2020년 1월 29일 수요일

My Favorite Twenty Blu Rays of 2019: A List

It was especially tough to come around to work on this list in 2020, given my annoying health conditions (not anything life-threatening, but this whooping cough or whatever has now stayed with me for nearly a month and shows no sign of leaving), and concentration of so many stressful personal matters— including death of a family member— in the months of November and December pushed everything into the already hectic month of January 2020,  jam-packed with teaching and book-writing schedules.  In any case, I was absolutely convinced that I would not be able to upload My Favorite Blu Ray list for the year 2019.  Well, what can I say, if you are reading this, I have somehow managed to complete it again this year. I am certifiably insane, is all I (or my wife) can say. Considering that I uploaded the My Favorite DVD list of 2008 in December 28 of that year, you can see how at-the-very-last-moment ritual it has become for me.  Well, maybe one day I might entirely give up on it.  But we have not yet reached that year, it seems.

Despite some personal setbacks and sorrowful events, 2019 was again a too-good-to-be-true year for a Blu Ray collector of classic cinema.  It also marked the year wherein I finally took care of one of my gotta-do agendas for the last half-decade, that is, purchasing a sixty-five-inch 4K Ultra HD OLED TV, with its 1.5 millimeter-thick screen to match the superb Home Theater setup in our living room.  We did get hold of an LG 4K Ultra HD Blu Ray player as well, but the enhanced format would not receive much attention until when I have thoroughly, exhaustively extracted the maximum pleasure out of sampling my existing Blu Ray collections, from the austere, magnificent black and white cinematography of Kobayashi Masaki’s Harakiri/Seppuku, to the kind of brilliant hues and depths of image never before enjoyed by the TV viewers now available due to HD restorations of classic TV shows such as UFO and The Persuaders, to the dodgy animation effects and grain-covered less-than-pristine looks of ‘80s horror opuses such as Hellraiser and its sequels.  Not surprisingly, having this greatly enhanced venue for viewing the new 2K & 4K HD transfers as well as meticulous restorations executed by valiant physical media companies only double and triple my appreciations of what they have done.

I should note here, though, that apparently for this TV the god-awful “True Motion” or whatever it is that they call it these days, which messes with the 24 frames-per-second rate of a motion picture so that it would look like a badly captured wedding video, was the default setup. I had to go into every (there was at least a dozen) picture mode and disable it one by one, except maybe for the “Sports Replay” mode.  It irks me to think that someone somewhere might be watching, say, North by Northwest or the original Star Wars in this cheapjack video-motion mode and think this is the “right” way to watch these classic films. Are any of you committing this kind of unpardonable sin by any chance? I couldn’t care less about in what mode you watch latest Marvel movies, but please, please do yourself a favor and turn off these fancy-schmantzy “video enhancement” functions while watching classic cinema.

I think I have made it clear some time ago that I do not pay attention anymore to the industry “prognosis” about “death” of the physical media.  What this prognosis really means is that the market size of the physical media is shrinking as that of the streaming giants is increasing, which we have known for the last twenty years. Big Yeti-hairy deal.  After all, why do you think the label Twilight Time chose to call themselves Twilight Time?  But I am increasingly convinced that, no matter how dominant the streaming service gets, there will always remain a rather significant section of the market reserved for the physical media.  I had once thought that they would go the way of VHS tapes or LP records, provided what Korean kids have been doing for the last decade (and presumably Sinophone kids will be doing in the future), i.e. giving the right for the viewers to “own” a movie at seven dollars per pop became a global practice.  But I honestly do not see Disney or Netflix turning this kind of practice into a global norm anytime soon.  Beside, Netflix has apparently decided that, without joining the boutique physical media market, they will never have the kind of respectability that old studios, say, Warner Brothers, still command, and reached out to Criterion Collection to release some of their choice items, Roma, The Irishman, Atlantics, Marriage Story and American Factory in 2020 (Remember my citation of this Collider piece last year about why Netflix had not really “made” it unless they released their more prestigious products through Blu Rays and DVDs?).   

