2017년 1월 16일 월요일

My Favorite Twenty Blu Rays of 2016

It has been a couple of years since I have discontinued the year-end (more truthfully, the next-year-beginning) list of My Favorite DVDs and Blu Rays. That is, the English language list. The Korean language one, catered to the Korean-speaking consumers, cinephiles and fans of genre cinema, has been going on without break, although it always threatens to get delayed until at least mid-January of next year: those interested can find it here.  Well, it is now, as a matter of fact, mid-January of 2017, and I am right smack in the middle of perhaps one of the busiest Januarys I have ever experienced in my twenty-plus-year teaching career.  All signs indicate that I should just give it up and move on to my day job, but something about this year being 2017, coming at the heels of one of the most stupendously terrifying year, politically and intellectually speaking, made me extra defiant and foolhardy.  Since the politics of the world, and especially the United States, is so distressing and gloomy, I find it more necessary than usual to stick to the "meaningless" habits and commitments such as this list, just to remind myself that I am still here, and the ugly and dumb shit happening in the realm of politics has not affected (not yet, anyway) the amazing proliferation of classic, cult and genre films in the physical media.  The United States may go down the sinkhole with the orange lardball at its helm, but its appreciation of classic cinema worldwide certainly shows no sign of flagging. 

Industry wags have been predicting the death of optic discs for many years by now, at least more than a decade, and it is true that streaming and VOD services are now mainstream means through which most people in industrialized nations watch cinema.  And yet, this did not spell the death of DVDs and Blu Rays.  While Blu Rays, with its superior 1080p resolution and lossless soundtrack, have not replaced DVDs in the manner the latter have done with VHS tapes, contrary to general predictions, an increasing number of important and rare titles are coming out in Blu Rays, sometimes in "dual format" packages, which seems to be the industry's way of hedging the bets.  As a college professor who has insisted as early as 2007 all my laptops be equipped with a Blu Ray drive, I am quite happy with this development. 

Approximately 23 percent of the titles I have purchased in 2016 were DVDs.  Many of them are fascinating, unusual and/or academically significant titles, such as the classic Korean animation film Hong Kil-dong (Korean Film Archive), but the 2016 list in the end ended up being limited to Blu Rays.  Even then, it was a near-impossible task to limit the number of choices to twenty.  (I freely confess to cheating, of course, and including two items here that I had to leave out in the Korean-language list, and vice versa) 

A few words should be spent on the titles that did not make it into the list.  Foremost among them is the British Film Institute's Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989), a truly awe-inspiring collection of seven Blu Ray and DVD discs that covers the two decades of the experimental, resolutely avant-garde and sometimes almost viciously political video/film works of Alan Clarke, covering all the imaginable genres and styles, from SF to literary dramas to Swiftian political satires to unnerving psychological thrillers to documentaries.  It is only not included in my selection for the entirely absurd reason-- I freely admit how absurd it is-- that it somehow felt inappropriate, or more honestly, inadequate, to term this package one of "My Favorite" titles of the last year.  There were also two powerhouse BR titles that I have purchased from Japan, Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Creepy and Tsukamoto Shin'ya's Fires on the Plain, that would have made the list in ordinary years, but there was a strong pull toward keeping the list only with "old" movies.  This also is a small, probably pointless, resistance against the Japanese practice of keeping their Blu Ray discs stubbornly domestically confined.  I am gonna say it again, they should learn from Koreans, and put English subtitles into the titles that they know are going to be bought by "foreigners."  I won't complain about the ridiculous prices they put on their discs: all I ask is, eigo no jimaku, irenasai.  OK? 

As the designation "My Favorite" should make it loudly clear, you, the reader, should not entertain any illusion that the following list encompasses in any way more than a tiny fraction of all the amazingly restored, beautifully packaged and/or unfairly ignored Blu Ray releases available out there. The days when a few savvy supercollectors could be on top of the most of the key releases of classical, cult and outré cinema in DVDs and Blu Rays out there, have been gone for a few years already. 

