"Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle / Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi." - Jacques Prévert
The Best of 2020
One hundred and forty-six film buffs, myself included, give praise where praise is due in DVDBeaver.com's year-end poll, ranking the best in Blu-rays, boxsets and more. Gary Tooze runs his widely read site out of his home in Ontario, and he and I have been corresponding for a while, ever since he featured in a story of mine about DVD collectors back in 2006, at the height of the digital-versatile-disc boom. Well, here we are at the start of 2021 and physical media is still alive and kicking, despite the pandemic, despite Netflix, despite streaming in general. The new poll covers a lot of what was released on Blu-ray (and also 4K UHD and DVD) and my two cents worth of opinions appear a dozen times, amounting to, oh, about one caribou-headed quarter, or trente sous as we say here in Quebec. What my colleagues in cinephilia share is an appreciation for the effort that goes into curating, restoring, transferring, producing and distributing films for home viewing in the most-complete editions possible. The companies that are best at it have a common mission: to entertain and also educate an audience of consumers who don't just want to watch a movie but also explore its genesis and the context in which it was made. If filmmaking is a collective art, film appreciation is a collective passion, and through their visual comparisons and critical reviews, Gary and his collaborators at DVD Beaver continue to bring our community together, year after year.
4 from Powerhouse
Devil in a Blue Dress (U.S., 1995)
In post-WWII Los Angeles, ex-serviceman Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins (Denzel Washington) turns private eye to track down the AWOL fiancée (Jennifer Beals) of a mayoral candidate, and winds up taking on the Mob. For extras on the region-B disc, writer-director Carl Franklin provides an audio commentary recorded in 1999 and sits down with film-noir historian Eddie Muller in 2018 for a 20-minute onstage interview. There's also co-star Don Cheadle's 15-minute screen test, a trailer and a gallery of 22 promotional images. Nothing much on the film's swell soundtrack, but you do get a choice of listening to the tunes of T-Bone Walker and others in lossless stereo or surround sound. A 36-page booklet rounds out the package with an excerpt of Walter Mosley’s source novel and assorted essays.
Roadgames (Australia, 1981)
Jamie Lee Curtis hitches a ride on a desert highway in Australia and is picked up by truck driver Stacy Keach, who's hot on the trail of a serial killer. For the Blu-ray, code-locked to region B, the movie has been restored in 4K. There are three audio commentaries: from 2003 with director Richard Franklin; from 2019 with the film's cinematographer Vincent Monton, production coordinator and costume designer; and a newly recorded one with writers and programmers Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe. Extras are plentiful, starting with a 20-minute making-of from 2003 and interviews with Keach in 2019 (video, 13 mins.) and 2016 (audio, 9 mins.), Franklyn in 1981 (video, 26 mins.) and 2001 (audio, 23 mins.), actor and stunt coordinator Grant Page (audio, 33 mins.), and outtakes from the hour-long 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! There's a 15-minute short by Franklyn and Monton from 1973 called "... And His Ghost May Be Heard" and a 1980 onstage lecture by Franklyn and his co-producer Barbi Taylor and composer Brian May (130 mins.). You can hear the cast reading the script in 1980 (116 mins.) and May's music demos (4 mins.). There's a new video appreciation by critic Neil Sinyard (13 mins.), a trailer and two galleries totalling 114 production and promotional images. An 80-page book and a double-sided poster complete the package, housed in a hard slipcase.
