Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
Everyone keeps theorizing that we are in the final days of Blu-ray and DVD, as more and more people turn to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Fandor to satisfy their need for entertainment. It doesn't feel like anyone has told the studios. This guide, which posts every two weeks, has absolutely no trouble finding interesting titles to spotlight, whether they be two very different Criterion releases, a TV box set for a beloved drama, an excellent PBS mini-series, or recent Oscar contenders and box office hits. In fact, the last two weeks saw the release of three films I consider in the ten best of 2014. Let's start there.
12 NEW TO BLU-RAY/DVD
Revisiting Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, I was struck by one thought—This might be the best film of 2014. I know a few critics you respect at this site who feel that way, and it's a piece that really holds up on second viewing, especially as one gets further away from the inherent expectations in seeing a new film from PTA. Robert Elswit's dream-like cinematography, Jonny Greenwood's unobtrusive score, Leslie Jones' hypnotic editing—it's technically as accomplished as anything in 2014. And then add to that PTA's blindingly smart dialogue, Phoenix's further evidence that he's the best actor of his generation, and a supporting cast that works from top to bottom. I get that "Inherent Vice" is the kind of film that "doesn't work for everybody," although I'm increasingly amazed that some people can dismiss filmmaking of this caliber because they don't like the story. Film is about more than story. And "Inherent Vice" is more than an average film. The Blu-ray is really solid, if a little slight on special features. I'm always happy to realize that recent faves are courtesy of Warner Bros. because I know their HD transfers are among the best on the market. "Inherent Vice" looks and sounds great. Just give in, man.
The Golden Fang
Everything in this Dream
Another solid candidate for the best film of 2014; another movie that really holds up on repeat viewing. The inherent emotion of the piece, especially in light of current events (I saw "Selma" the morning after the Ferguson riots started), can overwhelm an appreciation of the individual elements of Ava DuVernay's film. Watching it again reveals the remarkable depth of David Oyelowo's performance, as well as strong supporting work throughout, especially by Carmen Ejogo. It also allows one to consider Bradford Young's great choices as his status as one of our most interesting cinematographers continues to grow. Of course, "Selma" is, most of all, thematically and historically important. And so current. It came out in theaters in the wake of Ferguson and it will play this week in thousands of homes in the light of Baltimore. "Selma" is a film that will only grow in esteem over time. It's one of the most essential pieces of filmmaking of the last few years.
The Road to "Selma"
Deleted and Extended Scenes
"Glory" Music Video
Commentary by Director Ava DuVernay & David Oyelowo
"Selma" Student Tickets: Donor Appreciation
National Voting Rights Museum and Institute
Far too few people saw Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep" when it had a very limited release late in 2014 and early in 2015. The winner of the 2014 Palme d'Or barely even played in a city as big as Chicago, much less smaller ones around the country. So, the likelihood is that most of you haven't seen it. You really should. Yes, a dialogue-driven, 196-minute Turkish film can be a bit, well, daunting for most viewers. I was a huge fan of Ceylan's "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" and "Distant" and I was still a little scared of "Winter Sleep". Don't be. It's a riveting drama about social issues and domestic ones that transcend time and place. It is a very specific story that has relatable resonance around the world. And you don't feel the length at all. It's further proof that Ceylan is one of our most important filmmakers working today. The only tragedy is that the Blu-ray is completely bereft of special features. Although this strikes me as the kind of modern masterpiece that Criterion could pick up down the road and really do justice.
Despite Glenn Kenny's outright hatred of Xavier Dolan's film in his theatrical review, I'm here to recommend it. While I understand the ability of "Mommy" to really turn off a critic (I know some besides Kenny who feel similarly), it worked my emotions as a father in ways that allowed the self-aware filmmaking to enhance the piece instead of distracting from it. In many ways, "Mommy" may be the most "it works for you or it doesn't" film in recent memory. Right from the aspect ratio (most of the piece is in a square 1:1 picture) to the mannered characterization of troubled youth, "Mommy" has the potential to annoy. But if you accept its "eccentricities," there's a strong emotional undercurrent to the piece, especially in the breathtakingly great performances from the two female leads. The worst thing about the home release of "Mommy"? Lionsgate's increasingly depressing pattern of releasing their arthouse films, most courtesy of branch Roadside Attractions, on DVD only instead of HD. And this one has no special features to boot. Here's another one I hope Criterion picks up in the next few years.
"Le Silence de La Mer" (Criterion)
Speaking of Criterion, let's hit a couple of their recent releases, starting with Jean-Pierre Melville's first film, the riveting 1949 drama "Le Silence de La Mer." Told almost entirely in narration and monologue, in one room, "Silence" is a remarkably ambitious piece for a first film, one in which Melville merged his theories on the need for change in cinema (yes, dear readers, people thought film was dead 70 years ago too) and his personal history with the Resistance. The result is a film that's deceptively simple in its construction. The story of a German officer who takes up residence with a French couple who refuse to speak to him—they have to house him but they don't have to socialize—is a fascinating commentary on the power of non-violent confrontation. The officer clearly has reservations about the war and his role in it, and it takes nothing more than silence to bring them out. The transfer is an expected beauty, along with some really informative special features. The highlight of the bonus material is Melville's short film "24 Hours in the Life of a Clown."
