Whew, it was particularly tough to even get to this point, what with my health issues and an insanely busy academic year (2018-2019) during which I am trying to complete my second book (there has been some progress, thank God, but an irritatingly slow one). I thought about giving up writing this list many times, but somehow I have persisted, parceling out time and energy. This January, the annual ritual served as a reminder to me that just how much I am devoted to watching and collecting motion pictures, or more precisely, the practice of archiving, appreciating and rediscovering “old” movies. It is now clearer than ever that there is no real difference between this often crazy-seeming obsession of an old fou de cinema and my commitment to researching often obscure and non-popular historical questions and issues. They spring from the same, or at least very closely interconnected, impulse, and they often provide the same kind of intense pleasure that probably mean little to those who have not realized that every artifact with the human labor and reflection invested therein has a lasting value.
Not surprisingly, the following Twenty-Five Favorite Blu Rays list includes, without any conscious design on my part, those items that reconfirm a historian's appreciation of the continued relevance of cinematic arts, whether they are Criterion’s jaw-dropping 39 film boxset of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic oeuvre, or Woodfall’s magnificent compendium of social realist classics that changed the British (and World) cinema in its process of reckoning with the permanent social and cultural changes wrought by the Second World War. Needless to say, this list reflects the particular biases of a Korean-born, US-residing academic who has been teaching in a Californian public university for 22 years, but I doubt that it is any more or less “provincial” than a similar one put together in South Korea now by a younger cinephile hell-bent on proving that the Korean cinematéque system allows him to have access to all the great works of world cinema. I mean, all the power to him. But I yam what I yam and dat’s what I yam, and there ain’t gonna be no accommodation for the cinephilic taste in dis dang list. Ya hear?
I will cut down the usual ranting regarding the continued relevance of the physical media (specifically optic discs such as DVDs, Blu Rays and now 4K Ultra HD discs), except to just mention that all the supplicating oohs and ahs at the advances of streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon have been tempered by the awareness on the part of the consumers and producers that the physical media fulfills an important, perhaps even essential, function in keeping the “old” movies, TV shows, educational materials and other visual artifacts in circulation. The unusually strong sense of outrage evinced by many, including the high-profile “creatives” such as Guillermo Del Toro on Twitter and other venues, following the untimely demise of FilmStruck, seamlessly flowed into the observation that the streaming services are not reliable, especially as regards the titles the corporate bodies consider "less commercially viable," based on whatever algorithms they happen to rely on.
And many have given the prognosis that Netflix will anytime soon abandon its lowly origins as a “DVD rental service” (remember their original sales pitch: “no late fees, keep them with you as long as you please?”), but sorry Mac, that ain't has happened yet either. In fact, I am one of those “dinosaur” clients who still rent Blu Ray discs from Netflix via, that's right, snail mail. Not to mention that they are now being advised to release their unique contents on Blu Ray, the argument that I wholeheartedly support. At the very least, one thing is absolutely reassured: we will see as many crazily desirable and mind-bendingly rare titles released on Blu Ray in 2019 as we did in the last year.
As per every year, a disclaimer: the following list is not a list of "best" movies represented in BD last year, however you might define "best." Neither does it represent a list of the most impressive restorations, rescue jobs and/or transfers. The included items have only one thing in common: they were astonishing titles that gave me the pleasure and shock of discovery and re-discovery, or otherwise punched me in the gut, making me realize that the world of cinema has no boundaries except those defined by your imagination. The reasons for their inclusion are intensely personal, and I let my emotional responses-- a wallop in my stomach, tears flowing from my eyes, barks of disbelieving laughter inadvertently escaping from my throat-- rather than intellectual calibrations serve as my ultimate judge.
All right then, let's delve into the 2018 list. I have already completed a Korean-language version and those who had read that version will notice that the selections here are slightly different. That comes with the territory: the English and Korean lists cater to different constituents, at least theoretically.
25. The Addiction (1995, Arrow Video- Region A)
The redoubtable Abel Ferrara has been well represented in the new HD disc-dom, what with labels such as Drafthouse Films and Arrow Video devoting their resources to the special editions of his arthouse pulp classics such as Ms. 45, Driller Killers and The King of New York, but this rarely seen black and white vampire film is a true sight to behold in the immaculately remastered 4K scan of the original camera negative.
