"... The tangled moods that, autumn-wise, I fling you ..." - Madeleva Wolff
The Best of 2021
Who had the most beautiful cover design? Which boxset really stood out? Was there a label everyone praised? Once again, I and over 120 reviewers & critics rank the year's best releases.
1 boxset from Powerhouse
Mae West in Hollywood, 1932-43 (U.S., 1932-43)
Already a powerhouse on Broadway, Mae West was 35 when she made the switch to movies in a supporting role opposite George Raft in the 1932 comedy Night After Night, directed by Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest). But it was her 1933 follow-up She Done Him Wrong, opposite Cary Grant, that really thrust her into the limelight as America's silverscreen sexpot. Now those and eight other Hollywood films starring the sassy blonde bombsell – I'm No Angel (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934), Goin' to Town (1935), Klondike Annie (1936), Go West Young Man (1936), Every Day's a Holiday (1937), My Little Chickadee (1940) and the musical The Heat's On (1943) – have been restored and remastered in 4K and collected in a six-disc boxset distributed by the U.K.'s Powerhouse Films as part of its Indicator series of classic films. The set comes with a lavish illustrated book and the discs – all code-locked Region B (U.K. and Europe) – overflow with extras. These range from new audio commentaries and video appreciations to vintage animated shorts, image galleries, trailers, a 1971 audio recording of West, and Super-8 versions of I'm No Angel and The Heat's On, the latter given its world premiere on Blu-ray.
2 from Eureka! Masters of Cinema
Champion (U.S., 1949)
Kirk Douglas got a one-two shot at overnight stardom as a conniving, whatever-it-takes-to-succeed boxer on his way to a championship title, in this film noir directed by Montreal-born Mark Robson (Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls). Audiences and critics alike were won over by Douglas' onscreen magnetism, impressive dramatic range and ... naked torso. Extras on the Region-B-codelocked disc include a new audio commentary by film scholar Jason A. Ney and a stills gallery of 64 images. The accompanying booklet has a new essay by critic Richard Combs and a look at boxing in cinema by screenwriter S.B. Cave.
The Love of Jeanne Ney (Germany, 1927)
This early silent feature by Austrian director G.W. Pabst (Pandora's Box, L'Atlantide) is a romantic thriller set in revolutionary Russia and emigré Paris, where reactionary forces prey on the French heroine (Édith Jeyhanne) who loves, loses and is reunited with her Bolshevik boyfriend (Uno Henning). Codelocked to Region B, the disc has both the German (107 mins.) and U.S. (86 mins.) versions of the film, shot at the same time with different cameras, with differing scores. There's also a new half-hour video essay by film historians David Cairns and Fiona Watson, and a booklet with a new appreciation by critic Philip Kemp.
1 from Paramount
Harold and Maude (U.S., 1975)
Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) is a young man from a wealthy American family who has a strange fascination with death. He attends funerals and stages his own suicide, several times, all without result. And then came Maude – no, not the divorcee portrayed by Bea Arthur, though that early '70s TV series was roughly contemperanous with Harold and Maude, the movie. This Maude (played by Ruth Gordon) is a Holocaust survivor, 79 years old, and she and Harold meet at one of those funerals he likes to go to – and funnily enough, they fall in love. Unlikely? Perhaps. Weird? Definitely. Charming? You bet. Written by Colin Higgins (9 to 5) and featuring a soundtrack of songs written and performed by Cat Stevens, director Hal Ashby's dark comedy did near-zero box office when it reached theatres a few days before Christmas in 1971, but went on to become a sleeper hit; like the counterculture, sometimes new ideas take time to find their audience. First released on Blu-ray by Criterion in 2012 and in the U.K. in 2014 as part of Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema series, Harold and Maude now comes restored and remastered in 4K (and alas, inexplicably cropped) by Paramount with two trailers and two new extras: an audio commentary by screenwriter Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood) and writer-director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), and a short interview (6 mins.) with Stevens himself. There's no booklet, just a slipcase.
