The Best Classic Films on Blu-ray in 2020

2020 has been generous with many things we’d just as soon have missed. One bright spot, however, is the virtual avalanche, the cataract, the tsunami of classic cinema history continually emerging on Blu-ray from so many directions! It’s impossible to keep up, but we try, we try. We’d rather splash about in excess than find ourselves parched in a vast emptiness.

Any list must be hopelessly incomplete and can only hint at the riches out there, which refute any argument that streaming is replacing physical media. Many of us will always want to hold the blessed object in our flippers, especially if it comes with all kinds of nifty extras that we may or may not appreciate. Here then is a reasonably rambling survey of some of the year’s Blu-ray highlights for classic film buffs.

Moon by PIRO4D (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

10. The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema (Kino Lorber)

Produced as a crowdfunding project in cooperation with Lobster Films in Paris, this five-disc set provides digital restorations of ten Yiddish-language films dating from 1935 to 1950. The intention here is representational. Not all are masterpieces, so stiff stagey melodramas are mixed with more stylish and emotionally engaging items. What they have in common is language and culture. As Serge Bromberg, chairman of Lobster Films writes in the booklet, “these films offer a precious journey through time and into a lost world”.

At the high end are the ghostly and sometimes beautiful Polish drama The Dybbuk (Der Dibuk, 1937, Michał Waszyński), Aleksandr Ford’s lyrical documentary Mir Kumen On (1935), Edgar G. Ulmer’s American Matchmaker (1940), Max Nosseck’s Overture to Glory (1940) and Maurice Schwartz’s Tevya (1939), based on the Sholem Aleichem tales that birthed the play and film Fiddler on the Roof. The films by Waszyński and Ford, a crucial Polish filmmaker, will make you wish to see everything they directed.

In his notes, historian Allen Lewis Rickman is frankly less impressed by the aesthetics of the other low-budget US dramas in the set, and it’s hard to argue with him, though all show value as social-historic artifacts based in the Yiddish theatre.

There remain plenty of uncollected and unrestored films to make up another set, including three more Ulmers and Yidl mitn Fidl (1936, Joseph M. Green), a Polish-shot musical with Molly Picon giving a cross-dressed performance anticipating Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (1983). Let’s cross our fingers.

9. The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin (Flicker Alley)

This essential set of silent classics actually contains four films by
Vsevolod Pudovkin, whom we described in our essay, “Pudovkin Makes the Revolution Human: The Bolshevik Trilogy” as applying the Soviet cinema’s creative editing techniques more to the service of the human heart than to “the masses”.

The satirical short
Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka, 1925) serves a jolly diversion, while the simple emotional drama Mother (Mat, 1926) tries to resurrect triumph out of tragedy. The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927) is a surprisingly subdued take on the October Revolution, while Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingiskhana, 1928) finds the revolutionary story somewhat distracted by Pudovkin’s interest in exotic fable. The climax is a dizzying explosion of edits.

8. Bonanza of Bodacious British Beauties

Ava Gardner and James Mason in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)(© Kino International / IMDB)

2020 witnessed a steady flow of British classics arriving on Blu-ray. As we wrote in “Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!”, it becomes impossible to sustain the notion that British films are staid, stuffy, and stodgy when confronted by so many dazzlers.

We’re especially delighted by the hair-raising antics of Brighton Rock (1948, John Boulting), The Queen of Spades (1949, Thorold Dickinson), Seven Days to Noon (1950, John and Roy Boulting), An Inspector Calls (1954, Guy Hamilton), The Night My Number Came Up (1955, Leslie Norman), The Flesh and the Fiends (1960, John Gilling) and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961, Val Guest).

These titles all hail from Kino Lorber, while Film Movement Classics offered the box sets Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics, which includes the specially wonderful Went the Day Well? (1942, Alberto Cavalcanti), and Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter, which includes the Ealing thriller-comedy Hue and Cry (1947, Charles Crichton).

That’s not all. Cohen Film Classics launched a 4K restoration of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951, Albert Lewin), a strange romantic fantasy in retinal-damage Technicolor starring Ava Gardner and James Mason. Just for luck, the package tossed in Lewin’s long-unseen The Living Idol (1957), another colossally strange exotic mish-mash. Who could pass this up? And why would they?