As Koreanfilm.org's own Jiro Hong aptly points out in his own year's end list, Arrow Video's Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection, including twelve of his major films, some of which released for the first time in Blu Ray, beautifully transferred and chock full of supplements as expected, did not even make it in the 100 top releases aggregate list compiled by DVD Beaver.  That's not top 10 you just misread.  So, for anyone to come down and say, "Hey, why is Criterion's Naked Island not included in your list?" all I can do is, shrug.  I could give you a number of reasons but there are probably five other titles just as worthy that did not make it in my list.  And there are whole bunch out there that I am not even aware of.

Nevertheless, I am compelled to caution you one more time, this is not a "cinephile's" or even "film critic's" inventory of the Great Masterpiece Released in the Blu Ray Medium in 2016 at all. This list is as personal as it could get, so the actual "quality" or a film's status as a world classic or critic's darling has little to do with why it is included here.  And that's all the reason you will get for explaining why certain world classics appearing in Blu Ray for the first time-- Tarkovskys, Kieslowskys, Fassbinders-- are not included (although given my propensity, if Solaris had been out as a Blu Ray for the first time in 2016, it probably would have made it to the roster). 

Shall we then move onto the list?  The weekend is already half-gone and there are many tasks to be completed, so do forgive me for keep cracking the riding crop. One package, regardless of the actual number of discs, is treated as one title.  I have confined myself to the titles physically released in 2016.   

20. The Sect (1991, Shameless, Region B)

This Italian horror opus is one of those kinds of movies that tend to survive in your hazy memory as fragments of surreal imagery, simultaneously incongruously beautiful and bizarrely grotesque.  San Francisco's Le Video used to supply more than its share of grey market or legit VHS titles that, years later, makes you severely doubt the veracity of your movie memories, if not your sanity. The Sect, it turns out, is a fairly coherent and intriguing variation on the theme of Rosemary's Baby, but like Michele Soavi's companion piece, the ultra-Gothic The Church, seems to spring forth from a particular adolescent nightmare world, obsessed with clockwork mechanisms and snow globes, and overrun by the inscrutable Fallen Ones that sometimes assume the guise of avian creatures.  The Sect here represents "Did I really see that movie?" constituency of My Favorite items, masterminded by Shameless (not always reliable, but doing fine here) in an eye-pleasing, colorful HD transfer, with the options of Italian and English audio tracks, and a nice, relaxed interview (in English!) with director Soavi.

19.  Lone Wolf and Cub (1972- 1974, Criterion Collection, Region A)

I am frankly not a big fan of the original comic book series by Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki, due to its indulgence in borderline fascist aesthetics. The TV and cinematic adaptations, however, while hardly making any visible effort to "de-feudalize" characters, tend to humanize the anti-hero Ogami Itto (who comes off in the comics as a humorless hardass with disgustingly self-serving rationalization ready for every act of back-stabbing or sadistic killing, even overt exploitation of the vulnerability of his own infant son to kill his-- much more compassionate-- opponents) and his enemies, the Yagyu family, the heads of which had served as Tokugawa shogun's "fencing instructors." (I love this completely inappropriate English transliteration)  Perhaps not as comprehensive and ultimately rewarding as Criterion's Zatoichi collection, the six films from the Lone Wolf and Cub series are nonetheless starkly efficient, viciously entertaining programmers that should belong to the shelves of any self-respecting chanbara fan.  Criterion's package of course includes Shogun Assassin (1980), a cleverly edited compendium of violent highlights from the series with a hilariously "mythical" claptrap "plot" threaded through them.

18. Crimes of Passion (1984, Arrow Video, Region A & B)

I remember catching this ultra-challenging '80s concoction by Ken Russell in a local movie theater, with the predominantly male crowd expecting something in the order of Basic Instinct or Showgirl.  Needless to say, they were befuddled and disappointed.  I still to this day remain not quite sure if this outrageous and massively un-PC exegesis on the sexual habits and hypocrisies (really?) of '80s America is meant to be taken entirely seriously.  "China Blue" certainly remains Kathleen Turner's most daring role, and she is absolutely mesmerizing in it, which I guess is more than enough to recommend this title. Just do not expect something safely sleazy that you can snicker at while munching on the popcorns. Serious or not, this film still can deliver a sucker-punch to your solar plexus when least expected.

