The 20 Best DVDs of 2023
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The 20 Best DVDs of 2023

In our Best DVDs of 2023 list, along with some classic television, we have selected known treasures and unconventional films to satisfy the discerning cinephile.

Lars Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy

Criterion has developed a welcome habit of combining titles by one filmmaker into a package that’s less than a box but more than a single film. Examples since last December include Two Films by Marguerite DurasMichael Haneke Trilogy, and Three Films by Mai Zetterling, all of which are important and fascinating. Then there are full-blown boxes like Pasolini 101, a heftily tagged set with nine films.

The set most satisfying in terms of cinematic bravura, artistic importance, and meticulous restoration is Lars Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy, containing Von Trier’s first three features: The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991). Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy could just as easily be called the German Trilogy since the films are set partly or entirely in Germany, or the Hypnosis Trilogy since hypnosis is a factor in all three. As some critics in the set suggest, the films could be a Trilogy of Fascination. These three films aim to hypnotize viewers with formal visual styles more important than the story, so they fly in the face of most Art House fare.

Visually, all are dazzling. Conceptually, all are thrilling in their investigations of Europe’s past, present, and future. They introduced a filmmaker who respected the cinematic past but wouldn’t play by the rules. – Michael Barrett

See also “Lars Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy Is Spellbinding, Hypnotic Melodrama“.

Laurel & Hardy: Year One
Directors: Various
(Flicker Alley)

Many silent classics hit DVD this year, including Milestone’s disc of Herbert Brenon’s The Spanish Dancer (1923) starring Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno; Undercrank’s Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian, which pairs two comic hits of this overlooked Dapper Dan; Flicker Alley’s restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s once-scandalous hit of 1922, Foolish Wives; and Kino Lorber’s Silent Avant-Garde, an essential smorgasbord of 21 films of mindblowing visual experiments.

If we pick one to represent all, let it be Flicker Alley’s Laurel & Hardy: Year One. Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy had each been making films for years when producer Hal Roach began bringing them together. The two-reelers of 1927 show the team finding their feet, which also means losing their feet to many a pratfall, pirouette, and pie-fight. The two-disc set gathers all existing material for the first time, as miraculously restored by Lobster Films in Paris, so that we witness how the two clowns evolved into the hapless duo beloved by audiences. Leo McCarey’s Putting Pants on Philip is a masterpiece by itself, and it’s only one of the treasures on view. – Michael Barrett

See also “Laurel & Hardy: Year One Shows Why 1927 Was a Vintage Year for Comedy

Robot Monster
Director: Phil Tucker
(Bay View Pictures)

Admit it, you think I’m joking. I’m putting one of the so-called “worst films of all time” in this Best of DVDs 2023 list. Look, I’m not saying other movies on this list aren’t better or more important or even that other movies don’t have better robot monsters. I’m saying there’s no better example of how digital restoration on DVD matters to a film’s presentation. Thanks to the efforts of 3D Film Archive in properly restoring the 3D elements for the first time, Phil Tucker’s indie matinee project of 1953 has never looked better.

Seeing it not through rose-colored glasses but red and blue glasses, Robot Monster is a serious (if cheap) attempt at showing the feverish fears, fetishized fantasies, and Freudian fallacies of an average American boy in the atomic age. The helmeted apeman-robot is the boy’s alter ego. Indeed, his frustrated psyche is split among several characters in his violent dream fantasy of the end of the world. As 3-D expert Bob Furmanek points out, Robot Monster employs a radical device not used in other 3-D films of the era. For the montages of destruction using stock footage, Tucker layers separate images on top of each other. In other words, the right-eye reel has one image, and the left-eye reel has another. If you close each eye, you see a different image through the glasses. Talk about one side of your mind battling another.

The disc comes crammed with extras to show fans’ love and respect for Robot Monster, and the film proves worthy of it. – Michael Barrett

See also “3-D Robot Monster Boasts Sex, Destruction, and Space Apes“.

Secret of the Incas
Director: Jerry Hopper
(Kino Lorber)

Old-fashioned 1950s Hollywood Technicolor adventures don’t come more sexy, two-fisted, and impressive than Jerry Hopper’s Secret of the Incas (1954), in which Charlton Heston is very much playing a proto-Indiana Jones-like anti-hero. Indeed, it is a colorful adventure cited as one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones. It was a popular film and boasts a major star in Charlton Heston as Harry Steele. We’ll learn that his game is to show up at the airport and inform any American tourists that he’s been appointed as their guide for a daily fee, then whisk them to their hotel and plan their itinerary. He’s a liar, and it’s a racket. Still, we wonder, will he be tempted by a fortune in lost Inca treasure or by the beautiful, not-so-maidenly heroine (Nicole Maurey)?

