I still don't know if this is true, but I remember once being told that if a shark stops swimming it dies. It's apparently something to do with forward movement forcing oxygenated water through its gills. What am I, a marine biologist? In that respect all internet based services are essentially sharks, able to stay alive only as long as the internet whose air they breath continues to function. This effectively ensures that the every web site and streaming service and twitter feed and what-have-you is effectively temporary. Long-term temporary, perhaps, but temporary nonetheless. This analogy always strikes me at least once a year, when I give serious consideration to whether I want to keep the site going or not. We're a small concern, somewhat niche in that out reviews are considerably longer than the increasingly bite-sized preferred norm, which also reduces the number we are able to post. They tend to take proportionately longer to write and don't pay a penny, which is why writers usually to do a stint with us before moving on, often to jobs or university courses that rob them of the free time they would need to write such essays.
It recently occurred me that in order to run a site that can publish a solid number of reviews every week, you'd ideally need to be financially independent, not in full-time work, and living in London. The location is key. Not only is every single preview screening and interview we are offered held in the capital, if you're out in the sticks as we are, then you also do not have access to a good many of the films that only seem to get a cinema screening in big city locations – the rest of us have to wait for the home video release.
I'd also suggest that being young would really help here, as when you reach a certain age, finding time to run a busy review web site and watch wall-to-wall movies and write long reviews becomes a lot more problematic, largely because there are so many other things making demands of your time. Both Camus and I have media based jobs that swallow up huge amounts of our week and sometimes try our patience, and both of us are also juggling differing but equally time-consuming family duties. And as the country starts making worrying moves to the political right, I've found myself wondering whether my time wouldn't be more productively spent reporting, organising and taking part in political action. Much as I still love cinema in all its guises, I miss the days when the activities I was involved it meant more than just trying to convince a few people that a new movie or disc really is worth a look. We've a general election in the UK this spring, and depending on the result, I might find myself with a decision to make about just what I want to do with my spare time in the future. Mind you, if this lot get in again and Osborne's relentless cutbacks continue, there's a good chance I'll have an awful lot of that by the end of the summer...
This year has seen our writing staff thinned out by a range of outside influences, from personal ambition to illness to family tragedy. With the departure to another, more high profile publication of our most prolific London-based contributor, our access to many of those more interesting new releases and talent interviews has been severely curtailed. The result is that we seem to have returned our roots and are once again almost exclusively focussed on the DVD and Blu-ray releases. This could change. One of our previous reviewers has resurfaced from a couple of years of political activism and music promotion, and is looking to restart his work as a site reviewer (if you're reading this, James, jump to it!), and others will doubtless come on board for just long enough to realise how time consuming and financially unrewarding writing about cinema can sometimes be. The nature of film delivery is also changing (a future article in the making, I'd say), and Vimeo is now starting to be used to make screeners available to those of us who don't live within easy reach of London viewing theatres.
Mind you, this renewed focus on Blu-ray and DVD still saw us struggle to keep pace with the sheer volume of fab releases that have hit UK shelves over the past twelve months. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that there's never been a better time to be a fan of classic cult, independent or world cinema, so splendid and numerous have some of this year's releases been. The year's runaway success story has to be the rise of Arrow Video from being a key distributor of cult film releases on Blu-ray and DVD, to THE key distributor of such material. The range of brilliant titles they have put out this year – all with restored or pristine new transfers and almost all with a bucket of brilliant extras – is simply mind boggling, and their recent announcements are so tuned to my personal taste that I've begun suspect that they've somehow fitted an implant in my head that sends them messages detailing just what I'd like to see given the Arrow Video treatment. Thief? Rollerball? Rabid? Tenebrae? The Comedy of Terrors? Are you kidding me? In an ideal world we'd review every single title that Arrow puts out, and do so with an enthusiasm that borders on the demented, but there are four things working against us:
There have been a lot of Arrow releases this year and only a small number of us, each with the above detailed time constraints;
Arrow discs usually have a lot of extra features, many of them substantial, and these also take time to cover properly;
Arrow tend to offer review discs just a week before the release date, which only compounds the review time problem;
Arrow aren't the only distributor whose releases we're keen to cover.
