My Top 10 Blu-rays of 2016

As part of what must be a swiftly-diminishing subculture of movie lovers who still buy stuff on shiny discs, I thought I’d mimic Film Freak Central editor-in-chief, film critic extraordinaire, and all-around good guy Bill Chambers and do my own Top 10 list of new releases I somehow managed to stuff into my perpetually-overcrowded shelves. They’re in no particular order – just consider each and every one an essential purchase if you truly love cinema and own a Blu-ray player.

70461_frontIn a Lonely Place (Criterion Collection)
Humphrey Bogart began his career playing B-movie heavies, and later built his movie star career upon an obvious dark side that brought even to his most romantic roles. But no director made better use of his scariness than Nicolas Ray did in this masterful dissection of toxic masculinity. (Please see Walter Chaw’s peerless analysis over at Film Freak Central for a more in-depth discussion of the film.) The stark cinematography is perfectly caught in a superb restoration, the plentiful extras add insight and commentary, and it’s even one of those recent Criterion Collection blu-rays that’s available on both sides of the Atlantic.

139131_frontMan With A Movie Camera and Other Works by Dziga Vertov (Eureka!)
This week, Martin Scorsese found occasion to criticize the current state of cinema, lambasting the industrial production of Hollywood franchises for their homogenizing effects on film aesthetics. And looking at the tedious and unimaginative pre-viz register that so many mainstream films have now embraced, you can sort of see his point. But wherever you stand on this most recent declaration of the “Death of Cinema,” even a quick look at something as radical as Vertov’s experimental masterpieces will make you gaze upon any given Marvel movie with fresh disdain. Any given sequence in Man with a Movie Camera contains more energy, more creativity, and more visual ideas than the entire MCU combined. UK label Eureka! offers a new restoration that is simply staggering to behold, packaging this best-known work alongside multiple shorter works by Vertov, an elaborate book, and generous supplements.

142810_frontFreaks and Geeks: The Complete Series (Shout Factory)
At least a decade before sophisticated, self-reflexive, and ironically nostalgic “Quality TV” became prestige television’s dominant register, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow pioneered the genre on network TV for a single season. With its cast and crew having moved on to dominate an entire generation of comedy in film and TV, the show has developed a strong cult following that hovers perpetually on the edge of mainstream awareness without quite breaking through. A terrific DVD box set full of high-end supplements has been around for years, but this year’s HD effort adds to the fun not only with a superlative HD restoration (and even more extras), but also with an additional widescreen option that opens up the 35mm frame horizontally without having to delete information (as with the widescreen reframing of The Wire).

167141_frontBlood Rage / Slasher / Nightmare at Shadow Woods (Arrow)
Where the Criterion Collection has long since established itself as the premium boutique home video label for classic cinema and contemporary arthouse, the UK-based Arrow has applied that cinephile’s devotion to collector’s editions of less reputable fare. Their growing range of exploitation cinema is truly impressive, and the loving care they devote to often-obscure genre films has provoked many a blind purchase. The limited edition two-disc release of 1980s slasher pic Blood Rage is one of the finest examples of their thrilling devotion to the grindhouse ethic: treating this endearingly silly “video nasty” with the kind of care usually reserved for a Terrence Malick masterpiece, we get three different versions of the film, a long list of newly produced interviews and documentaries, new and original cover art, a comprehensive booklet, outtakes, and more. The package as a whole thus functions as a veritable crash course in 1980s genre cinema.

43501_frontThe Iron Giant – Signature Edition (Warner Home Video)
Writer/director Brad Bird’s first feature film is still his best: a perfectly-paced and deeply moving adventure story that mixes Cold War sci-fi with a coming-of-age tale set in small-town America. Bird strikes a perfect balance between cultural nostalgia, lovingly rendered in beautifully toned cell animation, and a critical perspective on the rampant paranoia and militarism of capitalism’s Golden Age. The film’s focus on the dangers of ignorance and prejudice  in a toxic political environment of hyper-conservative propaganda now seems eerily prescient as we enter the Age of Trump – and while the brief scenes added into the new “Signature Edition” cut hardly seem worth the effort, the film’s original cut is thankfully also included.

159819_frontDekalog and Other Television Works (Arrow)
It’s difficult to find the right words to articulate Polish grandmaster Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ten-hour meditation on the Old Testament’s ten commandments. The Dekalog itself consists of ten hour-long dramas, each of which provides a thoroughly ambiguous reflection of those famously ambiguous instructions from on high. With or without biblical context, this series of miniatures packs an incredible emotional punch with its instantly-immersive portraits of small-scale human hope and despair. Viewing these TV productions in glorious HD projection, their truly cinematic gifts are made much more apparent, while the wide-ranging supplemental material (especially with the beautifully packaged Arrow edition) provides abundant context and reflection.

138044_frontIt’s Such a Beautiful Day (Bitter Films)
Genius animator Don Hertzfeldt’s self-produced Blu-ray came about as the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign to make a collection of his major works available in HD. The feature-length It’s Such a Beautiful Day would have made this worth the investment on its own, as it’s one of the most astoundingly original, truly heart-breaking works in the medium’s long and rich history. But the disc also gives the proud owner/investor easy access to his stunning recent sci-fi short World of Tomorrow, plus a generous helping of other originals. It’s truly the kind of art one is tempted to buy five copies of just to express your support – especially since you’re buying it directly from the artist.

43471_frontMcCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion Collection)
A film of profound beauty and sadness was made even more sad and beautiful this year by Leonard Cohen’s passing. I’d seen the film many times over the years, but only ever on inferior video formats. Until this restored HD release, I therefore had to take it more or less on faith that Vilmos Zsigmond’s semi-experimental cinematography was indeed as extraordinary as critics, historians, and biographers always said it was, never having access to a version that could adequately represent the fine-grain flashed film stock. This new Blu-ray of course still isn’t the same thing as seeing a well-preserved 35mm projection, but for the first time, it feels like a close approximation rather than a very distant shadow.

156983_frontThe Thing: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory)
John Carpenter’s masterpiece of fear and paranoia has always played well, but it resonates especially powerfully in this increasingly terrifying age of societal despair and across-the-board institutional failures. The restored video transfer is a step up from previous HD master – though it still has a rather digital-looking sheen to my eyes. The key extras from the now-ancient DVD (the superb 90-minute documentary and deliriously entertaining Carpenter/Russell audio commentary) remain hard to beat in terms of supplemental material, but Shout’s impressively comprehensive new two-disc extravaganza goes for broke and throws in everything but the kitchen sink – including the infamous network broadcast edition of the film, and new interviews with most surviving principle figures.

134847_frontA Touch of Zen (Eureka!)
The kung fu epic to beat all others, A Touch of Zen is a stunningly crafted adventure movie that mixes up genre archetypes with uncanny ability. The action sequences have been justly celebrated for decades, but it’s above all a work of great visual richness and imagination, painting a luscious environment of bamboo forests, mountain springs, oases, and spectacular ravines that is a constant thrill to behold. I always felt bad for having missed this genre masterpiece for so many years, but in a way I was also happy to experience it for the first time in so perfect a form as the newly restored HD transfer (also available with identical video from the Criterion Collection) as this year’s re-release has to offer.

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