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best-classic-films-2020

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The Best Classic Films on Blu-ray in 2020

Many formats have come and gone and streaming competes, to a degree, but these best classic films offered on Blu-ray in 2020 prove irresistible.

5-1 + Bonus Films

​5. Buster Keaton in “The Cameraman” (Criterion) and “Go West/College” (Cohen Film Classics)

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Both of these Blu-rays are double features. As we wrote in our PopMatters review of Criterion’s 4K restoration of Buster Keaton and Edward Sedgwick‘s brilliant and hilarious The Cameraman, Buster Keaton’s Last Silent Masterpieces: ‘The Cameraman’ and ‘Spite Marriage'”, the package also contains their next collaboration, the equally wonderful and sympathetic Spite Marriage (1929). Keaton’s final two silents are a one-two punch of comic genius about the perils of spectacle, publicity and matrimony.

Cohen Film Classics’ The Buster Keaton Collection, Volume 4: Go West and College pairs two earlier hits of more traditional topics and approaches. Go West (1924) is about the tenderfoot or clueless city dude who falls for the lure of alleged wide open spaces and goes to make his fortune as a cowboy, only to learn such things aren’t always as advertised.

College (1927, co-directed with James W. Horne) belongs to the college jock romance template essayed by Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) and includes an unfortunate blackface sequence. I feel these films aren’t as great as The Cameraman and Spite Marriage, yet their highlights can’t help showcasing Keaton’s physical ingenuity.

Of course, these are far from the only silent classics released this year, and without counting the Keaton films above. Kino Lorber has issued the wondrous German classic The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney, 1927, G.W. Pabst), whose print we discussed in “Silent Pleasures: An Engaging Guide to the 24th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, May 1st – 5th”; the women’s filmmaking of The Intrigue: The Films of Julia Crawford Ivers and Alice Guy Blaché Vol. 2: The Solax Years, discussed in “Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers”; and the John Ford westerns Straight Shooting (1917) and Hell Bent (1918), discussed in “John Ford Silent Westerns ‘Straight Shooting’ and ‘Hell Bent’ Raise a Ruckus”.

Three cheers also to The Douglas MacLean Collection, Undercrank Productions’ crowd-funded rediscovery of a forgotten silent comedian who feels strangely modern, as we discussed in “‘The Douglas MacLean Collection’ Pokes Fun at Our Love of Clam, Cabbage, and Kale*”.

​4. Barbara Stanwyck in Douglas Sirk’s “All I Desire” and “There’s Always Tomorrow” (Kino Lorber)

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Director Douglas Sirk and star Barbara Stanwyck collaborated on two stories about unfashionably strong-willed women who cause a kerfuffle when they investigate the eternal question of whether “you can go home again”, and the films arrive at complementary conclusions.

All I Desire (1953) is a small-town period piece set in early 20th Century Wisconsin, as Stanwyck plays an actress who scandalously abandoned her family years before. In There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), taking place in modern California, she plays a successful clothing designer who drops in on a man she used to love, a toy manufacturer played by Fred MacMurray. Her visit crystallizes his sense of something lacking in his seemingly perfect life.

As we wrote in our PopMatters essay, “Douglas Sirk’s Oppressive and Beautiful Worlds“, both films are shot in gorgeous black and white. Both are probing, carefully shaded, and none too celebratory about the domestic scene to which their heroines seek entry. Both are about characters who long for something that seems out of reach. Both are melodramas or “soapers” and show why those aren’t dirty words when handled with brilliance.

In fact, another brilliant black and white melodrama directed by Sirk was released by Kino Lorber around the same time: The thriller Thunder on the Hill (1951) can be found in their box Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II. For those who prefer color, they also released a 3-D restoration of the Rock Hudson western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). When it rains, it pours.

​3. Three Fantastic Journeys of Karel Zeman (Criterion)

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On a slightly more modest but no less dazzling scale comes this three-disc celebration of one of the world’s wondrous magicians of cinema. Inspired by Jules Verne and George Méliès, the Czechoslovakian animator Karel Zeman more or less invented his own genre of visual splendor. We could have used a complete box of his work, but we’ll make do with these three features and handful of shorts.

Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku, 1955) follows three boys who decide one day to ride a canoe back into the prehistoric age and interact with stop-motion dinosaurs. The Verne-inspired Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958) and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil, 1961) are horses of a different tinting, as they seamlessly place actors within moving daguerrotypes out of 19th Century novels and on sets constructed to resemble same. As we wrote in our essay, “A Fix of Fantasy: Reviving the Wondrous Films of Karel Zeman, the results are jaw-dropping.

2. Essential Fellini (Criterion)

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This box comes second to Varda because it’s not a complete career overview, mainly due to several of the Maestro’s films being controlled by other labels. (For example, Kino Lorber has just issued the 1976 Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, which has been forever elusive on disc.) Nevertheless, it’s inconceivable that anyone interested in film history, or film beauty, wouldn’t be interested in this set.

