The death of Blu-ray and DVD has apparently been prematurely called. Streaming and cable VOD still dominates home viewing but Redbox and other kiosk-based disc vendors have kept disc rentals alive (if not quite robust) and Blu-ray remains the format of choice for movie collectors and home theater enthusiasts, keeping sales robust enough to bring new players into the business. Kino Lorber expanded its release schedule with a Kino Classics collection of titles from the MGM/UA catalog and distribution deals with Cohen, Raro, Redemption, and Scorpion. Shout Factory has ventured into restorations and special editions as well as new partners (like Werner Herzog). Warner Archive has increased their flow of Blu-rays with some substantial titles presented in high-quality editions. Twilight Time has made its own limited edition business plan work and started adding more supplements to their releases, including original commentary tracks from the company’s film history brain trust.
This is my highly subjective take on the best disc releases of 2014 (of those I had the opportunity to watch and explore), with extra points for heroic efforts and creative archival additions. Note that this is strictly domestic releases—I do have import discs but I don’t have many and I barely have the time to keep up with American disc releases—and are as much about the importance of the release as the quality of the disc.
1. The Complete Jacques Tati (Criterion, Blu-ray and DVD) collects all six features he directed (including alternate versions of three films) and seven shorts he wrote and/or directed, plus a wealth of other supplements. Of the six features on this set, all but Playtime make their respective American Blu-ray debuts and two appear on disc for the first time in the U.S. From his debut feature Jour de Fête (1949) to the birth of both M. Hulot and the distinctive Tati directorial approach in his brilliant and loving Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) through the sublime Playtime (1967) to his post-script feature Parade (1974), this set presents the development of an artist who took comedy seriously and sculpted his films like works of kinetic art driven by eccentric engines of personality. The amiable oddball Monsieur Hulot was his most beloved creation, a bemused outsider navigating the craziness of the modern world, but unlike the films of Chaplin, Tati’s screen alter ego is just a member of an ensemble. A gifted soloist to be sure and the face of the films, but a player who weaves his work into the larger piece. Tati made comedy like music and this collection celebrates his cinematic symphonies. Playtime reviewed here.
2. The Essential Jacques Demy (Criterion, Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format set) offers the definitive American disc releases of six of the defining films of Jacques Demy, the Nouvelle Vague‘s sadder-but-wiser romantic, from his 1961 debut Lola to his 1982 Une Chambre en Ville, which makes its American home video debut here. Like so many of his fellow directors, Rivette loved American movies, especially musicals, but his taste for American musicals and candy-colored romance was balanced with a bittersweet sensibility. For all the energizing music and dreamy love affairs, his romances more often than not don’t really get happy endings. The films include his two most famous musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), as well as four early shorts—Les horizons morts (1951), Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956), Ars (1959), and La luxure (1962)—plus two documentaries on Demy made by his widow Agnes Varda, a small library of archival TV programs on the films, and the hour-long visual essay “Jacques Demy, A to Z” by James Qaundt. Full review here.
3. Once Upon A Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD) is Sergio Leone’s portrait of a 20th century American success story as a gangster epic of greed, loyalty, betrayal, and power, seen through the haze of an opium high. The film was originally released in the US in a butchered version cut by over an hour and torn from its evocative time-shifting structure to a traditional linear narrative. It was restored to its 229-minute European cut decades ago but earlier in 2014 it was expanded with an additional 22 minutes of footage that Leone was forced to cut out before its Cannes premiere in 1984. The added footage was taken from workprint material and, faded and sometimes damaged, stands out against the well-reserved and beautifully-mastered material from the previous cut. Among the restored sequences is a legendary scene with Louise Fletcher as a cemetery director, previously only glimpsed in publicity stills, as well as numerous moments that add lovely grace notes to the characters and add dimension to certain relationships. A deluxe Blu-ray Book edition includes the previous Blu-ray release of the 229-minute European cut, which features commentary by Richard Schickel, and an excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone. Full review here.
4. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Kino Lorber) is the grandfather and the godfather of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential films of its era. It has seen some awful home video releases over the years but even the superior presentations have suffered from damaged footage, missing frames, and inferior source material. The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation was given access to the original camera negative as the primary source for this new digital restoration (previous releases were taken from archival prints), with additional footage from the best of the existing archival prints. It was a two year project and the efforts are visible in every frame of this reclamation; the difference between Kino’s previous DVD and this stunning new restoration is night and day. The image is not just clean and free from much of the damage seen on earlier editions, missing frames and footage has been restored and the image is now sharp and strong, with deep blacks, vivid contrasts, and unprecedented clarity, stability, and detail. Full review here.
5. The Long Day Closes (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Dual Format) brings Terence Davies’ autobiographical films to close with the glow of the happiest days of his life. Set in mid-fifties Liverpool, this film offers snapshots of moments in in the life of Davies’ stand-in Bud (Leigh McCormack) over one year, at school (where he is increasingly teased and bullied by bigger boys), at holiday celebrations (with neighbors singing and joking), and at the movies, where the camera lingers on his face, captivated by the screen. This is a film of exacting textures and delicate moods, sustained in heavenly beams of light and the reflection of warm memories, and this edition, mastered from a restored 2K film transfer supervised by Davies and director of photography Michael Coulter, is astoundingly beautiful. The disc features commentary by Davies and Coulter recorded in 2007 and a 1992 episode of The South Bank Show that profiles Davies and The Long Day Closes. Reviewed for Turner Classic Movies.
6. Herzog: The Collection (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) presents 16 Werner Herzog films on 13 discs spanning three decades, from his second feature Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) to his documentary tribute / remembrance My Best Fiend (1999), which profiles his long, turbulent personal and professional relationship with Klaus Kinski. Apart from Nosferatu the Vampyre, the films all make their respective Blu-ray debuts in the U.S., mastered from new digital transfers produced by Herzog and supervised by Herzog’s longtime producer Lucki Stipetic. It’s not even close to Herzog’s complete output and it leaves out many of Herzog’s most interesting and offbeat non-fiction films (perhaps a second volume will follow if sales are good enough?) but it includes the major films Herzog created in the period, including both the German and English language versions of Nosferatu, which Herzog shot concurrently. Though not necessarily restored editions, they are high quality masters from primary elements out of Herzog’s own archive. There are no new supplements created for this edition but Shout Factory got the rights to commentary tracks Herzog recorded for the earlier releases in the U.S. and in Germany. Full review here.
7. The Mack Sennett Collection: Volume One (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) collects 50 comedies of a variety of lengths (including one feature) from Sennett’s studios, from 1909 to 1933 and his early sound comedies. They aren’t all masterpieces, of course, but they do offer a history of the evolution of film comedy through the silent era to early sound films. It also rescues so many films either previously unavailable or only available in compromised or inferior editions and it encompasses so many silent movie greats that began their respective careers in his studios and, in most cases, remained to flourish there. These shorts are restored (and sometimes rescued) from a variety of sources and some are downright scruffy, but the wonders of high-definition digital masters still gives us often crisp images under the noise of damage and that kind of care is at least as important as film restoration. There are films over 100 years old here and it’s astounding that they’ve survived in viewable condition at all. Each short is accompanied by a lovely original score and almost half of them feature optional commentary by a comedy historian, plus there are additional supplements. Full review here.
8. Come Back, Africa – The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume II (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) presents Rogosin’s 1959 drama about apartheid, which he shot clandestinely in South Africa under the constant threat of arrest and deportation (his local collaborators faced even worse). He began work under the guise of producing a non-political film about the musical culture of the country (and there is, in fact, a wealth of local music in the film) while secretly meeting anti-apartheid activists and developing a loose script with the help of local writers, artists, and activists. Using non-actors and shooting clandestinely, he improvised from the outline. The result is a loose, sometimes arch drama that draws its power from the texture of the lives and the locations shown on screen. The disc debut of the film is complemented by Rogosin’s fourth feature Black Roots (1970), a 1978 interview with Lionel Rogosin, an introduction to Come Back, Africa by Martin Scorsese, and three documentaries. Full review at Turner Classic Movies.
