We’ve been hearing people pronounce the death of DVD and Blu-ray for years now. You’d never know it from the astonishing wealth of Blu-ray debuts, restored movies, and lovingly-produced special editions in 2016. The sales numbers are way down from a decade ago, of course, thanks in large part to the demise of the video store, which drove sales of new movies to fill the new release rental racks. The studios still handle their own new releases on disc but many of them have licensed out their back catalog to smaller labels—some new, some longtime players—who have continued to nurture the market for classics, cult films, collectibles, and other films from our recent and distant past. Criterion, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory / Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Arrow, Olive, Blue Underground, Flicker Alley, Raro, MVD, Cinelicious, and others have continued to reach those of us who value quality and deliver releases that, if anything, continue to improve. We prefer to own rather than rely on compromised quality of streaming video and the vagaries of licensing and contracts when it comes to movies.
2016 has been as good a year as any I’ve covered in my years as a home video columnist and paring my list of top releases down to 10 was no easy task. In fact, I supplemented it with over two dozen bonus picks and honorable mentions. My approach is a mix of historical importance, aesthetic judgment, quality of presentation, and difficulty of effort. It is an unquantifiable formula influenced by my own subjective values but you’ll see some themes emerge. I favor films that have never been available in the U.S. before, significant restorations, discoveries, and rarities. But I also value a beautiful transfer, well-produced supplements, insightful interviews and essays, and intelligently-curated archival extras. You’ll see all these in the picks below.
1 – Out 1(Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) – This was my cinematic Holy Grail for years, Jacques Rivette’s legendary 12-hour-plus epic of rival theater companies, an obsessive panhandler, a mercenary street thief, an obscure conspiracy, the post-1968 culture of Paris, puzzles, mysteries, creative improvisation, and the theater of life. The history is too complicated to go into here (check out my review at Parallax View) but apart from periodic special screenings it was impossible to see until a digital restoration in 2015 followed by a limited American release in theaters, streaming access, and finally an amazing Blu-ray+DVD box set featuring both the complete version (Noli me tangere, 1971 / 1989) and the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision. It was shot on 16mm on the streets with a minimal crew and in a collaborative spirit, incorporating improvisations and accidents and morphing along the way. The disc release embraces the texture of its making and also includes the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited” and an accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet. There were more lavish sets and more beautiful restorations on 2016 home video, but nothing as unique and committed as this cinematic event, which made its American home video debut over 40 years after its first showing. Full review here.
Jacques Rivette’sOut 1 (Kino Lorber / Carlotta, Blu-ray+DVD) has been one of the Holy Grails of international cinema since its premier screening in 1971. Rejected by French TV and, at over 12 1/2 hours in its initial cut, too long for theaters, the definitive editions wasn’t even completed until 1989. It showed on French and German TV but apart from periodic special screenings (including a handful of showings in the U.S. and Canada in 2006 and 2007) was impossible to see.
That changed in 2015 with a French digital restoration from the original 16mm negatives, a high-profile two-week run in New York (qualifying as the film’s American theatrical debut) followed by screenings across the country (including Seattle), streaming availability from the arthouse subscription service Fandor and a late 2015 disc release in France. Now 2016 brings this amazing Blu-ray+DVD combo box set release. It features not only the 13-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971 / 1989) but the shorter Out 1: Spectre (1974), designed for a theatrical release after French TV balked at his original vision, plus an accompanying documentary and a booklet.
Out 1 is many things, not the least of which is a radical experiment in filmmaking and collaborative storytelling: a film completely improvised by the cast. Each actor was invited to create a character independently of one another and then interacted based on the situations of an outline developed by Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman and inspired by the “History of the Thirteen” novels by Balzac. Length was left open: the story would take as long to tell as the process demanded, and while Rivette was there to guide the process, he was also there to follow where the actors took it. The rhythms of the performances and interactions guided the shaping the film.
The film itself reflects its creation: two separate theater groups, each working on a different play by Aeschylus, work the material through acting exercises, each utilizing a different approach. One group is led by Lili (Michèle Moretti), who draws from dance and song to inform performance in her workshopping, the other by Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), whose improvisational exercises are meant to get in touch with the essence of character and the act of collaborative performance. The post-performance discussions conducted by Thomas, which analyze the experience as well as the effectiveness, could be comments on the process of the shooting itself. At least that’s my takeaway.
