One poll you might have missed over the holiday’s is DVDBeaver’s survey of the year’s best Blu-rays and DVDs, an annual godsend for cinephiles looking to extend their viewing options beyond whatever Netflix and Amazon feel like streaming this month. Collecting more than 75 responses, they also published more than 21 individual ballots from the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and the site’s editor, Gary Tooze.
As a site that caters to an international readership savvy enough to know how to circumvent the region coding on their Blu-ray players, the results make no distinction between country of release, so it’s worth noting that of the Top 10 Blu-rays, only six can be played on unmodified U.S. equipment: The two releases from the BFI, Arrow’s “Videodrome” and Masters of Cinema’s “Shoah” are all Region B-locked. (If you don’t know what that term means, it’s extremely likely your Blu-ray player can’t play it.) Better news on the DVD front: Although the majority of the Top 10 titles come from U.K. manufactures, all but one, the BFI’s “Spring in a Small Town,” are coded region-free, although your player still has to be able to handle the European PAL standard. (It’s worth looking up, since many players can but don’t advertise it up front.)
Finishing outside the Top 10, but especially worthy of note: The Criterion Collection, as usual, is amply represented, with David Lynch’s “Mullholland Dr.,” the long-awaited original cut of Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan,” Jean Renoir’s “A Day in the Country,” Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” among the 28 Criterion titles in the top 100. Their DVD-only offshoot, Eclipse, has slowed its output of late, but they still managed three mentions, including the absolutely vital “Agnès Varda in California.” Given Criterion’s dominance, it seems petty to complain about omissions, but I’d certainly add Kryzsztof Kieslowski’s “Blind Chance”; D.A. Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back”; David Cronenberg’s “The Brood”; Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown”; and Caroll Ballard’s wondrous “The Black Stallion.”
Other personal favorites: Flicker Alley‘s essential “Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970,” and their Blu-ray upgrades to Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera” and Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay shorts. Twilight Time‘s limited-edition releases may speak to physical media’s declining fortunes; it’s alarming that movies like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” or Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” aren’t considered valuable enough to the studios that own them to put out any other way. But the company’s dedication leads to a steady stream of gems, worth snapping up while you can. Among the year’s best: Carl Franklin’s “Devil in a Blue Dress,” a wonderful adaptation of Walter Mosley’s noir that brought Don Cheadle’s screen career to electrifying life; John Huston’s “Fat City”; Samuel Fuller’s “House of Bamboo”; Richard Loncraine’s “Richard III,” which makes Shakespeare’s anti-hero the hunchbacked ruler of a fascist dystopia. (Make sure to buy directly from their site, as prices tend to escalate elsewhere.)
Kino gave Alain Resnais’ “Je t’aime, je t’aime,” a major influence on “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” its first-ever US release, and gave avant-garde diarist Jonas Mekas a fitting tribute with “Walden”/”Lost Lost Lost,” with six hours of features and an addition six short films spread across two discs. Oscilloscope likewise used their (very-) limited edition DVD of Manfred Kirchheimer’s “Stations of the Elevated” to collect more of his jazzy documentary portraits of New York City. Jacques Rivette remains one of the major directors least well-served on home video, but Kino’s “Le Pont du Nord” and Criterion’s forthcoming “Paris Belongs to Us” make for significant progress. Shout! Factory‘s “The Larry Fessenden Collection” gave similar and well-deserved treatment to one of modern horror’s most distinctive voices, in a package that, as my friend Noel Murray wrote, underlines the continued importance of physical media even in the streaming era.
As disc sales have waned, so has studio interested in revisiting all but the most popular titles in their catalogues, but Paramount’s “My Fair Lady” and Universal’s “Spartacus” corrected some of the most notorious home-video botched, replacing widely criticized transfers with meticulous and lavish new ones.
Many of these releases aren’t cheap. But when you look at the massive undertaking involved in Criterion’s restored “Apu Trilogy,” the first-ever decent home video release of movies that have been considered not only classics but absolute landmarks for sixty years, it’s clear where the money is going. The death of video stores and Netflix’s rapidly waning interest in its DVD and Blu-ray business has made cinephilia a pricy proposition, and that’s a huge problem — although your local library probably has a much more generous home video selection than you think. But the cup-and-ball game of the entertainment industry’s current economic model hasn’t made it cheaper to employ skilled technicians or pay for their equipment, and a cursory glance at Netflix’s wan selection of pre-1970s movies (and their woeful quality control) shows you how far away that low, low monthly fee is from meeting that price. Until there’s a better model, we’ll have to keep one eye on sale prices and the other on Criterion’s Hulu channel.
Here’s what DVDBeaver’s poll picked.
DVDBeaver’s Best Blu-rays of 2015
“The Apu Trilogy” (Criterion)
“Carl Theodor Dryer Collection” (BFI)
“Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism” (Arrow)
“Rossellini: The War Trilogy” (BFI)
“Battles Without Honor and Humanity” (Arrow)
“Shoah” (Masters of Cinema)
“Blood and Black Lace” (Arrow)
“My Darling Clementine”/”Frontier Marshall” (Arrow)
DVDBeaver’s Best DVDs of 2015
“Julien Duvivier in the Thirties” (Eclipse)”Spring in a Small Town” (BFI)
“Polish Cinema Classics, Volume III” (Second Run)
“Fruit of Paradise” (Second Run)
“Pictures of the Old World” (Second Run)
“All My Good Countrymen” (Second Run)
“The House of Mystery” (Flicker Alley)
“Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 9” (Warner Archive)
“Dragon’s Return” (Second Run)
“British Noir: Five Film Collection” (Kino)