"Nature looks dead in winter because her life is gathered into her heart. " - Hugh Macmillan, 1871 


1 from Criterion

King of Jazz (U.S., 1930)

John Murray Anderson's King of Jazz was an early talkie musical with a big budget, massive sets, trompe-l'oeil special effects, dazzling choreography, the novelty of two-colour (red and green) Technicolor, a "larger than life" headliner (bandleader Paul Whiteman), a couple of unknowns who'd go on to become famous (Bing Crosby, Walter Brennan), and, to cap it all off, a full-blown jazz masterpiece performed by full orchestra (George Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue').  So why was the picture a flop? Bad timing. In 1930, movie audiences had had their fill of (mostly bad) musical revues and weren't willing to give even a superior product like King of Jazz a try. So it soon disappeared from view – until now. Restored in 4K from several original sources by Universal and released by Criterion on Blu-ray, KIng of Jazz is by turns thrilling, swinging, mesmerizing, laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes simply bizarre (in the big finale, immigrants from Europe descend, one by one, into a huge melting pot that represents American culture). Extras in the Criterion package run the gamut. There's a new audio commentary with critics Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour and musician Vince Giordano; a new introduction to the film by Giddins; a new interview with pianist Michael Feinstein; four new video essays by authors James Layton and David Pierce on how King of Jazz was made; several deleted scenes and an alternate opening title sequence; two vintage shorts: All Americans, from 1929, with an early version of the melting-pot number; and I Know Everybody and Everybody’s Racket , from 1933, with Whiteman and the famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell; plus two Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons from 1930, with music and animation used in King of Jazz. There's also a booklet with an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.

3 from the U.K.

The Barefoot Contessa (U.S./Italy, 1954)

A flamenco dancer from the slums of Madrid (Ava Gardner) gets discovered by an out-of-work Hollywood film director (Humphrey Bogart) and rises to become a big-time movie star, helped along by a wily PR man (Edmond O'Brien) and his movie mogul boss (Warren Stevens). Joseph L. Manciewicz directs, Jack Cardiff shoots. The Blu-ray from U.K. distributor Eureka! (part of its 'Masters of Cinema' series) looks great but is slim on extras: there's an audio commentary track (by critics Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle), a trailer and a booklet. The disc is also locked to Region B, so if you're in North America you might be better off with the region-free Blu-ray that Twilight Time released in January 2017; it's not quite as impressive visually but adds optional subtitles, an isolated score track and a stills gallery.

Professione: reporter (Italy/Spain/France, 1975)

Jack Nicholson stars as a war reporter in Africa who stumbles upon an international arms ring, gets involved with a young student (Maria Schneider) and goes on the run from his employer, his wife, the crooks and the cops. Michelangelo Antonioni directs. Extras on the region-free Blu-ray from British distributor Powerhouse Films are plentiful: two vintage audio commentaries, one new one (by Adrian Martin), five featurettes (including archival interviews with the director), a trailer, an image gallery and a 40-page booklet. 

Breathless (U.S., 1983)

Jim McBride's '80s remake of Jean-Luc Godard's '60s classic À bout de souffle pales by comparison but offers some familiar pleasures.  Richard Gere plays a handsome young hood named Jesse, Valerie Kaprisky is his French sweetheart Monica, Las Vegas is suitably tacky and there's a border run down to Mexico. It ends in a wink and shootout. Extras on the Blu-ray from British indie distributor Second Sight include a new interview with Kaprisky and an (overly?)  enthusiastic appreciation by Observer film critic Mark Kermode.

3 from the U.S.

Downsizing (U.S., 2017)

What if the solution to the Earth's overcrowding and overconsumption and escalating cost of living were to offer people the chance to get miniaturized and live life small? Not only would they save money (things cost so much less when they're tiny), they'd also save the planet, right? Not so fast. There are other things to consider – like maybe it's simply too late to start trying, because global warming is so advanced it means the environment can never recover. Writer-director Alexander Payne doesn't know whether to laugh or cry over this predicament, so he does both in Downsizing, his flop of a motion picture that never amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and (in the first part of the movie) Kristen Wiig can't rescue the all-things-to-all-people script, and without a compelling story the elaborate visual effects fall flat. Maybe, instead, they should go back and re-make Land of the Giants. Extras in the Blu-ray/DVD package from Paramount Pictures include some equally underwhelming featurettes: on what it's like to work with Payne (he's great), on what it's like to work with the actors (they're so talented), on how amazing the special effects are (really amazing), on how sweet Damon is (love that smile!), and on how important it is to protect the environment (it's truly "a global concern"). A slipcase completes the superfluity.

