Oh, where to start. On a personal level, I genuinely didn't think this year could be any worse than the last, but along comes a PR trained corporate tool named Cameron, a desperate-for-office hypocrite named Clegg and a public too willing to buy into their bullshit and here we bloody well are. I realise that I'm straying somewhat from the site brief, but if Cameron can use his end-of-year slot to claim the upcoming cuts as "tough but necessary," I can use mine to call him a lying and self-serving bastard who is peddling a right-wing agenda as the only solution to a financial shortfall that his overpaid ilk were instrumental in creating, and who look set to once again profit from the misery and misfortune of those at on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Ah, that felt good.
I could go on, qualifying my claims and expanding on their scope, but I have other, better targeted outlets for that. I know we're supposed to be talking about film here, but the Con-Dem ransacking of just about anything of real value has had indirect impact on the site itself, specifically on me as reviewer, editor and chief news poster. For all of us here, our work on the site is a passionate hobby rather than a paid profession, one driven by a love of the films we try our best to encourage others to see, and the time we are able to devote to it is regulated the demands and pressures of work and home life. I and almost everyone I know are directly are being directly affected by the current cutbacks, some to an alarming and even home-threatening degree, and as a workplace union representative much of my free time is being swallowed by discussions with management, supporting work colleagues, and fruitlessly scouting for jobs in one of the UK's unemployment and economic black spots. The knock-on effect has seen reviews half-completed, film screenings missed, and periods of almost complete site inactivity. The next four months are likely to be worse on this front, after which I may well have a lot more time for the site than I've had in a good many years, if you get my drift. It's here that I'm grateful to my fellow reviewers for keeping us ticking over through troubled times.
The current machine-gun approach to funding cuts has also resulted in the abolition of the UK Film Council, prompting widespread protest but also the expected yahoos of support, particularly from those who complained that many of the films that the Film Council funded did poorly at the box-office or had little commercial value, as if this is somehow the only justification for a film's existence. What they conveniently overlooked is that pretty much every major studio and feature production company has its share of misfires, and in most cases these actually outweigh the successes. As screenwriter William Goldman memorably stated about any film's prospect for success, "nobody knows anything," and for the most part the big hits are the exceptions rather than the rule. Bodies like the UK Film Council provide funding for projects that may otherwise have struggled to see the light of day, and while they may be the sort of films that Michael Winner doesn't want to see made, they can sometimes result in domestic or even international hits, and provide that all important first steps for budding new filmmakers. It's worth remembering that the UK Film Council has provided funding for some of the most celebrated notable British films in recent years, including Festival, The Constant Gardener, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Severance, Red Road, London to Brighton, The Last King of Scotland, Deep Water, This is England, In the Loop, Fish Tank, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, to name but a few. Partly as a result, the Film Council actually generated more money than it spent, suggesting that the reasons for its abolition were ideological rather than budgetary. Colour me unsurprised.
Of course, these are not the sort of films that our glorious leader wants to see made. Back in November he memorably stated that British film industry should instead focus on blockbusters like the Harry Potter franchise, films that in his words, "people want to see," and that would encourage foreign visitors into the UK (unless they're students looking to study English, of course, then their visas will be refused). Well I don't know about you, but I think of myself as people, and I frankly could live without ever seeing another Harry Potter film or a blockbuster of any sort,* and would much rather see more films like those on the above list. But then that's me. And almost everyone I know. Film as an artistic, educational, socially responsive or intellectually stimulating medium is, by Cameron's reckoning, largely invalid in a time when the pursuit of material profit is the only justification for pretty much anything. Under the new order, British film is expected to have only one function, to act as a sales pitch to attract foreign tourists to the UK. Well good luck finding Hogwarts when you actually get here. Such thinking will doubtless result in a nod of approval to those costume dramas in which respected thespians portray famous figures from the royal or aristocratic history, being as this plays perfectly to the view that many would-be tourists already have of Britain. They'll love The King's Speech then, a film starring Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter and Derek Jacobi, that tells the story of the speech-impaired King George IV's ascension to the throne, and that has proved a major 2011 Golden Globe nominee. That should do the job. Oh wait a minute, wasn't that co-funded by the UK Film Council?