The movie itself is top-heavy and a little pretentious but it does generate a surprising frisson of spiritual despair and genuine horror in its exploration of parallelism between addictive behavior (not just to drugs, although that angle is there for viewers to clearly see) and bloodsucking. Arrow’s presentation, perhaps not surprisingly, adds a whole new dimension to the experience of watching this rather beautiful-looking, if not openly glamorous, film, with a stupendous New York-based cast, headlined by Lili Taylor and including Anabella Sciorra, Kathryn Erbe, Edie Falco, Paul Calderon and, of course, Christopher Walken.
In terms of design sensibility, technical know-how, and any other issue of qualification, South Korean physical media companies such as PLAIN Archive and Blue Kino can produce top-of-the-line titles that would make BD collectors in any country salivate over. The only problem I have is that they are not releasing the classic titles fast enough.
Ieodo, one of the marvelous Kim Ki-young's highest regarded works, has been painstakingly restored in HD for this release by Korean Film Archive. Yet it will never look as pristine or colorful as we would have liked, as the film was produced and put together under the extremely trying conditions toward the tail end of Park Chung-hee's military dictatorship, and the qualities of technical resources available to Kim fluctuated wildly. Still, the motion picture itself is a mind-boggling treat, a shamanistic arthouse mystery cum horror film, complete with one necrophilic sex scene that will make any jaundiced cult movie fan's jaw drop to the floor. As per a Korea-produced DVD/BD item, the whole package is extremely English-friendly, with all supplementary materials including the notable critic Jeong Seong-il's commentary track equipped with English subs (except for a thick reprint of the film's original screenplay by Ha Yoo-sang, which is in Korean only).
23. La morte ha fatto l'uovo (1967, Nucleus Films- Region B)
Notorious as one of the most bizarre examples of an already considerably crackpot genre, Italian murder mystery a.k.a. giallo films, Death Laid an Egg has long been a hotly requested item as a remastered release in the HD format among the cognoscenti of the unusual, the weird and the outlandish. In 2017, Cult Epics finally released a Blu Ray-DVD dual edition, but unfortunately it sported a pale, nondescript transfer and an equally weak audio track of a cut English-language version, clocking at 90 minutes.
In the last year, crowdfunding-fueled Nucleus Films issued the Italian "director's cut" (104 minutes long) with an Italian audio track along with the English-language import cut, both remastered from the camera negative, with the excised bits in the latter restored to the former from a 35mm release print. The result is eye-opening, as Death is now revealed as a still bizarre and off-putting but almost meditative exploration of the psychic costs of relentless pursuit of corporate efficiency and hypocrisies of the industrial bourgeoisie. Surprisingly, the head-scratching "plot twists," especially those concerning the protagonist Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant in a role well matched to coldness and repression projected by his persona), make a lot more sense in the director's cut, not to mention allowing one to re-appreciate aspects of the film such as Bruno Mandera's aggressively avant-garde music score.
22. They Came to a City (1944, British Film Institute- Region B)
Not the kind of film to make it into anyone's list of great cinematic arts, this is the kind of unjustly neglected great films whose sensibilities-- perhaps like Moonrise and even A Matter of Life and Death below in the list-- appear quaint or naïve, even didactic to the point of inducing boredom. I beg to differ. Whatever it is that we have in the 21st century cinema, especially in a burgeoning cinema industry like that of South Korea, we have also lost a large chunk of the qualities, including the "naiveté" if you have to call it that, that could have resulted in a film like this.
Not much removed from a filmed play, authored by J. B. Priestly who appears as an itinerant thinker unspooling the main body of the film in the form of a hypothetical narrative to two young Brits, anxiety-ridden about the future of their country devastated by the Second World War, The Ealing Studio's They Came to a City unabashedly presents a vision of a (socialist) utopia, unbound by aristocratic entitlements and other class privileges, hierarchical power relations and the moldy traditions that Priestly obviously saw as defects of the prewar British society. Some characters respond to such a vision with joy and rekindled hope, others find it deeply threatening or even negating their very existence. The viewers never actually get to see the "City" of the possible future, except for its Art Deco gateway: we must imagine what it is like to live in such a place.
