Only a fraction of the world’s cinematic history emerges on disc, and only a fraction is available for streaming in this brave new world. Streaming depends on licensing issues and the variable quality of prints. Once those hurdles are leaped, a title still might vanish according to algorithmic whims. Meanwhile, a good DVD sits reliably on your shelf, like a well-made hardback that’s out of print. The jacket’s still eye-catching, and the meat’s still there, both nutritious and fattening.
Thank goodness an increasing number of video labels are devoted to raiding the archives. That shiny little disc remains a handy storage unit for curating, preserving, restoring, and collecting classic titles. Many of those labels also host streaming services, so we get the best of both worlds.
Now let me express my beautiful frustration, which I wouldn’t change for the world, at the epidemic of boutique labels. Many such labels don’t appear in this list due to my time-strapped numbskullery. For example, Italian specialty company Raro Video has just issued a 4K restoration of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) paired with the 2011 restoration for comparison. Cohen Film Collection has issued Jacques Rivette’s Love on the Ground (1983), Up, Down, Fragile (1995), and Secret Defense (1997). Metrograph Pictures has come out of the gate with a 4K restoration of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and three of Eric Rohmer’s comedies: The Aviator’s Wife (1981), Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1986) and Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987).
Deaf Crocodile specializes in Eastern European items like Czechoslovakian Jiri Barta’s stop-motion The Pied Piper (1986) and Béla Ternovszky’s Hungarian animation Cat City (1986). Canadian International Pictures restores obscure Canadiana like Denys Arcand’s thriller Dirty Money (1972) and Mireille Dansereau’s Dream Life (1975), Quebec’s first film from a woman director.
Severin Films puts out classy horror items like Danza Macabra Volume One: The Italian Gothic Collection. Arrow Films and the UK company Indicator are similar cult labels for ephemera, fantastika, and hysteria. I’m hardly scratching the surface.
After all that, you can grasp why the following list of classic DVD releases during 2023 can’t be thorough. As the tsunami of titles flows forth, these are merely gorgeous bits of driftwood on which your intrepid and exhausted reviewer has been able to float briefly. And I’m glad they’re still on my shelf. Please patronize your friendly boutique labels so that somebody continues the good work. – Michael Barrett
Indeed, 2023 has seen various distributors and studios digging deep to pull obscure treasures from the vaults. With our Best DVDs of 2023 list, we have selected more unconventional winners to satisfy the cinephile’s curiosities. There are a few undisputed, across-the-board classics thrown in for good measure, to be sure. But among the crown jewels in this list (ranking from best to the very best), these picks are a gathering of lost pearls and promise to engage viewers in all their senses – whether it is Krzysztof Kieślowski’s sensorial triptych epic, Three Colors, Marguerite Duras’ enigmatic study on female lives in India Song and Baxter, Vera Baxter, or Peter Greenaway’s lavish mind-bender, The Draughtsman’s Contract.
You’ll notice that many of these titles – listed in the alphabetical order of the DVD title – are of an extraction beyond the American borders. The beauty of the DVD is that the format’s politics do not bend toward the revenue requisites of its multiplex counterpart, allowing for some of the more sidelined titles of independent and world cinema space in your home collection. This year, the distributors and studios took a chance on these atypical, though no less interesting, titles. Do yourself the favor and take a chance on them too. – Imran Khan
Director: Wendell B. Harris, Jr.
A lost indie classic of the ‘90s, Chameleon Street is Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s account of the true-life story of scam artist William Douglas Street Jr., a young Black man who successfully duped the medical, legal, and news industries in his quest to obtain recognition and wealth. The story is intriguing all by itself, but Harris Jr. employs a kaleidoscopic design to bring the pieces of Street Jr.’s life together in a gripping, roughhewn semblance. Though the real-life Street Jr. was reportedly unhappy with the final result, Chameleon Street winningly presents its subject as an engaging young man whose offbeat sense of humor and defiance of the status quo allows him a kind of privilege that many only dream of on the sidelines. Chameleon Street hums with an energy that, while not always crackling with onscreen action, propels the narrative through the sheer force of Harris Jr.’s charming portrayal of Street Jr.
