange mind of the master of the weird, with three features — Eraserhead, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Mulholland Dr. — a host of his early short films and the biographical documentary David Lynch: The Art Life. ♦
Sign up at criterionchannel.com; plans start at $11 a month, with a 14-day free trial period.