One other concern about possible future government intentions was picked up by fellow reviewer Gort at the end of his coverage of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, where he expressed concern about the potential for a return to the censorious days of the Video Recordings Act. Under that ruling, The Daily Mail and suit-wearing idiots took it upon themselves to decide what was safe for the likes of people like us to be watching, because we're clearly too immature and irresponsible to make the judgement for ourselves. It's early days yet, but the opening shots have been fired in the government's plans to force ISPs to block access to web sites carrying pornographic material. I'm not going to get into a debate on pornography and freedom of speech here, but you only have to nip back to the late 70s and early 80s to see just how flexible the term 'pornography' can made to appear by those with an agenda and the power to enforce it. Films that are now celebrated as classics of type – including Taxi Driver and The Exorcist – were cut or banned outright, the purported purpose being 'to protect the children', the very same mantra that's being trotted out now. Do me a favour. Whatever you do, the playground distribution network will flourish regardless – you only need to work with young people to realise how savvy they are about the digital world and the myriad of access point that reside within. Put up a wall and they'll dig round it in minutes, block access to a site and they'll come in through the back door. Believe me, I've watched it happen, and for someone who had to learn rather than grow up with computers, it's like watching a magician pull off the deftest of card tricks. Mind you, any security system installed or supervised by government bodies would probably fall apart anyway, the inevitable victim of future cutbacks when the bankers and money men send us spiralling into the next greed-triggered recession.
OK, OK, so what about the movies? Fortunately for us non-mainstream devotees there has been plenty to gorge on in the last twelve months, and by bypassing most television and the Hollywood product I've actually experienced little in the way of major disappointments. Technology is on the movie, and with the rise in popularity of Blu-ray and digital downloads, I have been left wondering whether the first part of site name will actually have the longevity I naively assumed it would have when we chose it. Other technological developments I've been a lot less enthralled by. Try though I might, I've not been able to ignore the rise in popularity of 3D, a process I have so far failed to find any reason to engage with, mainly because I've been unable to imagine a single thing it can add to the storytelling, the characters or even the cinematic effectiveness of any even half-decently written and constructed film. 3D is for the most technical razzmatazz, a firework display that draws attention to the process at the expense of the elements you think made the film worth producing in the first place. It's thus hardly surprising that the technique has proved most popular with a product whose vacuity of content is most in need of a distracting surface polish.
As a result there hasn't been a single film released in 3D all year that I've actually wanted to see, and that includes Avatar. I ended up seeing it anyway, shorn of its third dimension, and was genuinely startled by how much I disliked it. This was the Hollywood style-over-content experience at its most mind-numbingly shallow, a thick-ear science-fiction reworking of the basic elements of the 'Journey to Another World' western plotline,** a long-established sub-genre that just a few years after its birth was giving rise to stories and characters far more sophisticated than the clichéd clumsiness in Cameron's opus. People who had previously talked of the importance of storytelling seemed indifferent to it here, and instead enthused about the world that Cameron's designers, effects and animation teams had created. I can only presume they don't have access to a PS3 or Xbox 360, games consoles that not only allow you to immerse yourselves in a wide range of impressively realised and increasingly realistic alternative worlds, but interact with them too. And Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto 4, Dead Space, Red Dead Redemption and Uncharted 2 are all way more fun than Cameron's extended video game cut-scene of a movie. I'm not even going to start on 3D televisions, but feel no need to do so given the eloquent and witty case made against them by the Charlie Brooker in his Guardian column, which you can read here. He also hates Avatar, bless him.
Other film disappointments were relatively minor and usually the result of a mismatch between my own expectations (usually fed by the enthusiasm of others) and what the film delivered. Strong advance word suggested that [Rec] 2, for example, was even better than its predecessor, one of the few genuinely scary zombie films in modern horror cinema. And well made though it was, by many recycling elements and switching the threat from viral to demonic, the new film diminished the credibility and tension of the original, though some compensation was provided by Jonathan Mellor's intense performance as Catholic anti-zombie warrior Dr. Owen. Another potentially great zombie movie was Bruce McDonald's Pontypool, which features a fine lead performance from Stephen McHattie (whom Cronenberg fans will know as the older of the two psychos from A History of Violence) and makes a virtue of its low budget by trapping its characters in a radio studio, where news of the social breakdown taking place outside is phoned in by panicking eye-witnesses and reporters. All of which stalls with the arrival of Dr. Mendez, who serves up an intriguing but credibility-pushing explanation with a big slice of performance ham, kicking off a weak final act in which the tension and originality ball is effectively dropped.