Arrow Video's aggressive, full-neon, visual-assault packaging is highly appropriate for this particular title.

17. 10 Rillington Place (1970, Columbia Pictures/Twilight Time, Region A)

 A film that should come with a warning label that states, "Do not watch on a gloomy day," 10 Rillington Place is one half of the serial killer-themed films directed by Richard Fleischer lodged in this list.  Aside from their dispassionate, non-sensationalistic approach to the sordid subject matters, there are little stylistic similarities between them.  This film, with some location photography done on the actual sites of serial murder, presents one of the most perplexingly monstrous serial murderers in cinema history, played by Richard Attenborough as a completely nondescript steamed bun of a man, cowardly lethal yet disgustingly believable in his easy dominance over the less educated and privileged members of the postwar British society.  However, the film's great emotional impact owes much to John Hurt's devastating performance as a less-than-intelligent husband of the murder victim, whose horrendous fate under the British legal system is unbearable to watch.

A film that deserves much greater reputation but is so effective that it is likely to elicit repulsion instead of admiration, Twilight Time's Blu Ray release of 10 Rillington Place is thankfully outfitted with highly informative commentaries by Hurt and Judy Geeson.

16. Try and Get Me! (1950, Paramount Pictures/Olive Films, Region A)

Try and Get Me!, an early effort by the American expatriate filmmaker Cy Endfield (Zulu, The Sands of Kalahari), beats out many competitions to climb up to this position. Lloyd Bridges is exceptional as the swaggering, sweating petty crook whose harebrained schemes ensnare an ordinary Joe Arthur Lovejoy in a series of gas station robberies, and finally a kidnap and a murder. Sharply observed characters run headlong toward a horrific disaster, propelled by mob mentality and corporate sensationalism in media reporting: the film has lost none of its searing intensity and unfortunately more relevant than ever today, where so many seemingly pine for "The Great America" wherein mob lynching was an accepted form of "justice." The fact that it is based on a true story, that had taken place in San Jose, only an hour's drive from where I currently reside, only adds to the chill.  

15. The Reflecting Skin (1990, Soda Pictures, Region B)

One of those famed fantasy/horror films impossible to catch in any decent form, The Reflecting Skin finally makes it into Blu Ray with its Andrew Wyeth-inspired, super-gorgeous cinematography intact.  The young Vigo Mortensen stars as a returning soldier slowly dying from radiation poisoning, and his young, imaginative brother is led to believe his condition results from vampirism practiced by a mentally unstable, perpetually sunglass-wearing widow next door.  Set in a highly artificial, golden-wheatfield-canvassed fantasyland resembling 1940s Idaho, The Reflecting Skin is like an enigmatic painting that vividly comes alive, both sadly transient and hypnotically beautiful.   

14. Female Prisoner Scorpion Complete Collection (1972-1974, Arrow Video, Region B)

Arrow Video's transfer of these films have been subject to some internet complaints and indeed, the color scheme may not reproduce the eye-popping primary color hues of, for instance, the old Image DVD edition of Female Prisoner #407: Scorpion, which was one of the early DVD titles drafted to showcase the dramatic difference between a DVD and a VHS tape in terms of color reproduction.  While the "blue-green" orientation is not as damaging as in the case of, say, Mario Bava's Whip and the Body, it is no doubt disturbing to some who suspect a form of revisionist color timing (whether this is indeed such an act of revisionism seems open to question at this juncture).  Nonetheless, this boxset, lovingly curating all four films in the stoic Kaji Meiko-strarring Toei exploitation series, is a good example of Arrow Video's commitment to the Japanese cult cinema.  The archival values of the supplementary documentaries and such are surprisingly high.  