It may not be The Third Man or Magnificent Ambersons, but They Came to a City's straightforward exploration of the ideas and visions for a better society – What could it be? How would it be different from the ones we already have? What could we do to build one? – affected me in a way that other cinematic grand statements of human foibles and cynicism could not. And I might ask, why can't today's South Korean filmmakers, so technically adroit and brimming with intelligence, make a film like this, wherein characters, rather than vituperatively insulting each other or seething with rage against the society, simply discuss and converse about different ideas and options of life, for the purpose of creating a better world for their children to live in? It is certainly no less dramatic or moving just because it does not partake of the kind of miserabilistic "realism" that passes for intellectual integrity among contemporary Koreans. Among the cast members, the Ealing star Googie Withers is magnificent as a tough barmaid: always poised as if ready to bolt into the plains like a colt, with twinkling eyes, flashing defiant yet compassionate smiles.
21. The Border (1982, Powerhouse Indicator- Region B)
I have never understood the flak that this film had received from critics since VHS days, and I still don't understand it today. Again, some critics somehow will not accept that a film is great unless it has a downbeat ending that confirms the futility of an individual's effort to change the Great Evil System. Talk about being short-sighted and historically misinformed. Excessive hero-worship is one thing (although left-wing critics never seem to run out of the heroes they blindly worship, just as is the case with right-wingers), but to claim that a movie like The Border is "shallower" than, say, Sicario, just because it has an allegedly studio-imposed "Western" ending (How many John Ford Westerns have an ending that are actually mandated by the director, do you happen to know?) that restores a measure of faith in human decency and an individual's power to make a dent in the System, is in my view an expression of elitist vapidity.
If nothing else, The Border is an excellent archival evidence for Jack Nicholson's prowess as an actor, that he continued to grow and refine his craft from the '60s to '80s, delivering a performance as the border patrol agent Charlie, bifurcated between his desire for a complacent middle-class life and his equally compelling desire to do some good, to make his life meaningful, to aspire to become more than a body to occupy the plastic and Teflon architecture of his homestead.
Indicator, in my current view the most reliable label in its treatment of '70s and '80s Anglophone cinema unjustly neglected or simply brushed aside to the bottom rung in the queue ladder of Big Studio catalogue titles, fills the package to the brim with supplements, the most fascinating of which is screenwriter Walon Green and director Tony Richardson's recollection and assessment of the experience working with Nicholson.
20. Sudden Fury (1975, Vinegar Syndrome- Region Free)
Vinegar Syndrome has released its share of soft-core porn and ragged "nudie" films of the yesteryear but it by now occupies an essential niche for the collectors of forgotten cult films, or just plain great movies that have undeservedly been ignored by both the paying public, the critics-scholars and the mainstream media.
One cannot really talk about the unique strengths of Sudden Fury, the only feature film directed by the Canadian Film Board's short film director Brian Damude, without spoiling its plot twists, but a part of the amazement lies in what this deceptively unassuming low-budget thriller refuses to indulge itself in. No hokey plot twists, no unconvincing gore effects, no pointless sadism toward female characters: just a noose-like tightening tension and a character subject to the classic film noir predicament, in which good intentions just may lead him to hell… or will they?
VS's new 2K transfer of Sudden Fury from 16mm negative will never look like a million bucks, but otherwise the label pulls out all stops, including a very welcome commentary track by Damude, modest but clearly proud of this overachieving one-shot stab at creating a superior thriller.
19. Hammer Volume 3: Blood and Terror (1958-1962, Powerhouse Indicator- Region Free)
Any installment among Powerhouse Indicator's famed boxsets, overwhelmingly supported by the collectors on both sides of the Atlantic (and across the Pacific as well), were destined to climb into my year-end list anytime soon. Hammer Volume 3 is in many ways a predictable choice, but I included it here for the specific reason that what these four films-- The Stranglers of Bombay, Terror of the Tongs, The Camp on Blood Island and Yesterday's Enemy-- , presented in Sony-sourced HD masters and accompanied by an impressive array of supplementary data historically contextualizing these films, reveal about the postwar British articulations of their nakedly colonialist and racist anxieties in this lurid, pulp yet highly compelling forms. The kind of suppressed self-critique of the arrogant colonizers (in the ironic dialogues uttered by Mehemet Bey, played by George Pastell, also in Stranglers presiding over the Thuggee cult, which, by the way, may have been a British invention rather than a real historical entity) found in Hammer's Mummy continue to declare themselves in these titles.
