Tuesday, January 31, 2012

(Abel Korzeniowski)

The man behind the best score of 2009, A Single Man, returns with another lushly melodic work that simultaneously recalls Yann Tierson's Amelie, Philip Glass' Mishima, and Korzeniowski's own work from A Single Man. At once mesmerizing and thrilling, W.E. stands strong as the year's most accomplished piece of film music.

(Alexandre Desplat)

Desplat topped off an exceptional year with this gorgeous, wonderfully understated score that walks a delicate balanace between restraint and lyrical emotionalism, often better than the film itself. One of the composer's strongest works.

(Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross)

Controversial though it may be, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' brilliant follow up to The Social Network is actually an improvement on that Oscar winning score - an eerie and atmospheric work that perfectly captures the dark and twisted world of the film.

(Qigang Chen)

The film itself may be weak, but Zhang Yimou knows how to use music in his films, and this one is no different. Qigang Chen's score, featuring gorgeous vocals and violin solos by Joshua Bell, is one of the year's great hidden gems.

(Ludovic Bource)

Perhaps the year's most acclaimed score, and with good reason. Faced with scoring a silent film, Bource's score had to nearly carry the entire film, and he does so with grace and wit, evoking the work of Chaplin and other Golden Age composers with great skill.

(John Williams)

John Williams reminds us why he's the greatest living composer with this sophisticated and fun action/adventure score that hearkens back to his glory days with Steven Spielberg and the Indiana Jones series.

(Alexandre Desplat)

Alexandre Desplat finally delivers the grand, epic score we always knew he had in him, unleashing his strongest melodic tendencies into a powerful finale to the venerable Harry Potter franchise that sends the series out on a high note.

(John Williams)

Despite my problems with its use in the film, John Williams' War Horse is still a masterful composition on its own. From its pastoral early tracks, to the hellish war passages, to the wrenching final moments, War Horse is a classic Williams score that's actually better by itself than the film it accompanies.

(Cliff Martinez)

Nicholas Winding Refn's smashing film wouldn't have been the same without Cliff Martinez' pulsing and evocative score, putting the film square in the middle of its 1980s aesthetic. The songs aren't half bad either. It's the soundtrack album of the year.

(Howard Shore)

Martin Scorsese's magical ode to silent film features an equally magical score by Howard Shore, evoking the joy and innocence of Paris in the 1930s. If film is the stuff that dreams are made of, so too is Shore's wonderful music.

The Skin I Live In (Alberto Iglesias), Jane Eyre (Dario Marianelli)Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Alberto Iglesias), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Rachel Portman), My Week With Marilyn (Conrad Pope), The Greatest Miracle (Mark McKenzie), Captain America (Alan Silvestri), The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat), Source Code (Chris Bacon).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Help had a big night at the Screen Actors Guild awards tonight, taking home awards for Best Cast, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. While Plummer and Spencer remain sure bets for Oscar wins, their choices for Actor and Actress have made races out of both categories, with Dujardin now George Clooney's chief competition and Davis giving Streep a run for her money.

Here are the film category winners:

Best Cast in a Motion Picture
The Help

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role 
Jean Dujardin, The Artist 

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role
Viola Davis, The Help

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role
Octavia Spencer, The Help 

Best Stunt Ensemble
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

For the full list, included TV awards, click here.
History repeats itself in an interesting bit of irony as Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), last year's DGA winner, presented Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) the Directors Guild of America award for director of the year.

This is the second year in a row that a solid but unremarkable film has beat out a crop of much stronger directorial voices on an unstoppable march to the Oscars. I honestly don't think I've ever felt such a strong disconnect with the industry as they continue to heap accolade upon accolade on a nice, unoffensive little film that has nothing new, original, or particularly soulful to say.

I like The Artist. I do. But I don't get this at all. What makes The Artist a stronger directorial achievement than something spiritually transcendant like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (which wasn't even nominated), or Martin Scorsese's vastly superior ode to silent film, Hugo, or even David Fincher's remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a lesser film than The Artist but nevertheless a much fiercer, assured directorial voice. And don't even get me started comparing it to Asghar Farhadi's work on A Separation or Nicholas Winding Refn for Drive, or any other number of films from 2011.

Here is the  list of film winners:

Feature Film - Michel Hazanvicius, The Artist
Documentary Feature - James Marsh, Project Nim

For the complete list of winners, click here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jean Rollin is not exactly a household name, even among cinephiles. His unique brand of vampire erotica has long been unavailable in the United States outside of VHS bootlegs, which garnered Rollin the cult following he enjoys today. In fact, Rollin himself encouraged the bootlegs, contributing short introductions to each film that are included in Kino Lorber's new blu-ray releases of five of his titles. Having bought the rights to the Redemption Films catalogue, which includes much of Rollin's work.

The earliest of these films is 1970's The Nude Vampire. Rollin's second feature film, after his much maligned debut, The Rape of the Vampire (1968).

Rollin's unique directorial voice is less apparent in these early films, which were often subject to studio imposed sex scenes to increase marketability, which are often stilted, awkward, and out of place.

This is especially true in The Nude Vampire, in which a young vampire woman is held captive by group of scientists hoping to discover the secret of immortality. When one of the scientist's sons discovers the young lady, who has never before seen a human face, he falls in love with her and sets out to free her from her captors, even if it means betraying his own father. But a mysterious suicide cult is also interested in her, leading to a bizarre showdown that becomes less a horror film and more a wild sci-fi thriller.

Rollin's work always tends more toward the surreal, but more so than his later films, The Nude Vampire is just plain odd. Made on a miniscule budget with non-professional actors, the film appears to be just another B-movie exploitation film. But watching it in conjunction with his other films, the seeds of Rollin's talent become clear, even if it is not fully manifested until later. The opening scene, for instance, in which the young woman runs from hooded figures dressed as deer, chickens, and other various animals is a terrific set piece, hinting at some of the more evocative work in Rollin's later films.