So, we do not know if American democracy as we know could survive this year, or if North Korea could still remain intact as a belligerent quasi-monarchy by the end of this year, but one thing is certain: barring a global nuclear war or a massive scale alien “cleansing” of the earth’s most destructive parasitic organisms, i.e. humans, I would have collected dozens or more of highly desirable Blu Ray discs (this time, hopefully, a few 4K UHD ones as well).  Now, another list like this for 2020 is definitely not guaranteed.  Yet, its possible failure to materialize would have little to do with the unavailability of desirable or precious items, and would be all about my health, stress level or top-priority preoccupations at the year’s end. 

So much for the talk about the (uncertain) future! As is the case with every year, I would like to reiterate that this list is not a compendium of the greatest or even historically most meaningful Blu Ray releases in 2019, nor is it an assessment of best restorations or the most high-quality presentations of particular motion pictures: it is a highly personal, eclectic and eccentric report of the discs that I had purchased within the last year, with the operating keywords being “(re) discovery” and “emotional responses.”  Last year, I had spent such an agonizing time deciding the items between the ranks of twenty and thirty or so that I ended up inflating the number of the chosen ones to twenty-five.  This year, I am back to twenty (Thank God).  However, as my bilingual readers might have noticed, the selections do not exactly replicate the Korean-language version uploaded here.  It has occurred to me that I could easily have drawn up entirely different lists of fifteen Blu Rays for Korean- and English-language, but as you might have guessed, had I committed to that project, I would still be writing them during the Easter. 

So without further ado, let’s dive into the list! A note to those not familiar with Blu Rays: Region “A” discs are playable without modification in North America, Japan and South Korea, whereas Region “B” discs are playable only in Europe. I don’t know if Brexit is going to have any effect on this? Sorry, that was sarcasm.  

20.  La Prisonniére (1968, Region A, Studio Canal-Kino Classics)

One of the most visually stunning releases of classical cinema in 2019, this last film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot might not sit well with a large chunk of contemporary critics and viewers, especially regarding what some of them might consider to be the great filmmaker’s retrograde view of his female protagonist, José, luminously embodied by Elisabeth Weiner.  She is a TV program editor in a rather European-style “open” marriage to sculptor Gilbert (Bernard Fresson), drawn to a sexual game of domination and humiliation practiced by their mutual friend, art gallery owner Stanislav (Laurent Terzieff). What ensues is, depending on your critical stance, either a super-cynical critique of the “revolutionary spirit” of ’68, especially its credo of emancipation through uninhibited celebration of sexuality, or a modern-day examination of the death of romance, as clinically disturbing in its honest exploration of the manipulation and distortion of emotional exchange in so-called “falling in love” situations.  Either way you cut it, La Prisonniére is not an easy film to like, or defend politically. 

Kino Lorber’s amazing presentation of this tough and disturbing yet fantastically beautiful film, based on the 4K restoration of original elements by Studio Canal, goes a long way to entice new viewers to resist pat denunciations of the film.  Lending them helping hands is the wonderful Kat Ellinger, who in a thorough and enthusiastic commentary makes the case for Clouzot’s final opus as a severely misunderstood and underappreciated masterpiece. Also included is a delightful interview of the still-luminous Elisabeth Wiener. 

19.  ffolkes (a.k.a. North Sea Hijack) (1980, Region A, Kino Lorber)

One of those mid-level genre films that you fondly remember from cable TV broadcasts or chance encounters as VHS tapes, the ridiculously titled ffolkes (not that North Sea Hijack is any better, to be truthful) was, as commentators Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson point out, made at the tail end of a British sub-genre of “marine techno-thrillers” specialized by the likes of Alistair McLean. Directed by the old Western hand and John Wayne associate Andrew V. McLagren, ffolkes ought be as stale as a piece of leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Instead, it turns out to be a charming and brisk action thriller that never overstays its welcome, and somehow navigates like a slippery eel through potential pitfalls, such as characterization of the protagonist Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (he insists on writing the last name all in small letters) as a blatant misogynist who loves cats instead of women.