Oh look, and Criterion put out Stephen Frears’ The Hit (1984), starring Terence Stamp in a film continuing the brutal British gangster-noir tradition of Brighton Rock. It never stops.

​7. Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture (Kino Lorber)

As an instructive example to wayward youth on the perils of indulgence in what ain’t good for ya, Kino Lorber collaborated with Something Weird Video to issue seven volumes (so far) of over-stuffed discs under the rubric of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture. Perhaps they thought they could stop any time they wanted, that they had it under control, that just one more wouldn’t hurt. Alas, we’ve found the series as addictive as potato chips and just as crunchy.

As we explained about the first exciting volumes in “Sex! Drugs! Volleyball! Dark Secrets of American Morality EXPOSED in Exploitation Films”, exploitation films were made by independent mavericks who chose their subjects according to the Production Code’s list of off-limits topics. These subjects included drug abuse, “sex hygiene” (or hijinks), nudism, the birth of babies, medical footage, and controversial issues like eugenics.

This procedure meant the producers weren’t getting competition from the mainstream studios and could provide a genuinely alternative subject matter. At the same time, it put them at peril of battling local censor boards. Sometimes they bypassed regular exhibitors and hired a hall for special “Adults Only” screenings for “educational” purposes, complete with lectures by “experts”. Sometimes they sold prints to distributors on what was called a “states’ rights” basis, again bypassing regular theater chains.

The resulting films aren’t only illuminating in terms of the social values they expose and exploit. Sometimes they’re even reasonably good, or at least unusual, and they provide blueprints for topics that eventually entered the mainstream. They are, if not the evil twin to Hollywood’s commercial cinema, at least the socially unacceptable twin who tracks mud on the divan and drinks all your liquor while emitting rude noises.

​6. Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations (MVD Visual)

This four-disc set offers 2K and 4K restorations of 16 short talkies, one silent short, and two of the comedy duo’s most hilarious features: Sons of the Desert (1933, William A. Seiter) and Way Out West (1937, James W. Horne). The package offers various extras and oodles of informative commentary. In short, it’s essential, and most of all funny.

As we wrote about these geniuses of everyday chaos in “Laurel & Hardy’s Genius of Everyday Chaos”, “they come across as hapless man-children, creatures of the id who imagine they’re more sly and competent than they are. In other words, they’re the opposite of the idealized embodiments of masculinity seen in male cinema heroes.”

With further startling perspicacity, we observed that “this type of physical comedy, in which they interact with unnecessary complication and protraction and slapstick business while performing something that should take a few moments and has little or nothing to do with any plot point, is one the duo’s specialties. They can spend minutes on the most inconsequential business, such as opening a door or window. They convey human absurdity and puncture the dignity of all around them just by their bumbling presence.”

​5. Buster Keaton in “The Cameraman” (Criterion) and “Go West/College” (Cohen Film Classics)

Both of these Blu-rays are double features. As we wrote in our PopMatters review of Criterion’s 4K restoration of Buster Keaton and Edward Sedgwick’s brilliant and hilarious The Cameraman, “Buster Keaton’s Last Silent Masterpieces: ‘The Cameraman’ and ‘Spite Marriage'”, the package also contains their next collaboration, the equally wonderful and sympathetic Spite Marriage (1929). Keaton’s final two silents are a one-two punch of comic genius about the perils of spectacle, publicity and matrimony.

Cohen Film Classics’ The Buster Keaton Collection, Volume 4: Go West and College pairs two earlier hits of more traditional topics and approaches. Go West (1924) is about the tenderfoot or clueless city dude who falls for the lure of alleged wide open spaces and goes to make his fortune as a cowboy, only to learn such things aren’t always as advertised.

College (1927, co-directed with James W. Horne) belongs to the college jock romance template essayed by Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925) and includes an unfortunate blackface sequence. I feel these films aren’t as great as The Cameraman and Spite Marriage, yet their highlights can’t help showcasing Keaton’s physical ingenuity.

​4. Barbara Stanwyck in Douglas Sirk’s “All I Desire” and “There’s Always Tomorrow” (Kino Lorber)

Director Douglas Sirk and star Barbara Stanwyck collaborated on two stories about unfashionably strong-willed women who cause a kerfuffle when they investigate the eternal question of whether “you can go home again”, and the films arrive at complementary conclusions.

