The Best DVDs and Blu-rays of 2012

[31 January 2013]

By PopMatters Staff

From classics to contemporary television, the typical titles and the surprising outsider choices, the year in home video was just as divisive, and delightful, as the rest of our meaningful media.

 


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Father’s Day (Blu-ray)

Director: Astron-6
Cast: Mackenzie Murdock, Adam Brooks, Connor Sweeney, Matthew Kennedy, Brent Neale, Amy Groening

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Father’s Day (2011)
Troma

It would be easy to say that Father’s Day is the film Grindhouse wanted to be. Of course, that would be assuming that Mr. Tarantino and his pal Mr. Rodriguez had the first clue about what an actual exploitation film truly is. Their attempted recapture of the “glory days” of the drive-in was nothing more than a pair of amplified genre efforts, each one pushing the limits of the premise by throwing as much blood and bombast at the screen as possible. Now, Father’s Day GETS the concept of full blown cinematic sleaze. It doesn’t merely wallow in excess, it redefines it. Where else can you find a film which flawlessly mimics the steady stream of outsider outrage that used to permeate the passion pits from 1955 until 1975. We get blood, guts, gore, death, defilement, sex, splatter, nudity, jokes (both obvious and far inside) and enough jaw dropping invention to make those aforementioned auteurs ashamed of their meager attempt. Bill Gibron

 


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Underdog: The Complete Series

(CBS)

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Underdog: The Complete Series
Shout! Factory

Unlike most of the classic animated shows that in recent decades became popular through syndication, Underdog has always lingered dangerously between being a beloved, if small, mainstream creation and remaining an obscure, cult show. From 1964, the year when it first aired, and up to the early ‘90s when networks tried to revive it through re-runs (let’s not even mention that live action version from 2007) Underdog has remained present in popular culture without people really knowing why (remember that episode on Friends with the balloon?). It can be said that this little-show-that-could has, well, been trying to overcome the limits of its title. Jose Solis

 


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Mother’s Day

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Cast: Rebecca De Mornay, Patrick John Flueger, Jaime King

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Mother’s Day
Anchor Bay

Mother’s Day is advertised and promoted as a remake of the 1980 cult film of the same title. Thus, the first impression is that filmmakers appear to be running out of fresh ideas. After all, the original is a truly obscure film produced and distributed by the infamous Troma Entertainment. As horror movie connoisseurs know, Troma is identified for its outlandish, bizarre, facetious, gory, profane, subversive, unsophisticated, cheap, shoddy films.

That being said, it’s only fair to say upfront that other than sharing some of the same producers, the title is the only major element that connects the original film to its remake. Indeed, the cast, director, narrative construction, visual structure, production values, and ideological subtexts are completely different in both films. Furthermore, the new Mother’s Day is actually a decent post-millennial horror film that aptly exploits our new fears and anxieties spawned and shaped by the current economic crisis. Marco Lanzagorta

 


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To Kill a Mockingbird

Director: Robert Mulligan
Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, John Megna, Frank Overton, Robert Duvall, Brock Peters, Philip Alford

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To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)
Universal

I’m a sucker for any movie that releases Academy Award speeches as extras, so I knew the 50th Anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird would be one of my favorites as soon as I read the back cover. The film couldn’t disappoint; not with Gregory Peck leading the way as AFI’s Best Film Hero Atticus Finch. The special features don’t either. There’s not one but two feature length documentaries (one a making-of and one on Peck), feature commentary from the director, and “Scout Remembers”, a touching reflection from Mary Badham on the film and Mr. Peck. In case you couldn’t tell, Atticus Finch and the man who played him are all over this beautiful restoration. Fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ben Travers

 


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Tarantino XX (Blu-ray)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Brad Pitt, Uma Thurman, Patricia Arquette, Michael Fassbender, Christoph Waltz, John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster

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Tarantino XX
Lionsgate

The provocative Quentin Tarantino celebrated his 20th anniversary in the business with what has been his most divisive film to date. While audiences seem to be loving the unbridled violent joys of Django Unchained, critical reaction has been a little more reserved with some accusing him of falling to Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar-seeking charms and the truth is this boxset in a way felt like an extension of that. Perhaps nothing other than a marketing ploy to bring attention to the auteur’s work, all his movies have simply been repackaged and put together in a set with a new documentary. There is no extended Kill Bill, no director’s cut of anything and yet, one can’t help but fall for the charms of the director and his playful approach to cinema. Having the movies in a single set might only be practical for saving purposes but re-exploring his filmography in a single place feels like he’s closing an era, preparing us for his next XX. Jose Solis

 


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  A Dangerous Method (Blu-ray)

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon

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A Dangerous Method (Blu-ray)
Sony Classics

Based on the stage play The Talking Cure, the bitter academic falling out between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung is the dramatic fulcrum of this extraordinary film. Jung’s relationship with his brilliant but disturbed female patient Sabina Spielrein drives a wedge between Freud and Jung and triggers a crisis in the field of psychoanalysis. The two male leads are carefully rendered: Freud is a meticulous scientist yet emotionally remote while Jung is the intuitive artist and mystic. Spielrein is caught between the two rivals in a merciless chess match. The superb cast of Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, and Kiera Knightley reveals the human costs involved in a towering battle of intellects. John Grassi

 


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George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: George Harrison, Ring Starr, Olivia Harrison, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Eric Clapton, Dhani Harrison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Phil Spector.

