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The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

The riches made available to cinephiles on home video proves again that the rumors about the death of physical media have been greatly exaggerated.

The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016
Photo: Arrow Video

The embarrassment of home-video riches made available to cinephiles this year proves once again that the rumors about the death of physical media have been greatly exaggerated. Most of the major studios continue to dump titles on the market in anemic, practically barebones editions, believing (rightly or wrongly) that Redbox and ever-proliferating streaming platforms will account for the lion’s share of their “ancillary revenue.” Nonetheless, those redoubtable boutique labels like the Criterion Collection and Arrow Video are still fighting the good fight: dedicated to rescuing the oddball and the obscure, treating them to rejuvenating digital brush-ups, and leavening them with contextual supplements worthy of any film-school curriculum.

Slant’s list of this year’s best home-video releases offers a little something for every taste, from the Criterion Collection’s commanding presentation of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s epic anthology Dekalog to Arrow Video’s tantalizing 14-course Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast. So, while we may lack the divinatory acumen of a Magic 8-Ball to limn the shape of things to come, we can take a quantum of solace from continuing to expand our cinematic horizons. To quote Kurt Russell in one of our top 20 selections, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?” Budd Wilkins


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

20. Blue Sunshine, Filmcentrix

Blue Sunshine remains an unjustly neglected genre nugget that delivers a helter-skelter fusion of horror-movie tropes, trenchant social satire, and unhinged cult-film weirdness. Ten years after tripping balls on the titular batch of LSD, a group of ‘60s-era college types succumb to “chromosomal damage,” shed all their hair, and devolve into homicidal lunatics. Cheekily accepting at face value the government’s demotivational horror stories about LSD usage, writer-director Jeff Lieberman effectively interrogates the counterculture’s mythic appraisal of its own legacy, while at the same time sticking it to middle-class conformism, suburban anomie, and political opportunism. FilmCentrix’s 4K scan gives the film a whole new lease on life: The image is far sharper and more vibrant than earlier SD editions, and the uncompressed surround mix really pops. Stacked extras include two commentaries, interviews with cast and crew, festival Q&As, some nifty miniature prop reproductions, a reel of classroom LSD scare films, and a CD of the soundtrack. Wilkins


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

19. Carnival of Souls, The Criterion Collection

The vastly influential Carnival of Souls has been accorded the robust and exacting Criterion treatment that it deserves. Image detail is greatly improved from prior home-video editions of the film, remarkably offering a variety of new facial and landscape textures, from the foreground to the background. Blacks are rich and well varied, and whites are soft and delicately balanced. Clarity is revelatory, particularly in the famous overhead image of a vast, looming church organ. Shadows have a new sense of invasive agency, and the swishy, hokey fade-ins and –outs that are used to convey a sensation of water moving over the image are beautifully translucent, as is footage of actual water. A variety of eclectic extras contextualize the film’s homegrown inception, including a select-scene audio commentary with director Herk Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford, and an appreciation by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, who memorably describes the film as concerning someone who drops below the “threshold of human perception.” Chuck Bowen


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

18. L’Inhumaine, Flicker Alley

Flicker Alley is likely the most underrated North American label in film restoration. Whereas Criterion has focused their efforts on filling out the filmographies of Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir, Flicker Alley has been exclusively dedicated to bringing previously unavailable silent masterworks back into full view. Their Blu-rays of titles from the silent-film era continue to challenge perceptions of what the era’s films actually looked like and no release of theirs from 2016 was more jaw-dropping than L’Inhumaine, which features a scorching transfer of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 avant-garde epic. Though maligned by critics upon its initial release, the film was championed by Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who said after leaving a screening that he had “witnessed the birth of a new art.” L’Herbier famously said the film is a “miscellany of modern art,” which is contextualized in a 15-minute featurette on the disc’s extras. For students of the silent era, each new Flicker Alley release is a must-own. Clayton Dillard


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

17. Blood Simple, The Criterion Collection

If anyone ever writes a cinematography manual on the use neon colors in American cinema, Blood Simple will surely constitute a chapter of its own alongside Crimes of Passion and Blade Runner. Criterion’s 4K restoration brightens the film’s neon palette to an extent that far exceeds MGM’s 2008 DVD and even the 2011 Blu-ray, which was an improvement, but nothing like the leap made here. While audio commentaries have been a marker of excellence on home-disc releases for decades, this Blu-ray raises the bar. The supplement of exceptional note is a 70-minute session between writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, in which the trio not only talk through their decisions on the film in a nearly scene-by-scene manner, but are also equipped with a Telestrator that allows them to mark on, and pause, the film for further elaboration. Criterion’s disc should prove to be a landmark release for progressing home-video distribution/filmmaker collaborations. Dillard


