We continue our Year in Review coverage with a look at the best home video releases, from massive box sets to meticulously crafted individual releases. All entries below are written by Brad Mariano, unless otherwise noted.
Every year we hear the supposed death knell of physical media, yet labels like Criterion and smaller boutiques across the world are still huge players in the cinema landscape; especially in terms of classic and foreign treasures of cinema which are still woefully underrepresented on major streaming services. Furthermore, as home video has become increasingly a niche market, labels have continued to adapt and find ways to make us cinephiles part with our money – through extensive supplementary features, artful packaging and on Blu-ray, restored film-like picture and audio that impress more than most actual prints in circulation that the films might be surviving on. In fact, contrary to popular logic, in many ways 2014 suggested we just might be in the middle of a Golden Age of physical media, at least in terms of products available to the discerning cinephile – established brands like Criterion and Masters of Cinema continue to impress while the ever dependant Arrow Video actually expanded across continents, while a smaller company like Soda Pictures emerged as a vital label in the UK market.
What trends did we see emerge? The major one was that the big Hollywood studios continued to underwhelm, with most only concerned about 5% of their catalogue and neglecting the rest, so we have the umpteenth Gone With The Wind special-ultra-commemorative edition with bells and whistles, while the rest are sourced out the back door to labels like Twilight Time and Olive Films who do god’s work with vast amount of classics, or worse, languishing in archives or through studio specific DVDR services. These studio classics buck the general trend of a shift to HD – all of our list here are available on Blu-ray – so while a release of any kind of films like Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men or Frank Tashlin’s Susan Slept Here will always be welcome to cinephiles, the DVD-only editions of these do feel like lost opportunities.
For our list – we only considered releases we actually managed to get our hands on, whether by purchase or through review copy, so there are some releases we missed that undoubtedly would factor here in a perfect world, perhaps none more so that Arrow Films’ crowd-funded release of Camera Obscura – The Walerian Borowczyk Collection, or venturing away from the high-brow, the complete Batman television series in stores now. With this in mind, this list will of course be biased toward personal taste. As for criteria, we considered picture and audio quality, amount of material, packaging artwork, price/value and most importantly of all, the quality of films on offer. Essentially, the order in which we would take these in a desert island scenario.
With the spartan packaging and booklet and the lack of key films from the period such as Even Dwarfs Started Small or something as contextually important as My Best Fiend, from a fan’s perspective it’s easy to nitpick whenever collections parading as ‘comprehensive’ come out, but none of this detracts from the year’s most extensive and impressive Blu-ray boxset. The BFI’s behemoth Werner Herzog Collection might be the most impressive single-director treatment on home video since Potemkine’s Coffret Rohmer from early 2013, and besides that, perhaps ever. Presented in stunning HD, this overview contains 18 of Herzog’s films between 1967 and 1987, including all five collaborations with the notorious Klaus Kinski (the jungles of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo have never felt so alive and palpably oppressive as they now do on Blu-ray) and both Bruno S. oddities, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek, among numerous shorts and documentaries. On top of the 25+ hours of content across the 8 discs, most films offer both German and English tracks, as well as commentary tracks by Herzog on most of the main features which fans will know are no filler, with cinema’s equivalent of the World’s Most Interesting Man offering incredible anecdotes and musings behind his films. Region B
We’ve already looked at this set in depth, and remain impressed. An abundance of shorts and video essays complementing stunning HD versions of every film Tati ever directed made this an incredible package. Also released through Studio Canal in the UK and Criterion in the US, the Tati collection was less a great home video release than one of the key events in cinema this year. Region B
A brand new Criterion edition of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) was long-rumoured, but even the Demy faithful weren’t anticipating this: six of Demy’s most ‘essential’ films newly restored under the eye of Demy’s widow Agnes Varda, housed in one the most aesthetically pleasing box set packaging of the year. In his acclaimed masterpieces of the Demyverse in Cherbourg and the ravishing The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), we find the missing link or clearest inspiration from the ‘pure cinema’ of the lavish and impressionistic MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s and the chic artistry of New Wave and Left Bank filmmaking in France in the 60s. A fascinating counterpoint is Donkey Skin (1970), a reinterpretation of the Perrault classic tale, which illuminates Demy’s filmmaking by its inclusion. Demy draws a common thread between Perrault, Brothers Grimm and others through Hollywood escapism; for him, films like the MGM Gene Kelly vehicles are just a modern entry of this same tradition of fairytales, all of which are ripe for homage and subversion. Key to his films is the dark undercurrent of desire that fuel these vivacious confections, a great edge to the overwhelming visual style – and on Blu-ray, no less – these Criterion discs capture the vibrant colour so crucial to the artifice of the films. Combined with extras for days including documentaries by Varda, this is likely the most important Criterion release of 2014. Region A
It’s no secret we here at 4:3 are big on American director Kelly Reichardt, so when we heard Soda Pictures were bringing three of her films to Blu-ray (two for the first time!), we were more than a little excited. Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff really benefit from the richer image; Reichardt’s clear eye for detail and texture, combined with her slower pace make her films a breath of fresh air in today’s cinema, and these films look undoubtedly the best they have since their original theatrical showing. Plus, Soda Pictures knows the secret to all good home video releases, which is: the best special features are more films! Reichardt fans will be thrilled with the inclusion of her 1994 debut film, River of Grass as an extra in SD, a film previously very hard to find. It’s a less polished and satisfying work, but clearly a key step in developing her style, ending with a thoughtfulness and maturity that brings together the film nicely. But it’s a warm-up to the main event, and the presentation of the three main films is gorgeous. This box quite simply contains some of the best work in contemporary American filmmaking. Region B
