My favourite Blu-ray releases of 2020

JANUARY 2 ― Like the last few years, even long after physical media has been pronounced “dead” in certain quarters due to the prevalence of streaming, if you’re a certain kind of film fan, especially if your movie tastes gravitate towards more niche material like horror, arthouse and cult films, there’s probably never been a better time to be a physical media collector than now.

With new boutique Blu-ray labels popping up, especially in the world of genre and cult films, there’s never a shortage of new stuff to discover and older stuff properly restored and released, what with established names like Criterion, Eureka Masters Of Cinema, Kino, Scream Factory and Arrow mightily marching on, smaller labels like Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, Scorpion, Unearthed, AGFA and 88 Films consistently releasing stuff and of course newer upstarts like Cauldron and Fun City Editions getting in on the action, the saying that there are so many films and so little time couldn’t have been truer in 2020.

The biggest (and most regrettable) omission from my list of favourite Blu-ray releases last year was undoubtedly Second Sight’s incredible looking (and also incredibly priced) Dawn Of The Dead boxset, which I had to forego ordering as it was released the same time as quite a few other releases that I had been eyeing, so I had to prioritise those first.

Other than that, I’ve been quite happy with the Blu-ray releases that I did manage to acquire; read on to know why!

Essential Fellini

This is the main reason why I had to pass on the Dawn Of The Dead boxset for now, as a 15-disc boxset of important films by Federico Fellini, released by none other than the always meticulous folks at The Criterion Collection, was too good an opportunity to pass up.

To be honest, I went giddy at the thought of owning this just because finally there’s a region A Blu-ray of Nights Of Cabiria, my favourite Fellini film and one of my all-time faves as well.

And when you add to that great films like 8 ½, La Dolce Vita, La Strada, Amarcord, And The Ship Sailed On and many more, all beautifully presented in new 4K restorations, accompanied by tons of extras, and housed in a gorgeous box that looks like a deluxe LP boxset, you just can’t get more essential than that.

Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain

From a lavishly packaged boxset as my number 1 favourite to just a humble, normal Blu-ray release as my number 2, Tsui Hark’s legendary wu xia film Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain deserves its spot here not only because it’s a superb film, which stands the test of time to this very day, but also because the 2K restoration presented by Eureka Classics here is just oh so achingly beautiful.

This is one of the most visually spectacular films of all time, basically Tsui Hark throwing everything at the viewers to produce an intoxicating case of sensory overload, and you get exactly that with this release, a hugely pleasing and enjoyable sensory experience.

Supported by a whole bunch of fun and informative extras, not to mention an English dubbed export cut of the film as well, this one definitely provides the most bang for your buck.

Rad

Growing up in the 80s, BMX bikes were such an essential part of global pop culture that I’m sure every kid in the world back then dreamt of owning one, especially after seeing the bikes in movies like BMX Bandits and Rad.

Having only heard of Rad but never having seen it before, as it was only ever out on VHS back then and it was not even released on DVD, when Vinegar Syndrome announced it as a 4K UHD release together with a lenticular slipcover, of course I had to bite.

Lucky I did, because the film’s astonishing 12,000 limited edition copies sold out real fast and it’s now regularly fetching crazy prices on Ebay, with sold prices going as high as US$250 (RM1,005).

The film itself was an unexpected, classic 80s cheese delight, with plenty of beautifully shot BMX action (which the new 4K restoration does full justice to) and a rousing underdog storyline to boot.

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project Vol. 3

Utilising the salvage and restoration work of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history, Vol. 3 of this ongoing project has finally arrived almost three years after the release of Vol. 2 in 2017, and this volume might just be the most crucial one as it contains a few films that are in real danger of vanishing off the face of the earth, with one film, the 1972 Iranian new wave classic Downpour being restored from just the ONE single surviving print owned by the director, as the film’s original material and other prints have been destroyed or missing.

The main reason I got this was to get the chance to see After The Curfew (aka Lewat Djam Malam) from 1954, by reputation alone one of the great classics of Indonesian cinema.

But that’s not all, now we can finally see a good transfer of Pixote on home video, discover Med Hondo and his film Soleil O and plenty more. Absolutely priceless and important.

The Untold Story

There are surely other more extreme examples of the infamous Hong Kong Category III movies out there (a sort of Hong Kong equivalent of the X-rated or NC-17 movie if compared to the UK and USA respectively), like Dr Lamb or Run And Kill, but The Untold Story fully deserves this deluxe treatment by Unearthed Films by definitely being one of the most important Cat. III films in Hong Kong movie history.