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

16. The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew and Associates, The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates deals almost exclusively in a formal myth-busting on par with narrative filmmakers from any of the New Waves throughout the ‘60s. Long unavailable on home video, every film in this indispensable collection is given a makeover, with clear image and sound throughout all four films. The supplements rank among Criterion’s best work from 2016, including two different cuts of Primary, an audio commentary, a standalone documentary, and an extended conversation with D.A. Pennebaker. Cinephiles and historians should be thankful that these films are still in viewable condition at all, let alone the pristine presentations found in the Criterion’s miraculous Blu-ray restorations. Dillard


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

15. Raising Cain, Shout! Factory

This special edition of Raising Cain features what might be the coolest bonus feature of the year. In 2012, Dutch Britan De Palma fanatic and former 24LiesASecond contributor Peet Gelderblom “undid” the film and returned it to its original form. In its earlier days, Criterion likened the discs from their imposing collection to film schools in a box; this is one of the increasingly rare bonus features from other labels to actually approach that benchmark. It’s not that the changes are so completely radical to make Raising Cain an entirely new film, but you do get a better sense of De Palma’s impish wit and fondness for red herrings. Viewers will draw their own conclusions as to which version is a “better” film, but having the chance to compare and contrast strengthens the case for the project itself. Eric Henderson


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

14. Tenebrae, Synapse

Synapse’s 4K transfer of Dario Argento’s twisty meta-giallo Tenebrae leaves all previous editions in the dust. The image is cleaner and clearer than it’s ever been, and evinces lovingly balanced grain levels, uncrushed blacks, and a riot of bold colors. The extras more than make up in quality what they may lack in quantity: Maitland McDonagh’s commentary track is an essential listen, unsurprising since she literally wrote the book on Argento (Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds). The feature-length documentary “Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo” is the perfect primer on the genre, with extensive contributions from Argento, McDonagh, screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, fellow director and frequent Argento AD Luigi Cozzi, and film writers Kim Newman, Alan Jones, and Mikel J. Koven. The limited-edition Steelbook adds a booklet with liner notes and further details on the restoration—and, more essentially, a CD of Goblin’s gloriously propulsive prog-rock soundtrack. Wilkins


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

13. Arabian Nights, Kino Lorber

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom brings the same florid realism to Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights as he does to his collaborations with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Kino’s Blu-ray beautifully captures the tactile 16mm grain that infuses the trilogy’s rich colors. Even the least adorned compositions pop with the colors of costumes and backgrounds, which look vivid even in the most dilapidated and worn condition. Sound is equally impressive, reflecting an immersive use of background noise; in particular, the cawing of the rooster and the finches in volumes one and three, respectively, reaches an ear-splitting, deliberately unbearable decibel level usually reserved for blockbuster explosions. Extras are modest but include Gomes’s outstanding Redemption, a remarkably dense half-hour short that uses archival footage and recited letters to craft a narrative of personal and political dissociation from one’s past. All told, Kino’s Blu-ray excellently enshrines the director’s baffling, entrancing magnum opus. Jake Cole


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

12. Lone Wolf and Cub, The Criterion Collection

Brimming over with the cynical ultraviolence and plentiful T&A found in the best exploitation filmmaking, the six Lone Wolf and Cub films can be said to have inaugurated a new genre: the pulp samurai. Criterion’s 2K transfer looks terrific overall, reveling in the bright, deeply saturated colors (including those perennial geysers of the red stuff), and faithfully rendered fine details of costume and décor. The HD upgrade does, however, reveal certain limitations in the original elements: some out of focus close-up inserts and the occasional softness in low-light settings. The biggest bonus here is a new HD transfer of Shogun Assassin, the English-language reedit of the first two films that turned most Western viewers on to the series in the first place. Shogun Assassin went on to become a bona fide cult item in its own right, largely on the strength of the original films’ insane action set pieces, but also owing to one doozy of a psychotronic synth score. Wilkins


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

11. The Thing, Shout! Factory

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray marks a considerable leap forward from Universal’s previous high-definition release. Textures and grain retention look more detailed, black levels are more consistent, and there are no contrast issues or instances of banding. Color timing has also been refined to further bring out the film’s blue tints. The audio mixes are crisp and well-balanced, with dialogue clear in the front channel as the ominous strains of composer Ennio Morricone’s score fills in the spaces around the edges. The discs also come with three commentary tracks, as well as a plethora of extras, from new interviews to archival EPK featurettes on various aspects of the production, as well as a making-of documentary. The Thing has received enough releases to populate a landfill, but at long last, John Carpenter’s Lovecraftian masterpiece finally receives its home-video due. Cole


