If the modern cinema experience does not appeal to you, check out The Criterion Channel, a video streaming service that caters specifically to film fans. This Criterion Channel offers on-demand access to The Criterion Collection, which was previously available via Hulu and then the now-defunct FilmStruck service. The Criterion Channel supports offline downloads and full HD streaming for most content. The biggest flaw is that it does not have every film from the Criterion Collection. While a curated list of films each month may appeal to the serious film scholars among the service’s viewers, it also means some films may not be available when you want to watch them. In any case, for film buffs, this service is likely your best option for a deep dive into domestic and international cinema.
What Is the Criterion Collection?
According to its mission statement, the Criterion Collection is “dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” The organization hopes these restorations help people fully appreciate such works.
There are two ways to watch Criterion Collection films. The first is to purchase a Blu-Ray or DVD copy of the film. For most of the films I checked, the cost of a Blu-Ray is $39.95 and the DVDs are $29.95. That said, many Blu-Rays and DVDs were available at a discount at the time of my review. The second option is a Criterion Channel subscription, which costs $10.99 per month or $99.99 per year. You don’t need to subscribe to The Criterion Channel to buy Criterion Collection films, but sometimes subscribers can get discounts.
Be aware that some films available for purchase as physical discs are not available for streaming. When I spot-checked some entries, I found that The Breakfast Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Do The Right Thing, Fantastic Mr. Fox, On the Waterfront, The Silence of the Lambs, and Spartacus were available to purchase from The Criterion Channel, but not to stream. A representative confirmed that the ability to stream a title is case-by-case and depends on the available rights.
Netflix is the only other video streaming service I’ve reviewed that offers a physical disc service, called DVD by Netflix. This rental service charges a flat monthly rate and the number of movies you can rent each month depends on how quickly you can watch and return them. Higher-priced tiers allow you to keep more movies out at a time.
What Can I Watch on The Criterion Channel?
It’s worth clarifying up front that The Criterion Channel is not for people who want to watch the latest mainstream or even necessarily what the average person might think of as the best movies of all time. For instance, The Criterion Channel only has four films (Seven Samurai, Harakiri, Modern Times, and City Lights) in the top 50 entries in IMDb’s top 100 films list.
The Criterion Channel is more for those who want to explore noteworthy domestic and international films from the past and present. I also want to emphasize the curation aspect. That means that not only is the film collection actively maintained, but new films come in every month to keep the library fresh. The flipside of the consistent library changes is that some titles may leave the service before you get a chance to enjoy them. Given the massive size of The Criterion Channel’s library, this is a good possibility. You can keep track of what’s arriving on the service each month on the Channel Calendar page.
At the time of this review, The Criterion Channel lists about 2,000 films in its collection. You can sort by decade, country, director, and genre. The Criterion Channel lists entries as far back as the 1900s, but when I filtered by that year, I didn’t find any results. The oldest film entries I saw were from the 1920s.
The service features movies from an impressive number of countries (55), including from film powerhouse countries such as France, Germany, India, Japan, US, and UK. The Criterion Channel also has films from Africa (Ethiopia, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa), Asia (China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand), Central and South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Mexico), Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), and Western and Eastern Europe (Austria, Belgium, Greece, and Russia).
Just a few of the directors with content on the platform are Maren Ade, Allison Anders, Wes Anderson, Jane Campion, Charlie Chaplin, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Jonze, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Jean-Paul Melville, Kenzo Mizoguchi, Errol Morris, Pier Paolo Passolini, Alice Rohrwacher, Paul Schrader, Guillermo del Toro, Agnès Varda, and William Wyler. There are too many films on The Criterion Channel to list them all out here, but you can find everything available on its All Films page.
With most films on The Criterion Channel, you can watch extra video features, including interviews, extra footage, and trailers. For example, with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, you can also watch The Missing Pieces (a series of deleted scenes and alternate takes assembled by David Lynch), plus interviews with Sheryl Lee (who played Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson) and Angelo Badalamenti (responsible for the series music). The original 1954 Godzilla film includes 11 video extras such as the 1956 Godzilla: King of Monsters film, commentary from the cast and crew, and other explorations of the movie in Japanese culture.