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George Harrison: Living in the Material World
UMe


Perhaps the most remarkable element of this epic documentary from Martin Scorsese is how well the Hollywood veteran finally makes George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle, a fully realized character in the eyes of fans and of the world. It’s a deeply intimate film about a man who favored his privacy and a very public celebration of a man who spent his final years eschewing the trappings of fame and celebrity. There’s a tendency to see Harrison as the gentle peacenik who devoted himself to all matters spiritual and serene and who, like his bandmate Ringo Starr, endured a place in the shadows in the Fab Four. But that’s only part of the story.

Living in the Material World follows Harrison from his early life in Liverpool until his last breath in 2001. Fans, especially those who devoured the Anthology series in the ‘90s, might bristle at one more telling of how the Beatles became The Beatles and then came undone, but it’s all a necessary part of Harrison’s biography and here, that story is not just standard rock doc fare—those elements are, after all, in the hands of one of the great storytellers. Jedd Beaudoin

 


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Take Shelter

Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Katy Mixon, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker, Ray McKinnon, Lisa Gay Hamilton

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Take Shelter
Sony Classics

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) and anchored by a magnificent, Oscar-worthy performance by lead actor Michael Shannon, Take Shelter tells the story of a stoic Midwestern family man struggling to deal with what he believes to be visions prophesying a coming apocalypse, but what appear to the rest of the world as the sudden onset of paranoid schizophrenia. His eerie visions of anarchic death and destruction are deeply troubling and extraordinarily well-rendered by Nichols, and his increasingly desperate attempts to cope with them are portrayed with heartbreaking compassion and vulnerability by Shannon, a criminally underused and underrated actor. With an equally strong supporting performance by Jessica Chastain as Shannon’s wife, Take Shelter is a gripping and intense drama that raises profound questions and will stay with any viewer for a long time afterward. Pat Kewley

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A Streetcar Named Desire (Blu-ray)

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden

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A Streetcar Named Desire
Warner Bros

Blu-rays may be the saving grace of black-and-white movies. I’ll admit I have a hard time getting through the pre-color phase of cinema. Many movies of the era just look so damn flat. Not anymore. Elia Kazan’s undisputed classic adaptation of Tennessee William’s legendary play is given new life by the vivid medium. There has to be 100 different shades between the black and white spectrum, and each one pops more than past restorations for VHS or DVD. Add in the three extra minutes of never-before-seen footage—footage banned by the Legion of Decency censors before the film’s release—and the Blu-ray edition of A Streetcar Named Desire becomes the best and only edition any fan should own. Ben Travers

 


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Lonesome

Director: Paul Fejös
Cast: Barbara Kent, Glenn Tyron

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Lonesome
The Criterion Collection


The term “lost classic” gets thrown around a fair amount today, but director Paul Fejös’ rarely-seen1928 film Lonesome, an audacious and visually spectacular urban love story from dawn of the talkie era, comes as close to the real deal as you’re likely to find these days. Rarely seen over the last eight decades except by academics and festival audiences, Lonesome has finally been released by the Criterion Collection in a lavish two-disc set, the first time it has ever been available on any home media format, thanks in no small part to painstaking restoration efforts by the George Eastman House.

In many ways Lonesome can be seen as a mainstream Hollywood version of the so-called “city symphony” movies like Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. There were a number of filmmakers in the ‘20s who realized that recent innovations in motion picture technology and techniques made it a medium uniquely suited to capturing the thrumming, kinetic feeling of life of the modern city, and Fejös’ Lonesome features every one of the imaginative techniques used in those widely-hailed films. Pat Kewley

 


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Heaven’s Gate (Blu-ray)

Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Isabelle Huppert, Joseph Cotton, Jeff Bridges

(United Artists)

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Heaven’s Gate
The Criterion Collection

Talk about chutzpah! What does it say about the premier preservationists over at the Criterion Collection that they decided to champion what many consider to be one of the biggest bombs of the post-modern auteur era? Even worse, this notorious film brought down an entire studio on its way to destroying the career of its wunderkind director, Oscar winner Michael Cimino. Argue over the exclusion of the more than mandatory Final Cut documentary, and what you have here is a perplexing, if near perfect, document of this doomed vanity project. Cimino’s confused narrative and equally obtrusive naturalism is still in place, enhanced by the gorgeous new transfer, and one has to admire the audacity on display. Few people would take a minor moment in history—the cattle ranchers vs. farmers spat known as the Johnson County War—and try to turn it into an epic journey of the neophyte American soul. Cimino did, and perhaps that’s why Criterion came calling. Bill Gibron

 


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They Live (Collector’s Edition) (Blu-ray)

Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David

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They Live (Blu-ray)
Shout! Factory


They Live was a postmodern pastiche of old-school science fiction that, for a variety of reasons, was too ahead of its time to be properly appreciated. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. It was too of its time, in 1988, and it’s even more of its time, in 2012, and it will not reach its expiration date in 2022, or 3022, if They are still amongst us—or vice versa.

