2023 marks our first yearlong dive into the world of physical media. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably already read our monthly lists curating the most promising new Blu-rays and 4K UHD discs. We build those collections from exciting scheduled new releases, often giving a heads-up before we’ve had a chance to see them for ourselves.
This list is different — and more prestigious. Here we collect the best discs of the year. We’ve tried them. We love them. We want to share them. That’s it! We don’t set any additional boundaries to our curation. Whether you want a killer midnight horror film or a challenging collection of art house cinema, you will find something to appreciate.
The following recommendations have been listed in reverse chronological order of these disc releases, so you’ll always see the newest entries up top. The list will be updated throughout the year, and in December we will issue a final update along with awarding our favorite disc of 2023.
This week, we’ve added some personal favorites: Blackhat, Spirited Away: Live on Stage, and Jackie Chan: Emergence of a Superstar. Be sure to share your own favorite new discs in the comments!
The best Blu-ray and 4K releases of 2023
Blackhat (4K + Blu-ray) – Nov. 28
After a monthslong delay, Arrow has delivered the highly anticipated (among Michael Mann devotees like myself) 4K release of Blackhat. Thank goodness for that extra time in the oven. Arrow initially planned to include the original and international cuts of the film, but not the coveted director’s cut. With an extra Blu-ray disc (not 4K, but beggars can’t be choosers) in the set, all three versions of the film are now available for Blackhat Heads to force upon their friends.
Like many Mann films, Blackhat truly has gotten better with age. It tells the story of a hacker who makes an agreement to avoid jail time in exchange for tracking the person or persons who triggered a nuclear meltdown in Hong Kong. And like other Mann films, it’s both obsessed with the professional details of its hero (cybersecurity experts have touted it as a rare realistic example of hacking in movies) and disinterested in recreating the drab aesthetic of the real world. Did I mention the hacker is an absolutely yoked Chris Hemsworth? And the cyber-warfare expert that he’s partnered with just happens to be the impossibly beautiful Tang Wei — most recently seen in Decision to Leave?
This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Michael Mann makes movies in which attractive people do incredible things while we wonder: Are they going to hook up? Because like, they should. Obviously such a cinematic style benefits from 4K and HDR. The new interviews with crew members, archival behind-the-scenes featurettes, and fresh commentary from critics Bryan Reesman and Max Evry are just gravy.
Spirited Away: Live on Stage (Blu-ray) – Nov. 14
Spirited Away: Live on Stage is exactly what the title suggests: an adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece performed on a theatrical stage. The play, directed by John Caird (who has directed everything from La Bohème at the Houston Grand Opera to Hamlet at Geigeki Theatre in Tokyo) opened in Japan in 2022 and will open in the U.K. in April of next year. But between those two runs, producer Toho filmed the Japanese staging and distributed a limited run in movie theaters this summer.
That recording is now available on this Blu-ray. And depending on seeing the glass half full or the glass half empty, the package features the best “extra” of the year… or no extras at all. The box includes two discs, one with the lead role performed by Kanna Hashimoto, and the other with an entire second taping of the show, this time performed by Mone Kamishiraishi and other supporting actors.
Don’t expect anything else beyond the dual performances. But considering the rarity of major stage productions being filmed and widely distributed — especially when they’re still being actively performed — the mere existence of this disc is a huge win for theater folks.
Jackie Chan: Emergence of a Superstar (Blu-ray) – Nov. 7
Jackie Chan has a fun new movie out, the horse buddy comedy Ride On, that harkens back to his roots as action’s preeminent slapstick comedian. But the Jackie Chan event of the year is undoubtedly Criterion’s release of some of his earliest movies, charting his path toward global stardom.
The box set features 2K restorations (presented on HD Blu-rays) of Chan’s early works Spiritual Kung Fu, The Fearless Hyena, Fearless Hyena II, The Young Master, and My Lucky Stars, as well as a high-definition digital restoration of Half a Loaf of Kung Fu. That includes the first three movies he wrote (Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, The Fearless Hyena, and The Young Master), the first two he directed (The Fearless Hyena and The Young Master), and one of his first movies with childhood friends and longtime collaborators Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao (My Lucky Stars).