Don't Bother to Knock (U.S.,1952)

Richard Widmark dumps his girlfriend Anne Bancroft for the charms of babysitter Marilyn Monroe. Who wouldn't? Besides the option of an isolated music track, the most valuable extras on the Blu-ray from Twilight Time are an A&E 'Biography' TV documentary from 1994 on Monroe and another from 2000 on Widmark; each is about 45 minutes long. 

Underworld U.S.A. (U.S.,1961)

Ex-con Cliff Robertson goes after the mobsters who murdered his dad. Sam Fuller's violent noir looks great on this Blu-ray from Twilight Time. Harry Sukman's score comes as an optional isolated track, and their are two, previously able extras: a short introduction by Martin Scorsese and a featurette on Fuller. The booklet has liner notes by the ever-readable Julie Kirgo.


1 from the British Film Institute

Shiraz: A Romance of India (U.K. / India / Germany, 1928)

A film about India before Indian films existed, the silent movie Shiraz: A Romance of India was long overdue for a home-video release when the British Film Institute came to the rescue. Taking over a year to restore, the epic drama returned to screens late last year and now gets an impeccable release on Blu-ray and DVD – both all-region, and therefore viewable on players worldwide. The lovely Enakshi Ramu Rau stars as Selima, adoptive sister of Shiraz (played by the film's producer, Himansu Rai), whose feelings for her are usurped by the man who would make her his bride, Emperor Shah Jehan (Charu Roy). Helmed by the German director Franz Osten and shot on location by a German-English crew, Shiraz was a hit with Indian and international audiences – deservedly so, despite its distortions of actual historical events. Now restored in 4K, Shiraz looks wonderful on video, and the newly composed score by sitarist Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar's daughter, sounds great (in DTS-HD surround or, alternately, LPCM stereo). For extras, there's a pair of vintage documentary shorts  – one on Indian temples, shot by Jack Cardiff in Technicolor in 1938, the other on Indian musical instruments, released in 1944 – plus a two-minute restoration demonstration. The accompanying DVD has the same film and extras.

3 more from the U.K.

Ship of Fools (U.S., 1965)

Have you seen Babylon Berlin yet? I have, and it made me wonder: What else on TV or in the movies has been set in Germany's Weimar Republic? Which ones memorably charted the tumultuous era of domestic politics in the 1920s and early '30s that gave rise to National Socialism? There's Bob Fosse's Cabaret, of course, and the first episodes of the excellent Heimat series, and even, going way back, the proletarian drama Kuhle Wampe. One that slipped my mind, however, was Ship of Fools. Based on Katherine Anne Porter's novel, Stanley Kramer's 1965 adaptation is set on a German ocean liner travelling from Mexico to Germany in 1933, and with its star-studded cast (Oskar Werner, Simone Signoret, Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, José Ferrer, Michael Dunn), it's an engrossing exploration of the conflicting forces that eventually brought Hitler and his forces to power in the Third Reich. The seeds of Nazism, you'll remember, germinated in the Weimar era (1919-1933), at the end of which Germany's radical left and radical right found common ground to produce a powerful hybrid of Prussian arch-conservatism (xenophobic, anti-Semitic, militaristic) and ultra-"Red" populism (which fought for the welfare state and a command economy). Scripted by Abby Mann (Judgment at Nuremberg)Ship of Fools explores these forces Grand Hotel-style, through the interweaving stories of the various passengers and crew members aboard: a Nazi sympathizer, a Jew, an aristocrat, a dwarf, the ship's captain and doctor, an American divorcee, and so on. Clocking in at two-and-half hours, the movie sails along to an unexpected ending: Germany, it turns out, is not the final destination for all. First available in a barebones Blu-ray in 2013 from budget U.S. label Mill Creek (twinned with the Warren Beatty vehicle Lilith, of all things), Ship of Fools now gets a second wind in a superior, region-free BD edition from the upstart British distributor Powerhouse as part of its Indicator series. Special features include a new audio commentary by Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo of the American label Twilight Time, and several vintage extras. There's an introduction by the director's widow, Karen Kramer, a couple of featurettes ("On Board the Ship of Fools,” which runs half an hour, and “Voyage on a Soundstage,” just under 11 minutes); a trailer; a gallery of over 80 photos and promotional material; and a 40-page booklet with a new essay by British film historian Neil Sinyard, excerpts of what the critics wrote when the film was released, and some contemporary articles.