They Live is actually very similar, in many regards, to John Carpenter’s other misunderstood and inadequately touted masterpiece, The Thing. The Thing, released in 1982, did not fare as well as it could—and should—have and like They Live, it endures as a cult classic. Where The Thing offered an indelible examination of paranoia it was also an eerily prescient, if quite direct and unintentional commentary on the AIDS crisis. They Live was an explicit condemnation of the Reagan years, and the fact that its release virtually coincided with the country’s decision to effectively give him four more years, with George Bush as the delivery device for an extended “morning in America”, suggests some reasons it did not fully connect. Sean Murphy

 


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Battle Royale

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Cast: Beat Takeshi, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda

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Battle Royale: The Complete Collection (Blu-ray)
Anchor Bay


Battle Royal, Kinji Fukasaku’s cult classic, has been floating around in various forms since its initial release in 2000. I’ve personally watched it on grainy VHS and region free DVD, at late night screenings, and once even projected on the massive concrete wall of an abandoned warehouse near an airport. Finally, the controversial film is getting a proper US release on DVD and Blu-ray with Battle Royale: The Complete Collection. And the package is well worth the wait.

Battle Royale, itself an updated Lord of the Flies (also owing a huge credit to Running Man), is savage, sharp, satirical, and brutally funny. As a way to control rampant underage crime, a class of out of control ninth graders is drugged, rigged with explosive collars that can be remotely detonated at any time, and released into an abandoned island wilderness. Last teen standing wins; winner takes all. Much like Top Gun, there are no points for second place.

Fukasaku’s film captures the desperation of the unwilling participants. Some are wracked with fear, guilt, and panic, while others take to the situation with shocking ease, adopting the horrifying necessity of murdering their classmates in order to live another day. Darwin’s edict of survival of the fittest played out in a teenage microcosm, Battle Royale is a bleak commentary on humanity and society, full of blood, the violence and splatter that Japanese cinema does so well, and biting gallows humor. The film garnered worldwide acclaim, including a multitude of Japanese academy award nominations but, hot on the heels of Columbine, never secured a US release. Brent McKnight

 


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And Everything Is Going Fine

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Spalding Gray

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And Everything Is Going Fine (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection

Although he tragically committed suicide nine years ago, writer, actor & monologist Spalding Gray left behind a substantial record of his life and work, including hours upon hours of film and video of the autobiographical monologues that made him famous. Longtime supporter Steven Soderbergh (who turned one of Gray’s one-man shows into the film Gray’s Anatomy in 1996) combed through two decades of this footage as well as interviews, home movies, and other ephemera, to compile And Everything Is Going Fine, a life- and career-spanning documentary about this master storyteller, as told in his own words. Eschewing additional interviews or narration, Gray’s voice is the only one we hear in the film, and Soderbergh’s deft editing makes it feel almost like the film itself is a new monologue by Gray, somehow delivered posthumously (which would have been fitting, for a man as obsessed with death as Spalding Gray was). Like Gray’s best work, it’s touching, funny, revealing, and melancholy—a moving tribute to a unique personality and a great artist. Pat Kewley

 


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Apartment 143

Director: Carles Torrens
Cast: Kai Lennox, Gia Mantegna, Michael O’Keefe, Rick Gonzalez, Fiona Glascott, Francesc Garrido

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Apartment 143
Magnet

This low-budget thriller updates Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill Housewith bone-chilling urgency. Paranormal investigators move into a haunted apartment where a widower’s family is tormented by a vengeful spirit. As the team sets up their motion detectors and night-vision cameras, they witness a family being torn apart. A teenage daughter rages against her father while her innocent brother gets caught in the crossfire. At the heart of this darkness is the spectral presence of their dead mother. As the investigators slowly unravel this mystery, director Carles Torrens turns the screw with masterful dramatic progression, continually raising the stakes all the way to the film’s shocking end. John Grassi

 


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We Need to Talk About Kevin (Blu-ray)

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell

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We Need to Talk About Kevin (Blu-ray)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

Sure, every mother worries that their child will grow up confused and maladjusted. They fear that life will take the tender and naive and make them strident and hard. Few, however, imagine their offspring as the spawn of the Devil himself, or even worse, inherently and irretrievably evil, and yet that’s exactly where Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) finds herself at the beginning of the eclectic pseudo-horror film We Need to Talk About Kevin. The boy in question is her sadistic son, an adolescent whose just committed an appalling act of public violence. As she tries to figure out just where she went wrong, Eva comes to a startling conclusion - perhaps, she wasn’t a bad parent. Perhaps, Kevin was meant to be a killer all along.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is, perhaps, the most obvious anti-child rant ever realized by a mostly mainstream motion picture. While the symbolism employed by director Lynne Ramsay is a tad too obvious (does everything have to be blood red???) and the storyline a bit too scattered in structure, the overall result is devastating in its declaration. This is a story where the evil is obvious. It’s right there in front of us, smack dab in the middle of every scene. Unlike the typical psycho set-up, where Mommy and Daddy drive Junior to insane acts, Kevin makes it clear that Eva has given birth to the ultimate bad seed. Bill Gibron

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Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (Blu-Ray)

Director: James Whale, Tod Browning, Karl Freund, George Waggner, Jack Arnold

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Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (Blu-Ray)
Universal

When it comes to good, old-fashioned creepiness, you can’t beat the classic Universal monster movies. From Dracula (1931) to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Universal created a string of horror features that set the standard for the genre, and which still hold up to viewing today.