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

10. American Horror Project: Vol. 1, Arrow Video

Arrow Video’s American Horror Project Vol. 1 is likely to be among the most unheralded cinematic rescue efforts of 2016; pity, since it’s one of the most important. The set contains three independent American horror films (Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and The Premonition) and Arrow has gone to extensive restoration lengths to locate the “original film materials” in order to conduct each 2K transfer. Every phase of these films’ preservation has been overseen by the Arrow crew—a fact that makes this set all the more commendable and amazing. Each film receives enough supplements to be worth of an entire box set unto itself and the set contains a 58-page booklet with four essays, one on each individual film and one about the collection as a whole. American Horror Project Vol. 1 is certainly a triumph of film-preservation efforts, but it’s also the label’s symbolic demand to unlock the auteurist prescriptions of many prestige, home-disc releases. Dillard


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

9. The New World, The Criterion Collection

Released once before on Blu-ray, the extended cut of Terrence Malick’s The New World nonetheless looks significantly improved thanks to Criterion’s 4K restoration. Infamously shot around the whims of its maker’s minutely obsessed eye, the film derives much of its power from nearly imperceptible fluctuations of light and color, and never before has a home-video release so thoroughly captured the way that sunlight reflects off of John Smith’s (Colin Farrell) boiled leather jacket, or how multivalent the greens of swamp reeds and coniferous trees can be. Sound is also resplendent, plotting the film’s rich soundtrack of geographically and temporally appropriate birdsong in an enveloping field. The inclusion of each cut of The New World, along with a stunning 4K restoration of the preferred extended cut and copious extras, marks this as the definitive home-video release of Malick’s greatest film. Cole


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

8. Films of Maurice Pialat Vol. 1, Cohen Media Group

Maurice Pialat remains one of the most unsung French auteurs from the latter half of the 20th century, perhaps because his films have remained largely unavailable on North American home disc for decades. Cohen Media helped to change that in 2016 with a superb set of transfers for three Pialat films made in the late ‘70s, including Loulou, starring Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, who Andrew Sarris called “the sexiest couple in the history of cinema.” The set also contains more than a handful of interviews with cast and crew, including Huppert, and the 2007 feature-length documentary “Maurice Pialat: Love Exists.” Cohen Media also released Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan as a standalone disc, though unfortunately it runs the same price as this collection. Nevertheless, any release of Pialat’s work will help to fortify his place alongside the titans of European cinema. Dillard


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

7. Female Prisoner Scorpion: Complete Collection, Arrow Video

Female Prisoner Scorpion: The Complete Collection, Arrow’s thoroughly awesome Blu-ray set, is one of the year’s most exciting releases. Following Matsu (Meiko Kaji), a women hell bent on revenge, across four films, the series boasts strange narrative turns and wonky camera angles, making it an enduring and still unusual bit of pulp that’s been especially influential on the films of Quentin Tarantino. Arrow’s efforts are most evident in Jailhouse 41, where a wild color palette of blue-heavy neon consistently informs the frame, whether across faces or in the entire mise-en-scène. Color rarely looks faded or dimmed, with pools of black often providing a contrast to the brighter shades. The package practically bursts at the seams with extras, with appreciations from critics and filmmakers, insights from historians, and even pair of video essays by Tom Mes, who thoroughly examines each film in the series along narrative and visual lines, while also looking at the entire career of Kaji in relation to Pinky Violence films and beyond. Dillard


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

6. Pioneers of African-American Cinema, Kino Lorber

Kickstarter hasn’t only helped independent filmmakers get their projects off the ground; it’s also made previously impossible restoration efforts a distinct possibility. No home-disc offering from 2016 has spoken more favorably to these possibilities than Pioneers of African-American Cinema, Kino Lorber’s five-disc Blu-ray collection that boasts 19 films spanning 1915 to 1946, and includes canonical works from Oscar Micheaux in addition to hidden gems like 1926’s Ten Nights in a Bar Room. Kino raised $53,717 to help fund the set, which includes an 80-page booklet and musical scores for the films by DJ Spooky and Max Roach, among others. The term “essential” is often haphazardly tossed around when discussing restoration efforts, but this collection could be the textbook definition of the term. The films also look superb for their age. Let’s just hope Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, Kino’s next restoration baby, which has already raised $49,857, receives the same sort of care and comprehension. Dillard