A Soldier's Story (U.S., 1984)
Denzel Washington again, in another role as an American soldier. This time he's part of an all-black company in Louisiana during WWII that's shaken by the murder of an unpopular superior officer. For extras on the region-B disc, director Norman Jewison provides an audio commentary recorded in 1999 and sits down for a three-part, 68-minute interview in 2010. Also to watch: a quarter-hour featurette from 1999 called "March to Freedom," a gallery of 34 promotional images from the film and its production, and a trailer. There's an illustrated booklet, 36 pages long, with excerpts from Jewison’s autobiography in which he talks about making A Soldier’s Story. Also to read: an archival interview with cinematographer Russell Boyd and an overview of critics' reactions to the film at the time.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians (U.S., 1976)
For this raucous biopic by director Robert Altman, Paul Newman transformed himself with long hair and goatee into the flamboyant William F. Cody, aka "Buffalo Bill," headliner of the amazingly popular, early 20th-century Wild West Show. For its new Blu-ray, code-locked to region B, Powerhouse has provided two versions of the film: Altman's 123-minute cut with its "antique" colour palette, and producer Dino De Laurentiis' shorter, 105-minute cut, which got only a limited release in Europe. For extras, there's a 2007 audio appreciation by sound mixer Jim Webb (22 mins.), an original titles-and-credits sequence from the director's cut released in France (7 mins.), a trailer, a TV spot and two galleries of a total 86 promotional images. There are also close to an hour of vintage silent films featuring the real Buffalo Bill, with optional new musical accompaniment by British folkie Bernard Wrigley: the titles are "Annie Oakley" (1895), "Parade of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Nos. 1 and 2" (1898), "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade" (1902), "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East" (1910), "The Life of Buffalo Bill" (1912), and "Ford Animated Weekly" (1916). The accompanying illustrated booklet runs 36 pages and has excerpts from the 2006 book of interviews 'Altman on Altman,' an overview of critics' write-ups of the film, and an essay on the silent films by veteran British film scholar Peter Stanfield.
1 from Olive Films
Rio Grande (U.S., 1950)
John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara star in the third of John Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy' of classic movie westerns, after 1948's Fort Apache and 1949's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Set in the late 1870s, Rio Grande stars John Wayne as Kirby Yorke, a U.S. Cavalry officer posted to the Mexican border, and Maureen O'Hara as his ex-wife, a feisty Irish lass named Kathleen. The film was famously made only as a contractual prerequisite for Republic Pictures agreeing to back Ford's subsequent movie with Wayne and O'Hara, the 1952 Irish romance The Quiet Man. Restored in high-definition for this Olive Signature release, the film comes to U.S. Blu-ray with a new audio commentary by author Nancy Schoenberger (Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero), new interviews with actor Claude Jarman Jr. and actor/choreographer Raoul Trujillo (15 mins. each), and with Wayne's son, Patrick (11 mins.) and film historian Marc Wanamaker (6 mins.). There's also a 1993 making-of with critic Leonard Maltin (22 mins.), and a video essay by critic Tag Gallagher (11 mins.), plus a trailer. The eight-page booklet has an essay by University of New Mexico scholar Paul Andrew Hutton (also readable onscreen as a text-based extra). The disc case slides into a cardboard slipcover.
1 boxset from Powerhouse
Columbia Noir #1 (1945-58)
British distributor Powerhouse sum up their set this way: "Six tough, no-nonsense noirs from six of the genre’s toughest, no-nonsense directors: Budd Boetticher’s Escape in the Fog, in which a nurse and a war veteran take on Nazi spies in San Francisco; Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, inspired by the real-life case against Al Capone; Richard Quine’s Drive a Crooked Road, which finds Mickey Rooney moving away from comedies and musicals to a tougher persona; Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House, starring Kim Novak as a nightclub singer embroiled in a casino heist; Vincent Sherman’s The Garment Jungle, from which Kiss Me Deadly director Robert Aldrich was famously fired; and Don Siegel’s police procedural The Lineup, based on the radio and television series, and as brutal a film as he ever made. All six films are presented for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK, with The Undercover Man and Drive a Crooked Road making their world Blu-ray premieres. The collection comes with a 120-page book." More details below.