At the risk of pissing off just about everyone, I'm also going to admit to not being as thrilled as my fellow reviewers by Inception, an intelligent, well acted and smartly made film that for my money ran for about 40 minutes longer than the story required (if a Hollywood film wants to be taken seriously nowadays it has to run for at least two-and-a-half hours), is intermittently dogged by the ghost of its influences (Nolan himself has acknowledged a debt to Kon Satoshi's 2006 Paprika, although just ten minutes in my viewing companion was talking about The Matrix), and for all its eye-catching effects work, its dream world never felt authentically dream-like. The ambiguous ending was nicely done, but could we have just one genre film from Hollywood that doesn't make reuniting the family unit its underlying theme? It's still well worth seeing, and in storytelling alone is well above the Hollywood standard, though is nowhere near as complex as some have suggested.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment this year lies with myself, with the films I didn't see and the reviews that weren't delivered, with the demands made by my daytime workload, family crises and the politics of cuts and redundancies squeezing my free time like never before. A small pile of Peccadillo, New Wave and Artificial Eye releases were either missed or half-finished (the latter I'm intending to complete in the next couple of weeks), which is unfair given that the catalogues of all three labels are the very essence of outsider cinema. Three or four Eureka discs even slipped through the net and more still were posted well after the release date, while two Arrow releases that commanded our attention – the Romero/Argento Two Evil Eyes and Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead – both fell by the wayside, but still come recommended for the horror fans out there. There were plenty of BFI titles that I'd love to have covered and we even dropped the ball on their most recent Flipside titles. Since I never got round to requesting review discs, we're likely to miss the next couple as well. I've also not seen a single Criterion disc all year and have yet to lay eyes on one of their Blu-ray releases, something you can put down to the cost of a multi-region player and of importing the discs in these financially lean times.
Fortunately, there were still plenty of films and home video releases to get excited about over the past twelve months. DVD and Blu-ray in particular have once again provided access to long unseen works and newly restored prints of films and TV series that we could only have dreamed of having access to back in the pre-VHS era. Particular distributors deserve particular praise for their work in this area. Eureka continue to be torch bearers for film restorations and welcome rediscoveries, and their decision to release several titles exclusively on Blu-ray because they believe the transfer needs to be seen at that quality only is a gamble that I salute, and should provide all the reason you need to make the jump to HD. The same is true of the good people at Second Run, whose crusade to make available a fascinating range of films that have hitherto reached only a tiny UK audience, usually in impressively restored transfers and with informative extras and booklets, is genuinely inspiring and has widened my appreciation of directors I was only vaguely aware of and others whose work I had never before seen. The BFI have also continued to deliver the goods on DVD and Blu-ray and more recently in dual format editions that include both formats. Restored works from Ozu, Visconti, Jack Clayton and the Brothers Quay were joined by further titles from their superb Flipside strand and fascinating documentary works from years past, including five volumes of films from the Central Office of Information. Artificial Eye and New Wave have remained key players in the distribution of recent and classic world and independent cinema, while Network are doing wonders resurrecting half-forgotten favourites, both populist and specialist, from the TV archives. I'd also like to give a shout for Arrow Video, who are not only releasing HD restorations of past horror favourites, they are packaging them up like a fan-boy's dream, with reversible covers, poster reproductions and booklets to accompany their often feature packed discs.
It's hard to decide just how many films to select, so I rejected the idea of a specific number and have chosen fourteen films and sixteen discs, with a sprinkling of notable near misses for both lists. If I hadn't been so preoccupied then there would doubtless have been considerably more. The usual issues with advance booking of titles for our film society means that films that probably should be on this year's list will instead be candidates for next year's instead because I'd rather see them for the first time on a cinema screen than on DVD. I've thus got to wait a little to catch Another Year, We Are What We Are, Winter's Bone, The Illusionist, The Arbor, Restrepo, The Secret in Their Eyes and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, amongst others. For that very reason, there may be a couple of titles here that were actually released last year, but it's this year that I saw them so on the list they go.
There's no order of preference here, so I'll go with an alphabetical listing by their English titles.
Breathless (Ddongpari) (DVD review)
There are not many films that can land an 18 certificate on the basis of their language alone, but this is definitely one. The debut feature lead from Korean actor/director Yang Ik-june, Breathless (the original Korean title Ddongpari literally translates as 'shit fly') is an emotionally charged and brilliantly performed study of two lives controlled by verbal and physical violence and the briefly stabilising kinship that develops between them. It's one of the year's most confrontational but dramatically rewarding films, but like a couple of others on this list, is not for the faint-hearted.