Honestly, it would be dishonest for me to pretend that a film in which the sweaty Anthony Perkins looks the bearded Roger Moore directly in the eyes and intones, “I still don’t like your face,” would not hold a special place in my collection. And it comes in a Blu Ray presentation that has no right to be as bright and clear as the Antarctic ocean gleaming in the pale sunlight.

18. The Colossus of New York (1958, Region B, 101 Films)

Another minor classic that, far more than many other A-list SF films, had haunted my childhood memories, The Colossus of New York is a rather cheap production that employs a distinctive minimalist outlook, supervised by director Eugene Lourié, but with an indelible monster-hero who is also one of the cinema’s first fully realized cyborgs, a Golem-like hulking humanoid into which a genius scientist’s brain is deposited.  This film was released as a no-frills Blu Ray from Olive Films stateside in 2012, but for some reason I have missed out on it. 

I finally got a chance to watch it via my OLED TV through the Region B 101 Film’s release, so perhaps the wait was worth it.  Watching the film anew certainly confirmed its ahead-of-its-time prescience in relation to its serious exploration of such heady issues as merging of machines (“automations” as the film calls them) and human organisms, global environmental problems and ethics of extending one's life against his or her wishes.  Indeed, the protagonist’s father, Dr. William Spensser (Otto Kruger), comes off as a true villain of the piece, treating his son not as a human being but as a resource to be exploited for the benefit of the mankind. The startlingly surrealistic climax, in which the Colossus attacks a convention of scientists and journalists gathered at what appears to be a child’s nightmare version of the United Nations building, preserves the weird but effectively allegorical character of what could have been just another ‘50s killer-robot-on-rampage potboiler. 

The 101 Film release, in addition to its excellent transfer, comes with a droll but informative commentary by film historians Allan Bryce and Richard Holliss (a team who had previously recorded another spiffy commentary for the company’s Crack in the World Blu Ray).

17.  Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death (1978, Region Free, Mondo Macabro)

Here’s one desperately wishing for a collective release of all of Kim Ki-young’s available filmography in Blu Ray! Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death, better known in an abridged title, Killer Butterfly, is one of the craziest, most hilarious and simultaneously most unsettling films made by the mad genius Kim, whose cinematic universe is a perverse fantasy fairyland in which arch, existentialist observations and stark-raving-lunatic Freudian fetishes are deliriously blended with cheapskate special effects and hallucinatory visuals.

Mondo Macabro has come up with a new 4K transfer from (admittedly pretty beat-up) negative, presenting this rarely screened film in its best behavior, and fills up the supplements with such enlightening materials as interviews with the still-gorgeous actress Lee Hwa-si (utterly unforgettable from Kim’s sui generis masterpiece Ieodo), producer Jeong Jin-woo (a prolific director of his own, Does Cuckoo Cry at Night?, Janyeomok) and Our Intrepid Editor Darcy Paquet, among others.  A perhaps-too-strong pill of antidote for those who immediately think of “Buddhist temples” or, more specifically, Kim Ki-duk painting Buddhist sutras with a cat’s tail when “classic Korean cinema” is mentioned.

16. Of Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda (1995-2008, Region B, The British Film Institute)   

Even though I was moved to tears after watching The Third Murder and The Shoplifters and recognize him as one of the greatest living Japanese filmmakers, somehow Kore-eda Hirokazu’s works have never won me over completely.  All the same, watching these two most recent films by the master prompted me to look for a Blu Ray copy of Nobody Knows and Still Walking. Sure enough, as if they had telepathically responded to my request, the British Film Institute conflated these two gut-wrenching gems with two of Kore-eda’s earliest hits, After Life and Maborosi into a beautiful boxset.

It is truly worth the price of this boxset to be able to appreciate the supplements that carefully balance production histories, academic analysis and testimonies by the participants of Kore-eda’s cinematic projects. As an icing on the cake, the set comes with a 72-page companion pamphlet that really cannot be properly called a “booklet.” 