Michael (Germany, 1924)

Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent gay melodrama Michael came several years before his more celebrated Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc, but it packs just as solid a punch. The title character (played by Walter Slezak) is a young model who's muse to society painter Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen). When an attractive countess (Nora Gregor) comes along to have her portrait painted, a triangle develops that in the end will prove fatal. New to Blu-ray via British distributor Eureka! as part of its Masters of Cinema series, the film has been impeccably restored in 2K with better dynamics for the 1993 score by Pierre Oser, and has been supplied with a wealth of extras. There's a (previously available) audio commentary by scholar Capser Tybjerg, a new video essay by David Cairns (17 mins.), a half-hour audio Interview with Dreyer from 1965 (27 mins), and a 56-page illustrated booklet with plenty of contextual material. It has a new essay by Philip Kemp; a reprint of Tom Milne's essay 'The World Inside' from 1971; Jean Renoir's 1968 tribute essay Dreyer's Sin; a translation of the film's original 1924 Danish programme (with a detailed plot synopsis); a reprint of Nick Wrigley's essay from the film s 80th anniversary DVD release in 2004; and a selection of archival imagery. The disc is code-locked to region B.

Silence and Cry (Hungary, 1968)

The title might bring to mind Hue and Cry, the old Ealing comedy starring Alastair Sim. But no, this one is something different. It's a political drama made in Hungary in the late 1960s by Jancsó Miklós, a master of the portrayal of paranoia, brutality and war violence on the big screen. The same DVD distributor, Britain's Second Run, has been releasing Miklós' highly regarded films on home video for several years now: Red Psalm (1971), The Red and the White (1967) ,The Round-Up (1966) and My Way Home (1964). Now comes Silence and Cry, on Blu-ray for the first time. Set in 1919, it's a 76-minute drama about two childhood friends caught on opposite sides of the postwar conflict between Communist government forces and counter-revolutionaries of the nationalist far-right led by Admiral Horthy. When the Reds scatter in defeat, Horthy's men come to track them down, determined to wipe them out. This is history told at an intimate level,  with one ex-Red Army soldier hiding out at a farm in the countryside, fearful of being denounced. Then he witnesses a crime that will change everything. The region-free disc comes with optional English subtitles, a half-hour trilogy of shorts on Judaism called 'Presence' that Miklós made between 1965 and 1985, and a leaflet with notes by British film historian Tony Rayns.

1 from Olive Films

Hair (U.S., 1979)

I'm a big fan of Miloš Forman. An orphan of the Holocaust who was raised by relatives in Bohemia before going to film school, he's done many things in his long life. He made black-and-white movies in his native Czechoslovakia in the 1960s (Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen's Ball) that are classics of keenly observed social comedy. He moved to America, switched to colour, and helmed counterculture pictures in Hollywood (Taking Off, The People vs Larry Flynt), as well as adapting novels for the screen (Ragtime, Valmont). He kept a hand in making documentaries (he did the decathlon sequence that starts the 1972 Summer Olympics doc Visions of Eight). Coming back to Communist Prague in the mid-1980s he shot his masterpiece, Amadeus, on the life of Mozart. (You can read about all this in Forman's memoir, Turnaround, a breezy and inspiring read). Consider too, the professional risk Forman took when he followed up One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (winner of the top Oscars in 1975 including best picture), with, off all things, a musical. Hair was released in 1979; it was a re-write of Ragni & Rado's one-off Broadway musical from the late '60s about American hippies and their opposition to the Vietnam War. The central character is a young draftee from Oklahoma named Claude Hooper Bukowski (played in the movie by John Savage, who'd made it big the previous year in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter ). After getting his call-up papers, Bukowski comes to New York and falls in with a free-spirited bunch of hippies whose "leader" is the charismatic rebel George Berger (Treat Williams, in his star debut); Beverly d'Angelo plays Sheila Franklin, a blonde from the right side of the tracks who sends Bukowski's head spinning with thoughts of love. Eventually, however, the young recruit enlists and goes off to boot camp in Nevada, where he's only spared from being shipped overseas when he's paid an unexpected call by none other than Berger and his gang of merry pranksters. The film ends in tragedy, nonetheless. Forman's handling of this story, with a script by Michael Weller, mixes humour with moral outrage; the choreography by Twyla Tharp is dynamic and beautiful; the original music by Galt MacDermot ("Aquarius," "Easy to Be Hard," "Somebody to Love," "Good Morning, Starshine") is by turns tender and glorious; and the cinematography by Forman's compatriot and longtime collaborator Miroslav Ondříček is wonderful. And the film's politics? They're not as radical as the stage musical's, but for that reason they've aged well. Indeed, viewed back to back with the new PBS series The Vietnam War and in the context of the poisonous times Americans are living in now, the idea of peace, love and understanding standing up to war, hate and willful ignorance seems more right than ever. Hair came out on Blu-ray back in 2011 in a barebones edition from MGM/Fox, but for some reason the new edition from Olive is DVD-only, and there's still nothing in the way of extras besides a trailer. No matter; it's a nice transfer and a great film.

