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How Things Used to Be

Assuming you’re not too young, you probably remember what life was like before the age of high-speed and high-quality video streaming; it was a dark, primitive period in human history. Of course, given my age, some of my fondest childhood memories leading up to high school are inextricably connected with watching movies on pieces of physical media, be they VHS tapes or scratched-up DVDs. My parents sometimes bought copies for our living room setup, but more often than not we would rent movies from our local Blockbuster. It’s important to remember that before the chain eroded completely in 2014, Blockbuster was the video rental place, and indeed my first encounters with more niche cinema came from roaming the aisles of that bygone store. I specifically remember my mother renting a copy of the Oscar-winning German film ‘The Lives of Others,’ when that movie’s hype was still very much fresh in people’s minds.

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Yet while the act of holding a physical copy of a film made in a far-off country has a weirdly intimate charm to it, on a more objective level it’s also quite limiting for any moviegoer with even a passing interest in world cinema. Not everyone has the means to go to a store every week to rent out movies; then there’s the problem of the fact that rental stores will always have limited selections, with less mainstream foreign films also being less likely to be included. I don’t remember ever seeing a copy of ‘Rashomon’ on Blockbuster shelves, despite it being a landmark title in world cinema’s history.

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The game has changed in recent years, though — and for the better. Advancements in streaming technology and web design, not to mention the growing accessibility of high-speed internet, have allowed moviegoers to watch thousands of movies from the comfort of their own homes. I’m here, however, specifically to talk about the increasing availability of foreign films in a saturated streaming market.

Netflix: ‘Roma’ as Part of the Streaming Revolution

Netflix’s path to world domination has been a long one, believe it or not. Some of us remember the Netflix of many years ago as being the service that would mail DVD rentals to your front door — but did you know that Netflix had started its streaming platform back in 2007? In all fairness, the initial streaming library was only a minuscule fraction of what it is today, and this was also at a time when high-quality streaming had yet to become the norm; by the time ‘House of Cards’ premiered in 2013, though, Netflix had become a titanic platform where whole households could explore a vast catalog of movies and television instantly — no mail-in DVDs required.

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Cut to 2018, and Netflix has released one of the most important movies of the past decade. ‘Roma’ is a slow but enthralling Mexican drama directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who started on the international circuit before gaining mainstream traction with films like ‘Gravity’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.’ Netflix marketed ‘Roma’ aggressively, despite it being a non-English film, and the result was both mainstream exposure and unparalleled awards buzz; this was after ‘Roma’ had already won the Golden Lion at that year’s Venice Film Festival. Since Netflix announced it would start disclosing viewership numbers in 2021, it’s hard to estimate how many people watched ‘Roma’ on the platform, but its impressive box office numbers in select theaters indicate nothing short of a success.

Regardless of any setbacks, ‘Roma’ — a Netflix original movie — set a new standard for world cinema’s presence in the minds of American moviegoers; it would become the first Mexican film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (now Best International Feature Film), with Cuarón winning Best Director and Best Cinematography. If the more recent success of South Korea’s ‘Squid Game’ tells us anything, it’s that a movie or show on Netflix doesn’t have to be in English to become a hit with English-speaking audiences.

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The Criterion Channel: Arthouse Heaven

Since the advent of consumer-friendly home video over forty years ago, perhaps no company has done more to bring world cinema to American viewers than The Criterion Collection. Criterion, in collaboration with its parent company Janus Films, has released well over a thousand titles — from both the Anglosphere and abroad — in a multitude of formats; 

You can find all of Criterion’s spine-numbered titles on DVD and/or Blu-Ray, and in 2021 it started releasing titles in 4K Ultra HD. Not only does Criterion release hundreds of foreign films, many of them previously obscure, but each title is given a high-definition restoration; future generations can enjoy such classics as ‘Seven Samurai’ and ‘Persona’ in pristine condition. Only fairly recently, though, has Criterion entered the streaming market in earnest — but trust me when I say that the wait was worth it.