New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
The short "24 Hours in the Life of a Clown" (1946), director Jean-Pierre Melville's first film
New interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
"Code Name Melville" (2008), a seventy-six-minute documentary on Melville's time in the French Resistance and his films about it
"Melville Steps Out of the Shadows" (2010), a forty-two-minute documentary about "Le silence de la mer"
Interview with Melville from 1959
New English subtitle translation
Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a selection from Rui Nogueira's 1971 book "Melville on Melville"
"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (Criterion)
Many people, Roger Ebert included reportedly, thought that Robert Mitchum would finally get his Oscar for Peter Yates' whip-smart 1973 crime drama in which no one can be trusted and sage advice like "This life's hard, man, but it's harder if you're stupid" sounds like wisdom. It didn't happen and "Eddie Coyle" largely went underrated in the wave of '70s classics that surrounded it. A Criterion release on DVD six years ago changed that a bit and now the company has upgraded this excellent drama into their Blu-ray collection. The transfer is excellent and the film really holds up (I love the tension in the way Yates lets the bank robberies unfold in what feels like real time, with very few cuts or manufactured drama), but the real draw here is what it was in 1973: Mitchum. He does the world-weary thing so well that it's easy to see how many people after him would crib from this performance. And not quite get it right.
High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Audio commentary from 2009 featuring director Peter Yates
Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones and an excerpted 1973 on-set profile of actor Robert Mitchum by journalist Grover Lewis
There are a trio of pretty strong early 2015 releases that hit Blu-ray recently, starting with this delightful adaptation of the classic children's book. "Paddington" strikes just the right balance between witty humor for the parents and physical comedy for the kids. It reminds me of George Miller's "Babe" in the way it works so completely for both audiences, and it's a way more visually accomplished film than most flicks for the little ones in the family. Smart, funny, sweet, it's the best family film of the year so far, and I have a feeling it could be eight months from now as well.
Meet the Characters
When a Bear Comes to Stay
From Page to Screen
"Shine" Lyric Music Video
Jude Law's performance carries Kevin MacDonald's decent submarine thriller about greed, respect, and other macho pursuits. It's one those films in which men climb aboard a sub and we know not all of them will climb out of it. And so it's a piece more about execution than originality. It's a mixed bag here. I found the first act strong but it gets less interesting as it goes along and repeats many of the same beats. Also, Law has a tough time selling the "crazy captain" routine given how inherently charismatic he is. We don't really believe some of the dumb decisions he makes, even if Law does his best (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are quite good too). It's a decent rental as long as expectations are appropriately low.
A Dive into the "Black Sea"
Feature Commentary with Director Kevin Macdonald
Anna Kendrick has quietly become not only one of the most well-liked actresses of her generation but one of the better ones. She's simply phenomenal here, carrying every scene she's in of Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of the hit musical with the weird structure (her story goes from end to beginning, his from beginning to end, in intercut musical numbers). Kendrick is so good that she highlights the flaws of Jeremy Jordan's performance, which is a bit too light rock for the material. He sometimes looks like he belongs in a Train cover band, whereas her emotion and character works in every note. See it for her.
A conversation with composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown
"Dancing on the Edge"
Finally, a trio of TV hits, led by this PBS presentation of a 6-hour mini-series about a 1930's jazz band dealing with not only racism but murder. Expect it to be a major player at this year's Emmys, with likely nods for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode, and Jacqueline Bisset. In fact, I think this is the best work Goode has done to date, as a man who finds a truly fantastic jazz band and changes their lives. The piece sometimes gets a little bloated for its own good, but it's refreshing to see a film about musicians that allows time for, you know, the music. We often hear songs in their entirety, allowing the characters to come through in what they do for a living. This is a well-mounted, entertaining piece of work.
Go Behind the Scenes with Cast and Crew Including Director Stephen Poliakoff, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Janet Montgomery, Joanna Vanderham
"Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season"
AMC may be saying goodbye to "Mad Men" but they're still holding out hope that this drama starring Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy can be your new period piece obsession. The first season started slowly but really built to a crescendo of final episodes that stand among the best on the air last season. I can't wait to see how they build on where they ended last year when the program returns in a few weeks. Until then, catch up on Blu-ray and DVD.
Inside Episodes 101-110
Re-Making The 80s
Rise Of The Digital Cowboys
Setting The Fire: Research And Technology
"Parenthood: The Complete Series"
Finally, Universal has released a great gift set just in time for Mother's Day of all six seasons of NBC hit "Parenthood" in one big box. I never quite fell completely for this drama, but those who did fell hard. In all my radio appearances, we took more questions about the fate of "Parenthood" than any other show. Even at the end, it felt like people weren't ready to say goodbye. Now you never have to. (Special features are the same as the individual season releases, which are essentially just compiled into one box here.)
10 NEW TO NETFLIX
Here are ten films added in the last two weeks that you can watch streaming on Netflix instead of seeking out on DVD or Blu-ray. Pick a few.
3 NEW TO VOD
"I Am Big Bird"
A celebration of director David Lynch's filmography in anticipation of an upcoming retrospective at the IFC Center in...
A review of the fourth original Marvel series for Netflix. And the worst.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A classic thriller that moves with a sense of purpose.