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Jim Hemphill’s 10 Best 4K and Blu-ray Titles of 2020

Holiday Affair

in Filmmaking
on Dec 11, 2020

For my final home video column of the year, I’ve decided to round up the best 4K and Blu-ray titles of 2020 that I wasn’t able to cover in previous columns. Maybe “best” is the wrong word, given that it’s impossible for any human being to keep up with even a fraction of all the new physical media releases; let’s just say these are personal favorites that have yielded many hours of diversion in this challenging year. 

Blade  Ten years before Iron Man kicked off the current tsunami of Marvel movies, New Line released this gloriously idiosyncratic adaptation of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s comic about a man who uses his supernatural gifts to hunt down and destroy vampires. Wesley Snipes channels numerous action heroes of the ’70s in a movie that’s a mash-up of martial arts, blaxploitation, and comic book fantasy that delivers the satisfactions of all three at the most heightened level imaginable. Drenched in style and blood by director Steven Norrington, production designer Kirk M. Petrucelli and cinematographer Theo van de Sande, it’s one of those unusual movies that is both completely of its time and timeless – the film couldn’t be more rooted in the fashion and music of the late 90s, but it has aged beautifully and endures as one of the most entertaining of all comic book adaptations, thanks largely to an inventive script by future Dark Knight co-scribe David S. Goyer. The new 4K edition of the film is a real stunner, with great making-of featurettes and a spirited audio commentary by Snipes, Goyer, Petrucelli, van de Sande and others. 

Clueless  Amy Heckerling’s return to high school 13 years after Fast Times at Ridgemont High was one of the sharpest and most influential comedies of its era, the template for 10 Things I Hate About You, Can’t Hardly Wait, She’s All That, and dozens of other teen films designed to capitalize on its success. It remains not only the warmest and smartest of all these movies but the most impeccably directed; Heckerling’s subtle but expressive use of the Steadicam, pitch-perfect guidance of a gifted young ensemble, and bold use of color that would make Jacques Demy jealous all add up to a modern trend setter with classical pleasures. The references that date the film – crude computer graphics, the characters’ reliance on a Thomas Guide to get around L.A. – only add to its charm, especially since everything else plays even better now than it did in 1995. As in Fast Times, Heckerling has such a fundamental understanding of how teenagers relate and what’s important to them that the movie transcends its cultural moment, especially when it can be viewed in a pristine presentation like the one on Paramount’s 25th-anniversary SteelBook Blu-ray edition of the film.      

Crash  The 1997 Criterion pressing of David Cronenberg’s self-described “existential romance” was one of my all-time favorite Laserdiscs, so I was thrilled when the company announced Blu-ray and DVD editions earlier this year. The new release contains the Laserdisc’s making-of materials and audio commentary by Cronenberg but also adds a number of new supplements, including a Cannes press conference and National Film Theatre Q&A with Cronenberg and author J.G. Ballard. The fusion between Cronenberg and Ballard’s sensibilities in the film itself is endlessly mesmerizing, as Cronenberg takes Ballard’s tale of car crash obsessed sexual fetishists and transforms it into another of his inquiries into how changes in the body create changes in the mind and vice versa; the film is both a summation of all he had been working toward in The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers and an enormous leap forward in the director’s development. The filmmaking is as cool and precise as the content is outrageous and confrontational, resulting in a movie that both demands and rewards multiple viewings.        

Diary of a Mad Housewife  Frank and Eleanor Perry’s simultaneously uproarious and chilling adaptation of Sue Kaufman’s novel is one of the great American films of the early 70s, a brutally stripped down character study of a woman (Carrie Snodgress) straining against the tyranny of her maddeningly self-absorbed husband (Richard Benjamin) and her even more narcissistic lover (Frank Langella). A master class in first person visual storytelling (the movie relentlessly adheres to the title character’s point of view, right up to the astonishing final scene), Diary of a Mad Housewife is the high point of Frank and Eleanor Perry’s collaboration as director and screenwriter. (It also marks the end of their partnership; the husband-and-wife filmmaking team would divorce the year after Housewife’s release.) The Kino Lorber Blu-ray contains one of my favorite special features of the year, an audio commentary by screenwriter Larry Karaszewski and film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell that provides one fascinating detail after another; these guys really know their stuff, and their discussion is freewheeling enough to cover everything from the second units Universal would dispatch to shoot extra footage for TV versions of the studio’s movies to the transition from old Hollywood to new Hollywood that Diary represented. Yet the focus always returns to the Perrys and why they were so well equipped to tell this story, with perceptive observations from all three participants about camerawork, editing, performance, sound design, and screenwriting. An earlier Frank and Eleanor Perry film, Ladybug Ladybug, is also new to Blu from Kino, and also well worth a look. 

The Eiger Sanction  Director Clint Eastwood’s 1975 riff on James Bond is both one of his most entertaining movies and one of his most unusual – and easily one of his most underrated. Both an effective cold war thriller and a sly spoof of the genre, it’s a film filled with oppositions and contradictions of the sort that would make Eastwood’s later work like Unforgiven and Mystic River so rich, but here the stylistic acrobatics and thematic complexity are presented as ingredients in a pulp thriller rather than a prestige picture. An explicit statement in favor of elitism that’s also filled with lowbrow humor and blunt violence, a macho adventure film that questions and challenges mainstream assumptions about masculinity, race, and sexual orientation, and a deeply cynical satire punctuated by genuine feeling, The Eiger Sanction is one of Eastwood’s most tantalizingly audacious works. It’s also one of his most visually striking thanks to some spectacular European location work and mountain photography, which makes the film’s long-awaited arrival on Blu-ray cause for celebration. Even better, the disc contains an audio commentary by ace critic Nick Pinkerton, who skillfully dissects The Eiger Sanction’s meanings and implications and offers stimulating connections between it and other films in Eastwood’s oeuvre.   

The Flintstones: The Complete Series and Mission Impossible: The Original TV Series  Two iconic television shows get spectacular digital upgrades on these Blu-ray boxed sets, gorgeous packages that demonstrate just how aesthetically bold both series were. Mission: Impossible, which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973, is one of the most cinematic action series of its era, with consistently elaborate set pieces and premises and a startlingly dynamic use of light and color (established by veteran cinematographer John Alton in the pilot). And if, like me, you grew up on standard-def reruns of The Flintstones on syndicated television, you’ll be amazed by the vivid palette and inventive sound design the pristine Blu-ray presentation reveals on many of the episodes. It’s safe to say that neither of these programs ever looked or sounded anywhere close to this good before these exquisite deluxe editions.   

Holiday Affair  Just in time for the holidays, one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of the ever reliable Warner Archive label. Janet Leigh is a war widow raising a young son while trying to decide what to do about the kind, dependable attorney (Wendell Corey) who keeps proposing; Robert Mitchum is a free-spirited department store salesman who upends the widow’s life by falling in love at first sight with her. Hollywood was cranking out this kind of love triangle, in which the protagonist has to choose between a steady but slightly dull mate and a vivacious but unpredictable one, by the hundreds in the era of Holiday Affair’s release (it came out in 1949), but there’s nothing stale or familiar about screenwriter Isobel Lennart and director Don Hartman’s execution. The film abounds with sharply observed details of character and context, presenting complex relationships and a blunt awareness of the ways in which romantic feelings can be affected by factors that have nothing to do with traditional literary conceptions of love – particularly economic factors. While the movie delivers many of the conventional satisfactions of its genre, it does so without ever resorting to unearned sentiment or cliché; it’s a smart, hilarious, poignant gem. It’s one of several recent Warner Archive editions of holiday classics; they’ve also released new pressings of It Happened on 5th Avenue and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, both of which, like Holiday Affair, are up to the label’s usual high standards. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that all the recent corporate bedlam at Warner Brothers doesn’t affect this boutique division, unique among the studios in its ongoing reverence for film history and scholarship.      

The Irishman Martin Scorsese’s 2019 testament film gets the Criterion treatment on Blu-ray and DVD editions that are indispensable resources for anyone who cares about the director and his approach. At 209 minutes The Irishman is Scorsese’s longest non-documentary film, but there isn’t a wasted frame; the breadth of his and screenwriter Steven Zaillian’s ambition to explore intersections between capitalism, crime, mortality and regret on both the macro level of 20th century American history and the micro level of one man’s spiritual corruption both justifies and demands the long running time, which Scorsese makes the most of with his most pared-down, expressive images ever. The Criterion edition is a feast for Scorsese disciples, with great documentaries on various aspects of the film’s production and a visual essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme that dissects the The Irishman’s meaning and place in Scorsese’s oeuvre with insight and passion. 

Rio Grande  The final film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy and the richest in its irreconcilable tensions gets the home video treatment it deserves in an extras-ladened “signature edition” from Olive Films. The story of a colonel (John Wayne) and his estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara) reunited on an army base when their son is assigned to the colonel’s command, it’s a typically rigorous Fordian examination of difficult moral choices: between family and duty, the individual and the group, and diplomacy and violence. The characters’ priorities are constantly questioned by themselves, each other, and their director in a drama as starkly poetic and moving as it is kinetic and rousing, Ford balancing contemplation and action with far greater assurance than his characters are able to juggle their warring obligations. Although Rio Grande has been released on Blu-ray and DVD several times before, it’s never been produced with such care or such a generous supply of special features; there are hours of great commentaries, interviews, and visual essays here that give Ford’s tour de force the analysis it warrants. (It’s been a good year for Ford on Blu-ray – in addition to Rio Grande, I highly recommend Kino Lorber’s recent pressings of Ford silents Hell Bent and Straight Shooting, both of which include outstanding historical commentary tracks by Ford expert Joseph McBride.)   

Total Recall Lionsgate’s new 4K/Blu-ray combo pack of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi extravaganza contains the sharpest and most detailed transfer I’ve seen of the film to date, leaving no room for error when it comes to the movie’s abundance of special effects shots. The good news is that the technical wizardry stands up to the scrutiny; 30 years after its release Total Recall can easily be appreciated as one of the last great achievements in analog optical effects, miniature work and special effects makeup (courtesy of The Howling and The Thing maestro Rob Bottin). It’s also a reminder of just how subversive and explosive (in all senses of the word) Verhoeven’s sensibility was when he began smuggling the ideas and imagery from his Dutch masterpieces into Hollywood genre films, and of the creative freedom and resources independent studio Carolco was giving directors like Verhoeven, Walter Hill, Alan Parker, and James Cameron at the time. Total Recall is one of several essential auteur-driven genre films to be given the 4K treatment in recent months; I’d also recommend the new 4K releases of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, Michael Mann’s Collateral, and George Miller’s Mad Max, all of which boast impeccable transfers and are loaded with useful extras.  

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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