The Most Impressive Discs
Remember all those articles and lists and general rants from 2010 saying that videodiscs were dead? Well, the market may have changed but the discs are still with us. Studios continue to rely on DVD and especially Blu-ray for a big chunk of film sales on new titles. Yes, DVD ‘growth’ has leveled off but it’s still a monster market, and Blu-ray continues to grow. It galls me when our corporate leaders decide that selling a lot of video product isn’t good enough, that if a market isn’t growing exponentially, it must be dying.
It is true that the sizeable collector base for older movies isn’t what it was ten years ago, when early adopters of DVD hardware were the same people crazy to see long-unavailable film treasures. This is what kept a couple of dozen smaller DVD companies going, servicing the wants of genre hounds eager to snap up lovingly restored and appointed discs of action thrillers, horror movies and unseen foreign attractions. Warners, MGM and Columbia exploited their older libraries on DVD, while Paramount, Universal and Fox were on the stingy side, depending on how old the pictures were and how well they were known. Universal licensed some big 1930s titles to Criterion, the leading gilt-edged independent that did the same with occasional Paramount product. Only Warners remained committed to fully exploiting its enormous deep library in ways that catered to film collectors. After 2009 everybody began pulling back from library DVD releases that simply were no longer selling. The pundits overestimated the defection of consumer interest, when the real culprit was the recession — with houses on the block and families breaking up, home entertainment purchases went the way of vacations, that dream boat and a new car. When one must move into a smaller place, shelves full of DVDs are no longer practical.
Warner Home Video’s introduction of its Made On Demand – Direct sale Warner Archive Collection was the smart innovation, the big game changer. MGM, Sony and finally Fox followed suit, with varying levels of commitment. Fans paying collector prices expect transfers better than what they saw on TV fifteen years ago. MGM’s Limited Edition Collection discs (actually run by Fox) varied too greatly in quality; for the last half of a year the program hasn’t offered any new titles. For its stronger titles, MGM has been cutting way back on its in-house releases while increasing licensing to outside companies: Criterion, Shout/Scream Factory and The Garr Group (for discount DVD reissues). Over at Sony, their Columbia MOD discs are transferred with all the care of any new release — buyers can’t go wrong there. Sony’s discs are now marketed through Warners’ sales website. So far Fox’s MOD program has been a crapshoot. Most of their shows haven’t been transferred in years, with the result that purchasers off a ’50s ‘Scope picture can very well get an awful pan-scanned transfer dating from 20 years ago. Fox has seemingly forgotten their experience running the MGM MOD line. They were aware that flat letterbox and pan-scan transfers provoked bad consumer reaction; they made some attempt to address those concerns with the MGM discs. Then they went off and repeated the same mistakes with the Fox MOD program!
2012 has been a busy year, and for collectors a very good one — Savant’s ultimate personal wish list shrank by several titles. Despite the competition from streaming, companies are throwing great product our way. Olive Films has been showering us with Blu-rays of licensed Paramount deep library items, including previously unavailable titles from Republic and famous shows by independent producers. Paramount has now designated Warners as the official distributor of its ‘newer’ library titles, which is just beginning to offer Blu-ray double bills pairing films across studio boundaries. Paramount continues to service licensing agreements with Criterion, and there are also signs that Warners may begin licensing select titles to Criterion, as the newly-scheduled Badlands Blu-ray suggests.
Twilight Time is now a conduit for selected Fox Blu-rays as well as Sony titles, averaging three discs a month. The quality of the Twilight Time presentations has not diminished. Fox has reopened their Classics Collection in Blu-ray, and early next year will be releasing a much-coveted Savant favorite, Wild River. Warners has made a double commitment to mid-range library Blu-rays, adding to its normal library-release discs with a new line of Warner Archive Collection releases in the Blu-ray format.
Other Eastern-based outfits are going strong. Kino Lorber this year ramped up a line of fine Blu-ray restorations of older classics, and has licensed horror films by Jean Rollin, Mario Bava and others. Their Buster Keaton collection is almost complete on Blu-ray. The Milestone Cinematheque continues to release important independent classics and art-house rarities. The TCM Vault Collection has dipped into the libraries of Universal and Sony, continuing Sony’s Columbia Film Noir Collections. Criterion’s stock hasn’t fallen, as it can still be depended upon for definitive presentations across the spectrum of quality filmmaking — foreign classics, work by great filmmakers, and contemporary art pictures.