Aside from the consistent quality of the films, the box demonstrates that Fellini was uniquely and instantly himself at every stage of his career. Some people have liked his earlier, more “neorealist” films better than his later plotless, surreal studies in motion, sound and fancy. It’s been said that he moved into his later style because, dispensing with concern over the box office, he felt free to indulge his personal obsessions. Well, when you see the films all in a row, as it were, you might feel drawn to one more than another, but it can’t be said that Federico Fellini was ever less than free and expressing exactly what he wanted.

If I were forced at gunpoint to choose his greatest work, I’d pick his first color film, Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti, 1965), one of the cinema’s most incandescent distillations of dream and social observation, and magically beautiful. A showcase for his wife Giulietta Masina, who starred in several of his films, this is also probably Fellini’s most feminist film, although it’s City of Women (available from Cohen Film Classics) that directly addresses feminism.

Among earlier work, there’s so much to be said for his portrayal of postwar Italy’s restless young male street lizards, I Vitelloni (1953), which already shows a command of “plotless” observation and his mature style in what’s only his third feature. No matter what you pick, his films have a restless, unmoored quality bursting with noise, music and life.

​1. The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (Criterion)

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Agnès Varda, a highly personal and distinctive filmmaker associated with the French New Wave, felt equally at home in fiction, documentary, or some kind of hybrid. Her films are personal and emotional, at the same time fearlessly intelligent and analytical. Towards the end of her life, she picked up a handheld video camera and made meditative essays about whatever she liked, showing the same freedom she’d always shown as an independent filmmaker who owned her production company. Her films are alive to the social position of women, even with subjects that don’t obviously invite this topic, as in her documentary on the Black Panthers.

This monumental box gathers the whole caboodle from one of the world’s great auteurs. Some of the films are acknowledged classics that have been issued separately on other Criterion discs, such as her ravishing, free-wheeling character study Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962) and the cool, seductive ironies of her deceptively simple and disturbing idyll Happiness (Le Bonheur, 1965).

Then there are films that have escaped the light of video thus far, at least in Region 1, such as Les Créatures (1966), a strange drama with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli. Varda’s most beautiful and loving achievement is Jacquot de Nantes (1991), a portrait of her husband Jacques Demy that includes footage shot during his last months. Surely this is the greatest biopic of any filmmaker (not that it’s a crowded field, and maybe for good reason), and the greatest tribute one film artist has ever paid another or ever will, because it radiates and aches with intimacy, trust and love. To see it is a privilege; watch and be hushed.

Honorable Mentions

Is that all? Oh hell no. Looking at Criterion alone, and confining ourselves to films at least 50 years old, we discover an astounding list. I’ll mention some on the proviso that, while I’ve seen all the films in question, I haven’t necessarily seen these new Blu-ray editions, so this is more of a notation than an endorsement.

Still, we have the dazzling Technicolor restoration of producer George Pal and director Byron Haskins’ The War of the Worlds (1953), John M. Stahl’s eye-popping Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), the black and white noir of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948), the blissful comedy of Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) and the Paul Robeson version of the milestone musical Show Boat (1936, James Whale).

Among non-Hollywood titles, there’s Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935), Mikhail Kalatozov‘s WWII drama The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat zhuravli, 1957), Juraj Herz’s dark “comedy” The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol, 1969), the three-disc set of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (1963-72), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s polysexual allegory Teorema (1967), and two divergent ’60s French classics, Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Jean-Pierre Melville Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969).

Then there’s the seven-disc Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits and the six films collected in the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of Martin Scorcese’s World Cinema Project No. 3. And since we’ve somehow moved up to titles within the last 50 years, we might as well mention Elem Klimov’s devastating WWII picture Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985), Beau Travail mysteriously homo-erotic Beau Travail (1999), David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and for the first time on video, the sprawling TV versions of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) and Wim WendersUntil the End of the World (1991)

From the weeds of way off-Hollywood indie cinema, Flicker Alley unearthed Joseph L. Anderson‘s Appalachian elegy Spring Night Summer Night (1967), which wasn’t even widely seen enough to be called forgotten.

Film Movement Classics upped its ante with L’innocente (1976, Luchino Visconti), Série noire (1970, Alain Corneau), and L’Important c’est d’aimer (1975, Andrzej Żuławski).

Paramount has decided to do more of the Blu-ray thing with Blu debuts of Roman Holiday (1957, William Wyler) and Popeye (1980, Robert Altman), so here’s hoping more of their vast vault of classics are on the way.

If you only confine yourself to what’s mentioned here, Dear Reader, you’ll have a lot of catching up to do and may need treatment for sustained over-dazzlement. Happy viewing!

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