December 24, 2013
Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.
A note on my arbitrary selection process: it’s impossible to view even a fraction of a given year’s releases, so it’s likely you could compose a far superior list from what I haven’t seen. Each title passes a basic level of technical competence, but are not necessarily reference quality discs. For the most part I’m grateful to have them available at all. I’ve never had much use for bonus features (I could be watching another movie instead!), so many of those listed below are bare bones releases.
1. The Dawn Patrol (1930, Warner Archive DVD)/The Road to Glory (1936, Fox Cinema Archives DVD)
These two Howard Hawks WWI dramas depict the war machine as a circular assembly of death, its soldiers staying sane by focusing obsessively at the mission at hand. Never before available on DVD, these are Hawks’ most despairing titles, with Richard Barthelmess and Warner Baxter, respectively, carrying the weight of a world’s dead flyboys on their shoulders. Hawks lost many friends in WWI, and his brother died in a plane crash before filming began on The Dawn Patrol. These are his personal documents of mourning, before he detaches his art from the real world and enters into his communal Hawkisan fantasy lands, like the fictional Barranca of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) made only a few years later. I went longer on these two films in Moving Image Source if you’d like to read more.
2. The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka (Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD)
Sadao Yamanaka was a galvanizing force in Japanese cinema during the 1930s. He used his prickly sense of humor to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. He sought to dirty up distinguished drama and capture the dead-end reality of working class life. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.” He directed 22 films before being conscripted into the Japanese army, when he died of an intestinal disease at the age of 28 in Manchuria. Only three of his features survive, collected in this astonishing set from the heroic UK outfit Masters of Cinema (you must have an all region DVD player to view). Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot, Kochiyama Soshun, and Humanity and Paper Balloons raise hanging out and doing nothing into an art form. My Movie Morlocks review is here.
3. Shoah (1985, Criterion Collection, DVD and Blu-Ray)
A film that exceeds language, given the Criterion treatment. This space gives me the opportunity to quote my favorite piece of writing this year, by J. Hoberman in Film Comment: “Sure, Shoah is a great movie. It’s also a terrible fate, an absolute isolation, the stones in your passway, the abyss beneath your feet, the cop at your door, the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the sign Dante placed at the Gate of Hell, the being of nothingness, the dream you can never recall. You can see Shoah and even if you forget it you’ll never stop thinking about it because Shoah is.”
4. Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (National Film Preservation Foundation/Image Entertainment, DVD Box Set)
A miracle. In 2010 film preservationists Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate the American nitrate film holdings in the New Zealand Film Archive. They discovered an astonishing cache of titles long thought lost. That includes the nearly intact John Ford feature Upstream (1927), and the first three reels of The White Shadow (1924) – the earliest surviving feature that Alfred Hitchcock worked on (as assistant director, scenarist, jack-of-all-trades). The Ford is a delightful backstage comedy gorgeously restored by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, overseen by 20th Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. Those two titles alone make this an essential set, but it also includes a madcap Mabel Normand slapstick short and a cache of old newsreels that contain, in my most treasured treasure, footage of an ostrich drawn carriage.
5. Tristana (1970, Cohen Media Group, Blu-Ray)
One of Luis Bunuel’s most intractable, lingering mysteries. Catherine Deneuve stars as an orphan girl raised with imperious lechery by Fernando Rey. Their power struggle shifts as Deneuve begins to harness the malleability of Rey’s desire, shaping it to her own needs. But they both remain irreducible ciphers. Rey is politcally progressive (he won’t set foot in church) and resolutely classist (he clings to his bourgeois entitlements), while Deneuve is an angelic, innocent victim who is also a cunning manipulator Bunuel creates calm, lucid surfaces under which he masks the unknowability of his inflexible characters. The film is also the subject of one of my favorite Bunuel quotes: “Catherine Deneuve is not precisely my type of woman, but when she is crippled and made-up, I find her very attractive.” Cohen Media Group made a striking debut this year with this gorgeous transfer. Their release of Intolerance on Blu-Ray was also wel received, although I have not yet viewed it.
6. Experiment in Terror (1962, Twilight Time, Blu-Ray)
You could pull any frame from this B&W Blake Edwards thriller and nab an arresting image. Edwards followed up Breakfast at Tiffany’s with this downbeat procedural, in which a bank teller is blackmailed into robbing her employer. Pigeonholed as a director of light comedy, Edwards wanted to stretch stylistically, and this contains everything baroquely expressionist interiors, where every piece of set design reflects Lee Remick’s emotional state, to the docudrama realism of the exteriors, in which cop Glenn Ford tracks down the case. For sheer visual bravura, this is my disc of the year. My Movie Morlocks review is here.
7. Sokurov: Early Masterworks (Cinema Guild, DVD and Blu-Ray)
I’ve never been able to get a good read on the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, the splenetic spiritualist who dregs up the ghosts of Russia in front of image-distorting lenses. This is why I continue to explore his work with pleasure, in the search for transcendental understanding, or at least an inkling of what the hell is going on. He’s the one director, pace Manny Farber on Godard, that makes me feel like a stupid ass on a consistent basis. This is a frustrating and beautiful set on the way towards enlightenment. For the record, I found To Save and Protect to be gratingly impenetrable, Stone productively mysterious, and Whispering Pages to edge into greatness.
8. Olive Films Noir (DVD and Blu-Ray)
The small Olive Films label has continued to release obscure and wonderful Paramount titles in bare bones editions. This past year saw them put out a passel of phenomenally downbeat and obscure films noir, with all of the following being highly recommended: Failed-actor-turned-director Mark Stevens’ self-lacerating Cry Vengeance; Hubert Cornfield’s ode to Los Angeles freeway gridlock Plunder Road ; John H. Auer’s seedy survey of one Chicago night in City That Never Sleeps; the prison-break character actor death march of Crashout; and the red scare laffs of Shack Out on 101.
9. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Shout! Factory, Blu-Ray)
The horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, Scream Factory, has done fine work this year in upgrading many of John Carpenter’s greatest films to Blu-Ray. None come greater, though, than Assault on Precinct 13, his terse condensation of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. My Movie Morlocks review is over here.
10. The Quiet Man (1952, Olive Films, Blu-Ray)
What was once only available in smeary editions on DVD is now available closer to its Technicolor glory on Blu-Ray. For those who can’t stand John Ford’s penchant for knockabout comedy and sentimentality, this is your Waterloo. For everyone else (and me), its pure pleasure.
I wrote essays included in the Olive Films Blu-Ray of The Bells of St. Mary’s and the TCM/Sony DVD of John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection, so I did not include them in my top ten. So, full disclosure and all that, but I think both are essential releases.
Discs I wish I had seen: Me and My Gal, The Big Parade, The Best Years of Our Lives, How Green Was My Valley, the rest of the Criterion Collection