In terms of streaming movies, Netflix and HBO Now are at the top of the list, but they feature more popular and mainstream titles than The Criterion Channel. Shudder is a horror-focused streaming site with a deep collection of movies in that genre. Fandor is another curated movie streaming service.
Pricing and Platforms
As mentioned, The Criterion Channel costs $10.99 per month or $99.99 per year. That’s more than the average on-demand video streaming services, but certainly not the most expensive. You can sign up for a 14-day free trial, but this requires you to provide payment details.
For comparison, Apple TV+ costs $4.99 per month, the ad-supported version of Hulu is $5.99 per month, and Disney+ charges slightly more at $6.99 per month. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video both start at $8.99 per month, though most people should get Netflix’s $12.99-per-month standard plan. The only on-demand service we’ve reviewed that starts at a higher cost is HBO Now, at $14.99 per month. Most of those services offer fairly robust collections of popular movies too.
You can download The Criterion Channel app on Android and iOS mobile devices; streaming media platforms like Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV, and Roku; and the Xbox One. The Criterion Channel does not offer a PlayStation 4 app. In its help section, Criterion notes that you may run into some compatibility issues related to DRM protections when trying to stream content on Chromebooks, the Xbox One, and Linux devices. Oddly, I also ran into a High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) issue.
Criterion explains that HDCP technology is responsible for “protecting content as it travels across connections from a computer or streaming device to a TV or monitor.” In my case, Criterion prevented playback, because my test laptop was connected to an external monitor via a VGA cable. The service recommends using an HDMI cable that supports the latest standards if this issue occurs. I also had trouble streaming via the new Edge browser. I’ve never experienced these issues with any other video streaming service.
The Criterion Channel is currently available in the US and Canada. Other video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are available in far more countries.
Criterion Channel’s Web Interface
Criterion Channel’s online presence looks clean and elegant with a mix of black, white, and gray elements. Performance is reasonably quick, but sometimes certain pages (such as the All Films page) took a bit to load and refresh after I added new filters. Navigation is accomplished via a menu at the top with items for Home, Now Playing, Search, All Films, and Criterion.com. Profile settings are accessible via an icon in the upper-right-hand corner. The profile settings are standard. You can update your account email and password, opt out of email notifications, and manage your subscription billing details.
The Now Playing section lists featured movies and collections in a horizontally scrolling carousel, while other film categories populate the rest of the page. Some of the categories are consistent with what you get on other video streaming services, such as Recent Collections, Newly Added, and Leaving in February (or whatever the current month is), but other subsections are more suited to Criterion’s movie collection. For instance, there are Directed By and Criterion Editions sections, as well as ones dedicated to non-film productions, such as Adventures in Movie Going, Art-House America, and Talking About Movies. Additional film-specific categories include Women Filmmakers, 21st Century Filmmakers, and Double Features (in which Criterion pairs two movies together) The My List section appears here too and you can add things directly to it via an icon in the upper-right corner of each movie’s or collection’s thumbnail.
Clicking on a thumbnail brings you to its Details page, where you can see a brief description of the related content. Click again on a title to begin playback. Unlike entries on the main Criterion Collection site, you don’t get cast information, running time, or any of the supported tech specs, such as resolution or Dolby audio support. Apple TV+ does a much better job of listing general and technical information for each of its entries. The Criterion Channel shows recommendations for other content in a series or other films you may want to watch below the main player.
Criterion’s search tool works fine and separates results into collections and videos. You can search both by director and film title. The All Films section lets you filter The Criterion Channel’s full library by genre, decade, country of origin, and director. You can then sort those results by the same indicators in ascending or descending order. This is a useful feature for content discovery, and I wish other services offered something similar.
Criterion Channel on Mobile
I downloaded The Criterion Channel’s mobile app on a Google Pixel 3 running Android 10. The app’s default dark mode uses a mix of black-and-white elements and is reminiscent of the web experience. If you prefer a lighter interface theme, you can enable that in the settings. You navigate the app via four icons in a bottom menu for Explore Search, Library, and Profile. These sections are slightly different than what you see on the web interface, but you still have access to all the same content. For instance, the Explore section is equivalent to the web’s Now Playing section. However, on the mobile app, you don’t get an All Films sections which you can use to sort through The Criterion Channel’s full collection. Conversely, the mobile app’s Library section (which features both the My List and Offline subsections) doesn’t appear on the web. The My List section should get a dedicated, always-accessible menu on the web.
