Thursday, December 26, 2013

Top Ten

A list of my favorite Blu-ray releases of 2013 in descending order.

honorable mentions: Christine (Twilight Time); The Conjuring (Warner); Corruption (Grindhouse Releasing); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (20th Century Fox); The Insider (Touchstone); Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Criterion); Ishtar (Sony); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Criterion); Mary Poppins (Walt Disney); Nashville (Criterion); The Odd Couple (Paramount); Oliver! (Twilight Time); Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States (Warner); On the Waterfront (Criterion); Psycho II (Shout! Factory); Repo Man (Criterion); Reuben, Reuben (Olive Films); The Right Stuff (Warner); Rolling Thunder (Shout! Factory); Things to Come (Criterion); The Uninvited (Criterion)
imports: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (BFI); Cinema Paradiso (Arrow); City of Women (Eureka); Dracula/Horror of Dracula (Lions Gate); The Long Goodbye (Arrow); Nosferatu (Eureka); Time Bandits (Arrow); Valentino (Bel Air Classiques); The Wicker Man 3-Disc 40th Anniversary Edition (StudioCanal)

You don't need to be a fan of zombie films to appreciate this third entry in director George Romero's classic Dead Series. Connoisseurs, on the other hand, will recognize its genius right away. It somehow manages to avoid the comic book trappings that could have overpowered it (take that striking Shout! Factory cover for instance) and instead remains a scaled-back, ambitious little thriller with hands-down the most memorable zombie character in any film. Yes, you may know him better as: Bub.
I've been a Luc Busson fan dating all the way back to Subway (1985). I still remember scouring local video stores that were going out of business looking for that holy grail of priceless objects: a used copy of Subway on VHS. I didn't care if it was a crappy English-dubbed version or not; I had never seen another film like it. The same can now be said of Besson's Adèle Blanc-Sec. Sure, it finds itself in Raiders of the Lost Ark territory a few times, but that finale in the museum (I wouldn't spoil it for all the gold in Egypt) is the stuff of pure, childlike fantasy; something in limited supply these days.
Another maddening Hugh Hudson vehicle, that flirts with greatness (like Revolution) but merely comes off as an interesting cult anomaly. Gone are the box-office-safe, triumph of the human spirit vestments of Chariots of Fire. What we get here is a film that doesn't quite know if it wants to be a literal adaptation of a pulp novel, or a true-to-life adventure story. It somehow manages to teeter along in between. The score, the cinematography and the unforgettable presence of Sir Ralph Richardson (who should have won the Oscar) easily make up for any missteps along the way. Personally, I could have done without so many people in ape-suits brutally dying. Cheers to the Warner Archive Collection for resurrecting this one (and more recently Peter Weir's Fearless) from the dead.
I've seen this European horror/cult/sci-fi film several times now. I still have no words to describe it, or my feelings about it. I only know it's given me multiple panic attacks, watching Isabelle Adjani's hysterical performance. Not funny, ha-ha, hysterical, but completely out of her mind, barking mad, hysterical. It's certainly worth the price of admission. Sam Neill seems to be vying for the same interplanetary crazy award as Adjani, and no one (perhaps for the director) seems to really know what it's all about. The fact that I can experience this over and over and still care about what's going on, is a testament of some kind. If David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Werner Herzog and David Cronenberg all made a baby together, it might look something like Possession.
This was Mel Brooks' first film. It shows. I mean that in a good way. Not everything everybody says has to be funny all of the time (something Woody Allen eventually learned by Annie Hall) but a comic actor must be able to sell funny. I don't think there was a man alive who could sell funny better than Zero Mostel. The man simply was: funny. You only have to look at him to laugh. Just look at that cover. I'm laughing right now (on the inside). The Producers might not be Brooks' best, or even funniest film (that might still be Young Frankenstein) but it is effortlessly fresh from start to finish without relying on gags. For that, I applaud you, Mr. Brooks.
The next two are a tie since I really feel they both deserve an equal mention. First up: Disney's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This is the original theatrical feature from 1977. It's actually sort of a portmanteau film, cobbling together several animated Pooh shorts (some preexisting) wrapped around a narration. In any case, it's classic children's storytelling and classic Disney. I still love these characters, perhaps more than any others in a kids film. Only two other characters even come to mind that can rival this ensemble in likeability: Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio and Baloo from The Jungle Book (sorry kids, I'm just not a Lion King or modern Disney fan). It's a seriously sweet film (ah, the memories), and the transfer is flawless (thanks for not screwing this one up, Disney).