La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris
One of the founding fathers of Direct Cinema and still one of America's leading documentary filmmakers, Frederick Wiseman was 81 yesterday but with this mesmerising look behind the scenes of the Paris Opera Ballet he shows that he's still at the top of his game. The film unfussily observes rehearsals for seven different productions and gives a tantalising peek at the final performances, which include a startling and darkly mesmerising piece in which a mother murders her two young children. The two-and-a-half hour running time flies.
A fascinating concept – two over-protective parents keep their three children confined within the walls of their isolated property with an invented version of the dangers posed by the world beyond – is given captivating treatment by Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos, who paints a cinematic portrait of a repressive society in microcosm and watches coolly as the cracks begin to form and protectionism gives way to incest, violence and self-harm.
Enter the Void
Occasionally meandering and probably overlong, Irreversible director Gasper Noé's first English language film is a two and three-quarter hour art movie, a 'psychedelic melodrama' in which the story of a small-time American drug dealer in Tokyo is viewed entirely through his eyes (or, in the case of memories, from directly behind his head). If this wasn't enough, he's shot and killed less than half-an-hour in, and the perspective switches to that of his wandering, airborne spiritual self. Some will be bored stupid, but if you connect with Noé's mind-bending audio-visual approach (which was inspired by a combination of the opening scene of Strange Days and watching The Lady in the Lake while bombed out on drugs), then it's a film experience unlike any other this year, and boasts the most hypnotic cinematic drug trip since 2001's star gate sequence.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The debut feature of celebrated but secretive British street artist Bansky, this hugely entertaining documentary is energetic, insightful and intermittently hilarious, and may also be the biggest cinematic prank of the year. The story of how French émigré clothing retailer Thierry Guetta transformed himself from would-be documentary filmmaker into a celebrated but artistically shallow artist allows for a fascinating insight into the street art phenomenon and the process by which the more outlandishly located works are created.
Fish Tank (Blu-ray review)
Andrea Arnold's alternately tough and tender follow-up to Red Road is a modern working-class film drama par excellence, a dramatically compelling story of a teenage girl (an extraordinary performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis, who Arnold approached after seeing her arguing with her boyfriend) who falls for her mother's good looking new boyfriend (another fine turn from Michael Fassbender) with inevitable but still emotionally jarring results. There's not a single wrong note here and even the familiar elements are infused with freshness and honesty, though this is another of those films that those who twitch at strong language might do well to sidestep.
Only Chris Morris would even attempt to make a comedy about four incompetent would-be British Jihadi terrorists, and I'm willing to bet that only he could have made it as funny as this while keeping his central characters so oddly sympathetic. The fun-run climax switches from the comic to the tragic in the space of a few seconds, and I laughed harder at the police sniper radio conversation ("a honey monster is not a bear") than anything else I watched all year.
Lebanon (DVD review)
It takes balls to confine an entire film to the inside of an Israeli Army tank, but it takes real talent to make that film as cinematic and consistently gripping as Samuel Maoz's vivid recreation of his own first traumatic day as an inexperienced tank gunner in the First Lebanon War. A tense, claustrophobic, and sobering experience, and the perfect companion piece to Ari Folman's similarly theme 2008 Waltz with Bashir.
Mother (Madeo) (Blu-ray review)
Memories of Murder and The Host director Bong Joon-ho scores again with this riveting drama about a fiercely maternal woman who launches her own private investigation after her mentally challenged son is fitted up for murder. Slow burning, intricately plotted and immaculately made, it's dark tone, story twists and occasionally brutal violence are all on a par with its illustrious predecessors, and it features a superb central performance from Korean TV and theatre grand dame, Kim Hye-ja.
No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh) (DVD review)
With Iranian director Jafar Panahi now serving jail time and banned from making films for 20 years for questioning the actions of his government, Bahman Ghobadi's revealing and invigorating shout for the country's aspiring rock musicians, who are forbidden to play in public and forced to rehearse in soundproofed basements and isolated farmhouses, is all the more relevant. Shot without official permission under constant risk of arrest, the film recreates the true story of its two lead performers, their search for new band members taking us on a whistle-stop tour of the country's thriving and talented underground music scene.
