Despite continued dire assertions that “DVD is dead” and that Blu-ray is a fading niche market in an era of downloadable movies, from our vantage point we’re seeing more desirable titles premiering on DVD and Blu-ray than ever before, even if some of these best new releases require a region-free player to see them, or are titles increasingly farmed out to independents charging higher prices than we’ve gotten used to. This year we give a particular round of applause to labels like Olive Films, Inception Media Group, Cohen Film Collection, and Flicker Alley, places run but dedicated, film-savvy entrepreneurs who clearly love these movies as much as we do.
And so, in ascending order, here’s our list of the best of the best of 2013:
10. Paul Williams – Still Alive (DVD only; Virgil Films)
The past decade has been great for documentaries about singers and songwriters: Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008), Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?), Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (both 2010). Paul Williams Still Alive (2011) is yet another funny, moving and ultimately revelatory portrait of the ubiquitous if diminutive songwriting superstar, who seemed to vanish into thin air after the early 1980s. Director Stephen Kessler’s unusual approach makes the show as much about his mostly awkward personal relationship with his reluctantly willing subject, who now seems much happier living in comparative obscurity than he did at the height of his celebrity. A profoundly entertaining film about a supremely talented artist whose intimate, confessional songs about loneliness and depression always seemed negated by the clownish, cocky media star far more complex than anyone imagined.
9. The Damned (Cohen Film Collection)
Submarine movies come in all shapes and sizes, but René Clément’s The Damned (1947) is the most authentic submarine movie we’ve ever seen, more so even than Wolfgang Petersen’s celebrated Das Boot (1981). And it is by far the most immediate. Told in flashback by a French doctor, Guilbert (Henri Vidal), the film follows a German U-boat loaded to the gills with VIPs: fervent Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and their lovers, all fleeing from Oslo hoping to reach South America in the last days of the war. Considering when it was made, the film is a technical marvel, accomplishing many of the same kinds of innovative claustrophobic camerawork usually credited to the much later Das Boot. It seamlessly blends new footage shot aboard a submarine with studio sets and wartime stock footage, while the jumble of fast-changing political (and economical and sexual) loyalties aboard this underwater bunker is equally fascinating, eventually becoming a microcosm of Europe during those chaotic last days of the Third Reich. This Gaumont title distributed by Cohen Media Group looks nearly perfect in high-def. Good extras include an audio commentary and hour-long Clément documentary.
8. The Right Stuff (Warner Home Video)
“They were called test pilots, and no one knew their names.” The Right Stuff (1983) is the best American movie of the 1980s. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book and adapted and directed by Philip Kaufman, the movie essentially tells two stories: Chuck Yeager’s exploits as a test pilot, in particular his attempt to break and go beyond the sound barrier; and the earliest days of NASA, as seen through the eyes of its seven Mercury Program astronauts (and their wives). The material is by itself compelling, but what makes The Right Stuff so special is in the telling. It tells its familiar story of heroic American pioneers in unusual and unexpected ways. Some see it as a modern variation of John Ford’s last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), an apt comparison. In Ford’s film, a cowboy and gunfighter emblematic of the Old West, played by John Wayne, essentially steps aside so that an aspiring attorney, James Stewart, symbolizing a tamer, civilized West, can take his place. The lawyer becomes a celebrated political figure while the once-famous gunfighter dies in total anonymity, completely forgotten except by his closest friends. In The Right Stuff Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is the Wayne character (even if Shepard plays him like Gary Cooper), while the seven Mercury astronauts are Stewart’s. In some ways it’s the last great movie epic with, among other things, the subsequent CGI revolution and Ron Howard’s obscenely overrated Apollo 13 making not the slightest dent in its lasting impact. It simultaneously satirizes Cold War politics and mass media hyperbole with its prefabricated American heroes yet, almost indescribably, this only serves to make each act of personal bravery all the more awe-inspiring. In a way, the Mercury astronauts are also Wayne’s character, outwardly enjoying the benefits and pitfalls of celebrity, with the public oblivious to or simply not interested in their genuine but mostly private and personal heroism. The Blu-ray has been among the most anticipated releases of the last few years, and from a technical standpoint it does not disappoint, offering a near-perfect video presentation supported by spectacularly good audio. There are numerous extra features, though nearly all are ported over from a 2003 DVD release.