All I Desire (1953) is a small-town period piece set in early 20th Century Wisconsin, as Stanwyck plays an actress who scandalously abandoned her family years before. In There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), taking place in modern California, she plays a successful clothing designer who drops in on a man she used to love, a toy manufacturer played by Fred MacMurray. Her visit crystallizes his sense of something lacking in his seemingly perfect life.

As we wrote in our PopMatters essay, “Douglas Sirk’s Oppressive and Beautiful Worlds”, both films are shot in gorgeous black and white. Both are probing, carefully shaded, and none too celebratory about the domestic scene to which their heroines seek entry. Both are about characters who long for something that seems out of reach. Both are melodramas or “soapers” and show why those aren’t dirty words when handled with brilliance.

In fact, another brilliant black and white melodrama directed by Sirk was released by Kino Lorber around the same time: The thriller Thunder on the Hill (1951) can be found in their box Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema II. For those who prefer color, they also released a 3-D restoration of the Rock Hudson western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). When it rains, it pours.

​3. Three Fantastic Journeys of Karel Zeman (Criterion)

On a slightly more modest but no less dazzling scale comes this three-disc celebration of one of the world’s wondrous magicians of cinema. Inspired by Jules Verne and George Méliès, the Czechoslovakian animator Karel Zeman more or less invented his own genre of visual splendor. We could have used a complete box of his work, but we’ll make do with these three features and handful of shorts.

Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do pravěku, 1955) follows three boys who decide one day to ride a canoe back into the prehistoric age and interact with stop-motion dinosaurs. The Verne-inspired Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy, 1958) and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Baron Prášil, 1961) are horses of a different tinting, as they seamlessly place actors within moving daguerrotypes out of 19th Century novels and on sets constructed to resemble same. As we wrote in our essay, “A Fix of Fantasy: Reviving the Wondrous Films of Karel Zeman, the results are jaw-dropping.

2. Essential Fellini (Criterion)

This box comes second to Varda because it’s not a complete career overview, mainly due to several of the Maestro’s films being controlled by other labels. (For example, Kino Lorber has just issued the 1976 Casanova starring Donald Sutherland, which has been forever elusive on disc.) Nevertheless, it’s inconceivable that anyone interested in film history, or film beauty, wouldn’t be interested in this set.

Aside from the consistent quality of the films, the box demonstrates that Fellini was uniquely and instantly himself at every stage of his career. Some people have liked his earlier, more “neorealist” films better than his later plotless, surreal studies in motion, sound and fancy. It’s been said that he moved into his later style because, dispensing with concern over the box office, he felt free to indulge his personal obsessions. Well, when you see the films all in a row, as it were, you might feel drawn to one more than another, but it can’t be said that Federico Fellini was ever less than free and expressing exactly what he wanted.

If I were forced at gunpoint to choose his greatest work, I’d pick his first color film, Juliet of the Spirits (Giulietta degli spiriti, 1965), one of the cinema’s most incandescent distillations of dream and social observation, and magically beautiful. A showcase for his wife Giulietta Masina, who starred in several of his films, this is also probably Fellini’s most feminist film, although it’s City of Women (available from Cohen Film Classics) that directly addresses feminism.

Among earlier work, there’s so much to be said for his portrayal of postwar Italy’s restless young male street lizards, I Vitelloni (1953), which already shows a command of “plotless” observation and his mature style in what’s only his third feature. No matter what you pick, his films have a restless, unmoored quality bursting with noise, music and life.

​1. The Complete Films of Agnès Varda (Criterion)

Agnès Varda, a highly personal and distinctive filmmaker associated with the French New Wave, felt equally at home in fiction, documentary, or some kind of hybrid. Her films are personal and emotional, at the same time fearlessly intelligent and analytical. Towards the end of her life, she picked up a handheld video camera and made meditative essays about whatever she liked, showing the same freedom she’d always shown as an independent filmmaker who owned her production company. Her films are alive to the social position of women, even with subjects that don’t obviously invite this topic, as in her documentary on the Black Panthers.

