by Bill Chambers The reason film and physical media are prematurely pronounced dead every few weeks is that the mainstream keeps narrowing, limiting the visible spectrum of both industries. Studios remain halfheartedly committed to Blu-ray Disc but, as this Top 10 list incidentally shows, it's really become the domain of boutique labels restoring and annotating studio-neglected fare, capitalizing on streaming's short-term memory and populist leanings while inspiring devotion among connoisseurs. Please note that I limited my selection process to titles I've personally audited and would endorse anyway, with or without frills. Some of these may be reviewed in full at a later date.
Runners-up, in no particular order: Body Double (Indicator), Chimes at Midnight (Criterion), The Thing: Collector's Edition (Scream Factory), Dead Ringers: Collector's Edition (Scream Factory), Tenebrae (Synapse), Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer: 30th Anniversary (Dark Sky), Deep Red: 3-Disc Limited Edition (Arrow), The Ox-Bow Incident (Arrow Academy), Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal), A Touch of Zen (Criterion)
Arrow, Region B
Joe Dante sweetly parallels the Cuban Missile Crisis with swirling teenage hormones in a coming-of-age flick that's also a love letter to William Castle's bygone showmanship. Matinee is Dante's most wistful, nostalgic, direct expression of movie-love--true to its title, the Platonic ideal of a matinee. Arrow has rescued it from a disinterested Universal by including all sorts of bonus ephemera, most crucially restoring a LaserDisc bonus that was left off the DVD: a compilation of Mant!'s unabridged scenes, which are uniformly hilarious and evocative. Sometimes you just need a pick-me-up.
9. BLUE SUNSHINE
FilmCentrix, Region A
The long-missing camera negative of this one-of-a-kind thriller turned up, in remarkably good condition, last year in a Seattle garage. Independent label FilmCentrix rolled out the red carpet for it with a 4K scan and iced the cake with, among other things, a soundtrack CD and replica blotters of "blue sunshine," the LSD derivative that lies dormant in its users for years before causing them to lose their hair and fly into a homicidal rage. I love this movie, aptly described in the liner notes as "a grindhouse Big Chill." "Regional Parallax View" would also suffice. The transfer and packaging are equally gorgeous, and kudos to FilmCentrix for offering subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing--an inclusive gesture that some better-funded companies (paging Kino Lorber) tend to overlook.
8. FEMALE PRISONER SCORPION: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION
If Bryant didn't already make a convincing case for it, I sure as hell can't.
7. THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE COMPLETE SERIES
Paramount, Region A
Somebody on Twitter recently speculated that fascism and neo-Nazis are flourishing again because people are no longer growing up having absorbed reruns of vintage television--most specifically "The Twilight Zone", which does, admittedly, feel more urgent than ever. Though known for its ironic twists, the show is often a mouthpiece for creator Rod Serling's belief that then-recent history could repeat itself if we're not diligent. While Serling's fear of our capacity for evil gave "The Twilight Zone" an overt social conscience that's always made it the squarer cousin to "The Outer Limits", its comparative longevity also gave it a much higher batting average, and going back to the series continually reveals hidden gems. (I don't know how I ever missed the greatness of "Spur of the Moment" before.) This 24-disc Blu-ray package bundles Image's deluxe, definitive releases of seasons 1 through 5 at a cheaper price. It's one you'd have to pry from my cold, dead hands.
6. ONE-EYED JACKS
The Criterion Collection, Region A
Marlon Brando was such a selfish actor, it's not surprising he only directed one film. But it is a tragedy: In my book, at least, One-Eyed Jacks is as spectacular a one-and-done as Night of the Hunter. Taking over for no less than Stanley Kubrick, Brando retains Kubrick's penchant for wide, low angles in telling an epic revenge story that predicts the grand visions of Sergio Leone, filling it with a mix of veteran character actors and Hispanic talent that would become the hallmark of uncredited screenwriter Sam Peckinpah. Having only ever seen muddy, public-domain versions of the film, the 4K digital restoration on Criterion's Blu-ray completely rewrote my memories of it; the crystalline VistaVision images are a revelation I'd compare with seeing the 70mm restorations of Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo, even at the reduced size of a TV screen. Lightly but densely supplemented, the disc includes an introduction from Martin Scorsese (who sponsored the movie's rescue with Steven Spielberg), involving video essays from the likes of D. Cairns, and audio from script conferences with Brando, though the play is the thing here.