15. Fantomas: Three Film Collection (1964-1967, Region A, Gaumont-Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber surprised us in 2017 by releasing a five-film collection of the French-language OSS 117 series that have been commonly thought as Gallic knockoffs of James Bond, but seen in the eye-opening gorgeous HD transfers, proved themselves to be fascinating entertainments on their own and not pale imitations of the British agent's antics.  This year Gaumont and Kino Lorber turn their attention to the 1960s adaptations of the venerable super-villain Fantomas directed by the redoubtable Andre Hunebelle. 

The motion pictures in question are more of physical comedies than crime thrillers, donating much time to sometimes-exasperating antics of Louis de Funes as Police Commissioner Juve, but they do come with the superbly charismatic Jean Marais, a onetime partner of Jean Cocteau, as both Fantomas and his journalist nemesis Fandor, whose eye-popping action stunts (at one point in full view climbing into a flying helicopter!) and larger-than-life yet utterly charming expressions recall classic Hollywood stars such as Kirk Douglas.  Not earth-shaking masterpieces of cinematic arts, the Fantomas trilogy (whose name, by the way, is apparently pronounced “Fantoma-S,” not “Fang-to-ma” as I have always thought) are nonetheless a thorough delight.

14. Slaughterhouse Five (1972, Region A, Arrow Video)

There was a time when I thought that George Roy Hill was one of the greatest American directors of all time. Not that I have come now to depreciate his works in comparison to the more critically celebrated American (or European) films of his generation, but for all my adulation of his filmmaking craft and commitment to characterization, Hill’s filmography is not as well represented in my collection, compared to, say, Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, or even John Schlesinger.  Taking a big step toward amending this situation is Arrow’s release of this adaptation of the allegedly unfilmable Kurt Vonnegut novel, remastered with the new 4K transfer of the original negative.  Slaughterhouse Five, basically a powerful Viet Nam era slice of Americana, captures the mordant black humor, existentialist despair and flights of fancy in the allegorical mode of science fiction present in the Vonnegut novel and visualizes all these elements into a series of vignettes both achingly personal and grandiose, all backed up by elegant, non-bombastic (see the sentence below) classical tunes judiciously selected and arranged by Glenn Gould.  

It is an astonishingly faithful adaptation of Vonnegut, handled with exquisite care by one of the top labels operating in the Blu Ray market today. If you are looking for a famous SF film that trashes the agendas of the celebrated original novel, go watch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

13. Viy (1967, Region Free, Severin Films)

Based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story, Viy is one of those films that genuinely replicate the mysterious qualities of a childhood fairy tale that also contain truly frightening and nightmarish elements, largely inaccessible to the adults after they have grown up.  Only classic Disney films, with their mind-shatteringly scary sequences suddenly intruding into the consciousness of helpless children while watching such supposedly innocuous titles as The Snow White and Fantasia, seem to be able to match these qualities present in abundance in this Russian piece of phantasmagoria.

A big, pleasant surprise is that Severin Films took it upon themselves to release the remastered transfer of this delightful but genuinely scary classic in a special Blu Ray edition, complete with a lecture-slash-interview from the cult director Richard Stanley, an overview of the Soviet fantasy and SF by John Leman Riley, an author of books on Shostakovich and film music, and three silent shorts, including Queen of Spades, super-scary adaptation of a Alexander Pushkin story.  Хорошо́! 

12. The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987, Region Free, Second Run)

One of the most controversial and outright disturbing documentaries ever made, Hara Kazuo’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is both a searing indictment of the normalization of war experience and a radical challenge to the ethical and epistemological perimeters of a documentary.  Okuzaki Kenzo, a self-proclaimed anarchist and a war veteran, is a deeply unhinged and maniacally driven individual who would stop at nothing to uncover the whitewashed truths about his squadron’s experiences at the tail end of the Pacific War— cruelties, murder, cannibalism.  The uber-documentarian Hara obsessively follows Okuzaki around, recording his increasingly urgent, angry and, frankly, frightening behavior, as the latter repeatedly violates the privacy of the fellow Pacific War veterans, disrupts the latter’s lives, and finally resorts to near-lethal violence to “squeeze” the truths out of them. If you had anticipated a genteel, “Japanese-like” rumination about the tragedies of a war, you would be knocked into speechless state of shock or a hasty retreat after hitting the eject button. Either way, you will never be able to think the same about Japanese war experience or documentary as an art-form after watching this jaw-dropping, deeply disturbing (but also, in many ways, positively exhilarating) film.

