It’s a new month, and with that, some retrospection. Each month, hundreds of home video releases hit the streets, and who better to curate the best of the best than us here at the CriterionCast. So with that, here are the five best home video releases of August 2019, as per yours truly:
Starting off this month’s roundup of the best of the best in home video releases is not only one of two Criterion Collection releases highlighted here, but it’s also one of the more esoteric and oddly exciting releases the company has dropped in some time. At just 56 minutes in length, the announcement of The Inland Sea’s inclusion in the company’s historic ranks was met with proper head scratching, but it’s proven to be quite a coup. The film comes from director Lucille Carra, whose film draws direct inspiration from the works of author and legendary film scholar Donald Ritchie who, in 1971, took a journey to Japan’s Inland Sea with the hopes of bringing to the page a story of traditional life in the country. Pairing Ritchie’s writing with gorgeous photography of a diverse Japanese landscape, Inland Sea is a travelogue-type documentary that feels rooted heavily not only in that style of documentary and its silent-era roots, but also of a newer stock in the mold of, say, No Reservations. Specifically in relation to the beloved Anthony Bourdain show, there’s a focus on one’s self in relation to the land they’re exploring that feels both poetic and incredibly empathetic. Ritchie finds such beauty in these traditional communities that the intimacy of these stories become incredibly moving.
The new 4K transfer here is absolutely gorgeous, with both DP Hiro Narita and director Carra involved in the restoration. Carra’s featured on a new and insightful interview segment, as are director Paul Schrader and critic Ian Buruma who have a fantastic chat about Donald Ritchie. Finally there’s an interview with Ritchie from 1991, and the essay from writer Arturo Silva is a captivating and informative piece of writing. It may not seem like much of a release, but for those looking to take a leap on a lesser-talked about film won’t be disappointed.
4. Derek Jarman x2: Blue and The Garden (Kino Lorber)
Next on this list is the only pair of releases featured here. In keeping with recent tradition, Kino Lorber has taken to releasing two films from a legendary director, this time Derek Jarman. First up there’s maybe the director’s most personal and well-known film, Blue. On Blu-ray from a new 4K master, Blue is Jarman’s final film, a profoundly moving piece of avant garde filmmaking that sees the director set against a blue screen a soundscape including Jarman himself reflecting on his life as he nears his end after a battle with AIDS. A deeply shattering work of autobiography, Blue is a haunting and endlessly captivating rumination on life and storytelling unlike anything film had seen before or has seen since. Opposite that is a film that sees the director at his most revolutionary.
The Garden is a knotty piece of filmmaking to describe, best built in viewers eyes as a re-purposing of the elemental qualities of the Bible for a generation of queer men and women persecuted and shunned just as the AIDS pandemic was wiping their brothers and sisters off the map. Himself diagnosed shortly before beginning work on this film, Jarman thrusts viewers into a world where The Devil is clad in leather and Jesus is a gay couple, an obtuse and elliptical world that’s more interested in parables and musical sequences than preaching or condemning. Both releases are gorgeously restored here (The Garden in 2K thanks to Zeitgeist Films), and come stacked to the gills with supplemental materials. The highlight of The Garden, for example, is an informative and compelling commentary from historian Samm Deighan, a commentary that gives incredible context to a superlative picture. As for Blue, I would like to point people in the direction of Glitterbug, a piece that puts together a collection of home movies from Jarman with a score by Brian Eno. It’s a thrilling supplement and right at home placed opposite Blue. Just a pair of top tier releases.