Lead actor Anthony Wong even won Best Actor at the Hong Kong equivalent of the Oscars for playing a killer who serves human meat in his pork buns, and you get to see all that blood and gore in its full glory here, thanks to the spanking new restoration, but even more reason to get this Blu-ray is the full length documentary on Hong Kong Cat. III films that is included as a bonus here, which will make you want to seek out all the other films mentioned in it!

Night Tide

Released in 1961, this feature directing debut of Curtis Harrington, Night Tide, is one of the great underappreciated jewels of American independent horror films of the 60s, deserving of at least some of the accolades received by films like Night Of The Living Dead and Carnival Of Souls.

In late January 2020, Indicator Films has done us all a mighty favour by releasing the definitive edition of Night Tide on Blu-ray, not only with a gorgeous 4K restoration of the beautifully surreal film as the centrepiece, but also with a well curated collection of supplements on two Blu-ray discs, the undoubted highlights being eight short films that Harrington made at different stages of his career, so we get shorts from 1942 all the way up to 2002.

A limited edition of 3,000 copies that sold out in less than two months, this vital release has surely helped boost this wonderful film’s reputation even more now.

Mothra

I’ve never been a huge fan of kaiju (Japanese monster) movies, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the ones made by Ishiro Honda, especially the first Godzilla film and this one, Mothra.

Honda has this knack for making something that’s a wee bit more than just people in rubber suits fighting each other or destroying Tokyo, and just like his condemnation of nuclear testing in Godzilla, his appeal for peace, international co-operation and against corporate greed in Mothra is what makes the movie so damn special.

Eureka Classics has now given the pleasingly colourful film the respectful treatment it deserves, including both the Japanese and English versions of the film alongside other valuable and informative extras like interviews, two commentaries and a 60-page booklet.

Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits

Thanks to his everlasting popularity, Bruce Lee movies have always been easily available on home video on various formats for a long time.

Even on Blu-ray, they’ve been released as a set a few times already, in Hong Kong and also in the USA by Shout Factory.

But even that can’t take away the fact that this new boxset from The Criterion Collection is hands down the one to own. Aside from beautiful 4K restorations of the five films, from The Big Boss to Game Of Death, you also get a generous bounty of supplements, my favourite being this thing called Game Of Death Redux, which is a newly remixed/edited 34-minute version of Game Of Death consisting solely of material written and directed by Bruce Lee.

If you knew nothing about Bruce Lee before, this boxset is like a crash course that will make you an instant expert.

The Gates Of Hell

Lucio Fulci’s The City Of The Living Dead (aka The Gates Of Hell as its US title) has had a long and storied life on digital home video formats, receiving DVD and Blu-ray releases throughout the years from various companies like Anchor Bay, NoShame, Blue Underground, Arrow and Dark Force, with Arrow even going so far as getting it out on a new transfer sourced from a 4K scan of the original negative in 2018.

I own quite a few of these releases so believe me when I say that this new 2020 release from the cool folks at Scorpion Releasing is the one to own, with a quite unbelievably sharper transfer (sold as a “new 2020 4K colour grading and restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative”) and just tons and tons of special features, collecting all sorts of commentaries, featurettes and interviews from the previous releases.

If you’re a Fulci fan, this one’s a no-brainer.

The Fearless Hyena

Out of all the Jackie Chan films out there, this is the one I remember most from my childhood, alongside Drunken Master of course.

It may have more or less the same plot as Drunken Master and Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, and definitely lots of other kung fu movies out there, but what this directing debut by Jackie Chan has going for it that most of his other films don’t is its absolutely irresistible focus on the comedy side of things, even if the comedy is of the very low-brow variety.

Even watching it now, the truly over-the-top dress-up fight scenes still leave me howling with laughter, such is the grace and silliness with which our dear Jackie manages to pull things off effortlessly.

So after years of less than sharp (and even blurry) home video releases, this early Jackie Chan gem finally gets the release it deserves courtesy of 88 Films, with a new 2K restoration from the original negative that’s sharp, clean and super crisp, making us appreciate the tons of long and acrobatic fight scenes on offer here a lot more.

Honourable mentions: Husbands, Dial Code: Santa Claus, Throw Down, Three Fantastic Journeys By Karel Zeman, Alphabet City, Demonia, Edge Of The Axe, The McPherson Tape, Blood Games, War Of The Worlds.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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