When AT&T decided to drop FilmStruck from its future streaming initiative, cinephiles let out a howl of rage against the machine in the form of a petition hoping to save FilmStruck that garnered over 93,000 signatures. It’s a tale as old as film’s origins, of corporate interests dictating production and distribution, giving the ax to anything not designated a cash cow.
While numerous think pieces have debated FilmStruck’s worth and legacy in the last month and a half, one thing remained constant: the endurance of physical media. As always, cinephiles could still count on Criterion, like Arrow Video and others, to announce their upcoming Blu-ray and DVD releases, thus reminding us of their devotion to keeping physical media alive.
Whether or not physical media remains the best and most enduring means of accessing high-quality transfers of classic and niche films remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is the increasing popularity of boutique home-video labels. Vinegar Syndrome made and sold over 3,000 copies of their limited-edition release of 1983’s Mausoleum during a Black Friday sale alone—a title that’s now fetching over $100 on eBay. Kino Lorber continues to distribute solid HD transfers of films from across film history at a rate so quick that it’s hard to even keep pace. And almost weekly, Twilight Time announces on their Facebook page which of their limited-edition releases have sold out.
The will to view films of the past is alive and well. The 25 Blu-ray and DVD releases chosen as our best of the year highlight the different hungers—for classic art-house films, for ‘70s horror, for silent cinema—that these labels continue to satiate. Clayton Dillard
The Ancient Law, Flicker Alley
While works of silent cinema continue to receive top-notch restorations from a number of distribution labels, it’s Flicker Alley that often produces some of the finest and most complete releases in terms of image and sound quality and supplemental materials. The crown jewel of their 2018 line of releases is Deutsche Kinemathek’s digital restoration of The Ancient Law, which offers stunning new evidence of Ewald André Dupont’s talents as a filmmaker. The long-unavailable 1923 film now appears in a transfer that has been struck in large part from a combination of two nitrate prints, with color tinting looking especially vibrant. (The film has also been restored to its original 135-minute runtime.) The extras delve into Dupont’s German-Jewish background, including an excellent essay by Cynthia Walk that also highlights the historical circumstances that led to the film’s production. There’s also an essential surviving excerpt from the 1923 documentary Der Film Im Film, featuring on-set footage of Dupont, Fritz Lang, and Robert Weine. Dillard
The Big Country, Kino Lorber
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray transfer of The Big Country highlights the film’s extensive use of deep focus in wide shots to an extent that previous home-video releases of William Wyler’s classic haven’t. The result is nothing short of remarkable. Early scenes of McKay’s (Gregory Peck) arrival in the Old West are best at highlighting the film’s depth of field, with figures moving in a multitude of directions behind the action in the foreground, all in sharp focus. On his feature commentary track, historian Sir Christopher Frayling brings his usual acumen to the film’s production, themes, and critical reception. Those familiar with Frayling’s excellent commentaries on releases for Sergio Leone’s films will find his musings to be of equal quality here, particularly in discussions of image construction and how The Big Country fits within the scope and history of other revisionist westerns. Equally useful for William Wyler fans or historians is a one-hour biographical episode of American Masters from 1986 titled “Directed by William Wyler.” Clayton Dillard
The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, The Criterion Collection
The image on the Criterion Collection’s previous Blu-ray of Monterey Pop was respectable in its clarity, but there’s no denying that this 4K restoration of D.A. Pennebaker’s 16mm film marks a significant leap in quality. The loud colors of the era’s hippie fashions are far more pronounced now, with purples and reds in particular shining with new intensity. The original stereo tracks were cleaned up by legendary sound engineer Eddie Kramer for the last release, and they still sound rich and full. All of the previous Criterion edition’s extras are accounted for here, including an extra disc that contains nearly all of the performances from Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding’s respective sets. Now more than ever, it’s impossible to deny that Monterey Pop is the definitive live document of the hippie era, a vivid portrait of a cultural movement still in its ascendancy. Jake Cole
De Niro & De Palma : The Early Films, Arrow Films
While his twisty, highly stylized exercises in suspense are his brand, Brian De Palma is also one of Hollywood’s most acerbic social satirists. Greetings, from 1968, is a ferociously incendiary, humorously episodic account of young men looking to avoid being drafted. The film features Robert De Niro in his first major role, one that he reprised in 1970’s Hi, Mom!, where his Jon Rubin tries his hand at pornographic filmmaking before landing on domestic terrorism. The former was the first film to be slapped with an X rating by the MPAA and the latter is infamous for its “Be Black, Baby” performance art sequence, during which hoity-toity white audiences are brutalized in a simulation of the black experience in America. Throughout these films, De Palma walks a fine line between the funny and frightening—cackling with us but also sometimes at us. Hi, Mom!, Greetings, and 1969’s The Wedding Party have all been restored for this Arrow Films box set, which is stocked with a plethora of juicy extras, from an appreciation of De Palma and De Niro’s collaborations by critic and filmmaker Howard S. Berger, to a predictably engaging, authoritative, and bullshit-free commentary by film critic Glenn Kenny. Niles Schwartz
Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, The Criterion Collection
The rapturous Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood affirms the profound emotional power of the art born from one of Hollywood’s most influential and idiosyncratic collaborations. Joseph von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich fashioned a fantasy world that embodies the longing that drives one to cinema: for a grandeur that invites our complicity with icons, rendering our anxieties into pop myth. In their unreality, these six films elucidate our sexual hungers as well as the miscommunications and insecurities that often prevent said hungers from being satiated. It’s difficult to communicate the beauty of these six films together in words, and critics Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin circumvent this problem by offering an evocative juxtaposition of quotations and film footage in their video essay Bodies and Spaces, Fabric and Light. López and Martin manage to elucidate the existential loss of identity that’s communicated by von Sternberg’s obsession with ornamentation, and their work here is one of this package’s highlights. Bowen