Considering the anti-PC quotient of these films from today's viewpoint (which the Indicator producers acknowledge right up front), perhaps some might see a problem in this boxset's presence in this list, but also considering the level of surprise it afforded me in re-discovering these films, as well as the ample food for thought it had provided to the cultural historian in me, I would think it is hypocritical on my part not to include it here.
18. Moonrise (1946, Criterion Collection- Region A)
This film probably received some negative assessments during its theatrical releases (and since then, too) for its unabashedly "melodramatic" contents. Well, what do you know, some filmmakers make Westerns, others make thrillers with maniacs chasing women with knives, and yet others make weepy melodramas. It's just that not everybody who makes a Western is John Ford, not everyone who makes an insane-psycho-killer movie is Alfred Hitchcock, and not everyone who makes melodramas is Frank Borzage.
Borzage's beautifully lensed, expressionistic piece of romantic delirium is a sort of Hitchcockian innocent-man-misunderstood-by-the-hostile-world story in reverse, but its utterly guileless denouement feels entirely earned and at the same time feels, after decades of cynical "realist" statements regarding the stupid and corrupt nature of the mankind we have seen in the global popular culture, almost alien, hailing from a different planet. A deeply affecting gem from one of the least celebrated great American filmmakers, now available in a sparkling 4K transfer from Criterion.
17. A Pistol for Ringo / The Return of Ringo (1965, Arrow Video- Region A)
Since the advent of the DVD revolution, the two genres that have completely been reassessed, at least from my point of view, are neither horror nor science fiction, both of which are actually quite well respected at least in terms of their commercial prospects, but Westerns and films noirs. And of course, when we say Westerns, we are not only talking about American ones. There have been literally thousands of “Westerns” made in other countries, most prolifically in Italy and Germany.
2018 saw the HD releases of some fabulous spaghetti titles, including the dandy Sartana collection and Sergio Corbucci’s ultimate downer epic The Great Silence (1968), but nothing came close to the shock I felt watching these two rather modest vehicles for the then-former peplum star, handsome and athletic Giuliano Gemma, superbly directed by Duccio Tessari (The Bloodstained Butterfly, Alain Delon’s Zorro). Both films can run circles around any respectable Hollywood Western from the same period, but Return of Ringo in particular is positively amazing. You might not believe me when I say this, but this is one of the best cinematic adaptations of Homer’s Odyssey I have ever seen.
Needless to say, both Ringo films are presented by Arrow Video in the most gorgeous appearances you could possibly hope for.
16. The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (1970-1972, Arrow Video- Region A)
In '60s and '70s Toho has delved into SF/horror/fantasy with gusto, delivering a good many fascinating localized examples of classical Western tropes of the genre, some, like Attack of the Mushroom People/Matango, with excellent literary pedigrees. It is too bad many of these films have been overshadowed by Godzilla films and other giant monster shenanigans and have been rather slow in coming out in the HD form.
In 2018, Arrow jumped into the foray and scooped up the three cult favorite vampire films-- christened as Vampire Dolls, Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula in English language, although good 'ol Count does not even receive so much a passing mention in them, except, of course, in English subtitles that do not match the Japanese dialogues--, presenting them in gorgeous remastered transfers accurately reproducing the period aesthetics. This set is sure to be a real eye-opener for any horror film fan who has not caught up with these richly atmospheric, rather intelligently handled tales of terror, in an inimitable hybrid form that combines the constrained luridness of a late Hammer film and the more tragic, rueful resonance of a traditional Japanese ghost story.