9. The Conformist (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD), Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece about a petite bourgeois Italian (a superb performance by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who simply wants to disappear into the fabric of Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, is arguably the director’s greatest film, and it was hugely influential on American cinema of the seventies. In 2011 the Cineteca di Bologna commissioned a new restoration of the film, mastered from the original negative in 2K for digital screenings and for disc. It brings out the rich, deep hues while preserving the texture of the film. Raro’s release on Blu-ray and DVD features the “visual essay” In the Shade of the Conformist with Italian film critic and historian Adriano Apra and featuring clips from a 2011 video interview with Bertolucci, plus two trailer and a booklet. Not quite up to the level of Criterion at its best, but pretty close. Full review here.
10. The Killer Elite (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is included not for the film itself—one of Peckinpah’s impassioned expressions of loyalty, betrayal, professionalism, and violence as a way of life hung on a weak scrip—but for its very special supplements: the American home video debut of Peckinpah’s 1966 made-for-television drama Noon Wine, an intimate 52-minute production shot on a combination of film and videotape and broadcast on TV once. Adapted by Peckinpah from the short novel by Katherine Ann Porter, this is an intimate production shot in a stripped down style that puts the focus on character and language. The master 2-inch tape was destroyed by ABC decades ago and until recently the only surviving copies were poor quality B&W kinescope recordings. This edition is mastered from 1-inch videotape copy of the master recording. It shows its age and provenance—lo-fidelity image, electric color, the occasional tape glitch—but looks remarkably good considering. And, like The Killer Elite, it features commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, as well as archival featurettes and a booklet. Full review here.
Essential Disc Debuts (in alphabetical order):
Cry Danger (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD)
Il Sorpasso (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD)
Judex (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD)
Juggernaut (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Lusty Men (Warner Archive, DVD) (viewed but unreviewed at this time)
Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut: Special Edition (Scream Factory, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Portrait of Jason (Milestone Blu-ray and DVD)
Show Boat (Warner Archive)
Sorcerer (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Verdun: Looking at History (Kino Lorber, DVD)
More Beautiful Blu-rays (in alphabetical order):
Double Indemnity (Universal, Blu-ray)
The Man From Laramie (Twilight Time, Blu-ray)
My Darling Clementine (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray)
Out of the Past (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
Performance (Warner Archive, Blu-ray)
Red River (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) (viewed but unreviewed at this time)
Sunrise (Fox, Blu-ray)
Touch of Evil (Universal, Blu-ray)
TV on Disc:
As I am no longer the home video guru of a major entertainment website, I don’t have access to as many releases as I used to, and I don’t have the time to commit to exploring them as I used to. So this year I missed two of the most celebrated TV on disc releases of the year: the decades-in-the-making Batman: The Complete Television Series (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) and the Blu-ray debut of Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Paramount, Blu-ray).
Given that, three outstanding sets that I did receive and explore deserve recognition: Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) was remastered almost from scratch, going back to the original film elements and reconstructing the episodes with the video masters as a guide. WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD) was held up all these years because of music rights. Shout Factory didn’t clear all the music but they did get a majority of songs and most of the important and essential tracks (Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and a few others were prominent hold-outs). And Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series (Shout Factory, DVD) is a fine release of an American TV landmark and the disc debut of seasons three through seven of the show.
Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, NFBF) , the Orson Welles film (or rather film project) that was long thought lost (the last print was reportedly destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970), was found a few years ago and restored. It’s not a feature or even a short, per se, more of an experiment shot to accompany a production of the theater farce “Too Much Johnson,” but at least the first section plays just fine on its own as a tribute to silent slapstick comedy with Joseph Cotten doing Harold Lloyd antics and Buster Keaton chases as a serial philanderer pursued by a jealous husband. The film was unfinished but mostly complete and you can watch both the workprint and a “reimagined” version with the outtakes removed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website. An HD version of both are available through the subscription streaming service Fandor. I wrote an essay on the film for Keyframe.