Jim Hemphill’s Best Blu-rays of 2016
To finish off 2016, I’d like to round up some of the year’s best Blu-ray releases that I didn’t get a chance to cover in my weekly column. It was an exceptional year for physical media thanks to labels like Criterion, Twilight Time, Arrow, Kino Lorber, and Olive, all of which continue to license neglected titles from studio vaults and give them the first-class treatments they deserve. While the list below barely scratches the surface of the efforts of these companies and others, it contains what I consider to be the most essential discs of the year — movies that belong on any serious cinephile’s shelf. In alphabetical order, my favorite Blu-rays of 2016 are:
The Boston Strangler (Twilight Time). Richard Fleischer’s 1968 true crime masterpiece is a wonder to behold: an ensemble procedural (and what an ensemble — Henry Fonda, Murray Hamilton, James Brolin, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman, William Hickey, etc.!) that manages to be both clinical and powerful; it anticipates Fincher’s Zodiac in more than a few ways, and sets a standard for detective films that has yet to be transcended. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is the way it suddenly shifts gears after its midpoint and switches from procedural to character study, focusing on the title character, played in an all-time great performance by Tony Curtis. Fleischer keeps all the balls in the air with gusto, combining dynamic widescreen framing and long takes with aggressive split screens and opticals; it’s a master class in visual storytelling, given a spectacular treatment here on Blu-ray. A commentary track by film scholar David Del Valle and Steven Peros and an appreciation by William Friedkin are just a couple of the wonderful extras on this excellent release.
Canadian Pacific and The Cariboo Trail (Kino Lorber Studio Classics). Two skillful, unpretentious Westerns directed by genre stalwart Edwin L. Marin and starring Randolph Scott in top iconic form, these gems from 1949 and 1950 have been lovingly restored after decades of availability only in atrociously butchered copies. Both movies were shot in CineColor, a two-strip process favored by low-budget filmmakers that was doomed to decay — its odd configuration was prone to registration problems and shrinking, to the point that many CineColor releases, including these two, were rarely projected properly after their initial releases. Thankfully, Canadian Pacific and The Cariboo Trail now look and sound terrific, and they’re both extremely entertaining oaters: the first a rousing tale of a railroad surveyor (Scott) taking on a malicious trapper (Victor Jory) and his followers; the second an action-packed cattle drive Western where Scott once again faces off against Jory. Each disc contains an in-depth documentary on the painstaking work that went into the CineColor restorations.
Chimes at Midnight (Criterion). This slot could have gone to virtually any Criterion release this year — the best company in the business did some of the best work in their history on titles like Dekalog, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Wim Wenders’ “Road Trilogy.” When it comes to historical importance, however, I don’t know if you can beat their release of Orson Welles’ 1966 masterpiece, one of his greatest films and a movie that until now had never been available in a suitable transfer in the U.S. An ambitious mash-up of several Shakespeare plays (including Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard II), it’s Welles’s most moving and sophisticated meditation on one of his favorite subjects, the uses and abuses of power — as well as the most devastating portrayal of friendship and betrayal ever put on screen by the director who treated that subject matter better than any other. As is typical of Criterion, the supplements are beyond great (no fewer than three Welles authorities — James Naremore, Simon Callow, and the great Joseph McBride — weigh in on commentary tracks and interviews), and the transfer is gorgeous. Although its most powerful moments are the intimate ones, Chimes at Midnight also boasts some of the most impeccably staged and edited large-scale battle sequences in the history of movies, and their precision and detail can finally be fully witnessed in this restoration. (Note: Criterion also put Welles’s late jewel The Immortal Story out this year == it too is highly recommended.)
Destiny (Kino Classics). Fritz Lang made an enormous leap forward with this 1921 spectacle, an innovative blend of German expressionism and romantic fantasy with a then-unheard of flashback structure. Destiny’s multi-part story jumps freely through time and space, anchored by a tale following a young woman who meets Death and attempts to talk him out of taking her beloved fiancé. Spinning around this core story are a series of adult fairy tales set in Persia, Venice, and ancient China, all of which are unified by Lang’s distinctive graphic style and, on Kino Classics’ Blu-ray, an exceptional new orchestral score. Building on the innovations of a few other key silent epics (most notably Griffith’s Intolerance), Lang breaks new ground in scene after scene of this essential film, a precursor to later masterpieces like Metropolis and Die Nibelungen. Destiny is just one of several excellent Lang Blu-rays Kino put out this year; others include Woman in the Moon, Spies, Dr. Mabuse, The Spiders, and Western Union. All are highly recommended, but Destiny in particular is a must-see, partly thanks to film scholar Tim Lucas’s splendid commentary track.
