American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
We're still in that bleak period, in which most of the new releases on the Blu-ray shelf are early 2016 releases—in other words, not so great (I'm looking at you "The Forest" and "Fifty Shades of Black"). Almost as if they know that the competition is slacking, Criterion has released several must-owns in the last few weeks, including one of my favorite films of all time and one of the best movies of 2015. On that note, while the lack of "blockbuster titles" may mean there aren't a lot of obvious picks, three of my top 15 are in this HECG. Plus a few of the best movies ever made? Maybe it's not that hopeless after all.
10 NEW TO NETFLIX
10 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD
"Brief Encounter" (Criterion)
What a perfect movie. It sounds ridiculous, but it really is as perfect as they come, and possibly David Lean's best. (Yeah, I said it). Copied roughly 200,000 times, "Brief Encounter" is still, to this viewer, the best "unrequited love" drama ever made, and a movie that you should definitely see if you were a fan of last year's "Carol." To say Todd Haynes riffed off Lean and Noel Coward's classic would be an understatement. It opens with nearly the same scene, right down to an emotional hand on the shoulder, and then flashes back in much the same way to capture the arc of a series of chance encounters that turn into something momentous. Watch how Lean directs the body language of his characters, the cinematic weight he puts on the trains coming into the station, and even just the way he blocks the scenes in the little cafe in which a random meeting becomes life-changing. This is one of Criterion's first releases and it was included in a great Lean/Coward 4-movie set a few years ago, but is now available on Blu-ray standalone for the first time. It's essential.
High-definition digital transfer of the BFI National Archive's 2008 restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Audio commentary from 2000 by film historian Bruce Eder
Interview from 2012 with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day
A Profile of "Brief Encounter," a short documentary from 2000 on the making of the film
"David Lean: A Self Portrait," a 1971 television documentary on Lean's career
Plus: An essay by historian Kevin Brownlow
Christian Petzold's masterpiece, my #2 of 2016 (after "Mad Max: Fury Road"), is a film which I am positive will find a loyal, devoted audience over the years. Movies this good don't go away. And Criterion recognizes the quality of this incredible drama about how easy it is to repress unimaginable horror with a fantastic release, including a gorgeous digital transfer and details about the making of the film. I'll never forget seeing "Phoenix" at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, and hearing the collective gasp in the audience at its ending. This is a film to share, to talk about, and to admire for generations.
New 2K digital transfer, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
New conversation between director Christian Petzold and actor Nina Hoss
New interview with cinematographer Hans Fromm
The Making of "Phoenix," a 2014 documentary featuring interviews with Petzold, Hoss, actors Nina Kunzendorf and Ronald Zehrfeld, and production designer K. D. Gruber
New English subtitle translation
Plus: An essay by critic Michael Koresky
"Easy Rider" (Criterion)
Speaking of films that have survived generations, does "Easy Rider" have the resonance it once did? When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, this counter-culture classic still felt incredibly present, a call to drop off the grid and experience the world in a different way from what we were "supposed to do." Another generation or two past its release and I wonder if it still speaks to young people the way it used to. Criterion must think it does because they've broken it out of a box set in which it was released a couple years ago and given it a standalone Blu-ray treatment. The special features are the same as in the set, highlighted by a commentary that includes the late, great Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
New, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack and alternate DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround soundtracks
Two audio commentaries, one featuring actor-director-writer Dennis Hopper, the other Hopper, actor-writer Peter Fonda, and production manager Paul Lewis
"Born to Be Wild" (1995) and "Easy Rider: Shaking the Cage" (1999), documentaries about the making and history of the film
Television excerpts showing Hopper and Fonda at the Cannes Film Festival
New video interview with BBS cofounder Steve Blauner
"In a Lonely Place" (Criterion)
The final Criterion release of late is another gem, Nicholas Ray's 1950 noir commentary on a fading era of Hollywood that was reportedly overshadowed by the release of "Sunset Blvd." the same year, but has grown in esteem in the decades since. Humphrey Bogart gives one of the best performances of his career as a down-on-his-luck screenwriter with drinking and anger issues who gets entangled in a mystery. Ray's direction here feels like it's only now getting the credit it deserves (although Roger put it in the Great Movies some time ago). The framing, the way he uses light, Bogart's stunning performance—everything about "In a Lonely Place" is mesmerizing, and this was made before Ray went on to make the films for which he's better known, "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Bigger Than Life." Andrew Solt's screenplay here is a beauty too: "I still like the way you are, attractive and average." It's witty and insightful, without ever losing the noir structure of the overall piece. This is a great movie.