Seemingly a Saturday matinee adventure, the script is consistently more adult than you expect, and so is the respectful presentation of indigenous Peruvians, especially Yma Sumac, with her stunning vocal stylings. Secret of the Incas has never been on home video before, and now it looks and sounds great in 4K. – Michael Barrett

See also “Secret of the Incas Is Finally Exhumed from Hollywood’s Tomb

The Servant
Director: Joseph Losey

A turning point in Dirk Bogard’s career, The Servant (1963) offered the one-time British matinée idol of romantic-comedy fluff a chance to delve into darker, more disturbing territory. Bogard’s portrayal of Hugo, a mentally-disturbed young house servant in the employment of a wealthy business man, seems cut from the cloth of a nightmarish suspense-thriller. His role here, however, is housed in a social-conscious drama about Britain’s class system of the 1960s.

Adapted from a novella by Robert Maugham by Nobel Prize winner and screenwriter Harold Pinter and filmed by Joseph Losey, The Servant brings the immediacy of a stage play to the screen. The electrical currency between the four primary actors expands this work beyond a mere chamber drama; however, tensions erupt with the force of spewing lava as powers shift and roles reverse through a poisonous exchange of ideas and emotions. The film is all talk – and what talk! Listen to the screwed logic deployed by Bogard’s Hugo, the pitiful pandering of his boss Tony (James Fox), and the smarting assignations of Tony’s girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig). For all its sudsy drama, this is not soap; it is class warfare amidst breakfast marmalade and afternoon tea.

The Servant would earn Bogard a BAFTA and confirm his transition into a more sober form of realist cinema, pointing the way to roles in even darker fare, like The Night Porter (1974). – Imran Khan

See also “Dirk Bogarde Disturbes and Fascinates in The Servant“.

The Story of Adele H
Director: Francois Truffaut
(Kino Lorber)

The Story of Adele H. (1975), the film that put French superstar Isabelle Adjani on the map, is a film that seems to have been just out of grasp for North American audiences, slipping in and out of print since its initial 2001 DVD release. Kino Lorber releases this remarkable title, about the true story of French writer Victor Hugo’s daughter Adele. A story of debilitating obsession, Adjani picks a plum role as the titular character, who follows a British soldier to Halifax, Canada, during the 19th century on a mission to reignite their past love affair. Adjani’s Adele is an ill-starred, passionate mess, embodied by the formidable actress who plays her with controlled fury and wild abandon.

French New Wave legend François Truffaut skillfully builds a story with steady, pillowing steam; a deadening aura of angst chillingly offset by the bleak, wintry Nova Scotian landscapes. A burbling mélange of slow-burning suspense, pitch-black humor, and tour de force dramatics, Truffaut’s picture is handsomely framed by the hand of cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who captures Adele’s world in the stricken-hued wash of browns, maroons and bleeding crimsons. Adjani’s naked flame of a performance earned the actress her first Oscar nomination and would introduce the young and then-burgeoning star to a world of moviegoers outside of her native France. – Imran Khan

See also “Isabelle Adjani Startles in The Story of Adele H“.

The Sunday Woman
Director: Luigi Comencini
(Radiance Films)

Luigi Comencini’s The Sunday Woman is an unusual entry into the Euro-thriller market, as it is out-of-step with the giallos and espionage films that populated the cinemas of Europe in the ‘70s. It is novelistic in approach and carries a decadent flair that feels studied through its lens of pastiche. There are threads of sour humor that tether this work to its enterprising episodes of dramatic tension, which distinguish the work from other films of similar extraction. Performances are top-notch, as is to be expected from three of Europe’s most respected actors.

Jacqueline Bisset, normally the brass-balled woman of probing, romantic dramas, revels in her pouty, Aphrodite-from-hell Anna, who affects an aura of vulnerability and coolness. Jean-Louis Trintignant effectively understates as a closeted man, and Marcello Mastroianni holds fort as Europe’s most dependable leading man (a role which would earn him an Italian Golden Globe). A clever, offbeat, and not always politically correct offering, The Sunday Woman should appeal to the kind of corresponding tastes acquired through a diet of bitter black coffee and marmite.

Radiance Film’s new DVD release is a gem loaded with features and archival interviews, and an in-depth 24-page essay booklet. A pristine transfer with sharp, vibrant images and strong, clear audio (optional English subtitles included) makes The Sunday Woman, along with the bevy of supplements, a most worthy reissue of a lost Italian classic. – Imran Khan

Three Colors
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s gorgeous triptych of heartache, humor, and erotic entanglements saw a wondrous new remastering in Criterion’s series of film classics. Three Colors, a Polish-French trilogy of loosely interconnected dramas, is of a now bygone extraction of world cinema. Each film in this trilogy, Blue (1993), White (1994), and Red (1994), unabashedly displays its cultural radix, each a product of the conjoining Polish and French aestheticisms. Kieślowski delivers these stories about death and loss (taking place mainly on French soil) through a perspective that demarcates his camera’s eye as an outsider Pole looking in. These dramas are the stuff of conventional romances; lost love, unrequited love, and newly acquainted love, but they are spun into orbits that exist just outside the practices of traditional storytelling.