One reason that older films got received much attention this year was due to Studio Anniversary celebrations at Universal and Paramount, which yielded restored Blu-rays of titles like Sunset Blvd, Jaws, E.T., etc.. Some of the most coveted items were pricey boxed Blu-ray sets. The most controversial was a large Universal Hitchcock Blu-ray box — the web lit up with criticism of some of the transfers — and the most popular the very expensive James Bond 50 box, which includes all the 007 outings to date save for the current hit Skyfall. These are of course pricey purchases. Savant counts himself among the consumers that shy away from dropping $150 for entertainment, acknowledging that the upper reaches of home video are not for folks on a tight budget. If you’re the kind of movie nut that has a dedicated screening room with fancy chairs and equipment, by all means enjoy them!
On to this year’s lists. This year I’ve dropped the two-list idea. I’ve got 15 main titles, with a few beloved also-rans listed by studio.
The pictures are taken from what I’ve seen and reviewed. It is not a list of the best-looking discs or the most expensive restorations, although titles like that are represented. It’s a subjective grouping of what releases meant the most to me, and why. Some are old favorites, some offered major revelations and others were just movies that I’m really glad I saw. It’s a recommendation list — if you know my taste you can filter out my subject and political bias to fit your own temperament. Not everyone is going to like my first choice; it hit #1 because I’m more impressed than ever at its near-prophetic grasp of the commercial media onslaught that warps our desires and limits our imaginations.
In other words, I’m guilty — I became a film reviewer because I like to recommend movies. It’s great when I hear back from people that say thanks when I steer them to I Know Where I’m Going! or Italian for Beginners or The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. So if none of these pictures seems at all familiar, take a look at one or two. They’re linked back to Savant’s original reviews.
Savant’s picks for 2012
This may be a surprise but it shouldn’t be — Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 science fiction tale about media intrusiveness, personal privacy and the onslaught of Reality Television — twenty years before it hijacked the networks — is exciting, funny, profound and touching. Romy Schneider is marvelous as Katharine Mortenhoe, a woman who becomes an outlaw rather than submit to slimy TV programmer Harry Dean Stanton. But Harvey Keitel’s operative has been outfitted with artificial eyes that function as TV cameras… all the better to spy on Katharine unawares. With Max von Sydow, filmed in Scotland.
The Roots of Heaven
Critics in 1958 gave low marks to John Huston’s tale of an activist who goes militant to bring attention to the slaughter of Africa’s elephants; today it plays like a call in the wild against the destruction of the planet in the name of the profit motive. Peter Vertiel’s script also evokes ’50s attitudes toward The Bomb, while Orson Welles, existentialist siren Juliette Greco and a sodden Errol Flynn join the pro-elephant zealot Trevor Howard in his war against poachers and big-game hunters. If this one doesn’t get you, you don’t really love Dumbo.
Twilight Time for 2012 came on strong with Blu-rays from both Fox and Sony, almost always with Isolated music Score Soundtracks: George Sidney’s Bye Bye Birdie, Charles Brackett’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water, Joshua Logan’s Picnic, Richard Brooks’ Bite the Bullet, Ross Hunter’s Lost Horizon, Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat and James L. Brooks’ As Good as it Gets.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Like a bolt from the blue, Olive Films has righted a grievous wrong, the lack of a quality transfer of Don Siegel’s superlative, still-relevant and still-chilling sci-fi classic. Hundreds of paranoid thrillers owe a debt to this prime tale of “the pods” that duplicate us while we sleep, taking over our bodies with the aim of replacing all of mankind with emotionless alien copies. Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan and Carolyn Jones struggle against a nightmare; we may learn to stop taking our individuality and emotions — our personal identity – a little less for granted.
Olive Films has been incredibly prolific this year, especially considering that their Paramount / Republic / Viacom box of goodies includes so many Blu-ray discs of overlooked and forgotten classics and near-classics: Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Andre de Toth’s Ramrod, Elaine May’s A New Leaf, John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued, Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil, Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, Jack Arnold’s The Space Children, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, Jules Dassin’s Uptight and George Stevens’ Something to Live For.