Cantonese and English-dubbed tracks are available for all movies (including new English subtitle translations), and the box set includes interviews with Hong Kong cinema experts, archival interviews with Chan and Hung, and an essay, appropriately titled “Bugs Bunny in the Shaolin Temple,” from critic Alex Pappademas, which you can read on Criterion’s website. —Pete Volk
Barbie (4K + Digital) – Oct. 17
Barbie is the biggest movie of the year, obliterating box-office records and the minds of men’s rights podcast hosts. The theatrical run benefited from the Barbenheimer phenomenon, along with friend groups who dressed up for the film like an event, not just another movie. But read: None of that is necessary to enjoy Barbie, a film that’s just as delightful alone at home as it is with a crowd.
Warner Bros. delivered a disc with beautiful HDR visuals that make all the sparkles sparkle. And the sound is top-notch, especially in the film’s musical numbers. However, there is one big Barbie bummer to break: the package comes with few and disappointing extras. We’ll have to wait for a future release for any director’s commentary or meaty behind-the-scenes mini-documentaries.
For now though, this is a great presentation of a fun movie, the sort of disc you can rely on when the extended family visits for the holidays. And if you want to recreate the theater experience, buy some pink cowboy hats and hold a roundtable readthrough of the official Oppenheimer screenplay.
The Wicker Man (4K + Digital) – Oct. 17
This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Wicker Man, debatably the film most responsible for popularizing folk horror for decades to follow. As tribute, we have a new release with beautiful box art that calls to mind its modern equivalent, Midsommar. On the cover, a young woman wears a white robe and a crown of flowers, surrounded by a pink fog. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this disc for a surprise A24 release.
The Wicker Man is just as gnarly and unsettling as its modern counterpart. Unlike many A24 films, however, it has the screw-tightening pace of thrillers from the ’60s and ’70s. If you love movies that ramp your anxiety, or movies with cults, or you just enjoy a good flaming effigy now and then, this is the film for you.
The package includes a 4K edition of “The Final Cut,” along with cast interviews, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a critical re-appraisal of the film at the half-century mark, and a pair of enticing commentaries featuring the film’s creators.
The Mist (4K + Blu-ray + Digital) – Oct. 3
Between an ultra-successful film career (The Shawshank Redemption) and an ultra-successful TV career (The Walking Dead), Frank Darabont created the theatrical equivalent of an R-rated episode of The Twilight Zone. The Mist, based on a short story by Stephen King, focuses on the micro reaction to an unknowable large traumatic event.
After a storm knocks out power, a small town community gathers at the grocery store for supplies. But a mist quickly descends, and within it, Cthulhuian terrors. The survivors debate what to do, and to say that things go terribly would be an understatement. Darabont famously made the film even darker than King’s original text – with the author’s blessing.
This new package has a bunch of neat special features and commentaries, but there’s one huge reason to opt for this release: The set includes a 4K edition of the film’s black-and-white cut. Though the movie was released in color, Darabont had shot the film with black and white in mind. This edition is terrifying, where you fear not only what lurks in the mist, but what hides within the inky shadows that stain every frame.
Prey (4K + Blu-ray + Digital) – Oct. 3
Last year, 20th Century Studios kept one of its best movies, the Predator prequel Prey, out of theaters, limiting the release to Hulu. This recurring decision by studios to have certain movies skip theaters and debut as streaming exclusives has had the negative side effect of keeping those titles off home video. The logic seems to be that a streaming exclusive exists to incentivize subscriptions, something a home video release would undermine.
Over the past few months, 20th Century Studios and parent company Disney have made a quick and expansive about-face. While some great movies are still being kept out of theaters — sorry, No One Will Save You — many previous streaming exclusives are finally getting beautiful Blu-ray and 4K releases. Disney has begun packaging its television shows with SteelBooks for Marvel TV series and, thanks to 20th Century, Prey gets a comparatively modest but still welcome disc with a smattering of bonus features and a killer transfer.
