I think we can agree that 2016 been a tumultuous year what with all the high-profile celebrity deaths and a protracted American Presidential campaign that can best be summarized as ‘horseshit’. Despite all that, the home video industry continues to knock it out of the park. So sure, all these box sets suck just a little because they now exist in a world devoid of David Bowie but, if it makes you feel any better, one of my choices unearths one of Bowie’s little-seen starring roles.
I’ll take this time to add that we don’t get preview samples here at Optimism Vaccine, so we’re dependent on our own research and resources. So I’m sure I’ll miss plenty of worthy nominees. On the flip-side, rest assured, on these recommendations I’ve put my money where my mouth is. Though not literally because that’s how you get Mono. I mean, it might be how you get Mono. Like I said, we’re reliant on our own research, so maybe doublecheck that? But enough of all that, let’s get started…
5. Lone Wolf and Cub \ Criterion \ US
Okay, I admit, if a Criterion box set should be on here, it should probably be their Wim Wenders Road Trilogy set – a trio of brilliant and important films that have been unavailable in decent editions for a long time (I last saw them on VHS) – but honestly, nothing fills me with more glee than Lone Wolf and Cub and to have the complete collection in high definition is fantastic. The films grow increasingly outlandish, but they maintain a stayed narrative rhythm that heightens the madness when swords a-swing, limbs a-drop, and blood a-sprays. Criterion also includes Shogun Assassin, the Frankenstein concoction designed for western distribution that edits together and redubs the first two films. That’s how most people in the west first saw it (myself included) and it is massive fun. Add in some interviews, documentaries, a Japanese documentary from 1939 about sword-making, and some really fun packaging (secret compartment ahoy!) and you’ve got a winner. But, like, buy the Wenders set too, I guess.
4. Pioneers of African-American Cinema \ Kino \ US
The British Film Institute released this amazing set in the UK, but it was Kino that put it out in the US first, on the back of a Kickstarter campaign. There’s not much work required to elaborate the importance of a collection like this. Five Blu-Rays of pre-Civil Rights era cinema directed by African-Americans, it shines a light on a thread of American cinema that has been almost completely overlooked. This set is emblematic of what advances in digital restoration and distribution allow film curators, and film fans, to do- to highlight artistic niches and raise funds through highly directed efforts. This set re-writes the timeline on African-American cinema and Kino have since launched a Kickstarter to fund a companion collection devoted to pioneering women directors. That sounds like a solid contender for my 2017 list.
3. The Jacques Rivette Collection / Arrow Academy / UK
Among the many luminaries lost in 2016 was the French director Jacques Rivette. He’s often lumped in with the New Wave movement, as he was involved with the Cahiers du cinéma journal, but his work is really a very different beast. Part of that difference is Rivette’s approach to time in cinema. He’s not afraid to take as much of it as he needs, using its passage as an active ingredient in his stories. The result is films that often found it hard to gain screen-space in theaters. After all, just how do you screen Out 1, a thirteen-hour tapestry centering on improvisation and experimental theater? It has been done, but not often, so for years Rivette’s most grandiose work lingered in obscurity. A few years back, a German DVD set finally filled the void, but not for Anglophones. Roll on 2016 and great news for Rivette fans. The newly restored Out 1 gained a Blu-Ray/DVD release in the US and the UK. Granted, it was less great news when Rivette died just before the planned release date. Carlotta handled the US version but Arrow take the plaudits with their UK edition, which not only included Out 1 in its entirety alongside its abridged, re-edited cousin, Out 1: Spectre, but also added an additional three features as well: Noroît, Duelle, and Merry-Go-Round. Several on-disc documentaries and a hardbound book round out the deal, bringing five previously difficult-to-find films to film-lover’s shelves in a single, brightly colored, vivacious package. Since it merits mention, I’ll add that 2016 also saw Criterion releasing Rivette’s debut, Paris Belongs to Us and it’s been confirmed that Cohen Media have picked up a wealth of Rivette’s films that will hopefully see release throughout 2017. These include La belle noiseuse, his masterful rumination on the artistic process, and also on how Emmanuelle Béart’s sustained nudity makes it a super-awkward film to watch with your parents.