1 from Kino Lorber
Broken Lullaby (U.S., 1932)
An anti-war drama directed by a man best known for his witty comedies, Broken Lullaby was Ernst Lubitsch's seventh sound film and his 15th since leaving his native Germany for Hollywood in 1922. The prolific director would go on to make such classics as Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and To Be Or Not to Be (1942), all characterized by a light touch (what became known as 'the Lubistch touch'), fluid dialogue and a naturalism in the acting by stars like Greta Garbo, James Stewart and Carole Lombard. Broken Lullaby is something else entirely: a downbeat, bitter and then, in a surprise turn, sentimental look at the effect of war on the soldiers who fight it and the families they leave behind or, if they're lucky, return to. The latter is the case for Lubitsch's hero, a World War One French infantryman named Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes). Traumatized after killing a lone German soldier in the trenches, after the war Paul decides to visit the man's family in Germany and ask forgiveness for his actions. Instead, he's mistaken for a friend of the deceased's from before the war in Paris, is welcomed into the family, and is even matched off to the dead man's fiancée (Nancy Carroll) with the consent of mother (Louise Carter) and father (Lionel Barrymore). Will the truth out? Based on the 1930 play L'homme que j'ai tué by Maurice Rostand, Lubitsch's film is also meant to warn of the latent xenophobia brewing in Germany at the time of the film's release in January 1932, several months before the federal election that swept Hitler's Nazis to dominance in the Reichstag. On the Blu-ray, the film has been restored in 2K and given one significant extra, an engrossing, full-length audio commentary by American film scholar Joseph McBride. Among the many things he discusses is Frantz, French director François Ozon's adaptation from 2016; Ozon called his version "loosely inspired" by Lubitsch's film, and they bear watching back-to-back as a double bill (Frantz has been released on Blu-ray in near-identical editions by Music Box Films in the U.S., Warner Home Video in Germany, France Télévisions in France, and Artificial Eye in the U.K.). One small quibble with the Kino Lorber release: the subtitles. There are some howlers: "There is enough of our country occupied by Poland soldiers," a bigoted German burger is quoted as saying; I guess the automated voice-to-text software misheard; the actual line was "There is enough of our country occupied by foreign soldiers. A few seconds later, another burgher tells a waiter "Bring me sauerbraten and a juicy piece," and that is rendered "Bring me sauerbraten and a juicy beef." Technical glitches can be so annoying.
1 from Eureka!
Sweet Thing (U.S., 2020)
If naturalistic performances by non-actors improvising a lot of their dialogue is your thing, you'll love Alexander Rockwell's indie family drama Sweet Thing. It follows teenager Billie and her younger brother Nico (played by Rockwell's own children, Lana and Nico), who live with their unemployed drunk of a father (Will Patton) until he enters rehab, then move in with their troubled mother (real-life mom Karyn Parsons, Rockwell's wife) and her thuggish boyfriend (LM Josepher). Things grow dark in the flash of a, well, penis; the kids make friends with a local wildchild named Malik (Jabai Watkins) and run away from what little home they have. Shot mostly in black-and-white (with occasional flashes of colour) in the seaside town of New Bedford, Mass., Sweet Thing is punctuated by Billie's soulful singing of the Van Morrison track that gives the film its title and plays over the closing credits. There are no extras on the disc, which is code-locked for Region B (U.K. and Europe), but there is a booklet with an essay by film writer Jason Wood.
1 from Paramount
Heaven Can Wait (U.S., 1978)
Co-written by Elaine May and the movie's star, Warren Beatty, who also directed (with co-star Buck Henry), Heaven Can Wait follows the journey into the afterlife and back of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Joe Pendelton, who dies prematurely in an accident, sees his body cremated and then is told it was all a mistake and that he should come back to life in another man's body. James Mason, Jack Warden, Julie Christie, Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin co-star. Nothing to do with Ernst Lubistch's 1943 comedy of the same name, Beatty's film is actually an adaptation of 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Chicago writer Harry Seagall won an Academy Award for scripting that picture from his own play, but despite nine nominations at the 1979 Oscars, including one for best picture, Beatty's film came up dry except for one, for best art direction. Box office was another story: a $100 million gross on a $6 million budget – a huge success. (There have been three other remakes based on the same story: the 1947 musical Down to Earth, starring Rita Hayworth and Larry Parks; another musical in 1980, called Xanadu and starring Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck; and 2001's Down to Earth, starring Chris Rock.) There are no extras on the Paramount Blu-ray, unless you count the code they provide to stream or download the film as a digital file.
