The internet agrees, 2016 was a bad year. All the things were bad and some things were even worse than that. Since I began writing this article, several beloved celebrities have died and no previously dead celebrities have come back either. But the year can boast several impressive achievements too. Okay, yes, one of those achievements was smearing lipstick on fascism, prompting us to ‘reconsider its merits’, but also I’m about to drop a list of ‘The Five Best Blu-Rays of the Year’ and Criterion’s release of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight didn’t even make it. In any other year, it’d be a front-runner. So draw your curtains, blocking out the light pollution as the outside world burns down around you, and check out this list instead. And then complain to me about this list. Maybe that will dull the pain. It’s got to be worth a try, right?
5. Hana-bi \ Third Window Films \ UK
It’s not a stretch to say Third Window’s announcement of a high definition version of Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi was met with hurrahs from film fans around the world. I could credit Kitano’s tragi-comic road movie about a laconic, brutish, and corrupt police officer with opening my eyes to the larger potentialities of cinema. At the time, I was almost exclusively watching Asian cinema, but it was genre fare, with an emphasis on high-violence and sensationalism (and there’s nothing wrong with that…I keep softly repeating to myself). Kitano’s languid cinema was a revelation: meticulous, spare, grim, yet dreamy. I’ve made do, for years now, with the sub-par UK DVD of the film. For US-based Kitano fans it’s even worse, with claims that the (similarly ancient) New Yorker DVD is inexplicably cut. Make no mistake, Third Window Films, who specialize in Japanese cinema, have released many more niche and daring titles in 2016, but bringing Hana-bi into the current age was necessary and overdue. They add an audio commentary, director interview, and making-of featurette too.
4. Tenebrae \ Synapse \ US
Through the 1970's, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento made his name popularizing the flashy, slashy subgenre known as, ‘Giallo’. By the early 1980's his films, now dealing in the supernatural, had grown increasingly abstract, which pushed Argento back to more traditional tales of sexually neurotic, knife-wielding maniacs. But if giallo was familiar ground, the 1980's asked new questions of it- the rise of Slasher Movies had shifted audience expectations and rendered much of giallo’s violence tame. Tenebrae emerged as a brilliant reinvention, ably re-introducing Argento’s proclivities into an era of day-glo tracksuits and teased hair, with a playful dash of authorial self-commentary for added spice. It didn’t simply demonstrate that giallo could persist in the 80's, it was arguably Argento’s best work in the mold. Synapse’s limited-edition release asks a premium price but spares no expense. It’s been percolating for several years, with extensive work being done to tweak the already excellent restoration that underpinned Arrow and Wildside’s equivalent UK and French editions. This is the best the movie has ever looked or sounded for home video. Such fastidiousness is only befitting of such a film. The Steelbook case houses Blu-Ray and DVD editions of the film and a CD of the (fantastic) soundtrack. There’s a booklet too, to flip through while wading through the new audio commentary and, Yellow Fever, a feature-length doc that examines the Giallo sub-genre. Just to mention it, 2016 also saw Synapse producing a similarly decadent release of Argento’s bonkers, Phenomena. That’s also highly recommended.
3. A Touch of Zen \ Eureka Masters of Cinema \ UK
A Touch of Zen revels in lush scenery and grand expanse, granting us three hours in a world like few others. Its influence on the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is readily evident, but this older film lacks no grace compared to its descendants. As a lifelong fan of martial arts cinema, King Hu has remained an elusive legend. His work has always been difficult to find, and often presented in less than impressive quality. Thankfully recent restorations have given new life to some of his best loved work. Seeing it this year, it’s like witnessing the birth of everything that I love in the genre. King Hu creates dynamic action sequences through clever staging, elegant choreography, and exacting editing. All the while he teases out subtle dramatic elements that intertwine with the physical forces at play. With new restorations available, the first English-friendly edition of A Touch of Zen came from the excellent Masters of Cinema, followed later the same year by Criterion in the US. Masters of Cinema’s original run (2,000 copies) of the film include an additional DVD with a 50-minute documentary that looks over King Hu’s career (also included on the Criterion disc). On the main Blu-Ray we get a video essay from David Cairns and a “select scene commentary” from Asian-film expert, Tony Rayns. Masters of Cinema honestly undersell this last supplement. A Touch of Zen being three hours long, Rayns “select scenes” amounts to just shy of 90 minutes of detailed discourse.
