It wasn’t so long ago that Netflix’s focus was on developing a curated library of titles rather than its own original, largely episodic content—and the nostalgics among us still pine for those days. With Filmstruck now deceased, the recently-launched Criterion Channel is close to being the ideal streaming platform for cinephiles.
Those familiar with the Criterion imprint and its reputation for thoughtful treatment of important and obscure films have an inkling of what to expect. The launch library includes a sizable chunk, but not all, of movies distributed by Criterion. You also get access to movies for which Criterion owns the streaming rights but hasn’t gotten around to producing a physical edition yet. Where’s The Rock, or Naked Lunch, or My Man Godfrey? Coming in the future, I’d imagine, but not yet available to stream.
Still, at around 1,000 titles, the starting library is considerable and augmented with niceties like director commentary videos and short film/feature film pairings.
That sort of bespoke treatment—movie pairings, films collected by theme or director, or studio, spotlight treatments on various cinematic figures—all convey the reverence Criterion puts into its work. But curiously, what truly sets the platform apart from others is what isn’t there.
Titles are organized into the familiar categorized carousels used by competitors, with subheadings like “women filmmakers” or “essential arthouse.” But nowhere among the Criterion Channel’s interface is there any form of popular or trending categories to indicate What Everyone Else Is Watching, nor is there an algorithmically populated set of personalized suggestions based on prior selections. Watch anything. It won’t follow you to your grave the way a YouTube video with the bare mention of Jordan Peterson will.
By failing to appreciably spy on its users, the Criterion Channel returns to viewers the curiosity that’s missing from its competitors.
Most of my experiences with the Criterion Channel in the past week have felt more like gambling on my own entertainment, rather than the mad Netflix scramble to stay caught up on What Everyone Else Is Watching. Not to knock the golden age of streaming TV (which has given us some true gems!) but setting aside a few hours and just seeing what happens is a pleasant change of pace. An early Kubrick feature? Why not. One of the special effects guys behind Star Wars made a creature feature where college students spear a giant claymation yeti in the heart? Absolutely I’ll watch that. Maybe the cover or the name is cool, and that’s all the reason necessary to while away some time.
As a nice bonus, I signed in to my Criterion account on three devices and streamed three separate titles simultaneously without issue. Not bad for $100 annually or $11 per month.
What’s apparent, and not at all surprising, is that Criterion is a movie distributor first and a technology company second. And it’s a distant second. Tokyo Drifter cut off five minutes early for no real reason. Stalker and Paths of Glory both obstructed their final minutes with an error code overlay. (The films unabated in the background, albeit with a huge COULD NOT PLAY VIDEO window over the center of the frame.) At work, it spat back the message “Sorry, this video cannot be played while your device is connected to this external monitor.” The option to download titles for offline viewing exists, I just wasn’t able to get any downloads to complete. Pre-buffering is poor and results in extremely low resolution for many titles initially, which would be forgivable if it didn’t make text unreadable—a major flaw for a library of largely international films.
Playback issues aside the UI is also hinky and inconsistent between devices. Helpfully the desktop instance added an “All Films” tab where previously the only option was to search and cross your fingers. (It’s still not on the mobile or Roku versions.) There’s no option to add movies to your queue from the All Films results or its resulting landing pages—you quite literally need to search for the title again. The platform still needs more app support. There’s no option to delete a partially watched video from your “continue watching” carousel, which is fine because the “continue watching” list doesn’t even appear across all versions. But let’s keep in mind that FilmStruck also had a rocky start.
In short, the Criterion Channel comes out swinging, balanced on two left feet. Some improvements have already been made to the tech side of things since the service first launched April 8, but there’s a long way to go before these quirks get out of the way of Criterion’s remarkable library of movies.