from top to bottom: Close-up, Metropolis, Red Desert
Just as the rise in the digital consumption of music gradually prompted a number of smart record labels to more seductively package and carefully master CDs, not to mention a most welcome resurgence in the production of vinyl—if you’re going to seek out a tactile object to contain your music, it might as well be the most beautiful, information-rich and sonically satisfying sort of object—the increase in the digital consumption of movies seems to be encouraging some home video distributors to put as much care as possible into their physical releases. Below are the three multi-title DVD and/or Blu-ray collections I consider the best of 2010. What constitutes “the best”? I guess it’s some mixture of relevance, discovery value, quality of supplements, thoughtful packaging and, most of all, curatorial verve.
from top to bottom: Ossos, In Vanda's Room, Colossal Youth
Letters From Fontainhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa (Criterion)
The other selections listed here are essentially celebrations of cinema’s past, but this feels representative of what’s most dynamic in cinema’s present, and perhaps its future. Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (00) and Colossal Youth (06), in combination with the wealth of insightful supplementary materials available in Criterion’s box, tell the story of how Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa went from making what were already cool yet compassionate, funky yet formally elegant, non-didactic yet socially conscious art films to something more akin to artisanal films, the products of countless hours spent alone with just a camera, a microphone and a reflector or two, quietly immersing himself in Lisbon’s labyrinthine ghetto of Cabo Verdean immigrants—even though the place is destroyed by the end of In Vanda’s Room. Somewhere between intimate reportage and epic fabulation, Costa’s films draw to a substantial degree upon the lives of the inhabitants of Fontainhas, who are the films’ stars, yet are equally imbued with mythical and poetic monologues and narratives—one of which was inspired by John Ford. In practice, Costa’s isn’t a model of filmmaking that many can or should follow, yet in spirit, his very personal approach sets a shining example that urges filmmakers to keep redefining what cinema is or can be.
from top to bottom: Human Desire, Nightfall
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II (Sony)
Film noir was the dark star of the studio era, the chiaroscuro chamber of repressed desire, and while many of its most celebrated examples burbled up from poverty row, the major studios caught on quickly and produced their own deluge of moody, twisted crime thrillers. Sony’s sophomore attempt at luring noirophiles with its 1950s, transitional Columbia Pictures noirs is, like its predecessor, not entirely consistent, or even consistently noir, but its highlights are so outstanding as to demand plaudits. They include Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (54), based on Émile Zola’s novel. It stars Glenn Ford as a Korean vet who returns home to resume his modest career as a train engineer, and Gloria Grahame as a doomed object of desire too genuinely mysterious, complex and desperate to fit the proscribed model of the femme fatale. It’s a sensuous, sinster film bathed in industrial gloom, a striking alternative to the often brightly day-lit and thus ironically titled Nightfall (57), a long-lost gem from director Jacques Tourneur, best known for his collaborations with low-budget horror producer Val Lewton. Based on a novel by David Goodis, Nightfall finds another young, physically strapping yet psychologically frail veteran on the run from the authorities and a couple of bank robbers, one of whom is a sadist very memorably embodied by Brian Keith.
from top to bottom: A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show, Easy Rider
America Lost and Found: the BBS Story (Criterion)
The titles in Criterion’s inspired box set chronicle the development of BBS, the production company that perhaps best represents the promise of the 1970s New Hollywood, the death throes of the studio era, and the American cinema’s response to the Vietnam War and the French New Wave. In Five Easy Pieces (70) and The King of Marvin Gardens (72), it offers director Bob Rafelson’s finest character studies of dissatisfied masculinity. In Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place (71) and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (71), it offers a pair of very, very different yet mutually tender and fascinated attempts by young, wildly ambitious male directors to investigate female dissatisfaction. In no less than six of the seven films here it offers a beat-by-beat tracking of the ascendancy to stardom of one thritysomething hyphenate named Jack Nicholson. And for all the dissatisfaction noted above, I should add that there’s a lot of fun, adventure, formal provocation and plain old audacity too. Did I forget to mention Easy Rider (69)?
Bigger Than Life
Of the many excellent single-film releases I was able to catch up with in 2010, in particular, those not previously easy to find on DVD or Blu-ray, the most noteworthy included Kino’s Complete Metropolis (27), Criterion’s Paris, Texas (84), Red Desert (64), Close-Up (90), Vivre sa vie (62), House (77), The Thin Red Line (98) and Bigger Than Life (56), and a whole bunch of forgotten titles and cult classics now available in no-frills, special order-only packages from the Warner Archive Collection, among them Brainstorm (65), a wonderfully bizarre study in genius and madness directed by veteran character actor William Conrad!