So we try our best, but just can't cover them all, though I do end up buying most of them anyway and at least try to tweet if the transfer and extras are worthwhile (note: they always are). As for the above listed titles, we've already started work on the reviews of the films in advance of the disc releases, so should be covering a good few of these.
Of course Arrow's cult film delirium should in now way overshadow the brilliant work still being done by Eureka!, particularly the titles released under their Masters of Cinema banner. Once again we would ideally like to have covered every title they released over the past twelve months, and once again we have rather miserably failed to deliver, though several of those we did review have made the list below. Their announcements of upcoming titles continue to thrill, but sometimes they do give us some serious work – the combined running time of the films in the upcoming Shoah Blu-ray collection probably exceeds that of some TV series box sets. The transfers on some of the MoC discs have been genuinely extraordinary, and the resurrection of some of the silent and early sound films in the collection is particularly welcome.
The distributor I feel the most need to humbly apologise to is Second Run, whose consistently excellent releases we too often seem to pass over. This is partly down to us losing the reviewer who used to specialise in covering the Second Run discs – I've struggled to fill in the considerable gap that she left, in part because my knowledge of Eastern European cinema is nothing like as extensive as hers (knowledge she is currently putting to fine use on her MA, I believe). My aim is to cover more of their titles this year – after all, the discs I did review I was swept away by, and this particular distributor is run by such lovely people.
Another distributor we love but have completely failed to represent this year is Peccadillo, although the one time I did ask for a review disc it was not of release quality and was missing the extra features, which pretty much ruled out a disc review. And so many of this label's 2014 releases are worthy of your attention. As small compensation I'll give a personal shout of support for The Golden Dream (seriously, see this), Stranger By the Lake (ditto), Elena Undone and I Am Divine. And yes, the Peccadillo people are lovely as well.
I'll also give a shout for Network Distributing, but I'm keeping it brief here because there's more on them below. And we've been rather chuffed with Second Sight's Blu-ray releases, which this year have included Re-Animator, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, A Hard Day's Night, Gregory's Girl, The Killing Fields, and a DVD release of the too rarely seen Frankenstein: The True Story. Oh, and one other biggie that I'll give a specific shout for below.
As a final note in this overlong introduction, I give advanced warning that the site will be shutting down for three bloody weeks in March because I'm off to Japan for the first time in ten years, and have too much to do and see there to start worrying about getting reviews or news stories posted. Whether I am still able to tweet will depend on my access to wi-fi or whether I can purchase a cost-effective local nano-sim for my phone. I'll post more details on this nearer the date.
Right, to business. Listed below is my personal pick of the year for 2014, thirty film, disc and TV titles (well, technically thirty-one – you'll see why in a minute – and one is actually not a title at all) that I particularly enjoyed over the past twelve months. As ever there are a few notable omissions that I've held off from seeing because the film society I co-run is screening them on a cinema screen in the next three months, and I'd rather watch them for the first time there than on Blu-ray or on-demand. There are also a fair few disc releases that I've either not got around to watching yet or simply couldn't afford (the BFI's wonderful looking Herzog set is a prime casualty here), plus a slew of other titles that deserve to be on the list and have only been excluded because I have to call a halt somewhere and the damned thing has already expanded in number twice. As ever it's a personal choice that everyone should feel free to disagree with, but if there are a couple of titles here that you haven't seen yet then I'd hope you would at least consider giving them a look. They're not in any significant order (oh all right, they've been alphabetised), and have been categorised only to add a degree of tidiness to what was otherwise a bit of a sprawl.
As I suggested above, catching anything non-mainstream at the cinema where I live is a task and a half, which is exactly why we run a local film society. Most of these tiles I saw there for the first time, though a couple I did venture further to catch. All except one (because it's not out yet) I have since bought on Blu-ray or DVD.
As it becomes ever rarer to find an even half-decent modern horror movie, the comedy-free haunting-of-a-house-or-person tale has been making a bit of a comeback. But while – for me at least – the likes of The Conjuring and Oculus played like highly proficient technical exercises in generic recycling, the first feature from Australian actress-turned-director Jennifer Kent had me hooked from the start and chewing my fingernails throughout. While in many ways no more original in its setup and structure than the aforementioned American titles, the story is bolstered considerably by a potent substructure that explores issues of loss, depression and the trials of single parenthood and binds them to the horror elements so effectively that they organically feed each other. It benefits no end from two dynamite central performances from Essie Davis as mother Amelia and newcomer Noah Wiseman as her young son Samuel, and Kent's command of the genre elements is an object lesson in how to make even the familiar seem fresh and threatening.