2. A Brighter Summer Day \ Criterion \ US
Another reminder that 2016 has been a bumper year for long sought-after film editions hitting the market. There’s been talk of Edward Yang’s beloved Taiwanese classic, A Brighter Summer Day getting a home video release for several years now, off the back of a planned major restoration. But it never seemed to materialize. That is, until 2016 when industry heavyweights Criterion do what they do best, make me give them my money. Yang’s film, like many of his fellow Taiwanese New Wave directors, has long resided in a bubble of critical adulation, acquiring a quasi-mystical reputation amongst regular film fans, who couldn’t make it to the right film festival at the right time to see it. Many had to settle for grubby Video-CD (VCD) editions that did no favors to the exacting work of cinematographers, Hui Kung Chang and Longyu Zhang. Lack of availability has been particularly unfortunate in this instance, since Yang’s film is often considered the defining work of modern Taiwanese cinema- a four-hour examination of political and social turmoil in the island state. So now, thanks to Criterion, we can see it for ourselves. Criterion bolster the set, spanning two Blu-Rays, with an audio commentary from Tony Rayns (between this and A Touch of Zen he talked over some long films this year), a feature-length documentary, an interview with the lead actor, and a filmed version of one of Edward Yang’s plays. Basically, it’s everything everyone was hoping it would be…and several other things too.
1. Napoleon \ British Film Institute (BFI) \ UK
Once upon a time a French director named Abel Gance decided to make five films that examined the life of Napoleon. That subsequently became one film that just ran as long as five. Because if you’re already sitting down, why ever get back up again, right? Napoleon is considered one of the most technically audacious projects in all of cinema, silent or otherwise. Massive battle sequences and lush set design paired with handheld camera-work (in 1927) and creative use of superimposition and montage. To add a final dash of extravagance, the film’s finale was shot with three separate camera setups, each image intended to be projected side-by-side to create a very early “widescreen” effect. Napoleon has been virtually impossible to see in decent quality for decades. Every so often it pops up for a repertory showing but good luck catching one of those unless you live in a major city. Even then, it can go years between outings. Gance’s film has been subject to a host of legal hassles that have tied up availability on home video and 2016 saw the BFI break through and give it this stellar release. Even after announcing the release, plenty of cinephiles, having heard rumors for years, were wondering, “could this actually be happening?” The BFI’s version, the product of a 50-year reconstruction project by film historian Kevin Brownlow, is currently the highest quality, and longest version (5 ½ hours) of the film available. Francis Ford Coppola is working on his own restoration, but currently there’s no timeline for when that might actually surface. The massive film comes spread across three Blu-Rays. If you have another 5 ½ hours free, there’s a full audio commentary too (not Tony Rayns this time). There's another two hours of additional documentaries and a hefty booklet rounds out the package. The BFI also include each part of the triptych finale on separate discs so, if you happen to have three separate monitors and three separate Blu-Ray players lying around, you can finally justify your electronic hoarding habits and watch the finale as intended...presumably either alone, or with your significant other nearby, quietly weeping as they realize this relationship is truly beyond help.
Because we're having so much fun, here's some others that didn't quite make the cut...
Horse Money \ Second Run \ UK
Let’s take nothing away from the individual quality of this release, a top-notch release of Portuguese maestro, Pedro Costa’s latest, but I admit this is also a nod to a momentous occasion 2016 afforded: Second Run’s first Blu-Ray release. For those who may not know, Second Run are a pretty remarkable little UK-based label that specialize in very niche titles, with a heavy emphasis on Eastern European cinema. Their work is top-notch, but they’re often overlooked because the lure of pristine transfers sourced from brand new restorations often forces out the guys who are just making stuff available at all. Plenty of Second Run’s catalogue has no HD masters to work from. Some of it has been deemed near-lost before they rescued it from the brink of anonymity. The vastly increased production costs of Blu-Ray kept Second Run at bay for a long time, but they have finally managed to muster up the funds to bring their amazing work to high-definition material…where source material allows. Long may their great work continue.
