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.

THE LISTS

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.

Blu-Ray


DVD Only

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.


LASERDISCS

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:

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.