With a mere four films under their belt between them, the McDonagh brothers seem to be transforming the Irish film industry into a family business. And boy, do they deliver, Martin with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths and John Michael with The Guard and his latest, Calvary. The brothers' favourite actor Brendan Gleeson is at his absolute best here as Father James, the good natured priest of a small coastal community who is delivered a death sentence in confession by an unidentified local and given a week to put his affairs in order before he is made to pay for the crimes of the Catholic church. Far darker than its blackly comic predecessor or either of brother Martin's intricately plotted features (dark enough indeed to divide audiences who delighted at The Guard), Calvary is nonetheless a supremely accomplished and emotionally affecting work, one that simultaneously manages to attack the hypocrisy of the church whilst embracing the concepts of forgiveness and understanding and presenting its role as moral supporter for those in time of need in a persuasively positive light.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
What's not to love about Wes Anderson's visually sumptuous, consistently witty and intermittently hilarious multi-aspect-ratio tale of how a young Indian lobby boy became the owner of the faded hotel of the title under the tutorage of respected concierge Monsieur Gustave H? In a fabulous cast littered with famous faces who were presumably all keen to work with Anderson, Ralph Fiennes is an absolute joy as Gustave (his furiously spat "The fuckers!" when told by Mathieu Amalric's head waiter Serge why he was forced to betray him made me choke on my Pepsi), Adrien Brody is deliciously rotten as Dimitri, Willem Dafoe a gloriously unpleasant bag of malevolence as professional hood Jopling, and the always wonderful Tilda Swinton almost unrecognisable as wealthy crone Madame D. Genuinely more fun than any other film I saw all year.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers' best film since No Country for Old Men is also their most disarmingly human, the story of a cold winter week in the life an aspiring folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village, a man who sponges off everyone and never seems quite destined to hit the limelight he simultaneously craves and shuns. Unlike a good many other viewers, I really warmed to the title character in spite of his flaws, a testament no doubt to a wonderfully nuanced performance from rising star Oscar Isaac, and the decision not to reveal just how big an arse he can be until close to the end, and even that's as much down to booze as his own self-centred frustrations. Evocatively shot by Amélie cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and boasting a belter of a soundtrack, it also features the best performance by a cat that you're likely to see all year.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmush's action-free vampire elegy has its share of borrowings (the disruptive arrival of the leading lady's vampire sister is straight from Jan Cassavetes' 2012 Kiss of the Damned), sports a couple of well worn clichés (including the "I won't do it!" proclamation that then cuts to the person doing the very thing they swore they wouldn't), and buys into that currently fashionable conspiracy-theory snobbery that rejects the idea that an oik like Shakespeare could have written such great works of literature (up yours, Marlowe), but is still quite unlike any vampire themed film you're likely to have seen or heard. Making moody and reclusive vampire Adam a rock musician may give Jarmush an excuse to shoehorn some favourite tunes into the film, but given the long-standing relationship between rock music and vampire film and literature it makes perfect sense, and ties in perfectly with the genre's favourite addiction metaphor. It was great to see Tom Hiddleston in a movie that I actually liked, but once again it's Tilda Swinton who steals the film; the sequence on the plane where a man in the next aisle cuts his finger is a great example – with her eyes and half her face obscured by large sunglasses, her struggle to resist giving in to her addiction is conveyed entirely through the smallest movements of her mouth.
The Raid 2: Berandal
For someone who never outgrew the joys of 1970s kung-fu cinema, Welsh émigré Gareth Evans' 2011 The Raid was a standard-setter for all martial arts movies to come. His own direct sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal, actually upped the game by getting some plot in there between the action sequences and even expands on its scope with a couple of belting car chases. The fights, as ever, are furiously physical and brilliantly choreographed for camera, with immensely likeable Indonesian leading man Iko Uwais now set to steal the martial arts crown that we once thought would be worn by Thailand's Tony Jaa, who is coincidentally rumoured to be attached to The Raid 3.