TCM Vault Collection / Sony:
The Jolly Frolics Collection
A delightful disc set of a group of highly creative & award-winning cartoons of the 1950s, from the progressive studio UPA. Even after key staff members were canned by the blacklist, UPA made film history by introducing new design and animation techniques. They invented Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo, but also came through with a tall stack of imaginative shows that featured brilliant animation, imaginative uses of music and progressive subject matter, like child psychology. Hits like Rooty Toot Toot and The Tell-Tale Heart (narrated by James Mason) are mini-classics.
The TCM Vault has been busy, releasing important vintage titles from the Universal, Paramount and Columbia libraries: Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo & A Foreign Affair, Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III: My Name is Julia Ross, The Mob, Drive a Crooked Road, Tight Spot, The Burglar and Dark Crimes Film Noir Thrillers: The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia, Phantom Lady.
Arrow Video UK (Region B):
Miracle in Milan
Region B Blu-ray
Yes, I’m cheating, as only owners of all-region equipment can enjoy this one. Vittorio De Sica’s satirical fantasy is also a neo-realist classic: its high degree of sentimentality is balanced by a mordant acceptance of grim realities. Hundreds of homeless Milanese form a shanty town on unused land, only to find their new community swept away by landlords and the police. But the spiritual leader of the poor is an infectiously optimistic fellow, Toto Il Buono (Francesco Golesano), whose smile and industry bring hope and happiness. The movie is also a strange fantasy — the ghost of Toto’s adoptive mother returns from heaven with magic that grants any wish. Fantasy or no, the movie has no illusions about the poor, who rarely act in their own best interest.
One never knows when an R2 disc will be released in an official R1 edition, but Arrow Video offers other good reasons to consider going all-region, such as Brian De Palma’s Obsession (from last year).
The Criterion Collection:
David Lean Directs Noël Coward
Trying to pick out the top Criterion disc of the year is frustrating at best, but this packed box of Lean’s wartime directorial debut pictures combines a great filmmaker, outstanding transfers and terrific interview docus and commentary. The four pictures are In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter. All become heightened experiences when seen in such spotless transfers.
Criterion hit us with important vintage hits on a monthly basis in 2012, in deluxe packages that became instant collector’s items: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia, Jacques Prevert’s Children of Paradise, Paul Fejos’ Lonesome, Marcel Carné’s Les visiteurs du Soir, Robert M.Young’s ¡Alambrista!, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour.
Criterion’s sister label Eclipse took us on multi-title trips into (for Savant at least) previously unexplored corners of film history: Three Wicked Dramas from Gainsborough Pictures: The Man in Grey, Madonna of the Seven Moons, The Wicked Lady; Jean Greémillon During the Occupation: Remorques, Lumière d’éte, Le ciel est à vous.
The Milestone Cinematheque:
On the Bowery: The Films of Lionel Rogosin Volume 1
The granddaddy of you-are-there social documentaries, Lionel Rogosin’s look at life among the winos and derelicts of the mid-fifties’ Bowery is a real eye-opener, with a story played out in an environment of total squalor. It’s every man for himself in the daily struggle to obtain liquor money, or some unsafe substitute for booze. Drifter Ray Salyer is the real thing, a drinker who has no intention of quitting even as the quality of his life erodes away. Five minutes into the movie we’re convinced that everything we see must be absolutely real, unrehearsed and unscripted. A few minutes later we realize that director Rogosin has somehow drawn performances from un-direct-able subjects, in places where a camera crew would not possibly be tolerated. How did he do it? Milestone’s 2-disc set tells the whole amazing story. The incredible film transfer looks like live-action fine art photography.
Milestone works on a very select range of film projects; they’re currently restoring Shirley Clarke’s experimental films for Blu-ray and DVD. Also this year Milestone gave us two silent programs, Cut to the Chase! The Charley Chase Collection, and the Mary Pickford Rags & Riches Collection: Poor Little Rich Girl, The Hoodlum, Sparrows.