13. Cutter's Way (1981, Twilight Time, Region A)

Having lived in California Bay Area now for twenty years makes me appreciate more and more the largely forgotten or still underappreciated films of '70s and '80s that depict the outwardly beach-party-happy, consumerist-lifestyle-indulging West Coast inhabitants wholly inadequately dealing with the post-Watergate, post-Viet Nam U.S. society and the death of the alleged '60s idealism.  The more U.S. history you study, the more this idealism looks like a thin layer of ideological makeup applied by the cultural elite to the faces reflecting the much more disturbing social realities. There are lessons in dem dang movies that the Millennials could do well to learn. 

Those who champion Cutter's Way tends towards an allegorical, social-critical reading of the film, as superbly represented by Julie Kirgo's liner notes for this Twilight Time release, but for me, the film's broken-spirit, sad ambience, immensely helped by Jack Nietzsche's near-experimental score, and anchored in beautiful performances of John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, and Jeff Bridges, is what has always haunted me for years.  Now presented in what is doubtlessly the closest approximation to its theatrical experience in TT's HD Blu Ray, Cutter's Way is the film that deserves much better reputation, released in the era wherein Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People were considered the apex of truthful American filmmaking.

12. The Night Visitor (1971, VCI Entertainment, Region A)

The hardscrabble DVD labels such as VCI and Mill Creek always deserve my support. No star labels such as Arrow or Criterion will ever release a little obscurity like The Night Visitor, a motion picture that I only recollect, albeit extremely vividly, as a black & white late night feature caught at the AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) channel.  What is it?  Well, it's a murder mystery, one of those works wherein a psychotic killer nonetheless builds a foolproof alibi for himself, and goes on to commit violent revenges against those who wronged him-- except that it is location-filmed in the snow-bound rural areas of Denmark, and stars Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Per Oscarsson. Trevor Howard plays a stalwart and prudent police inspector challenged by the seemingly unsolvable puzzle of Sydow's escape from a mental asylum built literally like a medieval castle.  Cold, vicious, suspenseful, complete with a nasty scorpion's sting of an ending: hooray for VCI for quenching the thirst of this old Korean movie fan in a most unexpected way.

11. The Boston Strangler (1968, Twilight Time, Region A)

The other half of the Richard Fleischer-directed serial killer film in the present list, The Boston Strangler is the best evidence for the claim that any avant-garde, experimental cinematic style or technique can be appropriated for the objectives of storytelling and character-building.  The techniques in this case are impressively mounted split-screen montages that also make full use out of the widescreen aspect ratio, as well as strikingly "subjective" visuals that re-tell stories of murder from the viewpoint of the premier suspect, Albert De Salvo (Tony Curtis, wearing a practically invisible fake nose).  It's the kind of dazzlingly cinematic piece that ironically could have been made only by Hollywood veterans.

10. Oldboy (2003, PLAIN Archive, Region A)

Despite its unshakable reputation as the most influential and best known work among the New Korean Cinema, Oldboy has been subject to numerous controversies regarding its representation in the DVD/Blu Ray media. PLAIN Archive's collector's edition comes as close as humanly possible at this juncture to have the final word in this regard, with the director- and cinematographer-approved remastered transfer and collecting practically all supplementary materials made in Korea about the film (PLAIN claims bonus features in totality clock at nine hours and thirty-seven minutes […]).

Perhaps the biggest attraction, aside from the mind-boggling packaging that hark back to the days of exquisite collector's edition DVDs South Korean labels used to release in early 2000s, is Old Days, a new documentary looking back at the making of the film as well as its worldwide impact, directed by Han Sun-hee, that incorporates extremely valuable raw footages.  And the whole thing is very English-friendly.