The Lineup (U.S. 1958)
Audio commentaries with authors James Ellroy and Eddie Muller (2009) and with film historian David Del Valle and writer C Courtney Joyner (2020);
"The Influence of Noir" (2009, 7 mins.), an appreciation by filmmaker Christopher Nolan, and "The Streets of San Francisco" (2020, 7 mins.), video locations guide;
Three episodes of "The Lineup" radio series from 1950 and 1951 written by Blake Edwards and Richard Quine;
"Tricky Dicks" (1953, 16 mins.), a comedy starring the Three Stooges, in which the trio send up the police procedural;
Original theatrical trailer;
Trailer commentary by A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson, and an image gallery.
5 Against the House (U.S., 1955)
Audio commentary with film critic David Jenkins, editor of Little White Lies magazine (2020);
The Guardian Interview with Kim Novak (1997, 67 mins.): an archival video recording of the actress in conversation with critic and film historian David Robinson at the National Film Theatre, London;
"Sweet and Hot" (1958, 17 mins.), a comedy starring the Three Stooges, in which the trio team up with a female singer in the hope of finding fame and fortune in the big city;
Original theatrical trailer;
An image gallery of publicity and promotional material from the movie.
The Undercover Man (U.S., 1949)
Audio commentary with writer and film programmer Tony Rayns (2020);
"Man on a Bus" (1945, 29 mins), a short film directed by Joseph H Lewis for the United Jewish Appeal, featuring Walter Brennan, Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman, and Lassie;
"Income Tax Sappy" (1954, 17 mins), a comedy starring the Three Stooges, in which the trio come under the scrutiny of the U.S. Treasury Department when they get creative with their tax returns;
An image gallery of publicity and promotional material .
The Garment Jungle (U.S., 1957)
Audio commentary with film historian Kevin Lyons (2020);
"It’s a Jungle Out There" (2007, 20 mins.): an archival interview with actor Robert Loggia, conducted by Alan K Rode of the Film Noir Foundation following a screening of The Garment Jungle;
"Law of the Jungle" (2020, 15 mins.): writer and film programmer Tony Rayns discusses Robert Aldrich and The Garment Jungle;
"Rip, Sew and Stitch" (1953, 17 mins.), a comedy starring the Three Stooges, in which the trio play tailors who find themselves caught up in criminal activities;
Original theatrical trailer;
Image gallery of publicity and promotional material.
Drive a Crooked Road (U.S., 1954)
Audio commentary with New York film critic Nick Pinkerton (2020);
The Guardian Interview with actor Mickey Rooney (1988, 83 mins.), recorded at the National Film Theatre, London;
An introduction by director Martin Scorsese (2012, 2 mins.);
‘Mickey Rooney, Then and Now’ (1953, 10 mins.): Columbia Pictures promotional short featuring the actor looking back at one of his childhood roles; and "Higher Than a Kite" (1943, 18 mins.), a comedy starring the Three Stooges, in which the trio play mechanics who find themselves in a situation that’s way out of their control;
Original theatrical trailer and an image gallery of publicity and promotional material .
Escape in the Fog (U.S., 1945)
Audio commentary with film historian Pamela Hutchinson (2020);
"The Fleet That Came to Stay" (1945, 22 mins), a World War II documentary, compiled by Budd Boetticher from original combat footage captured during the Battle of Okinawa, and released shortly after Escape in the Fog;
"You Nazty Spy!" (1940, 18 mins), a World War II comedy starring the Three Stooges, in which the trio satirize the Third Reich and help publicise the Nazi threat to American audiences;
An image gallery of publicity and promotional material.