7. Olive Films
More than any other home video label in recent years, Olive Films has been a movie-lover’s dream come true. Culling mainly from Paramount’s long-neglected library holdings, they plucked from obscurity movies never before released to home video and have presented them with dazzlingly good high-def transfers. Neglected films, particularly from Republic Pictures’ B-movies, previously available on VHS and DVD with awful, ancient video transfers, have been revelations as Olive Blu-rays. From Betty Boop to ‘50s sci-fi to classic and recent French thrillers, Olive Films is the home video label of the year.
6. The Vincent Price Collection (Shout! Factory)
American International Pictures releases licensed from MGM, this Halloween release containing House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Witchfinder General (1968), and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) brought back fond memories of the NuArt Theater’s glorious AIP film festival of 20 years ago, when these movies, available then only in the murkiest of panned-and-scanned video transfers, could be experienced as they were meant to be seen: good 35mm prints on a big, wide screen. These high-def transfers, with their rich color, gorgeous cinematography and extraordinarily good art direction, reveal riches lost when they were played to death on TV throughout the seventies and eighties. Shout! also went the extra mile combining MGM’s preexisting featurettes with some wonderful new material, including introductions to most of the films by Mr. Price himself, videotaped for Iowa Public Television back in the 1980s!
5. The Puppetoon Movie (Inception Media Group)
A contemporary and in many ways equal of Walt Disney but minus Walt’s business acumen, producer-director George Pal is best remembered today for his pioneering efforts in the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) among them. But before all that, Pal made his name with the Puppetoons, one-reel shorts mostly employing the rare form of three-dimensional replacement animation. Unlike stop-motion, in which a single model is articulated one frame at a time, Pal’s Puppetoons involved carving and painting dozens upon dozens of heads and legs for a single character, reportedly upwards of 9,000 separate carvings in all for a single short. Replacing various body parts for each frame of film, the result was uncannily smooth and expressive facial reactions and motion, something like “liquid wood.” The new 2-disc Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, released independently and limited to 3,000 copies (available at www.b2mp.net), is really two feature films and bonus shorts all in high-def, plus The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal presented in standard-definition, along with myriad extra features. In addition to The Puppetoon Movie, featuring ten unabridged Puppetoons plus newer material, the set also includes the high-definition premiere of The Great Rupert (1950), Pal’s first live-action feature. Bonus Puppetoon shorts included on The Puppetoon Movie’s original DVD release are present, but the real treat are seven additional bonus shorts being released for the first time in any home video format, shorts in high-definition licensed from Paramount and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
4. Nashville (Criterion)
For once the tag lines were accurate: “Wild. Wonderful. Sinful. Laughing. Explosive.” Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), one of the best films of the 1970s, is a divisive, inarguably indulgent film, but also one uniquely experimental and prophetic, especially so when it was new. The epic, 160-minute has no single protagonist and instead is a tapestry cutting among 24 major characters and numerous minor ones. It has no plot to speak of, despite an undercurrent of political maneuvering and a vague exploration of professional ambition and fame set against Nashville’s country music scene. Altman had been evolving toward this kind of storytelling beginning with M*A*S*H (1970) and, after crystalizing the form in Nashville would return to it again in the underrated A Wedding (1978), the somewhat overrated The Player (1992) and a few others. But in 1975 Nashville was quite daring, the work of a supremely confident, in some ways self-destructive filmmaker to whom ordinary movie-making rules did not apply. Nashville had previous been released by owner Paramount as an okay if no-frills DVD in 2000. Criterion’s Blu-ray offers vastly improved picture and wonderfully immersive sound, the latter vitally important in fully appreciating the work’s complex sound design. The new Blu-ray-plus-DVD combo also includes scads of extra features, including an original making-of documentary featuring some of the film’s key participants.
