Criterion’s name is synonymous with the gold standard when it comes to presenting the definitive editions of classic and foreign cinema on home video. The company began in the laserdisc era and essentially defined the “special edition” presentation as we know it with releases like Citizen Kane (their first laserdisc release ever) and the follow-up 3-disc DVD (which expanded the supplements) and the “director approved” collaborations with Martin Scorsese (whose commentary on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) set the bar for director commentary tracks and inspired many aspiring filmmakers). They’ve carried their loving care for classic and contemporary movies to DVD, finding vintage supplements for classic films and contributing to the critical record with their efforts. What gives the Criterion stamp meaning is not that they create the “best” DVD editions around, but that that they lavish their efforts on films that don’t get that kind of attention from the studios.
Thus, the announcement earlier this year that Criterion was going to start producing Blu-ray discs was considered evidence that the new format was indeed something that serious film folk should consider. It’s not just for The Matrix and Transformers and The Dark Knight, but for The Godfather (Paramount), Casablanca (Warner) and No Country For Old Men (Miramax).
The four titles that Criterion adds to the Blu-ray format limn the span of the gamut of their interests: The Third Man (classics from the canon), Chungking Express (contemporary international), The Man Who Fell to Earth (cult favorites) and Bottle Rocket (American indie). All the supplements from their definitive DVD editions are carried over to the Blu-ray disc, with the notable exception of the booklets (which are represented by smaller, thinner booklets with only some of the essays and interviews of the original DVD offerings), and the films are newly remastered for the 1080p high definition standard. What you get is a sharper, stronger image that is also more sensitive to preserving the textures of the chemical process of film. Yes, I’m talking about film grain, that reality of celluloid that modern films have been so effectively been scrubbing away in the new film-to-digital-and-back post-production process. It dances across the sc screen of The Third Man with such clarity you think something must be wrong. It’s startling, because we’ve seen so little of it on DVD, but the presence also warms the image, makes it a little more organic. Criterion isn’t the first to do this – The Godfather and Casablanca embrace the grain also – but it really jumped out at me in The Third Man and started me reevaluating what constitutes a proper restoration and mastering standard for classic cinema. It’s not quite so obvious in Chungking Express, but then that film, with its smeared colors and stuttery motion and images pushed and pulled to the extremes of film registration, is all about the texture. Criterion’s Blu-ray preserves that texture so well you can’t imagine seeing it without that kind of clarity.
Compared to the quality of their masters, the packaging is of secondary importance. I don’t know why Criterion chose not to stick with the industry standard plastic snap-case for their Blu-ray discs, but they have come up with their own signature design. It retains the dimensions that have become codified as the standard (about halfway between CD and DVD case sizes), but the a simple paperboard digipak in a slipsleeve is simply not as durable as the plastic case. Time will tell if it will hold up (and, given the number times we watch a DVD, it likely will), but it likely won’t survive an accidental spill, so keep liquids away from the cases.
On the other hand, Criterion is the first label to price its Blu-ray the same as DVD. By the nature of their releases, Criterion DVDs are a little more expensive than the usual studio fare, which reflects the effort they put into discs that, by their nature, will sell fewer copies than most of the mass-produced titles coming out of Warner and Fox and Paramount and the like. Their Blu-ray discs, however, are comparable to similar studio releases. At $39.95 retail, The Third Man and The Man Who Fell to Earth are only $5 more than the SRP of The Shawshank Redemption and The Day the Earth Stood Still and less than Casablanca: Ultimate Collector’s Edition. Criterion has just become one more good reason for classic movie lovers to invest in Blu-ray.
I review the discs for my MSN DVD column here: The Third Man, Chungking Express, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bottle Rocket. Also, see Dave Kehr’s review of Bottle Rocket and his take on Criterion’s Blu-ray releases at the New York Times here.