He spread his wings a bit in 1971's The Shiver of the Vampires, an equally strange but more visually arresting film about a newlywed couple named Isla and Antoine who make a stop at a forbidding castle while on their honeymoon to visit the woman's beloved cousins. Upon their arrival, however, they are informed that the cousins have died the night before, but they choose to spend the night in the castle anyway.

It turns out that her cousins are not dead, at least not quite. Once successful vampire hunters, they have been turned into vampires themselves by a beautiful lesbian vampire who takes an immediate liking to Isla.

The film that follows features perhaps Rollin's most convoluted plotline, even more so than The Nude Vampire, but it does feature an interesting history of a war between paganism and Christianity that explains much of the modern vampire myth.

It is also more dreamlike than the often clunky Nude Vampire, and displays a marked growth in terms of visuals and storytelling prowess. What distinguishes Shiver of the Vampires, even from Rollin's other films, is its creative use of imagery and color, which looks especially bright in Kino's new HD transfer. Of course, it is somewhat marred by the almost goofy inclusion of soft-core erotica, and the thumping rock score by French prog band Acanthus puts the film squarely in the realm of campy 1970s exploitation. Once again though, something of Rollin's talent shone through the dated trappings. Rollin was not just another cheap peddler of erotic horror smut, but he wouldn't get his chance to truly prove it until 1973, with the release of The Iron Rose.

The Iron Rose is at once the ultimate Rollin film, and the one that stands out as the least like his other work. It's also his masterpiece, the one film in this collection that can legitimately be called a great film. It's clearly Rollin's most personal work, made without producer mandated erotica or any kind of obstructions, allowing the director to make the film he wanted to make.

And what a film it is. While Rollin's films were never really what one would consider scary, The Iron Rose absolutely is. It's the story of a young couple who go into a graveyard for a late night romantic tryst, but can't find their way out again. Hopelessly lost and increasingly frightened, the two slowly descend into paranoia and eventually madness.

There are no vampires or anything supernatural at all in The Iron Rose.  Instead, Rollin fully unleashes his surrealist tendencies to craft a film that is both beautiful and eerie, a haunting exploration of the human psyche and a superb cinematic study in slowly mounting dread.

The Iron Rose is arguably the best showcase of Rollin's talents. Not as bizarre or campy perhaps as some of his earlier work, but it displayed a poetic, lyrical quality that had skirted around the edges of his previous films before coming to fruition here. Distilling history, romance, and philosophy into a haunting melting pot of feelings, ideas, and fear, The Iron Rose is perhaps one of horror's most overlooked masterpieces, and Kino's blu-ray release is a treasure not just for horror fans but for fans of great cinema as well.  For those looking to see what is so special about Rollin's work, one need look no further than this trip down a macabre rabbit hole from which there is no escape, which represents the pinnacle of the director's unique brand of surreal horror.

1975's Lips of Blood was a bit of a return to form for Rollin after the more experimental Iron Rose (which became his greatest commercial failure). Vampires make a glorious reappearance here, but this time with the experience of The Iron Rose behind him, Rollin clearly exercised more directorial control this time around. Rollin considered this his most developed story, and while it seems a bit aimless at first, it packs a surprising emotional punch.

Lips of Blood introduces us to a young man whose trip to a party triggers repressed childhood memories of a meeting with a beautiful young girl at a Gothic mansion. His domineering mother dismisses the memory as fantasy, but he becomes determined to find this girl, who becomes an object of fascination and desire.

Soon he begins seeing her everywhere and becomes more and more obsessed (he even sees her while attending a screening of The Shiver of the Vampires). Along the way he discovers a dark family secret - the young girl is a vampire who has been held in captivity for years. The film culminates with a surprisingly tender and emotional note that somehow combines the thoughtful lyricism of The Iron Rose with the more lurid qualities of Rollin's earlier work. Rollin weaves themes of memory and repressed sexual desire in with the more erotic elements with much greater skill here than he had before, making Lips of Blood one of his strongest films and yet, sadly, yet another commercial failure.

He rebounded from the failure of Lips of Blood with one of his most popular films, 1975's Fascination. It seems that by the time he reached this point in his career, he was much more comfortable with the sexual elements present in his work, and as such, Fascination  is perhaps his most truly erotic film. At times it even plays like soft-core pornography, but unlike his previous films, the eroticism flows naturally from the story rather than feeling awkwardly shoe-horned in.

Fascination is also a kind of vampire film without vampires. It features blood drinkers, yes, but not the kind one would expect. It's the story of an unlucky thief who takes shelter in a castle while fleeing from an armed gang he tried to rip off, and discovers two beautiful young servants who are home alone, awaiting the arrival of the master and mistress of the house. At first it seems like some sort of dominant male fantasy, and armed man with two nubile young women at his service, but the tables are turned when their friends arrive, and they are nothing like what they seem.

It turns out that they are a "blood cult," a group of women addicted to drinking blood. What started out as drinking ox blood as an old fashioned cure for anemia turned into a desire for something more, and now he is at their mercy in a strange orgy of human depravity. But when one of the women falls in love with him everything changes, leaving her conflicted about whether to obey her heart, her friends, or her own ravenous thirst for blood.

Fascination is perhaps Rollin's most straightforward film. The plot makes sense, there is very little of Rollin's trademark surrealism, and for perhaps the first time, the sex actually feels natural, even essential, to the plot. It may not be as strong an auteurist piece as The Iron Rose or Lips of Blood, but it doesn't have the same lofty goals either. It's just a solid genre piece, and it was clear that by this point in his career, Rollin was completely comfortable with who he was a director.

Kino's presentation here is surprisingly first rate, even by their normally high standards. The films themselves still have occasional scratches and pops, but that is to be expected with films of this type. The extras are all top notch, with each disc containing a 20-page booklet with notes by Tim Lucas (although it's the exact same booklet with each film) and a short introduction by Rollin himself, as well as interviews with cast and crew and, in the case of Fascination, two deleted sex scenes for those so inclined.