15. Vigil (1984, Arrow Video- Region B)
This debut feature film from Vincent Ward is sometimes compared to a Werner Herzog opus, but it is in truth a sui generis film, with a completely unique visual rendition of the New Zealand mountain-scape that you cannot really catch outside Ward's own cinematic realms. In this story of eleven-year-old Toss (Fiona Kay), a farm-girl who loses her father to a tragic accident, and then has to contend with a wanderer (Frank Whitten) who may or may not be responsible for her father's death, Ward knits a rough but hypnotically compelling tapestry of New Zealanders contending with the Nature, both awesomely terrifying and achingly beautiful. In the end, he comes forth on the side of the film's young heroine, telling a kind of mythical fairy tale, only with broken tractors and rifles with a scope that momentarily serves as a magic periscope that peeks into the hearts of its characters.
Arrow Video, in tandem with Vigil, released Ward's popular Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey and other Kiwi genre favorites such as The Quiet Earth, all impeccably curated and packed with informative supplements, but it was really this mysterious piece of jewel that captured my heart and brain.
14. Night of the Living Dead (1968, Criterion Collection- Region A)
I had already owned two DVD versions and one Blu Ray (from the British label Optimum) so I almost passed by this Museum of Modern Art restoration of the George Romero classic now available as a Criterion BD. Thank God I didn't! This episode serves as this year's reminder that a truly good restoration of an old masterpiece is worth double or triple dipping into the well.
Literally, I have never seen this venerable horror classic in this condition, for which the words like "pristine" and "clean" simply cannot do justice. With the restoration of the visual and, perhaps more significantly, aural components (under the supervision of Romero and sound engineer Gary R. Steiner), Night of the Living Dead can only be properly called as resuscitated, not merely reanimated, with the new splendor in its black and white cinematography and fresh urgency in Romero's amazing editing and direction.
13. Shiraz (1928, British Film Institute- Region B)
The British Film Institute has done an exceptional job of rescuing and restoring their cinematic heritage (not just strictly focused on British films, by the way) over the years, especially through their stunning Flipside series, but Shiraz represents a rare occasion of the restoration of a silent film, one directed by the German filmmaker Franz Osten (who controversially did not withdraw from a Nazi membership, discussed in a well-balanced booklet essay by Gautam Chinamani), but shepherded by the vision carried by its star and producer Himansu Rai.
Even though obviously created to appeal to the colonizer's spectatorship, Shiraz is also obviously grounded in the soil of India, with its folk tale-like fictional account of an undying love and devotion of a commoner potter-sculptor toward Queen Mumtaz Mahal, who ends up designing the monumental tribute to her, commissioned by her husband Prince Khurram-- what has come to be known today as Taj Mahal. The beauty and sentiments captured in the silent reels are solely those of India, and the film preserves the grandeur and humanity of its people and nature in the way only popular, dramatic feature film could.
The added source of joy is Anoushka Shankar's sumptuous music, which, spearheaded by the flowing currents of sitar, combines all available techniques and flavors of Western music with the traditional Indian one to create a fully dramatic, cinematic score, a perfect accompaniment to this magnificent work of popular art.
12. The Outer Limits Season One & Two (1963-1965, Kino Lorber- Region A)
This is one title, following on the avalanche of classic TV titles released in HD on both sides of the Atlantic, that I could have dependably claimed to be "coming soon as special edition Blu Rays" a few years ago. And here, we indeed have all 49 episodes (32 for Season One, 17 for Season Two) beautifully remastered by Kino Lorber and nearly all of them accompanied by commentary tracks from the ultimate Outer Limits maven and horror writer David J. Schow, Tim Lucas, Craig Beam, Gary Gerani, Steve Mitchell and other genre experts and film-TV historians.
You betcha there is nothing wrong with your television set… it's not your Samsung's fault that the show look like they were all filmed just yesterday with the time-traveling, permanently youthful cast of greats, including Martin Landau, David McCallum, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Robert Culp, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, Martin Sheen and many, many others!
11. A Matter of Life and Death (1946, Criterion Collection- Region A)
I am willing to bet the previous Criterion's releases of Powell-Pressburger titles, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, have been some of their most successful-- in terms of both sales and sheer fan popularity-- but perhaps some might also think that this propagandistic (relatively speaking) smaller romantic number in their canon would merit less attention. As a matter of fact, AMOLD, better known to Korean viewers like me by its American title, Stairway to Heaven, holds a special place in my heart-- along with such Hollywood classics like the Judy Garland version A Star Is Born-- a Korean kid having grown up watching black and white renditions of the old classics through American Forces Korean Network and the superbly dubbed showings in the KBS "Weekend Great Movies" program.
