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Criterion Channel Offers Hope to Classic Film Lovers

Lance Whitney

Full disclosure: I’m a huge film buff—or film nerd, take your pick.

When I choose a film to watch at home, my wife inevitably complains that I inevitably exclude movies made later than 1960. I love films from all eras, but especially from the so-called Golden Age, from 1930 through the 1950s.

Therein lies the rub.

Fans of older films have limited options when it comes to services that stream the classics. It’s slim pickings on Netflix, which features mostly films from the past 25 years. Meanwhile, Amazon has a decent selection, but even Prime members must pay more to watch most older films. A free service called Kanopy has a respectable movie collection, but it’s accessible only through certain public libraries and limits the number of monthly titles you can stream.

Hence my curiosity about Criterion Channel, a streaming service that debuted in April. For $11 monthly, Criterion subscribers get access to more than 1,600 films from the combined library of the Criterion Collection and film distributor Janus Films. Criterion’s lineup includes movies from Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, Lionsgate, and IFC Films. Films range from silent to sound, shorts to feature-length Hollywood, and international to independent studio releases. There are also commercial and art-house collections along with interviews, personal recommendations from noted filmmakers, and mini-documentaries.

However, is Criterion is worth the money? For me, the answer is yes.

Criterion Channel is compatible with all browsers and through Roku, Amazon-owned Fire TV, Android TV, and Apple TV (a free two-week trial is available). The service is also working on compatibility with Chromecast for iOS and Android apps. The mobile apps are convenient for viewing films, but you can’t search for or browse all available movies through them. Instead, users must go through Criterion’s website, a slight inconvenience.

Criterion lists its entire film lineup in an area called All Films, where users can sort movies by title, genre, director, year and country. As one example, you can easily find all the movies from well-known French director Francois Truffaut from the 1950s and 60s.

Sure, Criterion’s film library is relatively small. But the collection is expected to grow, at least if more studios sign licensing deals.

For now, many classic movies are unavailable, including familiar ones like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Some Like it Hot. I love Alfred Hitchcock, but Criterion doesn’t offer his American classics like Rear Window, Vertigo, and Shadow of a Doubt. Criterion does, however, have a strong selection of his British movies from the 1930s such as The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Sabotage.

Criterion shines at special features. The service celebrated Mother’s Day with a collection of films under the tagline: Mommy Issues. The lineup included Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, White Heat starring James Cagney, and Albert Brooks’ quirky film, Mother.

The Criterion Channel has a fabulous selection of special features to go along with its films. After watching The Kid, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin, I took in an interview with Jackie Coogan (who portrayed the kid), actress Lita Grey Chaplin (who was also Charlie Chaplain’s second wife), and Chaplin’s cameraman Rollie Totheroh. The film is also available with a commentary track by a Chaplin scholar. A related documentary explained how silent films were hand cranked and why such films have in the past been shown at the wrong speed – either too fast or too slow.

Criterion groups related movies in collections such as Columbia Noir and Daredevils & Castaways. A weekly series spotlights the work of a rotating cast of women filmmakers – both classic and current. And a Saturday matinee feature offers family films.

Also, the series Meet the Filmmakers introduces viewers to directors through interviews while also showcasing their movies. The Observations on Film Art series focuses on directing, editing, and cinematography in specific films such as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Meanwhile, Adventures in Moviegoing features luminaries Bill Hader and Sofia Coppola, who talk about and introduce the movies that they love.

The picture quality is another bonus; all of the films I’ve seen so far have looked beautiful. Kudos for Criterion for such high quality.

My first month as a subscriber was well worth the money. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s British films that I had always wanted to watch. I discovered compelling classics from well-known directors like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang. And the service reignited my love for Chaplin’s silent gems.

I hope Criterion adds more of my favorites. But otherwise, the service is off to a good start and is one that any film buff should enjoy.

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