2. Dekalog / Arrow Academy & Criterion / UK & US
I’m going to share the spoils between two labels here, because both sets boast significant individual strengths. But first-off, it’s pretty amazing we now have not one, but two great choices to view Krzysztof Kieslowski’s remarkable television drama, Dekalog. Previous DVD editions were poor quality, better replicating the limitations of the original TV broadcast than the 35mm film on which it was shot. For those unaware, each episode of the ten-part series examines one of the Ten Commandments, centering on a single apartment bloc. Aside from the overarching thematic connection, each episode works as a separate text. Although not exactly a one-to-one relationship, Dekalog and its international success helped point the way forward for the more ambitious and complex television projects that have become increasingly common now. So we have two versions to look at here- Criterion in the US and Arrow in the UK. Which is better? Well, that depends on your location and your preferences. In terms of technical presentation, Arrow wins comfortably. They present each episode in its authentic 25 frames-per-second (fps) PAL presentation, which is how it was originally broadcast, and spread the ten episodes over five discs, meaning high bitrates and less compression. Criterion slows it to 24fps, a necessary adjustment because the vast majority of US televisions can’t display content at 25fps, but jam all ten episodes onto two discs, resulting in more compression. For most viewers, though not all, the change in framerates will be imperceptible, but Arrow win “authenticity” points here. Arrow includes several of Kieslowski’s previous Polish television productions- five in total. This is a huge boon as these were previously almost impossible to find in an English-friendly format. They’re not in great shape, having not been restored like Dekalog, but being able to see them at all is fantastic. Arrow also throw in another of their hefty books and several other on-disc supplements to add even more value to their set. So what have Criterion got? Well, quite a lot too, actually. Of chief importance, they include the extended, feature-length versions of two of the episodes, A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing. These were produced for theatrical distribution and vary quite a bit from their TV counterparts. They are not included in Arrow’s set as the rights reside with another UK distributor. Criterion also include a booklet of their own and a wealth of archival interviews. Suffice it to say, both sets are excellent. For Dekalog fans, owning both would not be unreasonable.
1. Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969 – 1989) / British Film Institute (BFI) / UK
There was only ever one possibility for the top-spot this year and this is it (obviously, because I know how to make lists). In choosing titles for this selection, I tried to balance a few considerations: prior availability of content, quality of content, and whether it could lead back to statements I made in the opening paragraph about containing a David Bowie movie. This set excels in all categories. For those that may not know, and it would be no surprise as, prior to this set’s release his work has not been widely available, Alan Clarke was a British director who worked in both cinema and TV. He specialized in the latter, appreciating the possibility television afforded to confront audiences in the presumed safety of their own living rooms. Clarke worked in television before cable and satellite exploded the channel count and before digital technology made broadcast times largely irrelevant. It was a golden age for the medium in Britain, when many socially conscious artists – Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Ken Russell, and Alan Clarke etc. – could have a shot at engaging viewers from all walks of British life in discourses they may otherwise never consider. Because what were viewers going to do- not watch television?
Although Clarke is best known for his most ferocious work – borstal drama Scum and football-hooligan tale The Firm – this box set offers insights into his quieter passages, and his much broader interests. The set contains every extant program Clarke directed for the BBC. To give you an idea of how exhaustive it is, some of the content included here was believed lost just a few months prior to the set’s finalization, before being found in the archives by studious researchers. Spanning 13 discs, the set also includes a frankly astonishing amount of supplemental content- at a rough tally, more than twenty-hours. That includes: audio commentaries; video introductions to some of the films, interviews, a new, five-hour documentary spanning Clarke’s entire career; and also Clarke’s Director’s Cut of The Firm, rescued from his own collection. The BFI also curate a 200-page book featuring essays and technical information about the films. This isn’t quite the entirety of Alan Clarke’s career, as it’s missing programs and films he made for other channels and for the cinema, but this is an incredible overview of the bulk of his work and a treat for those of us who had previously only been able to glimpse his genius in the handful of his films that previously made it to DVD. Like Arrow’s magnificent box set of Walerian Borowczyk films in 2014, this single-handedly rescues a major artist from relative obscurity, offering top-quality presentations of his work and a host of additional material to contextualize it. I’d spent most of ten years trying to find anything of Clarke’s that I could, with not much luck. This set hands us the keys and lets us travel whatever direction we choose. 2016 be damned, this may well be the single greatest release in Blu-Ray history.
