When handed the raw materials from an unfinished documentary about Elmyr de Hory, an art forger whose life was being written up by biographer Clifford Irving, Orson Welles took the opportunity to make something far beyond the concept of the traditional documentary. F for Fake has been called the Orson Welles’ first essay film, a true enough statement if you limit the accounting to feature films, but he had been doing short-form non-fiction since 1955, when he made Around the World with Orson Welles (a.k.a. Around the World) for British television.
It was ostensibly a series of travelogues, shot on location with Welles as tour guide, host, and narrator. Welles himself described them as “all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…,” but these are sort of home movies that only Welles could make. They are built on Welles’s public persona as much as on his directorial personality. He is “as always, obediently yours,” the worldly yet personable host who casts a spell with his voice, disarms with a boyish grin and invites the audience into his confidence as he tosses out cultural observations and historical asides.
The Red Road: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, DVD) – Sundance TV (formerly The Sundance Channel) continues to establish its own brand of intelligent, dramatically compelling TV shows with this atmospheric series set in rural New Jersey.
A small town cop (Martin Henderson) enters into a wary partnership with a drug-dealing ex-con (Jason Momoa) from a nearby Native American tribe to cover up a hit-and-run that his wife (Julianne Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic, committed during what seems to be a relapse. In fact, it’s much more, which only makes Henderson more protective (to the point of denial). There’s an uneasy relationship between the town and the tribe, which is fighting for formal recognition from the government while struggling with poverty and crime, that is exacerbated by a forbidden romance between the cop’s teenage daughter and the ex-con’s young half-brother. The physically imposing Momoa, who played both Conan and the barbarian king from the first season of Game of Thrones, adds a dangerous edge to the drama simply by his presence, radiating anger and resentment from his every glance.
Following in the tradition of shows like Rectify and The Bridge, the series is deeply embedded in the cultural and regional specificity of the setting. It’s not just the social politics of the moment but a whole history fraught relations that hovers over the drama, and the idea of heroes and villains gets murky in a drama where the characters share a complicated history that is slowly revealed through the course of the six-episode season.
It has the look and feel of an American independent feature, helped immeasurably by James Grey (The Immigrant) helming the first episode and Lodge Kerrigan (Keane) directing two subsequent episodes of the series. They are instrumental in setting the careful, moody atmosphere. Supporting turns by Tamara Tunie, Tom Sizemore, Mike Farrell, and Lisa Bonet add to the weave of complicating factors.
Six episodes on DVD with three featurettes. It’s also streaming on Netflix.
Film history discovered and rediscovered on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats.
We never stop recovering our film history. In 2014 alone we found a 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes starring the legendary stage actor William Gillette (the only known footage of the man considered the definitive Holmes of his era in character) and an unfinished orphan film shot in 1913 starring black Broadway star Bert Williams.
The digital tools have given filmmakers, producers, studios and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods and the transition from film prints to theatrical digital formats for repertory and revival showings has created new incentives to restore and remaster classic films for new theatrical screenings. (There’s plenty of controversy over this shift, with many partisans arguing that movies shot and originally shown in celluloid should be preserved and only screened that way.)
But it’s still a specialized audience and film lovers outside of major metropolitan areas often have no opportunities to see these restorations and revivals on the screen. At least until they are made available to home video formats. For instance, while the new restoration of the original Todd AO version of Oklahoma! premiered at the Turner Classic Movies festival in April, it has yet to reach audiences outside of specialty theaters and the China Film Archive restoration of the 1934 Chinese classic The Goddess has only shown in film festivals.
‘Too Much Johnson’
So this list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks and restorations of great films and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers at home in 2014. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers now have a chance to see regardless of where they live, as long as they have a web connection and a Blu-ray player.
Too Much Johnson (1938) (Fandor, streaming)
The home video event of 2014 is not a disc debut or a Blu-ray special edition but a piece of lost film history found, restored and streamed on the web. Shot by Orson Welles in 1938 (two years before he went to Hollywood and began production on Citizen Kane) as a kind of experiment to accompany a stage production of the theater farce Too Much Johnson, the film was never finished by Welles beyond a continuity work print that was thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970. The 35mm nitrate work print was found in 2013 in a warehouse in Italy (in Pordenone, as it happens, home to the greatest silent film festival in the world) and restored in an international effort. After a series of special screenings, the film (in both the original 66-minute work print and a 34-minute “reimagined” version, with outtakes and duplicate shots removed and footage edited into an “educated guess” of how it would have played in finished form) was made available to audiences the world over for free via the National Film Preservation Foundation website and in an HD edition through Fandor. I celebrated the film and its discovery for Keyframe earlier this year.