Amazingly, Hara Kazuo was actively involved in not only the transfer but also overall package design of this Second Run Blu Ray, providing a brand-new interview, alarmingly candid and illuminating. Not to be missed is a thoughtfully curated essays on the film by Tony Rayns, Jason Wood and Abe Mark Nornes’s extremely thought-provoking write-up of a conversation between Hara and Michael Moore (yup, that Michael Moore).

11. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978, Region B, Eureka! Masters of Cinema)

Fred Schepisi, one of the prominent Aussie immigrants to Hollywood who got started in ‘70s and early ‘80s, along with Peter Weir, Philip Noyce, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong and, ahem, George Miller, had already debuted with great acclaim with The Devil’s Playground (1976), perhaps the definitive Catholic Boy’s Boarding School film in cinema history, but he became internationally renowned for this overwhelming fictionalized account of the real-life “Breelong Murders” in 1900, that confronted head-on the darkest chapter in the history of his country.  Shockingly gruesome and unflinching, at times heart-stoppingly beautiful, calmly observant yet seething with urgency and suppressed outrage, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith captures that awesome moment in which the cumulative experiences of racism and exploitation and the damage it inflicts on human spirits, like swelling, scorching rivers of magma that flow underground, undetected for decades, suddenly erupts to the surface, and in the matter of seconds obliterate human lives.

In releasing this title, Eureka has employed the Australia-based Umbrella Entertainment’s new 4K transfer for its longer (2 hour 2 minutes) domestic release version and has done its own remastering for the slightly truncated (1 hour 47 minutes) international release version, resulting in two noticeably different color schemes, an intriguing choice for the consumers.  The supplements, starting with two commentaries, are firmly centered on director Fred Schepisi, the most interesting for me being a Q & A session with actor Geoffrey Rush interviewing Schepisi following a special screening during the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival.

10. Rogue Male (1976, Region B, British Film Institute)

A surprise dual-format release from the BFI, Rogue Male (the intriguing title is apparently a reference to a bull elephant separated from its herd, yet who stalwartly survives, fighting the natural elements) is not so much a remake of Fritz Lang's Man Hunt (1941) as a return to the latter's literary source, Geoffrey Household's popular 1939 novel.  This BBC adaptation, filmed with obviously limited production resources nonetheless holds its own against the American adaptation, turning its fidelity to the source novel's gruff eccentricity and unadorned brutality into one of its virtues. The appropriate re-adjustment of the film's historical context also yields some additional pleasures, as it is quite openly critical of not only Neville Chamberlain's appeasement, which is to be expected, but also the chauvinistic and isolationist mentalities of the British elite society in late '30s (difficult not to notice some eye-rolling parallels with the Brexit in all these).  

Aside from production history-centered supplements, the excerpts from Eva Braun's home movies (approximately 7 minutes), somehow appearing slicker and professional movie-like than its recreation in the present film, and a reel of the British Union of Fascist March documentary (about 9 minutes) are also included. The latter, full of eager-beaver white Britishers, men and women, in comfortable, everyday getups, grinning and giving enthusiastic Sieg Heil salutes to the camera, is scored to an eerie, ambient electronic music composed by Chris Zabriskie (aptly titled "Raise Your Hand If You Think Evil is Increasing in This World").  

9. Hammer Collection No. 4: Faces of Fear (1958-1962, Region Free, Powerhouse Indicator)

Is it just me, or as Indicator piles up their fabulous box-sets of Hammer films and moves further away from the best-known Dracula and Frankenstein films toward the more obscure titles, it seems to me that they are doubling and tripling their efforts to present as much information and analysis as they could jam pack into these sets?  While we eagerly await volume 5 of Hammer film collection from Indicator, open for our perusal is their “Faces of Fear” collection, the highlight of which should surely be Joseph Losey’s apocalyptic horror-SFThe Damned.