Making up the middle of this list is one of the greater discoveries of 2019. Released in theaters back in March, Kino Lorber has finally brought to Blu-ray the incredible, singular Babylon. Directed by Franco Rosso and with a script from Quadrophina scribe Martin Stellman, Babylon tells the story of Blue (Brinsley Forde), a down on his luck reggae DJ simply doing his best to keep his head afloat day to day. Viewers float in and out of interactions, all given an intense sense of naturalism thanks to the lively performances, especially from supporting performers like Archie Pool and Trevor Laird, portraying two of Blue’s friends. Through these interactions, Rosso thrusts the viewer head first into a world of racism and classism, a day-to-day existence that is unfathomably frustrating. Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges, the film takes the kitchen sink-style seen in British cinema of maybe a half generation before (Menges is probably best known among film nerds for shooting the groundbreaking drama Kes, so there’s a hint as to what to expect), and supplements it with a singular sense of vitality and energy almost from frame one.
The film’s told primarily through subtitled Jamaican patois, which itself makes for a captivating experience, but Menges’ photography is richly textured and gives each frame a sense of urgency that’s paired thrillingly with the film’s central rumination on class and racial dynamics (which also couldn’t be more “of the moment” today). A commentary with Rosso, Stellman, Forde and producer Gavrik Losey supplement this release, as does a fantastic essay from writer Mike Rubin. Forde is featured in a superb and deeply insightful interview segment, and the release even comes with a documentary on Linton Kwesi Johnson, helmed by Rosso. Toss in a restoration featurette and a Q/A segment featuring the cast and crew from 2008 and you have one of the more deep Blu-ray releases of the month.
The first of two box sets, this trio of films would have walked away with this month’s top slot, if it weren’t for the sheer discovery that came with the ultimate winner. One of the best Criterion Collection releases yet this year, the company’s incredible Koker Trilogy box set is truly a sight to behold. Carrying within its ranks three of the best works from legendary filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, The Koker Trilogy is the auteur’s incomperable trio of films including Where Is The Friend’s Home, And Life Goes On and Through The Olive Trees. Ostensibly the films that put him on the map, these three masterworks helped bring Kiarostami’s works to the attention of a large audience throughout the world, cementing him as one of the great voices within the fruitful landscape that is Iranian cinema. A master of the so-called “hybrid” film, Kiarostami’s works blur the lines between fact and fiction, documentary and narrative fiction cinema, making his films both incredibly singular and yet ceaselessly moving. Placed squarely in conversation with one another, each film blooms upon each viewing, helping to paint a broad portrait of a creator and his artistic process, along with the world it was born from.
An absolute must own release, this would have landed on this list even if the set came proverbially “bare bones.” However, such is not the case. Besides being one of Criterion’s most beautifully designed box sets yet, all three films are presented here in beautiful 2K restorations, with a commentary track on And Life Goes On to boot. Various interviews with people like scholar Hamid Naficy and Kiarostami’s son Ahmad Kiarostami are included, and the crown jewel of these supplements is the feature length documentary Homework. It’s an incredible documentary that really helps add even more context to this definitive collection of Kiarostami’s brilliant work.
Coming in at number one for August is maybe one of the greatest discoveries this year will have to offer. From Arrow Academy comes a Blu-ray release of a trio of films known as The Buddhist Trilogy, three mammoth achievements directed by one Akio Jissoji. Relatively unknown to many cinephiles, This Transient Life, Mandala and Poem were originally released to theaters via the Art Theater Guild, and have since become cult classics for the most studious of world cinema fans. Now available in glorious HD via Arrow, these three films are haunting, often surreal ruminations on the human experience with a spiritual bent, often mixing expressionist filmmaking with heady philogosphy for that rare breed of film that feels both intensely intimate and yet brazenly otherworldly.
Often feeling almost sci-fi in its atmosphere and mood, each film is a titanic piece of work, varying in narrative yet never in quality. Truly three of the most singular films you’ll find on home video this year, this release is what makes labels like Arrow, Criterion and everyone in between truly special. Highlighting films like This Transient Life, a shattering blend of surrealist melodrama and religious introspection, breathes new life into the filmography of a director whose impact could truly be felt if introduced to the right cinephile. The films themselves are worthy of the number one slot, however with commentaries and a gorgeous packaging design, this is, with a bullet, the best home video release of August 2019.