A few weeks ago Disney+ was released. Viewers young and old alike flocked to the streaming service, bingeing everything from “Mulan” to “Avengers: Endgame.” I was one of them. My sister texted the family group chat that morning, saying that she’d purchased it and we were all welcome to mooch. So I powered up my laptop and logged in.
Scrolling past the smiling princesses, steeled Jedi and armored heroes, I couldn’t help but feel a vague sense of guilt. This continued as I clicked on “The Mandalorian,” the new Star Wars TV show, and started to watch. As the bounty hunter began an epic stellar quest, my heart wasn’t fully in it. It almost felt like I was cheating on someone. In a sense, I was.
Between me, my family and my friends, there have to be at least a dozen streaming services I can use. I didn’t feel bad about neglecting HBO Go, Hulu or Netflix, though. It was the only streaming service that I actually pay for that I felt bad about ignoring — the Criterion Channel.
The Criterion Collection, a long running compilation of what itswebsitecalls “important classic and contemporary films,” launched this streaming service last summer. It collects movies from across the world and throughout history, and of every genre imaginable. They all share one thing: They exemplify cinema in the best sense of the word.
The Criterion Collection restores classic movies to high definition, which blew me away when I saw 1954’s “Godzilla,” the first film I choose to watch on the service. The restoration was immaculate, and the images and soundtrack were pristine. It filled me with wonder, how those seeing it must have felt when it was first released.
Next, I chose “Don’t Look Back,” a restored version of D.A. Pennebaker’s famous 1964 Bob Dylan documentary, which contains one of the first music videos of all time. Next was “Antichrist,” a deeply unsettling experimental film by Lars Von Trier about a husband and wife turning on one another in the middle of the woods.
Now, I admit it may be difficult to consider this channel as an entertainment choice. It seems more like education, after all. Outside of a Russian film class, who would choose Tarkovsky’s bleak, impenetrable three-hour “Stalker” over the surefire thrills of “The Force Awakens?” Even I wouldn’t, 80 percent of the time. That isn’t to say the channel is unnecessary, though. Quite the opposite.
The Criterion Collection offers a vital alternative to the binge-worthy entertainment offered everywhere else. It invites one to think about what they watch, engaging with cinema as an art form. While most of the movies aren’t the easiest to watch, understand or enjoy, there is much worth seeing.
A notable example is “Fitzcarraldo,” the three hour magnum opus of Werner Herzog, a famous German auteur. It’s about an early-20th-century man who tries to pull a steamboat up an Amazonian mountainside to sail to the rubber fields beyond. While this sounds like a difficult, maybe insurmountable quest, the film’s production is almost worse.
The collection also offers a documentary companion called “Burden of Dreams” about the many perils of making “Fitzcarraldo,” such as when a crew member was bitten by a poisonous snake and had to chop his leg off with a chainsaw.
At one point, director Werner Herzog notes in his famous German drawl, “The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery… they just screech in pain.” Needless to say, you won’t find “Fitzcarraldo” on Disney+.
There’s ample room for both, though. Movies run a wide spectrum and in 2019 we have it all at the tip of our fingers, from the most entertaining to the most thought provoking. So I stopped feeling bad for watching “The Aristocats,” knowing I’d watch a Criterion movie soon after.
Criterion has it all, from the newest picks (such as “Cold War” and “Roma”) to underrated classics like David Lynch’s “Fire Walk With Me.” There are also exclusive series like “Adventures in Movie-Going,” with famous directors and documentaries about art house theatres across the country.
I can’t promise one will like every film, but each one is memorable in their own unique ways. Every movie offered by the Criterion Channel will challenge, touch or inspire viewers. Also, watching these classics pays off in the most unexpected ways.
In episode one of “The Mandelorian,” the bounty hunter goes to a secret meeting with a prospective client. This is revealed to be a grizzled looking Werner Herzog, in complete imperial regalia and surrounded by stormtroopers.
Like I said, there’s space for both.