2 from Disney

Lady and the Tramp (U.S., 1955)

"What is a baby, anyway?" Lady, a well-bred cocker spaniel, runs away from home when her master and mistress have their first child, and hooks up with Tramp, a streetwise mutt with a heart of gold. Walt Disney's 15th animated feature is still a gem, but film purists will loathe the polished visuals of this "Signature Edition" transfer. Just like the first Blu-ray {"Diamond") edition in 2012 (and indeed, most every re-edition of Disney's animated classics, it seems), this one has scrubbed away all original film grain and given the movie a modern, plasticky look. I doubt ordinary mortals will mind, though, least of all today's kids. Extras are a mixed bag: some old, some new, and several other old ones are now viewable only over the Web. There's a DVD and digital copy, too.

Coco (U.S., 2017)

Pixar goes to Mexico in this musical fantasy set around the annual  Day of the Dead holiday and seen through the eyes of an aspiring 12-year-old musician named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez). Coco is the boy's great-grandmother (Ana Ofelia Murguia), matriarch of the Riveras, a hardworking family of shoemakers; Gael Garcia Bernal voices Hector, a ghostly skeleton who befriends Miguel in his journey to the underworld in search of his disgraced ancestor Ernesto, a guitarist. Released by Disney last November, the film won big with critics and audiences and now comes to Blu-ray (in 2K or 4K) with a wealth of bonus content, so much so that there's an extra Blu-ray to hold it all. Both editions offer a digital version to view online; the 2K also has a DVD.

2 from Twilight Time

Harry and Walter Go to New York (U.S., 1976)

Well, this seemed promising enough: a bank heist movie set in late-19th-century America that's played for laughs by some top talent (Elliott Gould, James Caan, Michael Caine, Diane Keaton, Charles Durning. Carol Kane) and whose cinematographer is none other than László Kovács (Easy Rider, Paper Moon). So why, in the end, is it such a bore? Blame some unfunny writing by John Byrum and Robert Kaufman and the uninspired direction of Mark Rydell (of On Golden Pond fame). The Blu-ray has a new commentary track by a trio of film historians, an isolated music track and a trailer.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (U.S., 1993)

Here's Diane Keaton again, middle-aged and still channeling Annie Hall (the script grew out of an early draft of that movie). She and Woody Allen play a husband and wife who investigate the apparent murder of an elderly woman in their apartment building. Apparent to them, anyway. Did the old lady's husband give her a heart attack, and if so, how? Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston co-star as friends enlisted to help in outing the prime suspect; 17-year-old Zach Braff (Scrubs) makes his screen debut. The Blu-ray comes with a trailer and an isolated score; the booklet has an appreciation by Julie Kirgo.


1 from Powerhouse U.K.

The Border (U.S., 1982)

Things get ugly on the Tex-Mex border. Down by the Rio Grande in El Paso, U.S. Border Patrol agent Charlie Smith (Jack Nicholson) battles an unhappy housewife (Valerie Perrine) and a corrupt colleague (Harvey Keitel) and winds up the saviour of a young Mexican mother (Elpidia Carrillo) and her newborn baby, victimized by smugglers. Extras on the region-free Blu-ray by British distributor Powerhouse Films (part of its Indicator series) include an audio commentary by film historian Nick Pinkerton; audio of an hour-long, on-stage tribute to Richardson at London's National Film Theatre in 1991; a trailer, an image gallery and a booklet with an essay by author Scott Harrison.

