The Criterion Channel review: The movie-streaming service for discerning cord-cutters

The Criterion Channel is the best movie-streaming service you’ve never heard of. A subscription costs about the same as Netflix or Hulu: $10.99 per month, or $99.99 if paid annually (about $8.33 per month). Instead of offering new movies that have finished their theater runs, original flicks produced in house, or binge-worthy TV series, the Criterion Channel’s library consists of about 2,000 carefully selected films, many of them presented as curated collections accompanied by the extra materials normally found only on DVD or Blu-ray disc releases.  

Not every film on offer is a masterpiece, but the vast majority are least good. The website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? maintains what I consider to be the most reliable list of the 100 best films ever made, and you can watch at least half of those movies on The Criterion Channel.

That said, this service is very definitely geared toward the adventurous viewer. Many of the titles are in languages other than English (so, you might need to read subtitles), and the newer titles on rotation when I wrote this review are, to put it politely, quite obscure. A few of the less obscure ones are Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino, from Portugal; Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, from Iran; Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, from France; and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, from China.

Geared for the enthusiast

The Criterion Channel splash screen Criterion

The Criterion Channel is unabashedly focused on hardcore film buffs.

The cineaste, on the other hand, will find the Criterion Channel essential. You’ll find nearly complete—and in some cases, complete—collections of films by masters like Chantal Akerman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrea Arnold, Olivier Assayas, Ingmar Bergman, Les Blank, Robert Bresson, Luis Bunuel, Jane Campion, Charles Chaplin, Rene Clair, Jacques Demy, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Federico Fellini, Hollis Frampton, Jean-Luc Godard, Aki Kaurismaki, Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Masaki Kobayashi, Akira Kurosawa, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, Yasujro Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, Eric Rohmer, Roberto Rossellini, Seijun Suzuki, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jacques Tati, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jean Vigo, Wim Wenders, Lina Wertmuller, Wong Kar-wai, William Wyler, and many others.

Hidden treasures await your discovery, too. Are you a Christopher Nolan fan? You won’t find The Dark Knight or Interstellar here, but you can watch Nolan’s fascinating micro-budget debut feature Following, and his early short film Doodlebug. Did you like Josh & Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler? That’s not here, either, but there is a whole selection of the brothers’ early short films and their 2009 feature Daddy Longlegs.

Following on The Criterion Channel Criterion

Jeremy Theobald plays a young man who follows people and finds more than his share of trouble in Christopher Nolan’s feature debut Following.

Did you swoon over Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water? His Mexican horror film Cronos is here. The channel doesn’t offer any Quentin Tarantino films, but it does offer Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973), a major inspiration for Kill Bill. Odd gems like Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge (1991), Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) are worth finding.

There’s fun stuff, too

Not every film is ponderous arthouse seriousness—all berets and cigarette smoking and existential crisis. The site offers quite a few fun things as well, from a handful of Hitchcock titles to monster movies, samurai movies, horror movies (both black-and-white classic and bloody color), films noir, midnight cult films (lots of David Lynch and John Waters), comedies, rock music movies, sci-fi movies, fantasy movies, kung-fu movies, English crime stories, and “B” movies from the 1950s. A recent collection showcases the ground-breaking, low-budget drive-in films by the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis, director of Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964).

Lady Snowblood on The Criterion Channel Criterion

A young woman (Meiko Kaji) is raised to become a vengeful killer in Lady Snowblood.

While very little on the service is technically new, the creative minds at the Criterion Channel work hard at making old stuff seem new and exciting again. A curated batch of films arrives each month, such as February’s Sidney Poitier collection, which includes no less than 17 films, plus a video introduction to the series. Earlier collections included a Burt Lancaster series, “Film Plays Itself” (i.e. films about the movie business), a Bette Davis series, and films about dogs.