Kieślowski’s filmmaker hand assumes a painter’s grip, flooding the frames with oneirically skewed colors of everyday life. The bereaved woman of Blue (Juliette Binoche) sleepwalks through her days in a wash of sapphire hues. The scorned man of White (Zbigniew Zamachowski) seethes restlessly against the colorless blank of snow. In Red, the passions of a precautious young woman (Irène Jacob) are rent asunder in burning backlights of scarlet.

Criterion’s 4K/Blu-ray release is packed with an exhaustive number of informative supplements, in addition to the incredibly crisp and lush remastering of the films, making this release one of the best of the year. – Imran Khan

See also “Enigmatic and Emotional Three Colors Is a Hypnotic Triptych of Polish Cinema“.

Two Films by Marguerite Duras: India Song/Baxter, Vera Baxter

Novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras is best known for her screenplay Hiroshima Mon Amour and her novel The Lover, two of her most straightforward works. She was, however, more inclined toward the sort of narrative abstractions found in India Song and Baxter, Vera Baxter. Both films, directed by Duras, feature designs of baroque persuasion; mannered and static structures that recall the setups of stage plays. The internal logic that resides in these stories, however, is chaotic. The mise en abyme of these two films will surely disorient the viewer not accustomed to Duras’ articulations of love. But they are Russian-dolled in ways to suggest that, despite the filmmaker’s cerebral deployments, there are sincere emotions couched beneath the layered images of her women’s lives.

In India Song (1975), Duras tells the story of Anne-Marie (Delphine Seyrig), a bored ambassador’s wife who takes on many lovers in search of some meaningful connection. The story takes place in 1930s India, but the ghost-like moorings of its setting make it seem as though it could have happened in a local bar last night. India Song finds all kinds of exquisite frictions in actress Seyrig, who maintains a glass statue posturing throughout while betraying a variety of subtleties in a performance to rival her one in Last Year at Marienbad.

In Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977), Seyrig joins Duras once again to complete the arc that had begun with India Song thematically. Here, Claudine Gabay is another unhappy wife who relates the emotionally bankrupt relationship she has with her husband to a new female acquaintance (Seyrig). In a barren villa where the story is told, Duras continues her psychological encasement, a navel-gazing study of both conjugal relationships and female friendships. Her efforts are bolstered by the glacial framing of celebrated cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who captures the vaporous story with diamond-cutting exactitude. The film’s donnishly dry proceedings may be too much for some viewers looking for more tangible matter within Duras’ examining lens. But she manages a skillful character study of a woman who reveals her most private affairs at arm’s length.

Duras, with India Song and Baxter, Vera Baxter, manages the feat of generating works that are at once promethean and strangely familiar. – Imran Khan

See also “Duras, Marguerite Duras: Two 1970s Musints from the Cinematic Mist“.

Wings of Desire
Director: Wim Wenders

A stone-cold classic of European cinema, 1987’s Wings of Desire is Wim Wenders working at the height of his powers to produce an exceptionally moving and breathtaking work of art. That is putting it mildly, however, for Wings of Desire is a masterpiece of New German Cinema and rightfully instates the filmmaker as that movement’s figurehead. A fantasy-drama about the lives of angels on earth as they spy the joys and sorrows of human life, Wenders’ film spans a sweeping scope across Berlin, Germany, as two angels (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) rove the city, observing the passerby of everyday life. One of the angels, Damiel (Ganz), falls for a trapeze artist (played by Solveig Dommartin), and is faced with a momentous decision in which bringing his love to tangible form means giving up his immortality.

Shot in a silver-toned monochrome and lensed into a cinéma verité focus, Wings of Desire offers viewers a liminal world in which fantasy and reality meet to suggest possibilities that are at once majestic and very real. None of this elysian whimsy detracts from the flesh and blood of the story, however. Wenders dots the script with a few modern touches that momentarily tether the story to the worldly commonalities afforded by pop culture; Columbo’s Peter Falk (playing himself) makes an amusing appearance as a former angel, and Nick Cave, performing in a nightclub, wrests free from the monochrome with a burst of color in all his post-punk glory.

Wings of Desire ushers in the heartbreak and ecstasy with such careening finesse it seems as though it was entirely filmed on the arcs of seraph wings. – Imran Khan