A puzzle, a historical biopic, and much more – at first glance Francesco Rosi’s film is perhaps most notable for how little we see the film’s titular Sicilian outlaw. But this approach isn’t an attempt at myth-making or turning Giuliano into a Keyser Soze-type figure, but rather representative of Rosi’s broader aim, seeking to contextualise his rise and fall as a product of wider social forces. In this respect his film is the antithesis of the American gangster film, which generally views its antiheroes as agents of self-determination, or as mirror image of the American dream of individual exceptionalism and then greed. Here Giuliano is almost irrelevant, a pawn in more important conflicts that dominated Sicily and Italy in the twentieth century, grappling with socialism, secession, the Mafia and the rivalry between the state police and the carabinieri, something distinctly Italian in its inefficiency and absurdity. In Rosi’s radical approach to cinema, straddling documentary and fiction filmmaking with non-linear storytelling, he directly precedes such landmarks as The Gospel According to Matthew, The Battle of Algiers and Z. Arrow Academy’s presentation is near flawless – one of the best black-and-white transfers I’ve ever encountered, and a wealth of supplementary material (including newly commissioned writing from the ever dependable Pasquale Iannone) necessary to digesting and appreciating this difficult, impressive film. Region B
“This year Masters of Cinema (along with Kino) released these gorgeous restorations of Robert Wiene’s seminal Weimar-era The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on blu-ray and the leap between the poorly tinted DVD copy I’ve had for years and this is pretty staggering. The visuals are the big shift, very crisp and defined images and colours make the 95-year distance between the film’s premiere and now seem like an exaggeration. Masters of Cinema also continue their run as the UK’s answer to the Criterion Collection, packing the release with some great extras, including a David Kalat commentary track, a near hour-long documentary on the film’s place following World War I and, something that’s become very interesting with recent releases, a series of videos tracking the restoration process itself.1 Region B” – Conor Bateman
If ever we needed proof that we are indeed in the Golden Age of home video, we receive it in the sheer fact that a film as bizarre, underseen and misunderstood as Frank Perry’s The Swimmer can receive a treatment as stellar as that which Grindhouse has provided here. Restored from a 4K scan, never have we seen so much of Burt Lancaster, and as clearly, as we have here. Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a middle-class executive who appears out of nowhere, who decides to swim home through his neighbours’ pools en route to a remarkable destination of self-discovery. It’s a strange film, one which continually wobbles on the tightrope between sincerity and self-parody (mostly through one of Burt’s best performances, interchangeably hamming it up as well as showing great vulnerability) working as a feature-length Twilight Zone episode and satire of 60s middle class suburbia. Among the special features is a full making-of documentary that is enlightening – it’s a film whose very existence needs be explained, as one of the strangest projects to ever come out of the Hollywood system, as well as one of my very favourites. It’s a rare pleasure to see one of your absolute pet films get such an impressive treatment, especially one as obscure as this, so a strong shout-out to Grindhouse for stepping out of their comfort zone with this one. Region 0
Drawn out legal proceedings held up Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece from coming to Blu-ray until now, and Australia actually had the first release out of all English-speaking countries (it has since had a Criterion release). It’s an essential film, arguably Fellini’s finest, with its message still relevant a half-century later. Jaded Fellini alter-ego Mastroianni’s effortless charisma was never better utilised. It’s a film that is known primarily for its iconography – Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain, coining the term ‘paparazzi’ – but as Roger Ebert wrote in one of his most personal reviews, La Dolce Vita is a tremendously moving epic, one which seems to shift shapes and meanings depending on the angle and perspective from which you view it. It’s a film that for me provides something less like intellectual stimulation and more like moral guidance. Umbrella Entertainment’s immaculate presentation, wealth of special features contextualising the film as well as its criminally low price point make this an essential release. Region B
Maybe cheating, but the inclusion of the underrated prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me gets this through the door for film requirements, and furthermore, this was unquestionably one of the most anticipated home video releases of 2014. Television on Blu-ray for older shows can sometimes be controversial – after all, unlike Blu-rays replicating film prints, it could not be said that these episodes replicate the creator’s intention considering they were made for 1990 tube TVs, in fact the video quality is vastly superior to how the show has ever been seen. But as soon as you see what it does for Lynch’s lush reds and retro aesthetic, you forget any of those misgivings and this Blu-ray becomes revelatory. The inclusion of the film, however, might be the most essential part of this box for it includes the notorious deleted scenes from the film, excised characters and subplots held up in legal red tape for decades. The Holy Grail for Lynch and Twin Peaks fans, these comprised the first new material for the show in over twenty years. Which leads to perhaps the most important thing about Twin Peaks on Blu-ray – one would have to think it was no coincidence that the revived buzz and enthusiasm for the landmark series surrounding the release directly preceded the announcement that the show would return in 2016. Region B
Now this is what you call an upgrade – Sirk has been been well serviced on DVD, including by Criterion, but the new edition wasn’t merely recycling the old material with a spanking new transfer (even though that would have been perfectly acceptable to most fans) but rather they dug deep, adding to an already substantial package a brand new commentary track as well as the addition of cult experimental film Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, Mark Rappaport’s video essay where a posthumous Hudson narrates over clips of his films, mining them for hidden double entendres about his own homosexuality which makes for fascinating viewing. But back to that transfer – Sirk’s masterpiece has never looked this good, his colours (blues and reds) really pop, the rich Frank Skinner weaves in and out in lossless audio and this masterpiece of melodrama – the third time I’ve seen it – rewards repeat viewings both intellectually and sensorily. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s essay on the film, included in the booklet, is another treasure in this release.
Honourable mention: Persona, Eraserhead (Criterion), Branded to Kill (Arrow Films), Robocop, The Good The Bad and the Ugly (both restored editions) (20th Century Fox), Southland Tales (Madman).