A monthly guide to what’s essential in the world of streaming, Blu-ray, and DVD.
The Phantasm Collection (Well Go USA / Scream Factory)
There’s really no other horror movie like Phantasm, Don Coscarelli’s independently made 1979 film about a 13-year-old boy who does battle with a local mortician after the death of the boy’s parents. It’s a moody, strange, and genuinely scary film that taps into a universal fear of death and abandonment using some specific, and unsettling elements: hooded dwarves, a bladed orb, and Angus Scrimm’s Grim Reaper-like presence as the mortician, otherwise known as The Tall Man. It favors weird imagery over story and is all the more effective for it and it became a cult hit first as a drive-in favorite, then as a late-night rental in the VHS era.
It didn’t, however, really seem like a film that needed a sequel. Nonetheless, Coscarelli followed it up four times, starting with Phantasm II in 1988 and concluding with Phantasm: Ravager, which saw a limited release last year. This box set collects the entire series and should give Phantasm fans everything they wanted and then some, filling out each disc with commentary tracks and making-of material with the participation and much of the cast and crew, including Scrimm, who died last year. I’m still working my way through the films a little bit at a time — those dwarves are too scary too watch to many Phantasm movies at once — but it’s evident that Coscarelli wanted to give fans something new with each entry. Phantasm II, for instance, resembles a post-apocalyptic road movie for long stretches, and if its stabs at camp make it lose some of the original’s eerie resonance, the sharp set pieces help make up for it.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Disney)
A few months after its release it still seems bizarre that Rogue One even happened. For the series’ first “anthology” film — a term for standalone Star Wars movies removed from the episodic saga — Lucasfilm visited an untold chapter in the clash between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire just before the events of A New Hope. That’s not that surprising. What is surprising is the amount of grit and moral ambiguity it allowed to enter the saga — and that it went all the way with its depiction of the sacrifices war demands. That it all came together ins spite of the film’s well-publicized production difficulties and last-minute reshoots adds another layer of surprise. The Blu-ray and DVD release skimps on the behind-the-scenes tumult, but the film has considerable rewatch value even without the special feature bells and whistles.
Ride The High Country (Warner Archive)
Sam Peckinpah changed the American Western forever with films like The Wild Bunch, which introduced a level of graphic violence, frontier ugliness, and tough guy romanticism to the genre that had never been seen before. Released in 1962, Ride the High Coutry is Peckinpah’s second film and it predates those revolutions. But even if it lacks some of the director’s signature touches, it’s a fantastic Western of a more conventional sort — and one that touches on some key Peckinpah themes, like the closing of the West at the turn of the century and what becomes of gunfighters like the characters played by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott after they start to age out of their heroic glory days.
There’s nothing especially timely about Jim Jarmusch’s gentle, funny, rich look at a week in the life of a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) as he and his wife (Golshifteh Farahani) go about their daily routines and Paterson attempts to turn those routines into poetry. But it also feels like the perfect film for the moment, a reminder that life demands us to pay attention to the everyday beauty of our surroundings even in the midst of political chaos and other demands on our attention. It’s as beautiful, and mysterious, a film as Jarmusch has ever made, and one that rewards repeat viewings.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Criterion)
The Young Girls of Rochefort (Criterion)
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land owes a lot to a lot of movies, a fact the movie-loving Chazelle has been more than happy to admit. But its bittersweet final act owes a particular debt to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s jazzy musical about young lovers who meet, fall in love, and find themselves separated by circumstances beyond their control. There’s not a line of spoken dialogue in it with composer Michel Legrand turning even the most mundane exchanges into song. The result is a one-of-a-kind film that turns the world into music. (It’s also my favorite movie of all time, so consider this a strong endorsement.) Demy followed it up a few years later with the delightful companion piece The Young Girls of Rochefort, which is also very much worth your time.
Daughters of the Dust (Cohen Media)
Quick, name the first year that featured a theatrically released film directed by an African-American woman. Sadly, you don’t have to go that far back. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust hit theaters in January of 1992. But if the achievement was a long time coming, it proved worth the wait. Dash’s film visits a rarely visited spot just off the South Caroline and Georgia coast where, thanks to being separated from the mainland, the Gullah islanders have kept alive a mix of African traditions. Set in 1902, it explores the choices of characters torn between the world they know and the larger world across the water using dreamy imagery that would serve as an inspiration for filmmakers to come, most recently turning up in Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Last year saw the film getting a well-deserved restoration and playing a few theaters, and now’s a good chance to catch up at home.
A League Of Their Own (Columbia / Sony)
Also celebrating a 25th anniversary, Penny Marshall’s 1992 comedy A League of Their Own visits a then little-known chapter in baseball history when World War II led to the rise of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Geena Davis and Lori Petty co-star as sisters who end up playing for a washed-up former pro (Tom Hanks). It’s a fun comedy that’s maybe a little too happy to go broad and sentimental, but try not being moved by the final scene, questionable make-up and all.
Toni Erdmann (Sony)
There’s little reason to suspect German director Maren Ade’s comedy would be one of the best films of 2016 based on bare description. It’s a three-hour movie about a father attempting to get in touch with his grown daughter via pranks and disguises. But it’s at once incredibly funny and moving — and daring in all the right ways, down to a climax that involves some of the funniest, and most uncomfortable nudity you’ll ever see.
Donnie Darko (Arrow)
Richard Kelly’s debut film flopped only to turn almost immediately into a mind-bending teen angst cult classic. It’s been reissued several times over, but this new edition should give you all the Darko you need, whether you’re seeing it for the first time of revisiting an old favorite.
Finally, don’t miss Juzo Itami’s ’80s foodie classic Tampopo, a film, broadly speaking, about a cowboy hat-wearing trucker who helps a widowed ramen shop owner up her game and turn her business around. But the film — which breaks up the main plot with sketch-like asides — is really about the many ways food shapes our lives, and the artfulness and sensuality of a good meal. If you’re not hungry heading into it, you will be by the time it’s done.