We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.
2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.
1 – Out 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.
Special mention goes out to Paris Belongs to Us (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) the feature debut of Jacques Rivette, the first Rivette release on Criterion, and the first home video release in any format in the U.S. Full review here.
2 – Chimes at Midnight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Developed by Orson Welles from a stage production drawn largely from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” and “Henry V” (as well as “Holinshead’s Chronicles”) centered on Falstaff (played with bedhead and bulbous nose red with drink) and his bad-father relationship with young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the heir to the crown of England, is his wastrel years. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up,” Welles said of the film, which suffered from distribution issues, competing claims of ownership, and degraded prints almost from the time it was completed. Now it has been lovingly remastered from the negatives and Janus films (a partner with Criterion) has applied digital technology to create a new digital restoration for the U.S., which is the source of Criterion’s special edition, which features commentary by film scholar James Naremore and new interviews with Keith Baxter, Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles (who has a small role in the film), and Welles historians Simon Callow and Joseph McBride among the supplements.
Special mention: Orson Welles’s The Immortal Story (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) made its home video debut the same day. Full reviews here.
3 – Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy (Alice in the Cities / Wrong Move / Kings of the Road) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) offers the disc debut of all three defining early features by Wenders in the U.S., mastered from the recent restorations that Wenders personally watched over. They double the number of Wenders movies released by Criterion and present his international breakthrough film (Alice) and his first unabashed masterpiece (Kings). While these are not sequels, they are united by the theme of searching for identity in 1970s Germany (where the legacy of the Nazi past is suppressed but echoes through films), the road movie structure, and the casting of Volger in the lead, and they established Wenders as a major filmmaker of the New German Cinema. With multiple commentary tracks, new interviews, and featurettes among the supplements, plus a booklet. Full review here.
Special mention: The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), also mastered from a new 4k restoration produced by Wenders’ own production company and supervised by Wenders, replaces the earlier (and long out of print) DVD release. Full review here.
4 – Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) is the first comprehensive effort devoted to collecting and preserving feature films and shorts produced between 1915 and 1946 for black audiences, most of them made by African-American filmmakers. Many of the films have been previously available in poor editions but many others are available for the first time, from early slapstick shorts to Zora Neale Hurston’s landmark ethnographic films to James and Eloyce Gist’s amateur evangelical film Hell-Bound Train (1930) and Verdict: Not Guilty (1933). While these films have undergone no extensive restoration, they have been professionally mastered from the best existing materials, which mean that damage and wear is visible but there is clarity to the image (many of the films look quite crisp) and the soundtrack. This is a true work of cinematic curation and preservation. Full review here.
5 – Mad Max: High Octane Collection (Warner, Blu-ray) is really the ultimate Mad Max special edition. Anchoring the set is the Mad Max: Fury Road / Mad Max: Fury Road Black & Chrome (Warner, Blu-ray) double feature of the original theatrical release and Miller’s preferred B&W version of the film (which is also available separately). The monochrome treatment creates an intense experience and I can see Miller’s passion for it; it has an even more timeless, mythic quality, liked a legend carved in stone and come to life. It’s packaged up with the original Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1987), along with a 4K UltraHD copy of Mad Max: Fury Road and bonus discs featuring the previously-available feature-length documentary The Madness of Max (on the making of the first film, DVD only) and a new documentary on the making of the Road Warrior.
6 – Raising Cain (Scream Factory, Blu-ray) is truly a collector’s edition. Along with the Blu-ray debut of one of Brian De Palma’s most polarizing films, the two-disc set includes what is being called a “Director’s Cut” but was actually edited by Peet Gelderblom, a commercial filmmaker and critic from The Netherlands, to reorder the film to De Palma’s original plan. This cut mainlines De Palma’s thematic obsessions and stylistic adventurousness into a narrative that slips into dreams and is jolted back out of them in startling cuts and De Palma blessed his efforts with praise and insisted that it be included as a “Director’s Cut” supplement. Full review here.