The real special feature here, however, is the fact that these films are finally available to a wider audience. More than just exploitation curiosities, Rollin's films are both beautiful and fascinating works that deserve the attention and consideration they can now be afforded by a new generation. Not unlike Val Lewton, Rollin transcended the seemingly sleazy roots of his subject matter and emerged with vibrant, lively works of art.


Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.
Out of all the Oscar categories, the short films are usually the most obscure, with very few critics, let alone audience members ever getting to lay eyes on them.

This year, the National Film Board of Canada is making two of the nominated animated shorts, Sunday and Wild Life available for a limited time. It's completely free and legal, and you can check them out below.

From The Dispatch:
Ultimately, it's a loving mishmash of styles and eras, and while it never quite fully adheres to its own conceit, it's still a lot of fun. Best picture of the year? Hardly. But few other films of this past year were so effervescent or so joyously entertaining. It's a refreshing step back in time that I wish were not such a rarity. 
Click here to read my full review.
When the average moviegoer thinks about Shakespeare, they probably imagine dry, overly dramatic line readings accompanied by silly costumes and men in tights. The vitality and the urgency of Shakespeare's words have long been buried beneath stodgy interpretations and a fundamental misunderstanding of their bawdy, often violent roots.

Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus is at once a thrilling repudiation of dusty interpretations and a fiery embrace of the true essence of Shakespeare's words. By setting the film in modern day but retaining Shakespeare's original text (much like Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet), Fiennes, in his directorial debut, gets down to the gritty core of what Shakespeare was all about. Shakespeare's plays were raunchy, dark, violent works that were often considered lower class entertainment in their day. They played straight to the masses, and it is easy in this day and age to forget that. So ingrained in our consciousness is the idea of a lone actor stuffily crooning a Shakespearean soliloquy and so outdated is the language that their true timbre seems lost in the fog of time. In Coriolanus, however, that language has never seemed more powerful, or more modern.

Fiennes himself stars as Caius Marius, also known as Coriolanus, a fierce Roman general who rules his country with an iron fist. It's citizens are cold, starving, and angry as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In a startling evocation of Occupy Wall Street, the citizens take to the streets in a rebellion that Caius swiftly and viciously crushes. The popular backlash against the government, however, is more than the politicians can handle, so they banish Caius, exiling him from Rome in order to save face in the eyes of the people.

Disgraced and angry, Caius turns to his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and offers him his life. While his followers are wary, Tullus welcomes him with open arms, and soon Caius is as strong an asset to him as he ever was to Rome. When Tullus turns his sights on taking over Rome, Caius sees his chance to exact his revenge upon the people who betrayed him, even if his own family stands in his way.

Coriolanus may be one of Shakespeare's lesser known works, but it's also one of his darkest, and Fiennes doesn't pull any punches. He also assembled an impressive ensemble cast to bring Shakespeare's words to life as never before. In addition to Fiennes and Butler, Jessica Chastain (in one of her many 2011 roles) appears as Caius' wife, Virgilia, and Brian Cox has a memorable supporting role as the politician Menenius, proving that he is one of the world's foremost Shakespearean actors. Cox has a fundamental understanding of the underlying meanings and timbre of Shakespeare's text, and that mastery is clearly apparent here. However the real star of the show is Vanessa Redgrave as Caius' mother, Volumnia. Redgrave gives a towering performance as a classic Shakespearean manipulative, scheming mother. It's one of the the year's best performances by anyone, male or female, lead or supporting, and it's a shame that she wasn't awarded by her efforts with an Oscar nomination.

While setting Shakespeare in modern times is nothing new, Fiennes' bruising, brutal take is both refreshing in its honesty and true to the Bard's spirit. It's both accessible and faithful - a difficult tightrope to walk in today's world. This is Shakespeare as it was meant to be, the way it should be done - thrilling, epic, ferocious, and strikingly, almost eerily relevant. This is not something to be left on a dusty college library bookshelf to be forgotten. Thanks to Coriolanus, Shakespeare has come crashing forcefully, powerfully, into the present.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CORIOLANUS | Directed by Ralph Fiennes | Stars Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox | Rated R for some bloody violence | Now playing in select cities.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The 84th Annual Academy Award nominations were announced this morning by Tom Sherak, president of the Academy, and one of last year’s nominees for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence. We all were expecting a boring, predictable slate this year, but luckily there were some surprises to wake us up.

Oscar®-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence (left) and Academy President Tom Sherak announced the nominees for the 84th Annual Academy Awards in the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
Photo by Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.
As Jennifer Lawrence was announcing the Best Picture nominees, I had no idea what to expect. With the new rule change (which I still don’t fully understand) and their choice to announce the nominees in non-alphabetical order this year, I was pretty anxious. It seemed by the layout of the screen that there would be only eight nominees this year (The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and War Horse), but this was all a ploy to shock us when a ninth nominee, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, popped up in the middle of the screen. I’m not embarrassed to say that I screamed a little bit. Not out of excitement, but out of shock. I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised; it is a Stephen Daldry film after all and all but one of his films has been nominated for Best Picture (Billy Elliot being the sole exception, for which he was nominated for Best Director). The man has a perfect track record. Even though I predicted The Tree of Life, I’m surprised it appealed to the Academy’s conservative tastes. They don’t usually go for films that excel as art pieces, but they have been proving me wrong these past few years. So we have nine nominees for Best Picture of 2011. Why not just keep it at ten? I’m still foggy on these rules…

The nominations announcement started off with the Best Supporting Actress nominees, and to no one’s surprise, category frontrunners Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) appeared. 2011’s It Girl Jessica Chastain managed to pull off a nomination for The Help despite having two other performances in the mix (The Tree of Life and Take Shelter). Some pundits predicted that her performances would ultimately cancel each other out, but she managed to pull through (even though the photo they used for her during the announcements was from The Tree of Life). Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) and Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) filled the last two spots edging out newcomer Shailene Woodley (The Descendants). This category usually fawns over teen ingénues, but I guess Woodley is no Saoirse Ronan. As for Best Supporting Actor, winner (admit it, he’s got this in the bag) Christopher Plummer (Beginners) leads the pack, followed by expected nominees Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) and Jonah Hill (Moneyball). Nick Nolte (Warrior) also sneaks in and, in one of the better surprises of the morning, Max Von Sydow pulls off a surprise nomination for his wonderful performance in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. No one expected that film to earn any major nominations, but Oscar always loves a mute. Along with Plummer, Drive’s Albert Brooks was this category’s major frontunner, but shockingly, he failed to earn a nomination. I guess Drive proved to be too dark or too much of a genre piece for the Academy’s tastes.

