Sure, It Won an Oscar. But Is It Criterion?

In October 2022, amid a flurry of media appearances promoting their film “Tàr,” the director Todd Field and the star Cate Blanchett made time to visit a cramped closet in Manhattan. This closet, which has become a sacred space for movie buffs, was once a disused bathroom at the headquarters of the Criterion Collection, a 40-year-old company dedicated to “gathering the greatest films from around the world” and making high-quality editions available to the public on DVD and Blu-ray and, more recently, through its streaming service, the Criterion Channel. Today Criterion uses the closet as its stockroom, housing films by some 600 directors from more than 50 countries — a catalog so synonymous with cinematic achievement that it has come to function as a kind of film Hall of Fame. Over four decades, through a combination of luck, obsession and good taste, this 55-person company has become the arbiter of what makes a great movie, more so than any Hollywood studio or awards ceremony.

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For more than a decade, the “Criterion closet” has also served as the backdrop for a popular online video series in which actors and filmmakers — Nathan Lane, Aubrey Plaza and Ethan Hawke among them — pick out their favorite Criterion titles to take home. Like other celebrity guests in the “closet picks” series, Field and Blanchett plucked their selections from the neatly ordered shelves and used them as conduits for spontaneous bursts of evangelism. Field praised Raymond Bernard’s “Wooden Crosses” as “one of the greatest war movies ever made,” while Blanchett singled out Larisa Shepitko’s “The Ascent” as something that “has to be owned by every single human in the world.” Neither bothered to mention “Tàr,” the film they were otherwise working so hard to promote; inside the closet, even the biggest stars are reduced to a state of childlike fandom. “There’s no cynicism in the closet,” Field told me. “It’s all love. It’s all about why people do what they do and how powerful movies are for us.”

Each year, Criterion selects 50 or 60 new entrants to add to its catalog, which now includes 1,650 films. Some Hollywood directors campaign relentlessly for their films — or their favorite films from the past — to make the list. For legions of film fans, Criterion is akin to the Louvre, but with “an aura of hip,” the writer and director Josh Safdie told me in an email. When Safdie’s film “Uncut Gems,” which he directed with his brother, Benny, entered the Criterion Collection with the spine No. 1101, he said they couldn’t help feeling as if they had “snuck in” to the museum that they had admired for so long. “Being a part of the collection is something that we’re both incredibly proud of,” Safdie told me. “It may sound corny but it was more meaningful than awards.”

Criterion’s commitment to film and filmmakers has helped the company, which began in the 1980s by releasing films on VHS and LaserDisc — a precursor to DVDs with the comparatively enormous diameter of 12 inches — to stay relevant and profitable through a series of tech revolutions that have upended the industry. While studios and streaming services chase audiences by producing endless sequels and spinoffs, trying to wring fresh content from old ideas, Criterion has built a brand that audiences trust to lead them — even to the most obscure corners of the film universe. Criterion’s success in marketing beautiful, strange, complex movies is the road not taken by most of Hollywood: a steadfast belief in the value of human creativity and curation over the output of any algorithm.

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