"Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall." - F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Best of 2023
Who does 4K best? How many film noir boxsets are out there? Are these the end days for physical media ? Once again, I and close to 150 reviewers and critics rank the year's best home-video releases, laud some distributors and enquire into the future of the industry.
1 from Criterion
Days of Heaven (U.S., 1978)
In the early 1900s, a Chicago steelworker (Richard Gere) becomes a fugitive from justice and decamps to rural Texas with his lover (Brooke Adams) and sister (Linda Manz). They find work in the wheat fields of a rich farmer (Sam Shepard) whose estate they then plot to inherit. But things don't work out as planned, as we learn in a rambling, retrospective voiceover by the sister. For this, his second feature (after 1973's Badlands), Terrence Malick must have got his director of photography, Nestor Almendros, to sign a sunset clause – literally, as the picture is suffused in the natural light of an idyllic gloaming shot mostly in southern Alberta. For its new release, Criterion reprises its 2010 Blu-ray edition, with the same booklet and extras, and adds a second disc with the film rendered in 4K ultra high definition, meaning it's twice as high-res (2160p, versus the BD's 1080p, in other words perfect for very large 4K TVs). There's the same audio commentary on both discs, recorded in 2007 and featuring the film's editor Billy Weber, art director Jack Fisk, costume designer Patricia Norris and casting director Dianne Crittenden. On the original Blu-ray, you also get an audio Interview with Gere from 2007 (22 minutes), an interview with Shepard from 2002 (13 mins.), and interviews with camera operator John Bailey (20 mins.) and replacement cinematographer Haskell Wexler (12 mins.). The set comes with a 40-page booklet with essays by Almendros and by critic Adrian Martin.
4 from Powerhouse
Desire (U.S., 1936)
Fresh on the heels of Morocco a year before, Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper reunite in this romantic crime caper directed by Frank Borzage (A Farewell to Arms). Dietrich plays a jewel thief intent on smuggling a string of pearls into Spain from France, unexpectedly aided by an American tourist Tom (Cooper). Ernst Lubitsch co-produced. The region-B Blu-ray on U.K. distributor Powerhouse's Indicator label sports a new 4K scan and a recent audio commentary by critic Nathaniel Bell and film historian David Del Valle (not included is the alternate commentary found on Kino's U.S. Blu-ray release from 2021). There's one new video extra on Cooper by curator Nathalie Morris (12 minutes) and two vintage audio recordings: Borzage reminiscing in 1958 (40 mins.) and an hour-long Lux Radio Theatre play of Desire from 1937, with Herbert Marshall substituting for Cooper. Rounding out the package are a trailer, image gallery and 26-page booklet.
Honor Among Lovers (U.S., 1931)
Claudette Colbert and Fredric March star in this romantic comedy-drama directed by early feminist/lesbian director Dorothy Arzner. Colbert plays a secretary who spurns the advances of her stockbroker boss (March) to marry another man, before having a change of heart. Ginger Rogers co-stars. Restored in 2017 from a 4K scan, the film comes to region-B Blu-ray with a new audio commentary by film curator Eloise Ross and a new, 13-minute appreciation of Rogers by academic Lucy Bolton. There's a long (130-minute) audio recording from 1958 with cinematographer George Folsey and two vintage documentary shorts on the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps made when Arzner did her wartime service there. Finally, there's animage gallery and a 44-page booklet
Love Me Tonight (U.S., 1932)
Rouben Mamoulian's musical comedy reunites Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald for the fifth time onscreen, in the story of a Parisian tailor who tries to woo a princess by pretending he, too, is a royal. Rodgers and Hart wrote the songs, including ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’, and the cast includes Charles Ruggles and Myrna Loy. Kino released this film on Blu-ray in the U.S. in 2020 with a different commentary track and extras. The Indicator BD, code-locked to region B, features a new 4K scan, a new audio commentary (by critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme, a new half-hour look at Love Me Tonight by critic Geoff Andrew, and three minutes of Chevalier and MacDonald performing musical numbers for the 1932 newsreel series 'Hollywood on Parade' (3 minutes). A trailer, image gallery and 40-page booklet complete the package. Still missing are eight minutes of footage cut from the movie cut by the censors in 1934 and forever trashed.
