Cornel Wilde’s grim, fatalistic end-of-the-world thriller No Blade of Grass is a forgotten dystopian classic of its time. Gritty and brutal, built on fears of ecological devastation through pollution and overcrowding (with hints of genetic manipulation gone bad), this 1970 eco-apocalypse thriller seems to have gotten lost in the overcrowded apocalypse now science fiction cinema of the era.
Adapted from the novel The Death of Grass by John Christopher, it has vague resemblances to the nuclear holocaust thriller Panic in Year Zero in its basic premise of a man hardening to deal with the brutal new world order to save his family. But in place of nuclear war (the favored device of most apocalyptic films of the era) is ecological collapse: a virus poisons the world’s grass and cereal crops and causes a dire food shortage. As panic spreads across the globe, John Custance (Nigel Davenport), a former military officer and an affluent husband and father in London, makes plans to take his family north to his brother’s fortified compound, prepared for just such an emergency. But he puts off leaving until it is almost too late: mobs start looting, riots break out and London is put under martial law with roadblocks posted to prevent a flight from the city. To save his family, John becomes as hard and as ruthless as the looters, the rogue militias and the roving gangs preying upon the citizens fleeing the cities.
Cornel Wilde is not the most subtle of directors. Here he’s a provocateur, favoring primal images to make his points. A montage of scenes of nuclear tests, overcrowding, and pollution poured into the waters, pumped into the skies and spread over crops in the form of pesticide opens the film as Wilde’s narration sets the stage of environmental devastation. Early in the film, as John meets with his brother in a city pub, images of famine and starvation and long lines for food rations play on TV news while customers gorge on the lavish buffet spread out in the bar. Wilde hammers the point home in blunt terms until the irony and social commentary shifts from a statement decadence to the willful ignorance of a population that still believes it can hold out. Flashforwards hint at the horrors to come while flashbacks recall a time before such threats were even imaginable. It’s a rather clumsy and unwieldy tactic as executed by Wilde, and it tends to confuse the narrative until the audience gets used to his style, but it’s all part of his rabbit-punch assault on our sensibilities.
If you think Top Ten film lists are arbitrary, try putting together a “best of” for DVD and Blu-ray. What’s the criteria? The best movies? Quality of video and audio mastering? Creative featurettes and archival supplements? Historical importance? Cult interest? Or some balance of all these?
I’m all for the balance, which makes it as subjective presentation as there is, so allow me to break it down into a few categories to spread out the kudos. After all, it’s hard gauge the qualitative difference between a single disc debut of a historical cult item and a deluxe box set of a classic Hollywood blockbuster from the golden age.
I did not see everything that came out in 2011, of course, or even most of it, and my viewing choices were (like anybody’s) influenced as much by my own interests as by editorial demands, and shaped by deadlines and time constraints. In particular I did not see as many manufacture-on-demand releases as I would have liked, simply because there are far more interesting releases than I have the time to see. But based on what I did get the chance to watch and explore, here are my choices for the best DVD and Blu-ray releases of 2011.
DVD of the Year
Island of Lost Souls (Criterion)
“Are we not men?” Paramount’s 1932 answer to Universal’s gothic horrors is appropriately less Universal gothic than Paramount elegance, yet it is also more weird, cruel and transgressive, a wicked horror with Charles Laughton as a the proto-Dr. Mengele vivisectionist who operates on his subjects without anesthesia or compassion in an operating room he calls “The House of Pain.” Themes of humanity, identity, instinct, sex, bestiality, compassion and cruelty roil around in the hothouse jungle fabricated in the studio out of fog and flourishes suggesting the primitive and the perverse, a feral world as claustrophobic as it is intimidating.
It has been one of most requested classics for years. Though released on VHS and laserdisc in the nineties, it had been MIA on DVD, in large part because of the deplorable condition of the vault elements. No negative exists and the best 35mm prints were still damaged and incomplete. Criterion took on the task of preparing the DVD by piecing together the best possible version from multiple sources, from a damaged fine-grain 35mm positive to a 16mm print from a private collector, and digitally repairing as much damage as possible. The result is the first complete presentation of the most perverse and the least seen of thirties horror movie landmarks. There are better looking and sounding discs this year, and more exhaustive collections of supplements, but the effort expended in creating this release and the goodwill of the contributors makes this labor of love my pick for the best of 2011. DVD and Blu-ray. Reviewed on Parallax View.
Special Edition of the Year
The Social Network (Sony)
Directed with typical technical fastidiousness and textural richness by David Fincher from a verbally dexterous script by Aaron Sorkin, this story of the creation of Facebook is less interested in how the website was created than in how a young, arrogant genius with no people skills managed to deconstruct and reconstruct the social experience as a web-based simulacrum: a club that even Mark Zuckerberg (or, rather, “Mark Zuckerberg”) could thrive in. This is a story of hubris and ambition, of friendship and jealousy, of class and cultural cache, of success as status and revenge.
Fincher is one of the most exacting filmmakers in the world today and the supplements on the DVD and Blu-ray release offer a glimpse into his process, from a reflective commentary track to the superbly produced feature-length documentary “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?,” among the many supplements. It’s as intelligent and illuminative a collection of supplements as you’ll find on DVD/Blu-ray and it’s a superbly-mastered disc to boot. DVD and Blu-ray. Reviewed on Parallax View.
Blu-ray of the Year
Taxi Driver (Sony)
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.
The film received a top-to-bottom digital restoration, which premiered at Berlin before Sony’s Blu-ray debut of the modern classic. The new restoration doesn’t “clean up” the image so much as sharpen the texture of the portrait — it’s so visceral it you can feel the heat and grime waft off the screen — and the Blu-ray features all the supplements of previous DVD releases plus the original commentary track recorded by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader for the 1986 laserdisc: one of the very first commentary tracks ever recorded. New to this edition is the interactive Blu-ray exclusive “Script to Screen” function, which scrolls actual script pages (with Scorsese’s notations) along with the film. A great presentation of a great film. Reviewed on Parallax View.
Runner-up: Three Colors: Blue White Red (Criterion)
Krzysztof Kieslowski ended his career with this trilogy of delicately connected films that many hold as his greatest work. Criterion returns to the original materials for new high-definition masters for the Blu-ray debut, and they are stunning. In place of the commentary tracks from the previous Miramax DVD release, Criterion offers superb video essays for each film. Reviewed for Turner Classic Movies, linked via Parallax View.
Home Video Debut of the Year
The Prowler (VCI)
The long-awaited home video debut of Joseph Losey’s superb 1951 film has been one of those acknowledged classics of film noir that many have had to take on faith for far too long. Produced by Sam Spiegel and scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (behind front Hugo Butler), it is a classic of working class envy and restless resentment of the “bad breaks” that arrogance and assumed entitlement get you. Van Heflin is superb as the sour Horatio Alger, a former golden boy turned brutal opportunist willing to do anything to get what he’s sure is due him, and he shifts from one pose to another to charm and cajole those around him with cold-blooded focus. It doesn’t look like a classic film noir—Losey uses light to reveal and lay bare rather than cast webs across the characters—and he saves the shadows for intimacy to show the corruption of emotion and the way desire clouds judgment. That subtle touch makes the savagery of the scheme all the more brutal.
All but absent from TV showings for decades and never officially released on home video in any form, comes from a restoration by the Film Noir Foundation partnered with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and an insightful collection of supplements. It is the best looking disc to come from VCI to date. DVD only. Reviewed on Videodrone.