Thursday, December 14, 2017

My Favorite Blu-rays of 2017


1. FRITZ LANG: THE SILENT FILMS

(Kino Classics)
If you told me that my two top choices this year would be devoted to silent films, I wouldn't have believed you - but this mammoth box set overwhelms everything else that came out this year, at least if one overlooks Criterion's 100 YEARS OF OLYMPIC FILMS 1912-2012 (which I do, because sports documentaries don't interest me). It's true that a certain amount of this set reissues earlier Kino Lorber releases of individual Lang classics (DESTINY - with a commentary by yours truly, DR MABUSE THE GAMBLER, METROPOLIS, SIEGFRIED, SPIES, THE WOMAN IN THE MOON), but it also introduces four other titles to high definition for the first time, including the rarely seen and truly baroque and majestic THE PLAGUE OF FLORENCE (1919), an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" with its own unique, haunting, violin-sawing personification of Death. Therefore, it's not only recommended but would constitute a cornerstone of any home video library; to watch the films in this set is receive a crash course in the formation of what we know today as popular cinema - science fiction, fantasy, crime, horror, it's all here - but also a compendium of visual style from one of the most sophisticated of all movie stylists. It's gripping as entertainment, illuminating as history, and indispensable as education. You cannot know cinema without knowing Lang. 


2. THE LOST WORLD (Flicker Alley)
The film restoration of the year: Flicker Alley's 2K restoration of this seminal dinosaur adventure from 1925 miraculously reinstates a further 11 minutes of footage, assembled from as many different sources - reportedly adding the earliest of Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation effects work filmed for the production - so that a film that ran only about an hour within living memory has now almost doubled its length to something near its original running time. Bright, vividly colored, and scored by Robert Israel in ways that offer occasional tips of the hat to Tarzan and King Kong, it's a delightful trip back in time - and, for the first time, the film feels almost completely whole and therefore more accessible to criticism. Seeing it again, I was impressed to note how many scenes influenced scenes in later features - most obviously the work of Ray Harryhausen, but also something as unexpectedly related as Hammer's THE SCARS OF DRACULA, which includes a suspenseful rope escape scene indebted to one here. An accompanying booklet encapsulates the story of the film's restoration history by Serge Bromberg, and the extras include such highlights as an excellent commentary by Nicolas Ciccone, outtakes from a theatrical trailer, and three of O'Brien's most important short films.


3. THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (Second Sight, UK)
See full review here.



4. BARRY LYNDON (Criterion)
As the years go by, this dark horse continues to cement itself as my favorite Kubrick film. Granted, it has been included in two or three different Blu-ray packages prior to this, so I can understand those who feel it's been too many trips to the well - or the wallet, as the case may be. That said, this is much more than a supplementary upgrade. This is the film's first 4K presentation, it's first-ever home video release in its true 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and it also unveils a brand new 5.1 mix (in addition to the theatrical mono version); taken together, these technological boons make an already extraordinary film even more beautiful, powerfully musical, and deeply moving, building to a finale of almost godlike irony and stoicism. Accompanied by excellent documentary shorts and interviews about the film, about Kubrick, and about the new 5.1 mix, with a stellar booklet containing new writing on the film by Geoffrey O'Brien. Other fine Criterion titles this year include GHOST WORLD, TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME, Orson Welles' OTHELLO, and Hitchcock's THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG and REBECCA.  


5. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Cohen Media)
If you were born in the 1980s or later, you may wonder what all the excitement is about because so much of Hollywood history has been presented to you on a gleaming digital platter. But this is a classic Universal horror film, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger (not to mention Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, and Charles Laughton, the actual husband to the Bride of Frankenstein) that was not part of the famous "Shock Theater" TV package of the 1950s and '60s, so the Baby Boomers responsible for that Monster Kid demographic spike grew up longing for it over surviving still photos in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. It's a kind of Rosetta Stone of black comedy, a remote ancestor of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. Curtis Harrington saved the film from extinction while working at Universal making GAMES in 1967 but it took a long time for the film to be reintroduced into circulation, which it had to do through secondary print sources. After decades of grubby bootleg tapes, an okay LaserDisc release, and a moderately better DVD, this 4K restoration - which I've also seen shown theatrically - is a true revelation, unearthing details of art direction and nuances of performance, not to mention Gloria Stuart's svelte physicality, and upping the ante of this movie from wild and woolly curiosity to a genuine masterpiece. Two audio commentaries, interviews with Sara Karloff and Curtis Harrington, and other extras complete the package.   