5. HOWARDS END
Cohen Media, All-region
Waiting on line for a movie when I was 17 or thereabouts, I started snarking on Howards End because it had a lot of furniture and overdressed actresses and all those things a Beavis or a Butthead hates. "You'll appreciate it when you're older," snipped the elderly woman in front of me. She was right. Watching Howards End in 2016, I was as gripped as I would be by a page-turner--as one is, I presume, by E.M. Forster's novel. Squint a little and you can see the Trumps in the decaying Victorianism of the Wilcoxes, who use their dubious privilege to deflect their moral failings. Growing up has definitely made me more receptive to the movie's charms, but it's possible that a certain timeliness is currently working in Howards End's favour as well. Would've placed higher but Cohen's 4K restoration has a weird aspect ratio (2.47:1) and appears to these eyes to be undersaturated and lacking in contrast, although I trust James Ivory's on-board director's statement that the film has never looked better, since a 70mm blowup resulted in previous transfers being too many steps removed from the original negative. (Ivory is all over the extras of this 2-disc set, for what it's worth, though critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein do commentary duties.) It looks rich in detail, in any case, and sounds spectacular. I can't wait to watch it again.
4. McCABE & MRS. MILLER
The Criterion Collection, Region A
Glazed with an extra layer of melancholy following the death of Leonard Cohen, Robert Altman's somber western finally gets its due on home video in a perfectly imperfect transfer from Criterion, taken from a 4K scan of the original negative that was carefully colour-timed to match DP Vilmos Zsigmond's own reference print. There are images in this film of such unparalleled beauty that Stanley Kubrick couldn't wrap his head around the fact that it was pure guesswork to achieve them. Ironically, McCabe & Mrs. Miller itself is probably harder to watch than ever these days, with Altman seeming less '70s cynic than grim seer as McCabe discovers the inexorable sway of Big Business. But it's irresistible, like Mrs. Miller's opium pipe--and just about as narcotizing. This definitive release recycles Altman's excellent DVD commentary and adds enticing new features, such as a rare-for-Criterion retrospective documentary where the likes of actors Rene Auberjonois and Keith Carradine reflect on the film's production and its cultural moment. Chase it with the McCabe chapter from Robert Altman: The Oral Biography for the ideal winter evening.
BFI, Region B
Napoleon? Dynamite. The most complete cut of Abel Gance's visionary silent epic, Kevin Brownlow's 2000 restoration, gets a HiDef bump in a generous three-disc set to complement the movie's sprawl, and the extra resolution and image stabilization really make a difference, especially when the action breaks into an experimental widescreen triptych. A feature-length commentary (an impressive feat, considering the feature in question is 330 minutes long), an early Brownlow documentary on Gance, and a 60-page insert booklet provide gratifying insight into the making of a film that is as much a joy to research as it is watch. Another conspicuously-timed reissue--self-made despots are so hot right now.
Arrow Academy, Region B
I opted for the Arrow release over Criterion's because it runs at the correct frame-rate (25 fps vs. 24, respectively) and because Criterion offers significantly fewer supplements--not that I'll ever get around to them. (According to DVDBeaver, Arrow's transfers are more robust technically, too, with the series accorded five discs instead of four.) While only Criterion offers the theatrical-length versions of A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing, Arrow's inclusion of early Kieslowski works (albeit in SD) strikes me as a fair trade. Meanwhile, a 128-page booklet offers plenty of assistance in decoding the individual films, which adapt the Ten Commandments the way Kieslowski's subsequent Trois couleurs trilogy adapted the French flag. Somehow selling it short to call it a monumental achievement, "Dekalog" is Weapon X in any TV-vs.-movies debate.
1. DISSENT & DISRUPTION: ALAN CLARKE AT THE BBC – 1969-1989
BFI, Region B
I've barely scratched the surface of this box set, yet I didn't hesitate for a moment to call it the release of the year. The 23 surviving dramas England-born/Toronto-educated Alan Clarke directed for the BBC are assembled here on 13 discs in glorious HiDef remasters, along with an alternate cut of The Firm, a bonus DVD containing the Clarke-helmed episodes of Associated-Rediffusion's "Half Hour Story", and a 200-page paperback of essays worthy of being sold separately. Not to mention the introductions and commentaries by Made in Britain screenwriter David Leland, the snatches of Clarke's competing work for ITV, the four-hour documentary on Clarke...the list goes on. At once hugely influential--there is no Paul Greengrass without Clarke--and still relatively obscure, Clarke is singular among the British social realists, owing to his adaptability to a variety of sub-genres (within this sampling you will find women's pictures, war movies, prison dramas, documentaries, and even an hour-long about a dystopian roller rink) and a blazing empathy for the downtrodden that seem to go hand-on-hand. He died too young but was both blessedly, almost madly prolific (57 completed works over 23 years) and consistently inspired, to which this hefty collection will attest.