“Too dark” seems to be a recurring theme in the nominations this morning. Tilda Swinton, who was on the fence, failed to earn a spot for the gloomy indie We Need to Talk About Kevin in favour of the new girl Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Mara’s murky exterior and reserved nature was her predicted downfall, but if she was left out, we would have five previous nominees. That hasn’t happened in this category since 1994. Oscar always loves a fresh young face in Best Actress and Mara is exactly that. Frontrunners Viola Davis (The Help), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), and Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) continue their dominance, joined by Academy veteran Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs). In Best Actor, George Clooney (The Descendants), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), and Brad Pitt (Moneyball) are all expected nominees. The last two spots were up for grabs for anyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to the Michaels (Fassbender and Shannon). In one of this morning’s most pleasing nominations, veteran actor Gary Oldman earned his first ever Oscar nod for his spectacularly nuanced performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Taking up the last spot was probably the most surprising of the acting nominations. Demián Bichir (A Better Life) pulled a Javier Bardem and stole that last slot. He’s a charming actor and I’m super happy for him – I’m kind of more ecstatic that I predicted him to be honest. So what did we learn from these acting nominations? SAG clearly knows what they’re doing. They nominated Bichir and also snubbed Brooks. There is some validity to precursor influence after all.

With last week’s DGA announcement, the nominees for Best Director became more concrete. The only surprise was David Fincher’s name over Spielberg or Malick. Luckily, Malick edged out Fincher this morning and earned a much deserved nomination for The Tree of Life. Joining him are frontrunners Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo), along with Alexander Payne (The Descendants) and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris). This is Allen’s first nomination in this category since he scored with 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway. He earned a second nomination this morning for Best Original Screenplay as well. Its competition in that category includes The Artist, Margin Call, Bridesmaids (I’ve been waiting to say “Academy Award nominee Kristen Wiig" for three years now!), and my favourite nomination of the day, A Separation. The adapted screenplay category isn’t as exciting, but still hosts some solid work: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Descendants, Moneyball, Hugo, and The Ides of March (earning Clooney a second nomination today).

Other big surprises this morning included Drive earning only one nomination (Best Sound Editing), Project Nimmissing out on Best Documentary, Maria Djurkovic’s stellar Art Direction for Tinker Tailor ignored, The Adventures of Tintin left out of Best Animated Film, and in the biggest “WTF?” moment of the day, the Best Original Song category features only two nominees. Yep. You heard me right. Two. Last year we were all surprised when they only honoured four nominees in this category, but this is a new extreme. I know the year hasn't exactly been exciting in terms of original songs, but to list only two nominees? They didn’t even nominate the best song from The Muppets! This category needs some serious reevaluation because it has become a joke. They might as well just get rid of it altogether.

Overall, I ended up predicting 83/119 of the nominations. I’m pleased with that; it’s a respectable 70%. Now that the nominations have been announced, we move into the second stage of Oscar predicting. This one is thankfully easier and a lot shorter. The ceremony for the 84th Annual Academy Awards takes place on Sunday, February 27th, just over a month from now.

To check out a full list of the 84th Annual Academy Award nominations, click here.
There were quite a few surprises when Oscar nominations were announced this morning. Martin Scorsese's Hugo led with 11 nominations, followed by The Artist with 10.

Nominations I'm most delighted about - The Tree of Life for Best Picture, Demian Bichir for A Better Life, Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Separation for Best Original Screenplay.

Biggest disappointments - Project Nim snubbed for Best Documentary, No Albert Brooks or Shailene Woodley, No Best Score Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Actor in a Leading Role
Demián Bichir in  "A Better Life"
George Clooney in  "The Descendants"
Jean Dujardin in  "The Artist"
Gary Oldman in "Tinker  Tailor Soldier Spy"
Brad Pitt in "Moneyball"

Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with  Marilyn"
Jonah Hill in "Moneyball"
Nick Nolte in "Warrior"
Christopher Plummer in "Beginners"
Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"

Actress in a Leading Role
Glenn Close in "Albert Nobbs"
Viola Davis in "The Help"
Rooney Mara in  "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"
Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn"

Actress in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo in "The  Artist"
Jessica Chastain in "The Help"
Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids"
Janet McTeer in "Albert Nobbs"
Octavia Spencer in  "The Help"

Animated Feature Film
"A Cat in Paris" Alain  Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli
"Chico &  Rita" Fernando  Trueba and Javier Mariscal
"Kung Fu Panda 2" Jennifer Yuh Nelson
"Puss in  Boots" Chris Miller
"Rango" Gore Verbinski

Art Direction
"The  Artist" Production  Design: Laurence Bennett; Set  Decoration: Robert Gould
"Harry  Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" Production  Design: Stuart  Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie  McMillan
"Hugo" Production  Design: Dante Ferretti; Set  Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
"Midnight in Paris" Production  Design: Anne Seibel; Set Decoration: Hélène Dubreuil
"War Horse" Production  Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

"The Artist" Guillaume Schiffman
"The  Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Jeff Cronenweth
"Hugo" Robert Richardson
"The Tree of Life" Emmanuel Lubezki
"War Horse" Janusz Kaminski

Costume Design
"Anonymous" Lisy Christl
"The Artist" Mark Bridges
"Hugo" Sandy Powell
"Jane Eyre" Michael O'Connor
"W.E." Arianne Phillips

