Top 10 DVD And Blu-ray Releases of 2014

by Bobby Morgan

     Since my work keeps me at home at lot opportunities to take in a night at the local multiplex don't come around very often. Therefore I depend on my region-free Blu-ray player to aid in my occasional escape from the doldrums of everyday life. This year I have seen my movie collection increase exponentially but only ten of those released titles were worthy enough to make my top ten of the year list. As usual it was pretty difficult to narrow down my favorite Blu-rays of 2014 to just ten selections, but I couldn't live with myself if I neglected several films near and dear to me that finally saw the high-definition release each and every one of them richly deserved.

1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

 

Next to The Wild Bunch this might be my favorite Sam Peckinpah film, but "favorite" is a pretty generous word for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. This is filmmaking accomplished without mercy or compromise in the service of a story that demands no less than open wound honesty. Alfredo Garcia was the motion picture that pretty much ruined Peckinpah's promising career in Hollywood and did irreparable damage to a reputation that had already taken its share of self-inflicted hits. It's dark and unforgiving and features a career-best performance from Warren Oates as Peckinpah's ultimate screen alter ego, a bartender seemingly of solid moral standing ready and willing to sell the last remnants of his soul in exchange for a fortune that could never buy him what he truly desires. Twilight Time's Blu-ray edition was limited to 3000 copies and sold out fast but it comes with greatly improved picture and sound and a healthy serving of supplements harvested from DVD releases past, including a pair of audio commentaries, informative documentaries, and promotional materials.

2. Cold in July

 

The best movie I saw in theaters in 2014 wasn't an esoteric art house item or a loud and colorful summer blockbuster (though a few of each made my end of year "best of" list), but a swift, violent, and surprisingly funny adaptation of a Joe Lansdale novel. Director Jim Mickle has become in recent years the John Carpenter of the 21st century, a gutsy and intelligent filmmaker with the ability to work in different genres of cinema with confidence. After making his name with a series of terrific indie horror gems like Stake Land and last year's underrated remake We Are What We Are Mickle took on Lansdale's 1989 crime novel and brought to the table a trio of fantastic lead actors (Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson), a tense screenplay that remains faithful to the original book but never at the expense of disrupting the propulsive pace of the narrative, and a music score by Jeff Grace that would make Carpenter himself beam with pride. MPI Media Group's Blu-ray enhances the endless watchability of Cold in July with fantastic picture and sound quality and a ton of cool bonus features. Among them are a pair of filmmaker commentaries, deleted scenes, a Q&A session with Mickle and Lansdale moderated by none other than Game of Thrones overlord George R.R. Martin, and the full Grace score on a glorious 5.1 isolated audio track.

3. RoboCop

 

It took almost two years from the day I bought my first Blu-ray player for there to be a high-definition release of the original RoboCop truly worth buying. At least it was worth the wait. The 4K restoration of the director's cut of Paul Verhoven's violent, caustic sci-fi action classic is an absolute stunner and the bonus materials were mostly ported over from previous editions, with the exception being the inclusion of a 43-minute Q&A filmed in 2012 that reunites the director, stars Peter Weller and Nancy Allen, the screenwriters (who never get enough credit for this masterpiece), and visual effects genius Phil Tippett. MGM finally got this one right, and all it took for it to happen was the theatrical release of a mediocre remake.

 

4. Thief: Criterion Collection

 

Michael Mann's diamond hard directorial debut remains one of the best films he's ever made. James Caan takes center stage with a performance as a career criminal who makes the mistake of buying in with the mob that the actor has yet to equal. The pacing is furious, punctuated by unexpected moments of poignancy and sudden bursts of graphic violence and made all the more haunting and authentic by a supporting cast headed by Robert Prosky, Tuesday Weld, and James Belushi, and a hallucinatory soundtrack composed by Tangerine Dream that suits the raw, downbeat material perfectly. Mann's powerhouse crime drama was the recipient of a gorgeous 4K restoration from the Criterion Collection that resurrects its nightmarish splendor and makes it the star attraction of a stellar Blu-ray release that ports over the excellent Mann/Caan commentary track from the earlier MGM DVD release along with new interviews with the director and star as well as Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream.

 

5. The Counselor

 

The fourth dark crime drama to make this list is also the one that might be the most divisive and also demand the most attention. Visionary filmmaker Ridley Scott proved that he still had the chops to make a stripped-down feature and he chose the perfect vehicle to demonstrate in the first original screenplay written by author Cormac McCarthy. Presented with a cast full of attractive faces, audiences went in expecting a sexy, fun thrill ride ideal for weekend viewing. It's obvious from the frothing hatred The Counselor received from all sides that few who bothered seeing the film on the big screen had never read a Cormac McCarthy novel or watched the film adaptations of No Country for Old Men and The Road. The material brings out Scott's sharpest instincts as both a visual stylist and an actor's director, resulting in possibly his bleakest and most uncompromising feature since Blade Runner. The Blu-ray features both the 117-minute theatrical cut and an unrated extended cut that inserts twenty ballsy minutes back into the narrative in addition to a wonderful, lengthy interactive documentary about the film's making available on the extended cut disc.