In the years since Netflix added a library of streaming titles to its disc rent-by-mail business, that stream has become a gusher and streaming movies and TV shows changed the home video habits of American households. But while there are plenty of classics are readily available to stream via subscription or VOD, from Birth of a Nation and The Rules of the Game to Citizen Kane and Chinatown, countless titles come and go. While this is far from a definitive list, these 10 noteworthy films that became available on streaming platforms in 2013 deserve singling out.
“Fantomas: The Complete Saga” (1913-1914)
The adventures of the cinema’s first supervillain in five wicked, delirious surreal short features, Fantomas was Louis Feuillade’s first great serial and there was no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive and entertainingly surreal filmmaking of the era. Fandor has the complete five-film sage as well as his later serials Les Vampires and Judex, but Fantomas is the only one of them available to stream in HD.
'Die Nibelungen: Siegfried'
“Die Nibelungen: Siegfried” (1924) and “Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge” (1924)
Fritz Lang’s pair of early works combine into the original fantasy epic, an astounding silent spectacle based on the German myth that inspired Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. It is magnificent to behold, a mythic landscape of ancient forests, fairy tale waterfalls, lakes of fire, and caves and crevices hewn out of earth and rock, built entirely in the studios of Ufa. They have previously been available on streaming services but the new restoration from the F.W. Murnau Institute trumps all previous editions and this definitive edition of Lang’s silent epic is now available on both Netflix and Fandor.
How timely: in the wake of the DVD and Blu-ray release of the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel a couple of months back and a long overdue Oscar, a veritable festival of films directed by Roger Corman have been made available this month on Netflix, bumping their library up to a dozen or so of his best films.
His cycle of Edgar Allan Poe films were the first to really be taken seriously: stories of madness and melancholia set in gloomy, crumbling mansions and shot in rich, bleeding color and CinemaScope, most of them starring Vincent Price, whose theatrical flourish gives his brooding heroes a sense of tragedy. The success of “The House of Usher” (1960), the first of the cycle, paved the way for the more ambitious “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), highlighted by Barbara Steele’s savage eyes and feral smile, Price’s cackling transformation into a sadistic ghost, and the grandiose bladed pendulum set piece. Ray Milland takes over for Price in “Premature Burial” (1962) as the doomed, brooding aristocrat gripped by a paralyzing fear of being buried alive, and Price is back for “The Raven” (1963), a comic take on Poe co-starring Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson, and “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1964).
Corman’s crowning achievement in the cycle is “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964), a deliriously colorful gothic horror (vividly shot by future director Nicolas Roeg) of a demented, debauched Prince whose castle is the sole sanctuary during the plague, but the price to enter is to become a plaything of the sadistic tormentor. Vincent Price is no longer the haunted gothic hero but the sadistic Prince Prospero, a sadist who wields the power of life and death with no pity: his subjects are toys and he revels in their humiliation and torture. This is Corman’s most daring character study and most stylistically impressive film.
There are ten titles in all, including the influential Japanese horror classic Jigoku (1960) from Nobuo Nakagawa, George Franju’s lyrical, haunting, and poetically horrifying Eyes Without a Face (1960) from France, the American indie horror classic Carnival of Souls (1962) (as of this writing, the link on the Criterion front page goes to the 1998 remake, which is to be avoided, but you can search for the 1962 version easy enough), and the utterly gonzo Japanese haunted house/high school romp/demon killer/surreal fantasy film House (1977), which has to be seen to be believed.
These are all very cool and well worth the time, but the more exciting opportunity in this offer has to do with a collection of titles not currently available on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S., Criterion or otherwise. These include the quiet, insidious thriller Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) from Britain (previously available on Home Vision DVD, long out of print), the fabulous female coming of age psycho-drama fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) from Jaromil Jires (released on DVD by Facets, now hard to find), and a pair of Japanese films I’ve not had the pleasure to see yet: Kateo Shindo’s The Naked Island (1960) and Kon Ichikawa’s Princess From the Moon (1987).