It might not have captured the headlines in the same way as some of this year’s notable events did but 2016 has been a banner year for DVD releases—one of the very best for collectors since the formats were born, in fact. And at a time when physical formats are supposedly being rendered irrelevant by internet streaming too.

To observe this cavalcade of exceptional releases, here is a round-up of ten of the most notable. Well, a few more than ten, actually: it has been a very good year after all...

 

Doomwatch

It’s not news that television is going through a purple patch at the moment but to read some of the triumphant celebrations of this TV golden age you might think they never made any decent shows in the past. A quick spin of this Doomwatch DVD set will disabuse anyone of that.

A pioneering programme about environmental issues, the heroes of Doomwatch were scientists investigating the often catastrophic impact on the planet of modern industry and scientific hubris. This long-requested collection gathers all the surviving episodes together and shows what a gripping, and thought-provoking show it was—and still is.

 

The Ghost Goes West

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Ourselves Alone

Here is a quite flagrant example of cheating: three individual releases nuzzling in a space quite plainly designed for one. But since they’re all from the same era (the 1930s) and all from the saem country (Great Britain, of course), you really can’t complain.

The Ghost Goes West

The Ghost Goes West is a delightful comedy about a troublesome ghost who becomes more troublesome still when he (and his still-extant lookalike descendent) encounter a beautiful American heiress; The Scarlet Pimpernel is by far the best version of that much-adapted story, with Leslie Howard saving the aristocrats of France with more panache than anyone else has managed.

Finally, Ourselves Alone is one of the major rediscoveries of the year—a grim thriller set in Ireland with the British army struggling to defeat the guerrillas fighting for independence.

Quite apart from each being a cracking film, they all show just how much there is to learn about British cinema—and how much fun it will be to do so.

 

The Shop on the High Street

Talking of major rediscoveries (as we were with the excellent Ourselves Alone), here’s one of the most significant. The Shop on the High Street was a big deal when it was first released in the 1960s—it even got nominated for a couple of Oscars; it won Best Foreign Language film, although its leading lady lost out to Liz Taylor in the Best Actress stakes. But it fell out of circulation and was rather forgotten until this new restoration reminded everyone just how good it is.

At first you might think it’s a comedy: its hero is an amiable slacker persuaded into what his wife thinks is a get-rich-quick scheme. But the skies darken: this is central Europe, this is the early 1940s. Jews are being rounded up and people have got a fair idea where they’re going; our amiable slacker doesn’t want to get involved but his conscience won’t let him off so easily.

This is a masterpiece about impossible decisions: we must not let it be forgotten again.

 

Napoleon

Tangled up, as it was, with law-suits, rights issues and other complications, it hardly seemed likely that Abel Gance’s epic life of Napoleon Bonaparte made in 1927 would ever make it to disc but here it is.

Napoleon, the epic silent masterpiece made in 1927

Now, an epic made in 1927 might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea but this is a film for more than just dutiful film buffs or fans of the diminutive tyrant: this is genuinely one of the most extraordinary things ever committed to film; Gance didn’t just push things further than any director had done until then but did more than pretty much any film (including Citizen Kane) has done since, using every trick at his disposal and inventing a few that weren’t. Why, he even invented widescreen some 25 years before Hollywood unveiled CinemaScope.

 

Hangmen Also Die!

It’s been a great year for classic Hollywood films on disc; my pick would be this superlative edition of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! Written in part by Berthold Brecht, it’s based on the same real-life events that inspired this year’s Anthropoid: the wartime assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich, Nazi overlord of Czechoslovakia.

While not especially faithful to the facts as we now know them, Lang used it as a springboard for a masterful thriller: the nazis start tearing up Prague looking for the assassins and it’s up to the resistance to keep them safe, even as the reprisals become more bestial. Previously only available in a slightly censored edition, this new release is the complete cut—and it’s one of the best films the great Lang made in America.

 

The War Game/Culloden

A bit more vintage telly for you now. The War Game was made in 1965 but the BBC didn’t get around to showing it for twenty years: they thought its depiction of a nuclear strike on Kent and the cataclysmic after effects might be a tad too much even for post-watershed viewing. (Nuclear war is unpleasant? Who knew!) To be fair, you can certainly see their point: Peter Watkins’ film remains strong stuff fifty-one years on.

It’s pared on this disc with the other major work Watkins made for the Beeb, Culloden, an innovative treatment of the battle that ended the Jacobite uprising and subsequent suppressions. Authentic televisual classics, the pair of them and much more ambitious than any programme you’re going see on Netflix.

 

The Ninja Trilogy

The Ninja Trilogy

Every list needs a guilty pleasure and here’s mine: three chop-socky action movies from the early eighties all about ninjas (those chaps who creep about in black pyjamas and occasionally use throwing stars. Those guys.)

One would be hard pressed to say they were ‘good’ exactly but sometimes cheesy martial artistry hits the spot better than any ‘good’ film can, and that’s certainly the case here.

 

The Taviani Brothers Collection

Another boxset, albeit with nary a ninja in sight. This set gathers three films made by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani—Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars and Kaos—and it’s an excellent introduction to a pair of major filmmakers.

The Tavianis usually get called ‘neo-realists’, which makes them sound terribly worthy and far more dreary than their films actually are: there is humour here, and magic too. The Tavianis are too good to be confined by unhelpful labels like ‘neo-realism’. They just want to tell their stories and this set shows how well they do it.

 

Beat Girl

Expresso Bongo

Look! I’m cheating again! Here are two discs which I’m putting together since they were both made in 1959 and they’re both about the sordid London demimonde of that time.

Beat Girl is a cautionary tale of how a ‘happening’ teenager abandons her ‘squaresville’ life in the suburbs for the fleshpots of Soho (daddy-o).

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Expresso Bongo is set in the same neighbourhood; it’s a cynical look at the music business starring none-other than Cliff Richard as—erm—as a bongo playing teen idol (seriously), manufactured by an unscrupulous manager played by Laurence Harvey.

Yes, they undeniably look a little... quaint in our more worldly age. That, though, is all part of their charm.

 

Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC

This isn’t an awards ceremony and we’re not giving out prizes. Were we to do so, though, one release would walk away with its arms filled, watched with ill-veiled jealousy by the other candidates: this immense survey of the TV work of director Alan Clarke.

Long a cult figure, this release from the BFI makes the best case possible that he was one of the great British filmmakers, even if his best work was only ever done for the smaller screen.

A man unafraid of controversy (the BBC banned his original version of Scum), we can now go beyond the outraged headlines and see his interest in power relationships and pressure.

For all the ‘golden age of TV’ stuff we here so much about these days, there is basically no chance he could have made even a fraction of the work here in to-day’s TV world. And that’s our loss because many of the things here are masterpieces.

No matter the conveniences offered by the internet, there are always going to be those of us who really appreciate a well curated disc, one stuffed with extras that explain and illuminate the film in ways that no online service, no matter how handy, ever can. This year has provided a veritable surfeit of titles that do just that: the labels that release them deserve our support.

 

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