Of all the direct-to-Hulu releases worthy of a disc, Prey had been at the top of our list. The film has lots of fast action set against the night sky, a challenge for streaming services to display without lots of smudging or artifacting. The 4K disc with HDR is bright and clear, and the sound gets an upgrade too, with an Atmos mix instead of Hulu’s current 5.1 audio. Plus, the disc includes a 5.1 audio track in Comanche.
For folks who care about film preservation, or just having options in how they enjoy media, this disc is reason to be optimistic. Streaming should complement home video — not destroy it.
Moonage Daydream (4K + Blu-ray) – Sept. 26
The best place to see Moonage Daydream — Brett Morgen’s experimental splicing of concert film, documentary, biopic, and acid test — is on an IMAX screen, with the sound so loud that you wonder if you should have brought earplugs. But for all my love of the theatrical experience, I’m a realist. Your opportunity to see this film in the best presentation has passed.
Fortunately, the second-best presentation is magnificent in its own ways. Criterion finally brings Moonage Daydream into homes with a 4K transfer and explosive Dolby Atmos sound. The disc includes an audio commentary with Morgen, along with interviews featuring musicians and recording mixers who explain how the creative team pulled off this magic trick.
It really is quite the trick: Morgen and company bring together archival interviews, concert footage, photography, and writing into one psychedelic tapestry. Like the works of Alex Grey, the film refracts, reflects, and radiates. An IMAX theater has the power to engulf the viewer, but reader, I promise that with some good headphones, you still have a solid shot at transcendence.
Gorgo (4K UHD + Blu-ray) – Aug. 29
You know Godzilla, but do you know Gorgo? This homage to Toho’s iconic kaiju has one of the more shameless poster taglines: “Like nothing you’ve seen before.” Of course, you have seen this before, just not in the streets of Great Britain. Screenwriters John Loring and Daniel Hyatt splice Godzilla and King Kong with a vial of Irish/British tension, producing one of the stranger entries in the mega monster movie genre.
Vinegar Syndrome gives Gorgo the treatment once reserved for Film School Classics, pulling a beautiful 4K transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. And its team has included more extras than one expects for a movie that might best be known in the U.S. for appearing on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Included in the two-disc package, you’ll find everything from interviews with film historians to a 2009 short film about the fictional British government agency tasked with the mundane job of prepping for a return of Gorgo. Aptly, it’s titled Waiting for Gorgo. Like Gorgo itself, you have to wonder what came first: the title or the story?
A Moment of Romance (Blu-ray) – Aug. 22
When I list my favorite ingredients for an action film, it looks like the recipe for A Moment of Romance:
- A heist
- A car chase
- A lovable sidekick
- Two beautiful young people on a motorcycle
- A splash of a love story
- Gunplay choreography that’s clear, playful, and not undermined by rampant cuts
- A roughly 90-minute run time
Directed by Benny Chan (Who Am I?) and produced by Johnnie To (Election, Throw Down), the Hong Kong action film takes the familiar “rich girl and poor boy on the run” formula and elevates it with effervescent performances and inventive cinematography. If you crave late-’80s/early-’90s action films, this movie lands right in your wheelhouse.
Radiance Films continues its hot streak, introducing me to films I’d otherwise have missed, and gives them that extra TLC so they can put their best foot forward. In this case, that means a fresh 4K restoration (presented at 1080p), newly translated English subtitles, a commentary track with film preservationist and expert Frank Djeng, a visual essay, and a bundle of archival materials.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (4K + Blu-ray + Digital) – Aug. 22
Disney started this year with the notoriously poor 4K Blu-ray for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, but since then has completed a 180-degree turn with Cinderella and now The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I wrote at Polygon about my love for this restoration: “On a decent OLED TV with HDR, this film looks as good as, if not significantly better than, any time you’ve seen it in theaters. The Nightmare Before Christmas’ beauty stems from its contrast of pitch-black darkness and radiant bright light.”
Disney plans to release WandaVision and The Mandalorian on 4K Blu-ray during the holiday season. News of their release on home video feels like a statement that while Disney Plus is central to the company, Disney is recommitted to releasing versions of its films and shows that can be held in your hand and preserved long after they disappear from a streaming platform.