Just speaking for this enigmatic and coldly superior indictment of the Cold War fatalism in the guise of scientific rationality, it is here available in a new 2K restoration of both 1 hour 36 minute international cut and the 1 hour 28 minutes domestic release cut, with literally hours of video and audio supplements that cover all aspects of production from its director, screenplay, location shooting, actors and music in addition to exhaustive academic and film-historical analysis of the film and its cultural contexts.  At this juncture it is quite impossible for me to imagine another Blu Ray edition that could even equal, much less surpass, Indicator’s frankly obsessive-looking husbandry of their catalogue titles.

8. A Bucket of Blood (1959, Region Free, Olive Signature Series)

A public domain title whose copyright protection has lapsed poses a singular but familiar problem for the producers and consumers of DVDs and Blu Rays. Basically, this situation allows any cheapjack company to release the disc of such a title without any concern for the best presentation, flooding the market with inferior, bargain-bin products. This in turn ends up taking away financial incentives for a decent label to invest in restoration of the original elements, reducing a chance of the title ever being seen in its best conditions. There have been some prominent examples of this specific type of nightmare for collectors, and it seems that Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood might end up joining the limbo at least for a while. 

But not to worry!  Olive Signature Series, so far mainly notable for spiffy re-packaging of their earlier releases (High Noon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) into must-have special editions, has joined the fray and given us a new 4K remastered edition of this cult classic, packed to the gills with witty and informative supplements, including an interview with the 91-year-old Dick Miller (who had passed away in January 2019: you will be missed!).  Seen in this glorious new transfer, A Bucket of Blood is revealed not so much a light-headed topical comedy as Corman’s trial run of sorts for his Poe adaptations, a genuinely effective psychological thriller that easily renders into obsolescence the snickering put-downs mainly based on its parodistic presentation of the Californian beatnik milieu.

7. The Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection (1949-1953, Region A, Kino Lorber)

Perennially the figure cited when someone asks if there was any notable female director in the history of Hollywood cinema, Ida Lupino the director is best known for the genuinely unsettling film noir The Hitch-Hiker, but this collection gathers together in one boxset a strikingly diverse examples of her producing-directing-screenwriting-and-acting prowess, from her uncredited directorial debut film Not Wanted to her harrowing chronicle of a young dancer’s struggle with polio (Never Fear) and to a thoroughly absorbing examination of the self-delusion of an American patriarch (played with sensitivity by Edmond O’Brien) who believes his dual marriage to two women (played by Joan Fontaine and Lupino, the newly-married-wife and ex-wife of the film’s screenwriter and producer Collier Young) is a perfectly workable arrangement (Bigamist). 

Taken as a whole, Lupino’s keen eyes for dynamic cinematography, social consciousness and tough approach to characterization all declare themselves in these works, making a powerful case for her American auteur status. The collection is graced with excellent and committed commentaries by the likes of Imogen Sara Smith, Kat Ellinger, Barbara Scharres and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a reprint of the pioneering review-analysis of the Lupino opuses by the late critic Ronnie Scheib, a specialist in documentary films at Variety.

6. Cluny Brown (1946, Region A, Criterion Collection)

Every year I end up including, without really intending to do so, what you might call a small gem, an unassuming if not entirely obscure film directed by classic masters in between their better known great works or at the tail end of their magnificent careers.  Last year it was Frank Borzage’s Moonrise: this year it is Ernst Lubitsch’s last film, an utterly beguiling romantic comedy from 1946. It might be perhaps a stretch to read Cluny Brown as a feminist film, yet the eponymous orphan whose life aspiration is nothing other than working as a competent plumber, played with such heart-dissolving radiance by Jennifer Jones, is definitely not waiting for Charles Boyer’s “professor” to come and save her from an obligatory marriage to the town apothecarist. 

Breezy, witty, yet unexpectedly moving in its moment of authentic insight and compassion toward its verbose, life-loving protagonists, Cluny Brown is a complete delight as well as a motion picture that gives you the spiritual equivalent of dipping your toes into a stream of brilliant, clear water after an hour of satisfactory hike.  And, of course, leave it to Criterion Collection to bring it to the attention of collectors like myself.

5. Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy (1970-1974, Region B, Arrow Academy)

If the ability of a label to locate, curate and present in the best available quality the rarest, the least expected yet most deserving titles in the vast ocean of world cinema of the past was the only yardstick for inclusion in this list, then it would be handily dominated by Arrow Video, even elbowing out Criterion Collection, especially since they have established the Arrow Academy imprint. The Sorrow and the Pity, Khrustalyov, My Car!, The Voice of the Moon, Walerian Borowczyk’s Short Films and Animation Collection, Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig, and more idiosyncratic yet essential titles have been available through it, in addition to the arthouse staples such as Fassbinders, Woody Allens, Eric Rohmers simultaneously covered by Criterion, Masters of Cinema and other labels. Yet, the one area that they truly leave their competitors in the dust are their catalogue of positively amazing Japanese-language titles, often packaged in bountiful special editions: Suzuki Seijun’s Taisho Trilogy and The Early Years volumes, the seven-disc set Kiju Yoshida: Love+ Anarchism, Horrors of Malformed Men, The Bloodthirsty Trilogy and, the most amazing of them all, Uchida Tomu’s Bloody Spear at Mt. Fuji.   

Not surprisingly at all, Arrow Video outdid itself again in 2019 by dropping on us the boxset that contains not only the so-called Buddhist trilogy, This Transient Life, Mandala and Poem, but also a later companion piece It was a Faint Dream, a series of Art Theater Guild productions directed by Jissoji Akio, well known in the field of SF-fantasy TV (some key episodes of Ultra Seven, for instance). Aggressively expressionistic, with their madly roaming and sprinting cameras, and disturbing in their amoral and politically suspect pursuits of beauty and understanding, Jissoji’s quasi-experimental, insanely vigorous films are tough to assess without prejudice, even tougher to get out of your mind once you have encountered them. And in truth I cannot think of a better venue than this meticulously packaged Blu Ray edition to access these films. As is the case with La Prisonniere, walking through these dangerous yet enticing pathways with us are sensitive yet candid (non-defensive) commentaries and introductions by David Desser, the premier English-language authority on the ‘60s and ‘70s Japanese art cinema.

4. Detour (1945, Region A, Criterion Collection)

Something of a surprise in the sense that Detour, a notorious Poverty-Row production that, under the direction of Edgar G. Ulmer, has become one of the premier examples of cinematic nihilism, perhaps the purest distillation of the film noir worldview ever committed to celluloid, might have been a better fit with an Olive Signature or Arrow Academy release.

In the real world it was of course Criterion Collection that carefully restored the problematic elements into a 4K HD transfer, presenting the film in its pristine, mesmerizing new looks along with a host of great extras, spearheaded by Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a witty, ironic but extremely informative and provocative documentary about the ostensible “King of B” auteur.   

3. Godzilla: The Show-Era Films (1954-1975, Region A, Criterion Collection)

Hey, I have little to say about this collection, other than to note that one of the reasons cited by at least one fellow reviewer-collector for not including it in the year’s end list, that nearly all of the Godzilla films found here have been previously released in the HD format, just did not fly with me.  On the contrary, I suspect Criterion’s massive collector’s album— with slots for eight Blu Rays carved into a hardcover picture-book cum jacket— is precisely designed to entice those of us, who have double and triple-dipped into the physical media well as far as Big G is concerned.

I mean, what can I say? Would Toho Co. be able to come up with something like this set? Not in a million years.  And yeah, we really deserve to see Godzilla vs. Megalon (in Japanese, by the way, there is no “n:” it’s just Megalo. And it is Radon in Japanese, a shortened form of Pteranodon, not Rodan, while we are at it) in a sparking HD presentation. People pay twenty bucks or more to purchase a 4K Ultra HD Blu Ray copy of Transformers: The Last Knight, for God’s sake.

