So many classic films get resurrected, restored, and spruced up on Blu-ray each year that poor diligent film-history buffs such as your humble servant can only scratch the tip of the bucket’s iceberg in the wind. For example, you’ll feel pity that I’ve had no time to indulge in two mouth-watering boxes dropped on me at year’s end.
As soon as Severin Films announced All the Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror, I fished out my credit card, so now I’m putting my mouth where my money is. That’s how much I support a boutique company’s ability to get away with a nebulous concept that others wouldn’t touch: 20 international features on 12 Blu-rays, plus a bevy of short films, bonus material, and three CDs.
I’ve seen a few of these films before, such as Otakar Vávra’s Czechoslovakian historical drama Witchhammer (1968), the Polish Lokis (Janusz Majewski, 1970), and the Russian horror tale Viy (1967, co-directed by Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov). Now I look forward to wallowing in films of Australia, Serbia, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Italy, the UK, and the USA.
I’ve previously seen most of the 12 features in Arrow Films’ Shawscope: Volume 1, a celebration of the gloriously colorful widescreen splendor of Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers. All are 1970s titles, most directed by Chang Cheh or Lau Kar-Leung, gathered onto eight Blu-rays. Obviously, these are martial arts films, although Ho Meng-hua’s Mighty Peking Man (1977) is a monster movie. All films come with commentaries and extras, and two music CDs are included.
I’m not surprised that Volume One emphasizes kung fu, including the delirious diptych on the Five Deadly Venoms aka Crippled Avengers, and a project like this can run to many volumes. I wish only to add that Shaw Brothers also created wonderful operas, musicals, and melodramas that get eclipsed by the martial arts legacy, and these too deserve our attention.
Criterion issued or reissued many classics this year, from Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947) to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998). Sadly I’ve missed most of them, but perhaps it’s just as well or they might have dominated this list.
If you really want to understand today’s culture, it pays to watch old, restored films such as these. What follows is a list of 10 classic items released on Blu-ray for the first time in 2021. Far from definitive, it’s drawn only from what I’ve managed to review and I highly recommend to you, but then any list possesses a degree of subjectivity. [See also The Best Film and Television of 2021]
10. What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?
Here’s a real wild card, and a perfect example of why it’s necessary to excavate the nooks and crannies of forgotten and undervalued cinema as well as the obvious well-trumpeted classics.
Amid its dozens of resurrections this year, Kino Lorber revived three of Mary Tyler Moore’s late ’60s items for Universal. Two of these are reasonably well-known: the Julie Andrews musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (George Roy Hill, 1967) and the Elvis Presley vehicle Change of Habit (William A. Graham, 1969). For whatever reason, the culture forgot, repressed and disposed of the wacky comedy about life during a raging epidemic, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?! The virus induces an altered state of euphoria, a joy in life, and a desire to be creative and constructive. Why this creates a potential economic and political disaster makes an amusing subversive satire.
After you’ve seen it and noted the dynamic between Moore and George Peppard, compare it with two early, also forgotten examples of the New Hollywood’s early feminist statements from the following year: Frank and Eleanor Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, starring Carrie Snodgress, and Jerry Schatzberg, and Carole Eastman’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child starring Faye Dunaway. Again, these are from Kino Lorber – keep up the good work, folks!
Read more at “Seaton’s ‘What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? Thumbs Its Tucan-Size Nose at the Establishment”.
9. It Happened Tomorrow
[Cohen Film Collection]
French filmmaker René Clair made a handful of delightful Hollywood pictures during WWII. His wit, intelligence, and light hand have become strangely undervalued, so let’s hope the revival of such a clever film gets him some props. The story, about a reporter’s access to the next day’s newspaper and the havoc this causes in his life, may constitute the cinema’s first great exploration of time travel paradoxes.
This year, Cohen Film Collection has also unveiled such overlooked items as Terence Fisher’s Corridor of Mirrors (1948), a dreamlike Gothic noir from England, and a French double feature of Jacques Deray thrillers starring Alain Delon, The Gang/Three Men to Kill (1977/1980).
8. The Amazing Mr. X
[The Film Detective]
If this becomes a noir-heavy list, we can neither help it nor apologize. John Alton’s photography of the spooky, atmospheric thriller The Amazing Mr. X, about a phony psychic (Turhan Bey) is a thing of wonder, and so is this restoration derived from the late Mr. Bey’s own print. Working with public domain titles, The Film Detective has emerged as a reliable source for digital restorations of films too often dismissed as schlock. Other examples this year: Flight to Mars (Lesley Selander, 1951), A Life at Stake (Paul Guilfoyle, 1955), and Frankenstein’s Daughter (Richard E. Cunha, 1958).