3. Pierre Étaix (Criterion)
Though we like to think we’re well-versed in the art of film comedy, we confess we had never even heard of circus clown-turned-actor-director Pierre Étaix until Criterion’s revelatory boxed set of this delightful disciple of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. Included are three charming short films and all five of his ‘60s/early ‘70s features: The Suitor, As Long As You’ve Got Your Health, Le grand amour, and Land of Milk and Honey. The transfers of these long-unavailable films (due to legal problems) all look and sound great and, happily, the 85-year-old Étaix is on-hand to introduce each film.
2. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Criterion)
One of Criterion’s best-ever home video releases, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is also an incredible value. Smart shoppers were able to purchase the set at one point for less than $100, but even at its suggested retail price of $224.95, for 25 feature films plus the many valuable extra features it’s still quite a bargain. Most readers are probably unaware that a near-simultaneous release in Japan, but covering only the first 18 movies, retails for a wallet-busting￥ 56,700, or about $550. That’s more than twice Criterion’s SRP yet minus the last seven films. The movies, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the eponymous wandering masseur and gambler, represent Japanese genre filmmaking at its finest. Though popular, the original films, released between 1962 and 1973, are a bit less highly regarded in Japan than in America, where Japanese film scholars have been quicker to acknowledge their visual and aural virtuosity, to say nothing of Katsu’s unforgettable characterization. Directed by such genre masters as Kenji Misumi, Kazuo (not Issei) Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka and, occasionally, offbeat outside talent like Satsuo Yamamoto and Kihachi Okamoto, and backed by outstanding cinematography and marrow-penetrating scores by composers as varied as Akira Ifukube and Isao Tomita, taken as a whole the Zatoichi series is one of the great epic stories of World Cinema. At the center of things, naturally, is Shintaro Katsu, a fascinating figure who gradually took full control of the film series and later continued it on Japanese network television when the domestic film market could no longer support it or much of anything else. The series began at Daiei Studios but as that company teetered toward bankruptcy Katsu began producing them himself, under the aegis of his Katsu Productions. When Daiei finally succumbed he move the series to Toho for its last handful of entries, so today ownership of the films is divided between Toho and Kadokawa Pictures, inheritors of the Daiei film library. That Criterion was able to negotiate a licensing agreement for all 25 films into a single boxed set is an achievement all by itself. That the films can now be enjoyed sequentially in consistently gorgeous transfers is yet another.
1. Cinerama Holiday/Cinerama South Seas Adventure (Flicker Alley)
Let me say this right up front: you’re going to want to get these. The original Cinerama travelogues were never exhibited in conventional movie theaters, never shown on television, and until now, never before released to home video. Indeed, after about 1963 they weren’t shown anywhere. Restoring these once hugely-popular but virtually lost films has been a personal crusade of many film buffs, historians, and preservationists, but it took the tenacity and ingenuity of Cinerama reconstructionist David Strohmaier to get the job done, aided by innumerable craftsmen and technicians. Via distributor Flicker Alley, the first two Cinerama Blu-ray releases, This Is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer (1958) were issued last year to much-deserved acclaim. These discs were beautifully packaged, compromised only by the lesser elements available: 70mm film. These next two releases, Cinerama South Seas Adventure and Cinerama Holiday (1955) have gone back to the original three-strip, six-perf high original camera negatives, replacing unusable bits and pieces with three-strip material deposited with the Library of Congress. The results are, in a word, glorious, and Strohmaier’s exacting recreation of the original road show experience comes as close as possible to replicating the Cinerama experience. It’s still not quite true Cinerama: a large, deeply curved screen is essential in order to experience the “audience participation” effects of the process, but it’s darn close. Further, the Blu-ray (a DVD version of the film is also included, but you’ll definitely not want to watch the film in that format) comes with many invaluable extra features including, appropriately, a reproduction of the original theater programs.