A Prophet (Un prophète) (DVD review)
An obvious one, perhaps, but a film that really did live up to its phenomenal advanced word and that breathed exciting new life into the seemingly well-worn clichés of the prison movie. A terrific performance from relative newcomer Tahar Rahim as new inmate Malik is matched by a sometimes terrifying turn by old-hand Niels Arestrup as Corsican crime kingpin César, who zeros in on Malik and transforms him from petty criminal into a serious player, with potentially serious consequences for them both.
A Serbian Film (DVD review)
Asking for trouble here, and I'll freely admit that this is not a film I'd comfortably recommend to many, but for me Srdjan Spasojevic's angry and extreme allegory of modern Serbian history and how survival in any modern society requires its citizens to prostitute themselves was one of the year's boldest and most uncompromising films, despite being cut by over four minutes by the British censor (cuts I'll be discussing in our review of the DVD in the next couple of days). It's also really well made, which of course makes the violence all the harder to take.
Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)
The latest film from Japanese master Kore-eda is a captivating minimalist drama in which a family reunion develops into a quietly complex study of loss, resentment, sacrifice, forgiveness and the generation gap. Specific to Japan in its cultural detail but universal in its themes, Still Walking is a deeply affecting work that avoids sentimentality and overstatement and whose poetic storytelling and portrayal of family relationships actually justifies the frequently made Ozu comparisons.
The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)
Obvious choice #2 was again impossible to not include. This extraordinary observational study of a series of strange occurrences in a small German village in the lead-up to WW1 shows a community that, through the moralistic oppression of its children, is unwittingly shaping them into the Nazis of the future. A foreboding portrait of oppression shrouded by the beautiful monochrome cinematography of Haneke regular Christian Bergeron. Artificial Eye's Blu-ray is a stunner.
The following only missed the list because I bullied myself into cutting the numbers down.
24 City (Er shi si cheng ji) – Zhang Ke Jia's fascinating melding of narrative and documentary explores the changing face of modern China through the closing of a munitions factory to make way for luxury apartments.
Afghan Star – an eye-opening documentary on the Afghan equivalent of Pop Idol in which the religious oppression of the Taliban years is shown to be a lingering threat to those who flout its teachings. (DVD review)
The Cove – Louie Psihoyos's documentary expose of an annual Japanese dolphin slaughter shook me up even more than expected because of where it took place (you can read my piece on the film to find out why here).
Sin Nombre – Not quite as hard-hitting as I was expecting, but still a grippingly told story of the hardships endured by those journeying to illegally cross the Mexican border into the US.
The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) – Championed as a masterpiece by some but leaving many at our cinema screening bemused and dissatisfied, this is one film I still haven't been able to make my mind up about, but one I was certainly intrigued by and intend to revisit.
A Serious Man – Another wonderfully offbeat Coen brothers black comedy-drama in which a Jewish college professor searches for spiritual meaning to his life as it steadily unravels. The comedy is even more deadpan than the Coen norm.
Johnny Mad Dog – A brutal, hard-hitting portrait of African child soldiers that acts as a well targeted cinematic face-slap, particularly when you learn that the kids carrying out the fake screen violence are all real ex-child soldiers who have participated in actual raids and killings.
Monsters – A captivating, realistic and semi-improvised blend of socially aware road movie and monster flick, in which young British feature newcomer Gareth Edwards works small miracles on an absurdly low budget (figure vary, but Edwards estimates it as less than $100,000), in part by shooting on a pro-sumer camcorder and doing the effects himself on his home computer. I've only recently seen this and have a feeling that a second viewing would see it bumped onto the main list.
These are in no particular order whatsoever.
Alien Anthology (Blu-ray – 20th century Fox)
All four Alien films remastered to Blu-ray, which alone would be tantalising enough, but they are accompanied by over 60 hours of extra features taking you through every detail of each film's production. Surprisingly, the first two films look better than the second two, with the lovely rendition of Derek Vanlint's cinematography putting Alien at the top of the tree.
Starsuckers (DVD – Network) (DVD review)
Chris Atkins' superb dissection of our increasingly dangerous obsession with celebrity culture was also one of the best featured single DVD releases of the year. A brilliantly devised and entertaining wake-up call that needs to be as widely seen as possible. So get it, watch it and lend it to everyone you know.