"The Artist" Michel Hazanavicius
"The Descendants" Alexander Payne
"Hugo" Martin Scorsese
"Midnight in Paris" Woody Allen
"The Tree of Life" Terrence Malick

Documentary (Feature)
"Hell  and Back Again" Danfung Dennis and Mike Lerner
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman
"Paradise  Lost 3: Purgatory" Charles  Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
"Pina" Wim Wenders and Gian-Piero Ringel
"Undefeated" TJ Martin, Dan Lindsay and Richard Middlemas

Documentary (Short Subject)
"The  Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement" Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin
"God Is the Bigger Elvis" Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson
"Incident  in New Baghdad"James Spione
"Saving  Face" Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
"The  Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom" Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen

Film Editing
"The Artist" Anne-Sophie Bion and Michel Hazanavicius
"The Descendants" Kevin Tent
"The  Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
"Hugo" Thelma Schoonmaker
"Moneyball" Christopher Tellefsen

Foreign Language Film
"Bullhead" Belgium
"Footnote" Israel
"In Darkness" Poland
"Monsieur  Lazhar" Canada
"A Separation" Iran

"Albert  Nobbs" Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnston and Matthew W. Mungle
"Harry  Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
"The Iron Lady" Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland

Music (Original Score)
"The  Adventures of Tintin" John Williams
"The Artist" Ludovic Bource
"Hugo" Howard Shore
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" Alberto Iglesias
"War Horse" John Williams

Music (Original Song)
"Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets" Music and  Lyric by Bret McKenzie
"Real in Rio" from "Rio" Music by Sergio  Mendes and Carlinhos Brown Lyric  by Siedah Garrett

Best Picture
"The Artist" Thomas Langmann, Producer
"The Descendants" Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers
"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" Scott Rudin, Producer
"The Help" Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers
"Hugo" Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers
"Midnight in Paris" Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers
"Moneyball" Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers
"The Tree of Life" Nominees to be determined
"War Horse" Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers

Short Film (Animated)
"Dimanche/Sunday" Patrick Doyon
"The Fantastic  Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg
"La Luna" Enrico Casarosa
"A Morning Stroll" Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe
"Wild Life" Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby

Short Film (Live Action)
"Pentecost" Peter McDonald and Eimear O'Kane
"Raju" Max Zähle  and Stefan Gieren
"The Shore" Terry George and Oorlagh George
"Time Freak" Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey
"Tuba Atlantic" Hallvar Witzø

Sound Editing
"Drive" Lon Bender and Victor Ray Ennis
"The  Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" Ren Klyce
"Hugo" Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty
"Transformers:  Dark of the Moon" Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
"War Horse" Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom

Sound Mixing
"The  Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Bo Persson
"Hugo" Tom Fleischman and John Midgley
"Moneyball" Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, Dave Giammarco and Ed Novick
"Transformers:  Dark of the Moon" Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and  Peter J. Devlin
"War  Horse" Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart  Wilson

Visual Effects
"Harry  Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" Tim Burke, David Vickery, Greg Butler and John Richardson
"Hugo" Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman and Alex Henning
"Real Steel" Erik Nash, John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor and Swen Gillberg
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White and Daniel  Barrett
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Matthew Butler and John Frazier

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
"The Descendants" Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim  Rash
"Hugo" Screenplay by John Logan
"The Ides of March" Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau  Willimon
"Moneyball" Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Story by Stan Chervin
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan

Writing (Original Screenplay)
"The Artist" Written by Michel Hazanavicius
"Bridesmaids" Written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
"Margin Call" Written by J.C. Chandor
"Midnight in Paris" Written by Woody Allen
"A Separation" Written by Asghar Farhadi

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Please always remember that I existed."

Those words, whispered by a teenage girl in Tran Anh Hung's Norwegian Wood, seem to perfectly sum up its wistful, melancholy heart.

Tran, the Vietnamese filmmaker behind 1993's Oscar nominated The Scent of Green Papaya (which received an excellent blu-ray release from Kino just this past year), has a naturally intoxicating style that seems perfectly suited to Haruki Murakami's popular novel about young love and teenage angst.

While not as singularly stamped with the director's personality like the considerably more idiosyncractic Papaya, Nowegian Wood does share a lot of thematic similarities with Tran's debut feature - most notably a pointed atmosphere of nostalgia for a time, and a love long past.

Taking its title from a Beatles song of the same name, Norwegian Wood is the story of Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), who is reunited with his childhood friend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) years after the death of their mutual friend, Naoko's former lover, who killed himself as a teenager. Never quite having recovered from the trauma, Naoko is a troubled young woman who lives at a kind of retreat, under the constant care of doctors, to help her recover from her painful childhood. On the cusp of turning 20, Naoko treats growing older with a mixture of nostalgia and trepidation. A new chapter of her life is dawning, but to what end? A year younger than her, Watanabe still has longer to go before truly leaving childhood behind. He falls in love with her, her enigmatic spirit and almost untouchable nature drawing him in.

But her trauma constantly keeps her at arms length, and his friend, Nagasawa, a free-wheeling playboy, introduces him to a whole new world of sexual freedom. It is through Nagasawa that he meets Midori, who is in many ways the complete opposite of Naoko. Soon Watanabe finds himself torn between two worlds, between the past and the present, the strange and the familiar, the new and the old. He will not only have to come to terms with his own desires, but with the very definition of love itself.

That dichotomy between a desire for the past and a need to move on serves as the core of Norwegian Wood, and Tran walks a fine line between honoring both. Beautifully photographed by Ping Bin Lee (In the Mood for Love), the film is at once a reflective ode to young love and a paean to a deeper, more mature love. Its characters long for both, caught between the past and the future, and the sense of yearning informs the entire film. It's nostalgic without being sentimental, romantic without being cloying. And while at times it may feel as if Tran is focusing on style over substance, it helps to remember that the style is often the substance. Tran enthralls us into a hazy memory of a love long lost, like misty eyed reflections on one's youth. It is in turn idealistic and brutally honest, the naivete of youth crossed with the wisdom of maturity.