An American Tragedy (U.S., 1931)
Factoid: Theodore Dreiser sued Paramount Pictures for this "outrageous" adaptation of his 1925 novel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, and lost. Twenty years later, the same studio remade it as A Place in the Sun. Von Sternberg cast Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee to recreate the true story of a high society-low society love triangle that ends in murder on a lake. New to Blu-ray, the film was restored in 2019 from a 4K scan and comes with three new extras: an audio commentary by film historian Josh Nelson, a half-hour appreciation by writer Tony Rayns, and and an eight-minute video essay by Tag Gallagher. Also, audio from 1958 of the director interviewed for half an hour and cinematographer Lee Garmes for 90 minutes. Lastly, there'san image gallery and 40-page booklet.
1 boxset from Powerhouse
The Criminal Acts of Tod Slaughter: Eight Blood-and-Thunder Entertainments (U.K., 1935-40)
What was it that made English actors of yore so fit to play murderous villains? Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee – all, in their day, could scare audiences out of their seats with a mere furrow of the brow, a piercing leer or a maniacal laugh. But one who struck fear into the hearts of millions of British cinemagoers in the 1930s – a man with a bloody surname, to boot – has largely disappeared from memory. Norman Carter ‘Tod’ Slaughter was a marquee attraction of Britain's "cinema of excess," starring in a string of adaptations of Victorian melodramas like Sweeney Todd: the Demon of Fleet Street (1936) and Crimes at the Dark House (1940). Each a little over an hour long, those and six other pictures are now collected in a boxset of four region-free Blu-rays by U.K. distributor Powerhouse, part of its carefully curated Indicator series of classic and neglected films. Newly restored using original film materials preserved at the BFI National Archive, the selected films also include: Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn (1935), directed by Milton Rosmer; The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), The Ticket of Leave Man (1937), Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938), and The Face in the Window (1939), all directed by George King; and It's Never Too Late to Mend (1937), directed by David MacDonald. Each disc holds an array of contextualising extras, including archival short films and radio plays, newly recorded commentaries, image galleries, critical appreciations and personal recollections. The set comes with a 120-page illustrated book.
1 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Pandora's Box (Germany, 1929)
At just 22 years of age, Kansas-born dancer-turned actress Louise Brooks became an icon of international silent cinema with a star turn in her first-ever European picture, playing Lulu, the sexually adventurous heroine of Austrian director G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box. Adapted from two erotically charged plays by German man-about-town Frank Wedekind, the film scandalized bourgeois society when released in 1929, at the height of the freewheeling Weimar Republic, and was cut for distribution in foreign markets, most drastically in the United States. Adultery, lesbianism, prostitution, serial killing – there was a lot for the censors to object to. Eureka!'s new Blu-ray edition shows the film in a seamless 2K rendering of the restoration made by the George Eastman House in 2009 (and funded by Playboy magazine's Hugh Hefner), in collaboration with the Cinémathèque Française, the Cineteca Bologna, the Gosfilmofond of Russia, the Narodni Filmovy Archiv Prague and the Deutsche Kinemathek. Pandora's Box comes with optional English translations for the German intertitles, and a previously available (also optional) modern orchestral score by Bavarian composer Peer Raben. The region-B disc has several newly made extras as well: an audio commentary by critic Pamela Hutchinson; nine minutes of film preservationist Martin Koerber (of the Filmmuseum Berlin) explaining, via webcam, the movie's complicated restoration process (there was no original negative or print to work with, only duplications from the 1950s and '60s); and visual essays of about 20 minutes each by three film critics: Kat Ellinger explores what she calls "new women & the Jazz Age: the dangerous feminine in Pandora's Box;" David Cairns traces the life and times of Pabst and his fascination with the "godless beasts" of Weimar; and Fiona Watson looks at "Lulu in Wonderland," notably Brooks' literary love for and identification with Lewis Carroll's Alice and also Frank. L. Baum's Dorothy. The swank packaging holds one BD and a book of 60 illustrated pages, with new writings by critics Alexandra Heller Nicholas, Imogen Sara Smith and Richard Combs, in a solid cardboard case.
