In the current issue of LWLies, writer Matt Thrift looks into the phenomenon of boutique Blu-ray labels and how they happen to be thriving at a time when digital democratisation and subscription sign-ups are the prize in everybody’s eyes. On the evidence of 2020’s home ents haul, there are absolutely no signs of decline for physical discs – if anything, producers are putting together even more expansive, creative and thoroughly researched packages than ever before. Here are just 20 that tickled our fancy…
20. Kansas City (Arrow Films Video)
One of Robert Altman’s lesser-known, mid-career titles is unearthed and given a spit-shine, telling the story of a tale of long-game blackmail in 1930s Kansas City, Missouri, which sees the worlds of political demagoguery and improvised Jazz intersect in many dramatic ways. Worth the price alone to see a young Jennifer Jason Leigh chewing up the scenery and then spitting it out again.
19. Dance, Girl, Dance (Criterion)
The Criterion Collection were called out this year for their habitual preference of white male auteur releases, and so Dorothy Arzner’s spiky feminist cabaret drama from 1940, Dance, Girl, Dance, offered up a pleasing corrective. It’s a stinging study of art versus commerce and dignity verses humiliation, as a ballet dancer attempts to secure her dream by exhibiting her classy wares in dingy dive bars.
18. Le Cercle Rouge (Studio Canal)
This classic, ultra-poised and process-driven neo-noir remains one of French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s crowning achievements, and it looks the absolute business on its new, restored Blu-ray edition. An ex-con played by Alain Delon is drawn back to a life of crime and, within hours of release, is assembling a band of brothers to pull off an impossible Parisian jewellery heist.
17. Women Make Film (BFI)
Another monster endeavour from a man for whom the term “R&R” doesn’t appear in his personal lexicon. Women Make Film is the addictive 40 chapter, 14-hour ode to women filmmakers from writer, broadcaster and cinephile Mark Cousins which comprises expressive clips, poetic commentary and a host of iconic women who have been brought in for narration duties.
16. Pink Films Vol 1 & 2 (Third Window)
The brilliant purveyors of top east Asian cinema, Third Window, released one of our favourite films of last year (Shinichirou Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead), and among their catalogue this year have been a selection of restored and re-released “Pink” films from Japan. These are short exploitation features which straddle the world of art and porn, and this first set included the fascinating twosome of Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands and Gushing Prayer.
15. Made in Hong Kong (Masters of Cinema)
Hong Kong director Fruit Chan has had a long and not particularly remarkable career as an all-purpose genre hand, but in his early days he was more akin to a budding Wong Kar-wai. This roistering, low-budget, hugely entertaining second feature follows a baggy-jeaned slacker and wannabe gangster whose tough guy bravado ends up costing his friends and family dearly.
14. Scorsese Shorts (Criterion)
As a lovely little aperitif to 2019’s The Irishman, you could do a lot worse than snap up this compendium of Marty’s medium-length doc projects and pre-fame student films. Collectively, these works highlight Scorsese’s Italian roots, from his obsessive formative love of Federico Fellini through to his momma’s killer meatball recipe.
13. Britannia Hospital (Indicator)
One of the most maligned British films of the modern era is repackaged and recontextualised, and though it may be a bit of a reach to class it as a lost masterpiece, it’s certainly a frantic and weirdly moving maelstrom of horror, humour and severed heads. This final chapter to Lindsey Anderson’s ‘Mick Travis’ trilogy tracks a day in the life of a London hospital as the Queen herself is set to visit to open a strange new wing.
12. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes (Criterion)
Filmmaker William Greaves holes up in New York’s Central Park on a hot day in 1968 and films a scene between two actors. Someone then films him filming. And someone else films the person who’s filming him. And more and more and more until most people on set have a camera pointed at someone or something. This mischievous essay on dramatic culpability and the dividing lines between fiction and reality remains a groundbreaking feat of concentric storytelling, and also may be one of the funnest experimental films ever made.
11. Eva (Indicator)
Jeanne Morreau doesn’t just turn it up to 11, she breaks the damn dial in the title role of Joseph Losey’s stark, unforgiving and long hard-to-see 1962 psychodrama Eva. This disc contains four separate edits of this film about a Welsh literary celebrity (Stanley Baker) who falls for a high-rolling prostitute while swanning around Venice during the low season. It’s a sand-blasted crucible of torment and spite that nonetheless gets at something profound about love, arrogance and personal ambition.
10. Raining in the Mountain (Masters of Cinema)
One of the lesser known films from the director of A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn – Hong Kong’s wuxia maestro King Hu. The Three Treasures Temple is a vast complex, and in a locked chamber is a valuable scroll called the Tripitaki, desired by Esquire Wen (Suen Yuet) and his accomplices. So it’s a martial arts heist movie, and Hu is just as interested in acclimating the viewer to the geography of the landscape as he is depicting his trademark acrobatic fight sequences.