As part of their 100th anniversary celebration, and just in time for Halloween, Universal is releasing a Blu-Ray set of eight of their horror films, with a generous package of extras. These films feature a regular Murderer’s Row of monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and his Bride, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon—and this collection is sure to please any horror fan or student of the art.

You may think you already know these films—goodness knows, they’ve been shown often enough on television—but chances are you really don’t. Rewatching them once again, I was amazed at how different they are from what I remembered. Sarah Boslaugh

 


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Treme: The Complete Second Season

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Treme: The Complete Second Season
HBO


The second season of HBO’s Treme continues its focus on post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, albeit with a bit more time elapsed since the storm. It’s now been a little over a year since the hurricane and distance seems to be the main theme of the season as characters are much more scattered, both physically and emotionally, than they were in the immediate aftermath of the floods in the first season.

While 14 months have passed since the storm, those in New Orleans are dealing with a rise in crime and a short-staffed police force, as well as a continuing lack of federal support. The city is becoming more and more isolated, and those that remain now have to contend with outsiders hoping to cash in on opportunities from a desperate situation. As the government has continually failed the flood victims that have stayed, many have also left the city in order to survive. The distance between those who stay and those who leave is a main theme throughout the series, but certainly becomes more of a focus during the second season. J.M. Suarez

 


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Yellow Submarine (Blu-ray)

Director: George Dunning
Cast: Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoffrey Hughes, Lance Percival, Peter Batten

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Yellow Submarine
Capital


The Beatles didn’t want to make another movie. Help! had not been a good experience, and the introduction of drugs and studio experimentation to their career had seen them shun the main media limelight for more ‘esoteric’ pursuits. Still, they were contractually bound to the studio for one more film and there were rumblings about an animated take on the Revolver tune “Yellow Submarine”. Guaranteeing they’d be required to deliver nothing more than a cameo, the lads signed up, filmed their live action sequences, and then headed off to India… and infamy. Back in the UK, actors were hired to mimic the Fab Four’s famous voices while a crew of screenwriters attempted to turn the simply song into a solid story.

Thus, the pinnacle of motion picture pop art was born. Viewed today, it’s a silly, satisfying psychedelic piffle which thrives because of its sly subtext. At the time, it was a provocative piece of self-promotion, a cartoon classic on par with Fantasia (and, later, Italy’s Allegro Non Troppo). Trying to balance a reaction will depend solely on where you stand, Greatest Rock Combo of the 20th century-wise. If you still adore John, Paul, George, and Ringo, assigning everything they’ve ever done to the column of “genius,” you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. The boys are present, if not wholly accounted for. Instead, if you can distance yourself from the band’s output and see the movie for what it is, you’ll come away impressed. Bill Gibron

 


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Samurai Trilogy

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Cast: Toshiro Mifune

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The Samurai Trilogy (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection


Inagaki’s The Samurai Trilogy appeared between 1954 and 1956 and joined Kurosawa’s more well known work in finding a global audience for Japanese film. The three films follow the life of Musashi Miyamato, the greatest of Japanese folk heroes. Little known outside of Japan, Miyamato had a reputation as a spiritual master and artist during the Tokugawa period. In more recent centuries, he became the subject of forests worth of novels and eventually representations in film. Westerners who are aware of him, outside of Inagaki enthusiasts, know him through his mediations in the Book of the Five Rings.

In The Samurai Trilogy, you see Mifune bring to bear all his dramatic powers in recreating the incredibly complex character. Inagaki uses Miyamato’s early experience of resisting the seduction of a mill keeper and her daughter only to be falsely accused of rape. Mifune’s face and body radiates spiritual angst and Inagaki perfectly plots out how this incident becomes a path of spiritual reflection for the humbled warrior. W. Scott Poole

 


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Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season One (Blu-ray)

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Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season One (Blu-ray)
Paramount


The Next Generation, which premiered in 1987, is arguably the most famous, or at least the most beloved of the Star Trek series. Its success was even greater than the original series, airing for seven years and paving the way for three more live-action series (Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise), and a host of other feature films. One doesn’t have to do much research into Star Trek lore to find that most fans revere The Next Generation as the “Trek of all Treks”, the series by which all other Treks are weighed.

