Last year I had to go through some serious medical issues and really did not have time to compile or upload the year’s best list. I still suffer from some ailments typical for a middle-aged Korean guy but the worst problems– that could have led to a very miserable fifties and possibly an early death– are apparently behind me. I thank God’s guidance and love… and of course my wife’s, and the support and love shown by my friends.
It is too bad that, while I have made a successful recovery, and lost at most four to five months out of the time reserved for my next book project, some of my close relatives and friends had suffered from personal hardships, depressing episodes and frustrations, both major and minor. The US presidential election thankfully did not result in the new tide of Tea Party madness, but the South Korean one, closely contested and with a record voter turn-out, went to the conservative Park Geun Hye, daughter of the military dictator Park Chung Hee. As a result, many young Koreans are suffering from what they only half-jokingly refer to as cases of “mental collapse,” comparable to the way American progressives felt when Dubya got elected second time against John Kerry. I could play a Korean studies academic and expound on the substantial differences between Park, Korea’s first woman president in history, and Dubya (It is unlikely, for instance, that Park will blithely ignore social welfare issues paramount in the public discourse the way American Republicans had done, all the way to the economic breakdown of 2008), but this is not the place and time to do that. At this juncture, I can only hope that President-Elect Park will not repeat the heavy-handed (and oftentimes frankly block-headed) cultural policies of the outgoing Lee Myung Bak regime.
In any case, the most significant development in this year in terms of my movie-going habit was a cautious switch to streaming/download occasioned by my illness. The switch, which is not exactly half-hearted but is not exactly a wholesale conversion either, was really spurred on by Hulu Plus’ decision to import hundreds of rare and classical films from the Janus/Criterion collection, especially films of Kinoshita Keisuke, Oshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro and other Japanese masters, many of which are unavailable as DVDs or Blu Rays outside Japan (The Japanese DVDs are simply too expensive: a bare-bones Japanese disc of a fairly obscure ’70s film still can cost $40 to purchase from stateside). We finally invested some money (earned back partly from pruning cable channels) into installing a high-speed internet service, an essential pre-condition for enjoying any movie properly through streaming or downloading (Don’t even try it when you only have a generic internet connection. Frustrations are just not worth it. It used to take 5 hours for me to download a decent HD quality feature film from a Korean source: now, with the new setup, it takes about 45 minutes. Koreans routinely share and download movies as large as 3-4 GB in their personal computers).
I have more than once inveighed against Netflix in this space for its cavalier attitude toward the quality control of their merchandise, but there has been some improvement. It still does not guarantee HD quality for most of its library titles but it has since expanded the catalog to include many classical and foreign films. Currently, many recent Korean titles that did not receive proper distributions in the US (including Best Seller, Howling, Punch, The Servant, Paju, Sunny and so on) are available in Netflix with proper English subtitles and, for the most part, in serviceable HD transfers. Vudu, on the other hand, is rather expensive but might come in handy if some of its catalog titles which I would want to watch more than once in excellent HD quality (not the 720p “fake” HD but the full 1080p resolution, although it still cannot compete against the better-quality Blu Rays) and are unavailable except for expensive European or Japanese imports (Cf. Legend of the Hell House, Bridge on the Remagen and Ken Russell’s Valentino). They have some curiosity-peaking selections in the catalog, too, such as Scandinavian and Spanish-language genre films (including a series of Spanish spook shows executive produced by Who Can Kill A Child?’s Narcisso Ibanez Serrador). Apple TV/iTunes of course boasts excellent picture quality but I would like to see them try harder with classical titles. Just the other night, for instance, I discovered that iTunes carry two different HD versions of Orson Wells’s The Stranger for rental, one from MGM and another from Film Chest [who issued their own budget Blu Ray in 2011]. In this case, if iTunes could allow me to sample two minutes of the file itself the way Vudu does (which I find immensely helpful) instead of the film’s official trailer, we would have a better idea of which version to choose. Still, it is undoubtedly good to have movie like The Stranger in a full HD transfer available in iTunes.