Cinderella (4K + Blu-ray + Digital) – Aug. 1
Three years ago, Disney launched its streaming service with all of its major animated releases available anytime, anywhere. It seemed the era of the Disney Vault had come to a close. The shift from limited runs to perpetual availability had one unexpected negative side effect: Without fresh releases every few years, would Disney be motivated to continue restoring and re-restoring its library?
We no longer have reason to worry.
A lot has changed since we all gorged on nostalgic Disney animation during the pandemic. Disney Plus’ skyrocketing growth has drifted into a steady but predictable orbit, neither growing nor falling in public interest. Meanwhile, physical media has slowly begun its climb back to relevance. This year, we’ve seen great Blu-ray releases from both major studios (Warner Bros., Paramount) and Criterion competitors (A24, Radiant, Severin). And so it’s no surprise Disney has rapidly ramped up production in home video again. In fact, this new release of Cinderella shows Disney is willing to fix mistakes made in the Blu-ray era.
The Cinderella restoration is fucking incredible. I know that quote won’t appear on any Disney promotional bullet points, but reader, it’s a fact. I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty, but the previous Cinderella used a process called digital noise reduction that removes the original source’s film grain. It can look nice, but also sort of makes this film from the ’50s look like a film from today. Which it isn’t. The 4K version doesn’t make the same mistake. This is the closest you will get to watching an original print in theaters, a blessing for one of film’s most important animated features.
Hugo (4K UHD + Blu-ray) – July 18
2023 is a banner year for underappreciated Scorsese films getting the treatment they deserve. Hugo charmed critics but puzzled audiences in 2011. In the midst of the director’s collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio — after Shutter Island, before Wolf of Wall Street — we got a 3D film starring two precocious child actors and Sacha Baron Cohen, then best known as Borat. At the height of his filmmaking, why would Scorsese interest himself in adapting young adult fluff?
If you’re a regular reader of Polygon, you already know the answer: YA is no less thoughtful or inventive than most of its adult fiction contemporaries. (Tellingly, Hugo’s box-office failure was blamed on its proximity to another adaptation: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1). In Brian Selznick’s 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese spots his core interests: not crime and vice, but the history of film, the necessity of faith, and the power of artificial images (and people) to move our hearts toward something divine.
Arrow’s UHD Blu-ray aspires to meet the film’s ambitions, spanning three discs, including an HD 3D Blu-ray. New interviews with Selznick, the film’s composer Howard Shore, and film scholar Ian Christie complement a collection of essays and featurettes. The film is a love letter to one of film’s founding fathers, Georges Méliès, so the inclusion of an audio commentary with filmmaker and writer Jon Spira, publisher of The Long-Lost Autobiography of Georges Méliès, is a lovely touch.
After Hours (4K UHD + Blu-ray) – July 11
Killers of the Flower Moon marks the twilight of Martin Scorsese’s career. Early festival reviews suggest it’s a long, controlled, and masterful historical drama, the kind of film that only a veteran director could make. After Hours is the opposite. And that’s why it feels so fresh and contemporary decades later.
In 1985, following Taxi Driver and Raging Bull but before The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese made this compact and abstract story about a dull uptown office worker who gets devoured by the tawdry Soho art scene. Scorsese partnered with screenwriting agent of chaos Joseph Minion, who would later pen Nicolas Cage’s most bonkers role (a feat!) in Vampire’s Kiss. Scorsese provides just enough structure to keep the story from spinning out of control while maintaining the anxious feeling that the film could collapse at any time.
Papier-mâché bagel paperweights, marauding neighborhood watch groups, and a cavalcade of “I know that actor” moments make for a surreal experience, best enjoyed in a quiet room after everyone’s asleep. This is Scorsese evolving his voice following years of prestige. The disc is available on Blu-ray and 4K, the latter of which benefits the beautiful photography of downtown Manhattan in the couple of hours each night that people aren’t crowding the streets.
Creepshow (4K UHD + Blu-ray) – June 27
Is it even possible for George Romero to be underrated? We all know the director for popularizing the modern zombie genre (Night of the Living Dead). But he also revived that genre (Dawn of the Dead), and created beloved horror anthologies for both TV (Tales from the Darkside) and film (Creepshow). Romero produced such a haul of great horror that it’s a challenge for many fans to reach the bottom.
