Best Blu-ray & DVD releases of 2016

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.

Out1Box1 – 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.

Videophiled: ‘Vice and Virtue’ and ‘Mark of the Devil’ – Sex and sadism on Blu-ray

ViceVirtue
Kino Lorber

Vice & Virtue (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is the titillating title that Roger Vadim gave to his 1963 take on two Marquis de Sade stories, “Justine” and “Juliette,” which he reframed as a morality play set in Nazi-occupied France. Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve star as sisters representing diametrically opposed responses to the occupation. Girardot’s Juliette, aka “le vice,” turns collaborator and becomes the willing mistress to a ruthless and equally opportunistic SS colonel (Robert Hossein), while the idealistic young Justine, aka “le vertu,” defies the Nazis and is sent to “The Commandery,” the brothel clubhouse of a particularly sadistic brotherhood of officers in a country castle. Vadim revels in decadence and suggestions of sadism and sexual enslavement, attempting a kind of arthouse version of sexploitation by way of high melodrama and gothic horror, but it’s a weird confusion of bland elegance and tastelessness, a perverse fairy tale of innocence under assault and corruption punished in the end. It was the first major role for Deneuve but her part is small next to the power games and sensual distractions of her high-living sister and her calculating lover. They’re a natural couple with no allegiance to anything but their own power and pleasure.

Vadim made his debut just before the French nouvelle vague broke through, creating a sensation with … And God Created Woman and its voluptuous sex kitten star Brigitte Bardot in 1956. Where the rest of France’s ambitious young filmmakers were experimenting and exploring, trying to find fresh and authentic ways to express themselves and examine the world around them, Vadim was a self-promoter with an eye on the box-office and a canny understanding of how sex sells. He presented himself as both sexual rebel and polished studio man, making films with a flamboyant style and an erotic flair, even if it was all in the licentious suggestion of debauchery. Vice and Virtue comes off as particularly calculated—the spectacle of innocent beauties degraded at the hands of Nazi officers anticipate the grotesque Nazi-sploitation films of the seventies—and cynical, set against elegant locations and directed with self-consciously theatrical flair. His lighting effects, where the screen goes dark but for a spotlight on a single character, is contrived at best and ultimately distracting. But finally, there is no investment in a moral, merely a pageant of depravity mostly hinted it with the hope that the audience will fill in the rest.

The widescreen black and white film is nicely mastered and looks quite nice. French with English subtitles, no supplements beyond a trailer.

MarkDevil
Arrow / MVD

Mark of the Devil (Arrow / MVD, Blu-ray, DVD), a sadistic tale of a corrupt inquisitor and his reign of terror in the name of the church in 1770 Austria, is not for all tastes, and certainly not for all stomachs. The commanding Herbert Lom stars as the Inquisitor and a handsome young Udo Kier takes a rare romantic lead as a young Baron who rescues an innocent peasant girl from the clutches of a local witch-hunter (the villainous-looking Reggie Nalder), only to run afoul of Lom’s unholy warrior. An early entry in the “sex and sadism” genre, this is an exploitation film with an intelligence behind it, but an exploitation film nonetheless: director Michael Armstrong (with an uncredited Adrian Hoven, who also produced and co-scripted) revels in the most barbarous tortures as the impotent Inquisitor punishes innocent young maidens for his own unclean desires. It’s not as interesting or powerful as Michael Reeves’ similarly themed The Witchfinder General but Mark makes its own unique mark with Lom’s strong central performance as the power mad inquisitor and solid support from Nalder and Kier. The cynical ending that deliver a dramatic punch along with the grisly nastiness. Barf bags were handed out to audiences on its initial release.

This is the first American release by Arrow, a British label that earned a reputation as the “Criterion of Cult” for its high-quality restorations and supplements, and this is a superb disc. It’s been on DVD before, most notably in a fine edition from Blue Underground, but this is remastered in HD from original film elements and features with both English and German soundtracks (it was a co-production shot in Austria). It is sharp and vivid and preserves the filmic texture and it looks superb, a marked upgrade from the previous SD release and the definitive release of the film. (Note that the grit you see in the opening credits is on the negative, thanks to sloppy optical work by the company that added the credits.) It’s the first time it’s been presented in its complete, uncut form in Britain, where the censorship of horror films is notorious, and that same edition is released stateside as well.

It features brand new commentary recorded for this release by director Michael Armstrong with moderator Calum Waddell and the new feature-length documentary “Mark of the Times,” about the “new wave” of British horror in the 1960s and 1970s (with interviews with director Michael Armstrong among others), plus the featurettes “Hallmark of the Devil” (about the American distributor of the film) and “Mark of the Devil: Now and Then” (a look at the shooting locations) and interviews with actors Udo Kier, Herbert Fux, Gaby Fuchs, Ingeborg Schöner and Herbert Lom (carried over from the earlier Blue Underground DVD) and composer Michael Holm. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a collection of outtakes, the trailer, and an accompanying booklet.