So, with the streamed/downloaded movies making further inroads into my inner sanctum, and now having figured out ways to legitimately (and relatively painlessly) download Korean films long-distance, it is perhaps expected that the overall amount of DVDs and Blu Rays purchased this year has dropped by approximately 25% (Truth be told, the issue of storage of DVDs has become close to a nightmare in our household as well. Something must give, in order for us to have some breathing space). But that does not mean that DVDs and Blu Rays are in decline in the North American market. Nosiree, in fact Warner Archive Collection has been such a great success (they released close to 400 movies in the last year only… amazing) they promised to branch into Blu Rays. Olive Films and Twilight Time are particularly notable as two independent labels that have made available many famous-but-difficult-to-see or near-forgotten great (or at least fascinating) classical films in beautiful HD transfers (I just hope that they could add English subtitles as regular features, at least every once in a while)… and not all of them American movies either (Olive Films are now releasing, for example, old French Jean-Paul Belmondo and Lino Ventura vehicles such as The Brain and Spy vs. Spy into Region 1 Blu Ray). And I am still running into DVD and Blu Ray releases of the most unexpected archival treasures from Europe, Japan and Korea.
I acknowledge that, given this situation, my 2013 best list might require some tinkering as to its format. Right now I am sticking by the principle of choosing among DVDs and Blu Rays that I own (purchased, or otherwise acquired, and currently in possession), but perhaps by the end of this year I would have watched too many rare and brilliant classical films on Hulu, Vudu, Fandor or other streaming/download venues to ignore them as candidates for the year’s end list. We shall see. Who knows? I might move to Japan for a quarter and the list might end up flooded by Region 2 Japanese DVDs.
As usual, the items chosen herewith reflect highly personal choices and not “objective” appraisals of their actual “qualities” or even necessarily the net worth of the DVD/Blu Ray as a merchandise. Some are total surprises, others are reappreciations based on new editions that came out only in 2012, and yet others are there for overwhelmingly nostalgic reasons, dating back to the formative cinephilic memories of my childhood and teen years. Some of these selections made for challenging, and in the case of The Great Killing frankly unpleasant, experiences, but they were nonetheless included for being startling discoveries and re-discoveries. Beautiful or ugly, brilliant or head-scratchingly weird, they all are the discs that I would not think of letting go.
This year the candidate pool of DVDs are down and those of Blu Rays were up, and the number of selections (ten for DVDs, eleven for Blu Rays) reflect that. Again as usual, the Korean-language list, uploaded at Djunaboard, duplicates most, but not all, of the items in this list. See, as I have said before, the English- and Korean-language speaking regions of my brain sometimes disagree with one another.
10. Ghost Story a.k.a. Circle of Fear: The Complete Series (Sony Pictures, Region Free)
This probably won’t make anybody’s years’ “best” list in terms of its reputation or artistic accomplishments, although this ’70s horror anthology series is certainly the most fondly remembered one of its kind for me, having left a far greater impact than, say, Night Gallery, if not Twilight Zone or The Prisoner.
I will be the first to admit that some of the episodes have become totally dated and are in fact pretty dull (though still showcasing an excellent range of guest stars from Jason Robards, Janet Lee, Helen Hayes, Gena Rowlands to David Soul), but I would argue that the great ones among them have lost little of their macabre wit, emotional power and the ultra-creepiness of their ideas. The standout episodes, easily recalled from my childhood, are: “House of Evil,” starring the marvelous Melvyn Douglas and the very young Jodie Foster in a Robert Bloch-scripted little tale of homespun voodoo: “Time of Terror,” in which Patricia Neal cannot seem to escape the hotel she checked in: “Dark Vengeance,” wherein Martin Sheen and Kim Darby are menaced by a seemingy innocuous childhood toy (this episode did give me a terrifying nightmare as a child): “The Ghost of a Potter’s Field,” who is an ancestor of all those completely “unreasonable” ghosts in J-horror who pick on completely innocent parties rather than those responsible for their predicaments: and “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” co-written by Harlan Ellison and D. C. Fontana, which invokes an acid trip gone horribly wrong, in a tale that is equal times fruity-wacky and crazy-vicious. They sure as heck don’t make ‘em as they used to.