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

5. Blood and Black Lace, Arrow Video

Arrow Video’s extraordinary package perfectly complements the bounty of sensory delights offered by Mario Bava’s classic giallo thriller. Tim Lucas’s audio commentary allows modern viewers to imagine the newness that Blood and Black Lace represented for the thriller genre at the time of its release, though it was a financial disappointment that gained cultural cache retrospectively. And Bava’s astonishing use of color is honored by a gorgeous new 2K restoration of the original camera negative, which is one of the most beautiful transfers this critic has seen of a classic giallo. Colors are ripe and hallucinatory, most impressively and subtly the blacks, which are deep and well-differentiated. Flesh tones and textures are densely detailed, intensifying our impressions of the victims’ vulnerabilities. Image clarity is revelatory, though grit and grain are still present and balanced in a pleasing and print-honoring fashion. This is indispensable catnip for the horror-minded cinephile. Bowen


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

4. A Brighter Summer Day, The Criterion Collection

For years, Edward Yang’s magnum opus A Brighter Summer Day could only be seen on horribly sourced bootlegs. Even a home-video release directly sourced from the film’s negative, and without a single touch-up, would have been considered a major event, but Criterion’s 4K restoration is revelatory. Gone are the smudges and compression artifacts that pockmarked so many of the film’s VCD releases; in their place are warm, natural lighting schemes and a crisp palette of reds, ambers, and pale grays. Black levels are deep and textures sharp, so that even the long shots pop with clear detail well into the background. The mono track is a modest one but impressive in comparison to the muffled, crackling sounds that were abundant on the aforementioned bootlegs. Extras include a commentary track from Tony Rayns and copious interviews, but of greatest interest is a taped performance of one of Edward Yang’s plays, Likely Consequence. Given the paucity of Yang’s filmed output before his death from cancer in 2007, the chance to see some of his stage work offers an unexpected opportunity to explore a fuller range of his art. Cole


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

3. Out 1, Carlotta Films

Out 1, Jacques Rivette’s 13-hour opus, has been a cinephile’s holy grail for decades, making its abrupt release on home video the most significant Blu-ray in years. The film’s tactile 16mm photography has been buried in low-resolution VHS rips for ages, and to see it properly restored is thrilling. Both the color and monochrome sequences are crisp and as consistent as 16mm shot on location can be, and grain is healthy throughout. The mono soundtrack, previously buried so deeply under mountains of hiss as to be indecipherable, is clear and reveals a surprising level of dynamic design. For good measure, the set comes with Rivette’s four-hour recut of the series Spectre, as well as a feature-length documentary. Those with a region-free player may want to opt for Arrow Video’s release, which includes three of Rivette’s masterworks in addition to the series, but Carlotta’s edition is a vital presentation of one of cinema’s greatest endurance tests. Cole


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

2. The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast, Arrow Video

It would be easy to simply write off the works of schlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis as exercises in the ironic so-bad-they’re-good aesthetics of camp. But that would be selling their cracked charms considerably short. Consumed in sufficient quantities, these films induce a state of cinematic delirium, with familiar faces and themes bleeding from one film to the next, as though they were only installments in one sprawling, mind-melting serial. Arrow’s gargantuan 17-disc set The Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast is spread across two hardcover volumes housed in a massive red-and-green slipcase with a HGL cut-out mask embossed on the back. All 14 films feature a brief introduction from Lewis, and most of them sport a commentary track as well. There’s a heaping helping of featurettes, the odd short subject, hours of outtakes, and piles of promotional materials on every disc. The HGL Annual also tucked into the slipcase is loaded with film-specific games, promotional art, and technical specs for the entire set. Wilkins


The 20 Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2016

1. Dekalog, The Criterion Collection

Criterion’s 4K restoration of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s series maximizes texture and color, emphasizing aspects like the pale blue color timing of the first episode to the sickly yellows that suffuse scenes of the fifth. The enhanced detail also highlights the realism that grounds the filmmaker’s expressionism, rendering faces and stark backgrounds with tactile depth and clarity. Audio is just as strong, rendering Zbigniew Preisner’s previously compressed score in restored, lossless mono that presents the music in full force. Bolstered by the inclusion of restored copies of A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love as well as a slew of additional interviews with cast, crew, and film scholars, Dekalog is Criterion’s release of the year, restoring the Polish director’s magnum opus to all its visual glory. Cole

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