My favourite Blu-ray releases of 2021
JANUARY 8 ― Long after being pronounced “dead” years ago, the market for physical media, especially of the niche kind, has never been in better health the last few years.
If you’re a fan of the more mainstream stuff then yes, maybe physical media is irrelevant when it comes to your choices for media consumption, thanks to the wide availability of that type of content on streaming services.
But if your tastes are of the more niche kind, like arthouse films, older movies that are pre-1980s and of course the myriad genre films (from the B-grade ones all the way down to the shot-on-video Z-grade offerings) that are almost lost or forgotten to time, then physical media, especially those released by specialised boutique labels, are still the only way to go.
Being based in Malaysia and of course having to also take into consideration the exchange rate, clearly I wasn’t able to get everything my heart desired last year, but I think I’ve managed to acquire enough good stuff to compile an exciting and varied list of personal favourites, with more than enough room for a further 10 titles as honourable mentions.
Check these releases (and labels) out if you have the time and extra funds to do so!
New York Ninja (Vinegar Syndrome)
I think by now a healthy portion of film fandom has more or less acknowledged the fact that Vinegar Syndrome is the Criterion Collection of trashy and cheesy B movies, giving the same amount of respect and care in their restorations (and bonus materials) to these movies as Criterion does for classics by Bergman, Fellini, Godard or Tarkovsky.
But their release of New York Ninja, an unfinished, never released and long forgotten movie from 1984, quite simply goes beyond any previously established call of duty.
Restoring a finished and previously released film is one thing, but restoring (and reconstructing) an unfinished film, with no script/notes to guide the editing process, and with no sound elements (using lip readers to figure out the dialogue being said in the film rolls found), having to re-dub the whole thing and score it from scratch, with results as barmy and entertaining as this, is just phenomenal.
The River (BFI)
Even after considering established classics like The Rules Of The Game, Grand Ilusion, Boudou Saved From Drowning and Toni, The River is probably my favourite Jean Renoir film, so even after having already owned the old Criterion DVD and upgraded to the beautiful Criterion Blu-ray release in 2015, this new 2-disc limited edition release by the British Film Institute is an instant must-have thanks to the inclusion of India Matri Bhumi as one of its many supplemental features, a 90-minute film by Roberto Rossellini that most of us have only probably read about before this.
An almost mythical film for Rossellini fans like me, thanks to legends like Godard and the Cahiers du Cinema gang praising it to the skies back in the 1950s, it has long been a difficult film to see, and now thanks to its inclusion here, we can finally see what all the fuss is about, and yes, it’s gorgeous.
As for The River itself, if you already own the Criterion Blu-ray, then I’d suggest that you hang on to that release, as that release’s transfer is still the most beautiful one so far. But when it comes to crucial bonus features, this one wins, hands down.
Southland Tales (Arrow Video)
Just like the aforementioned The River, this is another Blu-ray release that’s enhanced immensely by its supplemental features, this time with the inclusion of another mythical beast, the original version of director Richard Kelly’s much misunderstood Southland Tales that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, which went through quite a lot of readjustments (as requested by the film’s distributors) before being released in cinemas that same year.
The Cannes Cut is a good 15 minutes longer than the Theatrical Cut, but the difference in terms flow and clarity is quite massive, making it such a shame that this awesome original version never got the chance that it deserved with audiences back then. Well, here’s its chance now!
Unlucky Stars (Gold Ninja Video)
As a fan of lo-fi, DIY fight flicks, it’s very rare for these very cheaply (and often homemade) films to receive a properly curated physical release.
Aside from the awesome and pretty exhaustive original DVD release of Contour, most of the physical releases for films like these (which include films like Contracts, On The Ropes and Death Grip) are pretty bare-bones DVD releases, so to have Canadian label Gold Ninja Video pour this much love into this release (albeit on BD-R, they’re still very much a super small label) of Unlucky Stars, one of my all-time favourite DIY fight flicks, is just heaven sent for me.
If names like Dennis Ruel, Vlad Rimburg, Eric Jacobus and Ken Quitugua mean anything to you, you need to seek this one out, now!
The Day Of The Beast (Severin Films)
Alex De La Iglesia has long been one of my favourite Spanish directors, probably even my number 1 favourite, and The Day Of The Beast has long been my most beloved of his many crazy films.
After having to live with only the English-friendly UK VHS and Spanish DVD releases for so many years, the fine folks at Severin Films have finally issued a definitive English-friendly Blu-ray release (also available on 4K UHD) of this wild and hilariously blasphemous piece of black comedy.