1 boxset from Powerhouse
'Universal Noir #2' (U.S., 1945-49)
In November 2022, on its Indicator label, British distributor Powerhouse released its first Blu-ray boxset of late-1940s and early 1950s American film noir produced by Universal Pictures. Now, a year later, comes Volume 2: six pictures on six region-B discs, with a number of new and archival extras and a 120-page book. The films are: Lady on a Train (1945, directed by Charles David), Time Out of Mind, (1947, Robert Siodmak), Singapore (1947, John Brahm), A Woman's Vengeance (1948, Zoltán Korda), An Act of Murder (1948, Michael Gordon), and The Lady Gambles (1949, Michael Gordon). With themes ranging from adultery and amnesia to compulsive gambling and mercy killing, the movies feature major Hollywood stars of the era such as Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Fredric March, Ava Gardner and Deanna Durbin, along with less familiar names like England's Phyllis Calvert. (Look, too, for a 30-something Jessica Tandy, later famous as the 80-year-old who won an Oscar for her starring role in Driving Miss Daisy.) The extras are spread through all six discs in this Indicator edition and include newly recorded commentaries by Glenn Kenny, Farran Smith Nehme, Adrian Martin, Kelly Goodner, Jim Hemphill and Pamela Hutchison, as well as video appreciations by Jose Arroyo, Neil Sinyard and Christian Newland (the latter particularly informative about Gardner and her career). There are also a number of rare archival short films, some shot for wartime propaganda purposes. Most compelling (for me, at least) are two from 1945: "French Town…," a poignant portrait of a newly liberated, unnamed municipality, narrated by A Woman’s Vengeance actor Cedric Hardwicke, and "Welcome Home," about American servicemen (and women) returning to the States at the end of the war, narrated by March a year before took home an Oscar for playing just such a demobbed Yankee in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. You also get a radio adaptation of the Casablanca-like Singapore, featuring its stars MacMurray and Gardner.
1 from Criterion
Freaks / The Unknown / The Mystic ('Tod Browning's Sideshow Shockers') (U.S., 1932 / 1927 / 1925)
Dwarves, Siamese twins, a bearded lady, a man with an abnormally small head, a "stork woman" – Kentucky-born director Tod Browning's use of real people with disabilities portraying members of a travelling circus was controversial when it was released under the title Freaks in 1925, and it continues to divide critics and audiences to this day. But Browning came by his subject honestly and with utter compassion; he was a circus man himself, a contortionist, barker, clown and eventually magician. In his late 20s he graduated to acting in movies, then started writing and directing them, including Freaks and two other circus-themed features included in this new, two-disc Blu-ray set from New York distributor Criterion: 1927's The Unknown, a silent horror flick starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford, and 1925's The Mystic, about con artists who hold fake seances to fool their victims. On Criterion's Disc 1 is the hour-long Freaks (it originally ran 30 minutes longer, but was cut after test audiences were, predictably and literally, freaked out by the graphic content, forcing MGM to trash the offending footage forever.) Augmenting the movie is an audio commentary by film scholar David J. Skal and several informative extras: a short called "Tod Browning's Freaks: The Sideshow Cinema" (7 minutes); a 2019 episode of critic Kristen Lopez’s podcast 'Ticklish Business,' about how people are portrayed in Freaks (52 mins.); a reading by Skal of “Spurs,” the short story by Tod Robbins on which the movie is based (48 mins.); a three-minute prologue added to Freaks in 1947; a program on the alternate endings made for the movie (6 mins.); and a video gallery of portraits from the film (11 mins.) Criterion's Disc 2 has The Unknown (68 mins.) and The Mystic (74 mins.), with Skal provided an audio commentary for the former and a nine-minute video introduction the latter; there's also a new, half-hour interview with author Megan Abbott about Browning and the horror genre in the Pre-Code Hollywood era. The accompanying booklet has an essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme.