The film seemed to come out of nowhere upon its 1989 release and, just as quickly, disappeared when Harris Jr. couldn’t procure wider distribution, despite its high-level interest among industry moguls (Spike Lee, at one point, sought to remake the film). A peculiar, edgy, and mesmeric effort that still holds power through its very punkish aesthetic, Chameleon Street should not be missed this time around. – Imran Khan
Columbo: The 1970s
The year 2023 was excellent for rediscovering television classics more than 50 years old. For example, mystery fans should seek Kino Lorber’s Blu-rays of all four seasons of the BBC’s long-unseen Georges Simenon’s Maigret (1960-63) starring Rupert Davies. If comedy’s more in your line, MPI Home Video this year finished issuing all 14 seasons of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66), as restored to meticulous clarity by UCLA Film & Television Archive.
But if we pick one series to represent the medium, let it be Columbo: The 1970s, in which the rumpled, crumpled Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) says. “Oh, just one more thing…” before lowering the boom on privileged murderers who were sure they’d pulled off the perfect crime. The formula made Columbo one of the most popular crime shows of its time. The resurgent popularity of those old reruns in COVID’s streaming era was probably first noticed in a July 2020 New York Times essay in which Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote, “It is hard to overstate how satisfying it is to see smug criminals get caught right now.”
Kino Lorber’s set marks the show’s Blu-ray debut, remastered in 4K and all in one package. The guest killers include William Shatner, John Cassavetes, Patrick McGoohan, Janet Leigh, Johnny Cash, Donald Pleasence, Anne Baxter, Leonard Nimoy, Martin Landau, Vera Miles, Robert Culp, Robert Conrad, Dick Van Dyke, and Ricardo Montalban. After all, if you must be murdered, you’ll want to go out in style. And you’ll want Columbo on the case. – Michael Barrett
The Draughtsman’s Contract
Director: Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway’s buttonholing of the murder mystery upturned audiences’ expectations of the genre with his second feature-length film, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). A puzzler of murder, scandal, and 17th-century British mores, the film conspires to aim squarely at the head, the cerebral constructs of the story so deeply rooted in a kind of internal logic that all emotions are waylaid. This cool detachment doesn’t hurt the film; the Welsh filmmaker has plenty of absorbing ideas to keep viewers stimulated and invested in the story throughout.
The Draughtsman’s Contract follows Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), a vainglorious artist commissioned by Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman) to produce drawings of her country estate. As Mr. Neville undertakes his assignment, he becomes increasingly aware of the story behind Herbert’s missing husband, who is purportedly away on business. In the slew of ensuing events, the cast negotiates a bottlenecking of blackmail and sexual debauchery. Meanwhile, Greenaway’s mannered approach adheres to the story’s baroque setting, the exquisite period detail lovingly organized by his artisan hands. Every bit as lush and frothy as it is spiky and acidic, The Draughtsman’s Contract keeps the pace moving with its poisonous humor, the droll quips and slips rotating swiftly like the wings of a whirligig.