1 from Criterion
High Sierra (U.S., 1941)
Humphrey Bogart stars in this classic western noir directed by Raoul Walsh (They Drive by Night, White Heat) and co-written by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Prizzi's Honor) and W.R. Burnett (Scarface, The Badlanders), adapting Burnett's novel of the same name. Bogart plays Roy Earle, an ex-con hired to lead a heist at a mountain spa resort in California's Sierra Nevada; Ida Lupino (The Sea Wolf, Moontide) plays his love interest, the dance-hall girl Marie. High Sierra was shot on location, which lends the film a you-are-there quality that critics and audiences loved; it has aged very well. For the new Blu-ray edition, Criterion has put the film on one disc with substantial extras, then upped the ante with a second disc of extras, including another Walsh western. The first disc includes a new video essay featuring excerpts from a 1976 American Film Institute interview with Burnett (14 mins.); a new interview with film and media historian Miriam J. Petty about African-American actor Willie Best (14 mins.); "Bogart: Here’s Looking at You, Kid," a 1997 documentary (51 mins.); "Curtains for Roy Earle: The Story of High Sierra," a 2003 featurette (15 mins.); a half-hour radio adaptation from 1944; and a trailer. Disc two has Colorado Territory, Walsh’s 1949 western remake of High Sierra; a 2019 feature-length documentary called "The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh" (95 mins.); and a new conversation on Walsh between film programmer Dave Kehr and critic Farran Smith Nehme (20 mins.). The accompanying booklet includes an essay by Imogen Sara Smith.
4 from Paramount
Mommie Dearest (U.S., 1981)
"No ... wire ... hangers ... EVER!" An unintentional camp classic, Mommie Dearest stars Faye Dunaway as real-life actress Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel, Mildred Pierce, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), based on the 1978 memoir of Crawford's long-suffering adopted daughter, Christina. Alcoholic, neat-freak, child abuser, the mother here is portrayed with surreal intensity by Dunaway, who later disowned the film, just as 'Mommie" Crawford disowned Christina. It's all so sad, very sad – but also, in a weird way, absolutely hilarious. Paramount's all-region Blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks – one new (by drag queen Hedda Lettuce), one old (by filmmaker John Waters, from the 2006 DVD) – and several extras: a new appreciation of director Frank Perry by biographer Justin Bozung (7 mins.) and three quarter-hour featurettes off the old DVD that look at the genesis, making-of and legacy of the film through the eyes of cast and crew. (Not Dunaway's, however; until 2016 in an interview with People magazine, she refused to discuss the film, which she lamented had given people "the wrong impression of me – and that's an awful hard thing to beat."). Rounding out the disc are a three-minute slideshow of photos and a trailer. Besides the original mono audio (in English or in French and German dubs), Paramount also offer a boosted DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track; subtitles can be had in the three languages too.
'Audrey Hepburn 7-Film Collection' (1953-64)
Daughter of a Dutch aristocrat and a British-Bohemian divorcé, born in Belgium and raised there and in Holland, Audrey Hepburn moved to England in 1948 to study ballet, started acting and was soon a major star of the screen. On Blu-ray, Paramount Home Entertainment has now compiled an eight-disc set of seven of her films, besting Warner's three-film set from 2014. You get Roman Holiday (1953); Sabrina (1954); War and Peace (1956), sans extras; Funny Face (1957); Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); My Fair Lady (1964); and, new to BD with no extras, Paris When It Sizzles (1964), co-starring William Holden.
Star Trek: The Original Series (U.S., 1966-69)
Following up on their 45th and 50th anniversary releases on Blu-ray, Paramount now offer the original three seasons of the pioneering NBC TV series 'Star Trek' in a 55th anniversary collection: three steelbooks housed in acardboard box. Only the packaging has changed; all content on the 20 discs, including the copious special features, remains the same from previous editions. In 79 episodes (plus the pilot, called 'The Cage'), you get to relive the 23rd-century voyages through the Milky Way of the starship USS Enterprise and its crew: captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), chief medical officer Dr. Leonard 'Bones' McCoy (DeForest Kelley), chief engineer Montgomery 'Scotty' Scott (James Doohan), communications officer Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), helmsman Hikara Sulu (George Takai), navigator Pavel Chekov (Walter Keonig), head nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), and yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney). Guest stars include Gary Lockwood, Sally Kellerman, Diana Muldaur, Jill Ireland, Ricardo Montalbán, Terri Garr, Joan Collins and David Soul. A TV novelty at the time, first airing on Canada's CTV network on Sept. 6, 1966, writer-producer Gene Roddenberry's series eventually became a global franchise, leading to 10 more TV series, 13 feature films and countless retail tie-ins, from boardgames and books to comics and collectible toys.