In addition to these groups are another matched pair. Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Colin, a deaf-mute who panhandles with enigmatic messages and “talks” through a harmonica, and Juliet Berto is petty thief Frédérique, who flirts with bar patrons and then steals their money. Colin is handed a letter that hints at a conspiracy of thirteen individuals (followed by two more enigmatic notes) and turns investigator, looking for secret messages coded in the messages and following clues to a group that meets in a counter culture storefront run by Pauline (Bulle Ogier). Frédérique steals letters with references to The Thirteen from a chess-playing businessman (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) and tries to leverage them for the purposes of blackmail. Connections between the characters—who grow to include an author (Bernadette Lafont), a lawyer (Françoise Fabian), an intellectual (Jean Bouise), a gangster with aspirations to theater (Alain Libolt), and more—are discovered along the way and histories are revealed. There are also cameos by Rivette’s fellow filmmaker and former colleague Eric Rohmer (dryly funny as a Bazan scholar consulted by Colin in the “Third Episode”) and Barbet Schroeder.
Even for the French nouvelle vague this is an unconventional narrative. Leaud’s character isn’t identified by the name Colin until the fourth episode (though it is cited in the credits) and there is no effort to establish characters or relationships for the viewer, as the screenwriting manuals instruct. You pick up their names and their backstories as they come, piecing the world together along the way. Two seemingly central characters referenced in great detail never even appear. Storylines don’t follow any familiar paths and endeavors fall apart as outside forces and personal anxieties pull at the characters. This was produced in the wake of May 1968 and in some ways it is their response, both as a communal endeavor among collaborators with a shared vision and a portrait of idealists whose creations collapse for any number of reasons. To say that patience is called for is an understatement—I for one found the theater exercises of Thomas’ group, which Rivette allows to play out in long sequences, trying in the early episodes—and it will frustrate anyone waiting for a narrative payoff, something that explains everything that we’ve seen. But it’s a delight if you engage in the process and enjoy the personalities, the collisions of character, the unexpected textures and rhythms of the storytelling, and the odd bounces of the narrative. Out 1 musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that Rivette’s more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones.
Out 1 is Rivette redux. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. His love of actors and theater, his passion for mysteries and conspiracies and puzzles, his play with doubles and reflections, and his freewheeling approach to storytelling is all here. While Rivette had television in mind for distribution (French TV turned it down at the time and it was nearly 20 years before it was broadcast) and he breaks it into eight chapters, he always saw it as a work of cinema and that’s how it plays. This isn’t a mini-series along the lines of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or a serialized story like the contemporary cable or streaming model. This is a movie and the pleasures are as much in the invention and energy of the moment as in the accumulation of detail. It simply takes its time, and is best seen in parts spread out over time (though I would never deny anyone the pleasure of watching it in a single epic screening).
The complete 13-hour version was finished and presented in its final version in 1989. Carlotta Films restored this version from the 16mm negative, scanned in 4k and supervised by director of photography Pierre-William Glenn, and original sound mix, and remastered it in 2k for theatrical and video release. The producers of the restoration corrected damage to the materials but preserved the anomalies inherent in the original presentation; you’ll see stray hairs in the gate of the camera (preserved for posterity on the camera negative) in many shots. Rivette chose to keep some mistakes captured in the shooting if it meant preserving the integrity of the scene, especially in the midst of a long take. The futz on the frameline of some (actually quite a few) shots is simply a hallmark of the method of production, which he grabbed on the fly at a tremendous pace (the entire production was shot in six weeks). The presentation preserves the grain of the 16mm source, another distinctive texture of the film, and the odd intensity of the colors, a kind of saturation you don’t see in modern digital or even 35mm shooting.
The shorter Out 1: Spectre, which runs 255 minutes and is presented in two halves with an intermission, is not just a condensed version of the original cut but a reworking of the material (with some instances of alternate footage). Set in “Paris and its double,” this journey through the characters does away with most of the long takes and extended sequences (especially the theater exercises) and shuffles the B&W stills (which recap each episode in the long version) are shuffled through Spectre to fill in gaps and set a different narrative rhythm. Footage from the longer version, already scanned and restored, was used where possible, but a few alternate shots and sequences unique to Spectre were newly remastered for this presentation.
The 13-disc box set (6 Blu-rays, 7 DVDs), released stateside by Kino, features both versions and is identical to the French release but for the packaging and branding. It features the new documentary “The Mysteries of Paris: Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 Revisited,” directed by Robert Fischer and Wilfried Reichart, as a bonus program. The 2015 production features new interviews with actors Bulle Ogier, Michael Lonsdale and Hermine Karagheuz, cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn, assistant director Jean-François Stévenin and producer Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff, plus archival interviews with Rivette and others. The accompanying 120 page bilingual booklet features an illuminating essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a champion of Rivette and Out 1, along with archival interviews and articles with members of the cast and crew and a collection of production stills.