Now we are fortunate to revisit the beginning of this touchstone show with the stunning Blu-Ray remaster of all 25 of The Next Generations’s first season episodes, brilliantly touched up for 1080i viewing. Make no mistake; this isn’t just a standard upconvert job from videotape. The footage has been recreated from the original film elements, and the payoff is huge. The episodes look as brand new now as they would have in 1987. Matt Grant

 


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Quadrophenia

Director: Franc Roddam
Cast: Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Philip Davis, Mark Wingett, Sting

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Quadrophenia
The Criterion Collection


I remember the day the car stereo ate my eight-track version of Quadrophenia, the Who’s 1973 album that memorialized mid-‘60s British youth culture and explored teen identity.

When the music died in the middle of “5:15” I felt that something more than a mechanical failure had occurred. It was as if the onion-skin-thin tape that held the double album in a cheap plastic housing meant for much shorter records simple could no longer handle the powerful music imprinted on it. Containing much of the Who’s best work, Quadrophenia ranks among the top records of the decade. It also seemed to be a sign that I, like the album’s protagonist, could no longer delay the onset of adulthood.

A dramatization of the psychological breakdown of a “mod” attempting to balance the demands of work, home, and social life, “Quadrophenia was always screaming out to be a movie.” So argues co-producer Bill Curbishley in an interview conducted for the new Criterion Collection edition of the 1979 film.

Unlike Tommy, the 1975 Ken Russell adaptation of the Who’s album of the same name, Quadrophenia is not a rock opera. Instead, the film follows the narrative suggested by the album, with the music as a counterpoint to the action, in music and words. The score is thus much more tightly integrated into the story than a typical soundtrack, but without the generic distancing of a musical. Michael Curtis Nelson

 


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Produced By George Martin

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Produced by George Martin
Eagle Rock


Music documentaries have become incredibly ubiquitous in the last decade and, although they’ve yet to wear out their welcome their formulas have become familiar and yet, occasionally, a very, very good one comes along and makes us forget all that we know about the genre as it weaves its magic quickly, quietly, and leaves us spellbound and tongue-tied. Produced By George Martin is such a documentary—one that gives us insight into one of the greatest musical minds of the last century, and even a revealing portrait of the man himself. It’s hard to write about this film and not feel as though one is giving away the best bits—it’s like a great short story or poem or novel that reveals itself to you line by line, each vowel, consonant, syllable worth savoring in a selfish reverie.

The whole story is here: the young man of modest means but powerful intellect that was a natural musician, gifted not only with those talents but also a tirelessly adventurous spirit. We know that he worked for the minor Parlophone label after joining EMI but that he built the label up, one novelty and comedy record at a time. His work with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Rolf Harris, and others—on which he created “sound pictures”—would become influential on a generation of young Brits, including Martin’s best-known clients, the Beatles. But hearing it told here, it sounds marvelous, magical, part of a magical era that will, in a few decades, have finally slipped from our grasp. Jedd Beaudoin

 


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Drive (Blu-ray)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks

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Drive (Blu-ray)
Film District

The best performance of the year belongs to Ryan Gosling as the unnamed ‘Driver’ in this gem of a film. Gosling is a chop-shop mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman for big underworld heists. Gosling’s Driver moves within this amoral terrain with a scrupulous observance to certain ‘rules’: all he does is drive, he only waits five minutes during a heist, and he never works with the same people again. Driver survives by avoiding relationships and shunning loyalties. But his personal code is tested when he falls in love with a single mother and her young son. Driver’s loneliness and sense of connection with this vulnerable family spurs the plot forward in a tragic arc that is both riveting and desperately moving. John Grassi

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Portlandia: Season Two (Blu-ray)

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Portlandia: Season Two (Blu-ray)
IFC Films

The second season of IFC’s Portlandia continues the comedy series’ focus on poking fun at the hipsters, hippies, and activists of the Pacific Northwest, always to great effect. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein do a brilliant job of inhabiting a wide array of recurring and one-off characters, with very specific jobs and interests, who often find themselves in ridiculous situations of their own making.

Portlandia excels in using comedy as not only a way to highlight the absurdity in such specificity, but also in doing so in such as way that it never seems mean spirited. In fact, the series shows a great deal of affection for these fringe characters that make up a place as dedicated to inclusion as Portland. Armisen and Brownstein are the perfect pair to walk that fine line as they effortlessly become a part of that world, yet are somewhat removed from it at the same time.

The second season brings back some familiar characters from the first season, such as Toni and Candace, the feminist bookstore owners and Kyle MacLachlan as the Mayor. Toni and Candace are perhaps the greatest encapsulation of Portlandia, in that they are so particular and vocal. Armisen and Brownstein have created such a level of detail about what these characters find offensive, and their inability to handle any change, that they can’t help but be hilarious. The arrival of an air conditioner repairman is really funny, especially because the repairman doesn’t really know what to make of them. J. M. Suarez

 


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Rosemary’s Baby

Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sydney Blackmer

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Rosemary’s Baby
The Criterion Collection


I admit it: Part of the thrill of watching Rosemary’s Baby (1968, newly released in this stellar Criterion edition) lies in hearing the young and beautiful Mia Farrow (as Rosemary Woodhouse) say my name over and over, especially in the film’s penultimate line, “Guy’s eyes are normal!” When she says it, the camera enacts a swift pan to Rosemary’s husband, Guy (played by iconic independent director John Cassevetes, another thrill), whereupon Guy covers his eyes.