Great British prison movies are few and far between, and thus when one comes along that is acclaimed as the finest since Alan Clarke's seminal Scum, I tend to take an interest. And while these claims seem to have strangely skipped over Steve McQueen's extraordinary Hunger, it's hard not to come out in support of their validity. From the moment hard-headed and ironically named young offender Eric Love arrives in his cell and – seemingly on self-preservation driven autopilot – fashions a shank from a disposable razor, you know you're watching something special, and Hallam Foe director David Mackenzie never misses a beat or overplays his hand. Central to the film's success is a brilliant central performance from Jack O'Connell, who has apparently since confirmed his star-to-be status with his lead role in Yann Demange's '71, which I'm seeing in a couple of weeks.
Still the Enemy Within / Tony Benn: Will and Testament
It was an impossible call whether to pick Owen Gower's Still the Enemy Within or Skip Kite's Tony Benn: Will and Testament as my favourite political documentary of the year, which is why I've put the two of them side by side. Both are excellent reminders of a time when political protest meant more than posting the odd angry comment on Twitter and both are hearteningly partisan; defiant and morale-boosting cries from the barricades that deserve to be seen as widely as possible, particularly by those for whom the 1970s seem like ancient history. Trust me, it really wasn't so long ago.
A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke's angry assault on the corruption of modern Chinese society disappointed some fans of the director's more calmly meditative previous work with its multi-story structure and explosions of extreme violence, but for me this was one of his finest films yet. There's a strong allegorical element to all of the stories here, from the revolutionary action of the opening episode to the repeated signs of a destructive new capitalism that appears to be infecting all aspects of Chinese society, dividing its populace and encouraging the ruthless exploitation of those at the bottom of the social ladder in a manner that should ring familiar, no matter what your current country of residence. Jia's warning to those who would pursue this path is clear – do not expect the resistance to be passive.
Under the Skin
While Hollywood blended intellectual science fiction with big budget effects in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, it was Jonathan Glazer who most convincingly picked up the artistic gauntlet thrown down by Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey with his extraordinary low budget third feature, Under the Skin. Having never previously been taken with actress Scarlett Johansen, I was turned all around by her low key performance here as an alien who takes the form of a beautiful young woman and cruises glum Scottish streets in a Transit van to lead young men to their doom, while a motorbike riding equivalent of Leon from Nikita swoops in afterwards to tidy loose ends. The plot is threadbare and clear explanations are in deliberately short supply, but the alien's journey of (self) discovery proves strangely hypnotic from the opening frames and intermittently dazzles in its audio-visual realisation. The sequence in which one of the alien's victims, naked and conscious and floating in a liquid void, comes face-to-face with his own future fate in the shape of his immediate predecessor, is possibly the single most chilling sequence I have sat through all year.
Il Bidone (Masters of Cinema)
Federico Fellini's follow-up to his international breakthrough film La Strada is nowhere near as well known or as widely seen, and apparently took something of a caning on its release and was actually booed at the Venice Film Festival. Seriously? The story of a band of con-men who target the poor and downtrodden (they're probably in government now) delivers a string of emotional gut-punches and bonds us so effectively with its disreputable leads that we soon find ourselves secretly pleading for them to realise the moral error of their ways and get out of the business before it destroys them. American lead players Broderick Crawford and Richard Basehart maybe dubbed in Italian, but given that post-dubbing dialogue was the norm in Italian cinema of the day this never feels odd, and both deliver performances here that rank among their best. Another lovely Masters of Cinema HD transfer.
Celluloid Man (Second Run)
A work that film lovers everywhere should see and own and show enthusiastically to others, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's deeply respectful documentary is a portrait of Indian film enthusiast P.K. Nair, a man whose passion for cinema drove him to become one of the world's foremost film collectors and archivists. His story is fascinating, his devotion to the medium genuinely humbling, and the range of current Indian filmmakers his teachings and organised screenings have influenced provides the film with an astonishing range of interviewees. The fragile nature of our cinematic heritage is also soberly highlighted, and the importance of film preservation and restoration is really brought home here. A superb documentary, and fine and worthy release from Second Run.