1 from Criterion
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (U.S., 1999)
Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game) stars as Ghost Dog, a New Jersey hitman who subscribes to the Zen philosophy of classical Japanese samurai warriors and communicates with his mob boss (john Tormey) by carrier pigeon. Unusual? You bet. Channeling French director Jean Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï), American director Jim Jarmusch bends the gangster genre to his own peculiar will, and the results are as thoughtful as they are violent. Criterion's Blu-ray sports a crisp 4K restoration and offers the option (previously available on Artisan Entertainment's 2003 DVD) of watching the movie with its music track alone (no dialogue or sound effects); alternately, you can watch it overlaid with a new 84-minute audio track of Jarmusch answering questions submitted to him by fans in June, near the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Video extras include a new quarter-hour essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim on Ghost Dog's score by Robert Fitzerald Diggs, aka RZA of the New York City hiphop group Wu-Tang Clan. There's also a new video-conference interview with Whitaker and supporting actor Isaach De Bankolé (30 mins.), another interview with casting director Ellen Lewis (15 mins.) and another with Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple (6 mins.). Interviews from a 2000 making-of with Jarmusch, Whitaker and RZA lasts just under half an hour, and five minutes of deleted scenes and a trailer round out the package. The booklet has essays by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, a 2000 interview with Jarmusch, and quotations from the book Whitaker reads in the film, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, by the 18th-century samurai monk Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
2 from Eureka!
The Painted Bird (Czech Republic/Slovakia/Ukraine, 2019)
A wartime survival movie reminiscent of the Soviet classic Come and See, The Painted Bird follows an orphan boy (Petr Kotlár) as he suffers the trials and tribulations of being a Jew on the run in Eastern Europe near the end of the Second World War. Brutalized by everyone – farmers, villagers, Nazis, the Red Army – young Joska stays mute throughout. Shot in black-and-white by Vladimír Smutný (Kolya), the film is harrowingly beautiful, even when reduced to the small screen. Besides a stills gallery, there's one big extra on the new Montage Blu-ray (coded-locked to Region B) from U.K. distributor Eureka!: a two-hour making-of that explores Czech director Václav Marhoul's decade-long struggle to bring Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 autobiographical novel to the screen. The accompanying booklet has an essay on the film by British film writer Jason Wood.
Waxworks (Germany, 1924)
An early anthology fantasy/suspense/horror film that presaged others such as the 1945 British classic Dead of Night, Waxworks is set in a wax museum, where a young writer (future director William Dieterle) is hired to promote the spooky exhibits of historical figures. Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss star. Restored in 2K, the German silent film comes to Blu-ray as part of Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema series with two new optional scores (solo piano, chamber ensemble), a new audio commentary by Australian critic Adrian Martin and a series of eight animated shorts that director Paul Leni made in the 1920s titled "Rebus-Film Nr. 1-8." Other extras include new interviews with German film curator Julia Wallmüller and English critic Kim Newman. The illustrated booklet includes new essays by critics Philip Kemp and Richard Combs.
2 from Powerhouse
I, Monster (U.K., 1971)
Set in London in 1906 with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the lead roles, I, Monster reworked Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as a full-colour horror film. Unfortunately it flopped at the box office upon release in 1971, upstaged by Hammer Film Studio's decidedly racier adaptation, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Time now for areappraisal. Making its debut on Blu-ray, code-locked to Region B, I, Monster comes in two versions: the original theatrical cut and extended cut. There are two audio commentaries by director Stephen Weeks (a new one and also an old one he recorded in 2005 with film historian Sam Umland), and another from 1987, previously unavailable, that's actually a British Entertainment History Project interview with the film's editor, Peter Tanner, playable over the extended cut. For extras, there are two new featurettes (an 18-minute interview with composer Carl Davis and a six-minute introduction by British horror author Stephen Laws) and two vintage interviews: 16 minutes with Weeks at the 1998 Festival of Fantastic Films and three hours of audio from 1985 with I, Monster's writer and co-producer Milton Subotsky. Three trailers (the U.S. and U.K. theatrical ones and the 2020 U.S. re-release trailer) and two images galleries (131 promotional stills and 56 behind-the-scenes snaps) complete the package. The booklet runs 36 pages.