That gesture characterizes the film as a whole: Clear views of and from characters are often obstructed or restricted, kept just out sight behind doorframes or other objects and characters. Such concealment works perfectly for this tale of an innocent Catholic wife unwittingly used as a Satan-incubator by a coven of urban witches. Or is she just paranoid?

Ambiguity informs the entire film, particularly upon a virgin viewing. Like director Roman Polanski’s previous film Repulsion (1965)—wherein a young pale woman trapped in a labyrinthine apartment descends into a twisted malevolent world she may or may not be imagining—it’s unclear initially whether Rosemary is just paranoid, or truly carrying the Anti-Christ.

Polanski never shows this off-kilter quality explicitly, for example through repeated, exaggeratedly skewed or lop-sided angles, but instead renders distortion through implication. Often the camera moves or lingers just past the point where the conspirators might wink at one another or exchange knowing glances behind Rosemary’s back, thus giving themselves away to the audience. Guy Crucianelli

 


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The Game (Blu-ray)

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat

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The Game (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection

Many Criterions are worth purchasing for their artwork alone, and David Fincher’s 1997 thriller is no different. A black backdrop and subtle greens and blues draw your focus to the small silhouette of a man falling. Only after a few seconds do you notice the title is spelled out in the white outline of the buildings’ top few floors. Of course, if you ever get past the case’s exterior beauty you’ll find plenty to marvel at on the disc. Choosing the best of these features is like choosing the best way to drink whiskey—you can’t go wrong as long as you imbibe. I’d start with the film itself, which features a tremendous performance from Michael Douglas and one of the best Blu-ray transfers I’ve ever seen. An alternate ending and commentaries with Douglas and Fincher are completely absorbing, and the essay by David Sterritt should not be overlooked. Ben Travers

 


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Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season

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Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season
Sony


Season Four is a showcase of masterful storytelling, as there is not a single moment, scene, shot, or line that feels disingenuous or out of place. Every scene is building towards something. Every scene has purpose. Some of these scenes are simultaneously quirky and haunting at the same time (when Walt grows fearful that there might be people in his house waiting to kill him, he parks his car a block away and calls his elderly neighbor to check and see if Jr. left the stove on as they are currently on a family trip—putting her in explicit danger), some are shocking (Gus’ “gift” to the cartel), and some are just plain funny (“Should I even ask?” Walter asks, exasperated, when Mike and Jesse walk through the lab with a body in a barrel; “I wouldn’t,” Mike dryly quips).

No character is wasted, and even as Walt’s Gus-assigned caretaker Tyrus has only about five lines in the course of the whole season, the humorous contempt the two have for each other is enough to give both a large amount of dimension (when Hank grows suspicious of the laundry building where the meth superlab is housed, Walt is brought in to the building discreetly in a bin of dirty laundry; “Do the sheets have to be dirty?” Walt asks—Tyrus looks at him, quietly smug, before saying “Nope.”). Television writing doesn’t get much better than this. Evan Sawdey

 


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Bellissima

Director: Luchino Visconti
Cast: Anna Magnani,Walter Chiari, Tina Apicella

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Bellissima
Entertainment One

Although 1951’s Bellissima seems to be frequently overlooked and underrated in the filmography of Luchino Visconti, it could be his greatest achievement. Featuring an unforgettable performance by Anna Magnani and an original story by Cesare Zavattini (who worked on classics like Umberto D and Bicycle Thieves), Bellissima is a perfect combination of the gritty, claustrophobic naturalism of his pioneering neorealismo films with the near-operatic melodrama of later films like Death In Venice or The Leopard. Bridging these two periods and synthesizing the best of each style, a strong case could be made for Bellissima as the essential lynchpin of Visconti’s entire career, and, if not his finest moment, certainly among them.

A satire of the hypocritical meat grinder that is the film industry, Bellissima may be one of the best films ever made about the disconnect between the idealized world of glamour portrayed in the movies and the soul-crushing realities that go into their production. Visconti lays bare the brutal emotional and social tolls extracted by the “dream factory” of cinema, and in doing so creates a vision of the film industry more biting and vicious than any of the poison-pen industry send-ups that have emerged in the half-century since. Pat Kewley

 


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The Devils

Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, Dudley Sutton, Max Adrian

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The Devils
BFI


Inspired by actual events, and combining strong and disturbing elements of historical drama, religion, sex, music, politics and horror, The Devils is masterful, and is unlike anything that the British film industry had produced up until that time. The ferocity of Russell’s vision represents a kind of multicoloured artistic purging, with close to two hours of invention, energy and madness loaded into a blunderbuss and fired onto the screen in shocking, blasphemous glory.

Unsurprisingly, The Devils attracted great controversy on its initial release (the original US trailer seems acknowledge the film’s controversial nature, with a voiceover that exercises damage limitation by proclaiming that The Devils is “not for everyone”), and a portent of the trouble that would lay ahead came when horrified US studio executives, upon first seeing the film, told Russell it was ‘disgusting shit’. Don’t mince your words, fellas.