For example, I’m ashamed that despite being a longtime fan of Romero’s zombie oeuvre and a fervent Tales from the Darkside evangelist, I hadn’t made time for Creepshow until this year. If anything, I’d avoided the anthology. Despite its iconic poster, teenage me couldn’t imagine a good horror movie starring Stephen King (who also wrote the film) and the guys from Cheers and Airplane. Adult me now knows better than to underestimate Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but King’s performance is fine — even charming, if not a fair bit insensitive to the rural folk from where I grew up.
Romero and King created Creepshow as an homage to 1950s horror comics, particularly those from publisher EC. But to a 2023 audience, the vignettes play like Goosebumps for adults. Funny, straightforward, and brimming with gore, they aren’t larded with social metaphors or even enriching morals. Bad things happen to bad people and it’s a good time. Plus, the cast is stacked with comedians and That Guys performing with the campy dial turned to 11.
The new 4K restoration benefits the ’50s horror aesthetic; you can nearly see the glue holding the silly costumes together. And the HDR pops the film’s loud colors — when I say loud, I mean literally bang, zowy, kapow flashes of red, yellow, and blue. The package comes with some sugary treats, like a mini documentary on the Creepshow posters produced by Mondo. Together, this is a perfect and not-too-scary option for kicking off the Halloween season.
Avatar: The Way of Water (4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital) – June 20
Sometimes you buy a Blu-ray because it’s a great movie you can watch over and over again. Sometimes you buy a Blu-ray because it makes the most of your fancy TV or speakers. And every once in a while, you buy a Blu-ray that does both, like Avatar: The Way of Water.
Ahead of the release of James Cameron’s latest action film, social media speculated on the cultural impact of the Avatar franchise. Do people remember its characters? Does anyone genuinely love it? But The Way of Water is a reminder that this meta-level of criticism is less interesting than the old-fashioned question “How does it make you feel?”
The Way of Water will make you feel something. You will love it. Or hate it. Find it touching or cringe-inducing. That’s the magic of Cameron and his collaborators. They make bold choices and though you might not remember the name of a Na’vi, you won’t forget how it felt to watch them.
The release (available on Blu-ray and 4K UHD) contains a titanic amount of behind-the-scenes materials, so you can see how the production team blended real actors with state-of-the-art computer animation to create some beautiful true lies.
The Lighthouse (4K UHD) – June 8
Did you know A24 is in the Blu-ray business? The studio has been gradually building a home video catalog that would fit comfortably on your shelf alongside Arrow and Criterion Collection releases… were its boxes not so unusually large. Storage note: They rest better alongside hardcover books.
So far, the company has released collector’s editions of recent hits like the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once and Aftersun. My favorite of the bunch is the 4K edition of The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ black-and-white two-hander starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as a pair of 19th-century lighthouse keepers who lose their gourds.
In the U.K., Arrow released a similar 4K edition of the film with a proper boatload of extras. This edition doesn’t have quite as much material in its hull; however, A24 has included something no less special: a 64-page book featuring storyboard excerpts, production designer drawings, and behind-the-scenes photography. With the keys to its film archives, A24 makes a case for its spot in the home video market, giving us a rare look at the materials that go into a film, which third-party distributors rarely have access to.
In the Line of Duty 1-4 (Blu-ray box set) – May 16
It can be hard to find good physical editions of classic Hong Kong action movies. 88 Films’ In the Line of Duty box set is here to help with that, featuring three of the best movies from one of the best eras of filmmaking any nation has ever had.
The first movie in the thematically linked “girls with guns” series is Yes, Madam, starring two of the greatest martial arts stars of their era: Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. Directed by future Jet Li collaborator and X-Men action director Corey Yuen, it’s a rollicking fun time filled with fantastic martial arts and a zany chase sequence featuring legendary director Tsui Hark. Yes, Madam was the first starring role for both Yeoh and Rothrock, launching both of their careers — the former Miss World Malaysia Yeoh got the role after starring in a watch commercial with Jackie Chan, while world champion martial artist Rothrock was cast when production company D&B Films was looking for a “Bruce Lee type” and smartly expanded their scope of potential talent to include women.