9. Ultra Seven: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, Region Free)
Perhaps the best special effects/giant monster/juvenile SF live-action series ever produced in Japan, Ultra Seven played briefly in the wee hours of the night at TCM with what I remember to be rather Mystery Science Theater-style English dubbing. While the Tsuburaya studio’s huge blunder with overseas rights of their franchise has prevented Shout! Factory from accessing the high-quality sources, the presentation is more than adequate, with an extensive booklet essay by August Ragone, including the reason for non-inclusion of the “controversial” episode featuring the radiation-damaged Spehlians (The consumers of Japanese popular culture from decades ago should be aware that many publishers routinely “revise” their contents to placate the PC police, and therefore the newly published editions of these works cannot be relied on as accurate gauges of the social attitudes of the Japanese in the past).
In general, Ultra Seven, even in this juvenile wrestling-in-monster-suit mode, is a surprisingly and impressively stalwart piece of science fiction, dealing with such issues as genocide, nuclear annihilation, drug addiction, racism and cultural chauvinism (via portrayals of sympathetic aliens), among others, while the title character violently dispatches colorful invaders from the outer space with his trusty Eye Slugger (a boomerang that slices and dices his opponent, ouch!), Emerium Beam and Wide Shot.
Added to the fun is some extremely avant-garde and experimental episodes directed by the aesthete par excellence Jissoji Akio, of which “The Cursed Town” is the best example.
8. Lili (Warner Archive Collection, Region 1)
This is a beautiful little gem, unassuming, pleasant. Lili is not going to turn the heads of film scholars but so what? It is one of those movies that fills in the interstitial, empty spaces of a film fan’s brain left in between the two-hundred pounds gorillas from Hollywood on the one hand and the pouting, mumbling or screaming artistic greats that tiresomely demand undivided attention on the other. At the center is Leslie Caron, a completely beguiling presence if ever was one. Not substantial enough to be called a musical, with only two dance numbers, I would nonetheless not want to live in a world where films like Lili have become extinct.
And who needs song-and-dance routines when you can have “Hi-Lili-Hi-Lo” from Bronislaw Caper?
7. When Horror Came to Shochiku (Criterion Eclipse, Region 1)
Paradoxically, as Criterion leads the foray toward Blu Ray releases of their widely acknowledged classics, its Eclipse series, devoted to the DVD releases of its presumably second-tier titles, has become even more important for collectors like myself. These packages of three to five films, connected through production companies, personnel, countries of origin or other markings, with minimal supplements, reasonably priced at approximately $10-$15 per title in most major internet outlets, are truly valuable resources for film fans to discover some of the lesser-known works of world cinema.
A case in point: When Horror Came to Shochiku, which collects the four SF/horror flicks produced at Shochiku studio pretty well known within Japan but seldom seen outside the country in properly formatted, English-subtitled editions. None of the movies collected here is an enduring work of cinematic art, but they are all fascinating for a variety of reasons: X from the Outer Space, for its utter goofiness wildly in conflict with its mostly creative designs, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell with its hideous fungus-alien and laughably fake-looking special makeup effects, The Living Skeleton, a model of an atmospheric supernatural thriller that remains effective despite not making a wick of sense plot-wise, and Genocide, a poor man’s Phase IV that nonetheless evokes a hysterical, unpleasant atmosphere befitting its apocalyptic denouement.
6. The Great Killing 大殺陳 (AnimEigo, Region 1)
With the Miike Takashi remake of 13 Assassins well received by Euro-American critics, AnimEigo turned to Kudo Eiichi’s original (1963) as well as his other notorious period pieces, Eleven Samurai (1966) and The Great Killing (1964), releasing them into Region 1 DVD with their customary multi-layer subtitles. Shocking in its violence (but not in the depiction of gory bodily harm), vicious beyond belief, and eye-opening in its hand-held depiction of the confusions of mass swordfight, The Great Killing is neither a quasi-fascist, aesthetic celebration of bushido (as some Misumi Kenji films are) nor a heroic story of the struggle of the underclass. If read as an allegory for radical political movement, the movie seems to look ahead at least a decade out into the former’s savage implosion in early ’70s. Its ostensible “heroes” are every bit as hypocritical, murderous and berserk-insane as their enemies, headed by the frequently vilified real-life historical character Sakai Tadakiyo, are craven and jaundiced. There is no wrapping paper of graceful fight choreography or existential cool to prettify the proceedings: Kudo undercuts the statements of purpose uttered with seeming conviction by his samurai “heroes” with subsequent revelations of these men’s horrifying actions toward their loved ones or compatriots.