Overall, The Devils is undoubtedly Russell’s greatest film, and the apotheosis of alternative British cinema in the ‘70s; alternatively disturbing, musical, grandly eccentric and bursting with ideas and vivacity, one can only admire the way its narrative prods and provokes the censorious, and all done with such visual grace and cheeky brilliance, too. Adrian Warren

 


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Melancholia [Blu-ray]

Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alxander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling

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Melancholia [Blu-ray]
Magnolia

Lars von Trier’s career is centered on making films about smart but dangerous women, like Melancholia’s Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. As a rogue planet moves dangerously close to earth’s orbit, Justine becomes a new age Cassandra who senses impending doom and acts accordingly. During her expensive, extravagant wedding, Justine flouts social norms as she cuckolds her husband and humiliates her boss. In a world with no future, von Trier raises difficult questions about traditional morality and the inevitability of nihilism. When the film reaches its remarkable denouement, the inherent fragility of life and love resonate long after the credits roll. John Grassi

 


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The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Blu-ray)

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast:   Elijah Wood Ian McKellen Viggo Mortensen Sean Astin Liv Tyler John Rhys-Davies Orlando Bloom Cate Blanchett Billy Boyd Dominic Monaghan Hugo Weaving Christopher Lee Sean Bean Andy Serkis

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The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Blu-ray)
New Line Home Video

Now, if you’re a “regular film fan” like me, you probably appreciate the brevity (if you can call it that) of The Lord of the Rings theatrical versions. These cuts may also be easier to appreciate after sitting through three unnecessary Hobbit films. But if you’re a fan of Middle Earth and thus a glutton for Hobbit-ses, you’ll prefer the extended editions on Blu-ray. While both serve up all three groundbreaking films, gorgeous imagery, and ample special features, the extended editions have 123 minutes of deleted scenes incorporated into the movies and an ungodly amount of extras to sift through. It would be perfect if the extended edition offered the option to view the theatrical cuts as well, but I doubt too many people wanting more Tolkien would then change their minds and go back to viewing less—well, except everyone who saw The Hobbit. Ben Travers

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Route 66: The Complete Series

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Route 66: The Complete Series
Acorn

Route 66 didn’t fit into any existing genre—it wasn’t an anthology program of independent episodes, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone, nor was it a conventional drama with a large ongoing cast, like Gunsmoke or Perry Mason. Instead, each week Route 66 offered a new story, but it was centered around the two recurring characters of Tod and Buz as they traveled across America (often far from the real Route 66, but who’s counting?).

There’s so much to enjoy in this series, but first and foremost is the fact that all the episodes were shot on location, which was quite unusual for television at the time. This means that the Route 66 episodes present a time capsule of America when local customs were far more distinctive than they are today, and it’s great fun just to see what Grand Isle, Louisiana, or Philadelphia, or the Glen Canyon Dam looked like 50 years ago.

Another great pleasure is the quality of acting from the supporting characters, both from veterans like Peter Lorre, Lew Ayres, and Everett Sloane and from young up-and-comers including Ed Asner, Robert Redford, and Suzanne Pleshette. A third is the quality of the scripts and the number of serious issues they tackled, from racism to drug abuse to juvenile delinquency. Silliphant, who wrote many of the episodes, is justly famous for infusing a poetic quality into the dialogue, and many episodes include a monologue which, while perhaps a bit too plummy for the character and the context, bring a heightened sensibility not often seen on broadcast television. Sarah Boslaugh

 


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Hard Core Logo: All Access Edition (Blu-ray)

Director: Bruce McDonald

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Hard Core Logo: All Access Edition (Blu-ray)
Video Services Corp


Reviewing a film like Hard Core Logo (1996), particularly in conjunction with its belated sequel, Hard Core Logo 2 (2010), poses a special challenge, one brought into sharp relief by the new Blu-ray edition of the former which includes the latter.

Hard Core Logo contains a surprise, a moment of shock, that strikes me, both as an individual critic and as someone who teaches the film, as important to any initial viewing. I think that this moment has value not because of plot reasons, akin to learning that Verbal Kent is Keyser Soze, but because it’s a moment about character, one that will influence how you understand the nature and motivations of, particularly, main character, Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon) (Bruce McDonald’s film is, in any case, essentially plotless).

