Published on February 7th, 2017 | by Adrien Begrand0
20 Awesome Boutique Blu-Ray Releases from 2016
There were some amazing boutique blu-rays on home video in 2016. Adrien Begrand writes about 20 of his favourites releases, from art film to horror.
There’s something about the tactile aspect of art that is appealing to a lot of people, yours truly included. If I like a piece of music, I want the album in my hands. If I see a painting that speaks to me, in a gallery or online, I want a print hanging on my wall. Give me a real book instead of a digital version. If I learn of a movie I know I will love, I will greatly prefer to insert a blu-ray or DVD into a player rather than stream a vastly inferior version on Netflix. I’ve always thought of myself as an ‘accumulator’ more than a collector, but more than anything else it all stems from a constant desire to discover new art, and especially to be challenged by art that I never even knew existed. So every year I wind up amassing a good stack of items, and despite my efforts to curb that accumulation – and I swear I’ve made progress! – there’s always enough there to make for a good year-in-review list.
It is a great time to be a movie nerd, because contrary to market predictions, blu-ray/DVD has become quite a niche market, and several imprints like Arrow, Shot! Factory, Grindhouse, and of course the mighty Criterion are fully aware there are plenty of people out there who want to keep a favourite movie (or two, or five, or 20) and revisit it again and again. With added emphasis on bonus features, essays, and art design, they’re able to make movies, whether canonical or cult, a fetish object for the obsessive-minded, and every year there is no shortage of outstanding, revelatory new releases and re-releases to be discovered, or in a lot of cases, rediscovered.
Looking back at 2016, it’s been interesting to note how strong a year it was for genre films on blu-ray. From the seminal to obscure, from horror to action, Criterion and Shout Factory especially hit paydirt on several occasions, and a few surprises from smaller imprints cropped up along the way. As great as these releases all are – numerically ranking one against the other would defeat the whole purpose of this piece – the title at the very top is far and away the most important blu-ray release of 2016. So please, read on, and I hope you discover some new favourites along the way.
The ten-hour masterpiece by the late, great Krzysztof Kieslowski is a towering achievement in not only filmmaking but storytelling as well. No other film comes close to depicting the complexity of the human condition in such eloquent, poetic, and accessible fashion as the Dekalog does. Inspired by the ten commandments, this series of ten short films focuses on the many residents of a Warsaw high rise, as they grapple with moral and existential dilemmas, and like in real life, the end results range from tragic, to redemptive, to uncertain, to funny. One reason Kieslowski was such a wonderful filmmaker was that he loved to consider the notion of spirituality, but he never provided audiences with easy answers, and that sense of the unknown permeates these beautiful, absorbing tales and compels you to think about each of them long after you see them. Criterion pulled out all the stops in their spectacular blu-ray release, with a bevy of extras, copious reading material, and a gorgeous remastering job on the nearly 30-year old film. In the wake of 9-11 Roger Ebert suggested readers watch the Dekalog as penance. I immediately understood what he meant, in that this ten-hour experience somehow grounds you, creating empathy, compelling you to confront the complexities of humanity. Most importantly, the Dekalog is a life-affirming experience, and you come out of it a richer person.
Valley of the Dolls / Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Criterion)
Criterion has never shied from acknowledging the importance of cult cinema, but the simultaneous release of 1967’s Valley of the Dolls and its 1970 mutant sibling Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a masterstroke. Despite Mark Robson’s tepid adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s classic trash novel, Valley of the Dolls is made bearable thanks to some incredible costume design and especially three women in particular – the crazed Patty Duke, the melancholy Sharon Tate, the brassy Susan Hayward – who exude pure campy fabulousness. Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, however, remains a visionary ode to excess that remains unmatched to this day, taking Susann’s themes of corrupted woman in the Hollywood star-making machine and, thanks to the devilish imagination of a young Roger Ebert, juxtaposing it against a backdrop of sex, melodrama, violence, and rock ‘n’ roll. One movie is rigid and campy, the other is twisted and campy – with great soundtracks I might add – and both are essential. Buy both movies, and watch them back to back. It is one hell of a happening, and it will indeed freak you out. In a good way, of course.
Fantastic Planet (Criterion)
Rene Laloux’s 1973 animated film Fantastic Planet is a wickedly sharp combination of dystopian science fiction and political satire, illustrated in a style that is all its own, and boasting a wickedly good progressive rock soundtrack. Depicting a future where giant blue creatures called Draags keep humans as pets, you see a young boy named Terr grow up, escape his adolescent owner, and ultimately lead a revolt with other fellow humans. However, as grim as the subject matter is, the movie ends on a startlingly positive note. Not necessarily utopian, mind you, but more along the lines of “practical.” In an age now where the world is starting to lose its collective marbles, Fantastic Planet offers viewers a valuable lesson or two.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Criterion)
Who knew Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 1964 satire would turn out to be as disturbingly visionary as it looks in 2017? America is now being run by a buffoon and his cadre of sycophants, and it feels like the world is but a hair away from one of those people making a colossal mistake like the one President Merkin Muffley’s administration does in this classic film, which ha been beautifully designed by Criterion and restored to absolutely pristine condition. Kubrick, writer Terry Southern, the virtuosic Peter Sellers in his iconic triple role, and George C. Scott are all in peak form as the United States mistakenly brings the world to the brink of annihilation in truly obnoxious fashion, as only America can do. If the real world is going to hell in a handbasket, you might as well distract yourself with one of the funniest movies ever made. If anything, you might as well laugh so you don’t cry.
The Thing (Shout Factory)
John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic finally, finally got the reissue treatment it deserved on this spectacular blu-ray set. It’s crammed to the gills with extras, which in itself is fantastic, but the real draw is the movie itself, which has been given a stunning overhaul. What used to look murky on VHS and DVD is now so well lit and sharply defined that I recoiled at the special effects, and I had seen the movie too many times to count already. It’s like seeing it for the first time, and if this blu-ray is your first time seeing it, then you are in for a bloody, gooey treat.
I Knew Her Well (Criterion)
Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1965 film can very much be seen as La Dolce Vita from the perspective of a desperate young woman on the periphery of Italian popular culture instead of a suave insider. Only unlike the joy and malaise Fellini conveyed in his great film, I Knew Her well becomes emptier and sadder the longer it goes. Stefania Sandrelli plays a good-hearted young woman desperate to make it as an actress and model, but for all her effervescence, she is used, chewed up, and ultimately spit out by a male-driven industry again and again until she reaches her own quiet breaking point. Even worse, this gorgeously restored black and white film feels even more contemporary today, as the entertainment business and popular culture’s obsession with socialites is just as seedy as it’s ever been.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Criterion)
What’s so incredible about McCabe and Mrs. Miller is not only how it put a highly original twist on the traditional western picture, but it remains unmatched some 45 years later, as this stunner of a Criterion release shows. One of Robert Altman’s greatest achievements, it is so exquisitely written and photographed, with extraordinary chemistry between Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Additionally, Canada leaves an indelible mark on this film, thanks to the snowy British Columbia setting and especially the haunting soundtrack of Leonard Cohen songs, both of which underscore the sadness of the story to heartbreaking effect. McCabe and Cohen both had poetry in them, but so did Altman, as he proves here.
Belladonna of Sadness (Cinelicious)
With a story inspired by Jules Michelet’s book Satanism and Witchcraft and a visual style highly influenced by Gustav Klimt, Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1973 film Belladonna of Sadness is a far cry from the campy episodes of Astro Boy he directed in the 1960s. Rather, this film delves headlong into psychedelia, its warped visuals and lysergic rock soundtrack offering a spellbinding and hypnotic backdrop for a story about a woman who makes a pact with the devil to exact revenge on a village that ostracized her. Part revenge drama, part occult thriller, part pro-feminist art piece, this blend of lush still paintings and gracefully drawn animation is a singular piece of work, and looks sublime in its fully restored form.
The Complete Lady Snowblood (Criterion)
If you’ve seen Kill Bill but haven’t seen the great 1973 Japanese chanbara flick Lady Snowblood, you will be flabbergasted by how much Quentin Tarantino stole from it. Essentially it’s as simple a plot as Kill Bill: fierce woman has a list of people she needs to kill for revenge; woman kills said people. The process by which Lady Snowblood ticks off her list is riveting, and the plot is as richly written as the action sequences are beautifully choreographed. It’s extreme violence with a soul. Although its sequel doesn’t measure up to the original, at the very least plenty of bad people get their comeuppance by the stately yet deadly title character.
Dead Ringers (Shout! Factory)
David Cronenberg’s 1988 film, a very weird and unsettling follow-up to his popular adaptation of The Fly, has haunted yours truly for the last 29-odd years, and at long last Shout! Factory has given it a deserving blu-ray release. Featuring Jeremy Irons in his greatest acting role, he plays the dual role of identical twin gynecologists – one a smarmy womanizer, the other a quiet bookworm – who share a little too much together, including an actress client played by Genevieve Bujold. The combination of Cronenberg’s trademark body horror with Hitchcock’s penchant for psychological (and sexual) thrillers is unlike anything you will ever see. With direction as coolly clinical as his protagonists and a story arc that is truly operatic, it remains an overlooked classic.