Yeoh returns for the second movie in the series, Royal Warriors, playing a different character in a similar scenario. Yeoh plays a police officer who, along with Hiroyuki Sanada and Michael Wong, thwarts a hijacking attempt and ends up being targeted for revenge. Part action thriller, part screwball comedy, this one’s the most violent entry in the franchise, and once again features fantastic stunts and great fight scenes as well as the irrepressible charisma of its stars.
The fourth movie in the box set is perhaps the best of the bunch (but it’s a high bar). In the Line of Duty IV stars Cynthia Khan (who took her stage name by combining those of the Yes, Madam stars — Yeoh went by Michelle Khan at the time) and a young Donnie Yen. Khan delivers some death-defying stunts — the fight on top of a moving ambulance is jaw-dropping — and Yen delivers a complete showcase of the speed, charisma, and skill that would launch his career as a global movie star.
The box set includes two gorgeous double-sided posters; a booklet with set photos, interviews, and plenty of behind-the-scenes details; and special features with commentary, missing scenes, and more.
The In the Line of Duty series is a landmark in movie history, with some of the best action movies ever made and the opportunity to see two future megastars at the beginning of their careers. It’s an absolute treat. —PV
Superman Collection (4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital) – May 9
The next Superman movie won’t hit theaters until mid-2025 at the soonest. If you’re craving some blue-spandex-and-red-cape heroics, this collection is your best bet. The collection includes the entirety of the Christopher Reeve era: Superman 1-4, along with the alternate Richard Donner cut of Superman 2.
The set also includes a smorgasbord of Superman. For fans of the films, the package features a truckload of commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a making-of TV special, and deleted scenes. And for folks who just love any and all things Superman, Warner Bros. bundled in a grab bag of episodes of the classic Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons.
I hadn’t seen the films until this release, and they’re a delight — and a refreshing alternative to the current trend of self-aware superhero fare. Plus, they’re stacked with some top-tier talent of their time, including Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Marlon Brando, and Margot Kidder.
Police Story 3: Supercop (4K UHD + Blu-ray) – April 25
When a few friends recently visited, I grabbed this disc off the shelf and promised to show them one of the most dangerous stunts they’d ever see on film. Police Story 3 is, of course, a great movie. So rather than skip ahead, we decided to watch the whole thing.
Every few minutes, they’d ask if this was the wildly dangerous stunt I’d mentioned. Michelle Yeoh jumping a motorbike onto a moving train? Nope. Jackie Chan dangling from a rope ladder attached to a helicopter? Nah, not that one.
For me, the most stomach-wrinkling stunt comes near the end, and involves Yeoh getting tossed from the roof of a truck and onto the windshield of a speeding convertible. Behind the scenes, Yeoh actually performed the stunt multiple times, nearly falling off the car and under its wheels on two takes.
Now, let me be clear: I am thrilled filmmaking has moved away from actors feeling they should risk their lives for one incredible shot. Yeoh’s most recent hit — Everything Everywhere All at Once — shows a good action movie can be made in humane fashion. But I also carry a conflicting respect for this astonishing stunt work.
Watching with newcomer friends, I realized this film doesn’t have one of the most jaw-dropping stunts in history. It has many. Yeoh and Chan bring out the best in one another as two of the last great artists in a type of filmmaking we will likely never see again. Fortunately, we can look back on it now through this breathtaking 4k restoration, knowing full well both would survive and have long, successful, and safer careers.
Small Axe (Blu-ray) – April 25
One of the greatest directors of our generation released five films within a single calendar month. Practically nobody saw them. You can blame the pandemic (the films premiered in the fall of 2020) or the distribution and marketing of streaming cinema (they launched on Prime Video), but blame doesn’t solve the problem.
This collection, however, makes an effort. Small Axe collects the latest films from Steve McQueen, which range from one to two hours and blur the line between prestige TV, anthology series, and art house cinema. The result echoes McQueen’s history with visual art, nodding at every page of his portfolio, from his Turner Prize-winning art to the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave to the “should have won every award” heist thriller Widows.