This monumental box gathers the whole caboodle from one of the world’s great auteurs. Some of the films are acknowledged classics that have been issued separately on other Criterion discs, such as her ravishing, free-wheeling character study Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962) and the cool, seductive ironies of her deceptively simple and disturbing idyll Happiness (Le Bonheur, 1965).

Then there are films that have escaped the light of video thus far, at least in Region 1, such as Les Créatures (1966), a strange drama with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli. Varda’s most beautiful and loving achievement is Jacquot de Nantes (1991), a portrait of her husband Jacques Demy that includes footage shot during his last months. Surely this is the greatest biopic of any filmmaker (not that it’s a crowded field, and maybe for good reason), and the greatest tribute one film artist has ever paid another or ever will, because it radiates and aches with intimacy, trust and love. To see it is a privilege; watch and be hushed.

Of course, these are far from the only silent classics released this year, and without counting the Keaton films above. Kino Lorber has issued the wondrous German classic The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney, 1927, G.W. Pabst), whose print we discussed in “Silent Pleasures: An Engaging Guide to the 24th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, May 1st – 5th”; the women’s filmmaking of The Intrigue: The Films of Julia Crawford Ivers and Alice Guy Blaché Vol. 2: The Solax Years, discussed in “Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers”; and the John Ford westerns Straight Shooting (1917) and Hell Bent (1918), discussed in “John Ford Silent Westerns ‘Straight Shooting’ and ‘Hell Bent’ Raise a Ruckus”.

Three cheers also to The Douglas MacLean Collection, Undercrank Productions’ crowd-funded rediscovery of a forgotten silent comedian who feels strangely modern, as we discussed in “‘The Douglas MacLean Collection’ Pokes Fun at Our Love of Clam, Cabbage, and Kale*”.

Nor is this the only release of relevance to Jewish culture and representation on film. Flicker Alley’s The City Without Jews (Die Stadt ohne Juden, 1924, H.K. Breslauer) reconstructs a crucial Austrian silent of satirical yet strangely prophetic content. Another silent classic, Paul Wegener’s 1920 version of the oft-filmed The Golem (Der Golem), offers another powerful fantasy myth like The Dybbuk that also happens to be an important early horror film.

Honorable Mentions

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Is that all? Oh hell no. Looking at Criterion alone, and confining ourselves to films at least 50 years old, we discover an astounding list. I’ll mention some on the proviso that, while I’ve seen all the films in question, I haven’t necessarily seen these new Blu-ray editions, so this is more of a notation than an endorsement.

Still, we have the dazzling Technicolor restoration of producer George Pal and director Byron Haskins’ The War of the Worlds (1953), John M. Stahl’s eye-popping Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), the black and white noir of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948), the blissful comedy of Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) and the Paul Robeson version of the milestone musical Show Boat (1936, James Whale).

Among non-Hollywood titles, there’s Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935), Mikhail Kalatozov’s WWII drama The Cranes Are Flying (Letyat zhuravli, 1957), Juraj Herz’s dark “comedy” The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol, 1969), the three-disc set of Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (1963-72), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s polysexual allegory Teorema (1967), and two divergent ’60s French classics, Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Jean-Pierre Melville Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969).

Then there’s the seven-disc Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits and the six films collected in the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of Martin Scorcese’s World Cinema Project No. 3. And since we’ve somehow moved up to titles within the last 50 years, we might as well mention Elem Klimov’s devastating WWII picture Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985), Beau Travail’ mysteriously homo-erotic Beau Travail (1999), David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), and for the first time on video, the sprawling TV versions of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979) and Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991)

From the weeds of way off-Hollywood indie cinema, Flicker Alley unearthed Joseph L. Anderson’s Appalachian elegy Spring Night Summer Night (1967), which wasn’t even widely seen enough to be called forgotten.

Film Movement Classics upped its ante with L’innocente (1976, Luchino Visconti), Série noire (1970, Alain Corneau), and L’Important c’est d’aimer (1975, Andrzej Żuławski).

Paramount has decided to do more of the Blu-ray thing with Blu debuts of Roman Holiday (1957, William Wyler) and Popeye (1980, Robert Altman), so here’s hoping more of their vast vault of classics are on the way.

If you only confine yourself to what’s mentioned here, Dear Reader, you’ll have a lot of catching up to do and may need treatment for sustained over-dazzlement. Happy viewing!