My Blu-ray/DVD consumption has waned somewhat in the wake of my subscribing to FilmStruck but I was still able to easily cobble together a list of my top 10 favorite home video releases of 2017 (plus 11 runners-up). Enjoy:
10. A Page of Madness/Portrait of a Young Man (Kinugasa/Rodakiewicz, 1926/1931, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)
Director Teinosuke Kinugasa was a member of a group of avant-garde Japanese artists known as Shinkankaku-ha (“the school of new perceptions”) and this experimental film, written in collaboration with future Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata, is a good example of their rebellion against realistic representation. Apparently not influenced by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which Kinugasa claimed not to have seen at the time), this nonetheless tells a similarly mind-bending story about the goings on in a mental hospital. The plot has something to do with a man getting a job as a janitor in the same asylum to which has wife has been committed in order to be near her but I’ve never fully grasped exactly what is going on, which for me is part of the appeal; I just give myself over to the dreamlike imagery. Silent Asian films have had an even smaller survival rate than their American and European counterparts, which makes a startling, non-narrative film like this all the more valuable. Flicker Alley has done cinephiles a huge favor by creating a new HD transfer of a 16mm print only one source removed from the original camera negative. While there are limitations to the image quality, it’s still a vast improvement over the only previous home video release — a fuzzy VHS tape that came out way back in the 1990s. Also included, the silent experimental American film Portrait of a Young Man, directed by one Henwar Rodakiewicz, which is well worth a look.
9. Despite the Night (Grandrieux, 2015, Matchbox DVD)
Philippe Grandrieux’s unique brand of transgressive but poetic cinema stands as one of the high-water marks of 21st century European art. His latest masterpiece, Despite the Night (Malgre la Nuit), didn’t receive U.S. distribution but fortunately turned up for a single screening in Chicago last year with Grandrieux in attendance. The film’s emotionally wrenching story involves a young Englishman’s search for his missing ex-girlfriend in the shadowy underworld of Parisian porn and prostitution rings but the thematic darkness, and we’re talking black as midnight on a moonless night, is also perfectly counter-balanced by the visual splendor of some of the most transcendent passages in modern movies; I am particularly fond of the lyrical use of superimposition, recalling the syntax of the silent-film era, in a scene where Roxane Mesquida sings in a nightclub. Matchbox Films in the UK put out this bare bones DVD over the summer, which, although not as ideal as the extras-laden Blu-ray release this film deserves, is still a must-own for Grandrieux fans in the English-speaking world.
8. 3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol (Chabrol, 1992-1997, Cohen Media Group Blu-ray)
Seven years after his death at the age of 80, Claude Chabrol remains the most underrated of the major French New Wave directors in the U.S. in spite of the fact that it is easier now than ever before to see his work – thanks especially to the Francophile distributor Charles Cohen who, in a span of a few short years, has released 10 of Chabrol’s features via his Cohen Media Group shingle. The latest of these releases, 3 Classic Films By Claude Chabrol, bundles together three movies made by “France’s Alfred Hitchcock” between 1992 and 1997, long after his supposed critical and commercial peak of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Yet calling these films “classics” is by no means a stretch even if the most well-known title in the bunch, the Isabelle Huppert-starring comedic-thriller The Swindle, is also the most trifling. Betty is a dark, rich character study featuring an amazing performance by Marie Trintignant in the title role (not long before her tragic real-life murder) as well as the final collaboration between Chabrol and his longtime leading lady (onscreen and off) Stephane Audran; and L’enfer, which Chabrol adapted from a famously abandoned project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, remains one of the most psychologically acute depictions of jealousy ever committed to celluloid. The transfers of all three films are great and the supplements, including commentary tracks for two of the films by Chabrol experts Wade Major and Andy Klein, as well as a lengthy interview between critic Kent Jones and actor Francois Cluzet, are most welcome.
7. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974, BFI Blu-ray)
Jacques Rivette’s beloved “persona-swap” movie, his most comedic and playful foray into what he called the “house of fiction” and one of the high points of improvisational filmmaking ever made by anybody, finally receives its long-awaited A/V upgrade via the British Film Institute’s remarkable new Blu-ray. Based on a restoration of the film’s original 16mm elements, the colors are now tighter than ever before while film grain is beautifully preserved — at times giving the image the quality of a pointillist painting. But the irresistible central performances — by two actresses with pointedly contrasting styles (the theatrically trained Dominique Labourier and the natural-born movie star Juliet Berto) — have always been and still are the main draw. Adrian Martin’s new audio commentary track is jam-packed with interesting insights, from his pointing out the identities of various cameo performers (e.g., Jean Eustache) to discussing the film in relation to feminism, queer studies, Commedia dell’arte, Alice in Wonderland, and films like Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models and Vera Chytilova’s Daisies. This is one rabbit hole I am always happy to go down.
6. Tout va Bien (Godard/Gorin, 1972, Arrow Blu-ray)
The most accessible film from Jean-Luc Godard’s least accessible period — his “Dziga Vertov Group” collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin from 1968 to 1972 — Tout va Bien saw the master returning to something resembling a conventional plot and characterization (as well as collaborating again with movie stars in the persons of Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) while also not abandoning his interest in Marxist ideology and Brechtian distancing devices. Tout va Bien shows the difficulty of balancing one’s personal and professional lives through its depiction of a married couple (Montand is a documentary filmmaker, Fonda a reporter) assigned to cover a workers’ strike in a sausage factory. Some sources claim that Gorin was the film’s nominal director but its most daring cinematic conceits — constructing the factory on a giant “dollhouse”-like set (a la Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man) or capturing a riot in a supermarket with an epic lateral tracking shot — bear the unmistakable stamp of the author of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. Among the extras in Arrow’s incredible Blu-ray package are the Dziga Vertov Group’s feature-length essay film Letter to Jane, a vintage Godard interview on film, a new Jean-Pierre Gorin video interview, a trailer, a lengthy booklet featuring newly translated writings about the film and more.
5. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
The newly formed Grasshopper Films has rapidly become one of the most important distributors of independent and foreign films in the U.S., filling a void by scooping up important titles that other distributors aren’t likely to touch. One case in point is Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which made my year-end best-of list when Grasshopper released it theatrically in 2016 and has now been followed up with this splendid Blu-ray, the first of Hong’s many films to be released on the format. As with nearly all new, digitally shot films, the transfer here perfectly reproduces its theatrical presentation so the real value lies in the copious extras: among them are Lost in the Mountains, a 30-minute Hong short from 2009 that stands as a mini-masterpiece in its own right, a great 25-minute video introduction by Dan Sallitt, a critic and filmmaker whose smart, talky rom-coms show a kinship with Hong’s work, and a 20 minute press conference with Hong and leading lady Kim Min-hee from the film’s Locarno premiere. More like this, please.
4. Anatahan (Von Sternberg, 1953/1958, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Josef Von Sternberg’s fiercely independent final feature is one of cinema’s most sublime swan songs. Filmed in Japan with an entirely Japanese cast speaking untranslated Japanese dialogue, but featuring English narration by Sternberg himself, this tells the fascinating true story of a group of Japanese marines stationed on a remote island in the Pacific who refuse to believe that the Empire has been defeated in WW2. After maintaining a facade of their military routine for years, the soldiers eventually discover a lone female inhabitant on the island, the beautiful “Queen Bee,” who soon roils jealousy and desire in their hearts. Sternberg knew how to use black-and-white cinematography as expressively as anybody so it is a major treat to finally see the film’s exquisite interplay of light and shadow in such an outstanding HD presentation as this. Included are two separate cuts of the film, the 1953 theatrical version and the 1958 director’s cut, the latter of which features considerably more nudity and eroticism.
3. Bunuel: The Essential Collection (Bunuel, 1964-1977, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
This impressive new Bunuel box from Studio Canal UK collects most of the Spanish master’s great late works: his final six French films plus the French/Spanish co-production Tristana. The titles making their Blu-ray debuts are: The Diary of a Chambermaid (whose depiction of a nationalistic and anti-semitic France on the eve of WW2 looks timelier than ever in the age of Le Pen and Trump), The Milky Way and The Phantom of Liberty. Belle de Jour is included in a sparkling new 50th anniversary restoration that bests all previous releases (including Criterion’s), and the set is rounded out with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Bunuel is on my personal Mount Rushmore of directors and I’m glad that Studio Canal UK has made these titles available. If only an American distributor would follow suit (and release the films of his great Mexican period as well). It’s a crime that the filmography of cinema’s preeminent Surrealist filmmaker is harder to access now than it was during the VHS era, especially when a charlatan like Alejandro Jodorowsky is enjoying a new wave of popularity among young cinephiles.
2. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 (Various, 1931-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection’s second volume of Martin Scorsese’s “World Cinema Project” is even more impressive than the first. The purpose of the project is to restore and release treasures of global cinema from countries whose film industries lack the resources and finances to carry out the restorations themselves. The only one of the six titles here that I had seen previously was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s incredible debut, the “exquisite corpse”-game/documentary Mysterious Object at Noon, although the best reason to buy the set is the gorgeous new restoration of Edward Yang’s Taipei Story, a key work of the Taiwanese New Wave starring and co-written by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The biggest surprise of the bunch for me was Lino Brocka’s Insiang, a landmark of Philippine cinema (the first movie from that country to screen in competition at Cannes) that successfully melds melodrama tropes with social realism; I enjoyed it so much I screened it in a recent World of Cinema class where it went over like gangbusters. Rounding out the set are the visually stunning Russian film Revenge, the experimental Brazilian film Limite, and the Turkish neo-western Law of the Border, all of which I was very glad to see. Let’s hope this Criterion/World Cinema Project collaboration continues for many more releases.
1. Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (Lynch, 2017) – Paramount Blu-rayOf course this is number one. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s expectation-shattering third season of their game-changing television show was the cinematic event of the year, and the “18-hour movie” got the home-video release it deserved via Paramount’s Blu-ray box set. The image quality of the episodes is better on these discs than it was when they were aired by Showtime over the summer (with blacks, in particular, being noticeably richer) but what really amazes here are the plentiful bonus features, especially the ten half-hour behind-the-scenes “Impressions” documentaries directed by someone named Jason S. Although I could have done without Mr. S’s faux-Herzgogian philosophical voice-over narration, the footage he managed to capture of David Lynch at work on set, including many moments of Lynch corresponding very precisely with his actors during key scenes of the shoot, is absolutely thrilling to watch and invaluable in terms of understanding the director’s process. Now bring on season four.
The Before Trilogy (Linklater, 1995-2013, Criterion Blu-ray)
Black Girl (Sembene, 1966, Criterion Blu-ray)
Casa de Lava (Costa, 1994, Grasshopper Blu-ray)
Daughter of the Nile (Hou, 1987, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, 1991, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Melville: The Essential Collection (Melville, 1956-1972, Studiocanal Blu-ray)
Ophelia (Chabrol, 1962, Olive Films Blu-ray)
Othello (Welles, 1952, Criterion Blu-ray)
They Live By Night (Ray, 1948, Criterion Blu-ray)
The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (Godard/Chabrol/Gregoretti/Horikawa, 1964, Olive Films Blu-ray)