The mobile app’s Profile section has a few mobile-specific options such as for enabling notifications, setting download and streaming quality preferences, and toggling a Picture-in-Picture mode. Because I signed up for the service via the Google Play Store, the Manage Subscription button took me directly to the My Subscriptions section in the Play Store app.
The Criterion Collection uses a Vimeo player, which means it looks clean and sophisticated. The playback control options, however, are underwhelming. You do get the option to change the playback resolution, toggle (but not customize) closed captions, add the film to your watchlist, or share the link to the show via email. This feature set is unimpressive when compared to Prime Video’s X-Ray information panel (this would be particularly useful for discovering the actors and actresses in a scene) or Netflix’s episode selector. However, The Criterion Channel does support a minimized player mode.
On mobile, the playback screen looks fine. You get the standard playback controls, as well as rewind and fast-forward buttons in the middle of the screen. There’s also an Add to Watchlist button, one to begin an offline download, and a share button. Unfortunately, the closed captioning options are limited to just selecting a language. There’s also no way to select or verify the streaming resolution here other than going to the settings and selection high, medium, or low quality from the streaming quality menu. A representative confirmed that the streaming resolution varies depending on the source and ranges from 540p to 1080p.
I streamed Watership Down over my home Ethernet connection (200Mbps download) without any issues via the Chrome browser. Similarly, I did not experience any stutters when streaming Taxi Driver over PCMag’s Wi-Fi connection (15Mbps download) on my Android test device. The Criterion Channel recommends speeds of at least 10Mbps (download).
Accessibility and Features
The Criterion Channel’s closed captioning settings are disappointing in that they offer no customization options on any platforms I tested. Other services, such as Acorn TV, allow you to adjust settings such as text size, background color, and font style directly from the playback screen. You also won’t find any content with support for Audio Descriptions, which are audible descriptions of scene changes and character movements that can’t be picked up solely through dialog. The Criterion Channel’s lack of this feature is more understandable, given that the vast majority of its content predates the existence of that capability. Apple TV+, Netflix, and Prime video support Audio Descriptions for some of their newer content.
The Criterion Channel supports offline downloads for Android and iOS devices, which is an important feature for movie fans who travel a lot. You have up to 30 days to start watching a downloaded title and up to 48 hours to finish it, once you begin playback. Note that you cannot change the storage location of the downloaded file, which may be problematic since movies take up a lot of space. Netflix gives you the option to move downloaded files to external storage. Hulu also lets you download titles for offline viewing, but only if you’re a premium subscriber.
Criterion Channel lacks parental control tools, which is disappointing. In fact, I didn’t see content ratings for any films on the service, which is inconvenient for parents who want to know which classic films are suitable for their children to watch. Additionally, The Criterion Channel doesn’t allow you to set up individual user profiles for each account user. A representative said the service would like to accommodate both these features in the future.
The Criterion Channel supports three simultaneous streams, which is about average. BritBox supports five simultaneous streams.
Criterion Channel and VPN
A VPN service is a great way to protect your privacy online as it can prevent your ISP and other bad actors from snooping on your network activity. They can also help you spoof your location. Unfortunately, many video streaming services prevent you from streaming content while you are connected to one due to geographic-locked content. Note that even if you do find a VPN that works with all of your video streaming services on a given day, that doesn’t mean that they will continue to work. Many video streaming services work continuously to detect and prevent VPN traffic on their platform.
I tried streaming a movie on The Criterion Channel while connected to a US-based Mullvad VPN server on both my test Windows and Android device. I had no issues streaming on my mobile device, but could not watch content from a web browser.
Criterion’s Curtain Call
The Criterion Channel is a strong service that’s tailor-made for classic and art-house film fans. It boasts ad-free streaming of Criterion Collection movies, most of which are available in full HD. The biggest drawback of the service is that not every film in the Criterion Collection is available for streaming. Profiles and parental control tools would also add value. Netflix is our Editors’ Choice for on-demand video streaming because of its excellent capabilities and top-notch original shows. For live TV, we recommend YouTube TV or Hulu.