The cinema business has seen a rise lately in “event screenings,” where movies play in special formats like 70mm or HFR, or where they’re booked only in a few theaters for limited runs. The idea is to make the theatrical experience more attractive by making it more exclusive. By contrast, in the world of VOD and streaming, ubiquity is the goal. In 2019, for example, Netflix had viral hits with films as varied as “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “El Camino,” “Fyre” and Beyoncé’s “Homecoming,” all of which were the talk of Twitter throughout their first weekends online.
The DVD and Blu-ray market seems to be pitched somewhere between those two extremes. Each week, titles arrive on physical media that are unavailable anywhere else — or at least not with the pristine video quality or wealth of bonus features that make some box sets a must. Yet most often, the top-selling Blu-rays remain recent theatrical releases and contemporary hit TV series.
This year’s home video best-of list reflects that reality, highlighting one-of-a-kind items that made their Blu-ray debuts this year, as well as great modern movies and television shows that have earned their way into anyone’s permanent collection.
1. “War and Peace (1966)” (Criterion)
Movies like this are why the Criterion Collection exists. Director Sergei Bondarchuk’s elaborate and expensive Soviet adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sweeping novel has rarely been seen properly in the United States, outside of repertory houses. Now, anyone can own this visually splendid seven-hour epic and can pore over every detailed battle sequence on Criterion’s attentively prepared Blu-ray edition.
2. “Amazing Grace” (Universal)
Here’s another essential cultural artifact that until recently had been locked away. Originally intended as a documentary about Aretha Franklin’s glorious 1972 gospel album — recorded live in a packed, steaming hot Los Angeles church — the film was held up for decades by technical glitches and lawsuits before finally making its way out into the world, first in a handful of art-house theaters and now on home video.
3. “From the Earth to the Moon” (HBO) One of the premium channel’s first successful efforts at making a blockbuster-scaled, must-see TV event, this 1998 miniseries — executive produced by Tom Hanks — breaks the story of NASA’s lunar missions into artful episodes that each takes an original approach to its subjects. Long hard to find either online or via disc, the miniseries was recently restored, with updated digital effects that some fans dislike. But the performances and storytelling remain outstanding and are now much easier to see.
4. “Broad City: The Complete Series” (Paramount)
Not long after the final episode of this vibrant and raunchy Comedy Central hit aired, all five seasons were collected in a set packed with fun extras. But the main attraction here is 50 hilarious episodes detailing two millennials’ wild New York City adventures. As eternally optimistic but often overwhelmed best friends, stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson created new TV archetypes, helping to define their generation.
5. “Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection” (KL Studio Classics)
The story of American independent cinema can’t really be told without acknowledging the contribution of Lupino, an accomplished Hollywood character actress who formed her own production company so she could become a director. This set contains four of her movies from the late ’40s and early ’50s, each of which brings a different perspective to the lives and worries of women in the post-World War II era.
6. “The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition” (Shout Select)
This low-budget crime picture starring Jimmy Cliff exposed the world to reggae music and to the highs and lows of island living in Jamaica. The long-overdue Blu-ray special edition looks dazzling and adds extensive archival material and critical context to one of the most culturally significant B movies of the 1970s.
7. “Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns” (PBS)
Burns’ latest deep dive into the ideas and personalities that have shaped America traces the long history and evolving nature of country music — from its origins in remote rural outposts to its development into image-driven big business. As always with Burns, the subject quickly expands beyond the music itself, becoming a study of the ongoing clash between traditionalism and progress.
8. “Under the Silver Lake” (Lionsgate)
Smaller movies are increasingly having a hard time finding a place at big suburban multiplexes, so often these days, some of the year’s most interesting films don’t reach their intended audience until they arrive on VOD or DVD. Such is the case with writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s strange but distinctive L.A. mystery story. Andrew Garfield stars as a pop culture-obsessed slacker who goes looking for a missing neighbor, finding meaningful clues in the ephemera all around him.
9. “Burning” (Well Go USA)
It’s been exciting to see how eagerly American audiences have been embracing “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s crafty thriller about the ripple effects of deep class divisions. Bong’s fellow Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong dug into similar themes in one of last year’s best films, “Burning,” about an economically struggling young man who crosses paths with a rich sociopath. It’s slower-paced and more elliptical than “Parasite,” but anyone who loved Bong’s film should seek it out.
10. “Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975” (Criterion)
One of the Criterion Collection’s other triumphs this year is this formidable box set, containing 15 giant monster movies plus a rich store of background materials and scholarly analysis. Releases like these prove the enduring value of physical media, which can present enduring images and stories in ways that help explain where they came from and why they remain so important.
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