Fritz Lang’s colossal 2-part 1924 epic has previously been a tough watch due to indistinct, incomplete and generally indecipherable transfers. This new Blu-ray makes the 280-minute saga of Siegfried and Kriemhild sail along smartly. Each chapter now makes sense and conveys the dramatic power of and architectural massiveness intended by Lang: the fight with the dragon, the combat with Brunhilde, the betrayals, the murder. The less magical and more apocalyptic part 2 sees a brutal revenge come together for Kriemhild, as she marries Attila the Hun and draws her treacherous kin into a death trap in Asia. The 2-disc release carries an exhaustively detailed Murnau-Stiftung documentary on the painstaking restoration process, which reinstated a final killing scene inexplicably missing from most prints.
A look at this partial list shows how Kino has fanned out this year, picking up great new restorations of Euro-horror pix as well as refurbishing some of the better classics associated with their library: Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire, Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, Peter Newbrook’s The Asphyx, Lon Chaney’s The Penalty, King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise, Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil and Black Sunday; Abel, Gordon and Romy’s The Fairy, Philippe Mora’s Swastika.
The Most Dangerous Game + Gow, The Headhunter
The Hunger Games surely motivated this handsome restoration of a key Pre-Code horror-adventure. Sadism with a capital “S” is marked on Richard Connell’s original story about a big game hunter who indulges a private taste for what he calls the ultimate thrill, stalking human prey. Creepy Leslie Banks is the man with the private island, who sets shipwreck survivors Joel McCrea and Fay Wray loose, only so he can track them down again with his dog and hunting bow. And he has big plans for Wray after the kill: “First the hunt, then the revels!” Made by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack on the same RKO jungle sets built for King Kong. Packaged with “Gow, The Headhunter”, a 1931 exploitation documentary that promises and then ‘withholds’ graphic evidence of cannibalism in the South Seas.
Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection
We’ve seen ’em all before, but never like this. Universal’s restoration department peels decades away from these monsterrific favorites, revealing artfully made horror films with beautiful images (love those Jack Pierce make-ups) and expressive sound. The top titles are all here — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisble Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Packed with extras from earlier special editions, including the Spanish version of Drácula and a special treat — an extra encoding of The Creature in 3D. Some of these shows were in particularly bad shape, but Universal has done fantastic work with them.
Universal of course released a giant, somewhat controversial Blu-ray set of Alfred Hitchcock movies this Fall. Other studio one-shots that almost made Savant’s final list are Sony’s Fiftieth Anniversary Blu-ray of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, MGM’s restored Blu-ray of the James Bond thriller On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The MGM Limited Edition DVD of Jack Garfein’s Something Wild (1961), Lionsgate’s Blu-ray of Drew Goddard’s scary The Cabin in the Woods and Paramount’s deluxe Studio Centennial release of the winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, William A. Wellman’s silent war film Wings.
The Warner Archive Collection:
The Hanging Tree
We waited years for this one and would have preferred a fully restored Blu-ray, but the MOD disc on view is quite acceptable, especially with its widescreen transfer. Delmer Daves’ last western is also Gary Cooper’s swan song to the genre. In a wildcat mining camp, a doctor with a mysterious past nurses ‘the lost lady’, a victim of a stage holdup (Maria Schell), but then coldly rejects her affections. Cooper’s doctor hasn’t recovered from a previous betrayal, while the vibrant Schell beams with optimism and virtue. The romantic drama elicits strong emotional reactions. With excellent character turns by Karl Malden, Ben Piazza and George C. Scott, this is a universally satisfying movie.
Other especially impressive or coveted Warner Archive Collection titles this year include Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in a restored Red Dust, Boris Karloff in Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers, the entire MGM short subject series Crime Does Not Pay and Cornel Wilde’s brutal post-apocalyptic drama No Blade of Grass.
Even The Rain
(aka También la lluvia). Icíar Bollaín’s clever thriller, written by Paul Laverty (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) holds together as a compelling, realistic drama even as it compares the 2000 Bolivia ‘water wars’ to the rape of the New World by the Spanish conquistadores. A film director and his producer (Gael García Bernal & Luis Tosar) hire an Indian activist to portray a native chieftain that defied Christopher Columbus. Only too late do they discover that their actor is leading demonstrations against the government’s sell-out to a global corporation that has privatized Bolivia’s water and demands that penniless campesinos take water only from authorized dealers. Digging wells and even collecting rainwater is illegal. It’s a true-life story, not a fantasy. This is perhaps the best activist movie ever against globalization: a dramatization of reality and not a political tract.
