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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Is the Criterion Collection?

Written by Jon Williams

If you use our monthly DVD/Blu-ray Buyer’s Guide, you know that each month we feature a selection of movies offered by the Criterion Collection. In the upcoming December catalog, there will be a full page dedicated to them. But have you ever wondered exactly what the Criterion Collection is?

The simple answer, of course, is that it’s a video distribution company. The “About Us” page on Criterion’s website describes their collection as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films,” as well as “the greatest films from around the world…in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” What Criterion does is restore (if necessary) and remaster films for a crisp and clear presentation on DVD and high-definition Blu-ray, and then complement that film with such materials as audio commentary, deleted scenes, ‘making-of’ documentaries, and more. This wealth of esoterica allows the viewer to see the film in the context in which it was made, and has led to Criterion versions being referred to as “film school in a box.” In addition, Criterion was also the innovator of the “letterbox” format, using black bars at the top and bottom of the screen to present movies in a widescreen format, preserving their original aspect ratio (generally 2.35:1) when televisions were designed for a 4:3 display.

The Criterion Collection began in 1984, when VHS was still fighting with Betamax to become to dominant home video system of the day. Not content with the quality offered by either of these formats, though, Criterion in the beginning transferred films onto laserdisc. Although that format never became widespread, it remained Criterion’s sole format until 1998, when it made the switch to the burgeoning DVD format. Ten years later, in 2008, Criterion added Blu-ray to its repertoire, allowing for even better presentation than had previously been available. Currently, Criterion still distributes its films in both DVD and Blu-ray formats.

In the laserdisc days, Criterion would release mainstream movies, but their focus has narrowed mainly down to art, world, and classic films and documentaries. Although it no longer distributes them, the first two films issued by the Criterion Collection were Citizen Kane and the 1933 version of King Kong (and in both cases, the editions currently available are obviously inspired by the Criterion versions, boasting HD transfers and a full range of special features). It was with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (also no longer available from Criterion) that they introduced letterboxing.

Recent Criterion releases include such films as The Great Beauty (2014 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film), Babette’s Feast, Eraserhead, and the Beatles classic A Hard Day’s Night, while upcoming releases are scheduled for L’Avventura, Time Bandits (an update of their 1999 release), and Tootsie. This, however, is a mere sampling of a vast collection that includes more than 800 titles. For the full list of DVDs and Blu-rays available from Midwest Tape, SmartBrowse ‘Criterion Collection’ on our website.

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