The fact that the mystery’s solution remains equivocal at best (its resolution depends on the viewer’s interpretation) only heightens the artful absurdity on display and, therefore, the overall pleasures of the film. Greenaway would continue to write and direct a string of Byzantine puzzlers throughout his career, but The Draughtsman’s Contract endures as his most palatable confection. – Imran Khan
Early Short Films of the French New Wave
Pierre Braunberger, a longtime force in French cinema, produced short films by many young auteurs of the 1950s and ’60s. This two-disc DVD from Icarus Films, Early Shorts of the French New Wave, offers 18 lively and still youthful examples, lovingly restored by Les Films de la Pléiade and Les Films du Jeudi. Famous names include Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, and a young American visitor named Melvin Van Peebles. Surprising and stimulating are lesser-known names such as Jeanne Barbillon, Guy Gilles, and Francois Reichenbach. The best in show may be Jean Rouch’s slice of Parisian melancholy, The Fifteen-Year-Old Widows (1966). – Michael Barrett
Fatal Femmes: Neige 1981 The Bitch 1984 Double Feature
Directors: Christine Pascal, Juliet Berto, and Jean-Henri Roger
(Fun City Editions)
These two lost and little-known films are some of the earliest examples of France’s Cinéma du look movement, a 1980s French film movement inspired by new wave music and post-punk culture, initiated by Jean-Jacques Beineix’s modern classic Diva (1981). Neige (1981), starring Juliet Berto, and The Bitch (1984), starring Isabelle Huppert, are crime dramas centered on women navigating dangerous environments. Neige is the story of a waitress, Anita (Berto), living in Pigalle amongst prostitutes and drug dealers. Anita learns of the police cracking down on drug dealers in the neighborhood, a cause of concern for her, as her friend, Bobby (Ras Paul Nephtali), happens to be one of those dealers. In her mission to protect Bobby, Anita ends up befriending a number of Pigalle’s denizens, including a transvestite who, suffering from withdrawals, is in desperate need of more drugs. Assisting her is Joko (Robert Liensol), who ventures around the city with her in her search for Bobby.
Directed by Berto herself and Jean-Henri Roger, Neige is less the thriller it sets out to be and is, instead, a fascinating reveal of the heavily mixed cultures of Pigalle. Arab and Afro-French cultures comingle among punks, Rastafarians, and transvestites, against a neon-blazing backdrop of nightclubs and juke joints. The lively sequences are set to a pulsing reggae soundtrack as we witness France’s very own version of a Lower East Side crackling to life. Above the electrifying ruckus, Berto cuts a dignified Anita, who exudes the self-possessed and calm airs of a street-level den mother.
Isabelle Huppert in The Bitch offers a very different sort of woman, playing a 17-year-old misfit named Aline. Sexually assaulted one night by a police officer (Richard Berry), Aline ends up pressing charges, which sends the officer to jail for six years. In the interim, Aline has set up a new life for herself, living under a new name. But when the officer is released from jail and scores a job as a private investigator, he discovers that his newest assignment is none other than Aline – a task that will lead him down a rabbit hole of past deeds and re-encounters.
A salty, noirish tale that pulls from the pulp paperbacks of the ’50s, The Bitch offers a bit of neon sweetness to go with the heavy doses of sour atmosphere. Directed by Christine Pascal and shot by Raoul Coutard (Jean-Luc Goddard’s choice cinematographer), this little-known Huppert vehicle showcases why the actress is celebrated for her unusual and challenging roles. It sits firmly outside of this era’s Me-Too awareness and might be disliked for that. But its unrelentingly pitch-dark mood and hairpin turns will give noir aficionados the perversely sweet rush they crave. Fun City Editions rescues these lost films from obscurity and delivers them with beautifully remastered prints, richly resplendent of the Cinéma du look aesthetic. – Imran Khan
Freaks, The Unknown, The Mystic: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers
This triple-feature of macabre melodramas from Tod Browning, best known for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), is among the year’s most important releases of classic Hollywood. Browning cut his teeth on circuses, sideshows, carnivals, and other venues before he entered the world of “freak films” and established a reputation for bizarre, unsavory tales that made a mint at the box office. Three of those titles are showcased in this new two-disc set from Criterion, Freaks / The Unknown / The Mystic: Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers. Freaks (1932), which nearly ruined Browning’s career, gets a sympathetic analysis from film scholars as well as superb restoration. The icing on the cake is beautiful renditions of two earlier titles that prove we can’t get enough silent films, and neither can you.
Browning’s macabre obsessions with making “freak films” may at first seem distasteful and exploitative, but their aftertaste induces food for thought. – Michael Barrett
The Haunting of Julia [Collector’s Edition]
Director: Richard Loncraine
A film that struggled to find worldwide distribution upon its 1977 release, The Haunting of Julia (titled Full Circle for the UK market) is the definitive modern gothic. If only people knew it. Based on Peter Straub’s 1974 novel Julia (his first horror effort), this Mia Farrow vehicle has always been considered one of her slightest and more forgettable works. In fact, it is a powerful meditation on a mother’s loss and grief – and an unsettling ghost story to boot.