Explosive Media GmbH:
The Big Gundown
Region B Blu-ray + DVD
Yes, another region 2 disc that requires an all-region player. Fresh from combat with Clint Eastwood, newly minted spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef plays a noted sheriff sent to Mexico to bring back a murdering fiend the rogue knife thrower Cuchillo (Tomas Milian). Sergio Sollima’s early ‘political’ western eventually puts the blame on a piggish railroad magnate, who goes after Van Cleef as well. This is possibly the most popular non-Sergio Leone Italian western, originally called La resa dei conti; the music score by Ennio Morricone may be the most exciting spaghetti western score of them all. The English language version was severely cut, so sections of Italian with English subtitles pop up when watching with an English track. Very nicely remastered, and packaged with a standard (PAL) DVD.
Lone Wolf and Cub: Complete 6-Film Collection
It finally came to pass, after decades of versions often dubbed into English on VHS and DVD: all six of the “Baby Cart / Sword of Vengeance” films, in Blu-ray, in one package. Samurai pictures were beginning to concentrate on violence when Tomisaburo Wakayama’s Ogami Itto pulled out all the stops, bathing the Tohoscope screen in lopped-off body parts and crimson blood. Initially frightening (at least in 1972, I can attest), the films also reach for images of great beauty.
More almost-in-the-top-15 titles from independent labels: Entertainment One’s slick Blu-ray of Timo Vuorensola’s eccentric Iron Sky, Capitol’s beautifully restored Blu-ray of George Dunnings’ animated Beatles romp Yellow Submarine, HD Cinema Classics’ compromised but still-eerie Blu-ray of Delmer Daves’ The Red House, VSC’s DVD of Carl Lerner’s Black Like Me, and VCI’s DVD of Jack Lee’s hard to see A Town Like Alice.
Warner Home Video:
End of the Road
WHV surprised us with this release of an obscurantist’s obscurity, Stacy Keach, Harris Yulin, James Earl Jones and Dorothy Tristan strike ten on the weirdness scale, bringing John Barth’s book (or aspects of it) to the screen. Filmmaker Aram Avakian and wild man screenwriter Terry Southern put material on the screen that even the ‘liberated’ cinema of 1970 wouldn’t touch. Not ten minutes in, we know we’re headed off the map, away from good taste and propriety. End of the Road is one of those blackest of black comedies that’s less a comedy than it is a ‘horror of reality’ show.
Other happily-reviewed pressed discs from Warner Home Video in 2012: Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and his 3D Dial M for Murder, Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, Charles Vidor’s Han Christian Andersen, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Kelly & Donen’s 60th Anniversary Singin’ in the Rain and Stanley Kubrick’s 25th Anniversary Full Metal Jacket.
And 2012 slips away! Just last year I was excited about Severin’s promised HD domestic release of Savant favorite Zulu Dawn — now the release date has been nailed down for January 8, and I’m hoping to get a very early check disc to review from. Other Blu-rays hotly awaited for 2013 are Twilight Time’s Major Dundee (April 9), The Fury and Christine (March 12); VCI’s Gorgo (March 5), Kino Classics’ White Zombie (January 29), Olive Films’ The Quiet Man (January 22), and Warner Home Video’s Easter Parade (February 19). Criterion in March has Ministry of Fear, The Blob, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Monsieur Verdoux, A Man Escaped and Badlands. May they all do well and prosper.
Thanks for all the praise, criticism, attention and friendly notes in general — and for your enthusiasm and tolerance. This could be a very good new year… !
Glenn Erickson, December 18, 2012
Follow this link for a
A Chronological List of DVD Savant’s Reviews for 2012
Savant’s 2013 favored disc roundup.
Savant’s 2011 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2010 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2009 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2008 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2007 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2006 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2005 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2004 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2003 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2002 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2001 favored disc roundup
This has been a yearly tradition since 2001. Happy Holidays!