Skip to main content

Criterion Channel review: A streaming movie service for the true cinephile

Put your pretentious glasses on. Once you subscribe to Criterion Channel, you're a proper movie snob

The Criterion Channel app on iPad

Criterion is known for remastering and repackaging older and classic movies for new generations of fans. When you see a DVD or Blu-Ray release that is part of the "Criterion Collection," you know it's going to be good. There are plenty of extras, the packaging is always unique, and the print will have been given a particular bit of spit and polish to brighten up old film, breathing new life into the picture.

And that is why I was so excited to hear that Criterion was redoing its now-defunct "Filmstruck" streaming service but even better, and with an even more dedicated design for true film fans. Welcome, Criterion Channel . And not only can you watch classic movies by the best filmmakers of all time around the world, but you also can dive deeper into a film, director, actor, and even genre, with documentaries, short films, interviews, and film theory clips about why a scene is so important.

The Good

  • Large movie selection
  • New featured movies every day
  • Uniquely curated playlists
  • Incredible extra content
  • Excellent picture quality on older movies
  • Designed for cinephiles

The Bad

  • Mobile app is poorly designed
  • Inconsistent viewer activity across devices

More than movies

Criterion Channel: The features

Criterion Channel extra features

When it comes to movie style, Criterion Channel is outfitted with what you'd expect: iconic, classic, foreign, contemporary masterpieces. Films directed by David Lynch, Fritz Lang, Tarkovsky, Cocteau. Transcendent pictures like The 400 Blows , Grey Gardens , Rashomon , and . It's like an ancient library filled with dusty but amazing films that have stood the test of time for their place in our film history. But it's not just movies.

There also are many dozens of short films, documentaries, and exclusive content. You can watch a short film that is packaged together with a full-length feature that relates, or sift through hours of shorts all tied together by a theme. Watch Adventures in Moviegoing to learn about Bill Hader's favorite films, and then watch those films.

The Observations on Film Art exclusives discuss things like flashbacks and dissolves in certain films, followed by a viewing of the films mentioned.

Here is an example of how content is organized and curated for us, the viewer:

  1. The movie - Cameraperson
  2. An intro to the movie with an interview with the subjects of the film
  3. A half-hour documentary about editing the movie
  4. A roundtable discussion about the film
  5. A live festival Q&A with the filmmaker
  6. Another film by the same director

You're being offered so much more than just a movie to watch. You're being given the opportunity to explore the details of this movie even deeper.

Every film has a different set of extras tied to it. Some of them don't have any extras at all, but are packaged along with a larger theme for you to digest.

An example of a collection might include a documentary by a famous filmmaker, In Search of Ozu , for example. Along with this documentary, you can watch five of Yasujiro Ozu's last films.

Another collection, Daredevils & Castaways, includes six movies dating from 1932 to 2008 and is all about family-friendly adventure movies.

Criterion Channel boasts having more than 1,000 movies in its library, which isn't all that much compared to other streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, but it's how these movies are presented to you that make it so unique.

The Criterion Channel is available on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Android phones, Android tablets, Android TV, Fire TV, Roku, and online with supported web browsers.

Deep dive delicacies

Criterion Channel: What I like

Criterion Channel home page

I don't consider myself a pretentious film fanatic. I love the XXX franchise probably more than I should. You won't see me turn my nose up at a poorly written sci-fi movie. My significant other, however, is a film theory graduate, so I've spent my fair share of hours watching Russian montage films and have enjoyed every minute of them. The Criterion Channel scratches that itch of digging deeper into the meaning of or story behind a film go give you a bigger picture of ... the picture.

I love that I can jump into a collection and see, not just a list of films in a genre or by the same director, but also related short films, interviews, and documentaries.

One of my favorite features, which is formerly one of FilmStruck's features, is Observations on Film Art, which digs into a specific aspect of a film, like how widescreen aspect ratio is used in The Piano Player , which is then followed by a viewing of the film. It's like you're sitting in a film studies classroom, learning about why a particular movie is so important to entertainment history.

I also love the Adventures in Moviegoing content (also formerly of FilmStruck). Here' you can connect with celebrity actors and movie makers like Bill Hader, Guillermo del Toro, and Roger Corman. Watch a 20-minute interview with someone about their experiences with stand-out moviegoing memories, and then watch those movies they referred to in their interview.

The important thing to realize, and the thing I absolutely love about the Criterion Channel, is not the movies, but all of the rest of the interesting content relating to those movies and how it is all organized and packaged together for you to watch.

App crap

Criterion Channel: What I don't like

Criterion Channel playback page

I tested my subscription to the Criterion Channel across my iPhone XS, iPad Pro, iPad mini, Apple TV and Mac. The biggest negative that stands out to me is that the mobile app is a sort of web version-lite. The user interface is poorly designed for mobile and is cumbersome and unwieldy, at best. On Apple TV, the interface was significantly better. It's clear that the developers over at Criterion didn't think much of people watching movies on their phones or tablets. Online, your personal watch list library is called "My list," while in the app, the same section is called "Library." On the web, you can browse movies by "All Films," but this is not a feature in the app anywhere. Even when you tap in to watch a movie on mobile, it plays within a player window and you have to tap an icon to switch to full-screen mode. Though, once in full-screen mode, movies look fantastic.

I also had a significant problem with my account content syncing across all my devices. Sometimes, the web and my iPad app would sync up, but Apple TV and the iPhone app would not. This may be due to a sudden influx of new subscribers, though.

On mobile, this is an unfortunate user experience that I hope Criterion will work to rectify. Though it's a better experience to watch movies on a nice, big television screen, a lot of people watch movies on their phones and tablets and should not be neglected.

Bottom line

Criterion Channel

The Criterion Channel is not going to be for everyone. It fills a niche, one that's sweet breath of fresh air for cinephiles looking for something a little deeper than what other streaming services offer. While many of the movies can be streamed somewhere else, it's how this content is presented to us that makes it stand out in a crowded market. You're not just watching Laurence Olivier in Richard III , but you're also getting its original movie trailer (and how it was made) and a short documentary about the film's restoration. It's a collection of films for movie fans curated by movie fans that understand what we want.