Teaching the film, I have observed that students either love Hard Core Logo or they hate it. The surprise is arguably more meaningful to those who love the movie, but even the haters have different reactions. If the reveal were simply about the machinery of the story, I’d be less concerned with how to approach the film. The fact that the unexpected in Hard Core Logo is about affect and emotion, rather than a particular, traceable consequence to the reading of plot, is what leaves me feeling circumspect about openly discussing the film and its successor. Shaun Huston

 


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Jaws (Blu-ray)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary

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Jaws (Blu-ray)
Universal

The blockbuster granddaddy of them all has finally made it onto Blu-ray, and the results reaffirm more than just this movie’s place in commercial cinematic history. First off, this is one amazing motion picture experience, a flawlessly crafted thriller with expert performances and an honorable Hitchcockian turn by the novice director behind the lens. More importantly, it hasn’t aged. As time has ticked by and films have found more and more obvious ways to jolt viewers out of their chairs, Spielberg delivers the shivers with nothing more than a premise, his precise work behind the lens, and the phobic universality of his monster. Just like the Master did with showers and Psycho, the young gun achieved with a malfunctioning shark and a boatload of disbelief suspension. While he would go on to win every major award his industry has to offer, Spielberg deserves a special place in the artform’s Hall of Fame for this fantastic popcorn powerhouse. A true classic given an equally amazing transfer and treatment. Bill Gibron

 


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Margaret (Blu-ray)

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Anna Paquin, J. Smith Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Jean Reno, Rosemarie DeWitt

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Margaret (Blu-ray)
Fox

Writer-director Kenneth Longeran’s long-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed 2000 debut You Can Count on Me had a notoriously troubled gestation. Filmed in 2005, a serious of vicious legal and artistic battles over its financing and editing kept it sitting on the shelf for more than half a decade. A truncated version was shown briefly in a small number of cinemas in 2011, but the 2012 DVD release of Longeran’s three-hour cut is the first time the full, complete version has been seen, and it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. Featuring Anna Paquin in the lead role and a uniformly outstanding ensemble that includes Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, and Allison Janney, Longeran’s opus is a superbly observed drama where the lives, desires, and disappointments of everyday people intersect and collide with an almost Tolstoyan scope. The poetry and humanity of Margaret‘s characters as they struggle to deal with the unfathomable world around them are almost overwhelming at times. But as tumultuous a development as Margaret may have had, with the release of this complete version we can finally confirm that it was worth every second of the wait. Pat Kewley

 


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The Qatsi Trilogy

Director: Godfrey Reggio

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The Qatsi Trilogy
The Criterion Collection

Since the debut of its first entry came in 1982, the documentary films in Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi) created a wholly new way of using film art as a means of conveying ideas. Solely relying on music, images, and montage, Reggio’s films found a new language of cinematic expression. With hypnotic original scores by Philip Glass and astonishing footage from around the world captured by cinematographer Ron Fricke, Reggio’s films remain unprecedented in the way that they use the medium of film as a total sensory experience. Combining breathtaking images from every corner of the globe—from Times Square to the most remote jungles and deserts—each film wrestles with complex philosophical issues surrounding man’s relationship to himself and the natural world. Finally available together as a deluxe three-disc set from Criterion, The Qatsi Trilogy is a dazzling cinematic journey. Pat Kewley

 


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David Lean Directs Noël Coward

Director: David Lean
Cast: Noël Coward, Bernard Miles, John Mills, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Trevor Howard

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David Lean Directs Noël Coward
The Criterion Collection

A neophyte filmmaker created some of the most memorable movies of all time under the tutelage of a notorious, and controversial, playwright. A young David Lean was practically handpicked by the iconic Noel Coward to turn some of his best plays into movies, it seems that this collaboration was a match made in heaven given that the results include Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit. All of the movies in this set explore post WWII England directly This Happy Breed or indirectly, for what is Blithe Spirit if not a lament for the dead disguised as a spooky romantic comedy? The films have been restored by the magicians at The Criterion Collection and look absolutely ravishing. This boxset includes a myriad of vintage documentaries and featurettes, the most fascinating being David Lean: A Self Portrait in which the director provides audiences with insight about his process right after the peak of his career. Jose Solis

 


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Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Teresa Wright, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Tippi Hedren, Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Eva Marie Saint

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Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray)
Universal

For a while it seemed as if Universal would never upgrade their marvelous Hitchcock DVD boxset to Blu-ray, especially given how North by Northwest had been released by Warner Bros. and non-Criterion versions of his earlier Hollywood movies had started appearing in the market. Then, it happened and we all rejoiced in the announcement that all the movies featured in the original set—Northwest included—would be appearing on a massive Blu-ray collection. The set was delayed for a month, while some discs were corrected and the truth is the wait was more than worth it. Underrated classics like The Trouble with Harry and Marnie look magnificent and the set contains hours of bonus features and documentaries. This might’ve been the most important HD release of 2012. Jose Solis

 


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The Trilogy of Life (Blu-ray)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Cast: Ninetto Davoli, Franco Citti, Hugh Griffith, Laura Betti, Franco Merli, Jovan Jovanovic

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The Trilogy of Life (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stunning collection of erotic tales was unavailable in our continent for decades, with DVD prices going as high as $300 for what were pretty much bare-bones bootleg versions. Leave it to the great folks of Criterion to give these underrated masterpieces their special kind of treatment, meaning they have been meticulously restored and received high definition transfers. This set is a true marvel, with everything from the packaging to the menus revealing a true understanding of the themes Pasolini wanted to encompass when he made his movies. Combining humor, sensuality, satire and a touching humanism that vanished with the director’s death, this is one trilogy cinephiles should be paying much more attention to. Jose Solis

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/167873-the-best-dvds-and-blu-rays-of-2012/