I am still not sure whether I even like this film, but there is no denying its insane, skull-knapping force, unlike pretty much any Japanese period piece ever made.
5. The Sorcerers (Warner Archive Collection, Region 1)
Michael Reeves died at the tender age of 24 due to drug overdose after directing just three full feature films. Even though the Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General is considered to be his magnum opus, I think Reeves’s truly enduring work in the horror genre is The Sorcerers. Made with threadbare resources, starring rather frail-looking Boris Karloff, the film nonetheless touches raw nerves, by turns absorbing, uncomfortable, and angry. It comments on the exploitation of the younger generation by the old but, at the same time, the “sorcerers” of the title are pursuing a goal that has a far greater resonance than simple “metaphysical evil:” rejuvenation of their bodily senses, the pleasure derived from which would, as we can readily imagine, be more powerful than any narcotic substance.
Rather than Asphyx or Witchfinder General, this is one British horror which could be remade into a stunning contemporary piece, presumably to be helmed by the likes of Darren Aronofsky, Kurosawa Kiyoshi or Park Chan-wook.
4. Heitai yakuza 兵隊やくざ [The Hoodlum Soldier] (Kadokawa/Daiei Pictures, Region 2)
I bought this Japanese DVD sight unseen, based on the marquee value (directed by Masumura Yasuzo and starring Katsu Shintaro!), and honestly didn’t know what to expect. Mostly, the kind of slightly subversive but commercially palatable “military comedy” familiar from, say, the British postwar cinema.
No. No, no.
The Hoodlum Solider, which was a big financial hit and eventually became one of the tentpole franchises for Daiei, is a searing black comedy entirely devoid of machismo and the sentimental “We are all doing this for our country after all” call for male bonding, so much so that it might shock some American viewers into hating this film. Its combination of emotionally galvanizing eruptions of physical violence (nary a gun is fired in the whole film, except for the episode of a deserter killing himself with his rifle) and cool, almost sardonic gaze at the thoroughly dehumanizing absurdities of the command structure and discipline of the Japanese military is entirely unique, and makes for a pitch-black “comedy” that hurts your molars even as you break out in disbelieving guffaws. Because The Hoodlum Soldier does not pursue the lofty ideals of denunciation of warfare as in, say, O What A Lovely War!, it might never receive a proper appreciation from film critics and scholars, but I find this film’s domestic hit status telling me volumes more about what the Japanese viewers of ’60s were really thinking about their own past as well as present.
And somebody stateside needs to release a proper Masumura Yasuzo DVD/Blu Ray collection pronto! Shamefully, Masumura remains one of the most neglected major directors of ’60s and’70s in the home theater scene.
*Sadly, this DVD edition does not carry English subtitles.
3. Born to be Bad (Warner Archive Collection, Region 1)
When I first watched Born to be Bad, I thought the synopsis was rather like a story from a high-end Japanese girl’s comic book, and certainly not a film noir material. I still think it is not really a film noir, but that’s for film studies scholars to figure out. The motion picture otherwise is a sinfully entertaining marvel of complicated characters, going through knotted and twisted relationships on their way to money, social standing and romantic fulfillment (or lack thereof). And of course, at the center of it is Joan Fontaine’s Christabel, who always seems to be harboring a secret smirk behind her twinkling demure-girl countenance. Nicholas Ray’s sensitive direction turns this borderline-tawdry (or conversely swooningly fluffy) material into a high-class suspense drama in which you root for the success and yearn for the downfall of the femme fatale at the same time. A wicked fun all the way.