Evocative of the kind of gothic novels Dorothy Eden turned out during the ‘60s (albeit with a nastier edge), The Haunting of Julia generates an atmosphere so thick with dread that all who make the slow, winding venture into this tale of retribution (viewer and character alike) helplessly drown in it. Along with a plaintively eerie soundtrack (courtesy of Colin Towns), the fashionably baroque décor and the golden smog of its atmosphere dovetail to create an oppressive and suffocating nightmare from which Farrow’s Julia struggles to awaken.
Never given a stateside release (save for VHS editions in the ‘80s), The Haunting of Julia was finally licensed on Shout! Factory (on Blu-ray and 4K) after the film’s superfan, Simon Fitzjohn, made it his lifelong mission to bring the little-known film to wider masses. This film milks tears and fears in equal measure and upholds the gothic tradition like no other after it. – Imran Khan
How To Be Loved
Director: Wojciech Has
(Yellow Veil Pictures)
Polish film How To Be Loved (Jak byc kochana, 1963), is scripted by novelist Kazimierz Brandys and directed by Wojciech Has. It explores its heroine’s experiences during WWII when Nazis occupied the country and afterward in the Communist state. The woman is Felicja (Barbara Krafftowna), our narrator, and we might say How to Be Loved‘s story occurs inside her head. She’s an actress beloved for a radio show where she plays a housewife who talks with her husband over dinner. She gets many fan letters, and one came in the form of plane tickets from a Parisian woman who said she feels like her daughter. This incident was written into the show as a visit to a supposed daughter in Paris, so the lines between fiction and reality are blurred. In reality, Felicja is unmarried and glamorous, and of course, her listeners really don’t know her at all. A telling scene comments on how a woman’s viewpoint must be injected into male-created art without permission. Shot in beautiful black and white, Has’ film resonates with much modern cinema yet has been virtually unknown in the US.
Yellow Veil Pictures is another of those boutique labels doing valiant work, and How To Be Loved is one of three Has productions they’ve released so far. Long may they wave. – Michael Barrett
Director: David Lynch
Now that we’re awash in time loops and other realities, filmgoers are primed for three hours of David Lynch’s reality and identity-questioning film, Inland Empire. This adventurous monstrosity is especially welcome amid Criterion’s vast stream of classic and modern titles. Shot on digital video before that was normal, Inland Empire was fashioned by Lynch at his ease, without plan, with the crucial collaboration of star Laura Dern.
At first glance, Inland Empire sounds like it must be one of his most baffling and daunting works, but that turns out not to be so. What’s revealed on Criterion’s disc, fresh from the film’s 2022 remastering and theatrical re-release, is that while it’s sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, and always bizarre, Inland Empires is a gripping study in the recursive narrative tricks about identity that we expect from Lynch. Indeed, the brain-bending result plays havoc with linearity and identity in a manner that marks much of his work.
In the DVD’s editorial material is a quotation from an interview in which Lynch observes, “We were in 120 theatres, and for a three-hour picture that nobody understands, that’s damn good.” – Michael Barrett
Last and First Men
Director: Jóhann Jóhannson
Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 science fiction novel Last and First Men might seem unfilmable, but that didn’t stop the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson and co-writer José Enrique Macián from conceiving the film as a visual symphony. In Tilda Swinton’s voiceover, we hear her utter assertions like “the foetus is carried for 20 months”. That’s nothing since this particular childhood lasts a thousand years. When things start falling apart, “the normal power of telepathic communication is so unreliable that we have been compelled to fall back upon the archaic practice of vocal symbolism”. Clearly, this is a work of philosophical and scientific ideas unfolding on a massive time scale rather than what we think of as a proper narrative.
Musically, Last and First Men is a symphony in glacial movements, building to moments of crescendo and abrupt silence punctuated by the only use of color: green blips on a radar screen wavering to Swinton’s voice. It seems to follow a line from Anton Bruckner‘s slow movements to what the modern critics call sacred minimalism, such as Henryk Górecki, and I like it. – Michael Barrett