6. Samurai Cop

 

The late Amir Shervan couldn't direct his way out of a Piggly Wiggly bag, but when inspiration was in full effect he could churn out a cheapjack work of gonzo Z-grade action cinema like no other. Samurai Cop is his masterpiece, a Macy's Christmas parade of unnecessary carnage, gratuitous nudity, lame jokes, and a synth music score that would be too outdated for a Nintendo video game. If you turned spotting the continuity errors into a drinking game you would need an AA sponsor and a new liver by the end of the second act. In short, it's a blast of deranged, untalented genius and by far the bad movie discovery of the year. Cinema Epoch provides this alternate universe classic with a high-definition upgrade that looks good at its best and at worst draws a sharp line around the many imperfections forever entombed in the print. Extra features include a trio of new commentaries with stars Matt Hannon and Mark Frazer among others, new interviews with the stars, a selection of soundtrack cuts, and the insane re-release trailer.

 

7. Used Cars (Twilight Time)

 

Before he permanently took a more family-friendly, Oscar-worthy career left turn into respectable Hollywood fare Robert Zemeckis teamed up with his greatest creative collaborator Bob Gale to make one of the most raucous, go-for-broke comedies ever made. A pre-Snake Plissken Kurt Russell, desperate to prove his worth as an actor now that he had aged out of Disney stardom, headlines this demolition derby burlesque as a sleazebag salesman using every dirty trick available to save the desolate Arizona used car lot that employs him from getting buried in the desert by the march of progress. Jack Warden plays twin brothers and dueling dealership owners, Gerrit Graham (Phantom of the Paradise) goes spastic with awe-inspiring flair as Russell's superstitious ladies' man colleague, and the Zemeckis/Gale script keeps the outrageous - and often shameless - gags and set-pieces coming at a fast and furious pace. This is, quite simply, one of my favorite comedies. Another limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time features a terrific upgrade in picture and sound quality and several supplements held over from a previous DVD release, including a rowdy Zemeckis/Gale/Russell audio commentary, hilarious outtakes, and more. Exclusive to this release are two isolated score tracks, with one spotlighting the original soundtrack composed by Ernest Gold that was discarded in favor of something more appropriate.

8. Darkman (Scream Factory)

 

Sam Raimi's first directing gig for a major studio grew out of his desire to make a feature film based on the pulp fiction vigilante The Shadow that was deep-sixed. Good thing for us he decided to apply the filmmaking chops he picked up making those Evil Dead pictures in the creation of a original character at the center of a violent, operatic, and strangely amusing adventure that pulses with giddy enthusiasm and the haunting majesty of the Universal Monsters features. Liam Neeson, in an early starring role that truly showed what he was capable of, plays a brilliant scientist driven to gruesome revenge by the gangsters who left him disfigured and at death's door. Future Oscar-winner Frances McDormand plays one of the ultimate damsels in distress and does an excellent job, while Larry Drake (Dr. Giggles) and Colin Friels (Dark City) take up villain duties with teeth-gnashing gusto. Couple some fine performances with Raimi's energized direction, a baroque Danny Elfman score from the composer's golden age, and some wild action sequences and you've got a rare comic book actioner that didn't require previously published source material. Darkman has been available on Blu-ray before from Universal, but their bare-bones effort has been outclassed on all fronts by Scream Factory's classy re-release. The picture and sound get a much needed upgrade and the extras - which include the requisite commentary, new interviews, vintage behind-the-scenes features, and more - absolutely astound.

 

9. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

 

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the master documentarians responsible for the groundbreaking Paradise Lost films, had seen their creative partnership suffer a huge setback when Berlinger went off to make the rushed, lackluster Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. They mended fences by taking on the task of following around the legendary metal band Metallica as they went about recording their new album. The filmed material was initially designed to provide promotional fodder for a supplemental DVD that came with the CD, but over time Berlinger and Sinofsky saw a much different story taking shape before the camera and their eyes. The band had almost fractured after the abrupt departure of longtime bassist Jason Newsted and the intensifying of lead singer James Hetfield's self-destructive alcoholism. In order to recover the harmony they once had as a group so they can get their music careers back on track Metallica brought in a high-priced life coach to conduct band therapy sessions. The result is like watching a real life This is Spinal Tap, but with less humor and many more scenes of awkward tension. Regardless of your opinions of the flawed-but-talented guys who comprise Metallica, watching the warts-and-all epic Some Kind of Monster just might make you feel actual sympathy for them when you realize that they are too human and prone to committing colossal screw-ups that not only affect themselves but everyone unfortunate enough at the time to be in their orbit. Music documentaries don't get any more eye-opening and brutally honest than Some Kind of Monster, finally available on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that gives us commentaries with the filmmakers and Metallica, loads of deleted scenes and extended interview footage, and the exclusive HD featurette "This Monster Lives" which was filmed in 2013.

 

10. The Wicker Man: The Final Cut

 

You might see the ending coming the moment The Wicker Man begins, but the pleasure of watching this masterpiece of British horror is immersing yourself in the wondrous yet disconcerting culture of Summerisle and experiencing the mystery as it unfolds through the eyes of the late Edward Woodward's puzzled Puritanical policeman Howie. The always welcome Christopher Lee makes for the perfect duplicitous adversary. Proof positive that sometimes the best fright flicks effectively employ atmosphere and mounting dread to achieve their objectives, The Wicker Man makes its Region A Blu-ray debut in a new cut approved by director Robin Hardy. The restored video looks mostly good but with the different print elements used for the restoration varying in overall quality you might notice the occasional inconsistency in the scenes exclusive to this edition. Nearly an hour of new featurettes examining the film's soundtrack and cultural impact and an interview with Hardy, a restoration demonstration, and a trailer make up the supplements selection for this winning release from Lionsgate.