We never stop recovering our film history. Lost movies are being found and older films on the verge of self-destruction are getting preserved and in many cases painstakingly restored, thanks to the digital tools that give filmmakers, producers, studios, and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods.
The preservation of our film legacy is essential, but it’s just an ideal until the preserved films become available for viewers at large to watch, not just limited to brief festival appearances. Film history needs to be living history, and thanks to DVD and Blu-ray, streaming and digital downloads, and (ironically) the shift from celluloid to digital projection, classic films are more available than ever.
This list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks, restorations of great films, and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers in 2015 in theaters, on home video, or via streaming services. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers across the country now have a chance to see regardless of where they live.
1 – Out 1
Set in “Paris and its double,” Jacques Rivette’s Nouvelle Vague epic (a staggering 12 ½ hours long!) is a film of doubles and reflections: two rival theater groups each rehearsing a different play by Aeschylus (“Prometheus Bound” and “The Seven Against Thebes”), two theater group leaders who were once lovers, two street hustlers (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) who stumble into the conspiracy of “The Thirteen,” which turns out to be both a fictional creation by Balzac and a contemporary cabal that includes some of the characters in the film. Rivette, who collaborated with the cast to fill out his outline of a script, musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that his more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. Meanwhile their lives go on, even if their projects are sidelined, shut down, or simply left to evaporate as they move on to their next project.
Made for French television (which rejected the 12 ½ hour production), Out 1 was only sporadically screened in festivals and special showings over the past four decades and Out 1: Spectre, the shorter version that Rivette created for theaters (a mere 4 ½ hours long), didn’t fare much better. Carlotta Films restored the complete version from the 16mm negative and original sound mix and it made its official theatrical debut in New York this year almost 45 years after it was completed. It has since traveled across the country (I get to finally see it on the big screen at SIFF Cinema in Seattle in early January), is coming to Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber on January 12 (with the shorter Out 1: Spectre as a bonus program), and is currently available to stream in its entirety on Fandor.
2 – Sherlock Holmes
The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film to feature Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and it is the only screen appearance of stage legend William Gillette, the man considered the definitive stage Sherlock Holmes in his day. And in many ways it is the most important Holmes film ever made. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years and revived the play one final time 1915. The Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras.
Gillette’s interpretation informed the screen incarnations of Holmes that followed, not just in terms of performance but in the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse with his tentacle-like control of the underworld), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. Long assumed lost until original materials of the 1920 French release, which was divided into four serialized chapters but otherwise apparently uncut, were discovered in the collection of the Cinemateque Française, this restoration premiered in early 2015, nearly 100 years after its debut, playing at film festivals and cinemateques and repertory programs before it was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in a beautiful special edition filled with supplementary (and complimentary) material. It gave fans all over the world a chance to see finally see the legendary Gillette along with a number of members of Gillette’s stage production reprising their roles along with members of the Essanay stock company.
3 – The Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali / Aparajito / Apur Sansar
In 1955 Satyajit Ray, a young graphic artist in the advertising industry, released his debut feature, a labor of love made independently over the course of two and a half years. Pather Panchali (aka Song of the Little Road, 1955), a portrait of life in a small, impoverished village in rural India, has texture and grace of a painting. Seen through the eyes of young Apu, it’s really about three generations of women in his home: elder Auntie, protective Mother, and bright-eyed older sister Durga. It was India’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, in part out of inspiration but also because it was made under similar conditions: little money, non-professional actors, a first-time director trying to capture a world that hadn’t been seen on screens. It was followed by Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1957), which takes the now teenage Apu and his family to the city of Benares, and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), a powerful story of love and tragedy that follows the adult Apu’s loss and rebirth. Together, they heralded the arrival of one of the great humanist directors of modern cinema, and for decades these films represented classic East Indian cinema in retrospectives and college campus films programs.
The original negatives of these film were lost in a fire twenty years ago. These new restorations, a collaboration between Criterion, Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, were reconstructed from the best surviving materials in 4K. They premiered at Cannes in May and played at festivals and art houses across the country in high-quality digital prints before Criterion released on Blu-ray and DVD in a lavish box set.
4 – Oklahoma!
The Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! was a transformative show for Broadway in 1943. It used musical numbers as dramatic moments of the story, expressing the emotions, taking the place of dramatic dialogue, and even moving the story along. It was a major evolution in a genre where shows tended act like variety shows and stop to showcase their songs. By the time it made it to the big screen, that style had become the norm and Oklahoma! (1955) the movie was no revolutionary production. In fact, it was a very faithful adaptation, one might say stagelike in its presentation, even with exteriors shot on location. That turned out to be a superb showcase for the new TODD AO system, a challenge to both the Cinerama and CinemaScope formats, which used a single, large-gauge strip of celluloid: 65mm negative run at 30 frames per second. And while filmmaker Fred Zinneman is not a natural as a musical director, his rather formal, stately approach works beautifully for TODD AO, using the scope of its widescreen to compose scenes across the frame with longer takes and fewer cuts, and using the clarity of the non-anamorphic widescreen to create a formidable sense of depth. A 35mm version, shot in the anamorphic CinemaScope process, was shot simultaneously and that’s the version that has been on TV and home video all these years.
A new 4k digital restoration of TODD-AO version, mastered from the interpositive (the negative was beyond resurrection), premiered at the TCM Film Festival in 2014 and came out on Blu-ray the same year, but in 2015 it came to theaters across the country in special showings in DCP. The 30fps format not only improved clarity on screenings, creating a more lifelike look without the distractions created by the controversial 60fps technology championed by James Cameron and Peter Jackson, it is a perfect match to the digital standard. This is one case where the digital projection revolution made possible screenings that would otherwise have been out of reach to the vast majority of cinemas. This was a revelation that could be shared with audiences on the big screen across the nation.