Tied with the entry above. John Ford's The Quiet Man has been languishing away on sub-par, mediocre transfers for decades. Well, finally somebody got it right. That somebody was Olive Films. While nowhere near my list of favorite Ford films, The Quiet Man is nevertheless an important one. Perhaps even the most beautifully composed film Ford ever made (though I'd still rank The Grapes of Wrath and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon among the top contenders). This film is a Valentine; a fairy tale; a storybook romance that ends with one of the most justifiably famous fist-fights ever captured on film. While not on par with The Searchers for me, it is pure John Ford, and perhaps the most personal film he directed. He won an Academy Award for his direction, his fourth and final (an unprecedented achievement). The Blu-ray will take your breath away.
Over the years, Roman Polanski has been panning out to be my all-time favorite director. Okay, so Fellini will likely always hold the top spot, but Polanski is definitely a strong runner-up. As far as living directors go, I'd easily say he is my personal favorite. Upon its original theatrical release, Tess didn't quite receive the customary fanfare of other instantly-heralded Polanski masterpieces (like Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown) yet it is a masterpiece all the same. Perhaps the world was too busy trying to lynch Roman Polanski at the time to really notice. The film, dedicated to his beautiful, late wife Sharon Tate, is another perfect literary adaptation that exists on many planes at once: the physical as well as the metaphysical. Chronologically, I would not fall this in love with another Polanski film until 2005's Oliver Twist (though I do have a soft spot in my heart for The Ninth Gate). No matter which author he is adapting for the screen, be it Hardy or Dickens, a Polanski film never fails to live up to the internal life its original creator intended.
Satyajit Ray gave us so many films before he passed away in 1992, thank God. When the best film directors are often listed, the name Ray almost certainly comes up. Renoir, Welles, Kurosawa, Ford, Ray. Everything else sort of stems from there. These directors gave us pure cinema. They may have influenced each other to a large degree, but these artists seem to be the very source of every great thing that was to come out of the medium: every Fellini, Bergman or Kubrick can be traced back. Sure, I can't leave out the likes of Lang, Murnau and of course Chaplin (among many others) but in terms of influencing film culture as a whole, it is this group that created the watershed. Like all of Ray's films, Charulata is a simple one. It's about basic human emotion. Plot is only a necessary evil. In fact, for the simple reason that I can completely identify with an Indian woman's emotional crisis, in a film made in 1964 (set in 1870's Calcutta), Ray becomes more than just a director. He is something like a mystic.
I have waited years to see The Magic Christian again. I'll never forget the first time I blindly rented it on VHS (remember when there was such a time?), having no idea what I was getting myself into. On the surface, it's a silly, episodic, little film. Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr run around trying to prove that every man in this world has his price. Oh, yes, it's an ugly, cynical, little film too. Fortunately, there was once a time when films dared speak the truth about the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in. Less fortunately, the more our civilization moves forward, the less people change. If we had only learned the not-so-subtle lessons on display in The Magic Christian, our world might not be the selfish, materialistic place it is today. On the other hand, there might also be a helluva lot more people running around in drag.
This is the title I've been waiting for all year. As soon as Criterion began releasing Chaplin's films on Blu-ray, I waited on baited breath for only one to be announced: City Lights. To be honest, I don't know if this is Chaplin's best feature film. I find myself gravitating more toward The Great Dictator the older I get. Still, the best films are often ones that contain some hidden shred of the meaning of life. I don't know if Chaplin intended his film here to operate on that kind of level, but the immortal ending has gone on to influence many works: from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria to Woody Allen's Manhattan. It's the kind of thing that only gets better each time you see it. Indeed, there are great films and great directors; then there is Chaplin and City Lights.

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