The questions such as "do at least some German pilots shot down also go to Heaven?" did pop up in my youthful brain, I remember, and the (often hilarious and fascinating) details of the American hatred of the British pomposity and class privileges (getting a serious workout through Raymond Massey's Abraham Farlan character) had whooshed through my consciousness at that time. Yet, AMOLD's powerful aura of sincerity and conviction as well as, again, its guileless belief in the goodness, the bright future, and the truthfulness (oh, in such a short supply in the Great Orange Leader's America!), left a lasting impression on me, the qualities reconfirmed many times over when revisited via this BD presentation. Without being hypocritically "patriotic" or maudlin, Powell and Pressburger infuse this masterpiece with a strong sense of indictment of war and mourning for the war-dead.
AMOLD, in Criterion's spectacular 4K restoration, is now more than ever revealed as one of the greatest films ever made about the survivor's guilty conscience, and how that could only be assuaged by a love from a perfect stranger, not from anyone among his/her own kin or "home base."
10. The Colour of Pomegranates Նռան գույնը (1969, Second Sight Films- Region B)
Criterion Collection also released this Armenian classic last year, but I will list up the British Second Sight's competing version, which also includes the (problematic) Russian-language version as well as different sets of commentaries and supplements, highlighting the film's place in the histories of Eastern European and Soviet cinema (and thus more appealing to myself). It is one of the amazing advantages of owning a multi-region BD player that I actually get to choose between (or collecting both and comparing) different presentations of the same film, even in the very same year.
The film itself cannot be adequately explained or discussed in this space, except to say that, while The Colour of Pomegranates, ostensibly about the life and works of Sayat Nova, an 18th century Armenian poet, is a film for which the word "exquisite" seems to have been invented, it also, through its serial presentations of what one might call "mobile vistas" of figures, objects and landscapes, weaves an entirely inimitable, hypnotic effect on the viewer, which then, almost magically, brings forth completely unexpected affective responses from the depths of his or her psyche: joy, terror and sorrow. The stuff of arts themselves, and of life (and death) itself.
9. Legend of the Mountain 山中傳奇 (1979, Eureka! Masters of Cinema- Region B)
Criterion Collection put out King Hu's popular martial arts epic Dragon Inn in 2018 as well and I idly contemplated that it would probably be the next Hu film making into my year's favorite list, following 2017's A Touch of Zen. Boy, was I wrong. Legend of the Mountain, which I almost purchased on impulse, partly because I was curious about the location filming done in South Korea, turned out to be an unforgettable experience, rendering me nigh-speechless at the end of the screening and making me wonder whether I have really ever watched the same film before.
I will just add one sentence on seeing the South Korean landscape-- including some very identifiable landmark Buddist temples such as Haeinsa-- in Legend. They are of course exquisitely filmed, but they also generate a strong sense of desolation and abandonment, as indeed befitting the film's overarching Buddhist theme of relinquishing attachment to the flesh, as well as a different form of grandeur from the more openly elaborate vistas of Chinese historical sites. Re-discovering these "lost" Korean landscapes of '70s through King Fu's magical eyes was, frankly, worth the price of owning this superlative HD presentation from Eureka!
8. Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema Boxset (1958-1965, British Film Institute- Region B)
Some in my shoes might not include this boxset in the list, citing that it is little more than a compilation of the already available Blu Rays. Since I had procured only one (A Taste of Honey, from Criterion Collection) among the eight titles gathered here-- Honey, The Entertainer, Look Back in Anger, Tom Jones, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Girl with Green Eyes and The Knack… and How to Get It-- this caveat does not apply to my choice, anyway, but having all these great films in a chronological order with the clusters of industrial shorts, documentaries and interview footages contextualizing them is an irresistible boon to a professional historian.
And truly, the films-- products of the Woodfall Production Company, headlined by the playwright John Osborne, director Tony Richardson and producer Harry Saltzman (also the other half of Eon Productions that launched the James Bond franchise)-- are intriguing, endlessly fascinating mixtures of historical artifacts reflecting the Zeitgeist of the postwar England, postcolonial, reconstructed and globalized, on the one hand, and enduring classics speaking to all film lovers of all cultural and generational backgrounds about universal human truths, especially about the modern industrial world that came into being in the twentieth century, on the other.
7. Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (1911-1929, Kino Lorber- Region A)
This Blu Ray collection is expanded from Kino Lorber's previous DVD editions of early women filmmakers, now extending its scope to procure even rarer items through a large number of archives, including UCLA Film & Television Archive, Swedish Film Institute, La Cinematheque de Toulouse, and the British Film Institute, and remastering more than fifty films into 2K and 4K HD transfers.
Sampling many of these films, more than 26 hours of footage in total, it is not difficult to be struck by a devastating realization that the global film industry in its beginning was more than halfway a women's medium, that the advent of New Women was closely linked to the birth of cinema as we understand it, and that the absence of women from the positions of "behind the camera" since mid-20th century was due to the fact that they were driven out. Bringing women back into the positions of power in cinematic production process, whether for "commercial," "genre" films or for "independent," "political" films, therefore, ought to be considered a restoration of their rightful status, not some temporary gestures by the masculine powers-that-be toward "affirmative action."
Like the Woodfall boxset, the movies contained herein provide an overwhelming, awesome delight to the cultural historian and the movie buff in me. Where else will I able to see the best preserved version of The Curse of Quon Gwon, a 1916-1917 serial directed by then-twenty-one year old Marion Wong with her family members and relatives cast as actors, location filmed in Oakland, California?
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Criterion Collection- Region A)
I am somewhat surprised that Criterion's BD release of this classic among classics in 2018 did not receive much attention among the annual "best" tallies. Are most connoisseurs of the great films in the HD format simply unable to see anything special in yet one more improved redition of this Carl Dreyer silent? As was the case with Night of the Living Dead, I had already owned two different DVD versions of Joan, but I must confess I have never seen the film in such a condition as to notice the shape of the lights reflected in Renee Falconetti's retinas.
This Criterion BD, presented in both 24 and 20 frames with three different choices of music soundtracks (the premier position given to Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light), was a quasi-transcendental revelation for me, and ultimately became emotionally overwhelming, as Falconetti's face commands the screen and assumes the near-totality of the perimeters of our vision, in the way I have never been able to experience in any other movie (or any other work of visual art, for that matter) in my life. Truly awe-inspiring.
5. Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji 血槍富士 (1955, Arrow Academy- Region A)
My choice for the least expected and, to be honest, the single most astonishing BD release of 2018, Uchida Tomu's Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji is, along with his searing masterpiece Fugitive from the Past, one of the least talked-about great Japanese films from the second Golden Age of Japanese cinema. Never truly forgotten among the domestic Japanese viewers, Uchida's reputation did suffer due to his enthusiastic participation in the activities of the Manchukuo Film Association established in 1937 and responsible for many notable artifacts of Japanese wartime propaganda.
True enough, Bloody Spear, unlike many Golden Age "samurai films" best known in Europe and the US, such as Kobayashi Masaki's Harakiri or Kurosawa's Yojimbo, does not assume a hostile or satirical attitude toward the "feudalistic" mentality of the protagonist, a spear-carrier companion of an upper-class vassal. Uchida instead puts together a heart-warming road movie, a deft combination of shomingeki, commoner melodrama, with a terrific cast of ensemble actors, and a gentle psychological exploration of the respect and friendship between two decent human beings, each bound by rigid social codes and ironically lacking the freedoms of merchants, artisans, farmers and even street urchins. It is as far removed from the austere, terrifying indictments of the hypocrisies of the Way of Samurai such as Harakiri or Imai Tadashi's Cruel Stories of Bushido as you can imagine. Yet, by the climax in which the spear-carrier Genpachi (stalwartly portrayed by Kataoka Chiezo) finally raises his weapon in the air and bellows his outrage against the sheer callous evil of the Tokugawa society, we are completely swept up by the movie's lovable characters and honest emotions displayed by them.
The fact that this film is now available as BD released by Arrow Academy, once considered the purveyor of giallo and weird cult horror, and not in Japan itself, tells us much about the position now enjoyed by the label for a movie fan like myself. In other words, thank you so much, Arrow!