9. John Ford at Columbia (Indicator)
There’s no room to namecheck all four of the films (none of which are westerns!) on this stellar collection of John Ford’s collaborations with Columbia Studios, but maybe it’s worth picking out one of his best: 1955’s The Long Gray Line. It sees Tyrone Power as an avuncular drill sergeant at West Point, and the film begins as a slapstick comedy before it subtly drifts into a sweetly melancholic treatise on war, death and family.
8. The Game (Arrow Films Video)
Everyone has their own favourite David Fincher film, but this one – re-released in a brick-sized limited edition package by Arrow – may just be mine. This corporate thriller-cum-existential parable stars Michael Douglas as a soulless exec who is made to see the light when his younger bro (Sean Penn) signs him up for an immersive, experiential “game” in which he must survive having been stripped of all earthly possessions. Watch it, marvel and the slickness of the storytelling, and then have a good old argument about the ending.
7. The Takeshi Kitano Collection (BFI)
Japanese renaissance man Takeshi Kitano went from lauded MVP of the global festival circuit in the ’90s to something of an indulgent enigma in the new century. This BFI package brings together three of his early classics, 1989’s Violent Cop, 1990’s Boiling Point and 1993’s Sonatine, in new restorations, and allows us to remember the glory days of this artist who was able to fuse abrasive violence and the absolute dregs of humanity, with the arch, deadpan comedy stylings of Buster Keaton.
6. The Woman in Black (Network)
Those in the know believe this 1989 TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story bestseller to be one of the scariest horror films ever made. And, witnessing its low-fi atmospherics, chilling sound design and totally committed performances, it’s not difficult to see why. Chuck in a horrifyingly bleak denouement and one of the all-time great jumps scares, and you’ve got perhaps the most bizarre film ever to premiere at Christmas Eve on prime time ITV.
5. CzechMate: In Search of Jiří Menzel (Second Run)
This mammoth and magnificent latest from Indian filmmaker and preservationist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur is, as the title suggests, a look at the life and work of the gifted Czech filmmaker behind the 1966 Academy Award winning political comedy, Closely Watched Trains. But, as a delightful treat, we’re actually given a supplemental survey of the entire Czech New Wave movement, and the entire undertaking has been put together with such care and interest that, despite the prospect of the extended runtime, it’s a rollocking and immersive cinephile treat.
4. Robin and Marian (Premium Collection)
A little personal favourite, and one that offers a wonderful remembrance of the non-Bond talents of the late, great Sean Connery. This speculative fiction on the later life of Robin Hood and Maid Marian (beautifully played by Audrey Hepburn) offers a whimsical meditation on the process of growing old together and attempting to ward off the essential loneliness of death. It’s also hilarious and action-packed – a real lost treasure.
3. Hiroshima (Arrow Films Video)
Made just eight years after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hideo Sekigawa’s extraordinary 1953 film relays the events surrounding that fateful day, with many survivors of the real incident brought back in front of the camera to relive the horrors and educate future generations. The film is unflinching in its depiction of the grim realities of nuclear fallout, and was thus suppressed by Japanese authorities and hasn’t seen any significant circulation for well over half a century. To think that there may be other burnished pearls like this still to be discovered.
2. Sweet Charity (Indicator)
I would happily die on the hill which says that Bob Fosse’s debut as a feature director stands as one of the great Hollywood musicals. Loosely adapted from Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, telling of a working girl who is looking for love, and starring Shirley MacLaine at her most boisterous and perfect, Sweet Charity really is just the whole package: stunning songs, tremendous dancing, and an interlude with Sammy Davis Jr as a hippy cult leader in Lennon specs. Indicator’s big-box treatment is one of the year’s most beautiful physical objects in any medium.
1. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Second Run)
It seemed inevitable that the number one spot would go to the film that no less than Apichatpong Weeasethukal himself would describe as, “The best film of the past 125 years.” The early work of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang has been notoriously difficult to source on home video, and so it was with great excitement that Second Run announced their release of this long-cherished but little-seen 2003 masterwork. And upon revisiting, we can confirm that it’s not only even greater than our very fond memories would have us believe, but also perhaps a defining artistic statement for a year which saw most cinemas forced to shutter and films forcibly diverted through alternative digital release patterns.
The action slowly unfurls in something close to real time, as a once-grand Taipei picture palace screens its final film before closure: King Hu’s Dragon Inn. We then watch the watchers as they spend a rain-soaked evening under cover of darkness and light, all sat in front of this action epic for their own unique reasons. It’s a love story, a ghost story, and a nostalgia piece, at once perfectly encapsulating the joy of this fragile medium and the irrepressible culture surrounding it, but also the sadness that comes with time, progress and, ultimately, human decline.
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