Read more at “Film-noir Thriller ‘The Amazin Mr. X’ Shimmers with Beautiful Spookery”.
7. Laurel or Hardy: Early Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
What a great idea for a Blu-ray set: restorations of many silent films made individually by Oliver Hardy or Stan Laurel before they teamed up. We can see what qualities they already boasted, how they supported many other important silent comedians, and how they developed some of the traits that served them so perfectly in synergy.
We’re addicted to the special glories of silent cinema, and several other releases this year fed our jones, from Flicker Alley’s documentary This Is Francis X. Bushman to Undercrank Productions’ Edward Everett Horton: 8 Silent Comedies to Milestone Films’ lovely package of Mario Roncoroni’s Filibus, advertised as “the incredible 1915 Italian feminist, steampunk, jewel thief, cross-dressing, aviatrix thriller!”
Read more at “‘Laurel or Hardy’ Offer Another Fine Mess of Short Comedies”.
6. A Place in the Sun
This most famous filming of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925) is an examination of the frustrating lure of the American dream of success. It’s also a wallow in the glamorous lure of its stars, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, and the film is just as spellbound by them as we are.
In my callow youth, I found A Place in the Sun on the dull side. I’m better now, and that speaks partly to the value of optimal presentations and meticulous scans from 4K restorations. The Paramount Presents line has been issuing admirable packages of some of the studio’s titles this year, such as Robert Altman’s Nashville (1976), Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981) and Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981). Long may they continue.
Read more at “Classism Rolls Through Classic Film ‘A Place in the Sun’ Like a Noirish Fog”.
5. Raining in the Mountain and Center Stage
[Film Movement Classics]
Two masterpieces of graceful style from Hong Kong cinema’s high era, Raining in the Mountain and Center Stage, finally came to Region 1. King Hu’s film, restored by Taiwan Film Institute, is a majestic martial arts epic. Stanley Kwan’s fully restored celebration of Shanghai actress Ruan Lingyu (played by Maggie Cheung) is an unusual biopic, both analytical and dreamlike.
4. Among the Living
Speaking of noir, the amazing Among the Living has been regarded by many noir experts as Hollywood’s second official entry in the 1940s development of the genre. It’s also a fascinating link between 1930s horror and the psychological development of that genre. It’s also a corrosive vision of society in Southern Gothic mode. Why has it taken so long to arrive on home video? It’s here now, and it’s gripping.
Read more at “‘40s-Era Horror-Noir ‘Among the Living’ Ain’t Whistling Dixie”.
3. The Beast Must Die and The Bitter Stems
Out of the blue, out of the past, out of the shadows, out of the 1950s, out of the Pampas, two Argentine noirs full of bad behavior, feverish melodrama, and high black and white style have been restored from virtual disappearance thanks to the Film Noir Foundation. Let’s please absorb Tango Noirs The Beast Must Die and The Bitter Stems and humbly ask for more.
Read more at “Two 1950s Argentine Noirs Raise Goose Bumps and Fevered Style”
2. Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation Films
The ongoing Forbidden Fruit series, curated by Kino Lorber with Something Weird Video, excavates disreputable trash that deserves to be recognized on its own demerits. These films’ qualities sometimes include style and smarts, though most prominent is their ability to expose the taboo faultlines in cinema censorship and American culture. Topics include abortion, racism, religious rituals, girl gangs, heroin addiction, and the art of burlesque striptease. The commentaries are especially informed.
Read more at “Rum, Pregnancy, and the Lash, or, You Shall Know Them by Their Forbidden Fruits”, and even more at “On Apes, Racism, and Other Shoddy Scams in 1930 African Adventure Film, ‘Ingagi'” and still more at “Exposed: Kino Lorber’s Forbidden Fruit Series Parade a Bevy of Brazen Gender Roles”.
1. Melvin van Peebles: Essential Films
[The Criterion Collection]
Melvin Van Peebles was truly an example of that much-abused term, Renaissance Man. He forged a singular, personal, multi-faceted career in both France and the USA as an African-American who decided not to follow the rules or settle for what others were willing to grant him. I’d previously seen the rude and unruly Watermelon Man (1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), so the revelations were the beauty, love, music, and stylistic command in The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968) and Don’t Play Us Cheap (1973).