Movie culture has always been sustained by rediscovery and revaluation—that infinite process of expanding and redefining canons. There are two important factors at play here. The first is that film spread and developed faster than any creative medium that preceded it, meaning that the bulk of what survives of film history is still unexplored. The second is that film has always been a business, and that its commercialization can make release patterns and availability into tricky processes. Every year, some set of rights is finally negotiated or some negative is found after decades in a closet.
Our coverage of the best of the year can’t overlook the “new old” movies—the ones that are finally enjoying a much needed push or have just become available to the wider public. These are eight of the essential items that saw restoration or re-release this year. A caveat: This is a personal guide, beholden to nothing except my own tastes (for one, I’m not crazy about River Of Grass, one of the year’s high-profile indie re-releases) and interests.
Belladonna Of Sadness (1973)
A psychosexual freak-out of fairy-tale subtexts and obscene imagery, Belladonna Of Sadness stands as one of the most unusual and challenging animated features of its time—no small feat, given that its contemporaries include René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and the early films of Ralph Bakshi. Directed by Eiichi Yamamoto, a close collaborator of the Japanese comics and animation legend Osamu Tezuka, in an array of limited animation styles that draw on art nouveau and expressionism, the film draws on the French historian Jules Michelet’s theories of witchcraft as a form of rebellion to create an anti-authoritarian parable of sex magic and sexual violence in medieval France. A commercial failure in its time, the film had never played American theaters before this year’s 4K restoration; it has since been released on Blu-ray and DVD.
A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Though he spent a substantial part of his life in the United States, the films of the late Taiwanese writer-director Edward Yang have often been hard to get a hold of here, apart from his final work, Yi Yi. A Brighter Summer Day, his nearly four-hour epic of teenage life and crime in early ’60s Taipei, has long sat at the top of cinephiles’ most wanted lists, and with good reason. Yang portrays a wayward generation with a novelistic sense of setting and a filmic eye for details and symbols; his teens aren’t merely disaffected troublemakers, but characters in search of identity in a troubled and melancholy cosmos. After years of release date rumors and a lengthy 4K digital restoration process, A Brighter Summer Day finally got a Blu-ray and DVD release from Criterion this year. Releases of Yang’s other films are in the works; a restoration of his great 1985 film Taipei Story played at film festivals this past summer and fall.
Chimes At Midnight (1966)
Orson Welles’ ingenious and poignant Shakespeare pastiche was the last large-scale production that the filmmaker completed during his career; it stands as one of his stone-cold masterpieces and the movie against which all other Shakespeare adaptations should be measured. Welles stars as Falstaff, the Bard’s most popular comic creation, reimagined as a fully fledged tragic figure in a script that combines pieces of five different plays (plus snippets of Holinshed’s Chronicles). Welles’ technique is rarely less than dazzling in its use of crisscrossing camera movements, oversized sets, and layered sound, and the celebrated Battle Of Shrewsbury sequence remains one of the definitive portrayals of warfare in film. But Chimes At Midnight is also one of his most purely moving works; a larger-than-life one-time wunderkind, Welles made regret, abandonment, and lost time the major themes of his career. Once available only in crummy Japanese LaserDisc dupes, Chimes At Midnight toured in a restoration at the beginning of the year and has since been released in disc and digital formats by Criterion.
Daughters Of The Dust (1991)
From the annals of American independent film comes Daughters Of The Dust, which played in the same Sundance slate as Slacker, Poison, Trust, and Paris Is Burning. Set in 1902 in a Gullah community on an island off the coast of Georgia, Julie Dash’s one and only feature doesn’t fulfill its ambitions and sometimes seems lost in its own narrative, but the originality and integrity of its conception set it apart; it summons an alternative iconography out of landscape, research, and dialect that even its clunkier moments can’t dispel. As such, it represents the lost mission of indie film: to express something different and completely non-commercial. It is as far from Hollywood as possible, rather than waiting eagerly in its driveway. Though it’s seen several releases, Daughters Of The Dust has come to attention more recently thanks to its high-profile fans, including Ava DuVernay and Beyoncé; the latter drew inspiration from the film for Lemonade and its companion film. The movie is currently touring in a 25th anniversary digital restoration.
Her Man (1930)
Tay Garnett is best remembered for directing the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he never surpassed this extraordinary and exhilarating early talkie, one of the neglected masterpieces of early ’30s Hollywood. The all-but-forgotten Pre-Code star Helen Twelvetrees plays a Havana bar girl who wants to escape her knife-throwing pimp and start a new life with an innocent sailor. The premise strikes an almost perfect balance between seediness and purity, and Garnett (who also co-wrote the script) tackles its emotional dynamic with both sympathy and sharpness; he creates an intoxicating (and often intoxicated) atmosphere and makes arresting use of swooping camera movements and off-screen action. Though very much a product of the brief Pre-Code period, Her Man anticipates the cinema of the decades to come, from the weightless camera of Max Ophüls to the dramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Long ripe for rediscovery and always difficult to see, it toured in a 4K restoration this year.
One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort was a conflicted, Freudian interpretation of the Western, marked by its graphic sense of landscape. Like the later revisionist Westerns exemplified by Sam Peckinpah (who did uncredited work on the script), One-Eyed Jacks senses an emptiness in this most American and mythic of movie genres. The film is defined by friction: between Brando’s intensely interiorized lead performance as a bank robber seeking revenge and the moodiness of the pace; between the crisp widescreen cinematography and the extremely unconventional sound design. This one-of-a-kind movie lapsed into public domain and has been available in a plethora of crummy and cropped versions—a poor fate for the final American film to be shot entirely in VistaVision. This year’s Criterion Blu-ray and DVD release, based on a 4K restoration, finally gave it the release it deserves.
Paris Belongs To Us (1961)
Set in 1957 in a Paris where everybody seems to know and suspect everyone else, the first feature by the French critic-turned-filmmaker Jacques Rivette combines Cold War paranoia and bohemian portraiture, producing something that is closer to a generational statement than any of the other debut films of the French New Wave. It’s awash in shadows: fears of catastrophe, references to dark pasts, and, sometimes, even the literal shadow of the camera, belying the film’s shoestring budget. Rivette, who died of complications related to Alzheimer’s at the beginning of the year, was the most actor-centric artist to come out of the director-worshipping New Wave. It would take him some time to come into his own, but despite its deficits, Paris Belongs To Us has a distinctive eerie, defeatist aura that is unlike any of its contemporaries. Criterion’s release of the film marked the first time it’s ever been available on home video in the United States. Long neglected in this country, Rivette is undergoing a posthumous revival; 10 of his features will be re-released in American theaters next year, along with three recently restored early short films.
The model for every philosophizing wuxia flick that followed, King Hu’s three-hour martial arts epic is visually splendid and thick with mystical overtones, sexual subtexts, Buddhist symbolism, and natural beauty. Notoriously, it doesn’t feature a single fight until almost the hour mark and ends on a note of psychedelic transcendence. Here, the landscape is pure theme, and it seems to create or at least enable action instead of just furnishing a backdrop for it. It’s hard to overstate A Touch Of Zen’s drop-dead gorgeousness; at his best, Hu could stage figures in a widescreen frame even better than Sergio Leone. The Blu-ray released earlier this year represents an exponential improvement over the crappy standard-def DVD on which the film was previously available in the United States. Still, this is a movie best seen on a big screen; it toured this year in a 4K restoration along with Hu’s seminal 1967 film Dragon Inn.