4. L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot (2009, Arrow Academy- Region A)
The most stunning and jaw-dropping BD title for me in this year, this documentary on the failed 1964 film project based on a screenplay written by Henri-George Clouzot, reconstituted mainly from the more than thirteen hours of test footage (!) without sound recordings found by the archivist-documentarian Serge Bromberg through a near-chance conversation with Clouzot's widow, is a heady, psychedelic experience in and of itself, in addition to being a powerful mystery film, not unlike Clouzot's Mystery of Picasso, getting at the director's own creative process. Soon, in an almost terrifying manner, Clouzot begins to skirt the outer edges of sanity, mirroring the fate of his protagonist Marcel (to be played by Serge Reggiani, who ultimately left the set and never returned) laid out in his own screenplay.
The footages, outrageously experimental films mostly presenting the luminous Romy Schneider in variously distorted, demonic/angelic vistas as well as trial runs for superbly Hitchcockian sequences of suspense and other sections of the feature, are intercut with the contemporary recreations of key dialogue scenes and interviews of the original film's staff (including an assistant director, none other than Constantine Costa-Gavras!). Sublime, disturbing, Inferno is also a film fan's absolute delight, and is most highly recommended to anyone who is either involved in or aspires to filmmaking in any form.
3. Ingmar Bergman's Cinema (1946-2003, Criterion Collection- Region A)
I will be brief on this one. When Criterion put together a gigantic DVD box of Akira Kurosawa films a decade ago, collecting twenty-five titles from his oeuvre, this was seen as "a project that only Criterion could pull off." While Ingmar Bergman's Cinema is not, as the AK 100 Kurosawa collection was not, a complete collection of the Swedish filmmaker's directorial works (we miss a few earliest Swedish titles as well as about seven TV films he directed in '80s and '90s), we would still have no trouble readily acknowledging that only Criterion could have come up with such a boxset, most of its individual titles newly restored and remastered in 2K/4K HD.
The fact that this massive boxset, that comes with a humongous (247 page-long) coffee table book and altogether probably weighs at least a dozen plus pounds on a scale, was one of Criterion's fastest-selling items during the 2018 holiday season, tells us something about the state of the physical media market today.
2. The Night of the Demon (1957, Powerhouse Indicator- Region Free)
This was probably the top candidate for No. 1 position in the 2018 My Favorite List had I been forced to make predictions about my own choice (provided that I had known the release timetable for all existing labels). And is it really surprising that Powerhouse Indicator, like Synapse did in 2017 with Suspiria, was the label that seized this opportunity and ran with it? Absolutely not.
The Night of the Demon, one of the greatest supernatural horror films of the "quiet" variety, is curated here in multiple import/censored/restored/U.K- U.S. versions with a veritable mountain of supplementary materials with a very welcome attention also levied on M. R. James's literary source and contributions of the technical staff, including production designer Ken Adam (later famous for creating the 007 series's cool looks).
1. Blue Collar (1978, Powerhouse Indicator- Region B)
And yet, like previous years, the No. 1 spot goes not to the above super-heavyweights but to an angry piece of New American Cinema, Blue Collar. Seeing it for the first time-- and of course in such an immaculate condition-- was another revelatory experience for me, and Richard Pryor's alternately shifty, plaintive and frightening gazes have seared themselves permanently on my brain. Is it not a blessing and a miracle that Paul Schrader-- indeed so many of the New American Cinema Young Turks-- has survived all those bullshit in '80s, '90s and '00s, and, Lord bless his soul, still making a f*cking feature film playing in the theater?
And on that note of gratitude and reverence to the still-raging, still-not-having-given-it-up erstwhile screenwriter of Taxi Driver (and director of the Cat People remake, we shan't forget), the list comes to a conclusion.
(A deep sigh…) Really, I have not reneged on any other job-related obligation in order to write this list but the psychic toll it takes on me is getting bigger and bigger every year. At any rate until January 2020, happy movie- and Blu Ray-hunting everyone! Remember, make sure you watch at least one film every month that is older than you, i.e. made before you were born. I will be back soon with more Blu Ray and film reviews, ruminations on Japanese and Korean histories, and the third installment of the Hundred Nights of Horror.