Film is dead. Digital is dead. DVD is dead. Projection is dead. Downloading is dead. Whatever… In recent years, there’s been a noticeable uptick in the quality of home entertainment packages that are being put out into the marketplace. Extraordinary amounts of time, energy and expertise are sunk into every new release that hits the shelves, and here’s our small survey of some of the best from 2015.
“A sick film made by sick people and for sick people.” No, this wasn’t the hair-tearing front-page proclamations of some Mary Whitehouse-like moral guardian or conservative tabloid editor, but the words of Rank, the distributors of Nicolas Roeg’s baroque, time-switching study of an abusive relationship from 1980. Though the words ring of standard hyperbolic outrage, they appear ill-placed, especially as Bad Timing can now be seen as an extremely serious film which explores its subject without even a scintilla of fatuous provocation. And this new Blu-ray looks slick as all hell.
It’s not obvious where to begin with Bill Gunn’s one-of-a-kind Ganja & Hess from 1973. The framework and trappings of the Blaxploitation movie have been pulped together, frozen, smashed into a million pieces and then reconstructed as an experimental vampire movie. This was a gig that its writer-and-director took on as a something to fill up the fleapits, and it was duly sliced to ribbons after lukewarm preview screenings. Eureka’s Blu-ray edition does much to salvage its reputation as a vital fragment in the history of black independent cinema.
Those who thought that James Bond could be a mite unscrupulous when it came to extracting information from his prisoners might want to approach Sidney Lumet’s eye-wateringly violent The Offence with caution. Containing what might be considered a career-bests performance from Sean Connery, the film tells of ultra-jaded police detective Johnson who, while interrogating a man suspected of raping a child, just takes things a little too close to the edge. A fascinating film about about the impossibility of suppressing personal emotion in the search for justice (whatever that is).
July of 2015 saw the untimely death of wrestling star and sometime actor Roddy Piper at the age of 61, and the wave of remembrances often drew upon quotations from his starring role in 1988’s exemplary and ball-out fun sci-fi noir, They Live, by John Carpenter. We too are all out of bubble gum, but this new Blu-ray edition from Studio Canal allowed us to see the faces of those despicable alien interlopers with as-yet-unimagined clarity.
This anti-capitalist parable about financial self-sufficiency and its inherent pros and cons is the directorial debut of Michael Mann (not including the made-for-TV movie, The Jericho Mile) and it surely ranks as one of the most assured and soulful first features of the modern age. And it’s one of those movies where, even though it’s James Caan’s name up there in lights above the title, the real star of Thief is the the city of Chicago circa 1981, a locale where the seething underbelly of private, organised corruption is visible on every street and boulevard. It looks especially great on Arrow’s new Blu-ray edition.
Maybe this 1983 film can now be read as David Cronenberg’s answer to the question that haunts the waking dreams of cultural critics – is TV really better than film? Sadomasochism, digitised cult leaders, cancer epidemics and Debbie Harry stubbing a fag out on her bosom, the film still stands up as one of the director’s richest and most intellectually unhinged works, concerning our worrying relationship with the moving image and how it both damages and empowers us. With sex and gore.
John Ford’s rhapsodic John Wayne vehicle, The Quiet Man, is a film about the difficulty of returning to your roots that is played for salty guffaws, some of which definitely don’t concur with modern conceptions of political correctness. But the film is in essence a plea for peaceable co-existence, a critique of baseless, small-town territorial grudges, and a request that cultural outsiders are treated as equals, not as aliens. This ace Masters of Cinema edition features a making-of documentary about the film as well as a newly-commissioned video essay by John Ford expert, Tag Gallagher.
This fuggy Slovakian parable from 1968 by Eduard Grečner concerns a surly potter named Dragon (Radovan Lukavský) who is forcibly deposed from his dirt-poor mountain hamlet. The twist is, he didn’t really do anything wrong. He re-enters the fray at the beginning of the film sporting a mean-looking eye-patch – a brilliant technical touch which suggests that Dragon is not a man to be meddled with while also allowing Grečner to flip back and forth in the timeline so we gradually learn the reason for this mysterious man’s outsider status. A peach of a release from Second Run DVD.
The ethereal complexities of the love triangle have seldom been expressed in such bracing and emotionally harrowing detail as they are in Fei Mu’s postwar classic, Spring In A Small Town. Aside from the actors and dialogue, Fei – who died at the age of 44 and made only one more film – creates extra hits of pure emotion through gliding camera movements and the melancholy manner in which frames his conflicted characters against the unforgiving landscape. This BFI Blu-ray gave a long-out-of-circulation classic a vital new platform.
This new Blu-ray transfer of Claude Lanzmann’s monolithic audit of the Holocaust is important as it comes with four supplementary works made from footage which Lanzmann shot while making Shoah, but which he didn’t feel gelled with the film’s central thesis and structure. Two of the films examine the “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt: A Visitor from the Living (1999) is from the perspective of a Red Cross envoy who was fooled by a grotesque, Nazi-orchestrated theatre which (briefly) presented the town as a cheery little burg; Last of the Unjust (2013) examines decisions made by a Rabbi ensconced as one of the population’s main spokespeople.
The utterly harrowing Sobibór, 14 October 1943, 4pm (2001) plays with the cut-glass intrigue of a thriller, detailing an innovative and violent escape plan from Sobibór concentration camp prior to its closure, while 2010’s The Karski Report details Polish diplomat Jan Karski’s meeting with Roosevelt and his attempts to convey the horrors occurring in Europe. With the addition of these four extra films, one of the greats of cinema just got greater.
