Every year, Criterion does a remarkable job of putting out tremendous physical copies of important classic and contemporary films, but 2021 has featured some especially fantastic releases from the company.
2021 saw Criterion putting out their first collection of 4K films, releasing films from studios like Netflix, Hulu, and A24, and out their stamp a wide and diverse lineup of films, from the Senegalese drama Mandabi to Amy Heckerling‘s 80s teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. They’ve updated old releases like Ashes and Diamonds and Mona Lisa, and praised modern films like Beasts of No Nation and Love & Basketball.
2021 has been an embarrassment of riches for Criterion fans, and pretty much any title released this year is a winner. With Criterion knocking it out of the park again in 2021, let’s take a look at the ten best releases from Criterion this year.
10. Uncut Gems
Having previously released Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Criterion once again proves that Adam Sandler deserves to be in the collection with their 4K release of Uncut Gems. It’s also always delightful to see Criterion deem modern films worthy of release in their set, especially one as frantic and nerve-wracking as this 2019 film from Josh and Benny Safdie. Criterion has put out a lot of titles with new collaborators in recent years, but this first A24 release also makes us hope that this is just the first of many releases on the way between the two independent cinema mammoths. More Adam Sandler in the Criterion Collection? This is how we win.
9. Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films
Announced only a few weeks before the director’s death, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films explored the varied and always surprising career of the Black cinema innovator. Containing four of Van Peebles films, the Essential Film set showcases the diversity and experimentation that made Van Peebles an underrated auteur. Whether through creating the blaxploitation genre with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song or adapting his own Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical Don’t Play Us Cheap, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films presents a director, writer, editor, composer, and actor who pushed not only himself as an artist, but transformed film as a whole.
8. The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs
One of the benefits of the Criterion Collection is the company’s ability to showcase filmmakers who made a huge impact in film, but might not be as well-known as they should be. There might not be a better example of this in 2021 than with Criterion’s The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs collection, featuring seven films of Marlon Riggs, a gay Black director in the 80s and 90 who explored such topics as racism, the AIDS epidemic, and what being Black means. Riggs’ work is always engrossing, wholly unique, and it’s outstanding that his films finally have a presentation to showcase his impact on cinema.
Criterion has always been Andrei Tarkovsky-friendly, having put out Andrei Rublev as one of their earliest DVD releases, and releasing some of his best works over the years. But Mirror, considered to be one of Tarkovsky’s most unique and influential works, finally became a part of the collection this year. This haunting and personal nonlinear film from one of Russia’s foremost directors is a challenge, even from the director of Stalker and Solaris, but has become one the most acclaimed films of Tarkovsky’s filmography. Complete with a new restoration, new documentaries, and interviews with Tarkovsky himself, it’s wonderful to have one of Tarkovsky’s greatest finally join the collection.
6. Bringing Up Baby
In recent years, Criterion has outdone themselves with classic Hollywood comedies, with releases like Holiday, His Girl Griday, and The Philadelphia Story. This year, Criterion put out possibly the most magnificent screwball comedy of all-time with Bringing Up Baby, the hilarious Howard Hawks starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, the wild journey of a paleontologist, a heiress, and a leopard. Bringing Up Baby has seen its fair share of physical releases over the years, but Criterion has released the definitive version, featuring new interviews, essays, and a scene-specific commentary, amongst many other special features.
5. Man Push Cart
Ramin Bahrani’s string of 2000s film were compared to Italian Neorealism, Robert Bresson, and led Roger Ebert to call him “the new great American director.” This year saw the introduction of Bahrani’s first two films into the collection, but its his debut, Man Push Cart that made Bahrani an exciting talent to watch. Following a former Pakistani rock star who now works at a food cart in Manhattan, Man Push Cart was often shot spontaneously and with a ridiculously small budget. Bahrani’s sympathetic story of an immigrant fighting for is a compassionate tale that remains one of the most powerful independent films of the 2000s.
4. Original Cast Album: Company
Criterion is packed with excellent D.A Pennebaker documentaries like The War Room, Don’t Look Back, and Town Bloody Hall, so it only made sense that eventually his Broadway documentary Original Cast Album: Company would join the lineup. But after the death of Stephen Sondheim last month, this Criterion release felt even more prescient, as Pennebaker follows the recording of the cast album for Sondheim’s musical. The Criterion release even includes a new commentary by Sondheim, and arguably the best special feature of the year: the Documentary Now! episode “Cop-Op,” based on Company.
3. Memories of Murder
Bong Joon Ho finally entered the Criterion Collection last year with the release of his Academy Award-winning Parasite, and this year, Criterion continued to please the Bong Hive with the release of his 2003 South Korean classic Memories of Murder. Bong’s second feature film is a twisty, shocking murder mystery, led by Song Kang Ho as he tries to find a serial killer. All of Bong’s trademarks are already in place, as absurdity, darkness, and black humor combine to make a haunting work. With a new 4K restoration, a new commentary, and new interviews with Bong and Guillermo del Toro, this is a fantastic set for those new to the work of Bong, or old fans who know that this might just be Bong’s masterpiece.
2. Citizen Kane
Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece was the first title Criterion ever put out in the 1980s, when the company was making LaserDiscs, so it makes sense that Citizen Kane return to the Collection for the first time in decades as part of the company’s first 4K releases. Criterion putting one of the greatest films of all-time in the collection is a no-brainer must buy, but Criterion’s 4-disc set is packed with just about everything any Kane fan could want, with three commentaries, documentaries, video essays, interviews, and even radio plays and a silent film made by Welles when he was a student. Simply put, Criterion has put out one of the most important films of all time and given it one of the best 4K releases of the year.
1. World of Wong Kar Wai
In recent years, Criterion has truly outdone themselves with massive retrospectives of some of the world’s finest filmmakers, be it through The Complete Films of Agnès Varda or the gigantic Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. But after years of fans hoping for a collection of Wong Kar Wai’s films, the release of World of Wong Kar Wai was well worth the wait. Featuring seven of WKW’s films – including Chungking Express, which had been out-of-print from Criterion for years – the set’s origami-like design was almost as beautiful as the films themselves. WKW has long deserved a set that celebrates the Hong Kong director’s work, and Criterion more than did his work justice with World of Wong Kar Wai.