5 – Moana with Sound
Shot on the South Seas island of Savai’i by Robert Flaherty, Moana (1926) is (like his earlier Nanook of the North) not a true documentary record but a recreation of a long lost culture for the cameras created in collaboration with locals, who draw from their own historical memory and traditions. And it was the film that inspired the term “documentary,” which film critic (and later documentary producer) John Grierson coined while reviewing the film. The 1926 release was silent but Robert and Frances Flaherty (his wife was very much a partner on the project despite her lack of credit) wanted to accompany the film with the music (especially “the singing,” as Frances remarked back in 1926) of the people. So in 1975, their daughter Monica traveled back to Savai’i with documentary legend Richard Leacock to record a soundtrack, not just music but sound effects and dialogue in the regional dialect, for a rerelease of the film. The sound was added to a copy of the film and Moana With Sound released in 1980, but the version of the film available to Monica Flaherty at the time was a reedited version and quite worn.
This new restoration, produced by Bruce Posner and Sami van Ingen and released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Classics, restores the film from the best existing elements and marries the soundtrack (also cleaned up with new digital tools) to the superb imagery of the restoration, which preserves the texture of the photography as well as the beauty of the images.
Five more highlights, in alphabetical order:
The debut feature from Shirley Clarke turns a stage play originally produced by New York’s revolutionary Living Theater into an innovative work of cinema: experimental theater by way of cinéma verité with a self-aware sensibility, a drama in documentary form. Clarke was a pioneering American independent filmmaker before that label was even invented and Milestone Films has been working on Project Shirley, their program to restore and rerelease (in theaters and on home video) the works of Clarke, for years. The Connection (1962) arrived on Blu-ray this year, after the disc release of Clarke’s documentaries Portrait of Jason (1967) and Ornette: Made in America (1985), but it is ground zero for the project and her career.
The Epic of Everest
The film record of the third British ascent of Everest, was an event in itself in 1924. Its restoration is almost as much an event. Part travelogue, part ethnographic record, part historical document, and part adventure documentary, it is structured as a narrative without any recourse to contriving a dramatic spine, which is something that most non-fiction films of the era did. And in addition to chronicling the expedition, he presents the earliest film footage of traditional Tibetan people living in the mountains, a light ethnographic introduction to this culture cut off from world. Unavailable for years, with elements in the BFI film vault waiting for years to be resurrected, the restoration was completed and unveiled in 2011, and this year Kino Classics released it on a beautiful Blu-ray edition.
The House of Mystery (La Maison du Mystère)
Serials—the adventure cliffhangers what would play out in theaters before the main feature at a chapter a week—are commonly dismissed as kid stuff, glorified B-movies cranked out with little thought for story or character. France, however, produced some serials with high production values for adult audiences and The House of Mystery (1923), an epic story of love, jealousy, murder, blackmail, and injustice, is one of the most sophisticated you’ll have the pleasure to see, thanks to the DVD released by Flicker Alley, from a restoration produced by Eric Lange and Lobster Films.
In the Land of the Head Hunters
Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis made a career documenting the native tribes of the American and Canadian west in the early 20th century, preserving the imagery of a culture that was almost entirely eradicated through resettlement and assimilation. In the Land of the Head Hunters (1915) is neither documentary nor strictly recreation—Curtis wrote a melodramatic tale drawn from western mythology and European fairy tales as well as native cultures—but showcases traditional dances and rituals from the era before contact with white settlers through its story of love and war. Orphaned for decades and for years available only in an incomplete version, it was reconstructed in 2008. That’s the version that Milestone mastered for DVD and Blu-ray this year.
Produced by and starring Dick Powell, Pitfall (1948) is one of the greatest—and most adult—film noirs that even many film buffs have never heard of. The film came out on VHS and laserdisc decades ago but, as it was independently made and thus not protected by a studio, it fell through the cracks of preservation. The Film Noir Foundation financed a restoration from the best available elements, which was undertaken by the UCLA Film Archive, and Kino Classics has given the film its Blu-ray and DVD debut. It’s not pristine, mind you, but it preserves the superb photography shot on the busy streets of Los Angeles (not a studio backlot but real location that give the film a presence in the real lives of real people) and the low-key approach to an urban thriller invading the middle class suburbs.
And one major restoration missing from this list:
The Other Side of the Wind
After decades of failed attempts and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to complete Orson Welles’ legendary unfinished film, a drama about an old school filmmaker (played by John Huston) trying to remains relevant in the new Hollywood, it seemed that this new effort, spearheaded by Filip Jan Rymsza, Jens Koethner Kaul, and Frank Marshall (who worked on the original production with Welles), had every angle covered. They signed contracts with the folks with the film footage and the folks with the film rights and gathered a team with the expertise and commitment to actually undertake a reconstruction of a film that was never completed. 2015 was to be the year that The Other Side of the Wind, or at least some good-faith version of what Welles intended (as if anyone could imagine what would happen in the editing room as Welles reimagined the possibilities) finally saw the light of day. Then funds to complete editing ran short, which spawned a crowdfunding effort that raised over $400,000. Now a disagreement between Oja Kodar—Welles’ longtime partner and collaborator on the film—and project producer Filip Jan Rymsza has halted the process once again, before a frame has even been edited.
It’s hard know what the full story is (Wellesnet has been reporting on it from the initial announcement and provides the most complete record of the developments) and frankly no one is particularly shocked at the complications—it’s the nature of the project and the story Welles himself, for that matter—but we still hold out hope that someday we can at least see glimpses of what Welles last major labor of love could have been.