This is the best that I’ve seen this film look, and with a supporting documentary that’s almost as long as the film itself, covering the film’s production and its legacy, this is one great release that’s totally worth your money.
Possession (Umbrella Entertainment)
Having missed out on the quite expensive limited-edition release by Mondo Vision in 2014, it’s simply wonderful to get a chance to own this stacked but much more affordable release of this gonzo classic by director Andrzej Zulawski from Australian label Umbrella Entertainment, under their Beyond Genres imprint.
Obviously missing the huge 84-page booklet and the multiple lobby cards and goodies from the Mondo Vision release, this Umbrella release makes up for it with almost four hours of bonus features, including the US cut of the film and multiple interviews and audio commentaries, providing fans of the film with all sorts of insights, both new and old, to this much revered horror classic from 1981.
Primetime Panic (Fun City Editions)
One of the great joys of the current boutique label gold rush is in the sheer potential for new discoveries. As more and more new labels spring up, each dedicating themselves to different nooks and crannies of film history, Fun City Editions, a partner label with Vinegar Syndrome, is fast becoming one of my new favourites.
Having already released forgotten/overlooked 70s and 80s gems like Smile (one of Michael Ritchie’s best films), Jeremy and Walking The Edge, they’ve gone even deeper into the well by releasing this Primetime Panic boxset, a collection of TV movies from the 1980s that I would never have heard of before, but have turned out to be such hidden gems.
Featuring actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Jennifer Warren and directors like Jonathan Kaplan and Joseph Sargent, the three films included herein will deeply surprise you with their quality, with Dreams Don’t Die and Death Ride To Osaka very likely to win your heart (as they did mine) instantly.
The World Of Wong Kar Wai (The Criterion Collection)
If you’re a big Wong Kar Wai fan like me, then chances are that you already have some of the films included in this gorgeous boxset in your collection.
If you already own those earlier Kino DVDs and Blu-rays, then I suggest you better hold on to some of them, especially Fallen Angels, even if the transfers and presentation in this new Criterion release are mostly the best ones you’ll ever see.
There are “updated” versions here of beloved classics like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together and In The Mood For Love that go beyond remastering, that some might even call these new “director’s cuts.”
The most radically (and distractingly) different is Fallen Angels, in which the aspect ratio is totally changed from the original 1.85:1 to a squashed 2.35:1, which results in a lot of the image being cropped out.
It now looks radically different from the original, so don’t get rid of your old DVDs yet if you want to revisit that. There are some parts cut out from Happy Together, and there’s a strong green hue to the new colour timing for In The Mood For Love, but still, just to have these films (especially the earlier ones like As Tears Go By and Days Of Being Wild) looking this crisp, is more than reason enough to own this boxset.
Duel To The Death (Eureka Classics)
In a year rich with restorations and releases of so many Hong Kong classics, from Category III legends like Ebola Syndrome, Erotic Ghost Story and Riki Oh: The Story Of Ricky to classic Sammo Hung and Ringo Lam films, it’s very easy to overlook the fact that another 80s HK classic Duel To The Death was given a spiffy Blu-ray release by the cool folks at UK label Eureka Classics.
A big box-office hit back in 1983 but rather forgotten as time flew by, this feature directing debut by Ching Siu-Tung (who’d go on to make the much-loved A Chinese Ghost Story) is surprisingly all sorts of awesomeness rolled into one kinetic wu xia film.
Featuring some of the most jaw-dropping and preposterous swordplay, kung fu and ninja action you’ll ever see, supported by a gorgeous new transfer (especially in the panoramic outdoor scenes), this is one long-forgotten martial arts jewel that is ripe for rediscovery.
Two Films By Pietro Marcello (Grasshopper Film)
This being the year that Martin Eden announced to the world the arrival of Italian writer-director Pietro Marcello as a major new talent in international cinema, it’s just wonderfully convenient that the ever so discerning folks at Grasshopper Film have gifted us with this essential Blu-ray release, a Pietro Marcello primer that includes two of his earlier films ― The Mouth Of The Wolf and Lost And Beautiful ― covering the moment when his documentary instincts are starting to make way for more fiction filmmaking concerns, and when the hybrid results, especially in Lost And Beautiful, are starting to bear some really ravishing fruits.
Definitely not for everyone, but if you’re already smitten with his adaptation of Martin Eden, then this two-film collection is nothing short of required viewing material.
Honourable Mentions: A Serbian Film, Drive, Time and Tide, Deep Cover, Home Grown Horrors Vol. 1, Liberte, Bad Boy Bubby, Retribution, Johnny Guitar, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
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