9. Flight of the Pheonix (1965, Eureka! Masters of Cinema, Region B)

Robert Aldrich's "adventure film" is one of those genres American male filmmakers excel at: a group of ornery individualists with divergent expertise nonetheless collaborating with one another to accomplish an impossible objective.  Except that, in the hands of Aldrich, there is just a threat of uncontrolled fury and psychosis as well as pitch-black cynicism lurking beneath its reassuringly masculine exterior.  James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Hardy Kruger are all excellent but it is the sometimes surprising and heartbreaking fates of supporting characters-- Ernest Borgnine cracking under pressure, Peter Finch both tragically and stupidly remaining unaware that how much his inferior (Ronald Fraser) has come to resent military discipline-- that remain with you long after the film is over.  Gloomy and pessimistic about (masculine) human nature and at the same time a defiant celebration of the human capacity for greatness, Flight of the Pheonix receives a modestly colorful but sharply intelligent treatment from the British Eureka! Masters of Cinema. 

8. A Touch of Zen (1971, Criterion Collection, Region A)

Two Asian films included in this list are quite famous on their own, but again, few among those I know have actually seen these films in the best possible mode of presentation.  I was totally absorbed into this King Hu's masterpiece as the camera panoramically, poetically pans across the mountains and the rivers, as if to announce that this is the nature upon which we, puny men, struggle to leave our traces of inconsequential existence. "Spiritual" in the sense that is very easy to misconstrue, especially for those fans of wu xia pian who want their martial arts/kung fu films to remain supreme exaltations of bodily skills and nothing more or less, A Touch of Zen is beautifully curated by Criterion Collection, which indeed could spend some more time reaching out to Asian films outside of the established Japanese classics.

7. Belladonna of Sadness (1973, Cinelicious Pictures, Region A)

One of the biggest surprises of 2016, it is always with a measure of joy and trepidation that I welcome the release of classic Japanese animation. Produced under the adverse circumstances when Tezuka Osamu's Mushi Productions were going under, Belladonna of Sadness, based on a novel by historian Jules Michelet and based on boldly European-psychedelic illustrations of Fukai Kuni, is a shocking work of art: belligerently exploitative, offensive, archly beautiful, graceful and the emotions it arouses in its viewers are too complex to be parsed out in one viewing.

Warning: its animated visuals could be as transgressive as anything, say, Eastern European Extreme Cinema is producing today, so approach it with caution.  To give you just one example, when the protagonist Jeanne is raped, her body literally splits into two ragged pieces, like a red fruit bisected by a careless harvester: one of the most shocking visual renditions of sexual violence I have ever seen in my life.  Yet you can mount a very convincing argument that this is a proto-feminist work of art that single-handedly atones for all the objectifications of female body in the countless works of anime.  Sublime.

6. Carnival of Souls (1962, Criterion Collection, Region A)

One of those films that depicts with preternatural accuracy what it is like to be caught in an unending nightmare, this regional horror film by a group of talented industrial/education film specialists has not only survived the test of time but for me remains one of the essential reference points for visualization of the uncanny in the cinematic medium.  Lucky you who has never gazed your eyes on this little wondrous scarefest until now… for Criterion's Blu Ray is leaps and bounds superior to even their packed-to-the-gills DVD releases of some years ago.

5. Chimes at Midnight (1965, Criterion Collection, Region A) 

In retrospect, the most astonishing thing about Chimes at Midnight is the dismissive pooh-poohing it got from mainstream critics when Orson Welles released it as a cinematic adaptation of his 1960 theatrical play at Dublin, Ireland.  What were they thinking: that Wells's filming of John Gielgud's magnificent renderings of Henry IV was not cinematic enough?  You really don't need to know Shakespeare to appreciate the sheer cinematic razzle-dazzle that went into this production, highlighted by the frenetic battle sequence as brilliant as anything Wells filmed for The Citizen Kane. But in the end, you are haunted by the tears of joy mixed with heart-rending disappointment in the eyes of Falstaff, an enormous, literally and figuratively larger­-than-life being, as he is ultimately rejected by the newly crowned Henry V: a romantic soul who foresaw with absolute, tragic clarity that the modern world had no room for someone like him. 