Thundercrack! \ Synapse \ US
This is a little bit of a cheat, because it came out in December of 2015, but it hardly had time to make any best-of lists and it really does deserve the attention. Thundercrack! is exactly the odd curio that’s perfect for cult film labels to lavish their attention on, and once again, it’s Synapse to the rescue. Simultaneously a porno, a horror film, and an absurdist comedy, it’s safe to say that Thundercrack! doesn’t follow convention. It’s surprisingly elegant in its construction, shot in high-contrast black-and-white on a shoestring budget. It’s also surprisingly surprising, given that it maintains tone despite random forays into hardcore sex and gorilla attacks. Synapse painstakingly worked on the most extant 16 mm copy of the film they could find, producing a superb looking picture, all things considered. And they deserve full credit for treating this exercise in freewheeling, underground cinema with the utmost respect rather than, as plenty of others might do, dumping it out in any old condition on the understanding that there’s always a market for fucking. Their Limited-Edition Blu-Ray set comes with an additional DVD containing a documentary about the low-budget cinema kings, George and Mike Kuchar (George wrote and acts in Thundercrack!) and also featuring several short films made by Thundercrack!'s director, Curt McDowell. It would be easy to pass off this film as a sleazy distraction, but Synapse's work emphasizes its value and distinction. Their hard work deserves recognition.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day \ Bitter Films \ US
I think we’ve talked up Don Hertzfeldt’s work several times here on Optimism Vaccine. Not that he needs us since he’s been nominated for Oscars and shit, but yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is his first Blu-Ray, gathering several of his best-known films, newly polished up for high definition, on a single disc. It also comes with a rather lovely booklet of photos and ephemera and several other bits and bobs on the disc. Support your local animator. And Don Hertzfeldt, support him too.
The Return of the Living Dead \ Shout Factory \ US
I could have put several of Shout Factory’s Collector’s Editions on here. Their Child’s Play release came with a Chucky doll, for example. But I feel like this is the highlight of the bunch. Firstly, it’s just one hell of a fun movie- loud, brash, and free from the irritating constrictions of ‘hows’ and ‘whys’. But then Shout Factory start piling on the supplements and pretty soon it’s head-spinning. Four audio commentaries? Okay, that’s probably overkill. Featurettes and interviews galore too. How about the workprint of the film, running an extra twenty minutes? Why not, right? The film is lean and runs fast but Shout Factory have made sure that even the most devoted of fans will learn a few things once they start digging.
Inner Sanctums - Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979 – 2013 \ British Film Institute (BFI) \ UK
Is this a boxset or a “single” release? I don’t know, but maybe you don’t either so let’s just put it here. Either way it’s a thing of beauty, complementing the austere, oneiric bent of the Brothers’ stop-motion animation. If you’re not familiar with the work of the Quays (that’s pronounced ‘kway’, by the way), they are American identical twins who, enamored with surrealist literature and the poster art of Jans Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk, moved to London and began making short films steeped in an Eastern European sensibility. The work of the Quays is like nothing else, and it is presented here in beautiful quality. The 2-disc set includes over twenty short films, several audio commentaries and interviews, a painstakingly detailed booklet, and a documentary by self-proclaimed fan, Christopher Nolan.
The Sinful Dwarf \ Severin \ US
Just kidding, this is just Optimism Vaccine’s favorite in-joke! Severin gazed into this abyss and the fucker’s been staring back at me from my shelf ever since. It stands as a deftly produced monument to poor life choices. They also offered a Sinful Dwarf plush doll as a promotional tie-in. Thanks Severin! You shouldn’t have. You really, really shouldn’t have…
...but we’re secretly glad you did.