Norwegian Wood has every bit the keen sense of time and place as The Scent of Green Papaya, and while Trans first film may be stronger both thematically and stylistically, it's hard to deny the bewitching qualities of his latest effort. It's a natural continuation of themes that have long been important to Tran, and here they congeal into something wholly entrancing.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

NORWEGIAN WOOD | Directed by  Tran Anh Hung | Stars  Rinko Kikuchi, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Kiko Mizuhara, Kengo Kôra, Tetsuji Tamayama | Not rated | In Japanese w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

From The Dispatch:
It's an almost cathartic experience, a powerful and liberating distillation of post-9/11 angst into something uplifting and ultimately redemptive. Daldry finds hope amongst despair, light amid the darkness. It's a film about recovery from tragedy, and while Daldry occasionally pushes the emotional buttons a bit too hard, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," released 10 years after the events of 9/11, feels like the film America needs. 
Click here to read my full review.
AMPAS released its shortlist of nine films that will compete for five nomination slots when the nominations are announced Tuesday morning.

There are some circles protesting the absence of Mexico's Miss Bala and Finland's wonderful Le Havre, but with Iran's A Separation on the list I can't really complain.

Here is this year's shortlist:

  • Belgium, "Bullhead," Michael R. Roskam, director; 
  • Canada, "Monsieur Lazhar," Philippe Falardeau, director; 
  • Denmark, "Superclásico," Ole Christian Madsen, director; 
  • Germany, "Pina," Wim Wenders, director;
  • Iran, "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi, director;
  • Israel, "Footnote," Joseph Cedar, director; 
  • Morocco, "Omar Killed Me," Roschdy Zem, director; 
  • Poland, "In Darkness," Agnieszka Holland, director; 
  • Taiwan, "Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale," Wei Te-sheng, director.
Nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24, and 8:30 am EST (5:30 am PST).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (1967) opens on what will become one of many of its heroine's sadomasochistic fantasies. A horse drawn carriage, accompanied by the incessant and ever louder sound of sleigh bells (a recurring signal that this is all imaginary), brings Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) and her husband, Pierre (Jean Sorel), to a secluded wooded area, where he forces her to get out of the carriage, ties her to a tree, and orders the carriage drivers to whip and finally rape her.

We realize this has all been just a daydream when Séverine snaps back into her almost laughably chaste reality - her bedroom the very picture of 1950s sitcom piety, with separate twin beds for husband and wife. This strange purity stands stark contrast to the dark eroticism of the opening scene. Séverine's life is nothing like her rich fantasy life - it is prim, sexless, and ultimately boring. She is in many ways the perfect socialite housewife, beautiful and stylish, but completely lacking in verve and excitement - a blank slate on which to project one's most depraved fantasies.

Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy (Belle de jour).
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Things change for Séverine when she discovers the existence of modern day brothels, and decides to try her hand at being a high class prostitute.  So she visits the home of Madame Anais (Geneviève Page), whose high end brothel plays host to wealthy clients of all stripes. Séverine informs her that she can only work in the afternoons, and absolutely must leave at 5:00 every day, earning her the nickname "Belle de jour." Séverine is frightened at first, scared away by allowing her own fantasies into reality, but soon she becomes Madame Anais' most popular girl. But even as she slowly begins to give in to her deepest desires, she somehow remains distant, almost detached, giving herself over to pleasure but keeping her darkest fantasies at arms length.

As fantasy and reality begin to blur, however, she becomes in danger of losing herself completely. When a mysterious young client comes into her life, a guarded criminal with scars and metal teeth, Séverine's fantasy world threatens to clash with the real one. But those looking for a cautionary tale of sexual excesses should look elsewhere.  Buñuel was notorious for rejecting any kind of symbolic reading of his work, and Belle de Jour is no different. In fact it remains almost frustratingly unreadable, like its heroine. But that's part of its brilliance. Like Séverine, Belle de Jour is a blank canvas for the viewer to project their own fantasies, and any reaction to the film is meant to be more a reflection on the viewer than the film itself.

Catherine Deneuve as Séverine Serizy (Belle de jour).
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
At first glance, Belle de Jour is, in some ways, the quintessential art house film of the 1960s, the kind of erotic foreign film young people would flock to in order to catch a glimpse of something naughty that American films wouldn't dare show. Time may have softened its sexual brazenness, and age may have mellowed  Buñuel's more surrealistic tendencies, but like his best work, it transcends its erotic nature. It never feels as if  Buñuel is exploiting his subject (even though Deneuve would later protest her treatment on set) for dirty thrills. He expertly weaves fantasy and reality in a much more subtle way than in his earlier surrealistic masterworks like Un chien andalou. And by the film's end, Buñuel leaves everything entirely up to the audience. Some would call this a cop out on  Buñuel's part, but perhaps more than any other director,  Buñuel keenly understood the subjective nature of film, and created something that reflected the almost anonymous nature of its lead character. It both defies and invites interpretation, but to try to define it is a madman's folly.

Séverine would go on to become one of Deneuve's most iconic roles, one that would serve as a template for many to come. Her role in Buñuel's take on repressed sexuality would come to define her delicate sensuality off of which she molded a career. In fact, one of the first thing one notices in Criterion's vibrant new blu-ray transfer is how the light plays off her silky blonde hair. The lush technicolor photography pops in all the right places, but it's interesting that how the little details like the sheen of Deneuve's hair can become so important and so intense due to the HD transfer. Blu-ray reveals such details in ways that we've never seen, and allows us to look at films in new ways. In this case, it's Deneuve's classic beauty that seems to radiate off the screen like never before.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Special features include 

  • New high-definition digital restoration (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition). 
  • Audio commentary featuring Michael Wood, author of the BFI Film Classics book Belle de jour 
  • New video piece featuring writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams 
  • New interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière Segment from the French television program Cinéma, featuring interviews with Carrière and actress Catherine Deneuve 
  • Original and rerelease trailers New English subtitle translation 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Melissa Anderson and a 1970s interview with director Luis Buñuel

BELLE DE JOUR | Directed by Luis Buñuel | Stars Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti | Rated R | In French w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
Somewhere along the line something went very, very wrong with Albatross. Not that the ingredients were ever particularly promising, but the final result reeks of such indie laziness and naivete that it feels like a kind of prototypical indie film - the template from which all Sundance hits are built.

