1. Watching the Criterion Collection is an epic, life-changing project.
From its silent-era underwater French documentaries to campy Andy Warhol horror films to Beastie Boys music videos and art-punk pictures like “Border Radio,” the Criterion Collection provides thousands of hours of entertainment and provocation. It’s simply a great American institution. There are hundreds of classic and contemporary titles and more wonderful films being added every month. Criterion continues to develop new series within their catalog.
For example, in 2007, they added the Eclipse Series, which highlights directors’ early and lesser-known artistic efforts. They started Eclipse with a boxed set of Ingmar Bergman’s early films (pre- “Seventh Seal”), and they continue to issue similar box sets to their catalog. On Hulu Plus, Criterion also makes a cross-section of its titles available for commercial-free streaming on a rotating basis. Unless you’re a dedicated film buff, chances are you’ve never seen a film like William Greaves’ experimental gem “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm,” a documentary about a documentary about a documentary about a fake feature film called “Over the Cliff.” Criterion’s catalog showcases innovation, unorthodoxy, pioneers of technology, and every manner of convention-breaking art-making you can imagine. This alone is reason enough to dip into their catalog.
Nobody’s perfect, but the notion of Criterion as “film school in a can” is accurate up to a point. Criterion is much more than a typical movie distributor, of course, with its terrific Commentary tracks, featurettes, and bundled film essays, as well as its interest in restoring digital copies of the classics.
Criterion is brilliant on classic French and Japanese cinema, but not as stellar on popular Hollywood classics. That’s due to copyright reasons, not snobbishness – they distributed DVDs of Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and they’ve done wonderful stuff reissuing movies like “RoboCop,” “The Blob” and “Equinox.” They have some great Hitchcock titles and used to have more but that’s a gap for them now. Tarkovsky is another gap, with only three of the Russian master’s films represented, although the Blu-ray of “Solaris” is staggeringly beautiful. For whatever reason, contemporary documentaries are not very well represented by Criterion, when it comes to directors like Werner Herzog, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, or Chris Smith. (For innovative new documentaries, check out Kino and Cinema Guild titles.)
3. Criterion is fearless in terms of content.
Without fail, Criterion values content, innovation, and vision over stomachability. We don’t know anyone who turns to Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” as a fun movie to unwind with after a week of work. Likewise, the nihilistic worldviews of Bertrand Tavernier’s “Coup de Torchon” or Todd Solondz’s “Life During Wartime” will leave even the strongest soul exhausted and demoralized. Though many (but not all) of the titles in the Criterion Collection are notably grim, they do what only the best films can do – they make us wake up and see the world differently.
Watching the entire Criterion Collection in a year is basically impossible for mere mortals who want to have relationships or jobs. We tip our hats to all those Criterion buffs out there who have completed the grand tour ahead of us or who have dedicated the next five years of their lives to the Collection. We got closer than we thought, but we didn’t finish the list. (To be sure, if you listen to the Commentary tracks and tour the vast array of Supplements, each disc can involve a day’s “work”…) With apologies to “A Hollis Frampton Odyssey” and Alexander Korda’s “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” our viewing project is still in progress. We’re determined to stick with this lifetime quest. Even though we’ve watched a lot of the Criterion catalog and managed to write a book inspired by our year of movie watching, the real reward is never point-scoring or box-ticking, it’s entering that parallel universe only reachable through great film.
Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree’s “Our Secret Life in the Movies,” a collection of short stories inspired by The Criterion Collection, will be published on November 4. Find out more information here.