New English Language
One of the best films of 2012 that very few people saw was Starlet (Music Box Films), starring Dree Hemingway (daughter of Mariel) as a struggling actress in the San Fernando Valley who forms an unlikely friendship with 85-year-old widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson, in her one and only film role; she passed away earlier this year). Writer-director Sean Baker is perhaps best known as the creator of TV’s Greg the Bunny, but as a filmmaker (Prince of Broadway, Take Out), he’s proven himself a masterful storyteller of the lives of people on the fringe of society. Starlet won a very deserved Independent Spirit Award for its extraordinary ensemble cast.
Also available: Upstream Color (Cinedigm), the haunting and perplexing sophomore film from writer-director Shane Carruth (Primer) — this one will really test your home system’s surround system with its exquisite sound design; the biopic Leonie (Monterey Media), starring Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom, Hugo) and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men); Glee’s Chris Colfer makes his debut as a leading man and screenwriter with the high school dark comedy Struck by Lightning (Cinedigm/Tribeca Film), featuring an all-star ensemble (including Hendricks) and Bryan Dannelly (Saved!) in the director’s chair; Ben Kingsley stars in A Common Man (Anchor Bay Films) as a terrorist whose plan is more complex than it originally appears; fans of Trainspotting will want to check out a new Irvine Welsh adaptation, Ecstasy (Cinedigm/Tribeca Film), featuring plenty of wub-wub-wub by DJ Tiesto, Paul Oakenfold and more.
Israeli director Eytan Fox follows up his international 2002 hit Yossi & Jagger with the moving sequel Yossi (Strand Releasing Home Entertainment), which revisits the lead character a decade later. Still devastated by the events of the previous film, Yossi (Ohad Knoller) is now a doctor who keeps mostly to himself. But when he meets handsome young Moti (Lior Ashkenazi, Footnote) on vacation, and sees how comfortable Moti is with being an out gay man, Yossi may be ready to change his life.
Also available: Acclaimed German drama Lore (Music Box Films) examines one young woman’s efforts to stay alive in post-WWII Germany and to understand the actions (and consequences) of her parents’ politics; creepy haunted-house flick The Condemned (Strand Releasing) takes gothic horror and moves it to the balmy Caribbean.
Mixing nonfiction and narrative filmmaking in a pioneering way, Medium Cool (The Criterion Collection) carries an impact that’s still felt in contemporary filmmaking. The directorial debut of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler (In the Heat of the Night, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the film mixes footage of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention with a story of a TV cameraman (played by Robert Forster) caught up in his surroundings. Not a traditional documentary, granted, but not quite a traditional fiction film either. In any event, it’s must viewing, and the Criterion Blu-ray comes packed with the goods on this influential movie.
Also available: Of Two Minds (Docurama Films), a sensitive exploration into bipolar disorder from the creators of Wordplay, The Invisible War and These Amazing Shadows.
There’s definitely a Father’s Day-is-around-the-corner vibe happening with many of this month’s vintage selections, most of which are being made available on Blu-ray for the first time. The big daddy, if you will, of the bunch is Ultimate Gangster Collection: Classic (Warner Home Video), featuring a quarter of old-school faves: The Public Enemy, White Heat, Little Caesar and The Petrified Forest, along with a feature-length documentary, Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Drama. (Warner has also released a “Contemporary” gangster box, featuring Mean Streets, The Untouchables, Heat, Goodfellas and The Departed).
Other new releases Dad might prefer to a tie this year: revenge thriller Rolling Thunder (Shout Factory), starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones, and from 20th Century Fox Home Video, Brubaker, The Verdict, Viva Zapata!, The Great Escape and The Henry Fonda Film Collection, the latter collecting 10 great movies from this iconic American actor.
Also available: Mike Leigh’s blisteringly hilarious Life Is Sweet (The Criterion Collection), one of the writer-director’s greatest films — and if you only know Jane Horrocks as the ditzy Bubble on Absolutely Fabulous, fasten your seatbelts; the once-notorious Cleopatra (20th Century Fox Home Video), which just got a 50th anniversary retrospective screening at the Cannes Film Festival, so maybe now we can enjoy this Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton epic for its pageantry without obsessing on its enormous price tag.
Hayao Miyazaki, one of the world’s great animators, has certainly made more ambitious and more narratively complex films, but his masterwork may be the simple, beautiful My Neighbor Totoro (Walt Disney Home Video), available for the first time in the U.S. on Blu-ray. The story of two sisters who move from the city to the woods and discover magical creatures who help the girls through times of strife, this perfect little gem belongs on every parent’s shelf. (There’s a nice U.S. dub featuring Dakota and Elle Fanning, but when your children are old enough for subtitles, let them enjoy the original Japanese soundtrack.)
Also available: Winner of the César (the French Oscar) for Best Animated Feature, The Rabbi’s Cat (GKids), set in Algeria in the 1930s, combines gorgeous animation with hilarious and provocative storytelling.
If 1980s Cannon Films was the MGM of exploitation cinema, then Lucinda Dickey was its Judy Garland, starring first in the legendary Breakin’ movies before taking her leotard and her leg-warmers over to the action classic Ninja III: The Domination (Shout Factory). Playing an aerobics instructor who is possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja, Dickey basically becomes the walking embodiment of Reagan-era trash cinema, and it’s a joy to behold, particularly now that the film is getting its Blu-ray debut.
Also available: Italian gangster saga Shoot First, Die Later (Raro Video) gets a long-awaited U.S. release, complete with enthusiastic support from Quentin Tarantino; creepy and influential low-budget thriller The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Shout Factory) rises again, this time in Blu-ray; Dark Skies (Dimension/Anchor Bay) had a crappy theatrical trailer but wound up being a smart and spooky little alien-invasion piece that’s definitely worth a look; the title of action-comedy This Girl Is Badass (Magnolia Home Entertainment), starring Jeeja Yanin (Chocolate, The Protector 2) pretty much says it all; Joe Dante’s terrifying (and often hilarious) The Howling (Shout Factory) gets a spiffy new “Collector’s Edition;" and if you’re one of those fans for whom there’s no -sploitation like nun-sploitation, you’ll want to see what goes on under the wimple in Sergio Grieco’s infamous The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine (Kino Lorber).
If you missed it on PBS’ American Masters series, the documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (Shout Factory) is a keeper. The first bio of Brooks endorsed by the legendary funnyman, this hilarious and informative documentary features new interviews with the man himself and a few of his friends, including Carl Reiner, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Cloris Leachman, Tracey Ullmann and Joan Rivers, to name just a few. It’s a breathtaking tour through one of the most incomparable architects of modern comedy.
Also available: The vampires are at war with each other and still taking a bite out of humankind in True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season (HBO Home Entertainment); I’m a sucker for animated sitcoms of the post-Flintstones and pre-Simpsons era, so imagine my delight in the release of The Roman Holidays: The Complete Series (Warner Archive Collection); Steel Magnolias (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) blooms again in a poignant made-for-cable remake featuring an all-star African-American cast; the eye-popping animated version of the Tim Burton comedy invades your home with the release of Beetlejuice: The Complete Series (Shout Factory); and Michael Mann produced the powerful Witness: A World in Conflict Through a Lens (HBO Home Entertainment), a four-part documentary series that takes us to hot spots around the globe.