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It’s been a month and a half, but the disappointment lingers. You entrusted your holiday cinephilic gotta-haves to your family and friends — and got discount bin DVDs instead of what you really wanted: the nerdcore box sets few stores would ever stock. Now, with the new year fully afoot and amid bleak midwinter’s cinema drought, is the time to fill the gaps.
The Apu Trilogy (Criterion): The films that awakened hungry international audiences to Indian cinema and, really, the fact of India itself, these crystalline, achingly sympathetic pastorales (1955–’59) also established Satyajit Ray as a one-man Indian-art-film wave and laid the groundwork for filmmaking strategies on every continent in the Southern Hemisphere. The trilogy, one of a kind in its day as a magnificent, nearly six-hour bildungsfilm, follows a Bengali boy’s maturation from a timeless rural poverty to an adult life in the vexingly modern India of Calcutta and beyond. Far more Soviet-lyrical than Bollywood, Ray’s movies have always been accused of catering to the global non-Indian viewership — which is just another way of saying they’re less concerned with entertainment fashion than with human fate and folly on the dusty ground. For decades the only way to see these films was on VHS bootlegs from TV prints that looked and sounded like they’d been archived in a toilet tank. Here we get flawless digital restorations, plus the usual litany of Criterion peripherals: new and old interviews, new and old essays, new and old making-of documentaries.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Arrow Films): Pulp legend Kinji Fukasaku’s five-film, eight-plus-hour marathon yakuza epic marks a slashing high-water mark for the genre, exhausting every trope like blood from a stone and complicating the story of postwar Japanese crime culture so intensely and with such skull-splitting speed that it makes the Godfather films (from which it was inspired) play like Edith Wharton. Shot and released all within a breathtaking eighteen-month span (1973–’74), the five movies — Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima Death Match, Proxy War, Police Tactics, and Final Episode — loom as a single indelicate saga that could, if you possess the binge stamina needed to watch them straight through, dent your movie memory forever. Arrow Films’ set comes with a 1980 rerelease edit of the first four films into a single four-hour ordeal and a beautiful 146-page hardcover tome of essays, including exegeses on the yakuza genre, the history of Toei Studio, the series’ stars and legacy, first-person accounts from Fukasaku and screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara, and ten pages of “story diagrams,” actual sprawling flowcharts that map out the tale’s alliances and betrayals.
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies: 1915 (Flicker Alley): Charlie Chaplin has seen his stock fall so low that it’s difficult to recall a recent instance where a critic or scholar bothered to address him as a filmmaker at all. But film history isn’t so long that we can afford to forget; it’d be like summing up rock and not mentioning Elvis or Chuck Berry. Flicker Alley has been busy building a restored library of practically every short film the man made, beginning with his years at Keystone (1913–’14) and his stint at Mutual (1916–’17) and now filling in the mystery year, 1915, with the sixteen films he made at Essanay, from His New Job to the studio cobble-job Triple Trouble (belatedly released in 1918). The clockwork comic engineering is still being perfected, and set pieces that blossom in later films get their first stretch of the legs here, but as with the other sets, the lure is essential cinephilia itself, and this dual-format set is for both Chaplinophiles and those with a Langlois-sized appetite for movie history.
Five Films by Patricio Guzmán (First Look/Icarus): Chile’s self-appointed, one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission, documentarian Patricio Guzmán has devoted the past four decades to chronicling the short-lived Salvador Allende administration and the Pinochet dark ages that followed, long after his countrymen wanted him to stop. This eight-disc box contains all you need to know, filmically, about one of the late twentieth century’s most appalling (and U.S.-contrived) national atrocities, from the three-part Battle of Chile (1975–’78) to 2001’s The Pinochet Case — Guzmán on the aging dictator’s heels like a pit bull — to 2010’s deviously poetic Nostalgia for the Light, which uses astronomical philosophizing to hyperanalyze the Pinochet past as it’s contained in still-buried bones in the desert, and as it remains unmentionable and “forgotten” in Chile itself. Also in: five Guzmán shorts, a feature portrait of Guzmán, interviews, and a detailed booklet.
The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist): What can one say? I’ve said it, in the booklet essay accompanying this lavishly designed new Blu-ray collection of fifteen pivotal Quay shorts, from 1984’s The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer through 1986’s best-ever-21-minutes-on-film Street of Crocodiles to the twins’ latest digital concoctions, Maska (2011), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013), all in the clearest-presented form they’ve ever possessed, while still flaunting the mysterious grit of stop-motion nightmares. The cherry on the sundae is the short doc about the Quays that anchored last year’s short-program theatrical run, Christopher Nolan’s Quay (2015). Also included are double-teamed Quay audio commentaries on six of the films and a “Quay dictionary,” with helpful entries on “bachelor machine,” Stockhausen, and Sir Henry Wellcome.
Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920–1970 (Flicker Alley): Avant-garde films inevitably age gracefully, rocketing out of a pugnacious nose-thumbing youth, when scandal and revolution are what’s for dinner, and then settling into a beautiful over-the-hill-ness in the ensuing decades, becoming fascinating artifacts of an alternate movie universe. Pearly nostalgia for the bohemianism of the twentieth century is just the gateway drug. In this dual-format set, curated by Bruce Posner, many of the canon’s classics — from Paul Strand and, somehow, French abstracts by Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp to Jay Leyda, Mary Ellen Bute, James Broughton, Kenneth Anger, and more — are showcased in high-def restorations for the first time, which is a sometimes disconcerting dynamic for “unprofessional” films shot whimsically and traditionally shown on beat-up celluloid. There are freaks here amid the 36 selections, including a spit-polished copy of Joseph Cornell’s Thimble Theater (1938), Ian “Mr. Anaïs Nin” Hugo’s rare abstract opus Bells of Atlantis (1953), famed photog Helen Levitt’s pioneering In the Street (1948), Jim Davis’s slippery abstract Evolution (1954), Bruce Baillie’s beloved Castro Street (1966), and the fastidiously soundtrack-free original edition of Maya Deren’s epochal Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), as Deren’s first husband and collaborator, Alexander Hammid, had intended.
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