Criterion's release of this film and the equally sorrowful adaptation of an Isak Dinesen story, The Immortal Story (1968), bring a closure of sorts to the rehabilitation of Welles's later filmography as brilliant works of art that they are.

4. A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Criterion Collection, Region A) 

          The oft-discussed but seldom-seen masterwork of Edward Yang, who tragically left us at the age of 59, which combines an epic scope of a great American multigenerational saga and painful intimacy of a Neorealist film essay in a thoroughly inimitable and inexplicable way, is finally available in its four hour entirety, without a bathroom break, resplendently restored to its golden twilight hues and awkwardly authentic, dubbed voices of child actors.  Those who expect something like In the Mood for Love going in will be shocked by how much the movie feels "American" and the way the honest emotions of the characters creep under your skin. 

3. The Lion in Winter (1968, Studio Canal, Region B)

I have always loved this devilishly intelligent costume drama but including this film in this list is also my way of protesting the ideologically puerile and disgustingly unimaginative ways Korean filmmakers and viewers treat their "historical dramas." Fusion sageuk my ass!  The country in which movies like Roaring Currents or Sado are considered "authentic" representation of "real" history will never, never, never be able to make something in the order of The Lion in Winter.  Someday, a talented Korean screenwriter will write a screenplay as witty, intelligent, modern and humanistic as James Goldman's for this film about, say, King Taejong's succession problem with three sons (one of which is eventually crowned as the Great King Sejong), and it will reach the screen without "revisions" by meddling, self-important ajeossi directors and producers.  Until then-- and I hope that happens before I die--, let me enjoy this masterwork of a historical drama, featuring supremely affecting, earthbound performances from Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.

2. Gilda (1946, Criterion Collection, Region A)

Primarily known for its iconic imagery of Rita Hayworth caught in the perfect pin-up moment, as the cascade of her hair gleaming in the lighting as she broadly smiles at the camera, Gilda for me is that one type of movie bubbling out of the pool every year to remind me that there is something fundamentally attractive about classic American films, especially films noirs, that defies explanation, analysis and rationalization.  In the last three years, I have come to see Glenn Ford, more than James Stewart or Gary Cooper, as the face of American Joe, and appreciate how complex and unarticulated emotions squirm under that beguilingly handsome countenance, ever so sweating slightly, with just a glint of craziness quickly suppressed in his eyes. Despite the studio-imposed "happy" ending, Gilda remains just as much a heavy, cinematic trip for me as a Tarkovsky film is. And that's the truth, Ruth.

1. Women in Love (1969, British Film Institute, Region B)

And Gilda would have taken the position of the number one Blu Ray title of 2016, even against the pressures exerted by the cinematic giants such as Chimes at Midnight, A Brighter Summer Day and The Lion in Winter, except that my heart was stolen by this Ken Russell adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel.  And yes, I shamefully confess, watching this Blu Ray was the first time I have seen this film.

Words literally fail me in trying to describe why I find this movie stabbing my guts and wrapping itself around my heart like no other motion picture I have seen last year, except to note that all pre-digested "information" about the film was utterly useless when confronted with the real thing.  Even that notorious all-nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed was… so amazing.  It was massively erotic, beyond belief, yes.  And also it was… joyous: gay, in the all possible meanings of the word.  My lord, the entire movie was like that.   And Glenda Jackson… why do these British actresses, Vanessa Redgrave, and now her, seem to be so effortlessly traversing in the realm of Godhood?

And so comes to a close My Favorite Blu Rays of 2016. Here's kudos to all the great titles that I have missed out, watched but did not discuss and watched and loved but just had to drop from the list for utterly arbitrary reasons, and the labels-- Criterion, Arrow, Twilight Time, Shout Factory, BFI, Kino Lorber, Olive Films, VCI, Shameless, Synapse, Vinegar Syndrome, Severin-- who keep churning them out year after year. Happy New Year to all of you, and you folks out there who share my taste, my love for the classic cinema of all types!  Happy Blu Ray and DVD hunting in the Year of the Rooster, and hopefully I will be back in January 2018 with another bountiful list!