(Updated: one of the in-house Criterion designers provides a helpful list of designers who created each DVD in our list. Thanks, Eric!)
If you have even a passing interest in international film, you already know all about the Criterion Collection and its unabashedly cachet series of expensive DVDs. This is a series that has set an industry standard for special editions, rich extras, essay-packed print inserts, and meticulous print restoration. They’ve also released several international classics in definitive editions that have destroyed the relevance of every single film studies faculty the world over (maybe I exaggerate slightly).
Take just some of the classics of Italian filmmaking as an example: Criterion has essential editions of The Leopard, Amarcord, and the lost classic Mafioso on the market, a crucial influence on The Godfather and a wonderful film, that until 2007 never saw a North American release. If in a single year you managed to watch every disc Criterion has put out (they’re up to 453 now, not to mention that Janus pack) you’d have taken one of the most comprehensive arthouse film courses in the world.
But it’s not just about what’s on those DVDs or in those luscious booklets that draws me to Criterion’s stuff. See, I used to work at a CD/DVD shop. My days were punctuated with small pleasures, like routine visits from various ‘prized’ customers temporarily off their medication, or rabid Frank Zappa fans out to steal 3 hours of my time (often the two were indistinguishable). When I wasn’t sneaking smokes by the dumpsters in the back, I was eagerly tearing open fresh shipments of new DVDs.
The Criterion ones were, without a doubt, the sweetest to discover. Before sadly entering them into the store’s vast inventory, where they were inevitably misfiled on a shelf, nestled among far less deserving brethren, I would cherish each disc, temporarily forgetting that my measly salary prevented me from ever buying more than one every two months. A lot of this perverse behaviour of mine was due to the cachet Criterion managed to create by being the most exclusive and expensive DVD producer around, but the rest of my silly obsession was all about packaging, packaging, packaging.
Criterion hired and continues to hire some fine artists to do great graphic design work for its small packages, and when they aren’t comissioning originals by various stars from the world of illustration, they’re finding and using as packaging the most perfect piece of vintage memorabilia from a film–that damn rare French poster you’ve never seen before and would kill to have as a reprint today. So here, for you, I’ve collected my favorite 10 Criterion packages. If some of this material was available in larger–say, poster-sized–formats, I’d be giving those jerks at Criterion even more of my business. As it stands, jpegs will have to suffice:
10) The Battle of Algiers – A remarkable film with a beautiful piece of packaging. This is faux-documentary filmmaking at its best. Watching this is like reading 18 long articles about the “grey areas” of torture and terrorism.
9) Pierrot Le Fou – Remarkable colour usage on this Godard classic. This is one of Criterion’s recent releases, and of late they’ve been branching out to various illustrators and comic book artists for some covers, while still managing to use one-sheets and various film stills to make the best covers in the business when necessary.
8 ) The Bad Sleep Well – Many of the Japanese films Criterion releases have some splendid artwork, often far more detailed than this minor Kurosawa picture, but the design and execution, as it ties into what the film is about (an executive hunting down his father’s killer in the corporate environment of postwar Japan, thank you Criterion website summaries), is brilliant.
7) Boudu Saved From Drowning – Here’s what Criterion does beautifully: if there’s a wonderful piece of artwork already available for a film, especially period artwork, they use it. They fix it up and they present it perfectly, using original typography or extremely close reproductions. This cover is an absolute joy to look at.
6) Breathless – The best minimalist packaging they’ve ever done. Take a look inside to see the rest of the set, it’s equally beautiful and brilliant. Godard gets all the good designs, so he does.
5) The Honeymoon Killers – My favorite of Criterion’s alternative-context covers (also see Ace in the Hole). Every ad that surrounds the circled one has a thematic link with the film itself. Seriously, when do you ever see DVD covers this good?
4) Traffic – Not Soderbergh’s film, but the new release of an older Tati film. Here’s another example of some old illustration, freshened and updated to work perfectly. Beautiful typography and design. I’d pay for that on a shirt, I would.
3) Contempt – Another one of my favorite let’s-use-an-old-poster covers, this image of Brigitte Bardot is so linked to the film itself that I’m immediately transported back to when I first saw it, in the one arthouse theater in Ottawa. I was in high school, I saw a quotation from Martin Scorsese (or Coppola) calling it “the best film ever made about film-making”, and decided to go. I’d never seen an arty French film before and at the end I had absolutely no idea what was going on, yet I can remember scenes from that film better than hundreds I’ve seen since. I love this packaging and require it on a poster immediately.
2) Berlin Alexanderplatz – Another very recent release. I don’t have much to say about it, having not seen the film, but the design is seriously pushing me towards a nearby CD/DVD store, where in a few hours I could find myself at the counter, in a kind of consumerist trance, hastily paying for and running home with this set. It is 15+ hours or so… would a single day’s viewing time suffice?
1) Le Samourai – A beautiful, dark, brilliant film, and my favorite cover of the list. Nothing but Alain Delon adjusting his hat before he goes out to shoot some people and live by a perverted version of the Bushido code, but in Paris, in the 1960s. Incredible.