Made at the same time that the kids of the French New Wave were enshrining puppy love in real, lived-in locations, Nagisa Ôshima’s roistering misery aria, Cruel Story of Youth, is a film apparently hell bent on quashing any suggestion that hope springs eternal for the wide eyed go-getters post-war generation. A shattering film, with a final shot that surely must rank as one of the most utterly bleak in the history of cinema. The colours on this Masters of Cinema release pop hard.
The Annual LWLies Award for Excellence in the Field of Cinematic Excavation goes this year to the Second Run DVD team for digging up this singular and shattering Czech documentary from 1972 by director Dusan Hanák. At once life-affirming and ineffably melancholic, the film takes on the simple task of filming those members of the elderly and infirm scattered around an unnamed (and poverty-stricken) environ and having them answer questions about, not so much their lives, but the definitions of “life” they have forged from this privileged position of experience. Exceptional.
Georges Franju’s endlessly fascinating Gothic horror offers a sincere homage to Universal’s monster movie cycle while tackling modern concerns such as medical ethics, body image and unseemly family ties. And it also contains gag-inducing gore effects. Though simple and methodical in its telling (almost like an operation in itself), the story here is different with every viewing, and it’s up to the viewer to decide whether Pierre Brasseur’s Doctor Génessier is a vile monster or a hopeless romantic.
There’s a scene in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in which James Franco’s tin-pot gangster Alien boasts of owning a TV which plays Scarface on a loop all day, every day. You could imagine that if the director Quentin Tarantino ever succumbed to petit gangsterism, his TV would show King Hu’s 1967 martial arts epic, Dragon Inn. It is the simple tale of a demonic eunuch attempting to cleanse the country of a rival family – “you must not chop down the grass, but pull up the roots” is his poetic way of justifying mass murder. A vital restoration by Masters of Cinema.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 masterwork concerns the human paradox of love, how physical impediments such as walls, doors, jobs, clothes, streets, parks, trees, cars and pretty much all physical matter – including cork facepaint – double (beyond their prime function) as a barrier between the pure formulation of a meaningful romantic connection and our own listless factory setting. It’s a bittersweet film, about the impossibility of love, the impossibility of romance, the impossibility of ever connecting with another person on anything more than a primal level. Monica Vitti is radiant, Alain Delon hopelessly dashing. If there’s no hope for them, what hope do we have? This Blu-ray edition will help us to fund out.
Call it one of the all-time great westerns, call it one of the all-time great films, whatever your thoughts on John Ford’s low-slung take on the infamous Gun Fight at the OK Corral, Arrow did a bang-up job with their Blu-ray release. If it wasn’t enough to see Joe MacDonald’s high-contrast monochrome cinematography making the Old West look like a land of shadows and light, this package comes with Allan Dwan’s nifty 1939 take on the same material, with Randolph Scott accepting the job of Sheriff of Tombstone in place of Henry Fonda’s supremely languorous law-bringer.
Vojtech Jasný aggressively bittersweet All My Good Countrymen was produced during the “Prague Spring” of 1968 – the months preceding the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia – and charts the seismic shifts in agrarian farming practices which were foisted upon a people who were content with the old ways. If that sounds a little dry, then it couldn’t be further from the truth, as this quasi-surreal panorama of shifting cultural and political tides manages to compress all the breadth and scope of a TV serial into a sub-two hour runtime, revealing itself as one of Second Run DVD’s finest and most user-friendly releases. Once seen, you’ll never be able to set foot in a butcher’s shop again.
You can’t move for masterworks in this breathtaking Blu-ray box set which collects together a gigantic chunk of work by Danish maestro of the austere, Carl Theodor Dreyer. If, for the purposes of this appreciation, we’re forced at gunpoint to select a single highlight, it would probably be the inclusion of the director’s mesmerising swan song, Gertrud, from 1964, which despite being maligned when it was release, has evolved into what many (including us) believe to be his magnum opus. The sheer amount of love that has gone into putting this set together is palpable, and this is a cinephile Christmas gift without equal.
Full disclosure: I wrote the booklet essay for this Arrow Blu-ray release of Robert Altman’s 1977 psychodrama, but that’s not going to stop me from heartily endorsing it in the strongest terms possible. What it’s about remains as illusive as a half-remembered dream (which, in fact, is how it was written), chronicling the lives of two eccentric and mysterious women, brilliantly played by Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, as they undergo a transference of personality. The film plays like a riddle that the director really doesn’t want you to expend too much time solving, instead luxuriating in the character detail and the ripe social and political subtexts.
With so many great Blu-ray and DVD releases scheduled every week, we hope you understand this this top twenty is culled from the titles that we were able to see. Some films inevitably slip through the net, but we’re extremely glad that the Masters of Cinema package of Raymond Bernard’s stunning World War One saga wasn’t one of them.
The colourful camaraderie of French recruits unable to comprehend the true horror of battle is chipped away at across 110 agonising minutes as the wooden crosses of the title begin to amass at a dizzying rate. Though it’s a story that’s as old and as obvious at the hills, Bernard (a director who remains largely unheralded in the annuls of contemporary cinephilia) employs every trick in the book as well as inventing a few new ones to express the sights, sounds, smells and sorrow of life in the trenches. If you’re looking to take a gamble on any of this year’s Blu-ray releases, this really is the one.
Published 21 Dec 2015
From Mad Max to Sunset Song, find out what came out on top in our annual countdown of the year’s best releases.
We take stock of the (nearly) complete directorial oeuvre of one of modern cinema’s true masters.