The film centers around a troubled young girl (is there any other kind in films like this?) named Emila Conan Doyle (yes, related to the Sherlock Homes author), an aspiring writer who takes on a job at a scenic coastal bed and breakfast. The hotel is run by Jonathan, a famous writer who wrote a hit book about the place and then faded into obscurity, struggling to write his follow-up against massive expectations, but mostly he just gets distracted by internet pornography. His mousy daughter, Beth, is more interested in books than real lire, but all that changes with the arrival of Emilia, who will soon change all their lives.

Beth becomes somewhat enamored with this enigmatic stranger, who is a kind of projection of the freedoms shes has never had. But Johnathan becomes enamored with her as well, and while he is mentoring her writing, the two begin a steamy affair right under his family's nose. Soon, this strange girl threatens to pull them all apart, even as she is trying to find her true self.

I'm sure that description was as painful to read as it was to write, because Albatross is little more than a collection of cliches and indie stereotypes. It's plot almost exactly mirrors that of American Beauty, a far more successful and less self-consciously quirky than Albatross, which almost seems to cling to its inspirations. There's nothing fresh or original about it, try as it may to charm and amuse. The real problem here is the script, which ham-fistedly tries to shove the titular bird into an awkward bit of symbolism near the film's end. Even the cast seems bored by the script's bland, connect the dots machinations and lackluster direction by first time feature director Niall MacCormick.

The film, and by extension its characters, are never more than the sum of their own quirks. It mistakes emotional immaturity for character development, leaving them as cardboard catchalls for overly simplistic issues. It just doesn't work on any conceivable level really. It almost seems to be a giftwrapped Sundance film as written and directed by aliens from a badly translated "How to Make a Hit at Sundance" manual. It's a bland, half-hearted attempt at humor and teenage angst that ultimately never gets off the ground. Perhaps, unlike the bird of its title, putting it out of its misery would have been a blessing.

GRADE - ★ (out of four)

ALBATROSS | Directed by Niall MacCormick | Stars Sebastian Koch, Julia Ormond, Felicity Jones, Peter Vaughan, Jessica Brown Findlay | Not rated | Now playing in select cities.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Remember the cruise ship from Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme? That glittering bastion of excess and capitalist greed? It turns out that ship was the Costa Concordia, which ran aground and sank off the coast of Italy Friday evening.

A scene from Godard's FILM SOCIALISME.
The Concordia sinks in the Mediterranean.
The story has gotten a lot of press over the weekend in an age when such sea disasters seem unthinkable. With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic fast approaching, the story seems all the more eerie.

I wonder what Godard would say about the strange symbolism of the ship he used as a garish tourist trap meeting such a tragic end?
The Golden Globes actually offered up a few surprises amongst the usual suspects tonight, handing out awards to The Adventures of Tintin for Best Animated Feature (besting frontrunner Rango), Madonna for Best Song for "W.E." and Martin Scorsese the trophy for Best Director over presumed frontrunner Michel Hazanavicius. They did little to clear up the awards race, as The Descendants, The Artist, Hugo, and Midnight in Paris split the 4 major categories, and Meryl Streep bested Critics Choice Award winner Viola Davis for Best Actress.

It was a subdued night, overall. Host Ricky Gervais toned down his cutting humor, but remained funny throughout he night. The show itself was surprisingly brisk, and there were a few choice quips here and there (I especially loved Seth Rogen calling out My Week with Marilyn for being neither a comedy nor a musical).

Here is the complete list of winners:

Best Motion Picture — Drama: The Descendants
Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical: The Artist 
Best Director — Motion Picture: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Best Actor — Drama: George Clooney, The Descendants
Best Actress — Drama: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Best Actor — Comedy or Musical: Jean Dujardin, The Artist 
Best Actress — Comedy or Musical: Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Best Screenplay: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Best Animated Feature Film: The Adventures of Tintin
Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation (Iran)
Best Original Score: Ludovic Bource, The Artist
Best Original Song: “Masterpiece,” W.E., Madonna, Julie Frost, Jimmy Harry

Sunday, January 15, 2012

(Warner Bros.)

There's a reason why it's considered the greatest film ever made. And while I still consider The Passion of Joan of Arc to be cinema's supreme work, watching Citizen Kane today it feels just as fresh and vibrant as ever. Greg Toland's cinematography is made even more impressive through the HD transfer, and the sumptuous packaging befits a movie of its stature, featuring a hardback book and a folder of memorabilia that is a must for any cinephile. But perhaps the most notable aspect of this exhaustive package is the inlcusion of Orson Welles' long unavailable The Magnificent Ambersons on DVD for the first time as an Amazon exclusive. Even in its studio truncated form, Ambersons remains a masterpiece. It proved that Welles' success with Kane wasn't just a fluke, and because of its long unavailability is perhaps Welles' most overlooked masterwork. Widely available now for the first time alongside Kane, it can now be appreciated for what it is, the greatest one-two punch in cinema history.


Speaking of overlooked greatness, Jean Vigo is one of cinema's most influential filmmakers (with fans that include Bernado Bertolucci, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Lindsay Anderson,), even after directing only one feature film and 3 shorts before his untimely death. Presented here on blu-ray for the first time by the Criterion Collection, Vigo's four films shine like never before. L'Atalante may be his most famous work, an intoxicating tale of a couple's honeymoon on a river barge, but the real jewel is Zero de conduite, a lively and deeply personal tale of childhood and adolescent rebellion in an all boys school. Criterion's presentation is stellar, paying loving tribute to one of cinema's great unsung heroes. Watching his entire filmography is a rare  treat - the ability to watch the growth and development of an artist, as they seem to span an entire career even though it was cut so tragically short. One could only imagine what wonders Vigo could have conjured after L'Atalante, but one thing is certain - what the man left us during his brief career is nearly unparalleled in the history of the medium.