Is five not enough? You want more! Well fine, have some more...
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema Volumes 1 & 2 \ Milestone \ US
These boxsets are actually part of a single international release, devised by the Polish Film Institute. Art-house distributors Milestone secured the rights to distribute in the US and so I’ll give them credit. Each set includes a selection of restored classic Polish films. Alas, these sets were so limited edition (only 250 units of each volume) that many prospective customers (myself included) simply couldn’t get there on time. The films will surely see separate releases in the future, but for those lucky enough to have got in on time, the sets stand as lavish monuments to the craft of the Golden Age of Polish cinema.
Hellraiser – The Scarlet Box \ Arrow Video \ US
If we were just looking at the quality of the films in the set, then this may not be a front-runner. Yes, I think Clive Barker’s original Hellraiser is a gothic masterpiece and deserves every kind word you can utter about it. But this set also contains Hellraiser 2: Hellbound and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. These are not masterpieces, although Hellbound manages to be oddly compelling despite being a frothing loon of a movie. Still, Arrow pull out all the stops with: lavish packaging; a huge, hardbound book featuring extensive writing about the films, Barker, and his books; hours-upon-hours of video supplements (incl. easter eggs, like a VHS-sourced promo for mail-order Hellraiser merchandise); HD renditions of Barker’s early short-films; and art-cards etc. For horror fans, this is understandably an event.
The Man With the Movie Camera & Other Works \ Eureka Masters of Cinema \ UK
A single film, Dziga Vertov’s landmark documentary, The Man With the Movie Camera, upgraded to boxset status due to the inclusion of four more of his features: Kino-Eye, Kino-Pravda #21, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, and Three Songs About Lenin. Need more? Okay, how about an audio commentary, multiple soundtrack options (with MoC doing some doctoring on some so they’d perfectly sync back to the slightly longer timing of this newer restoration, and a 100-page book too. Yeah, I’d say that makes the cut. Masters of Cinema’s also released the superb Early Murnau – Five Films set which missed this list by a hair’s breadth.
The Hershell Gordon Lewis Feast \ Arrow Video \ UK & US
Okay, so Arrow keep coming up and that’s because no one matches their boxset game. While many other distributors, Criterion included, are trending towards cutting costs on packaging materials as the market for physical media continues to shrink, Arrow seem happy to go the opposite direction. Again, if quality of the films was the only arbiter, this set wouldn’t have a hope, but the works of the “Godfather of Gore” H.G. Lewis can claim genuine importance. They’re wildly influential and remain key elements of the growing independent film movement in the United States during the late 60s to early 70s. Arrow released two versions of this set, both lavish but one slightly more bonkers than the other. You can look up the bevy of extras included (novelty eyeball, anyone?) but the main thing is that both versions showcase fourteen of Lewis’ films, with scores of supplemental materials, digital and physical, added around them. Also, not since Fox’s lavish Ford at Fox DVD set have I found a home-video release so bulky it could be used as a weapon. That’s surely what Lewis would have wanted. “Would have,” you ask? Yes, past tense, because alongside Bowie and Rivette, 2016 also claimed Hershell Gordon Lewis.
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection \ Arrow Academy \ UK
Arrow again!? Sure, maybe I should broaden my horizons but it’s hard to argue against this set’s merits (and value). Criterion has made a few of Fassbinder’s films available in HD in the US, but for his fans in the UK (or with region-free players) this is ten films in one place, offering a great overview of the insanely prolific German upstart’s work. Technical presentation of the films, sourced from new 4K restorations, are top-notch, but then you can add in another of Arrow’s 200-page, hardback books, and also an array of digital supplemental material that can only be described as “intimidating.” Career highpoints like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, and The Marriage of Maria Braun mix with formative work such as Katzelmacher and TV productions like Chinese Roulette. Arrow’s set is a perfect starter kit for the uninitiated and a brilliant round-up for established fans.