Sweet Charity (U.S., 1969)
Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All that Jazz) made his feature debut as a director with this ill-fated musical. Shirley MacLaine stars as the titular heroine, Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer and girl who can't say no whose bad taste in men comes to a brief end when she gets stuck in an elevator with shy eligible bachelor Oscar Lindquist (played by John McMartin). Critics praised the production and MacLaine in particular, but audiences stayed away: the movie made back less than half the $20 million it cost to shoot. Now on Region-B Blu-ray, Sweet Charity can be appreciated anew, complete with optional overture, an alternate 12-minute happy ending (spoiler alert: Charity and Oscar get back together), and a condensed 17-minute Super-8 version of the film. There are two new audio commentaries: one with film historians Lee Gambin, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Cara Mitchell, and the other with choreographer Sonja Haney, whose career began with this picture (she's interviewed for selected scenes as an alternate track). A third audio track features MacLaine interviewed onstage at London's National Film Theatre in 1971. There are also 22 minutes of video of actor/singer/dancer Sammy Davis Jr. interviewed in 1968 and two contemporary featurettes – one featuring Fosse, the other Edith Head, the film's famous costume designer – totalling 16 minutes. A trailer and two image galleries, along with an 80-page book, round out this limited edition.
1 from Kino
The Grey Fox (Canada, 1982)
Finally: a Canadian classic gets a much-anticipated release on disc, in a fine-looking 4K restoration on Blu-ray with a maxed-out bitrate. Richard Farnsworth stars in the real-life tale of Bill Miner, set free from San Quentin prison in 1901 after serving 33 years for robbing a stagecoach. Known as the "Gentleman Bandit" and coiner of the phrase "Hands up!"," Miner heads north to British Columbia, adopts the alias of "George Edwards" and plans his next big heist: this time he'll rob a train, a Canadian Pacific Railways train carrying a sizeable shipment of payroll money. The robbery near Kamloops goes wrong, however: he and his gang target the wrong railway car and wind up with only $15. Arrested soon after, Miner and his accomplices are tried in a Kamloops court and sent to New Westminster penitentiary, from which Miner eventually escapes back to the United States. Several robberies, imprisonments and escapes later, he dies in a Georgia prison farm. The movie of his life is a dandy: Farnsworth brings just the right touch of grace, cunning and old-dog stoicism to the role, and is flanked by a fine cast of co-stars including Canadian greats Jackie Burroughs and Wayne Robson. Directed by Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox was his debut feature) and shot by cinematographer Frank Tidy (The Duellists), The Grey Fox is memorable moviemaking, and its availability on digital home video is long overdue. On the Blu-ray, Kino provide all-new extras: an audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox, interviews with producer Peter O'Brian (10 mins.) and composer Michael Conway Baker (13 mins.), a restoration featurette (4 mins.) and the movie's re-release theatrical trailer.
2 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Made in Hong Kong (Hong Kong, 1997)
A young triad named Moon (Sam Lee) finds redemption in 1990s Hong Kong helping his terminally ill teenage girlfriend, Ping (Neiky Hui-Chi Yim). There are four interviews as extras on the Region-B Blu-ray: with director Fruit Chan (47 mins.), producers Doris Yang (7 mins.) and Daniel Yu (13 mins.) and with Marco Muller, former director of the Locarno Film Festival (4 mins.). The booklet has new writing by film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Tony Rayns; Chan’s director’s statement from the film’s original 1997 press release; and an interview with Chan from 2017, after the film was restored.
This Gun for Hire (U.S., 1942)
Not yet known for classics like The Blue Dahlia and Shane, Alan Ladd shot to fame opposite Veronica Lake is this film noir, playing a hit man pursued by a cop (Robert Preston) and his nightclub-singer moll (Lake). Restored in 4K, the movie comes to Region-B Blu-ray with an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin and two radio adaptations: an hour-long Lux Radio Theater one from 1943 with Ladd and Joan Blondell, and a half-hour Screen Guild Theater one from 1945 with Ladd and Lake. There's also a trailer and a stills gallery. The booklet has essays by film writers Barry Forshaw and Craig Ian Mann.