Computer Chess (Masters of Cinema)
Andrew Bujalski's retro nerd-fest was one of the year's most unexpected joys, a documentary-style record of the personal and professional conflicts that unfold at a 1970s computer chess tournament. Shot on monochrome analogue video cameras in the 4:3 ratio, the film manages to make us feel part of this super-smart if sometimes socially awkward group, has a nice line in edgy humour, and even throws in a few surrealist touches and a colour film sequence without breaking the spell. It also received superlative treatment on Blu-ray from Eureka! as part of the Masters of Cinema series. Well, except for that bloody stoner commentary.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (BFI)
One of the all-time great British science fiction films (hell, one of the all-time great sf films, period) was beautifully restored for this excellent Blu-ray from the BFI, released to tie in with their Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season. The concept of dual nuclear test pushing the earth off its axis and sending it moving towards the sun may have lost a little of its edge in an age where we have been carefully steered towards a different set of fears, but Val Guest's sober direction, a superb script by Guest and the prolific Wolf Mankowitz, and electrifying performances from a dynamite cast makes it all seem terrifyingly plausible even today. The Blu-ray boasts a pristine transfer of the film and is backed by a splendid collection of extra features. Get it.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper's first feature proved to be a revelation, a semi-experimental work with scenes that comfortably ramble punctuated by moments of technical and artistic brilliance, notably Hooper's own superb cinematography in the opening protest rally, and an astonishing sequence shot from the point of view of an invading spirit. Or is it? Meticulously restored and backed by a fascinating commentary by Hooper and his friend and restoration supervisor Louis Black, the most astonishing thing about this release is that it wasn't a stand-alone release at all, but an extra feature on Arrow's fabulously presented Blu-ray of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which frankly I'm nowhere near as fond of but recommended anyway for the additional material.
Hands Over the City (Masters of Cinema)
Francesco Rosi's story of corrupt land developers and political wrangles is as grimly relevant today as it was back in 1963. If only we had politicians with the passion and conviction of Councilman De Vita, a wonderfully energetic left-wing firebrand played with infectious conviction by real-life left-wing firebrand Carlo Fermariello. Rod Steiger survives the Italian dub to deliver one of his very best screen performances, and Rosi's direction infuses every scene with the sort of drama and energy that made the early 1960s such a vibrant period for Italian cinema. And it looks lovely on this Masters of Cinema Blu-ray.
A Jester's Tale (Second Run)
Second Run doing what Second Run do best by making a marvellous but previously hard to see key work of a great Eastern European filmmaker available on region-free DVD and delivering a transfer of such high quality that leaves none of us pining for a Blu-ray of the same. The story of a farm boy who ends up fighting for both sides in the Thirty Years War and mistaken for a Royalist nobleman, every scene bristles with invention and energy and the film blends live action with animation to joyous effect. For me at least, one of the cinematic rediscoveries of the year.
Network's 'The British Film' Collection
While no single release in Network's still ongoing 'The British Film' collection has blown me away, the sheer number of DVD and Blu-ray releases, many of which are being made available on any home video format for the first time, is genuinely humbling, and makes me wish we had more time and more writers to cover more than a handful of the lorry load of discs that were released under this banner in 2014. As far as I'm aware, almost all of the titles have been remastered in their original aspect ratio, and a fair few that have been previously released on DVD made their UK Blu-ray debut here. Our time and staff restrictions meant that we tended to focus on Blu-ray releases of films for which we already had some enthusiasm (shame on us...), such as Capricorn One, Countess Dracula, The Ipcress File, Twins of Evil and Victim. But there are a ton of other intriguing British films in Network's current DVD and Blu-ray catalogue, all at a decent price and with plenty more on the way (an email detailing the latest two announcements is sitting in my inbox as I type). Give them a look.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Second Sight)
I'm making no apologies for including this one. Hooper's 70s genre classic remains a standard setter for independent horror, and Second Sight's Blu-ray is a close to a definitive release as the film has yet received, boasting a remastered restoration, four top notch commentary tracks and a whole slaughterhouse of impressive extra features. Probably the only horror Blu-ray release this year that seriously challenged Arrow's crown. Speaking of whom...
