by Bill Chambers It was a pretty strong year for Blu-ray and another bad one for civilization, which is probably why an unusually high number of discs (Donnie Darko 4K, The Road Warrior, and Criterion's Citizen Kane, to name a few) fell victim to human error in 2021. I'm not dissuaded by this, I'm touched by the format's resilience in the face of adversity. One thing is for certain: the pandemic has not been kind to the hoarder of physical media--this hoarder, at least. It's led to short-stocked titles, import levies, fewer offers of review copies, and me not making one of these lists in 2020 because there was so much I missed. I don't think I expected to be back in the same boat 12 months later--or maybe, to paraphrase the world's greatest detective, I knew I would be, but I hoped I wouldn't be. I'm ignoring any pangs of FOMO this time around, though, because I did see at least 10 titles worth singling out, even if collectively they don't tell the whole story of the year in home video. Besides, any excuse to proselytize for physical media as the oil slick of streaming continues to submerge preexisting content delivery systems.
Regrettably missed: Shawscope Volume One (Arrow), The Red Shoes - 4K Ultra HD (Criterion), Blood for Dracula - 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray (Vinegar Syndrome), Flesh for Frankenstein - 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray 3D (Vinegar Syndrome), Who Framed Roger Rabbit - 4K Ultra HD (Buena Vista), Hard Target - 4K Ultra HD (Kino Lorber), The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo at a Kinko's), Columbia Noir #2 (Indicator), Some Came Running (Warner Archive), The Outsiders - 4K Ultra HD (Warner), Atom Egoyan (Artificial Eye), Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films (Criterion), Dune - 4K Ultra HD (Arrow), Ragtime (Paramount), The Dead Zone (Scream Factory), Collaborations: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li (Imprint), The Incredible Shrinking Man (Criterion)
Runners-up (in no particular order): Mulholland Drive - 4K Ultra HD (Criterion), The Thing - 4K Ultra HD (Universal), The Ten Commandments - 4K Ultra HD (Paramount), My Fair Lady - 4K Ultra HD (Paramount), Siberia (Lionsgate), A Clockwork Orange - 4K Ultra HD (Warner), Drunken Master II (Warner Archive), No Time to Die (Universal), Defending Your Life (Criterion), Mad Max Anthology - 4K Ultra HD (Warner), True Romance - 4K Ultra HD (Arrow)
#11 (late addition, 12/24/21 (oops)): Explorers - Blu-ray (Scream Factory)
10. PUMP UP THE VOLUME - Blu-ray
Warner Archive, Region-free
How is this movie 31 years old? And why did we wait so long for a Blu-ray? (Ditto #s 7 and 3 on this list.) Pump Up the Volume put the Golden Age of Teen Cinema to bed with a primal scream and a killer soundtrack. Decades later, it seems extremely prescient--you want to reassure its troublemaker hero that someday he'll have a podcast sponsored by a fabric softener. The Blu-ray is bare-bones but the transfer is unimpeachable; an irresistable platter, ultimately.
9. INDIANA JONES: 4-MOVIE COLLECTION - 4K Ultra HD
Walter and Bryant already had the last word on these movies and this collection, respectively, so I will simply echo Bryant and say that this box set would've ranked higher had the studio shown it a little more love as an artifact. That foldout map ain't shit--but my god do these movies look stunning in 4K.
8. BREAKDOWN - Blu-ray
This one's for Bryant, who was working on a review of it before he passed away. Bryant considered this lean, mean fusion of Duel and Sporloos to be one of the best movies of the '90s, and I concur. Paramount's finally rolled out the red carpet for it with a new 4K scan supervised by director Jonathan Mostow, ferocious Dolby TrueHD audio, a yak-track from Mostow and commentary hall-of-famer Kurt Russell, retrospective interviews, and an alternate opening so indescribably, insanely wrong for this film that Bryant DM'd me about it at 8 in the morning, fearing I had sent the disc to him without watching it.
7. THE STRAIGHT STORY - Blu-ray
Emerging Australian label Imprint is the first to release David Lynch's G-rated marvel in the English-language market, and although the master clearly dates back to the early days of HD, it's still a good deal better than an upconvert of the old Disney DVD. Plus, you finally get some extras to go with the film, including an informative commentary from critic Peter Tonguette and an interview with the movie's location managers that is more riveting than you may expect. The packaging itself is a thing of beauty.