The Avengers – Series 4 (DVD box set – Optimum) (DVD review)
All four of Optimum's Avengers box sets released this year deserve to be on this list, it's just that series 4 was my favourite and where for me this iconic series really peaked. Terrific transfers are backed by an ocean of great extras – short of a Blu-ray re-release, these really are the definitive versions.
Shinjuku Boys / Gaea Girls (DVD – Second Run) (DVD review)
There are a good many Second Run releases that could and even should be on this list (see below), but of the four I've included, my favourite has to be this double bill of documentaries on little known aspects of modern Japanese life by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams. Gaea Girls in particular, an intimate, sometimes brutal look at the world of Japanese female wrestling, ranks as one of the most compelling documentaries I've seen in years.
M (DVD/Blu-ray – Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray review)
A genuine cinema great gets a high-def release and looks lovelier than ever, and if that wasn't enough it sports two audio commentaries, an archive interview with Fritz Lang, and the long unseen English language version of the film. Even if you have one of the previous DVD releases you should definitely have this one. Only a couple of years back I'd never have believed early cinema could look this good, and then came...
City Girl (Blu-ray – Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray review)
A jaw-droppingly beautiful transfer of F.W. Murnau's 1930 delicately nuanced relationship drama that really set the bar for Blu-ray transfers of silent cinema. So good is the transfer that Eureka took the then unusual step of releasing it on Blu-ray only, and if you're still looking for a convincing reason to purchase that BD player then here it sits.
Callan: The Monochrome Years / Callan: The Colour Years (DVD – Network) (DVD review)
A welcome revival of the toughest and most compelling espionage series in British television history, one that gave Edward Woodward his finest ever role and that boasted a superb supporting cast at the top of their game. It's a damned shame that the were no extra features on board , but for the consistent excellence of programme itself these two sets are a must-have.
Diamonds of the Night (DVD – Second Run) (DVD review)
Jan Němec's marvellous 1964 monochrome wartime drama, wonderfully described by my fellow reviewer L.K. Weston as "a love letter to cinema, describing all it can achieve and all it can inspire," was one of Second Run's most rewarding rediscoveries this year. A gripping, beautifully told story of the two Jewish boys who escape a Nazi transport train and flee for their lives, this is exactly why the films of the Czech New Wave are held in such high regard.
The Unpolished (Die Unerzogenen) (DVD – Second Run) (DVD review)
Another European delight that would have probably have passed me by were it not for the good people at Second Run, this keenly observed first feature from Pia Marais is one of the most honest and unsentimental films about the insecurities of childhood I've ever seen. Marais latest film, At Ellen's Age (Im Alter von Ellen) was shown at Cannes and the London Film Festival last year, but is still waiting for a general release in the UK.
Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (Blu-ray – BFI) (Blu-ray review)
The Quay Brothers' poetic and divinely surreal first live action feature remains one of the most visually and aurally beautiful works of late 20th century cinema, and received exemplary treatment from the BFI on their impressively featured Blu-ray, which included the first HD transfer of the Quay's extraordinary 1990 short film The Comb.
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide (DVD – Revolver) (DVD review)
For once the term definitive proves to be an apt description of this superb 3-disc set, one crammed to the gills with information on all 72 the films that were either banned outright or withdrawn and then reprieved under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. Trailers and often detailed introductions are provided for all of the films, and disc 3 contains one of the year's best documentaries in Video Nasties– Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape. Literally hours of often enlightening entertainment, the release coincided with A Serbian Film being cut for general release by the BBFC.
Carlos (DVD/Blu-ray – Optimum) (DVD review)
The recent wave of interest in 60s and 70s political terrorism gave birth to one of the best TV mini-series in recent years, one helmed by acclaimed French feature director Olivier Assayas. Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez gives a star-making performance as political activist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka Carlos the Jackal, and the density of incident and the interconnectivity of events fully justify the 320 minute running time of the TV version, which should always be selected over the cut-down feature-length edition.
Metropolis [Restored and Reconstructed] (DVD/Blu-ray – Masters of Cinema) (DVD review)
To see a film I've known and loved since my youth so startlingly transformed – visually by the restoration and structurally by the rediscovered footage – was a genuine revelation, and fully justified all of the pre-release excitement that Eureka managed to generate. The DVD looks great, the Blu-ray even better, and the extras are bristling with information about the film and its reconstruction.