7 – McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), Robert Altman’s third film since staking out his claim on 1970s cinema with M*A*S*H (1970), turns the western myth into a metaphor for the fantasy of the American Dream colliding with the power of big business. Criterion’s 4K digital restoration restores the desaturated palette created by Vilmos Zsigmond for Altman, the somber, dipped-in-amber look of muted colors and candlelight, giving the film a richer texture (and this film has amazing textures) and a greater range of detail and color. Full review here.
8 – Moby Dick (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), John Huston’s 1956 film of Herman Melville’s whaling drama turned epic odyssey starring Gregory Peck plays the obsessed Captain Ahab, was scripted in collaboration with Ray Bradbury and shot by cinematographer Oswald Morris with a desaturated color palette to give the film a sepia quality to evoke the engraving and illustrations of the whaling era. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is part restoration and part recreation; colorist Greg Kimble spent eight months using digital tools to enhance the remastered materials and recreate Huston’s original color palette (read Robert Harris on the issues with the original elements). This is a labor of cinematic love. The disc includes featurette on the restoration and commentary.
9 – The Dekalog (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ambitions ten-part project made for Polish TV is arguably his masterwork: a delicate, intimate epic of tragedy and triumph among the emotionally battered proletariat of a dreary brutalist apartment complex in Warsaw. The ten stories inspired by the Ten Commandments and loosely connected by place and time are a study in close-up of the weather-beaten faces and battle-scared souls of everyday people. Each hour long drama stands on its own as a fully conceived film, but taken together it’s a beautiful, devastating, and profound work of art. Remastered by Criterion for its Blu-ray debut and new DVD release, with the feature film versions A Short Film About Killing (1988) and A Short Film About Love (1988) and other supplements. Full review here.
10 – One-Eyed Jacks (1961) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the only film directed by Marlon Brando, had been relegated to the public domain bins of home video until it was rescued from PD purgatory with a restoration by Universal Pictures and The Film Foundation from the original 35mm VistaVision negative. The stunning new 4K restoration reveals a vital western with vivid primal imagery, themes of friendship and betrayal out of Peckinpah (whose original screenplay was rewritten), and jagged drama honed with Method exercises and improvisation.
A dozen runners up (in alphabetical order)
Belladonna of Sadness (Cinelicious, Blu-ray), a lost 1973 classic of Japanese animation now found and restored, is indeed an erotic drama, but it’s nothing like the manga serials or sexually explicit anime horrors that comes to mind in the intersection of Japan, animation, and erotica. Part subversive folk tale, part rock ballad musical, and part experimental filmmaking, it is sophisticated and surprising.
Blood and Black Lace (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD), Mario Bava’s 1964 landmark, is my pick for the birth of the giallo, and the mix of poetic, haunting beauty with Grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is beautifully serves in this astounding 2K restoration from the original camera negative. Lots of great supplements too.
Blood Bath (Arrow/MVD, Blu-ray+DVD) lavishes the special edition treatment on a Roger Corman production famed for its multiple versions and this set features all four versions, three of them remastered in 2K from original film materials.
Blood Simple (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the assured 1984 debut feature from Joel and Ethan Coen, essentially created the neo-noir aesthetic of the late eighties. Criterion remasters it from a 4K restoration and replaces the jokey supplements of the earlier releases with terrific new interviews and visual commentary.
Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – The original 1942 feature is a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity from producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, who create mood not out of what is seen but what isn’t, including the sexuality that bubbles under the surface. A beautifully mastered disc with great supplements.
Cutter’s Way (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), starring Jeff Bridges as an easy-going beach boy and John Heard as a damaged, angry Vietnam vet who get tangled in a murder mystery, is an American classic that got lost during its 1981 release even as it was being championed by film critics like Siskel and Ebert. The Blu-ray debut by Twilight Time should help the next generation find it.
The Gang’s All Here (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), Busby Berkeley’s first Technicolor production and Alice Faye’s last musical, is a celebration of Technicolor craziness and production number excess that is nothing short of psychedelic, all slipped into a story as silly and slapdash as any of the era.
L’Inhumaine (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) is a silent movie delight, a mix of melodrama, avant-garde innovation, and cinematic brio, “A fantasia by Marcel L’Herbier” (as the credits read) with expressionist flair from collaborators Alberto Cavalcanti, Claude Autant-Lara, and Fernand Léger.
Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, is dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations, designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.
Let There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made the most radical documentaries produced during the war. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.
Losing Ground (Milestone, Blu-ray and DVD) is another priceless act of cinematic resurrection from Milestone, an underseen, practically lost 1982 feature from playwright turned filmmaker Kathleen Collins, who died of cancer in 1988. It’s an amazing discovery and a superbly-curated disc.
Private Property (Cinelicious, Blu-ray+DVD), a neat little sexually-charged 1960 psychological thriller starring Corey Allen and Warren Oates as drifters with a sociopathic edge, was considered lost until it was restored in 2016 and rereleased in theaters and on disc.
A Touch of Zen (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – King Hu’s romantic chivalry adventure of grand battles fought with the grace of a ballet with swords is a masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema. Criterion presents the new 4K restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute and L’Immagine Ritrovata.
Black and white on Blu-ray
What is the above list missing (apart from your favorite release, goddamit, how could you leave that off)? Film noir, obviously, a personal love of mine and a genre (style? sensibility? attitude?) given plenty of Blu-ray love in 2016. So just for fun, here’s my all film noir top 10 Blu-ray releases of the year. Just to change things up, this is in chronological order (by film release year).
I Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) (1941), with a swaggering Victor Mature and a demure Betty Grable, is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir.
Gilda (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) (1946) presents Rita Hayworth is at her most iconic as the forties sex-bomb in one of the most suggestive films of the era and the emotional violence between Johnny and Gilda still draws symbolic blood. It’s a gorgeous transfer.
The Chase (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) (1946), the nightmarish film noir adapted from the Cornell Woolrich novel The Black Path of Fear, has been around for decades on VHS and DVD in inferior (and some downright miserable) editions. The Film Foundation funded a restoration in 2012 and for the first time it is clean and clear and damage free, with restored contrasts that pulls the sea of shadow of the film’s nightmarish from the swamp of earlier versions and reveals the gorgeous photography of Franz Planer.
Cry of the City (Kino Classics, Blu-ray) (1948) – Directed by Robert Siodmak with a mix of studio expressionism and location authenticity, is a noir thriller with Victor Mature and Richard Conte that cranks up the atmosphere of corruption and betrayal and desperation. A strong transfer from a clean, well-preserved print with strong contrasts and a sharp image.
In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in arguably the greatest performances of their careers, is film noir with no guns or gangsters or femme fatales or blackmail schemes, yet it is among the most devastating noir dramas you’ll ever see: an ambiguous study of love torn apart from within. Criterion presents a flawless 2K digital transfer.
Try and Get Me! (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) (1950), directed by Cy Enfield, is one of the great lynch mob movies ever made and one of the most caustic social commentaries of anxiety and fear, set in the disillusionment of the American Dream in the post-war years and dosed with sociopathic anger. Restored by The Film Foundation and given its American disc debut by Olive Films in a good looking but bare bones edition.
Where The Sidewalk Ends (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) (1950) reunites Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, the stars from Otto Preminger’s breakthrough film Laura (1944), for a more streetwise cop drama with a bare-knuckle attitude. A superb Blu-ray debut, with a sharp image and rich contrasts.
Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) (1950), directed by Norman Foster and produced by star Ann Sheridan, is the rare film noir that opens in indifference and resentment and becomes a story of rediscovery and renewal. Great San Francisco location shooting and a terrific restoration funded by The Film Noir Foundation.
On Dangerous Ground (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) (1952), also from Nicholas Ray, stars Robert Ryan as a tightly-wound cop knotted into intolerant rage and Ida Lupino as the blind woman who rekindles his compassion in a noir that moves from the brutal city to snow-covered farm country and finds the same rage and fury in the heartland.
99 River Street (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) (1953), the great scuffed-knuckles noir from director Phil Karlson (the toughest film noir director) and actor John Payne, is one of most underappreciated film noirs of the 1950s. A new HD transfer plus a new commentary track from film noir historian Eddie Muller.