McQueen’s films span a wide range of subjects, but what connects them is a historian-like approach to filmmaking, emphasizing veracity and the elevation of underheard voices. Small Axe is, perhaps, the culmination of this focus. All five films capture the lives of West Indian immigrants in London from the ’60s to the ’80s. They range from small domestic dramas and romances to interrogations of policing and imprisonment.
The Criterion Collection is the best way to watch these films, not just because the image is as good as any other Criterion transfer, but because the set comes with some additions that feel as if they always belonged with the anthology: a filmed conversation between McQueen and professor Paul Gilroy, and the entire three-part documentary Uprising, released by McQueen and James Rogan the year after Small Axe, documenting the 1981 New Cross house fire.
McQueen’s work is audacious, smart, and important — which can sound difficult and intimidating. But here’s the good news: Small Axe is entertaining. Extremely entertaining. You don’t have to watch the films in any order, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with Lovers Rock.
Violent Streets: The Umberto Lenzi/Tomas Milian Collection (Blu-ray) – March 28
Violent Streets is the most challenging pick on our list, but depending on your stomach for gore, it’s also one of the most rewarding. Italian director Umberto Leniz and Spaghetti Western star Tomas Milian partnered throughout the 1970s to create five harrowing crime films. The subgenre, dubbed poliziotteschi, now serves as a time capsule from Italy’s turbulent decade. But for the average English-speaking movie fan, where do you even start with a genre you’ve never even heard of, from a sociopolitical moment that wasn’t taught in your history class?
History — from the mouths of those involved — is the strength of Severin’s Blu-ray collections. Not only does its team provide the best possible way to see each film (beautifully restored, uncensored cuts), they also assemble the bonus feature equivalent of a college seminar. The first film alone comes with audio commentaries featuring the screenwriter and critics, interviews with Lenzi and Milan, and additional contextual featurettes.
I first dove into Almost Human, the most famous film of the bunch, trying its English language track. It played like a wacky, but uncomfortably violent, grindhouse bobble. Then I switched to the original audio and progressed all the way through some of the featurettes. And I felt like I’d learned about an entire other world and moment — while enjoying a wonderfully sweaty crime lord performance that would make Al Pacino blush.
If you enjoy film as a means of understanding the world, warts and all, then you have your next box set.
The House That Screamed (Blu-ray) – March 7
The House That Screamed is pitched as Suspiria meets Psycho. The trouble with a pitch like this is the film in question can’t possibly live up to the comparison. Technically, that’s true here. No, The House That Screamed isn’t as good as two of the best horror movies ever made. But damn, it gets close.
For film dorks like myself, its status as “Spain’s first major horror production” and its early place on the timeline of giallo, slasher, and gothic cinematic horror make it a must-watch. For everyone else, there’s the tawdry (but rarely leering) story of a murderer skulking the woods of an all-women boarding school.
The set includes both the uncut version, titled The Finishing School (La Residencia), and the 11-minute shorter U.S. version. Go with the longer cut, which has room to let the characters breathe and the thrills boil. Also included: a bunch of archival interviews and a new commentary by critic Anna Bogutskaya.
John Wick 1-3 Stash Book Collection (4K UHD + Blu-ray) – Feb. 28
One of the great modern action franchises just got a celebrated fourth entry, and Lionsgate released this fantastic “stash book” box set that is a replica of Wick’s own stash box from Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Designed like a Russian tome, with religious iconography on the cover, the three movie cases are hidden under about a dozen pages of a book of Russian folk tales. The set includes all three movies, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, and audio commentary from Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski. The only drawback is it doesn’t include Chapter 4! —PV
Road House (4K UHD + Blu-ray) – Jan. 31
Patrick Swayze rips out a dude’s throat and then roundhouse kicks him into a lake. That’s it. That’s the pitch.
Vinegar Syndrome’s colossal celebration of this modern masterpiece includes a commentary track with the director, another with Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier, many brand new interviews with on- and off-screen talent, an hourlong documentary, multiple featurettes, a 40-page book, and of course the brand-new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative.