2024년 2월 16일 금요일

My Twenty Favorite Blu Ray-4K UHD Blu Ray Releases of 2023

Well, here I am again.  I keep saying it every year: I thought I would not be able to upload My Favorite Blu Ray/4K UHD List this year for sure, but my protestations have become just that, protestations. 

The truth is that as long as I have a functioning brain and/or optical-neural capacity to watch and comprehend a motion picture, and as long as they keep putting out physical media optic discs for classical cinema, I will continue to put together this list, or something approximating it, every year.  There is no real compelling reason not to, it seems.  Yes, yes, I am always busy, involved in some life-changing decisions or projects that makes a big difference in the scale of my income, or some such adult concerns.  Nonetheless these forces of “real life obligations” have never been powerful enough to derail my effort at list-making yet (I think it happened only once to my Korean-language list in the last twenty years?  But I could be mistaken).

The physical media may yet decline further in the coming years but it will never completely disappear, under most of the abject circumstances hypothesized by those busy prophesizing the deaths of older-generation media forms. Suppose the worldwide economic collapse takes place following a global environmental disaster.  What then?  The first thing to go would probably be streaming services, not optic discs.  In a situation like that, if history is any indication, concrete, you-can-put-your-hands-on artifacts become even more valuable and desirable. Their contents will acquire additional meanings beyond the disposable “entertainment” values assigned to them by the corporate entities: of course, this is already the world most of the collectors I know have been living in for many years, sometimes decades, upgrading from LPs to CDs, VHS tapes to laserdiscs to DVDs, and from Blu Rays to 4K UHD Blu Rays, through the thick and thin and through financial ups and downs.  

This evolution of physical media is not simply driven by corporate greed or technological advancement.  It is also a response on the part of many artists, technicians, consumers and aficionados over the years, based on our fervent wish to watch motion pictures— or any media content, really— in the best light possible, to be able to appreciate their qualities in the fullest way possible.  Such a desire is a real thing. While it might not be strong enough to always buckle the mindless corporate mandate that passes for “capitalism” in the United States (and rest of the world), it has sustained various forms of meaningful resistance against the latter.  

So much so that I can truthfully say I today have greater access to the bountiful cinematic treasures from all over the world— from Tunisia to Senegal, from Mongolia to Albania— and from all periods in the grand narrative of cinematic evolution, from the very beginning of the cinema to the latest experimental video, than any other time in my life. As far as a lover of classic, different, and interesting cinema (with sufficient resources, I hasten to add, but, on the other hand, you do not have to be crazy-rich to be a good collector) is concerned, life is good indeed.

As per every year, a word of caution to those stumbling on my list for the first time. This is exactly what it says it is, My Favorite Blu Rays and 4K UHD Blu Rays of 2023, and the selection process is fundamentally subjective. The list is not beholden to “objective” assessments of the archival values of the items discussed herein, although the latter are certainly factors for consideration. Nor is it beholden to the critical consensus for “greatness” or “excellence” of the films found in these discs.  The most important criterion for selection is the sense of (re)discovery, surprise or confirmation that I derived out of owning these discs, not simply watching them.  The production quality, the design, the packaging, the commentaries, the supplements, the letterings and signages: they all matter, perhaps not as much as the movies themselves, but they play non-trivial roles in my appreciation of these titles.  

So please do not consider this list as “the best Blu Rays” or “the best films” of 2023, however you construe the term “best.”  I am thoroughly not interested in that kind of list.  Enough rantings. Let’s delve into them then.  There are twenty titles, and the “dating” is not laser-precise, as the repeat readers of my annual lists already know.  

20.  The Game Trilogy: Limited Edition (1978-79, Arrow Video, Region A). 

This release is mostly significant for allowing those outside Japan to finally access the star-making films of Matsuda Yūsaku (1949-1989), a half-Korean Japanese star of ‘80s who tragically died from bladder cancer at the age of 40, shortly after making an impressive Hollywood film debut as a vicious punk villain in Ridley Scott’sBlack Rain.  The reason it is relatively lower in my list is that I find the films— the so-called Game Trilogy, The Most Dangerous Game, The Killing Game (both 1978) and The Execution Game (1979)— entertaining enough but not quite likeable or genuinely inventive. Nonetheless, they are fascinating slices of nihilistic urban action genre done in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s Toei style, where a lot of gunshots are fired, not very realistically I must add, and nasty fistfights among colorfully dressed and coiffed thugs take place in narrow corridors or abandoned empty houses.

As for Matsuda, he is certainly an intriguing figure, emerging almost unscathed from the very loud period wardrobe and hairstyle doing their darnedest to render him laughable.  At times he improbably suggests a cross between Jacky Chan and Lee Marvin, at once hard-boiled and charismatic on the one hand, and goofily charming but lethally lithe, a Monkey King in shades and pantaloons, on the other.  Matsuda hints at his skills as an actor, especially in The Killing Game, probably the best in the trilogy, projecting intensity, inner conflict and even remorse, while intoning uber-pulpish, borderline ridiculous dialogue. Even though the films are not quite rediscovered masterpieces, Arrow Video’s expert husbandry of them cannot be faulted.  


19.  The Devil’s Game (1981, Severin Films, Region Free).

This title, too, might have been higher up in the list, had it been presented in the way some Anglo-American TV shows of ‘60s and ‘70s were remastered to the point of never-before-seen glory (see Columbo below).  Realistically, we should be simply grateful that Severin Films, following in the footsteps of the last year’s Tales to Keep You Awake, Narcisso Ibanez Serrador’s key Spanish TV horror, has unearthed and made available, with English subs, Italian RAI TV’s I giochi del diavolo, six-episode adaptations of nineteenth century literary classics.  The source novels and stories range from E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman, Henry James’ Sir Edmund Orme, Robert L. Stevenson’s The Imp in a Bottle, Gerard de Nerval’s The Possessed Hand, H. G. Wells’ A Dream of Another, and Prosper Merimeé’s The Venus of Ille. Of course, the last episode will be of great interest to the horror film fans, as it is officially the last film directed by Mario Bava, assisted by his son Lamberto.

The episodes are collected here mostly as SD-grade tape masters, sometimes with the horizontal “fuzzes” visible and weak colors, but, despite the visual impairment and sometimes staid, talky presentations, the majority of them evince a classicist feel of the kind difficult to replicate in an Anglo-American setting, as if the video cameraman was directly capturing productions authentically taking place in nineteenth-century.  And of course, The Venus of Ille, scratched and damaged but scanned from a 16mm print rather than a video source, is a terrific little piece of suggestive terror, with a riveting performance by the exquisite Daria Nicolodi (The Deep Red, Bava’s Schock), well transcending its curiosity value.

18.   The Haunting of Julia (1977, Scream! Factory, 4K UHD Blu Ray).

A surprise title for a 4K UHD release, The Haunting of Julia, better known as Full Circle, features another woman-under-psychological-distress role for Mia Farrow in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby, based on Peter Straub’s (Ghost Story) first full-blown horror novel Julia. Featuring a very young Tom Conti and a cabal of British actresses including Jill Benett and Cathleen Nesbitt, Richard Loncraine’s (Breamstone and Treacle, Richard III with Ian McKellen) film is a monumental feel-bad show, especially for the female viewers with children, but there is certainly truth in advertising: it is a haunting film, all right, with Farrow delivering an achingly vulnerable performance.  The dual 4K UHD-Blu Ray collector’s edition has a new commentary with director Loncraine’s participation, a set of pleasant interviews with the veteran actor Conti (most recently seen in Chis Nolan’s Oppenheimer as Albert Einstein) and the then-child actress Samantha Gates. 


17.  Marathon Man (1976, Kino Lorber, 4K UHD Blu Ray).


William Goldman’s urban espionage thriller is really at heart a New York Jewish artist’s reflection on the inadequately addressed legacies of the Holocaust.  It is perhaps best known for the chilling turn by Laurence Olivier as the Nazi dentist Szell, who has turned his trade skills into torture techniques.  After nearly 50 years, it now has an added meaning as a deconstruction of the globe-trotting action thriller genre, in the sense that it is centered on a New York grad student’s extremely personal vendetta against the vast, global machinery of interconnected evil, ever banal and mundane and firmly rooted in the wartime “expediencies” carried out by global empires, including the good ol’ US of A.  What is it about ‘70s American movies that look the best on 4K UHD?  Kino Lorber’s presentation of Marathon Man, like Jaws, perfectly recreates the theatrical experience I have had in late ‘70s Korea, watching the film riveted along with a paying Korean audience and feeling the wave of collective frisson as Szell calmly walks over to poor Babe with a dental drill in his hand.


16.  Libido (1963, Severin Films, Blu Ray- Region A).


This low-budget little Italian programmer in black and white was an on-the-nose directorial effort by the insanely prolific screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, responsible for many giallo classics with sometimes amusingly convoluted plot twists (and/or mouthful titles) such as The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Torso. Featuring a debut performance by Giancarlo Giannini and a welcome substantial role for the “Italian Peter Lorre” Luciano Pigozzi, Libido is a surprisingly effective chamber piece, compact and atmospheric, that anticipates many conventions and stylistics of the giallo genre.  Severin Film’s presentation of this nearly forgotten early ‘60s template for the Italian psychosexual thrillers, scanned in 2K from a dupe negative, is not perfect but probably presents it in the best possible behavior ever.  The disc also comes with another erudite commentary track from Kate Ellinger and a wry, aggressively candid long-form interview with Gastaldi.


15.  Dellamorte dellamore [a.k.a. Cemetery Man] (1993, Severin Films, 4K UHD Blu Ray)


Severin’s full-blown attack at horror film collectors near the end of 2023 came with a triptych of Italian horror classics remastered in 4K UHD, The Church, The Sect and Dellamore dellamorte. The last title, in particular, has been long time in coming, with only a German Blu Ray edition available previously. I should add that Dellamore is one of the few horror films made after 1980 I have seen that unambivalently deserves the designation “dark/horror fairy tale,” with its punkish-ly morbid but strangely affecting aura of romantic yearning.  Severin’s lovingly remastered 4K UHD iteration presents it swathed in rich, almost sensual, blackness as well as in the extra-moody Dolby Atmos five-channel soundscape. As for the supplements, the company managed to rope in almost all major participants, from director Michele Soavi to stars Rupert Everett, Ana Falchi, Stefano Masciarelli, cinematographer Mauro Marchetti, and special FX artist Sergio Stivaletti, plus a glossy, visually arresting booklet with an analytic essay by Claire Donner.  As if this is not enough, we also get a 72-minute CD soundtrack compiling the witty score by Manuel De Sica and Riccardo Biseo.


14.  The Questor Tapes (1974, Kino Lorber, Blu Ray- Region A).

The Anglo-American TV from ‘60s and ‘70s are one area for which the HD upgrade in physical media has done some truly amazing feats, rendering some TV movies and series episodes the kind of clarity and resplendence, entirely absent in their original airwave broadcasts.  This is the kind of “revisionism” that I heartily welcome.  As a stand-alone film, The Questor Tapes feels rather incomplete, given that it was one of the several unsold pilots from Gene Roddenberry. It has all the hallmarks of a Roddenberry project, again featuring a God-like alien intelligence that “benevolently” attempts to steer humankind out of its likely path for self-annihilation.  Like the original Star Trek, the movie’s— scripted by Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon— liberal sentiments and admittedly sophisticated SF trappings are contrasted to its condescending attitudes toward women and, well, the unwashed masses.  However, the movie is compelling, mainly due to a wonderful performance by Robert Foxworth as the self-constructing android Questor, who generates an excellent chemistry with Mike Farrell’s skeptical scientist.  Kino Lorber’s presentation includes a welcome commentary by Gary Gerani (I just realized that he produce-directed a documentary on the music of Billy Goldenberg, one of the great TV composers of ‘70s).


13.  Accion mutante (1992, Severin Films, 4K UHD Blu Ray)


OK, Alex de la Iglesia’s debut feature film is finally here in the glorious 4K UHD from our friends at Severin Films!  It is certainly a unique concoction, an ultra-grungy, hyper-sophomoric, sub-Star Wars SF/spaghetti Western hybrid with the most politically incorrect characters you could imagine (for one, the band of outlaws that cause all the mayhem are not mutants, but simply disabled people, including a Siamese twin brothers attached at their shoulders and a hulking brute identified as “a man with the lowest IQ in human history”). This is the kind of movie in which the head bad guy keeps a kidnap victim’s mouth shut with metal staples instead of duct tapes, and that detail is played for a joke later: you have been warned. 

But what really dropped my jaws was not all the “transgressive” (some are admittedly funny) satire and bad attitude in the film itself but just how good the movie looks in this 4K UHD presentation.  It lovingly restores its widescreen cinematography, including eye-opening vistas of Spanish mountain regions that pass for an alien desert landscape.  All directors should be so lucky to have their debut features presented in a glorious form like this.  


12.  Danza Macabra: The Italian Gothic Collection, Volume One (1964-71, Severin Films, Blu Ray- Region A/Free).

Severin’s curation of the more obscure but desirable Euro-horror titles continue with this collection of four films, Monster of the Opera, The Seventh Grave, Scream of a Demon Lover and Lady Frankenstein, the last title pretty well known and previously released in a decent Blu Ray from Nucleus Films.  All of them, with differing levels of genre pedigree, entertainment value and archival interest, are outfitted with individual commentaries and substantial supplements that greatly enhance our appreciation of these films.  None of them are masterpieces but, collected in a hefty box adorned with the newly commissioned beautiful illustration typical of Severin’s care and attention to the production values, they truly warm the heart of a collector. 

11.  The Giant Gilla Monster/The Killer Shrews (1959, Film Masters, Blu Ray- Region Free).


For some strange reason, I have never actually seen The Killer Shrews, neither on a late night creature feature program, nor via a VHS rented from a neighborhood video store, not ever. Well, I am glad I have not until Film Master’s Blu Ray.  No doubt about it, it is a badly acted, badly staged regional exploitation horror of the peculiarly US of A late ‘50s-early ‘60s kind, but guess what bro, I actually found some of its set pieces genuinely scary, the hilariously hideous, dentally exaggerated puppet heads standing for mutant shrews notwithstanding.  Oh, The Giant Gilla Monster is a total fluff, but it has its charms too.  Has my life improved in quality thanks to having watched The Killer Shrews through this special edition Blu Ray (presented with the option of watching the movies in the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio or the 1.33:1 TV academy ratio)?  You bet your cheese crumbs.


10.  Monsieur Hire (1989, Kino Lorber-Cohen Media Group, Blu Ray- Region A).


One of the French films that I come back to multiple times in order to savor its dense texture and melancholy sensibilities, Patrice Laconte’s Monseiur Hire saunters into the room in an impeccable Blu Ray presentation from Cohen Media.  Particularly powerful in this iteration is Michael Nyman’s score that partially draws upon a spectacularly haunting arrangement of a Brahms piece.  This is one of those twisty dramas in which an initially unsympathetic and even repellent character (brilliantly essayed with great restraint by Michel Blanc) gradually transforms into an uncomfortably familiar, even a tragic one, without attempting to tug at our heartstrings.  The supplement includes a brand-new interview with Laconte and the female star Sandrine Bonnaire.


9.  eXistenZ (1999, Vinegar Syndrome, 4K UHD Blu Ray) 

I thought that the Region B 101 Films Blu Ray from some years ago was going to be the last word on this David Cronenberg outing: I was wrong, and I am now obliged to include the Vinegar Syndrome 4K UHD in the 2023 list.  The VS upgrade is mostly distinguished from the movie’s other iterations by its sense of depth and rich texture as well as the powerful ambience effect created by Howard Shore’s stealthily magnificent score.  Now only if Criterion or Arrow could do a similar update on M Butterfly (with a commentary by Professor Howard Chiang: you know, sometimes wishes do come true)!


8.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, Disney, 4K UHD Blu Ray).


I have never expected to put a classic Disney animation in this list: for one, the company does not have a good track record of making its library titles accessible to the consumers, even its fan base.  But again, this 4K UHD Blu Ray release— which I obtained from Amazon UK— is a special item.  It really rehabilitates, as far as I can see, since I was obviously not there during the theatrical premier of this landmark feature-length animation, its three-dimensionality, emphasizing the astounding depths of background drawings and fluid mutability of the rotoscoped animated figures: it is one of the most astounding cinematic transfigurations of moving drawings I have ever seen.  By the way, this Snow White is surprisingly short and truncated, rather abruptly terminating the (great) villainy of the Evil Queen. It might not be quite as affecting as Dumbo or Fantasia, but it is still one of the genuine American treasures of popular culture.  It is amazing in and of itself to be able to appreciate its beauty in this manner, that I think will easily best a theatrical showing of a newly struck print.


7.  The Criminal Acts of Tod Slaughter (1935-1940, Powerhouse Indicator, Blu Ray- Region Free).

This was a pure surprise again, comparable to my first exposure to the films of Laird Cregar during the DVD era, but in a much bigger scale.  I was not even vaguely aware of Tod Slaughter (1885-1956), one of the first Anglo-American cinematic stars to specialize in playing villains that you love to hate (which differs from monstrous portrayals of the horror stars in the same period such as Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi) prior to Powerhouse Indicator’s boxset that collects eight films among Slaughter’s oeuvre.  The literary sources and cultural pedigrees of these programmers are by themselves intriguing and illuminating.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is bookended by a vignette set in a location-shot barber shop in ‘30s London: Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror anticipates both a German crimini and a James Bond extravaganza, and it is fascinating to see how this template of a techno-thriller, replete with arresting but plot-wise near-nonsensical visuals was already fully formed: The Face at the Window is a Gothic melodrama with a powerful sense of underground perversity running beneath its narrative.  The other films are all endlessly fascinating as well.  Tod Slaughter himself is mesmerizing, his theatrical villainy intriguingly fairy-tale-like, sometimes with unmistakable glints in his eyes and chortles echoing down the corridors long after he had existed.


6.  Blood and Black Lace (1964, Arrow Video, Blu Ray- Region B).

The 88 Films restoration of Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body almost made the list. I just had to leave a designated spot in it for the stuffed-to-the-gills Arrow special edition of Blood and Black Lace, although I am not sure why Arrow did not go for a 4K UHD release. Still, their touted new 4K restoration is a marvel, blindingly aggressive reds and treacherously shaded greens all blazing and assaulting our senses.  The Carlo Rusticheli score in lossless mono soundtrack has never sounded better. Tim Lucas is the main authority in the supplements, which makes sense, but I found David Del Valle’s Sinister Image episode on Cameron Mitchell most interesting among numerous special features.  The 50-page-plus “booklet” has tons of attractive pictures and essays by the likes of Howard Hughes, Kate Ellinger, Rachael Nisbett, Joe Dante (interviewed by Alan Jones) and David Del Valle. 


5.  Samurai Wolf 1 & 2 (1966-67, Film Movement, Blu Ray- Region A).

This was also a nice surprise. Gosha Hideo is still not quite well represented in North America, considering some of his amazing but relatively scant output (what happened to Criterion Channel’s The Oil-Hell Murder? Is it ever going to come out? How about The Fireflies of North?).  Film Movement’s presentation of a lean and mean swordfight actioner Kiba Ōkaminosuke (roughly, “Mr. Fanged Wolfguy”) and its even better sequel is a terrific boon to any fan of the Japanese period pieces. Natsuyagi Isao is the unkempt, bearded and freewheeling ronin with the unlikely moniker, hired as a bodyguard against the antagonists Uchida Ryohei and Nishimura Ko, respectively. The best supplement is an affectionate and respectful recollection of Gosha’s innovative filmmaking techniques and interaction with his crew and cast by his daughter Tomoe, projecting a pride in her father’s legacy.


4.  Mexico Macabre (1959-63, Powerhouse Indicator, Blu Ray- Region Free).

This collection is a revival of the old (now defunct) Casa Negra DVD series of classic Mexican horror films, but since Powerhouse Indicator is the culprit behind the re-do, the collection, holding together Black Pit of Dr. M, The Witch’s Mirror, The Curse of the Crying Woman and the one-and-only, brain-slurping craziness entitled The Brainiac, is, conservatively put, overwhelming in its almost absurd level of comprehensiveness and imparted information.  And yes, the “booklet” again: this time it is 99 pages, and as is the custom with PI, includes a hefty amount of archival data, including a 1995 obituary of Abel Salazar— the star of The Brainiac— by David Wilt in Mexican Film Bulletin. 

3. Columbo: The 1970s- Seasons 1-7 (1968-1978, Kino Lorber, Blu Ray- Region A).


This landmark boxset has received some online criticism due to Kino Lorber’s failure to include previously announced commentaries by notable scholars and critics, but I could not really drop it from the list for this reason, disappointing as it might have been for core fans of the series.  Columbo is now proven to be simply one of the most intelligent and best-produced mystery TV series of all time.  It is absolutely wonderful to have these motion-picture length episodes on a remastered HD presentation that allows us to appreciate the distinctive, episode-specific looks of location cinematography, editing techniques (including a split-screen montage as busy and dense as those seen in theatrical films such as The Thomas Crown Affair) and inflections and turns of speech among great guest actors conveyed ever so clearly (My favorite guest appearance in this set is perhaps Johnny Cash’s slightly sweaty and melancholy turn as a country singer star-murder conspirator).  

However, for my money, the most mind-boggling thing was watching the first pilot film Prescription: Murder (1968) in this magnificently remastered HD version, with Gene Barry as a manipulative psychoanalyst.  Here, Lieutenant Columbo is equally manipulative and duplicitous.  It is almost a neo-noir in which your sympathies threaten to pivot toward the cold-hearted murderer played by Barry from an obviously sharp-minded police inspector whose skewed gaze and gravely voice barely seem to camouflage a ruthless and amoral core fully matching that of his wealthy opponent.   


2. Cushing Curiosities (1962-1974, Severin Films, Blu Ray- Region Free/A).

The “odds and ends” collection of Peter Cushing’s lesser-known or under-appreciated films, outside Hammer and staples of Euro-horror is nonetheless something only Severin Films at this stage could put together.  It includes a  very welcome Blu Ray presentation of The Man Who Finally Died, reviewed several years ago in this website, interesting British thrillers Suspicion and The Cone of Silence, six surviving episodes of the BBC ’64-’68 Sherlock Homes with Douglas Wilmer as Dr. Watson, Bloodsuckers which seems to receive zero respect anywhere, despite its weirdly respectable cast (including Edward Woodward as an anthropologist— or a psychologist?— specializing in sexual perversities in various cultures: Oh-kaay…) and at least some coherent critical viewpoint about vampirism as a metaphor for social exploitation, and Tender Dracula, a strangely affecting horror-comedy that actually features a genuinely sympathetic performance by Cushing.  

Maestro Cushing is front and center in all of these features: none of his roles here are glorified cameos (well, maybe Bloodsuckers, depending on how you read the film).  The collection confirms my conviction that Peter Cushing is completely watchable in any work he has a hand in: he and Christopher Lee still remain for me the standard-bearers for true film stars. 


1.  Borsalino (1970, Arrow Video, Blu Ray- Region A)

This has always been the pattern for My Favorite Lists: the number one spot has always been claimed by a totally unexpected title, never really favored in other estimable lists of similar kinds. The final choice has remained intensely personal, and this year is not an exception. 

I have missed Borsalino during its South Korean theatrical run (I was too young: from this era, however, I have vivid memories of watching all Jamese Bond films, even the farcical Casino Royale, in theaters) but since then were able to watch quite a few Alain Delon films, most memorably the directorial outputs of Duccio Tessari.  Borsalino is known in Korean language as bol-sarino, even though a Korean reading of the hat brand should have been boreu-salino: this was due to the limitation of the Japanese phonetic transliteration, rendered as borusarino, carried over directly to the Korean culture.  Ah, that was an era in which an European film actor who had become a big star in Japan also had to be a big star in Korea.  It took some decades for this pattern to break: Jacky Chan and Star Wars actually played their roles in this shift.

However, Borsalino, ably directed by Jacques Deray, did not turn out what it was supposed to be in my imagination, a commercially manufactured team-up designed to boost marquee values of its superstars, Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo.  Instead, I found myself utterly engrossed in the narrative, mis-en-scene, and most importantly, characters played by its two massively charismatic stars.  More than almost any film I have seen in 2023, Borsalino was the motion picture that took me back in time to my awareness of becoming a film enthusiast, yet coupled with the true appreciation of what these “old” films in fact are, seen again in its pristine, youthful countenance, capable of.  

The same list of labels, with gratitude and appreciation: Severin Films, Powerhouse Indicator, Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Vinegar Syndrome, Scream! Factory, Cohen Media, Film Masters and many others who worked on the equally splendid discs that for various reasons did not make the list.  Additional showers of gratitude to ever-reliable online reviewers, again led by Cinesavant and Mondo Digital, and including DVD Beaver, Blu-ray.com, Digital Bits and other sites.  A special word of thanks to the Patreon-sponsored DVD Beaver collections of screenshots, that supplied a few of the screenshots I have employed above.    

What will 2024 going to bring?  It is already one and a half months into the new year and maybe the world is go down the (climate-change-caused) storm drain, but as I reiterate, the life of a classic cinema collector at this point is not bad at all.  It is, truthfully, wonderful.  May the Force— the Energy or Ether (ki) as Koreans call it, the Power of Principle (riryoku) as Japanese call it, or the Fundamental Power (yuanli) as Chinese call it— be with all collectors and connoisseurs of classic cinema!   


2023년 1월 29일 일요일

My Favorite Twenty (and One) Blu Rays of 2022

Here I am, back with My Favorite Blu Ray List of 2022, again more than a month after the new year but who cares? I am just going to go ahead and pat myself on the back for completing it yet again for one more year. I will just note that I had gone through a great physical transformation (mostly for the better, including dropping 65 pounds of weight) from summer of 2021 to the fall of 2022, and am still coping with the spiritual and social aftermath of that change. Did it affect my movie-going habit? Not much. Love of “old” cinema has been one constant largely unaffected by other significant changes in my life, the global pandemic not being an exception. The viruses are still with us, but with South Korea getting rid of the indoor mask mandate at the end of January 2023, there are now clearly signs of an end phase for the pandemic, even though the mask-wearing will probably become an enduring cultural practice for the foreseeable future, even in certain sections of the US. 

In 2022, there were about twelve per-cent drop in the number of titles purchased from the last year, and a small increase in the number of films watched in the theater. I did not notice any big concern or seismic shift in the world of physical media for motion pictures market, at least nothing remotely comparable to the brouhaha taking place in the tech sector (and academia) over ChatGPT (The AI will end the writing as we know it, yadda yadda. Ok, so when will we actually have AIs replace lawyers, politicians and university administrators? Don’t try to convince me that that is actually a bad thing). The wave of classic films released in Blu Ray and 4K UHD Blu Ray show no sign of abating, in terms of either sheer numbers or diversity of titles. 

Next comes the part pretty much repeated every year, a caveat about what this list is not, rather than what it is. Id est: this list is not a compendium of the greatest or even historically most meaningful Blu Ray releases, nor is it a catalogue of the best restorations or the most high-quality presentations of particular motion pictures in 2022. It is a highly personal, eclectic and eccentric assessment of the discs that I had purchased last year, with the operating keywords being “(re) discovery” and “emotional responses.” I reiterate that the Korean-language equivalent of this list, when and if it is completed, will have slightly different items listed from this one. I also remind you that this has nothing to do with the segregation of “Korean” and “US-Anglophone” spheres of my life: it just so happens it has become a convention to keep making two lists. Neither one is more meaningful than the other, so please do not read anything into it.  I most certainly hope that the physical media market for cinematic output continue to win additional adherents, as the North American streaming services stubbornly hold onto their God-given rights to unilaterally eliminate any of their programming from their filled-to-the-brim-and-overflowing boxes of contents (as this recent Slate article bemoans). My contribution to that end might be infinitesimal in the larger scale of things, but hey, we all have to chip in with whatever we can do.  

I will not repeat the same introductory information about what Blu Rays and 4K UHD Blu Rays stand for and the optimal environment for viewing them here: those curious please check out the beginning part of the last year’s Favorite List. So then, let us bite into the meat in the sandwich, so to speak. There are twenty titles, but I am beginning with a special mention of sorts, with a 2021 title simply too special not to include.  

0. All the Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror (1958-2021, Blu Ray- Region A, Severin Films)  

In truth, I have selected another 2021 release in this list below, so there was no real reason not to just let All the Haunts Be Ours claim the top place here. But in the end, I felt that it was more appropriate to give it a special category of its own as a “zero” status. Severin’s fifteen-disc Blu Ray set that spreads out 19 films—literally from all over the world, from Poland, Australia, Serbia, Canada, Norway, Italy to UK and US—, one massive (3 hr. 12 min.) documentary on the folk horror genre (Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched), one audio recording of Arthur Machen’s White People and one soundtrack CD for Woodlands, is surely one of the most thematically coherent yet eclectic collections of its kind, brilliantly curated and splendidly restored. A few of the titles have been released in special edition Blu Rays (notably Viy, Celia and Dark Waters) but majority of the selections are eye-opening rare finds: Brunello Rondi’s Neo-Realist-inflected Il Demonio, Avery Crouse’s strikingly hallucinogenic ‘80s Western-horror Eyes of Fire, one of the classic Norwegian Gothic thrillers Lake of the Dead, an utterly engrossing yet superlatively disturbing modern fable Lokis: A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach, and many others. Kudos to producers David Gregory, Kier-La Janisse and Carl Daft as well as all the staff at Severin Films involved in making this boxset possible, for their hard work, impeccable quality control and excellent design sense. The boxset surely transcends the usual categories for merit in a list of this kind and richly deserves to be placed on a pedestal all its own.  

20. The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946, Blu Ray Region A, Kino Lorber) 

I do recall that this title had made into one of my early ‘oughts Favorite lists when first issued as a DVD. I could not resist dropping it in again as a Blu Ray. Lewis Milestone’s story of Iverstown, entirely under the thumb of Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck in her best old-school femme fatale mode), the heir to the ruling family, and her childhood friend Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) returning to it to stir trouble, pitted against the alcoholic DA Walter O’Neill (Kirk Douglas in his feature film debut) married to Martha, is more of a powerful Gothic melodrama with the discernible undercurrent of sexual and emotional perversity, than a film noir. On repeated viewings, I tend to find Sam rather shallow and annoyingly cocky, with my sympathies flowing toward the “weakling” Walter, but no matter: at once sordid and dazzling, Martha Ivers still delivers as a timeless classic directly addressing the twisted and unrequited desires of American developmentalism.  

19. Train to Busan/Seoul Station (2016, Blu Ray Region A, Plain Archive) 

Departing from my usual focus on the non-contemporary titles, I had to drop in a robust steelbook special edition release of one of the best-known recent Korean horror films, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, and its animated companion piece, Seoul Station. Beautifully designed, with an appropriate air of apocalyptic doom, this steelbook edition is loaded with supplementary materials set aside in a separate Blu Ray disc, spearheaded by two-part making-of documentary that covers practically every aspect of production, from the fascinating technical details on the very impressive zombie choreography and the special makeup effects for “Korean-style” zombies, particularly gruesome and fierce-looking. A typically dazzling release from Plain Archive, a feather in its cap is the soundtrack CD of Jang Yong-gyu’s vicious electronic scores for both films.  

18. Armageddon (1977, Blu Ray Region A, Kino Lorber/StudioCanal) 

 A surprising title in the Kino Lorber’s release of the French action-thriller-crime films handled by StudioCanal, Armageddon’s rather nondescript poster suggests a nuclear disaster film in the mold of The China Syndrome. In truth, it is a taut and thoughtful political thriller grappling with the extremely contemporary issue of the random crimes mediated through the media technology, chiefly TV. Jean Yanne plays a French repairman full of directionless ressentiment who, after inheriting an unexpected sum of large money, decides to transform himself into a media-hungry international terrorist. He develops a rapport with a criminal psychologist played by Alain Delon, who sees the former as more of a victim of modern social malaise than an evil monster. Director Alan Jessua, whose Shock Treatment also starring Delon anticipated the health craze and the attendant exploitation by the European elite of the formerly colonized population with equal prescience, provides a prophetic and exceedingly discomfiting portrait of a modern society addicted to TV programs and the spectacles of disaster and misery they provide. 

17. Delta Space Mission (1984, Blu Ray Region A, Deaf Crocodile Films) 

What a strange, weird yet charming little film (the running time is only 1 hour and 10 minutes). A hodgepodge of 2001: Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Star Trek and Barbarella, with dashes of Japanese anime and Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning kiddie shows, this Romanian animated space opera makes up for the repetitiveness and simplicity of some of its images with playful splashes of colors and amusingly contorting shapes of various creatures and robots. The film itself is fairly stolen by the heroine’s two-legged, stalk-eyed “dog” Tin, who munches on metal limbs of the enemy robots and does a finer job of protecting the alien heroine Alma than the two beefy Earthling agents. 

16. Edgar G. Ulmer Sci-Fi Collection (1951-1961, Blu Ray Region A, Kino Lorber) 

A trio of low-budget science fiction thrillers directed by Edgar G. Ulmer is curated together with excellent video and audio setups, even though all three titles (The Man from Planet X, Beyond the Time Barrier and The Amazing Transparent Man) are crammed into one disc. Despite the obvious limitations imposed on the production due to lack of resources and funding, these films are fascinating in their distinctive ways: poignantly critical and pessimistic about the technological progress on the one hand, and formulaic and rigorously genre-bound on the other. None of the films are frankly masterpieces, but it is nonetheless wonderful to have these titles accessible in such a handy package, all put into proper historical and artistic context in the multiple audio commentaries by the likes of Tom Weaver, Gary D. Rhodes, David Schecter, David Del Valle, the director Joe Dante and Edgar’s daughter Arianne Ulmer Cipes. 

15. The Burning Paradise (1994, Blu Ray Region A, Vinegar Syndrome) 

This is a rare treat, both in the sense that this Tsui Hark-produced and Ringo Lam-directed ‘90s update of a wu xia pian chestnut (apparently a box office disappointment in ‘94) has fallen into the cracks among the staked territories of cult fandoms of various stripes, and in the sense that its visual representation does not simply replicate the usual Celestial Pictures clean-up job of the classic kung fu cinema. Vinegar Syndrome in fact appended a quasi-apologetic disclaimer that suggests the film might not look as pristine as some fans might have hoped for, despite the extra efforts made by the company in restoring the visuals. In truth, this disc hosts one of the best-looking media presentations of a 20th-century Hong Kong film I have seen in some years, beautifully restoring to coherence the dark and sludgy scenes remembered from the VHS days and showcasing in loving detail the uber-schlocky yet undeniably entertaining production design (including the amusing but more-than-slightly scuzzy villain’s lair, adorned with booby traps obviously influenced by the Indiana Jones series). 

14. Out of the Blue (1980, Blu Ray Region A, Severin Films) 

Another item long remembered as a brutal and shocking discovery during the heydays of VHS rentals (when Video Watchdog and Fangoria used to rule), an extremely raw yet stunningly lyrical portrayal of a misshapen youth, played with utmost conviction by Linda Manz, growing up under a drug addict mother (Sharon Farrell) and awaiting the release from five-year jail sentence of her truck-driver father (Dennis Hopper, who also directs). A one-of-a-kind film that shares the despairing ‘80s ambience of the teens lost under the “care” of the drug- and alcohol-addled ‘60s parents with such notable works as Suburbia and Over the Edge, Out of the Blue (the title is a riff on a Neil Young song organically deployed in the film) is a motion picture ripe for rediscovery and reappreciation, with or without the cult attractions guaranteed by the late Manz and Hopper. The BFI Region B edition is also said to be top-class, but this unsung masterwork is represented in this list by the Region A Severin iteration, with a standalone Blu Ray disc fully devoted to supplements including extensive interviews with the surviving cast and crew. 

13. The Devil’s Trap (1961, Blu Ray Region Free, Second Run) 

Each year’s list cannot seemingly do without at least one recovered Eastern European classic, undeservedly obscure. The UK Second Run has been a great source for having access to these films and 2022 was no exception. To no one’s surprise, they had an amazing run of titles in the last year as well, including the Hungarian Masters collection, Karel Kachyňa’s Coach to Vienna and Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String. Selected for this list among them is an early film by the Czech master Frantisek Vláčil (Marketa Lazarova), an astonishing fable about ideological intolerance with a striking dosage of folk horror element: Evil Dead without zombies by way of Robert Bresson. Utterly unique and awe-inspiring in its depiction of the ultimate powerlessness of organized religion (and by inference, state ideology) against the mysteries of nature, The Devil’s Trap is presented in the Czech National Film Archive’s HD transfer that leaves something to be desired, but the edition more than makes up for it with a documentary on Vláčil, another docu on the theater exhibition of the Czech cinema circa 1962 and the typically meticulous liner notes by Peter Hames. 

12. Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror (1963-1966, Blu Ray Region Free, Arrow Video)

Expertly curated by the Arrow team, this collection of four black-and-white Italian Gothic melodramas tend to feature cobwebbed castle corridors and seductive femmes fatales who might or might not be supernatural, but they are also notable in the ways in which their philosophical objectives and genre identities diverge from one another. All have been impeccably restored and come with a bevy of supplements and extras: for me the standout is The Witch/La strega in amore by the socially conscious Damiano Damiani, with powerfully sensual performances by Rosanna Shiaffino and Sarah Ferrati. A boxset such as this definitely makes one realize, even after years of hounding out “lost” European genre cinema, there are still more treasures to be discovered. 

11. Shawscope Collection vol. 2 (1978-1993, Blu Ray Region A, Arrow Video) 

Arrow’s expert curation of the Shaw Brothers Hong Kong films continues in the much-anticipated sequel to its massive boxset released in 2021, now covering the popular martial arts films of ‘80s, spearheaded by one of the bona fide classics, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and its two rambunctious sequels. Fourteen films including the certifiably crazy Boxer’s Omen, The Martial Arts of Shaolin starring a very young Jet Li, The Bare-Footed Kid, Johnny To’s intriguingly contemporary Hong Kong mutation of a Toei yakuza potboiler and others are presented in top form with extensive supplements and commentaries. As was the case with the volume one boxset, having all these Hong Kong films in one package has the salutary effect of making me— ostensibly a historian by profession— appreciate the shifts in stylistics, aesthetics and the very conceptions of crowd-pleasing entertainment faced by the once-insanely prolific Hong Kong industry, in this period already haunted by a flash-forward into the post-Return era. 

10. House of Psychotic Women: Rarities Collection (1972-1985, Blu Ray Region A, Severin Films) 

Not to be outdone by Arrow, Severin Films came up with an even more amazingly diverse set of rare finds, united by the common vista of female protagonists dangerously swerving out of their connections with the reality as they know. The organizing intelligence is again Kier-La Janisse, whose book House of Psychotic Women is the basis for bringing together an Italian psychodrama Identikit with Elizabeth Taylor, Footsteps, another seldom-seen masterpiece depicting a highly personalized form of deconstruction of identity for the magnificent Florinda Bolkan, a somewhat ludicrous Polish horror-comedy I Like Bats and Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath, a genuinely disturbing chronicle of a feminist artist expressing her mental breakdown via cinematic imagery. Impossible to accurately describe in succinct, ad-friendly sentences, this boxset truly pushes the envelope in terms of making little-seen significant works often ignored by the academia and guardians of “art film” canons available to us. 

9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Blu Ray Region A, Warner Archive Collection) 

Warner Brother’s Archive collection, too, keeps releasing desirable classic titles on Blu Ray steadily and shows little sign of slowing down as of 2022. The Frederic March-starring pre-Production Code version of the Robert Louis Stephenson story now receives a much-needed Blu Ray treatment with superlatively clean video and robust audio, that properly showcases Rouben Mamoulian’s ingenious direction and Karl Strauss’s expressive cinematography. March’s iteration of Mr. Hyde, a grotesquely simian rogue with a crooked, twitchy grin, is almost like an animated cartoon in its physical expressionism (when the good doctor transforms into Hyde for the first time, he stretches his upper body like a man shucking a strait jacket and growls, “Free at last!”), recalling, of all mythical figures, the Monkey King from the Chinese epic Journey to the West. The edition comes with two expert commentaries by Steve Haberman, Constantine Nasr and Greg Mank. 

8. Symphony for a Massacre (1963, Blu Ray Region A, Cohen Media Group). 

While many post-1945 film noir titles can be argued to properly belong to a different genre, this title is identified as a caper film but is a thoroughly authentic film noir, much more so than at least two titles in the French Noir Collection mentioned below. Five crooks of varying levels of wealth and social status make a risky deal involving a large shipment of narcotics between Paris and Marseille, but one of them, Christian Jabeke (Jean Rochefort) is planning to snatch the dough away from right under their noses and is more than willing to commit murder to do so. Methodical and elegant, Symphony for a Massacre beats with a pitch-black heart that calmly observes the deadly twists and turns of the plot, generating a totally contradictory impulses in the viewers to root for the dastardly Jabeke to be caught and get his just desserts, and for him to succeed in outsmarting his fellow criminals and get away with the loot. The ending, while not entirely unpredictable, is like a perfect ironical punctuation to this confection with a bitter licorice core, garnished with a light-footed ‘60s score by Michel Magne. 

7. The Kaiser of California (1936, Blu Ray Region A, Kino Lorber) 

The F.W. Murnau-Stiftung collection, represented stateside by Kino Lorber, has yielded for North American viewers some of the most interesting silent-era/pre-Second World War German-language titles in recent memory. The Kaiser of California is, even among these titles, a mind-boggling film, a Nazi production from 1936 starring and directed by Luis Trenker which also happens to be the granddaddy of the insanely prolific German Western genre (all set in the American West, the most famous examples of which are adaptations of the Karl May Winnetou novels), but also a lusciously photographed “spiritual” odyssey that connects to the Bergfilme (1926’s Der heilige Berg is the best known example, starring Leni Riefenstahl and the auteur behind the present title, Trenker) genre. It is magnificent to look at and is endlessly fascinating in its conception of the American West as vast swaths of untamed nature, whereupon Trenker’s superhuman heroism, as the historical John Sutter (born Johann August Sutter in Switzerland), could unfold for our edification and sublime appreciation. An amazing film that could inspire an endless series of discussion among students if shown in either a cinema or a historical studies class. 

6. The Bitter Stems (1956, Blu Ray Region Free, Flicker Alley) 

So here is the second “cheat” item in the present list, in the sense that The Bitter Stems is technically a 2021 release. But when I caught up with it only in the last year and it left such a strong impression on me I just could not drop it from the list. Los tallos amargos is a 1956 Argentinian film noir restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive and Film Noir Foundation, and is one of the most astonishing discoveries I have made on Blu Ray: a stunning, authentic film noir with, again, a powerful invocation of the historical connection drawn between Latin America and Europe’s troublesome recent past as well as a morally compromised reporter protagonist (Carlos Cores) at turns despicable and sympathetic. 

5. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 80s Kadokawa Years (1981-1986, Blu Ray Region B, third window films) 

This collection really threw me for a loop. The recently departed Obayashi Nobuhiko is certainly one of the most underappreciated Japanese master filmmakers, with such amazing titles as House (which gained much recognition stateside due to its release as a Criterion Collection title), Chizuko’s Younger Sister, Beijing Watermelon and SADA under his belt. Yet, he was also one of the most commercially successful film directors in early ‘80s, widely perceived as the period in which the Japanese cinema had deteriorated most severely, colonized by the TV sensibility. In fact, this beautifully put-together boxset gathers together some of Obayashi’s most notorious collaborations with the publisher maverick Kadokawa Haruki (also a haiku poet, a filmmaker and later a Shinto priest) which headlined teen “idol” stars such as Yakushimaru Hiroko and Harada Tomoyo. These films are, well, an acquired taste, to say the least, and are almost surrealistic mixtures of inventive filmmaking (whose stylistics go all the way back to the silent cinema), diabetes-inducing saccharine yet ultra-sincere sentimentality and infantile romanticism. The most famous examples of these, The School in Crosshairs with Yakushimaru and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time with Harada, are beguiling in their nostalgic charms but are, as Ren Scateni’s liner note correctly points out, suffused with a surprising sense of melancholy and loss. A thoroughly disarming collection that nonetheless is a valuable archive of a period in Japanese popular culture, now appreciable for the origin point of much of what transpires today in Japanese cinema, music and TV. 

4. French Noir Collection (1957-1959, Blu Ray Region A, Kino Lorber) 

A surprise mini-boxset that adds fuel to the argument that the French nouvelle vague had been one of the more overrated cinematic movements in history, considering the high quality of the “ordinary” French genre films that were being churned out by the likes of Jacques Deray, Jacques Becker and Edouard Molinaro. This collection includes an impeccably remastered titles, the pitch-black Back to the Wall with the magnificent Jeanne Moreau (right on the heels of her star turn in Louis Malles’ Elevator to the Gallows) in a Cornell Woolrich-worthy story of cruel irony and indirect moral retribution, a powerful and gritty urban noir Witness to the City starring the stone-faced Lino Ventura and featuring the superb nighttime cinematography by Henri Decae, and Speaking of Murder with Jean Gabin, Marcel Bozuffi and Ventura, a taught and efficient crime thriller reminiscent of a Hollywood Edward G. Robinson vehicle. Regrettably there are no commentaries or other academic analyses, but in terms of the “pleasant surprise” quotient, this set is top-ranked for this year. 

2-3. The Phantom of the Monastery/La Llorona (1933-1934, Blu Ray Region Free, Powerhouse Indicator) 

Powerhouse Indicator is represented in this list by these two titles, which I have included as a set, as they are best appreciated as a pair. These are Mexican horror films of 1930s, seemingly in the mold of Universal horrors yet are philosophically, stylistically and thematically entirely distinct. La Llorona absolutely fascinates in an oft-told narrative of a wailing female ghost, provocatively invoking the colonial history of Latin America. The Phantom of the Monastery is a cerebral, almost metaphysical horror, again with a connection to the real-life history of religious institutions. Not surprisingly, the Indicator sets come with massive compilations of video supplements as well as booklets with substantial academic essays on the resistance by the Mexican cinema against the classic Hollywood style and the folkloric dimensions of the La Llorona figure. 

1. A Fugitive from the Past (1965, Blu Ray Region A, Arrow Video) 

And perhaps not surprisingly for those who have been following my blogs, My Favorite Blu Ray of 2022 goes to Arrow Video’s remastered release of perhaps the most significant masterpiece from the Golden Age Japanese cinema virtually unknown in English language, Uchida Tomu’s epic cinematic adaptation of Minakami Tsutomu’s equally epic novel Straits of Starvation. I hope to devote a full review to this disturbing, heartbreaking and brilliant motion picture in the near future. Here it would suffice to note that Arrow’s presentation, in addition to bringing back the 183-minute original cut, comes with the authoritative commentaries and introductions from a bevy of Japanese cinema scholars, including Aaron Gerow, Jasper Sharp, Earl Jackson, Daisuke Miyao and Alexander Zahlten. 

As before, let me express my gratitude toward the labels and companies who continue to devote their time and energy to excavating and releasing the classic cinema: Severin Films, Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Cohen Media, Vinegar Syndrome, Warner Archive Collection, Powerhouse Indicator, Plain Archive and many others who worked on the equally splendid discs that for various reasons did not make the list. Additional showers of gratitude to ever-reliable online reviewers, again led by DVD Savant and Mondo Digital, and including DVD Beaver, Blu-ray.com and other sites. A special word of thanks to Mondo Digital and the Patreon-sponsored DVD Beaver collections of screenshots, that supplied a few of the screenshots I have employed above. 

2023 is promising to be a year in which more travel on my part and visitations from loved ones are likely in store. Here is hoping that it will also bring more and more occasions of exciting and surprising new discoveries (and re-discoveries) of the “old” films on the physical media!