Despite nearly everyone’s insistence (so it seems) that physical media is dead as a doornail, 2014 has, truly, been a remarkable year for home video, Blu-ray particularly. From an agonizingly slow start when the format was new, the flow of classic titles really exploded in the last year. It’s been hard to keep up with all of the terrific catalog titles, even if most are being sublicensed by the majors to boutique labels like Olive Films, Kino, and Twilight Time.
Region-free Blu-ray players have become an essential piece of hardware, with so many of the best titles emanating from the damndest places. For instance, some of the best ‘50s Hollywood Westerns and sci-fi pictures, for instance, are currently exclusively available from German labels. Further, video transfers and better extras from non-U.S. labels (Britain’s Arrow Films, for instance) are often far superior to their American counterparts. Sporadically, many French, Spanish, German, Italian, Indian, and other countries occasionally offer domestic Blu-rays of their country’s classic films with English subtitles.
But perhaps most exciting developments in the Blu-ray realm have been the growing list of classic 3-D titles and the continuing reemergence of long-lost Cinerama releases. These movies were next to impossible to see anywhere in the world at all. Today one can enjoy a very good approximation of what it was like for paying audiences when these movies were new, in the comfort of one’s own home. And that, folks, is simply amazing.
Narrowing a Best of Blu-ray list to only ten titles proved a daunting task. This is not a list of the greatest movies released in 2014 or even necessarily the greatest video transfers. In large part, however, it does take into consideration the work that went into reconstructing/restoring/presenting it (as opposed to simply releasing a preexisting video transfer), the “bang for the buck,” particularly in terms of the results versus the funds available to the label to do the work, and the creativity and ingenuity involved in the creation of extra features.
And away we go…
1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1962)
This extremely smart and adult science fiction film seemed pretty good when for years it ran panned-and-scanned on commercial television, but the BFI’s outstanding Blu-ray offers a picture-perfect transfer of its extremely impressive ‘scope photography (and special tinting for its opening and closing reels), with audio far superior to Anchor Bay’s years-ago DVD release. All of the fine extras from that earlier release have been ported over, along with many fine new ones – look for Leo McKern, in one his last interviews, doing a hilarious imitation of star Edward Judd!
2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Fans of Stanley Kramer’s all-star epic comedy have for years been clamoring for a reconstruction of this film’s short-lived original roadshow version. Criterion’s release reinstates nearly all of the lost footage, which subtly but effectively improves the film’s pacing, even with its longer running time, adding fine little bits of comedy long thought lost. The many fine extra features include 2014’s Audio Commentary Track of the Year, a deeply affectionate yet densely informative track that’s a real joy to listen to.
3. The Werner Herzog Collection (Werner Herzog, 1967-1987)
I envy those who’ll “blind-buy” this amazing collection of shorts and features, viewers unprepared for Herzog’s uniquely hypnotic, visionary films. If this set, well under $100 had included only Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) it would have been worth every penny, but this boxed set includes scads more films and shorts, and hours-upon-hours of extra features content.
4. Seven Wonders of the World (Tay Garnett & Paul Mantz & Andrew Marton & Ted Tetzlaff & Walter Thompson, 1956)
David Strohmaier and his plucky band of restoration artists rescued three Cinerama titles from oblivion in 2014, the other two being Search for Paradise (1957) and Holiday in Spain (1960). Seven Wonders of the World is the best of the three, a visually spectacular tour around the globe chockfull of natural and man-made sights from a fascinating, singularly 1950s “Free World” perspective. More than any other movies from its time, the Cinerama format is the movie’s equivalent of a time machine, an experience not to be missed. Crammed with great extras.
5. Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider get all the praise, but Jack Hill’s movies of the 1960s and early ‘70s are in their own way just as revolutionary and innovative. Another gorgeous high-def transfer from Arrow Films, this is one of Jack Hill’s best (and frequently startling) films. Despite its ultra-low budget, this is a fascinating and smart little movie you’ll not want to pass up. As usual for Arrow, this is packed with creative extra features.
6. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
Mario Bava’s enormously influential sci-fi horror film (Ever see Alien?) is an eye-popping parade of surrealistic sets, costumes, and special effects, but even in Bava’s home country the best anyone could come up with until was a widescreen DVD. Scorpion’s new Blu-ray rectifies all that, with a gorgeously, richly-colored transfer that at long-last does Bava’s vastly-underrated work justice. Add to that a densely packed, fact-filled and observant audio commentary by Bava authority Tim Lucas and you’ve got one of the year’s best releases.
7. Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953)
This classical era 3-D production was initially released Region B only by British label Panamint Cinema but, almost under the radar, they’ve reissued it region-free. If you’ve got a 3-D set-up at home, this is one you’re going to want to get. A terrific desert noir, Inferno stars Robert Ryan as a wealthy, urban company president whose mettle is tested when his trophy wife and her secret lover abandon him (and his broken leg) in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization. Filmed in Technicolor (and thus requiring no less than six strips of 35mm film for each shot!) this release is a thing of stereoscopic beauty, perhaps the best-looking 1950s 3-D release on Blu-ray so far.
8. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)
In this age of CGI excess, the gargantuan roadshows of producer Samuel Bronston seem downright tasteful and restrained now, and despite their occasional shortcomings remain intelligent, thoughtful, and undeniably awesome in their full-scale epicness. This one, set during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, features an incredible reproduction of turn of the century Beijing, all built full-scale on the plains of Spain. On big home theater screens (I watched this on a 90-inch screen), the film’s grandeur is truly a sight to behold, especially via the picture’s stunning restoration from its original Super Technirama 70 negative.
9. The Mack Sennett Collection (various, 1909-1933) Flicker Alley; ALL
A revelatory set of rescued silent short subjects (plus a couple of feature) that demonstrate the incredible range not just of producer Sennett but also his company of comics, gag writers, and directors. Those whose image of Mack Sennett is limited to the Keystone Kops will be enormously surprised – and delighted – by the range of these delightful comedies. Many fine extras, including a genuinely touching This Is Your Life.
10. The Vincent Price Collection, Volume 2 (various, 1958-1972)
A worthy follow-up to Shout! Factory’s Volume 1, this set – featuring House on Haunted Hill, Return of the Fly, The Raven, Comedy of Terrors, Tomb of Ligeia, The Last Man on Earth, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Most were licensed from MGM, but Shout! went the extra mile licensing and insuring good transfers of the Allied Artist Haunted Hill and Fox’s Return of the Fly, as well as locating and creating lots of good new supplements.
Some Honorable Mentions:
The Essential Jacques Demy, The Sicilian Clan, Gravity (3-D), Gulliver’s Travels, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Tomorrow, Judex, Man Hunt, His and Hers, The Death Kiss, Dragonfly Squadron (3-D), The Bubble (3-D), Last of the Unjust, The Conformist, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Girl Hunters, The François Truffaut Collection.