6. STORY OF SIN (Arrow Video)
I've been an admirer of the works of Walerian Borowczyk for some time, and my appreciation was certainly broadened by Arrow's BORO box set of a few years ago, which collected a brace of his earliest features and shorts, along with a delicious collection of his short fiction. But my admiration too a quantum leap a few years ago with my discovery of this film, which seems to me the most perfect and thrilling distillation of his style and thematic obsessions. Based on a Stefan Zeromski novel from 1908, it's a period piece about a young woman named Ewa (Grazyna Dlugolecka) whose obsession with a man she barely knows drives her to leave her repressive home and embark on a life of amorality and crime, where each of her decisions seems to expose her to greater humiliation, exploitation and horror. This is the kind of film, so delicate yet exact in its attention to detail, that Blu-ray presentation (2K in this case) benefits it in unexpected ways; its understated beauty, which extends to the delicacy and occasional fury of Dlugolecka's performance, only becomes fully accessible once the image acquires this level of presence. Filling out an already magnanimous package is an exceptionally fine commentary by Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger; two previously unavailable Borowczyk shorts with optional commentary; superb video essays by Borowczyk authority Daniel Bird; an illuminating David Thompson short on Borowczyk's use of classical music; and interviews with Dlugolecka and others associated with the film and its publicity.

7. CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (Arrow Video)
This is another of the most important restorations of the year. In some ways, it's even more vital than THE OLD DARK HOUSE which was at least watchable before; this BD imbues CALTIKI with a high gloss that was never part of its image on this side of the ocean, due to Allied Artists' cheap duplication work and overly dark TV syndication prints. Now we can see that this 1950s Italian blob movie - co-directed by Riccardo Freda and its cameraman/special effects man Mario Bava - is more triumph over budget and practical restrictions than we ever dreamed it was. The ace in the deck is a bonus unmatted viewing option that presents virtually all of Bava's special effects shots with roughly twice as much additional frame content as was ever seen in TV prints. With two audio commentaries, one by myself and another by Troy Howarth.
 
8. THE THING (Arrow Video)
The 4K restoration is stupendous and perfectly captures the filmic textures and sonic shocks I remember from my first theatrical viewing of the picture. This alone would be significant, and a great advance over any other available release, but Arrow once again refuses to be outdone, adding in a new commentary, a feature-length making-of documentary from Ballyhood Productions presented in segments, a half-hour documentary (also from Ballyhoo) about 1982's big summer of horror releases, and more. Scream Factory's deluxe two-disc set from 2012 remains necessary for its unique extras, which extend to an extra commentary and numerous interviews with cast and crew.   

9. FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES and AVANT-GARDE SHORT FILMS (Cineliciouspics)
The centerpiece of this collection of films by Japanese maverick filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto is an electrifying, B&W docudrama from 1969 telling the story of a torturous love triangle set against the backdrop of the Bar Genet, a Tokyo nightclub with drag queen hostesses catering to gay members. The film stars, of all people, Yoshio Tsuchiya (who died earlier this year, familiar from countless Kurosawa and Toho kaiju eiga) but the film is stolen by the haunting transgender actor Peter (pictured on the cover), whose new breed youth and beauty pose a personal and professional threat to the club's reigning and more traditional Madam, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). A deep plunge into a fascinating alien counter-culture, this movie is said to have influenced Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (it's certainly where the high-speed sex scene came from) and it reminds us of the value to by found by occasionally venturing outside one's habit trails and comfort zone. There's a helpful, informative commentary by Chris D. as well. Also included is a separate disc of eight Matsumoto short films which focus on such disparate subjects as the Mona Lisa and a toilet seat, and surprisingly often attain a state of trancendental trippiness. 

10. I'LL BE SEEING YOU (Kino Lorber)
I like to end with a dark horse, and this 1944 William Dieterle film from the Selznick company was new to me and a very pleasant surprise: an unseemly wartime story about two broken people (Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers) fulfilling their obligations to society - an Army sergeant and a woman jailed for manslaughter - who meet on a train at Christmas time at the outset of different kinds of furlough. He's been injured in the line of duty (we never learn exactly how) and is dealing with PTSD, and she (an innocent woman convicted of her role in causing an accident that killed a man attempting to rape her) has been given an eight-day release for good behavior. Neither of them is entirely forthcoming about who they are, or what has made them who they presently are, but they fall in love in the shadows of an America already showing widespread signs of post-war anxieties and distortion. Finely crafted, well-acted across the board (Shirley Temple, Spring Byington, even bit parts by Chill Wills and John Derek), the film is also provided with a fine commentary by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan (them again!), working a little off their usual beat but nevertheless supplying a perceptive reading of the film as well as providing some helpful historical context.
(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.