Ty Burr

A cause to celebrate: the Criterion Channel debuts

Fred Astaire and Jane Powell in 1951’s “Royal Wedding”; Frances McDormand (top) in the Coen brothers’ film debut, 1984’s “Blood Simple,” available on the Criterion Channel.
The Criterion Collection
Fred Astaire and Jane Powell in 1951’s “Royal Wedding”; Frances McDormand (top) in the Coen brothers’ film debut, 1984’s “Blood Simple,” available on the Criterion Channel.

Great news for film fanatics! The Criterion Channel has finally gone live.

Great news for those who don’t know bo-diddly about movies! The Criterion Channel has finally gone live.

The latest on-demand iteration of the planet’s finest congregation of world-class movies has been a long time coming. Criterion started all the way back in 1984, manufacturing and distributing laser discs, the connoisseur’s forerunner to DVDs. In time, the company picked up rights to Janus Films, the pioneering distributor of foreign language and arthouse movies that got its start at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre in 1956.


When the DVD era arrived, Criterion cornered the high-end market: meticulously restored films in gorgeously designed slipcases, with essay-length booklets and deep-dish extras. Nearly a thousand individual titles and boxed sets have been released over the years; some people (ahem) collect them like baseball cards. Taken as a whole, the Collection is probably the single most useful introduction to the art of movies ever assembled.

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Now it’s all online for your perusal. Well, not all of it, but enough to keep you busy for a long, long time. The initial line-up includes the library of Criterion and Janus titles, plus studio holdings from Warner Bros., Sony, and MGM, as well as independent distributors. 1,600 movies, says the publicity release.

The company initially tested out the streaming waters as early as 2008, with the MUBI on-demand website, then moved to Hulu for several years before becoming part of the late, lamented Filmstruck, a subscription service that combined Criterion titles with Turner Classics oldies and offerings from various independent distributors. That site closed in November 2018, to the rending of garments from movie devotees.

But Criterion execs promised the service would be back and, as of April 8, it’s available on the Web, through TV gateways like Roku, AppleTV, and Amazon Fire, and — if you must — on iOS and Android phone platforms. There are some kinks to work out — there’s no way yet to browse all the available titles, for one thing — and it costs: $10.99 a month or $99 a year.

Given the quality of the content, that’s a bargain. Simply put, the Criterion Channel stands as the best film school you’ll attend in your own home, curated intelligently and encouraging endless spelunking into the cinematic riches of Hollywood and other countries, past and present.


Five personal favorites to start with:

Black Narcissus (1947) Still-startling drama of British nuns going batty in a Himalayan convent, in jaw-dropping color, from directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Lola Montes (1955) Max Ophuls’s lavish, misunderstood epic of a scandalous, misunderstood woman, a famous courtesan seen by all and known by no one.

My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) The service smartly kicks off with a celebration of 11 film noir classics from Columbia Pictures. This one packs a complicated swapped-identity thriller into 64 high-pressure minutes.

Blood Simple (1984) Maybe you haven’t seen the Coen brothers’ film debut since it came out 35 years ago (!). Maybe you should see it again, for a very young Frances McDormand and for an assured, ironic filmmaking style that would soon be recognized as a trademark but in 1984 appeared to have come out of nowhere.


The Lure (2015) Just your basic Polish horror-musical fantasy about a pair of vampire mermaid sisters, with elements of “The Little Mermaid” given a dark Eastern European spin. Not for the faint of heart, but you knew that when you read the plot description.

I gave a talk at a school this week, as I do from time to time. Usually it’s an occasion to talk about my job as a movie critic (cool!) and why thinking about mindless pop culture is good for the soul (wait, what?). This time I tried to mix in a few other stray thoughts, particularly how this generation of kids will have to come to terms with that little device in their hands that gives them everything in the world at the expense of everything (and everybody) in front of them. Also, how writing is like going to the gym or playing the piano: the more you do it, the better and easier it gets.

But, honestly, the middle-schoolers were more interested in the classic movie clips I brought along on my laptop, starting with Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and ceiling in “Royal Wedding” (1951), a trick that involved no digital magic but rather an entire room built to be rotated 360 degrees. The mirror scene from “Duck Soup” (1933) also went over big, as did Cary Grant clopping a top hat over Katharine Hepburn’s derriere in “Bringing Up Baby” (1938).

It was when I showed a clip of the beach scene in “Jaws” (1975) — the one where the Kintner kid gets it — that I almost accidentally was able to demonstrate to them the building blocks of cinema and how the simplest of shots can elicit the most complex and discombobulating emotions.

A scene from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”
A scene from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”

I freeze-framed on the image of that old coot in a bathing cap getting in Chief Brody’s face to tell him — oh, who remembers what he’s telling him, since Brody’s attention and ours is on what might be out there cruising beneath the surf. As devised by Steven Spielberg (and shot by Bill Butler), the image is nothing special, really. Just three planes of action: Brody’s head in the foreground, old coot in the middle ground, and people playing in the waves in the far distance.

Brody is afraid the rumored shark is going to attack. We’re afraid the shark’s going to attack. The tension in this moment comes from the coot inserting himself between Brody and the sea, literally becoming the focus of the shot. The swimmers screaming — in pleasure? in pain? — are out of focus, but Brody and we want them to be in focus if we can just get that geezer out of there. The back of Brody’s scalp fills up the right side of the screen — we’re as in his head as it’s possible to be.

The art of suspense, as Alfred Hitchcock knew and as Spielberg and many others learned from him, is to give the audience the desire to change what’s about to happen onscreen while simultaneously denying them the ability to do so. That equation is right there in that absurdly basic shot, and it’s right there in the entire scene, as attested to by the students yelping their heebie-jeebies until the moment came, at long last, to scream.

Oh, come now. They’ve seen worse things on YouTube and in video games. Anyway, whatever fears I may have had about messing with their minds or talking over their heads dissolved when a group of sixth-grade boys came up to me after my talk. One wanted to express his disappointment that “Green Book” beat out “Roma” for the best picture Oscar. A second boy wanted to offer his interpretation of Jordan Peele’s “Us” as a critique of consumer culture and working-class resentment.

I think we’re in pretty good hands.

Bonus round: What classic clip would you show to kids to convince them that movies older than they are might be worthy of their consideration? Remember, it has to work out of context.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.