2023년 1월 29일 일요일

My Favorite Twenty (and One) Blu Rays of 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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