With the release of Out 1 and last year’s Le Pont du Nord (1981) on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, I think it’s fair to say that Rivette is finally getting his due. Criterion will bring out the American home video debut of his debut feature, Paris Belongs to Us (1961), in March, while Noroit (1976) and Duelle (1976) were released in the British Out 1 box set, and I still hold out hope for the eventual Blu-ray releases of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), announced by New Yorker a couple of years ago, and La belle noiseuse (1991), previously released on DVD by New Yorker but in desperate need of a remastered upgrade. Rivette is clearly an acquired taste. Here’s hoping more viewers are acquiring it.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD, streaming) is the grandfather and the godfather of German Expressionist cinema and one of the most influential films of its era. Directed by Robert Weine, it features Werner Kraus as the tyrannical Dr. Caligari, a sideshow barker in cape and top hat who commands the sleeping Cesare (Conrad Veidt), the carnival’s star attraction, to rise at night and do his bidding, a literal sleepwalker who is both monster and victim. With its painterly sets of jutting beams, leaning walls and heavy black lines painted on flats and arranged to suggest both a skewed sense of depth and a forced perspective that flaunts its artificiality, the film dropped audiences into an aggressively unreal world and celebrated its theatrical artifice as a vision of madness and horror. It set the style for a movement, influenced a generation of filmmaker from Fritz Lang and Universal horror movies, and created images so vivid they are still referenced today. This is a movie that has seen some awful home video releases over the years but even the superior presentations (the Image DVD from Film Preservation Associates and the previous Kino DVD from an earlier Murnau Foundation edition) have suffered from damaged footage, missing frames, and inferior source material.
The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation (which previously spearheaded the astounding restoration of the definitive Metropolis) undertook the comprehensive digital restoration of this landmark using for the first time ever the original camera negative as the primary source (previous releases were taken from archival prints), with additional footage from the best of the existing archival prints. It was a two year project and the efforts are visible in every frame of this reclamation; the difference between Kino’s previous DVD and this stunning new restoration is night and day. The image is not just clean and free from much of the damage seen on earlier editions, missing frames and footage has been restored and the image is now sharp and strong, with deep blacks, vivid contrasts, and unprecedented clarity, stability, and detail.
Silent with German intertitles and English subtitles, with choice of two scores. Features the German documentary “Caligari: How Horror Came to Cinema” (with English subtitles), stills, restoration demonstration, and a booklet with an essay by film historian Kristen Thompson.
This restoration is also available to stream on Netflix and Fandor in HD.
Verdun: Looking at History(Carlotta US / Kino Lorber, DVD, Digital, VOD) comes with an unfortunately passive title in its English translation. It was released in France as Verdun, visions d’histoire, which is more haunting (as if it’s resurrecting the ghosts of soldiers and civilians as visions of the past) and a more fitting title for Léon Poirier’s war 1928 epic. The sweeping portrait of the battle of Verdun, an eleven-month siege where the French held the line against an offensive of overwhelming German forces at the cost of 300,000 solders on both sides, was produced to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars and dedicated it to “all the martyrs of the ugliest passion that is war.” It is part human drama and part history lesson, complete with detailed statistics and animated maps of troop movements to put the big picture around human experience.
Poirier grounds the film in the “everyman” experience by identifying only the real-life historical figures by name. The fictional characters are referred to solely as titles and types—the French soldier, the German officer, the German soldier, the farmer, the wife, the daughter, the young man, and so on—but dramatic they are fully-formed characters whose experiences, soldier and civilian alike, are anything but generic. And while Poirier favors the French experience and can’t avoid the patriotic celebration of the French achievement, he doesn’t vilify the German officers or judge the German soldiers, who like The French Soldier (our central point-of-view figure, played with hearty embrace of life by the great Albert Préjean) are simply doing their duty in a terrible ordeal.
Celebrated upon release for its amazing recreations of battle scenes (which Poirier intercut with real battle footage from newsreels), it was eclipsed by the coming of sound (Poirier reworked it as a sound feature a few years later) and all but disappeared in subsequent years. It was restored in 2006 by the Cinematheque de Toulouse but was only screened a few times stateside since. Kino’s release of the Carlotta U.S. DVD finally makes it available to American audiences.
Features option of French or English menus and French intertitles with English subtitles, with a fine piano score by Hakim Bentchouala Golobitch. The featurettes “Restoring Verdun” and “Visions of Verdun” are French productions that explore the restoration of the original silent of the film and a look at the history and legacy of the film. “The French take their revenge in Verdun” is an archival documentary that shows the more familiar kind of nationalistic approach to war movies and offers a contrast to Poirier’s vision.