Warner Archive’s DVD On Demand release includes the extended ending that elaborates on the eventual fate of Christabel. Hint: it anticipates by decades one much talked-about pattern of the so-called neo-noir endings.
2. The Devils: Two-Disc Special Edition (British Film Institute, Region 2)
I don’t think my Catholic relatives will be happy to see me putting this overtly lascivious motion picture, the pinnacle of bad-boyness from the bad boy director Ken Russell in this list, but in a way my Catholic upbringing is exactly what makes it so potent and soul-shaking (How would a, say, Tibetan Buddhist respond to the imagery of religious frenzy in this controversial film?).
BFI for some reason bypassed the Blu Ray path and released The Devils in a supplement-choked two disc edition. The transfer is eye-cleansing and what appeared as arch and theatrical in VHS now has an aura of genuine medieval grandeur, the kind of oppressively sumptuous beauty that Russell, more than any other filmmaker (including Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway) knew how to capture on film.
1. Jean Grémillon During the Occupation (Criterion Eclipse, Region 1)
These films, produced and released during Nazi Occupation, Remorques, Lumiere d’ete and Le ciel est a vous, are here not only because they themselves are wonderful works of art, but also because personally they are reminders of how little I, a historian of modern Japan and Korea, have contributed to understanding the culture of Korean colonial period. Despite the recent discoveries of a host of bilingual films made in 1930s and 1940s (many of them released on DVDs by Korean Film Archive, no less), the appreciation of the colonial-period Korean culture, including cinema, is still hampered by ideological strictures and political expediency.
Jean Grémillon, Henri Georges Clouzeau and others who had remained and continued to work under the Vichy regime paid for their choices one way or another, but we have little problem acknowledging the skills and thought that went into this trio of films, or humanistic insights we are able to derive from watching them. I cannot help but envy the French, not their so-called patriotism, but their deep faith in the cinematic language for its ability to get at fundamental human truths.
I ask you, Korean filmmakers, do you have such faiths in cinema? Do you really have what it takes to vilify and denounce the colonial-period filmmakers who had “collaborated” with the Japanese empire?
Whew, we are done with DVDs. Now onto Blu Rays.
11. Zorro (Somerville House, Region Free)
Okay, the transfer quality here is merely okay, but this was the complete surprise release of 2012 for me, as I was looking for the way to purchase this particular version of Zorro for many years. I almost got hold of a French MGM DVD release at one point but it went out of print (I think).
Alain Delon, the megastar of Korea in ’70s (largely thanks to his megastar status in Japan), makes a fine swashbuckling hero, but this Franco-Italian co-production that resembles a lavish costume drama put together by a spaghetti Western crew who suddenly had a change of plan is really carried by Stanley Baker as the evil strongman Huerta. Baker makes a great villain truly worthy of Basil Rathbone. Add to the mix exciting swordfights, characterizations that do not insult intelligence of the viewers, and the infectious score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, and we have two hours of unassuming, terrific entertainment.
10. Plague of the Zombies (Hammer/Studio Canal, Region B)
Every year I seemingly end up including at least one Hammer release in my year’s end list. Even though the “official” UK DVD re-releases of old Hammer chestnuts like X The Unknown are of disappointing quality, Studio Canal has thankfully been issuing the studio’s color titles in absolutely magnificent Blu Ray editions. Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, directed by John Gilling and both featuring the stunning Jacqueline Pearce and highly unusual (and very scary) monster designs, are their most recent Blu Ray upgrades. Plague, seen in the HD Technicolor glory, is a completely different movie, compared to the old Anchor Bay DVD edition, much less the VHS. Zombies now sport striking blue-green skin color and the key nightmare sequence in the middle is now truly nightmarish with insanely vivid hues!
A must for any Eurohorror fan.
9. Swamp Water (Twilight Time, Region Free)
Twilight Time, an offshoot label from Film Score Monthly, loves to dig up forgotten films unjustly neglected by major studios, many with great film scores isolated on a separate track. Jean Renoir’s American debut film from 1941, about a group of economically disadvantaged Georgia swamp dwellers, receives a surprising Blu Ray treatment.