One of the great art-house treasures of the 1990s, Krysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy, consisting of Blue (1993), White (1993), and Red (1994), marks one of that decade's most impressive cinematic achievements. Representing the three colors of the French flag, each film explores the ideals of liberty (blue), equality (white), and fraternity (red). Criterion's presentation is nothing short of stunning, not only of the films themselves but of the exhaustive extras, representing perhaps their finest of the year. From video essays to scene breakdowns with Kieslowski himself, this 3 disc set (or 4 if you have the DVD edition) is as comprehensive a presentation of these films as one could ever hope for. Perhaps the greatest artistic achievement to emerge from the reunification of Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, Three Colors wasn't just a defining moment in Kieslowski's career (although Red would ultimately be his last film), it was a defining moment in world cinema. This is a must-have set for any serious film lover's collection.


Kino has been busily releasing Buster Keaton's films on blu-ray over the last couple of years, and have done a uniformly excellent job. One set, however, stood out above the rest - and that's this set of Keaton's 19 short films he made before making his first feature film. From the first, 1920's The High Sign, to the last, 1923's The Love Nest, we watch as Keaton's craft grows and matures as he established his own voice apart from mentor Fatty Arbuckle, eventually outgrowing the short format in some of his overstuffed later shorts. It's fun spotting the early versions of gags that would later blossom in his more famous features, and there are a few shorts here that rival even his best works, most notably One Week and The Play House, which represent some of the great comedian's finest work. Kino's presentation is nearly flawless, with some of the films receiving absolutely pristine transfers. It's the feather in the cap of a very strong year for the distributor, even as they mourned the death of one of their founders.


Terrence Malick's magnum opus The Tree of Life was not only the best film of the year, but one of its finest blu-rays as well. And not because of the special features, which are disappointingly sparse (it only includes one brief documentary). No, The Tree of Life is on this list because it is arguably the most beautiful blu-ray that has yet been produced. It's true that the film itself is gorgeous, but in HD it's breathtaking. Every image, every nuance seems heightened to perfection. It's just as immersive on the small screen as it was on a giant one, and that's saying quite a bit.

(Cinema Guild)

Cinema Guild may have held some of its strongest 2011 theatrical acquisitions until 2012, but their home video wing was on fire last year. The jewel of their releases was their second blu-ray disc, Manoel de Oliveira's 2010 film, The Strange Case of Angelica. Not only is it a beautiful transfer, but Cinema Guild delivered a kind of coup de grace by offering a brand new high-def transfer of de Olivera's first film, the 1931 silent, Douro, Faina Fluvial, a lively day in the life of a port town reminiscent of the work of Jean  Vigo. Cinema Guild doesn't often release their titles on blu-ray, but when they do, they do it right.

(Flicker Alley)

Four discs, eight films. This staggering collection of early Soviet Silents is a veritable treasure trove for fans of Soviet cinema and silent film in general. Featuring four documentaries and four narrative films, "Landmarks of Early Soviet Films" includes long unavailable works by filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and Lev Kuleshov. Boris Barnet's nimble comedy, The House on Trubnaya Square (1928), is the set's highlight, along with Mikhail Kalatazov's stirring 1930 documentary, Salt for Svanetia. The use of Soviet Montage to uphold Communist ideals, especially in Eisenstein's Old and New, which ended up getting him into trouble with Stalin, for whom revolutionary attitudes were changing. Also notable is Lev Kuleshov's satirical comedy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, illustrating the outrageous perceptions of Americans (and our outrageous perceptions of Communists). Absolutely essential viewing. (DVD only)


Ingmar Bergman's seminal masterwork had already been released by Criterion on DVD years ago with the same special features, but this  blu-ray clean up is simply stunning. The five and a half hour television cut remains the definitive version of this sprawling family epic about the life of the aristocratic Ekdahl family as seen through the eyes of two young children. Bergman himself referred to this film as "the sum total of my life as a filmmaker," and indeed it is staggering exploration of life, death, childhood, religion, love, and theatre. The blu-ray adds no new special features, but it doesn't need to. The supplements are both exhaustive and comprensive, filling a complete third disc of material. The real star here is the transfer. Bergman's images have never looked more vibrant or more beautiful. It's the treatment this monumental masterpiece deserves.


Yet another blu-ray upgrade from Criterion (who understandably dominates this list), Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is often spoken of in the same breath as Citizen Kane as one of the finest films ever made. This new HD transfer allows us to look at it through fresh eyes, and it looks as youthful and energetic as ever. Cleaned up and lovingly restored, The Rules of the Game still hasn't lost any of its singular wit and verve. An acerbic satire on the French upper class in the days before WWII, the film is not only a snapshot of  a very specific place and time, it's captured a portrait of a society unknowingly on the brink of destruction.

(Warner Bros.)

A bit of a surprising choice perhaps, given the other films on this list. And while I am not a big fan of the marketing ploys related to this release, the blu-ray edition available exclusively at Target stores contains the single best special feature of any other film this year. Morgan Matthews's remarkably intimate documentary, When Harry Left Hogwarts, offers unprecedented access behind the scenes into the making of the final Potter film, with deeply personal insights from the cast and crew about their life with Potter. When Harry Left Hogwarts eschews the usual Making Of doc cliches and instead offers something truly unique. It's a dream come true for Potter fans and for all those who, like its cast, grew up with this series over the last decade. The Harry Potter franchise is a unique achievement in film history, and this blu-ray goes deep into the phenomenon not just as a cultural event, but as a personal one. This is why Potter fans will hold its characters so close to their hearts. Always.