I watched 500 Criterion films in one year

The ultimate binge

On August 1st of 2014, I got a 3-movie Criterion Collection set for my birthday. That’s the inciting incident in the story that would transform my taste in movies. Those three films turned into daily Criterion consumption on Hulu, which turned into a Criterion Blu-ray buying binge, which turned into this article: my experience binge-watching 500 Criterion films in 12 months.

criterion-verticalThe Criterion Collection is a high-end distributor of art-house and otherwise little known films. The collection usually features a lot of behind-the-scenes extras and high-quality video and audio digitized from the best 35mm and 70mm film prints. In other words, it’s pretty much the best quality cinema you can get, both technically and artistically.

But you pay a price: a regular Blu-ray costs around $15, while a Criterion Blu-ray usually costs twice that. And since the Criterion Collection are actually collector’s items, you rarely, if ever, see big discounts on Criterion at regular retailers.

In other words, my Criterion binge watch was very expensive. I spent almost $1,000 on Blu-rays and DVDs, and that’s including some amazing deals I found on eBay and Craigslist (including a 22-movie Blu-ray collection for $200 — a complete steal).

Luckily, Hulu streams Criterion films (the selection is somewhat limited), and I was fortunate that my local library (those big buildings with lots of books) had a solid Criterion collection as well. This turned out to be a big money-saver.

The opening act: The Criterion Binge

I popped François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows into my Blu-ray player and started watching. I fist saw the film some 10 years ago ago and I all I remembered was the famous freeze-frame ending. When I saw it again, the film shined in its digital restoration, and it was enticing enough to watch the remaining two films over the weekend.

The 400 Blows didn’t reel me in to binge-watching these sort of movies. But the next two did. Paths of Glory and High and Low are two very different films that reel you in for very different reasons. I had never seen either, and the sheer quality of both — from a technical and artistic side — was like a shock to the system. I had to get more of this.

It was like starting a new TV show where the first episode is okay, but you keep watching and the next few episodes suck you in completely. I found out that Hulu was streaming Criterion films online. I started watching, and ten films in, I was hooked — I was mesmerized watching movies I had never heard of, from directors whose names I couldn’t pronounce.

I was mesmerized watching movies I had never heard of, from directors whose names I couldn’t pronounce.

The Challenge

After watching two dozen films in August 2014, I wondered how far I could go with this. If I kept this up, how many of these movies could I watch in a year? 200? 400? More?

A month later in September 2014, I scored a 22-movie Blu-ray collection on CraigsList and went through them in less than three weeks. That inspired me to go all out: 500 Criterion films in one year. I had 466 to go.

criterion-binge

My chances were not great: The Fall movie season was heating up, and my favorite TV shows were getting back on the air. But there was no time for any of that if I was to complete my challenge, which came down to 10 films per week. No TV shows, no Netflix, no whatever-the-latest-blockbuster-and-or-Oscar-contender is.

One thing was certain: there was absolutely no time to watch any of the bonus material, the audio commentaries, the behind-the-scenes stuff that Criterion discs are packed with.

Criterion is not for everyone

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Criterion Collection movies are not for everyone. Even die-hard cinephiles will find some Criterion movies hard to sit through. I can watch Italian neo-realist cinema (Bicycle Thieves) or John Casavetes’ harsh realist films all day. But it was agonizing to go through Ingmar Bergman films — the first two Bergman films I watched as part of my Criterion binge was like being shot with a tranquilizer.

It’s also worth pointing out that Criterion isn’t art-house only. There are films such as David Fincher’s The Game and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and even blockbusters such as Armageddon. That’s right, Michael Bay’s Armageddon and The Rock are in the Criterion Collection, and I loved them both: it was just what I needed half-way through after watching 250 art-house films.

(an interesting note about Criterion’s Armageddon: the movie is numbered #40 in their collection, placing it between Henry V (#41) and Tokyo Drifter (#39) — two of the most anti-Armageddon movies you’ll ever find).

I tried my best to get through every film. Of the 500, I only quit watching a handful, and maybe two dozen of them I didn’t get through for various reasons. The majority of the time, I watched the whole film, even if I didn’t find it particularly interesting (and trust me, just because it’s a Criterion film does not make it an automatic masterpiece. I’m looking at you Wild 90 and Tiny Furniture).

A change

Day in and day out, I would watch these movies. I watched one film on every weekday plus five films on weekends. To make it more livable, I would schedule the “easier” films, the known masterpieces, on the weekend since Saturdays and Sundays were a double and triple feature days. Trust me, you do not want to sit through three Yasujiro Ozu films in a row. I don’t care how much Roger Ebert loved him, the Ozu films were painful to get through.

Some 200 films in, I had become a cinephile. Some call it a “film snob”

Some of the highlights, some of my favorite films from the binge were Yojimbo, Kurosawa’s samurai masterpiece, and its sequel Sanjuro. It was equally enjoyable to watch some of my old favorites that I hadn’t seen in a long time. Films like 8 1/2, Days of Heaven, Hoop Dreams, and Brazil.

When my friends talked about the latest Marvel movie, I talked about Kurosawa’s Yojimbo — the only film from the 500 that I watched twice. I never argued about movies before my Criterion binge, but now I was trying to explain to my friends why Yojimbo was better than the Avengers and how Yojimbo star Toshiro Mifune is cooler than Tony Stark could ever dream of. My pleas fell on deaf ears, but I knew I was right. Halfway through my Criterion binge, I had become a cinephile. Some call it a “film snob”.

At the end my of my experiment, 500 films and a year later, my taste in movies changed. Watching 500 art films with only two regular films in between — a screening of Blade Runner at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood and Jurassic World (because I got a free ticket) — I started looking at films very differently. For example, I now fast forward through most visual effects-heavy action scenes. They just bore me the way all those dialogue-heavy art-house filmed bored me before.

Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) was the only film of the 500 that I watched twice.

Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) was the only film of the 500 that I watched twice.

I was trying to explain to my friends that Yojimbo was better than the Avengers, that Yojimbo star Toshiro Mifune is cooler than Tony Stark could ever dream of.

Would I recommend going on a Criterion binge of 500 films in a year? No. A sane person would watch a couple of films a week, not 10. But I would recommend broadening your horizons a bit. Get a couple of Criterion Blu-rays if you can, or watch some on Hulu. I took me some 200 films to change my taste in movies, it might take less for you. If that’s what you want.

I sold most of my Criterion Collection after I was done with it. But there were some films that I could not part with and that will forever be on my shelf. The films I have kept are:

  • Yojimbo (the only film I saw twice)
  • The Jaques Tati Collection (For more, read Screenhead’s Playtime: The lost modernist masterpiece)
  • The Thin Red Line (a most beautiful war film)
  • The Game (the technical quality of this Blu-ray version of David Fincher’s 1997 thriller is superb)
  • High and Low (the film that made me want to go on a Criterion binge)
  • Ace in the Hole (the somewhat-forgotten Billy Wilder masterpiece is very relevant today)

Back to modern cinema

After a few weeks off, including a nice vacation that didn’t include a TV set or a laptop, I caught up to a lot of the movies that I missed. Ant-man. Terminator Genysis, Tomorrowland, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Furious 7, San Andreas, etc. I watched them all and I had never been so bored watching a movie. I loved disaster movies, I loved Marvel movies. I’d watch anything with Arnold in it. Now I can’t stand these films. I even hated Pixar’s Inside Out. They are all shallow, formulaic constructs designed by focus groups, put together on an assembly line by robots. That’s how it feels anyway…

500 arthouse films will do that to you.

Written by on September 27th, 2015. This article is part of Screenhead .