With a great cast overlapping quite a bit with John Ford’s stock company (Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, etc.), the film makes a compelling case for tolerance in the context of an oppressive, tradition-bound community in a very Renoir-like manner. I am most struck by the young hero portrayed by Dana Andrews. I am so used to seeing him as a cold, slightly mean-spirited film noir protagonist that his sensitive characterization here really threw me for a loop.
An altogether satisfying film, “classical” in all the best way you can imagine. My only problem is that its dialogue (authentically Southern or not) was rather difficult to understand without English subtitles.
8. Yellow Submarine (Capitol Records, Region Free)
Anybody who can’t stand Beatles? I wonder if there is still anyone on Planet Earth whose reaction to the Beatles is like one by James Bond in Goldfinger, “gotta listen to them with earmuffs on.” Well, anyhow, all except those who can’t stand the Beatles and those who immediately nod off watching anything other than a spastic shoot-’em-up video game, can join us in a trip to Pepperland in the fabled Yellow Submarine.
The Capitol Records’ Blu Ray is an immaculate presentation, each frame like a freshly minted copy of a pop art. And John Lennon singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” ah…
7. Rosemary’s Baby (Criterion Collection, Region A)
Not exactly unexpected given the label’s commitment to Roman Polanski’s ’60s opus (Could a Blu Ray of The Tenant be far behind?), yet it is still thrilling to have such a unabashed, bona fide urban horror film issued from Criterion. Given a somewhat subdued, film-like (lots of grain) presentation, Rosemary’s Baby fares well, too, in the sound department, a revelation for me this time around. (It’s also the first time I noticed so many– perhaps unnecessary– details in the nude coven/nightmare sequence!) The supplement thankfully includes input from Ira Levin– I still love the author’s original ending of the novel over the film’s pessimistic one more in line with Polanski’s taste– and is top-notch as usual.
6. Le silence de la mer (Eureka!/Masters of Cinema, Region Free)
Another key release, like Jean Grémillon films, concerning the Nazi Occupation of France, this time directly tackled by former Resistance fighter Jean-Pierre Melville in his deeply felt, outwardly “boring,” collected debut feature, about a cultured, Francophile Nazi officer (The bug-eyed Howard Vernon, familiar from appearances in numerous Jess Franco films) who becomes a boarding guest at a French academic’s house. He and his niece responds to the erudite soldier’s effort to open communication with complete silence. Are they actually practicing “passive resistance” against the invader? Or is this “silence of the sea” in the end a futile gesture, just another form of subservience to the cruel wheel of history?
Melville, faithfully adapting the novel by Jean Bruller (Vercors), refuses to spoon-feed the answers to the viewers. Neither does he deploy any obstacle in front of us for sympathizing with the film’s Nazi protagonist. Like best works of Robert Bresson, Le silence probes our essential humanity beneath the agendas of nationalism and Machtpolitik, rigorously non-judgmental and serenely resolute.
Someday Korean filmmakers will make a great motion picture like this on the Japanese colonial period. We haven’t yet.
5. Scarlet Street (Kino Lorber, Region Free)
Fritz Lang’s exemplary film noir, with the deadly triumvirate of the materialistic and cruel femme fatale (Joan Bennett), the perfect patsy-turned-victim-of-fate (Edward G. Robinson in a remarkable performance the genealogy of which may be traced back to Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel) and the scuzzy, knife-carrying pimp-leech (Dan Duryea), scales the height of a Greek tragedy in the end, while remaining truthful to its nasty, pulpish origins.
Kino Lorber’s HD transfer from the Library Congress-housed 35mm negative sparkles, doing justice to the uncommonly emotional (but totally non-sentimental) conclusion amidst falling snowflakes.
4. Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Olive Films, Region A)
I have always been on lookout for this Robert Aldrich-directed political thriller ever since reading the synopsis in the Japanese film magazine Screen in ’70s, wherein it was (if I remember correctly) given an attention-grabbing (and perhaps subconsciously wish-fulfilling?) title, The Last Day of the United States. Of course, it was completely banned from South Korea. (Readers can draw your own conclusions from this bit of info)
Burt Lancaster, Paul Winfield, Burt Young and William Smith take over a missile silo and from there unfold a tense negotiation with the White House headed by Charles Durning as a moderate president, a military operation engineered by a hawkish general Richard Widmark to penetrate the silo without triggering off the nuclear Armageddon and finally a hostage crisis in which the life of the US president is at stake.
Heart-stoppingly suspenseful, technically dazzling, politically furious and ultimately mournful, Aldrich’s apocalyptic thriller is a treat in the bright HD Blu Ray from Olive Films, who has seen it fit to include an excellent making-of-documentary by Bavaria Film International from the perspective of the German crew.
3. Body and Soul (Olive Films, Region Free)
Among the John Garfield-starring films gris (“gray films”) released into Blu Ray this year, many will choose Force of Evil as the most significant, but my absolute favorite among them is this superbly intelligent pugilist drama. Garfield gives an Oscar-nominated performance as Charley Davis, a young punk who dreams big and makes it too, only to find his bouts tightly controlled by the moneyed interests. Lilli Palmer is his faithful girlfriend. Spiced up by pungent yet economical dialogue penned by Abraham Polonski, Body and Soul is a straightforward story of a man trying to succeed in an inherently corrupt economic system.
Those who find the movie’s ending perhaps too genre-oriented or “conventional” are perhaps not paying attention to the rich implications of the final dialogue uttered by Charley. Exquisitely filmed in black and white by James Wong Howe.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal, Region Free)
An astonishing rediscovery for me, All Quiet on the Western Front, made in 1930, only thirteen years after the conclusion of First World War, is a motion picture, echoing one of the blurbs in the package, that all people in all nations with a standing army (Wait, that excludes Japan! OK, with any military organization capable of conducting a full-scale war) should watch at least once. It is not a simplistic “pacifist” film that declares the war is hell and is done with the topic. All Quiet instead begins with the direct depiction of the beautiful appeal of patriotism (and the very idea of “dying for one’s own country”), and touches on, sometimes shockingly, many aspects of the modern warfare that many Americans had only begun to grasp as a “problem” after the Viet Nam War, including the permanent psychological trauma suffered by the veterans.
Both US and Korea (and Japan before 1945) are powerfully militarized cultures that cannot properly function without constituting taking of human lives in a large scale as something necessary for its survival, if not necessarily glorious. The wonder of cinema is such that a German novel had already been adapted into a great American film 83 years ago, which articulates the “reality” of a war without any stupid CGI embellishments or holier-than-thou rhetoric.
Americans and South Koreans need to watch this masterpiece at least once in their lives. They owe it to their forebears who had their souls torn asunder, so that their children and grandchildren may not have to suffer the same fate.
Universal’s Blu Ray special edition is magnificent, with nerve-fraying sounds of cannonballs whistling down from the sky coming out clearly in the soundtrack, and including a silent version of the same film which makes for a fascinating comparison.
1. Johnny Guitar (Olive Films, Region Free)
As usual, I have littlest to say about this year’s unquestioned No. 1 Blu Ray of them all.
All I can say is that it is brilliant! No one has ever made and no one will ever make another film like it. I would love to see an adaptation of Johnny Guitar as a Takarazuka revue theater production, with both Sterling Hayden’s Johnny and Joan Crawford’s Vienna played by (usually stunningly beautiful) Takarazuka actresses. And then we will finally get to hear Vienna belting out Victor Young’s sultry, adult theme song!
Now I understand why Jean-Luc Godard allegedly claimed that “Nicholas Ray is cinema.” Il est impossible d’argumenter contre le vérité, no?
As Warner Archive now jumping into the Blu Ray foray, and Kino Lorber, Olive Films, Twilight Time and of course Criterion all promising releases of forgotten and under-appreciated masterpieces and peculiarities in the new year, things are definitely looking up in the DVD/Blu Ray front. Thanks for reading, dear readers, and I wish you a bountiful year for watching and collecting classic and new cinema from around the world!