6. THE PARALLAX VIEW - Blu-ray
Criterion, Region A
My personal favourite of Alan J. Pakula's "paranoia trilogy," and surely one of the most hopeless of all '70s downers. But what I noticed on this latest viewing was how the movie smuggles a lot of that bleakness in amongst concessions to popular cinema of the time: a bar fight that has Warren Beatty crashing through plate-glass windows, a muddy police chase straight out of Macon County Line. 1974 audiences must've felt whiplash, if not outright swindled. Regardless, a timeless film, especially in mood. Criterion's presentation is nonpareil and features a most-welcome interview with Jon Boorstin, who crafted both the Parallax test and the brilliant montage used to brainwash new recruits--a masterpiece in its own right.
5. TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS: VOLUME TWO + TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS: VOLUME THREE - Blu-ray
Warner Archive, Region-free
In Volume Two's The Cat That Hated People, a cat complains of how unfairly the world treats his kind. When he's adopted into a family with a bulldog, the dog goes so far as to frame him for his murder. (The best part? It's an axe murder.) Soon the cat has had enough and departs for outer space, but he lands on an inhospitable planet where he's terrorized by, among other things, an anthropomorphic pencil sharpener. And so he returns to Earth--the devil you know, you know? That's the indefatigable Fred "Tex" Avery in a nutshell: twisted, unpredictable, wise. While a proper box set might've been a better approach, all three volumes are essential, and the cartoons shine glorious.
4. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) - 4K Ultra HD
Kino Lorber, Region-free
Rare is the film so rejuvenated by the addition of HDR. What's most impressive is that it doesn't feel revisionist, just, to borrow a favourite term of cooking-show judges, more-ish. All those pools of coloured light in the bookstore were there before, but here they generate this sort of lava-lamp, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls atmosphere that's utterly appropriate. Sure, the film will send you into a depressive tailspin ("It's a documentary," Walter Chaw once said to me), yet the sheer craft of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is invigorating and on display like never before. (Bonus: all of the Scream Factory extras reappear on a supplemental Blu-ray platter.)
3. L.A. STORY - Blu-ray
Lionsgate, Region A
Steve Martin's romantic-comedy masterclass, not only refurbished to its opening-day gleam, but outfitted with a host of extras, too, not the least of which the mythical deleted scenes. (Kudos to John Lithgow and Scott Bakula for letting the powers-that-be excavate their performances, which hadn't survived the final edit.) I adore L.A. Story and consider it the pinnacle of Martin's movie career; I still intend to write about the film and disc at length, but the long and the short of it is: a must-own.
2. THE DUNGEON OF ANDY MILLIGAN COLLECTION - Blu-ray
Blame Tim Lucas for this one. His ecstatic blog reviews of this pricey set, now in its second printing, convinced me I needed some Andy Milligan in my life. And I really did. ("Regardless of whatever you might think of the films encompassed by this compendium," Lucas writes, "no previous release has ever recovered so many films or director's cuts of films previously thought to be 'lost.' The contents of this set are literally incredible[.]") I haven't worked my way through the whole thing yet (these are films that leave me catatonic for days after), but of the collection's scholarly dedication to its subject there can be no doubt, and its 128-page book of liner notes--Andy Milligan's Venom, by Stephen Thrower--would be worth reading on its own.
1. COLUMBIA CLASSICS 4K ULTRA HD COLLECTION: VOLUME 2
I'm loving these annual fun-paks of six otherwise-unrelated Columbia titles, and this year's collection has even more bangers than the inaugural one, in my humble opinion. Eventually all of the films herein will get individual releases, but for now this is the only way to see and own 4K versions of Anatomy of a Murder, Oliver!, Sense and Sensibility, The Social Network, Stripes, and, yes, the long-awaited Taxi Driver. How are the UHD upgrades? To a one: gorgeous. The ostentatious packaging also contains a coffee-table-ish book with illuminating essays by, among others, critic and Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas author Glenn Kenny, in addition to a Blu-ray--oddly, loose inside the box--featuring 20 shorts from the Columbia vault. (They aren't in 4K, but trust me when I say When Magoo Flew never looked so good.) Many of the films offer Dolby Atmos remixes in addition to their original audio configurations. If Anatomy of a Murder really doesn't belong in 24.1, somehow it works anyway.