Theatre of Blood (Arrow)
You see, this is exactly the sort of release that has made Arrow films the go-to people for Blu-ray editions of cult cinema gems. Theatre of Blood has always been one of my personal favourites, and was also one of my late father's personal favourites, so I do have a sentimental attachment to the film. The tale of a ham Shakespearean actor who seemed to take his own life, only to return from the grave and start murdering the critics in the manner of famous killings from Shakespeare plays, it showcases Vincent Price at his absolute best and remained until his death his own favourite of his films. It also boasts a mother of a supporting cast, the blackest sense of humour, and a level of violence that is actually pretty gruesome for a British horror work of the early 1970s. Here it gets the sort of restoration and transfer we've for years been secretly dreaming we'd one day see, and is backed up by some fine extra features, including a commentary by über-fans The League of Gentlemen.
Transport From Paradise (Second Run)
Another extraordinary Czech New Wave rediscovery from Second Run, director Zbynĕk Brynych's ironically titled Transport from Paradise, a compelling, fascinatingly detailed and sobering portrait of a WW2 ghetto in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia, whose occupants are regularly rounded up for transport to, well, we all remember where. Based on the true-life experiences of co-screenwriter Asnost Lustig, it's a film that for me transformed the once romantic sound of a train whistle into a haunting symbol of human cruelty and horror.
Violent Saturday (Eureka!)
Another terrific rediscovery from Eureka!, Richard Fleischer's 1955 crime B-movie is a superb showcase for his hyper-efficient, no-nonsense storytelling talents. A multi-character piece in which a number of personal stories are set to collide when the small town bank around which the film is set is hit by three visiting professional robbers, for my money at least Violent Saturday is one of Fleischer's best. An ace cast includes Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Stephen McNally, Virginia Leith, and early roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine.
Wake in Fright (Masters of Cinema)
Ted Kotcheff's slow build but ultimately searing gut-punch drama, in which a mild mannered school teacher becomes stranded in a male dominated Australian outback mining town and comes face to face with his own inner barbarism, is another strong contender for rediscovery of the year. Like Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's startling Who Can Kill a Child? (also released by Eureka! under the Masters of Cinema label), it seems insane that this film has remained under the radar for so long, particularly when it features a close to career-best performance from Donald Pleasance and was described by none other than Nick Cave as, "The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence." Wow.
White Dog (Masters of Cinema)
A real surprise release from Eureka's Masters of Cinema label, this was nonetheless one of the year's most welcome, a 1982 film from the great Sam Fuller that was attacked on its release for racism, but quickly gained a cult following and is now recognised as one of the key anti-racist American films of its day. The story revolves around a young woman who nurses a white German Shepherd dog back to health after hitting it with her car, only to discover that it has been trained to attack black people, a conditioning that committed black animal trainer Keys is determined to reverse. A take-no-prisoners parable on racism and racist attitudes, White Dog has not aged one iota, and is as relevant to these more intolerant times as it's ever been. Superb cult cinema. Rumour has it that the proposed extra features were nobbled by external forces, but the film and the excellent transfer are reason enough to buy the disc.
Withnail & I (Arrow)
Perhaps the pinnacle of Arrow's loving treatment of favourite cult cinema in 2014, this was a glorious restoration of a film that we had come to believe was actually designed to look as grubby as previous transfers had rendered it. Here it looks gorgeous, and the release is packed with quality extra features and even includes Bruce Robinson's follow-up feature, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, which has also been impressively restored. If you were quick enough, you were also able to buy the package as a handsomely produced limited edition. I was not, dammit.
Six Gothic Tales (Arrow)
A serious contender for Blu-ray box set of the year is one that every true horror fan worth their salt should own. The set contains six of Roger Corman's eight film adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories (rights issues blocked access to the missing two), all gorgeously restored and plastered with excellent extra features, including quality commentaries and documentaries. All six films are either already available as stand-alone releases or will be soon, but the loving presentation here makes this a must have, even if you already own one or two of the titles.
Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (Paramount)
The one box set that seriously gave Arrow a run for its money just has to be the TV Blu-ray box set of the year. Containing every episode of Mark Frost and David Lynch's cult favourite series, all beautifully remastered in HD in the correct aspect ratio (the pressure to crop the image to 16:9 must have been there), the set also includes a barn full of extra features, some of them new to this release or remastered in HD. Also on board is the feature film prequel Fire Walk With Me, complete with a startling 90 minutes deleted and extended scenes. We later learned, of course, that the release was timed to prelude with the announcement that Lynch and Frost are working on a follow-up series to be screened some time in 2016, but it's still a great set, and handsomely presented.
Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection (Arrow Academy)
Maybe I'm just a little bit biased here, having talked to both disc producer Daniel Bird and restoration supervisor James White about this project some time before its completion and eventual release, but the finished product more than justified the considerable anticipation this helped to build. The result of a seriously successful Kickstarter campaign, the set includes near-immaculate restorations of five of Browczyk's most celebrated features and a slew of his extraordinary short films, plus a library of excellent extra features and a book full of writing on this extraordinary filmmakers' work. Despite some stiff competition (mostly from Arrow's own output), this has to be box set of the year, and the presentation is gorgeous. And I still haven't covered the last disc in the set...
I'll say up front that I've stopped watching TV and now only catch shows on digital download or Blu-ray or DVD box sets (I prefer this as you can binge on a great series). Most of the box sets that I bought this year were catch-up editions of series that I'd been meaning to get round to but never made time for. There were two exceptions.
Episode 1, Season 5 of The Walking Dead
As horror TV goes, The Walking Dead is still number one in a bloody small field, and the only series I still watch episodes of as soon as I can after their US transmission. We're only halfway through season 5 at present – several American shows take a humongous break at this time of year – and the series has remained as gripping as ever, but seems to have taken an even darker turn, starkly signalled by the introduction of a community that survives by luring the desperate and unwary to join them and then killing and cooking them for food. This gave birth to one of the most graphically horrible and nail-chewing scenes of the series so far, as a number of their captives, including a spattering of series regulars (any of whom, as the show has repeatedly demonstrated, can be killed without warning), were lined up in front of a steel trough to be systematically killed and bled like slaughterhouse stock. This gave way to a thrillingly explosive escape bid enabled by one of the seemingly least likely characters, and probably brought out the worst in its audience by encouraging us to will our people to take violent revenge on their cannibal captors. Terrific television.
Gomorrah: The Series
Gangland violence and family drama have been well represented this year by the final season of the superb Boardwalk Empire and its stylish British cousin, Peaky Blinders, but in the end it was Italian newcomer Gomorrah that for me took the violent crime TV crown in 2014. As one who still tends to groan at the prospect of a great film being turned into a television spin-off (although the first episode of Fargo has proved surprisingly seductive), I was seriously uncertain about the idea of transforming Matteo Garrone's brilliant 2008 adaptation of Roberto Saviano's book into a television series. But for the first time I can readily recall, it was the reaction on Twitter that got me fired up to see it. People weren't just enthusiastic for the series, they were mad for it, describing it as everything from the best TV series since The Sopranos to the finest crime drama they'd ever seen. Refusing to pay a penny to Rupert Murdoch and his evil empire, I held off until I had some free time and ordered Arrow's Blu-ray box set. It was worth the wait, and proved so utterly addictive that I'd have gone nuts had I not been able to load up the next episode immediately after finishing its predecessor. Based around a single family-run crime syndicate, Gomorrah is dynamite TV, utterly compelling in its personal dramas and electrifying when the violence explodes. No-one is safe here, and characters who are in positions of power in one episode can be dead or deposed or in prison two episodes later. The only downer is that it ends in a manner that has you screaming out for season 2, about which there's not been not a whisper yet.
Before I sign off I'd also like to give a shout for the following, in no particular order, all of which came within a nose hair of making it onto the list: Ace in the Hole (Masters of Cinema Blu-ray); Good Vibrations (cinema); Twenty Feet From Stardom (cinema); Spione (Masters of Cinema Blu-ray); The Complete Dr. Phibes (Arrow Blu-ray) Harold and Maude (Masters of Cinema Blu-ray); Blacula: The Complete Collection (Eureka! Blu-ray); Sofia's Last Ambulance (Second Run DVD); Wings(Masters of Cinema Blu-ray); The Killers (Arrow Academy Blu-ray); Metro Manila (cinema); White of the Eye (Arrow Blu-ray); Nashville (Masters of Cinema Blu-ray); Sisters (Arrow Blu-ray); The Rocket (cinema); Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi (Arrow Blu-ray); Too Late Blues (Masters of Cinema Blu-ray); Masters of Sex (TV); Branded to Kill (Arrow Blu-ray); Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (cinema – Blu-ray review soon); Les Misérables (Masters of Cinema Blu-ray).