The Driller Killer (Arrow). Abel Ferrara’s 1979 debut feature (not counting the hard-core porn film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy) is one of the most striking exploitation films ever made, an unholy synthesis of influences ranging from Stan Brakhage and Martin Scorsese to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that serves as the first of Ferrara’s nightmarish visions of New York and a rough draft for his later portraits of fractured, desperate masculinity. (In a film full of strange and discordant moments, perhaps the most perverse comes in the dedication “And Dedicated to the People of New York – The City of Hope.”) Ferrara, under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine, plays Reno, an artist driven mad by his surroundings (particularly a punk band that lives next door) and the squalor in which he lives while others, like an obnoxious gallery owner who dismisses his work, prosper. Once Reno snaps and becomes the psychopath of the title, Ferrara fulfills the basic requirements of his genre but goes way beyond them to create a truly unsettling — and often blackly funny — horror film unlike any other until John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Killer came along several years later. Ferrara’s vision is more expressionistic and experimental than McNaughton’s, and more philosophical in its own down and dirty way. Arrow’s new Blu-ray of the movie offers plenty of supplementary material to contextualize Ferrara’s unique perspective, from an interview and commentary track by the director himself to a superb visual essay by film scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and liner notes by critic Michael Pattison and Ferrara biographer Brad Stevens. An added bonus: Ferrara’s documentary feature Mulberry St. (2010) is included in its entirety, as is an extended pre-release cut of Ms. 45 itself.
Hannie Caulder (Olive). Burt Kennedy’s 1971 Western is a fascinating bridge between the classical period represented by John Ford and John Wayne (Kennedy’s boss when he started out as a screenwriter on Wayne productions like Seven Men From Now) and the postmodern age of Peckinpah, Corbucci, and Leone. A bouillabaisse of elements that shouldn’t work together but do — lyricism, graphic violence, moral contemplation, broad humor, feminist inquiry — it’s a masterful hybrid of tried and true Hollywood conventions and the more confrontational style of the Italian Westerns that supplanted American oaters in the mainstream consciousness. Racquel Welch plays the title character, an avenging angel after the men who killed her husband and raped her; Robert Culp, in the best performance he ever gave, is the bounty hunter who helps her. From this basic premise Kennedy (who, amazingly, reportedly didn’t care for the picture — easily the best one he ever made) spins a yarn that’s both compact (85 minutes) and digressive, a clear influence on Tarantino films like Django Unchained in its disparate tones. The Blu-ray is spectacular, with multiple extras including making-of featurettes and a commentary track by filmmaker and Western scholar Alex Cox; there are also insightful liner notes by Kim Morgan. This is one of several titles in the “Olive Signature” line launched this year; others include exemplary editions of Welles’ Macbeth and John Ford’s The Quiet Man. On the basis of these releases, I’d say Olive is poised to stand alongside Criterion and Twilight Time as a top tier distributor of indispensable special editions.
The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics). Producer Louis de Rochemont made his reputation in the 1930s with the popular March of Time newsreel series; after World War II, he applied his documentary background to fiction filmmaking at Fox, where he shepherded a series of films that merged location shooting and stories based in fact with established Hollywood conventions. The key transitional film was this 1945 procedural, for which de Rochemont had the full cooperation of Hoover’s FBI. The result is an astonishing historical artifact, a spy story that incorporates actual surveillance films, newsreel and stock footage, and documentary material shot at FBI headquarters. Eventually de Rochemont’s innovations would seep into more traditional noir films at Fox as directors like Elia Kazan left the lot for location shooting and an increased sense of realism in films like Panic in the Streets; de Rochemont and Kazan would also work together on the 1947 gem Boomerang, which, like The House on 92nd Street, has recently been given a top-notch Blu-ray release by the folks at Kino Lorber. While Boomerang is more complex and emotionally satisfying, there’s something about the stripped-down style of 92nd Street that provides its own rewards to the viewer; both movies come with information-rich commentary tracks that make these Blu-rays vital lessons in post-WWII film history.
The Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Kino Classics). This five-disc set is possibly my favorite Blu-ray release of 2016, a collection of 19 feature films — as well as an abundance of shorts, fragments, documentaries and interviews — that provide a crash course in the “race” films of the early 20th century. Curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart have assembled a revelatory slate of movies made for black audiences in the silent and early sound eras, which in many cases represented groundbreaking work by black directors. Oscar Micheaux is perhaps the most famous of these filmmakers, but the set also showcases work by lesser known auteurs like Noble and George Johnson, Richard Maurice, James and Eloyce Gist, and Spencer Williams. Many of the films stand alone as terrific movies, and all of them are fascinating from a historical perspective — a perspective that’s easy to attain thanks to the abundance of scholarly materials disc producers Bret Wood and Paul Miller (also known as DJ Spooky) have provided.
Pretty Poison (Twilight Time). Anthony Perkins plays a disturbed young arsonist just released from a mental institution, and Tuesday Weld is the all-American teenage girl he falls in love with — only to discover that she’s the real psychopath in the relationship. A darkly funny, extremely unnerving thriller that plays like a twisted romantic comedy, Pretty Poison represents an alarmingly great debut from director Noel Black, who rarely got a chance to flex these kinds of artistic muscles again — after he directed a pair of box office bombs following the release of Pretty Poison (itself not much of a critical or popular success, in spite of a rave review from Pauline Kael), Black was relegated mostly to the world of episodic TV. (He returned to features to direct a thoroughly enjoyable guilty pleasure in 1983, the teen sex comedy Private School starring Matthew Modine and Phoebe Cates.) How many great movies does one need to make to be considered a great director? On the basis of Pretty Poison’s wholly unique and affecting tone (one which influenced a ton of great movies from Badlands to Something Wild), Black is in my own personal pantheon, and the new Blu-ray release of the film is a treasure thanks to a razor-sharp transfer and multiple commentary tracks.
Southside with You (Lionsgate) – Writer-director Richard Tanne’s fictionalized account of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date is a small miracle of a movie, a delicate romance that never collapses under the weight of its historical context yet is informed, broadened, and deepened by that context. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers give two of the best performances of the year as Michelle and Barack, playing the characters as they are in the moment while still hinting — without forcing it — at the iconic figures they are to become. Tanne’s attention to detail is exquisite; writing as someone who lived in Chicago during the summer of 1989 when the film takes place, I can attest to the fact that Southside with You gets everything exactly right — every cultural reference, every location, every supporting actor and extra. It’s that rare political movie that doesn’t strain for its points or effects; Tanne’s exploration of race and gender issues grows organically out of the characters and circumstances, and the chemistry between his leads develops with effortless ease. Rather, seemingly effortless, since anyone who has ever tried to write and direct (not to mention act) this kind of thing knows that there’s nothing harder than making a flowering infatuation look natural and convincing on screen. Working with soft anamorphic lenses, cinematographer Pat Scola creates some of the most gloriously romantic images of 2016, making this a must-see Blu-ray.
Stardust Memories (Twilight Time) and Café Society (Lionsgate). In keeping with usual Woody Allen practice, these discs are light on special features but earn a place on this list thanks to their superior transfers — transfers that showcase Allen’s collaborations with two of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived, Gordon Willis in the case of Stardust Memories and Vittorio Storaro on Café Society. The first film is shot in arresting high contrast black and white, the second in sumptuous digital color — the first digital feature for both Allen and Storaro, captured on the Sony F65. Storaro employs subtle and effective lighting and color strategies for the various sections of the film, moving from Alfred Stieglitz-inspired desaturation and low tonality in the Bronx to the warmer glow of Los Angeles and a richer palette for the New York “café society” of the title; for my money it’s the best photographed movie of the year, and it looks amazing on Blu-ray in Storaro’s preferred 2:1 aspect ratio. Stardust Memories, meanwhile, gets richer with every passing year and every repeat viewing, and has never looked as stunning on home video as it does on Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, iTunes, and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.