2. Ultra Q (1966, Region A, Mill Creek Entertainment)

So it seems that the Showa-Era Godzilla collection would be the only item in the Japanese special effects-SF sub-genre to make it to this year’s list, but no, there was yet another surprise waiting in the trenches.  Mill Creek Entertainment has previously released DVD collections of Ultraman and Ultra Seven, unfortunately failing to clear up the controversy surrounding the sub-par quality of the transfer of the former (apparently due to the contractual mishap on the part of Tsuburaya Productions).  Now they are coming up with Blu Ray versions of these iconic series (and to the fandom’s delight, appear to be committed to turn out all classic Ultraman series from ‘60s and ‘70s in HD, including Return of Ultraman and Ultraman Ace), but it was their release of the proto-Ultraman series, the superbly intelligent and provocative Ultra Q, that really made collectors like myself sit up and notice.

Clearly benchmarking the US TV genre staples such as The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, Ultra Q, ambitiously attempting to showcase at least one theatrical-film-grade monster or creature every week, was a happy confluence of high production quality, unbridled imagination opening up the sites for some genuinely intriguing SF ideas plus provocative social allegories, and swashbuckling but charmingly naïve protagonists.  A true classic of its kind, Ultra Q is presented by Mill Creek in an astonishingly excellent series of transfers, easily besting their Ultraman and Ultra Seven Blu Rays in clarity and detail. By the way, you might think that, even if a bit expensive, a True Bone (a Korean reference… sorry, I was teaching the other day about the ultra-rigid hierarchy of aristocratic categorization in the ancient Korea known as Bone Rank system) collector like myself might want to purchase Japanese releases, even if missing English subs.  As a matter of fact, there is a native release of the 4K UHD boxset of Ultra Q.  It is no frills-bare bones, no English subs edition, and officially costs approximately 700$ per pop.  No, that’s not a misprint of seventy dollars, it’s seven hundred dollars. Can’t wait to see how much dough it could fetch a year later at e-Bay, huh?  Thanks, but no thanks, we (and judging from Amazon.co.jp pages, droves of Japanese fans as well) shall stick to the Mill Creek boxset.

1.  Klute (1971, Region A, Criterion Collection)

So it would have seemed that Godzilla or Ultra Q took the top seat this year but, as usual, a rediscovery of another “minor classic” ‘70s (technically it’s 1968 to 1977, but let’s not split hairs) American motion picture elbowed and kneed into it, pushing away gargantuan Japanese beasties.  I hope I could spend some time before I die to talk about why I believe the ‘70s American cinema is one of the (perhaps the) culminating apexes of modern cinematic arts, and why the films made in this period could be subject to endless cycles of rediscovery and reappreciation and would not be exhausted of their potential.  Please don’t be like those European auteurs who need to emancipate themselves from their narrow, cigarette-smoke-drenched, male-centered cinephilic notions.  Yeah yeah, snicker, go ahead and yap about the freaking ’68 “revolution” until your kidneys go out.  So many of these people are not qualified to lick dusts off the sandals of George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula or even Arthur Penn. 

And finally to irk you into a brain-exploding apoplexy, Jane Fonda is a great actress.  Without having to be nobody’s artistic “muse,” I might add (Klute was filmed just as Fonda was divorcing Roger Vadim and being subject to vilification as “Hanoi Jane.” But the film precisely captures her real feminist struggle in her utterly devastating performance. That only assures its timeless status as an American work of art).

Well, I am done. Positively miraculous that I could complete this list again, without either ruining my day job or killing myself, but hey, that’s power of the physical media.  I don’t know how the US presidential election or South Korean general election would turn out, or if Parasite would actually win the Best Director or even Best Picture Oscar (wouldn’t that be something?!)  but I can be absolutely certain that another tsunami of desirable Blu Rays would assault my senses in 2020. 

Here’s my respectful bow to Arrow Video, Powerhouse Indicator, Kino Lorber, Criterion Collection, Mill Creek, Eureka, The British Film Institute, Severin Films, Second Run, 101 Films and many other unmentioned but equally hardworking labels out there, for putting out these Blu Rays.  And to many of my compatriots out there, who love watching “old movies” to death.