1 from Paramount
Roman Holiday (U.S., 1953)
Audrey Hepburn plays a runaway in Rome – a princess, no less – who falls in love with an American journalist played by Gregory Peck. Cue the Vespa rides for two. Directed by William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur), Roman Holiday is a romantic comedy of its time and for all time, and Paramount's all-region Blu-ray, number 9 in its "Paramount Presents" series, shows the film looking better than ever, despite a badly damaged original negative used as the basis of the new restoration. Extras include a new appreciation by critic Leonard Maltin (7 mins.) and five featurettes from Paramount's 2002 "Centennial Collection" DVD: a tour of the locations where Roman Holiday was shot (9 mins.), a look at the film's screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (12 mins.), a look at Hepburn and the six films she made at Paramount (30 mins.), clips from other Paramount movies of the 1950s (10 mins.), a tour of costumes in the Paramount vaults (6 mins.), and an appreciation of Hepburn as movie star, mother, lover and fashion plate (12 mins.). Completing the package are four photo galleries (36 behind-the-scenes production shots, 43 stills from the movie, 13 publicity shots and eight snaps of the premiere) and three trailers (two original and one for the new re-release).
1 from Powerhouse
Eva (France/Italy, 1962)
An oddly compelling dive into early 1960s existentialism, Eva (aka The Devil's Woman) was a flop for American expat director Joseph Losey (The Servant, Monsieur Klein). À la Orson Welles with RKO and The Magnificent Ambersons, he put the blame squarely on his producer-overseers, in this case the famous Hakim brothers of France; he complained they re-cut the picture behind his back, butchering it beyond recognition. Shot in Venice in black-and-white by Gianni Di Venanzo (La Notte, Salvatore Giuliano, 8½) with sound post-synced in typical Italian style, Eva stars Jeanne Moreau as a ruthless femme fatale who pursues men and money; Losey regular Stanley Baker (Blind Date, Accident) is a successful Welsh novelist who's come to Venice to marry a princess (Verna Lisi) but hides a dirty secret: he's a fraud living off the unacknowledged brilliance of his writer brother, now deceased. Adding atmosphere to the dramatic proceedings are a soundtrack of Billie Holiday tunes ("Willow Weep for Me," "Loveless Love") and costumes designed by Pierre Cardin, Moreau's fiancé at the time. On its Indicator series Blu-ray (code-locked to Region B), British distributor Powerhouse has given Losey and his labour of love their due and restored some pride in this neglected picture: like the notoriously high tides of Venice itself, it overflows with special features. There are four versions of the film: a restored one called Eve (126 mins)., the same with an extended ending (127 mins.), an original release version called Eva (109 mins.) and an alternate original release called The Devil's Woman (108 mins.). Extras are extensive: a two-hour audio interview from 1987 with the film's editor, Reginald Beck, that can be played as an alternate track while watching the two restored versions; a new appreciation by British film scholar Neil Sinyard (24 mins.); a new featurette called "The Many Faces of Eve" (16 mins.), a new reminiscence by Losey's son, Gavrik (19 mins.), who helped sync the audio before the Hakims got to it; a new featurette called "Other Places: An Interview with Joseph Losey," based on an original TV broadcast from 1967 with French voiceover and optional English subtitles (9 mins.); and another new featurette, called "Appetite for Destruction: Jeanne Moreau on Eve," from a 1972 broadcast, again in French with optional English subtitles (5 mins.). Rounding out the disc are two theatrical trailers (one British, one French) and a gallery of 37 images showing promotional material from the time the film was released. There's a 36-page booklet as well, with writing on the film and its different versions, on the restorations, and on the 1945 source novel (originally set in Los Angeles) by James Hadley Chase, author of No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which was also adapted for the screen, in 1948, and released on Blu-ray in May 2019 as an Indicator title (my review here). There also excerpts of vintage reviews and, finally, a selection of various interviews Losey gave regarding Eva.