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For much of the 2010s, Criterion had a fair portion of its catalog hosted on Hulu, which would turn out to be too constraining a partnership. In 2016, teaming up with Turner Classic Movies, Criterion would play a major role in launching the now-defunct FilmStruck, a streaming platform with top-tier content but also some serious technical issues. With FilmStruck’s demise in 2018, Criterion decided to strike out on its own, and thus we saw the launch of the Criterion Channel in 2019; what we have here is the finest collection of films from around the world, classic and contemporary, in the palms of our hands.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the early days of the Criterion Channel were a little rocky on the technical side of things; to this day, not every video in the catalog is available in high definition. The content, however, more than compensates for any shortcomings, as we have international classics by the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Wong Kar-wai, and the late Agnès Varda. I probably would have never seen a somewhat forgotten gem like ‘Black Orpheus,’ were it not for this particular streaming service. More so than with its lineup of titles available only on physical media, Criterion has gone above and beyond to represent women filmmakers and creative people of color with its streaming platform.

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HBO Max: The Best of Both Worlds

I sometimes find myself in a contrarian position, but I think it’s also fair to say that HBO Max is the single biggest streaming platform to come out in the past few years; it’s also the latest addition of the three services discussed here, having launched in 2020. Suppose you’re running tight on cash and you feel you can only afford three streaming services; you already have a Netflix subscription, and you also have Prime Video as part of your Amazon Prime subscription, which leaves you with one slot open. If you’re passionate about world cinema, then the Criterion Channel would be a near-perfect fit, as a way to unlock a certain treasure chest of non-English films. If you hover closer to intermediate than expert, though, with regards to world cinema enthusiasm, then HBO Max is the best option.

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Whereas Netflix is ultimately more focused on binge-worthy television programming, and the Criterion Channel is all about shorts and feature films (with the occasional mini-series thrown into the mix), HBO Max has a remarkably balanced catalog of movies and television. The platform is split into several hubs covering disparate categories, providing at least a little something for everyone — be it a superhero show like ‘Peacemaker,’ episodes of ‘Steven Universe,’ the unimpeachable works of Studio Ghibli, or even classic movies from around the world. The hub dedicated to Turner Classic Movies is naturally the one most relevant to world cinema enjoyers, as while we get classic American productions like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ we also get some overlap with the Criterion Channel’s catalog.

HBO Max is not exactly cheap; assuming you want to forego ads, an ad-free subscription will cost you $14.99 a month as of January 2022. Comparing prices, HBO Max ranks similarly to Netflix, with the Criterion Channel being the cheapest of the three (if we’re discounting Netflix’s basic subscription plan), but with HBO Max you get arguably the most value for your money.

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Great Expectations

I have only covered what I consider to be the three most essential streaming platforms for those who want to explore cinema from outside the Anglosphere; there is no shortage of alternatives if you’re looking for something on a smaller scale. Two platforms specializing in arthouse cinema that immediately come to mind are Fandor and Mubi, not to mention Shudder as a horror-themed companion platform. Indeed, with all the services available that at least tangentially feature foreign films in their catalogs, a strongly Anglo-centric service like Disney+ can almost strike one as a bit of an outlier.

Even with all the ways you can experience world cinema, though, there is a simple question that remains: Why bother? Why put all this effort into watching movies that aren’t produced in Hollywood, or even in English-speaking countries for that matter? I would answer all this with another question: Why should I deliberately limit myself to only a small fraction of all the good movies that have ever been released? Subtitles pose a slight inconvenience, true, but the excuse of not watching movies with subtitles because you’re forced to partake in some reading is a waning one. There has never been an easier — more convenient — time to dive head-first into world cinema than now, and we wouldn’t be here without the enormous range of streaming services available on our television sets, on our computers — even on our phones.

When Bong Joon-ho’s Korean smash hit ‘Parasite’ took home the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020, that historic victory reinforced a message that now rings as clear as a fine blue sky: foreign films are here with us, and there’s no going back.

By Brian Collins

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.

I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV, media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.

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