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Meet the Criterion Channel, the most fun way to become a film buff

The specialty streaming service has an expansive collection of masterpieces, cult classics, and more.

The logo for the Criterion Channel superimposed against an image from the film Three Colors: Red.
The Criterion Channel’s collection of films is carefully curated — and a lot of fun.
Criterion Channel
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

If you’re looking to flop down on the couch and be entertained for a while, the options are virtually limitless, as long as you can pony up some cash (or borrow a password) for a Netflix or Hulu account.

But if you want to watch something good, your choices are a little more limited. Sure, some revered classics and critically acclaimed films find their way onto the more widely used streaming services. But they’re often buried under mountains of stuff that is merely ... fine.

Which is why, with movie theaters closed, I’m especially grateful for the Criterion Channel. A specialty streaming service launched almost exactly a year ago, the Criterion Channel is the digital cousin of the Criterion Collection, a company beloved by cinephiles all over the world for its beautiful, carefully curated DVD and Blu-ray releases (and sometimes restorations) of masterworks of cinema, in all kinds of genres for all kinds of audiences. (Criterion’s upcoming releases include everything from Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman to Show Boat to Portrait of a Lady on Fire to a collection of Martin Scorsese’s short films.)

The Criterion Channel streaming service draws on the resources of the Collection, with about 2,000 of its titles (and plenty of bonus features) streaming every month. For about $11 a month (or $100 a year), you get access to a truly broad array of films (which you can browse here). If you’re looking for something to fill in a hole in your film knowledge, classics of both Hollywood and world cinema — from The 400 Blows to Sunset Boulevard to Tokyo Story — are available by the dozen. If you’d like to while away the hours with something from a Hollywood era gone by, you could watch Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, or Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, or Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl. If you’re up for something outside your usual wheelhouse, the Criterion Channel is a treasure chest, with films that hail from Sweden and Senegal, from nearly every decade since the birth of cinema, and from every genre you can imagine.

For someone like me — a film critic who nonetheless has blind spots (like everyone) in her viewing history — the Criterion Channel is a godsend. I can open the Criterion app and search for whatever I’m in the mood to watch: A musical from the 1950s, say, or a bleak Soviet-era drama, or a paranoid American thriller, or a sexy romance. You can find most anything on the Criterion Channel, from universally acclaimed works of art to influential B-movies that changed the genre game.

A screenshot of the Criterion Channel’s search screen, including genres, decades, countries, and directors.
The Criterion Channel’s search terms are extensive and granular.
Criterion Channel

What’s more, the Criterion Channel has replicated part of what makes Criterion Collection DVDs and Blu-rays so valuable to cinephiles: A fair number of movies on the streaming service are accompanied by short supplementary videos containing director commentary, outtakes, and more. Before you watch Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy Playtime, you can listen to Paul Feig (known for directing comedies like Bridesmaids and producing shows like Freaks and Geeks) talk about why Playtime has been so important to comedic filmmakers today. Thinking of watching the 1970 Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter? You can also listen to comedian Patton Oswalt talk about why he loves the film, or watch outtakes, commentary, trailers, and archival footage from its release. It’s like a film education all on its own, a fascinating way to dive into a cinematic curriculum that few people ever experience.

The Criterion Collection’s assets and curatorial eye set it apart

But if you don’t know where to start or feel overwhelmed by the wealth of choices (and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed), the site’s curation comes to the rescue. The good folks at Criterion have a few ways of pointing subscribers toward movies they might enjoy. Sometimes they group films by theme, genre, or filmmaker; right now you can see a collection of German Expressionist movies, or movies about movies, or movies with scores by legendary producer Quincy Jones. On weekends, they curate “matinees” by suggesting movies that are appropriate for the whole family, like Jason and the Argonauts and The Court Jester. And they’ll often pair two films together for a double feature, like the recent “Con Me If You Can” showing of The Grifters and House of Games; sometimes they’ll also pair a short film with a feature film, helping viewers discover directors and movies they might not have seen otherwise.

A screenshot of the Criterion Collection home page, including Saturday Matinee selections and Short and a Feature selections.
Curated features from the Criterion Channel staff make it easy to discover new films.
Criterion Collection

Do I sound like a cheerleader? I am one. (Criterion did not in any way ask or pay me to write this piece; I’ve been a happy paying customer since they launched.) I’m also a college professor, and I use the Criterion Channel in my criticism and film classes because there’s nothing like it. I tell anyone who bemoans the lack of “anything good to watch” on Netflix or Hulu (which isn’t quite true, but I understand the sentiment) that Criterion Channel is the solution. I regularly switch it on when I have a free night and need something good to watch.

All of this is important because streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as great as they can be, heavily favor recent films and movies that were produced in the conventional Hollywood system. Both still manage to offer truly great movies — Netflix produced or distributed some of last year’s best films, and Hulu boasts a truly impressive documentary collection. But their catalogs mostly contain movies that came out in the last three or four decades and were produced in English-speaking countries.

Which means there’s a wealth of cinema out there just waiting to be discovered. And though there are a lot of streaming services geared toward people who are already cinephiles, the Criterion Channel is the most accessible option for at-home discovery, catering not just to people who already consider themselves film buffs, but people who are really interested in cinema and want to see and learn as much as they can.

I’m worried about our short-term collective memory in these streaming-dominant times, and I’m always concerned that people will get too myopic about their own culture if they’re never presented with stories from other cultures. Short of traveling — which, as I write this in the midst of a global pandemic, is nearly impossible right now — watching movies is one of the easiest, most fun ways to expand our boundaries. And I am so grateful the Criterion Channel gives us a way to do that, right from the comfort of our homes.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

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