Film: The Criterion Collection's Dicey Standards

If a special-edition DVD is the gold standard of film, a Criterion DVD—with its good-as-new image quality, carefully curated featurettes, and striking packaging—is triple platinum. The big guys are all there—Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Hitchcock—with each film assigned a number on its spine, like an encyclopedia volume. Which is precisely the point. These films are Important. They're practically a syllabus for a Ph.D. in film. Cinéastes will be excited by two upcoming inductees: Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy and John Ford's Stagecoach. They're being released alongside the holy grail of film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Yes, the 2008 movie most notable for Brad Pitt's makeup job is being granted a spot on the same list as Renoir's Grand Illusion (Criterion's film No. 1) and the rest. Why? Criterion president Peter Becker says the company is really doing a favor for the movie's director. "It was something we did for David Fincher," he says. "That deal is an asterisk in Criterion history." Turns out that the art of the deal plays a bigger role in the Criterion selection process than you'd think. The company has started releasing the first movies it acquired via an agreement with IFC Films: Italian mob drama Gomorrah, French family tragicomedy A Christmas Tale, and Steven Soderbergh's Che (coming out this month). They're decent enough, and Che's cinematography, Becker says, may be groundbreaking. But classics? Even if they seem perfect now, they couldn't have passed the test of time in only two years. Still, they're getting the bells-and-whistles archival treatment, along with a price tag of $39.95 to $49.95.

Naturally, Criterion can't function as a DVD publisher—yes, it prefers the term "publisher"—without access to films. The IFC deal grants the company a good deal of freedom; it's not compelled to pick up any IFC release. But Criterion's methods and standards for selecting what it preserves are somewhat muddled. Becker says the company faces the challenge of "how to reconcile the volume of work that we are doing on classics with the somewhat more urgent needs of contemporary films." What urgent needs? Criterion wants to put out new films while they're still buzzed about, but in the age of Netflix, it's not as though A Christmas Tale would disappear without Criterion. Besides, the Criterion treatment (directors' commentaries, deleted scenes, and other special features) isn't exclusive to Criterion anymore. What is exclusive to Criterion is prestige, and more than anything, that's what these films gain from the company's imprimatur.

This is significant especially because Criterion has done such good work preserving great films. In 2004, the company released a 282-disc box set of its entire collection—making clear just how many important works it has saved from disintegration or obscurity. The primary focus, says Kim Henrickson, executive producer at Criterion, is on image quality: ensuring that films by the likes of Douglas Sirk and Preston Sturges are as clear and crisp as possible. But a film like Gomorrah "comes to us pretty clean," she says. "There shouldn't be any scratches, there shouldn't be any dirt." So why anoint it?

This expansion of the canon isn't new: Criterion has never pretended to draw only from the old-school pool. Check out release No. 40 (Armageddon) or No. 300 (The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). They made the cut because Criterion believes that, while they may not be classics, each has something to recommend it, something that is unique. "We know what our brand is and what our mission is," says Becker. "The reason we are doing these films is because we think they'll hold up." Fair enough—art isn't an exact science. One man's Michael Bay is perhaps another's Ingmar Bergman. Still, Criterion is only as good as its sterling reputation. If it makes too many risky bets on films like A Christmas Tale and Che, the company could become just like Benjamin Button—a place that gets younger and younger until it just fades away.