4 from Twilight Time

Dragonwyck (U.S., 1946)

Gene Tierney and Vincent Price star in this gothic romance directed by Joseph Mankiewicz (adapting Anya Seton's novel). Extras ported from the 2008 Fox DVD include an audio commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and documentary filmmaker Constantine Nasr, a 16-minute featurette on the film, and two vintage Dragonwyck radio shows totalling 90 minutes. To these, Twilight Time generously adds two 45-minute TV docs on Tierney and Price from the late 1990s (part of A&E's 'Biography' series), as well offering an isolated track of Alfred Newman's score. The booket hasnotes by Julie Kirgo.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (U.S., 1969)

Some trivia from an online discussion group: "Two years after this movie came out, the Boston Bruins' defensemen were Bob & Carol & Ted & Dallas (Bobby Orr, Carol Vadnais, Teddy Green and Dallas Smith) ... 'and Dallas' sounds an awful lot like 'and Alice.'" Weird, but so was the late 1960s,  with all its free love, wife-swapping and wearing false eyelashes to bed, as evidenced in Paul Mazursky's film, which stars Robert Culp, Natalie Wood, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. The Blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks (one old, one new), an isolated music track and a 18-minute stage interview Mazursky gave in 2003.

My Cousin Rachel (U.S., 1952)

Daphne du Maurier's mystery-romance novel  My Cousin Rachel has been adapted for the screen three times: in 1952 (with Olivia de Havilland in the title role, opposite Richard Burton in his Hollywood debut), in 1983 (as a BBC-TV mini-series starring Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Guard) and in 2017 (with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin). With the new one put out on Blu-ray last summer, the first one now gets its own BD release, spinning a Rebecca-like gothic tale of doomed lovers on the Cornish coast. Extras include a trailer, a vintage radio show and Franz Waxman's score as an optional isolated track.

Husbands and Wives (U.S., 1992)

Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) pay a visit to their friends Gabe and Judy (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) and announce they're going to separate. Weeks go by, Jack starts dating his aerobics trainer, Sam (Lysette Anthony), Sally picks up with a magazine colleague of Judy's named Michael (Liam Neeson), Jack and Sally get back together, Gabe and Judy split up, Judy hooks up with Michael, and Gabe starts hitting on a literature student of his named Rain (Juliette Lewis) before changing his mind and backing away into celibacy. It's all so sad, funny, lucid. The Blu-ray has only one extra: a trailer. 

2 from the U.K.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

The great Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot) takes a sardonic stab at the great detective Sherlock Holmes (played here by Robert Stephens, the heartthrob art teacher of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and largely succeeds. The great London detective travels with his faithful Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely) to Scotland, where they encounter the Loch Ness Monster and a German plot to steal a Royal Navy submarine. Christopher Lee plays Holmes' secretive brother, Mycroft. On its Masters of Cinema Blu-ray (code-locked to region B), British distributor Eureka! bests the American BD that Kino released in 2014, with a better transfer of the moving image (though it's still unrestored and showing its age), crisper sound and even more extras, adding a new, 20-minute interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard.

When the Wind Blows (1986)

American animated-film maker Teruaki 'Jimmy' Murakami brings British illustrator Raymond Briggs' book about nuclear war to life on the screen in this chilling movie. Hilda and Jim (voiced by Peggy Ashcroft and John Mills) are an elderly couple doing their ignorant best to prepare for the bomb, WWII-style. The British Film Institute offers the film in a dual-format (Blu-ray/DVD) edition with all the extras of the Blu-ray that Twilight Time released in America in 2014: a making-of that runs 24 minutes, an interview with Briggs that lasts 14, and the biggest bonus, a 77-minute profile of the director from 2010 titled Jimmy Murakami: Non-Alien. The BFI adds one vintage documentary, a British public-information film called Protect and Survive (1976, 50 mins.), plus a 28-page booklet. The disc is region B.

 2017: The reviewers weigh in

What were the best 15 releases of the year? Topping my list: Orson Welles' Othello.