The Sheik (U.S., 1921)
Rudolph Valentino, the Italian immigrant actor billed as "The Latin Lover," shot to fame in 1921 as a North African Arab sheik. In this silent picture, he abducts then falls in love with a British aristrocrat (Agnes Ayres) adventuring in the desert; they soon find out they have more in common than they thought. Valentino and Ayres reprised their roles in the 1926 sequel The Son of the Sheik. Paramount's Blu-ray is different than Kino's 2017 release: there's a new featurette called "Desert Heat: 100 years with The Sheik"; the score by Roger Bellon is from 1987; and there's no audio commentary track or newsreel footage.
1 from Criterion
The Damned (Götterdämmerung) (Italy / West Germany, 1969)
Luchino Visconti's two-and-a-half-hour condemnation of the early days of Nazism is a sordid affair focused on the corruption of a leading family of munitions-and-steel magnates torn apart by greed, incest, drug addiction and ultimately murder, all against the backdrop of the struggle for dominance between Hitler's SA and SS rivals. Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin and Visconti's flamboyantly gay protegé Helmut Berger star.There's only one new extra on Criterion's Blu-ray: a quarter-hour interview with Italian film scholar Stefano Albertini. The rest are archival: a 40-minute interview with Visconti on Italian TV in 1970; short interviews from 1969 with Berger and Thulin, and another from 1990 with Rampling; a 1960 featurette showing Visconti working and being interviewed (in English) on set; and a trailer. The film has two soundtracks: the original English and German one (with optional subtitles for the German), and an Italian dub (unfortunately inactive on the retail copy I was sent). A foldout pamphlet has an essay by scholar D. A. Miller.
1 from Network
Defence of the Realm (U.K., 1985)
In an early role, Gabriel Byrne plays Nick Mullen, a hardnosed London newspaper reporter who investigates a cover-up by the British government of an accident on an American airbase that almost resulted in a nuclear disaster. Briskly paced, well-acted (Greta Scacchi, Denholm Elliott and Ian Bannen co-star) and with a solid script by Martin Stellman (Quadrophenia, For Queen and Country, The Interpreter), the movie also marked an early effort by cinematagrapher Roger Deakins (Fargo, Skyfall). U.K. distributor Network's Blu-ray sports a new transfer of Defence of the Realm and interviews with producer Lynda Myles, production designer Roger Murray-Leach, composer Richard Harvey (responsible for the film's now-excruciatingly dated synthesizer score) and even the film's boom operator, Clive Copland. There's also a 13-minute episode from 2000 of Carleton Cinema's documentary series "On Location," in which actor Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth) interviews Myles and location manager Laurie Borg and revisits some of the places Realm was shot. Completing the package are a trailer and an 18-page booklet featuring a new essay by scholar Neil Sinyard and the movie's original pressbook.
1 from Eureka! Montage
I Never Cry (Poland/Ireland, 2020)
After a Polish construction worker dies in Ireland, his headstrong teenage daughter, Olka (Zofia Stafiej), arrives to collect his body and the savings he'd promised for her first car and hightail it back home. But in her first exposure to the West, the 17-year-old finds that Dublin is a force to be reckoned with, her mixed feelings over her estranged dad are ever-present, and her grief surprisingly inextinguishable. Following up on his debut film, Silent Night (2017), writer-director Piotr Domalewski once again explores the psychology of foreign workers in the European Union and charts the impact of economic and geographical disparity on their friends and family. There are no extras on the new region-B Blu-ray from Montage Pictures, an imprint of U.K. distributor Eureka!, but the booklet features an essay by critic Anna Smith.
1 from Paramount
'Crocodile Dundee' Trilogy (Australia/U.S, 1986/1988/2001)
"G'day!" Paul Hogan shot to worldwide fame 35 years ago as the Aussie hunter Mick 'Crocodile' Dundee, starring alongside blonde American actress Linda Kozlowski in a film that ate up the box office, wrangling in 20 times its $10-million budget worldwide. Part comedy, part action movie, Crocodile Dundee is also a classic fable of a hunter "captured" by his prey, as Kozlowski's newsmagazine reporter character, Sue Charleton, eventually entices Mick onto her home turf in New York City, where love blooms. (In real life, Hogan and Kozlowski turned their onscreen chemistry into a real-life affair, marrying in 1990 and becoming parents. It didn't last forever, though: they were divorced in 2014.) Paramount has collected the original film and its two sequels – Crocodile Dundee II (1988), another smash hit, and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001), which didn't do nearly as well – in a Blu-ray set, the latter film appearing for the first time on BD. Housed in a regular-size case, the movies come with only a few extras: none but a trailer on the first, a trailer and behind-the-scenes featurette on the second, and a trailer and short making-of on the third.