New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
New audio commentary featuring film scholar Dana Polan
"I'm a Stranger Here Myself," a 1975 documentary about director Nicholas Ray, slightly condensed for this release
New interview with biographer Vincent Curcio about actor Gloria Grahame
Piece from 2002 featuring filmmaker Curtis Hanson
Radio adaptation from 1948 of the original Dorothy B. Hughes novel, broadcast on the program Suspense
Plus: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
The Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film was pretty clear the minute this daring film premiered at Cannes a year ago this weekend. Demanding that we pay witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, "Son of Saul" is a film that uses form as content. The tight structure of the film, in which we only follow the POV of a Jew forced to work for the Nazis at Auschwitz, doesn't allow for the typical escapes given by cinema. When a filmmaker uses an overhead shot, it subconsciously reminds us that we're only watching a movie. There's no such release in "Son of Saul," putting even more weight on the shoulders of the amazing Geza Rohrig, robbed of an Oscar nomination. Another essential movie in a Guide full of them.
Q&A at the Museum of Tolerance with Director Laszlo Nemes, Actor Geza Rohring and Cinematographer Matyas Erdely
Commentary with Laszlo Nemes, Geza Rohrig and Matyas Erdely
In many other years, "Mustang" would have been my pick for Best Foreign Language Film, but not in the year of "Son of Saul" and "Phoenix." It's nearly that good though, and one of those joyous festival experience in which I walked into a film knowing nothing about it. I almost instantly fell in love with the natural performances, genuine setting and delicate cultural commentary in this masterful film. It's a beautiful coming-of-age story that transcends its setting to become a commentary on youth, patriarchy and siblinghood around the world. Like so many recent foreign films, it didn't find a very big audience in theaters, but I expect "Mustang" to have a long shelf life thanks to word of mouth. It's a movie that's difficult not to love.
"A Drop of Water," A Short by Deniz Gamze Erguven
Interview with the Cast of "Mustang"
Includes 16-Page Collectible Booklet and Soundtrack Download Card
Hey, look, it's another Oscar nominee! It's amazing to consider the concept that "Joy," a multiple award nominee and film that has grossed over $100 million worldwide, could be considered a disappointment, but that's because it came on the heels of "American Hustle" and "Silver Linings Playbook," two nominees for Best Picture and Best Director. Compared to those, "Joy" felt minor. What's interesting is that I suspect it could be the best thing that happened to the movie. Success breeds contempt. Now people will find "Joy" more on their own than crammed down their throat like "American Hustle," a film that doesn't seem to resonate at all today. "Joy" has its issues, but I'm one of those people who likes Russell's early work ("Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting with Disaster" and "Three Kings") more than his star-studded, awards generators of late. Whatever one says about "Joy," it's further proof that Jennifer Lawrence's star power is simply blinding. This earned her a fourth Oscar nomination in six years. And it kind of feels like she's just getting started.
Joy, Strength and Perseverance
Times Talk with Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell and Maureen Dowd
Where has the Atom Egoyan I grew up loving gone? Where is the filmmaker who helped define the way I read film with movies like "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter"? One can barely see him in "Remember," a film helped a bit by strong performances from Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau, but one poorly directed. There are supporting performances in "Remember" that feel like some sort of in-joke and sequences that either go on longer than they should or are bizarrely truncated. The rhythm of the film is off throughout, and we watch Plummer try to elevate the entire production but fall under its weight. If you're fan of the actors, it's worth a look, even with its laughable, and insulting, ending, but it mostly just adds to my confusion over the last few films from a director who used to be one of cinema's best.
"Scream: The TV Series: The Complete First Season"
Guilty Pleasures, Aisle Three! I am probably the only full-time critic willing to admit to watching every silly episode of MTV's "Scream." Why did I bother? It's mostly because I am a gigantic fan of Wes Craven, and so the show's loose affiliation with the Craven franchise made it intriguing. I'm also a sucker for a good murder mystery, and the writers of "Scream" know how to drag out one of those, keeping us guessing as to this iteration's identity of the killer. Is "Scream" Prestige TV? Hell no, but I have to admit to never being bored over the course of its first season and kind of anticipating its second, coming up at the end of this month.
When I walked out of the press screening of "Deadpool," it never dawned on me what a massive hit the film would become nor that I would be in the minority in terms of what I thought of it. I still think it's a misfire, a movie that can't figure out its tone and feels like a relic of comic-book writing and comic-book movies from the '90s, despite Ryan Reynolds' best efforts. Having said that, the Blu-ray is a gorgeous one, and this column is designed more to review the releases themselves than the film. How does the "Deadpool" Blu-ray work for fans of the movie? It's fantastic. The HD video and audio mixes, the deleted scenes, and two audio commentaries—it's all stuff that fans will eat up in between trips to my review to call me "stupid" again.
Deleted/Extended Scenes with Optional Audio Commentary by Director Tim Miller
From Comics to Screen...to Screen
Gallery (Concept Art, Costumes, Storyboards, Pre-vis, Stunt-vis)
Deadpool's Fun Sack
Audio Commentary by Ryan Reynolds and Screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Audio Commentary by Director Tim Miller and "Deadpool" Co-Creator/Comics Artist Rob Liefeld
3 NEW TO VOD
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...