I was asked on the twitter today about what Criterion Blu-Ray a friend should buy. This got me thinking as to what are my favourite discs in the collection, which disc on DVD-only are must haves (or deserving of upgrade), and which discs that they formally had licensed in their Laserdisc days deserve to be reinstated to the label.
My love of all things Criterion goes back to the mid-90s, when I began to seriously collect Laserdiscs. They pioneered things like “Original Aspect Ratio”, labeling clearly the transfer and source information on the film. With their KING KONG, they invented the Audio Commentary. Listening to it now it sounds like something out of time, Ronald Haver having to explain to his audience the very notion of talking over a film using an alternate audio channel. Plus, they numbered their releases, fostering that obsessions that all collectors share. Owning a Criterion Laser was the equivalent to owning a Hard Cover classic (or even an extra-special “Everyman” edition). CITIZEN KANE, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SEVEN SAMURAI – these were the greatest films of all time, and only one company was committed to ensuring that they were presented with the proper reverence.
Sure, they eventually took on titles such as ARMAGEDDON (ported eventually over to DVD), and while on their face pretty silly titles, the special features were of top quality, and hopefully sales of these more mainstream films allowed for the likes of less mainstream fair. When DVD arived on the scene, and the nadir of LD releases was clear, early DVDs were little more than interlaced ports of the same masters used on LD. Choosing between a feature-laden 12″ shiny disc and a bare-bones DVD was a no brainer. Futhermore, even then we knew that for every TWISTER or LEON it would take years for certain classic films to show up on the smaller format. It was easy to pickup those discs that slipped through the cracks, some of which have yet to see the light of day on any smaller-disc format.
Criterion, slow to get in the game having waited out the “format war” between Blu and HD-DVD, has for the last several years been at the forefront of creating releases commensurate with their DVD releases, ensuring that almost every new release they make has a High Definition version. For collectors, they even kept the same collection number, so that you can literally replace your SD version in the same shelving order with the upgraded version (the numbering is different than the LD releases, of course, as there is far less overlap with studios taking back rights to many of their titles for DVD/BD release). Since Criterion is clearly run by the same obsessive types that actually buy the majority of their releases, this is a lovely touch. For those of us with a love of physical media, there’s something wonderfully tactile about the discs themselves, the carboard-and-plastic sleeves, all lined up (in collection order, of course), each release tied to the other members of the collection.
Similarly, the transition from DVD to Blu-Ray shows that certain titles will remain pretty far down the list for proper high-definition treatment, and may never again see physical disc releases as the inevitable push for VOD continues over the next decade. Yet we can look forward very month to the newsletter that Criterion sends out, another set of titles that are either upgrades or additions to the collection. They even tease future releases with a cryptic doodle (this month has a “wacky drunk dog”, and the interpretation is still ongoing).
For over 20 years in my collecting of movies, members of the Criterion have been at the forefront of what I hold dear in this hobby. I have been introduced to dozens of films that I otherwise would never have given a chance, only because they were released as part of the whole. Some of the finest discs from other studios released re-purpose extras or commentaries originally recorded for Criterion releases (Kevin Smith’s “Fuck DVD!” comment on the CHASING AMY Laserdisc still amuses more than many of his contemporary films). I had a friend that did an MFA in film at NYU, and professor Spike Lee’s “taught” his views on DO THE RIGHT THING by simply playing the commentary track re recorded for the Laserdisc release while he sat at the back row and watched everyone watch his film.
As we move inexorably towards a time where people simply won’t stand for the need for physical media, when other studios tire of releases on shiny disc, there will still be a space for the likes of Criterion. They are the heart of any serious cineaste’s collection. Often taken for granted in a slew of other mainstream releases, Criterion continues after all these years to bring some of the finest, sometimes the most overlooked, but often the most engaging and thrilling cinema in history to our homes. Thank you, Criterion, for making my love of cinema that much richer.
This all started with a “what to buy” question, so take this is a kind of catch-all of titles that I think everyone should have as part of their collection, no matter the scope (my own slice of insanity is located here, an ever growing pile of madness that belies my rationality and adult responsibility.) The following are a few titles on Blu-Ray that I think embody the excellence of the Criterion Collection – they may not all be my favourite films (some are), but they’re certainly wonderful releases.
- SEVEN SAMURAI #02This one is kind of a no brainer – I’ve owned it on Criterion LD, two individual DVD releases, and now Blu. This is the type of title that defines the collection – stunning visuals, incredible additional materials, and fine packaging. If you’re only going to own one, you can’t go wrong with this release
- BREATHLESS #408
Another title that I’ve owned on both LD and DVD (non-Criterion!) before, the stunning presentation of the restored print, along with a slew of interviews, short films, video essays and an 80 doc make this equally a no brainer. A title that’s well deserved to be back in the fold
- WAGES OF FEAR #36
Yet another classic in Black-and-White, and yet another rebuy. One of the greatest films ever made, includes a fine documentary and excellent booklet
- FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS #175
A DVD-to-BD title I was most looking forward to (I own a bare bones studio release on HD-DVD), this Gilliam classic has some of the finest additional material produced – Johnny Depp reading letters from Hunter S Thompson is reason enough to pick this up, along with the stunning transfer and fine audio presentation
- RUSHMORE #65
I haven’t even added this to my own collection yet, but this DVD-to-BD upgrade is also a no brianer. I fell in love with this film at a half-empty TIFF press screening, one of those sublime moments you sometimes get when a film just reaches into your heart and gives it a squeeze. The menus are so deliciously crafted that it’s like Max Fischer himself put the disc together as an extra-curricular project.
- THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON #476
Fincher’s films are so rich and detailed that they lend themselves to Criterion treatment immediately. Even his studio releases (ZODIAC, for one) model themselves on the extraordinary classic releases of his films. For now, we have but one of of his films on Blu from Criterion, but this under-appreciated film is well worth the release, with compelling behind the scenes access and fine documentary work.
- GOMORRAH #493
I skipped this film at TIFF, and only gave it another shot when I saw it was part of the collection. A wild ride through the slums of suburban Naples, the additional material does much to situate the viewer in the real-life environment where the film takes place
- NIGHT OF THE HUNTER #541
Ok, another classic, another B&W, and another rebuy from LD. The restoration of the print is simply stunning, and it includes on the second disc the absolutely remarkable Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter”, a two hour re-cutting of the film from dailies where you see the director guide his actors to their performances. Incredible stuff.
These are the titles that are part of the Criterion Collection, that have yet to be ported to Blu. There are a number of titles that are well worth purchasing on DVD regardless of whether they get ported to High Definition, and others that I’m desperate to be able to upgrade.
- THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZIZOU #300 / ROYAL TENNENBAUMS #157
We’re likely to see these upgrades sometime soon, but it can’t come fast enough for me. These mini-masterpieces would join Wes’ already excellent Blu-Ray releases of RUSHMORE, BOTTLE ROCKET and DARJEELING LIMITED
- GEORGE WASHINGTON #152
When I saw this film at TIFF, I was shocked it was directed by a young kid. It’s one of the more beautiful films I’ve ever seen, a character drama shot in stunning widescreen and the debut of the extraordinarily talented David Gordon Green (the bastard has his debut movie join the collection! What the hell!). I’d love to see this title upgraded to high definition, the visuals alone warrant such a move.
- F FOR FAKE #288
This is one of those titles you shouldn’t wait for – it’s arguably Welles’ finest film (take that, KANE!), a remarkable take on the lies and trickeries of cinema itself. The doc on Welles’ unfinished projects is also a must-see
Here’s a good example of a title one part of Criterion’s arsenal, but (mired in rights issues) slipped back to studio control, where we’ve received paltry releases. Taking the materials from the Laserdisc set, this film demands a proper release on Blu.
Kubrick on Criterion? Well, duh. Both the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray mucked up the HD release of this title, and they dropped some stunning additional materials. If you don’t fall in love with Ustenov by the end of the second disc you have no heart (and clearly no childhood connection to Doctor Snuggles. If there’s a higher power, get a proper remastering and give this release back to Criterion so they can do it right.
- RAN #316 / RASHOMON #138 / IKIRU #221
Sure, the Blu-Ray for RAN is OK, but how could you not want the Criterion collection to house all of your Kurosawas? As for the other two, the odds are higher that we’ll eventually get them on Blu – still, they can’t come fast enough.
- REBECCA #135 / SPELLBOUND #136 / NOTORIOUS #137
We need more Hitch on Blu, and getting these masterpieces out would go a long way. Sure, the Universal titles are equally important, but these fine releases from Criterion would be fabulous in higher definition
As I mentioned above, there are a number of titles that Criterion used to have the rights to. As DVD rose and studios realised they didn’t need to license out these titles for the Criterion treatment they began to release them in-house. Some studios did a wonderful job replicating the Criterion touch (even back in the LD days there were a number of studio releases, from STAR WARS to ONE FLEW OVER A CUCKOOS NEST to classic Disney that did the massive collections right). These are a selection of titles I’d love to see brought back into the fold:
- BRAZIL #373 (DVD #51)
Ok, this one’s out on DVD, but I never upgraded from my $300 LD set to the (non-anamorphic) DVD, so I’m putting it here, dammit. This film NEEDS proper treatment on Blu-Ray, and with the host of additional materials on the Criterion release (ideally with new interviews with the cast/crew in a post-Cheney age) this is the top of any list for upgrade
- EVITA #337
Yeah, the Madonna one. Criterion brought this out on LD – I don’t even have a copy, but its extras looked to be excellent. The DVD was barebones and non-anamorphic, and this beautifully shot and stunningly recorded musical deserves more.
- A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN MOVIES #326
This film school in a can is a travelogue through time. DVD is of poor quality, cleaning up the clips with better source materials, adding on additional interviews and doing this release up right (before our dear Marty leaves us) would be supremely excellent
- THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS #009
I just had to (well, “had” to) buy KANE from the US Amazon in order to get the only DVD release of MA available, and it’s bare bones. With talk of uncovering deleted elements, and incorporating the materials on the LD, this seems prime time for a top-notch BD release of Welles’ second film
- ANNIE HALL #093
Sure, Woody’s not going to participate, that’s not his thing. But this film deserves much more than it has received, and a true special edition, possibly with the involvement of Diane Keaton, would do much to restore this films rightful place in a collection
- THE KILLER #284 (DVD #008)
Out of print on DVD forever now, this LD release of the John Woo/Chow-Yun Fat classic could easily support a revisiting, using the commentary from the classic release along with an overview of this period of Hong Kong cinema
- CRASH #349
This Cronenberg classic, both lauded and pilloried at its Cannes premiere, has sadly been forgotten. The extras on the LD are excellent, including a fine commentary that’s particularly relevant for films as challenging as this one.
This is an ongoing list, and there are a number of titles on both LD and DVD (say, PULP FICTION, DO THE RIGHT THING) that have seen the Criterion supplements added to fine BD releases.
Except for major releases, studios are cutting back dramatically on this supplementary features. We continue to look to the likes of Criterion to pave the way for home theatre releases that warrant the investment into our own collections.
To those at Criterion, may this overly long love letter to you and your releases serve as a reminder that the work you do helps shape the lives and imaginations of many, many people. Thank you for all of your hard work, and can you please let me know when we’re going to see LIFE AQUATIC on Blu already? I needs me some high def ZIZOU.