1 from Second Run
Pearls of the Deep (Czechoslovakia, 1966)
What is Pearls of the Deep – and how good is it? Let's let U.K. distributor Second Run wade in: "A manifesto for a new generation of young filmmakers, Pearls of the Deep is one of the delights of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Based on stories by Bohumil Hrabal, the film is a compendium of five films showcasing the talents of directors Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec, Věra Chytilová, Evald Schorm and Jaromil Jireš. Each vignette demonstrates the differing styles of the five emerging filmmakers, each with unique approaches to Hrabal's multi-faceted tales of ordinary people and odd obsessions. Ranging from the surreal to the satirical and the romantic, the films capture the essence and spirit of Hrabal's work, and emerges as a joyous rallying cry for subversion and artistic expression." For another point of view, here's how the critic at the now-defunct Village Voice put it: "Generally anarchist and scaldingly farcical, the films look totalitarian life square in the eye, but they’re also living testaments to the era’s lovable, grungy Euro-slacker esprit. All five films are compelling time capsules of defiance and love.”' And now me: don't hesitate to get this Blu-ray; it's a gem, and with its 4K transfer of the film it marks a major upgrade from the barebones Eclipse set titled "Pearls of the Czech New Wave" that U.S. distributor Criterion released in 2012. For its all-region BD release, Second Run has included two short films cut from Pearls of the Deep before release: my favourite, Ivan Passer's languid "A Boring Afternoon" (14 minutes) and Juraj Herz's "The Junk Shop" (32 Mins.). There's also "About Cats, Beatniks and All Sorts of Other Things," a 1967 documentary short on Hrabal (12 mins.), and a restoration trailer. The accompanying booklet has an essay by critic Peter Hames.
1 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Touch of Evil (U.S., 1958)
What a blast! (And I'm not just talking about the famous opening tracking shot.) Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) directs and stars, Charlton Heston is a Mexican police chief, Janet Leigh plays his alluring new bride, and Marlene Dietrich runs a border-town brothel – yes, Touch of Evil is devilishly over the top, but hey, this is Orson Welles. The 1958 movie was Welles' last with a major studio (Universal) and veritably glows in the new 4K UHD incarnation by British distributor Eureka!, a two-disc boxset that's part of its Masters of Cinema series. Eureka! provide all three versions of Touch of Evil: the theatrical version (95 mins.), the preview version (109 mins), and the 1998 reconstruction (110 mins). There are four audio commentaries: one with restoration producer Rick Schmidlin; another with Schmidlin again, accompanied by Heston and Leigh; a third with film critic F. X. Feeney; and the last with Welles scholars James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum. New to this edition are interviews with critic, broadcaster and cultural historian Matthew Sweet; critic Tim Robey; and author and critic Kim Newman. There are also two featurettes, "Bringing Evil to Life " and "Evil Lost and Found," that interview cast and crew, critics and admirers, plus an original theatrical trailer. The accompanying illustrated booklet runs an extensive 100 pages and includes writings by (and interviews with) Welles, François Truffaut, André Bazin, and Terry Comito, along with a timeline of the film’s history and two new essays by critic Richard Combs.
1 from Second Run
Interrogation (Poland, 1982)
Polish director Ryszard Bugajski smuggled out a VHS copy of this, his first feature film, when he emigrated to Canada in 1985, leaving behind the Soviet-sponsored clampdown by General Jaruzelski that had resulted in his movie being banned. Interrogation is a nightmarish tale of political repression set in the Stalinist early 1950s: after a drunken party, cabaret singer Tonia (Krystyna Janda) wakes up in jail, wondering how she got there and why she's being kept behind bars. No explanation is offered, and over the next few days and weeks and months stretching into years (five, in total), she's cajoled by her jailers, browbeaten, interrogated endlessly and tortured, mercilessly. It took the fall of communism in December 1989 for the movie to finally get its premiere, in Warsaw. On its subsequent release in Cannes, the U.K. and North America, critics praised the movie and especially Janda for her performance ("a riveting tour de force," the Washington Post called it, characterizing the film as "vital viewing" that "stays right under your skin"). The new Blu-ray has one extra, previously available on Second Run's 2005 DVD: a half-hour interview Bugajski gave that year, in English, in London, and which incorporates five minutes of footage from the movie's 1989 premiere with clips of Janda being interviewed and a stage address by Polish cinematic great Andrzej Wajda, under whose 'X' studio Interrogation was made. An accompanying 40-page booklet has an essay by Polish-American communications and history professor Michael Szporer, reproduces two pages of original storyboards, and also has an exhaustive and fascinating 25-page transcript of the 1982 hearing before the so-called 'co-laudation commission' of censors that took place ahead of the film’s suppression in Poland.