‘Tis the season for end-of-year lists. Here is mine. It’s for the ten best home video releases of 2015; which is to say, the ten best DVDs or Blu-rays released in Britain this year. I’m leaving out releases from abroad, even though that means leaving out some of my favourites, so as to spare your wallets. All of these can be bought without import fees or much delay.
There are other caveats and restrictions. The biggest is that, despite trying my best, I cannot watch everything. There are some major releases that I haven’t got around to yet (including this Yoshida set, which I’m saving for the Christmas break). There are some that will be released between now and the actual end of the year (including this hi-def Chaplin collection). And then there are those that I have no interest in (but I’m too nice a person to slander them parenthetically).
But I think I’ve seen enough to give it a go. So, in alphabetical order:
Battles Without Honour or Humanity (Blu-ray and DVD, Arrow Video)
Britain has some of the best DVD publishers in the world – and Arrow top the lot. Their release of Kinji Fukasaku’s Yakuza saga is almost overwhelming; 13 discs, full of extra features, and complete with a hardback book. Yet all this is nothing beside the movies themselves, which turn the crime drama into a form of delirium. You’ll probably lose your grip on the plot somewhere along the way, but when did murder and extortion ever make sense?
The Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection (Blu-ray, British Film Institute)
If I had to reduce this list to a single release, this is the one that would remain. The BFI’s collection of Dreyer films doesn’t include his greatest, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which already has a good edition of its own – but that still leaves some of the most sublime movies ever made, so no biggie. The joy of this set is in working downwards from Day of Wrath (1943), through several other features and shorts, and eventually to dozens of clips and documentaries about Dreyer himself. It’s an education in cardboard packaging.
Dragon Inn (Blu-ray and DVD, Masters of Cinema)
I’ve rarely had more fun at the movies than when I saw this restored version of King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) at the London Film Festival last year. It’s one of the touchstones of martial arts cinema, although it has a lot in common with the spaghetti westerns that were made around the same time, not least in its expansive, outdoors cinematography and its stylish violence. I could barely stifle a cheer when the bad guy’s career came to a wonderful full-stop. There will be ketchup-coloured blood.
Dragon’s Return (DVD, Second Run)
Another film with ‘Dragon’ in the title, although this one is very different to the last. Dragon’s Return (1967) is a harsh parable about village life and what it can do to a man, leavened by its own lyricism and inventiveness. The publisher Second Run always does this to me: find a director – in this case Eduard Grečner, whom I’d never come across before – and make me eager for more. Their two Věra Chytilová releases of this year (here and here) are also worth the investment.
Inherent Vice (Blu-ray and DVD, Warner Home Video)
I wanted to include a new movie on this list, but which one? Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (2014), which had its home video release in March? Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014), perhaps? No, hang on, it’s got to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2015). His films, always brilliant, have become more literary over time. This adaptation of one of Thomas Pynchon’s books is, for all its stoner trappings, the ultimate proof.
Pickup on South Street (Blu-ray and DVD, Masters of Cinema)
This year delivered two wonderful examples of Richard Widmark playing a hustler who’s in over his head: the BFI’s release of Night and the City (1950) and, this, the Masters of Cinema edition of Pickup of South Street (1953). How far over his head? In Pickup, Widmark’s pickpocket finds himself caught between the Feds and some Commies, an unwilling front-line participant in the Cold War. The shadows that envelop him are even more menacing in high definition.
The Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman Collection (Blu-ray and DVD, BFI)
This Age of Availability is a wondrous thing. For years, I struggled to find a copy of Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) after seeing clips of it in Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Italian cinema. Now I have a choice of two, an American release and a British one, in my home. The latter comes from this BFI set, which also includes a couple of other films Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman: Journey to Italy (1954) and Fear (1954). Judging by all three, theirs was an affair of the heart.
Rome Express (Blu-ray and DVD, Network)
Whether it’s the Shanghai Express (1932), the Berlin Express (1948), or the Orient Express and the murder that takes place on it, there’s something about the confines of a train carriage that seems to suit filmmakers. The British thriller Rome Express (1932) is no different, and, in fact, may have influenced many of the others. None of its passengers are forgettable. Many harbour secrets. Just add a handgun, and watch this peppery stew boil over.
The Tales of Hoffman (Blu-ray and DVD, StudioCanal)
In my recent article on the centenary of Technicolor, I alighted on three Powell and Pressburger films as the best of their kind: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). I could easily have added a fourth to that selection: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Unlike the others, it wasn’t shot by the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, rather by Christopher Challis; yet it is still colourful to the point of phantasmagoria. The new restoration, done by Scorsese’s Film Foundation, is a peach.
Wild River (Blu-ray and DVD, Masters of Cinema)
There are the Elia Kazan movies that are well-known and celebrated, such as On The Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Then there are the Elia Kazan movies that are better, such as Man on a Tightrope (1953), A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Wild River (1960). The last of these is tremendous study of fragility and strength: the fragility of an old homestead against the development of a new dam, and the strength of its occupants to resist.