A Brighter Summer Day (Criterion)
Released under the radar in 1991 but now regarded as one of the greatest movies of the 1990s, Edward Yang’s sprawling, four-hour epic is several different stories at the same time. First, it’s a snapshot of life in Taipei in 1960, when many mainland Chinese exiles were trying to make a better life for their families in Taiwan, often at the expense of their own well-being. Secondly, it’s a glimpse at how much American popular culture had permeated Asia and the rest of the globe in the early-’60s, as youth culture had gone global. Lastly, and most crucially, A Brighter Summer Day is about teen angst, how easy it was for at-risk youths to succumb to street gangs and violence, victims of a rigid education system and a highly unstable country. With a cast of dozens, it takes time to settle into this world, but once you are, you’re locked in, caring about the earnest young protagonist as you see his bright future slowly slip away.
Return of the Living Dead (Shout! Factory)
Of all the horror films I saw in the 1980s, and I saw an absolute ton of them, none was as much fun as 1986’s Return of the Living Dead. Gory, funny, self-referential, and satirical, the film also boasted a sensational punk rock soundtrack featuring the likes of The Cramps, 45 Grave, and Roky Erickson. For the longest time those tunes had been in legal limbo, replaced on DVD releases by generic music, but now those tunes are back on this splendid blu-ray release, making an already highly enjoyable movie even better. Do you wanna par-tay!!!
Pan’s Labyrinth (Criterion)
Remember when children’s literature and film never shied away from frightening imagery? Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth sure does, combining a very strong fairy tale element with moments of gruesomeness. In a way it’s a movie for those grown-ups who remember the darker realms of children’s stories, but this time around the darker elements are enough to scare the daylights out of an adult. Juxtaposed with the fallout from the Spanish civil war, it’s sort of an anti-fascist Alice in Wonderland, an empowering tale of a strong young girl’s obsession with her fantasy world to cope with an evil stepfather, where the fantastical and the sociopolitical meet in the middle. A decade later this film still packs a massive wallop.
Cat People (Criterion)
Every now and then the horror genre has to be reminded that what is not seen can be just as terrifying as the latest special effects wizardry. Even in 1942, when Val Lewton’s classic Cat People took a subtler route than usual, leaving the scary stuff to the imaginations of viewers. It’s still a chilling movie to this day, beautifully shot by Jacques Tourneur, as Simone Simon’s young Serbian emigre transforms into a predatory feline when sexually aroused.
Carnival of Souls (Criterion)
Herk Hervey’s 1962 cult classic remains one of the most unique horror films ever made, and at long last Criterion has replaced their old – and admittedly outdated – DVD release with a fully restored blu-ray version. The end result is astonishing, as the detail and lighting on this low-budget black and white flick looks exquisite. Appended by tons of extras, both old and new, this was one of Criterion’s most eagerly anticipated releases of 2016, and it does not disappoint in the least.
The good folks at Grindhouse never scrimp when it comes to their releases, and the special blu-ray release of the 1982 cult classic Pieces is a joy to behold. Of course, the movie is an hilariously over the top slasher flick (“You don’t have to go to Texas for a massacre!” it boasts) involving quite the assortment of mutilated co-eds, and this version comes with not only a CD of the film’s absurdly catchy soundtrack, but a replica of the original jigsaw puzzle that inspired the movie’s killer. This is one that fans of ’80s horror need to see.
The Neon Demon (Broad Green Pictures)
Nicholas Winding Refn can be about as subtle as a lead brick sometimes, but although his message in The Neon Demon is more than obvious, it is so beautiful to look at that I’m willing to give his thematic bluntness and his overt preoccupation with young, rail-thin blonde women a pass. It’s social commentary disguised as a Giallo flick, and that Dario Argento influence looms heavily over this film, which is awash in vivid primary colours. In the end this movie is 99 percent style, but when it is as artfully rendered as Refn does here, I’ll take it.
It was great to see Criterion release Whit Stillman’s great trilogy of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco on blu-ray in 2016. While Metropolitan made Stillman an indie sensation and The Last Days of Disco remains his high water mark, 1994’s Barcelona has become rather underated. Like Metropolitan it is a white-collar, WASPy comedy of manners, but it has a lot of fun skewering anti-Americanism at the end of the cold war, not to mention American arrogance overseas. Plus Chris Eigeman puts in a tour de force performance. Biting and often hilarious, it’s a must-see for any lover of satire.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Criterion)
The 2015 film by Olivier Assayas, one of the finest directors of our time, focuses on the exceptional chemistry between two of the best women actors today, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. The premise is intriguing: Binoche plays an iconic veteran actress rehearsing for a play in Switzerland and generally making life for her young assistant (Stewart) a living hell. However, the film goes much, much deeper than that, ultimately becoming as ethereal and mysterious as the weather phenomenon that bears the movie’s name. Highly entertaining and charmingly puzzling, this is a movie that demands repeat viewings.