Profound Desires of the Gods (Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo) (DVD/Blu-ray – Masters of Cinema) (DVD review)
A wild and wonderful rediscovery from 1968, courtesy of Japanese master Imamura Shohei, that received one of the year's most impressive HD transfers from Masters of Cinema, who again released the film exclusively on Blu-ray because they couldn't bear to downgrade the image to DVD.
House (Hausu) (DVD – Masters of Cinema) (DVD review)
Probably the maddest film released on DVD all year was also one of the most inspired and entertaining rediscoveries, one that Criterion have also picked up for a US release. It really is hard to describe just how wonderfully bonkers Obayashi Nobuhiko's 1977 drug trip of a horror movie actually is, but if you're willing to give it a go you're in for a blast. The disc also has a very decent collection of extras.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Blu-ray – Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray review)
If House lit up the first half of the year, then the Blu-ray release of Frank Tashlin's gloriously witty 1957 Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter did the same for the second. It's hard to think of a modern Hollywood film as funny and smart as this one, which received a typically fine presentation on yet another Masters of Cinema Blu-ray exclusive.
Morgiana (DVD – Second Run)
One of the wilder works from the Czech New Wave and one of Second Run's most seductive rediscoveries this year. Not a huge amount in the way of extras, but the film itself caught me completely by surprise and hugged me like a mad but affectionate supernatural bear.
A few others that deserve a special mention include: Universal's Blu-ray of Psycho for its stunning transfer and lorry-load of extras; Arrow's Blu-ray editions of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, which look better than they've ever done and are dreamily packaged in typical Arrow horror classic style; Eureka's Blu-ray release of Paranoiac, for the picture quality and for releasing a too often forgotten Hammer favourite in high definition; Artificial Eye's Blu-ray of Fish Tank for its extraordinary transfer; Second Run's František Vláčil Collection, which only missed the list because I still haven't watched all of the films yet; the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of The Burmese Harp, which while not one of their finest transfers is still pretty damned good and deserves to be seen for the poetry of the film; La signora di tutti from Masters of Cinema, a wonderful film that would definitely be on the main list if I'd finished the review (any second now); Arrow's Battle Royale 3-disc Blu-ray as the best version yet of a favourite film; Second Run's DVD of Xie Fei's captivating Black Snow (Ben ming nian); Optimum's Guillermo del Toro Collection for the films, the Blu-ray transfers and the extra features; Bounty's Blu-ray of The Human Centipede: 1st Sequence for its excellent transfer of a film I couldn't help but warm to; the BFI's Blu-ray of The Innocents for all the obvious reasons; and Optimum's Blu-ray of Peeping Tom for the best transfer yet of this wonderful film.
I'd also like to give a special mention to Metrodome's 2009 DVD of Na Hing-Jin's The Chaser (Chugyeogja), which I've had criminally sitting on a shelf for nearly two years, lost amongst other DVDs that due to personal circumstances I was unable to view at the time of its release. Its reputation has spread in the mean time, of course, but only recently did I dig out the disc and sit down to watch it. If you've yet to see it then I urge hunt it out – this is a terrific Korean thriller that's almost as dark, well devised and surprising as Bong Joon-ho's brilliant Memories of Murder, to which it has frequently been compared. Typically, the day after I finally watched it, it was screened, in its correct aspect ratio, on BBC4.
* In a depressing demonstration of big business in action, the UK distributor of the latest Harry Potter film made it very clear to the cinema in which our film society is based that they were required to screen the film in every available slot, including ours. We were thus ejected for two weeks, despite having paid for the hire of the films and placed advertising in local newspapers. Everyone lost out. We and the cinema received no income from our (usually well attended) screenings to pay for the film hire, the Harry Potter crowd were expecting the film society to run that night and thus stayed away, the cinema lost on box office, popcorn and hot drink sales (on which they usually do well) and the distributor's share of the box office was next to nothing.
** Frank Gruber is a writer of western novels who broke down the genre into seven basic plotlines:
- Union Pacific/Pony Express fighting the elements to build a business;
- Homesteaders (cattlemen verses farmers);
- Dedicated law-men;
- Empire (ranch) built and destroyed by second generation;
- Outlaw as good guy;
- Cavalry verses Indians.
With the emergence of novels like Thomas Berger's Little Big Man in the 60s and 70s, he added an eighth:
- Journey to another world – the 'white man' goes native.