Classic Flicks @ Home: The Criterion Collection of DVDs

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • Why springing for a DVD player may be worth your dough.
  • Classic DVD titles not to miss.
  • Online resources for the cinematically initiated.
Classic Flicks @ Home: The Criterion Collection of DVDs

If you’re neither rich nor a technophile, you might not yet own a DVD player. For the most part, you’re not missing much. Video stores still carry many more VHS cassettes than discs, most homes don’t have televisions or stereo systems that can make use of advanced digital soundtracks, and home computers with hardware capable of reading discs haven’t been economical for all that long.

So why bother?

One word: Criterion. The Criterion Collection of DVD titles is, by far, the finest introduction to cinema available to a private citizen. Like reading the "great books," listening to certain orchestral music, looking at "important" paintings and yes, seeing the occasional ballet, every SharpMan should acquaint himself with masterpieces of film.

Checking Out the Classics

Movies are a business, but they can also be art. Viewing the very best features ever made will enrich all subsequent filmgoing experiences, even if your taste runs more towards Adam Sandler than Orson Welles. More than box office receipts, more than celebrity gossip fodder, the best moving pictures are two-hour opportunities to enjoy anything from bladder-relief-inducing laughter to chopping-onion-style tears. Criterion seldom misses the mark in choosing what to release or how to enhance the film through the use of DVD technology.

Having merged with Janus Films, a distribution company that for decades has brought some of the most celebrated foreign cinema to the United States, the Criterion Collection of DVDs includes films spanning approximately eight decades and several continents. If you watch Roger Ebert in his balcony and wonder about references he makes to old movies, it’s because filmmakers are invariably movie buffs, and today’s filmmakers are constantly paying visual "homage" to older directors they consider "the masters."

For example, if you enjoyed Hannibal (the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, a Criterion DVD release), check out M on DVD: this German classic is the serial killer thriller to which all others aspire. Or, if you sit glued in front of the television when The Magnificent Seven pops up, you’ll want The Seven Samurai on disc — the incredible 1954 Japanese epic on which The Magnificent Seven was based. And sure, every so often one wants to watch a movie without reading subtitles, laugh a whole lot or just rock out. This Is Spinal Tap. Need I say more?

Getting the Inside Story

Besides the title selection, Criterion makes the best use I’ve found for the whopping 4.7 — 17 GB of memory available on a single DVD. Many companies that release pictures in this format for home audiences feature commentary from relevant directors, writers or actors. In light of the staggering number of magazines, television programs and Web sites dedicated to "going backstage" with Hollywood insiders, if the people churning out today’s movies have anything interesting to say (they usually don’t), we hear it when a film is in theatrical release. By the time it’s on DVD, any insight they have to offer into making the movie is usually old news.

Instead, Criterion adds value by including the voices of people involved in production, film historians and lots of intriguing goodies, including original storyboard drawings, theatrical trailers, multimedia history presentations and demonstrations of the restoration and transfer of old film prints to new digital glory. You won’t get that in In Style.

Bringing This Baby Home

Now that you can buy a home DVD player for under $200 or add one to a PC or Mac for not much more, consider investing. What follows is a highly personal list of Criterion DVDs representing films from each decade between the 1920s and 1990s. I strongly recommend each, as rentals or purchases, to get you started on the road to seeing movies that meet every possible "criterion" for greatness in filmmaking:

The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Every frame looks like it must have taken days to compose. Take advantage of the optional musical accompaniment and marvel at this stunning portrayal of a historical figure as timeless inspiration.

Grand Illusion, 1938, directed by Jean Renoir

A prison break picture with a heart, this film is gripping from the first scene to the last.

The Third Man, 1949, directed by Carol Reed

Fifty years before Harrison Ford was caught in a drainage pipe as The Fugitive, The Third Man's Vienna sewer scene had audiences on the edge of their seats. This classic still beats its imitators, hands (and white knuckles) down.

Nights of Cabiria, 1957, directed by Federico Fellini

One of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen, hands down. The actress who plays Cabiria is captivating — seeing this performance, it becomes obvious why Fellini married her.

Lord of the Flies, 1963, directed by Peter Brook

William Golding’s novel is one that almost everyone remembers from middle or high school, and this filmed version does it justice. Kids can be so cruel…

Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979, directed by Terry Jones

It’s too bad so many people see The Meaning of Life or The Holy Grail and nothing else by Monty Python. Triumphs like Life of Brian show how much the boys could do.

The Killer, 1989, directed by John Woo

You’ll find Woo’s California pictures comparatively tame after viewing this earlier efforts from Hong Kong. Bullets and blood fly here in quantities and with a style you’ve never imagined.

Rushmore, 1998, directed by Wes Anderson

Once you've seen examples of the many styles Rushmore winks at (moody French masterpieces from mid-century, giddy British romps of the 60s, even American war epics from the 1980s), you'll love this movie even more.

Don’t Touch That Dial: Useful Links for Classic Film Addicts

  • Are you hooked? Check out Criterion’s Web site at http://www.criterion.com/ for a complete listing of their releases. The site allows you to sort their DVD catalogue alphabetically, by year of the original motion picture’s release, or by director.
  • Internet Movie Database
    If you find a director or actor you want to see more of, point your Web browser to the Internet Movie Database and look him/her up. The site database will make film recommendations based on your searches.
  • Film Forum
    For those who are seriously into independent, foreign and repertory cinema, this list of online film resources is a must-bookmark. Includes URLs for enthusiasts of everyone from Hitchcock to Laurel and Hardy.
This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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