1. “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman” (1962-1973) // Criterion Collection
The Film: Maybe the most hotly anticipated Criterion release of the year (and that’s saying something), the beloved “Zatoichi” series — in which the eponymous blind swordsman handily kicks ass through the Japanese countryside — is the longest-running action franchise in Japanese history, and one of the most widely celebrated to boot.
The Disc: Oh, you know: everything. Twenty-five feature films, a special documentary about the series, a video interview with the great Tony Rayns, and, best of all, two dozen illustrated covers by two dozen different artists — representing some of the most gorgeous cover art Criterion has ever put out.
2. “The Canyons” (2013) // MPI
The Film: Widely and unfairly maligned by critics unable to see what the film was actually doing, Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” represents what may be the best-yet depiction of the world of Bret Easton Ellis, bringing his vapid emotional vampires to life in a Los Angeles as cold and lifeless as the cinematography that captures it.
The Disc: Pretty bare-bones, unfortunately, but that’s understandable given how badly the movie was received — MPI is likely banking on a few ironic Christmas gifts and its small fanbase to gravitate to it no matter what. You get a ten-minute featurette, a two-minute character whatsit, and a theatrical trailer (or should that be VOD trailer?). Nice cover art, though.
3. “Breaking Bad: The Final Season” (2013) // Sony
The Film: Debate about both the meaning and success of “Breaking Bad”’s divisive finale rages on across the internet to this day, but whatever your opinion of “Felina”, it’s hard to deny the calibre of the episodes which preceded it. For my money, the series peaked at the climax of its blistering fourth season, but there’s a lot to admire here too.
The Disc: Four featurettes, an alternate ending (!), a live table read of the episode “Blood Money”, and various bits of additional footage in the form of extended episodes and deleted scenes. A lot of fan service, in other words, and it isn’t hard to see why.
4. “The Horror Show” (1989) // Shout! Factory
The Film: Directed by James Isaac, best known for his special effects work on the best films of David Cronenberg (as well as, um, directing “Jason X”), “The Horror Show” shares a premise with the cult classic “Shocker”, in which a serial killer returns to haunt the police detective who sent him to the electric chair. (You may recall “The Simpsons” spoofing this particular setup one fine Halloween.)
The Disc: You have to hand it to Shout! Factory for putting glorious schlock like this out in high-definition, and for putting some serious effort into the features — probably more than is needed, in any case. Here we’ve got an interview with the film’s stunt coordinator (?!) and a commentary track from producer Sean S. Cunningham, director of the original “Friday the 13th”.
5. “Knightriders” (1981) // Shout! Factory
The Film: Few horror fans seem aware that, in 1981, George A. Romero took a break from zombie films to make a drama with Ed Harris and Tom Savini about a travelling Renaissance Fair. It’s also 145 minutes, because of course it is. Completists will be on board from the get go, but you could do worse than heading into this blind. This is the very definition of an impulse buy.
The Disc: Shout! Factory have somehow managed to bring together a making-of documentary, a behind the scenes featurette, and an audio commentary track, because the movie’s legions of hardcore fans are doubtless craving every bit of contextual info they can get their hands on. Whatever: it’s awesome.
STREAMING / ON DEMAND
1. “The World’s End” (2013)
The best comedy of the year, the best coming of age story of the year, the best genre film of the year — hell, Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End” may just be the best film of the year full stop. His most mature work to date, “The World’s End” is also most assured, sophisticated, and funniest, finding a rare intersection between humor and heart and planting its flag there firmly. Wright’s vision of the small town hero’s tragic decline probably lends itself better to the big screen (admission: I saw it theatrically three times), but this is worth watching in any capacity possible. If you somehow missed this before, now is your chance.
2. “Museum Hours” (2013)
“I’ve had my share of loud”, says Johann (Bobby Sommer) at the beginning of Jem Cohen’s marvellous “Museum Hours”, “and now I have my share of quiet”. Indeed, it’s a quiet film, full of looking and longing, thought and reflection. As seen through the eyes of one of its long-time guards, the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna becomes a place of infinite wonder, where the guests roaming the halls are as fascinating to observe and consider as the great works draped across its walls.
3. “The Grandmaster” (2013)
Wong Kar-wai’s first outright genre film in nearly twenty years, “The Grandmaster” made waves earlier this year when it was announced that its North American theatrical cut would be drastically altered by the Weinsteins from its Chinese original. More streamlined and, frankly, dumbed down for a stateside audience, it’s true that “The Grandmaster” US doesn’t reach the heights of its more abstract predecessor — call it something lost in translation. But the core pleasures survive in tact: the fights are some of the most plainly gorgeous ever committed to film, the lot of them lush, swirling things, like kung-fu watercolors. It just goes to show that despite a studio’s best efforts, some kinds of greatness can’t be ruined with a cut.
4. “Beyond Outrage” (2013)
“Beyond Outrage”, the sequel to Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”, played to much acclaim (and surprise) at the 2012 iterations of both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals, though back then it went by the title “Outrage Beyond” (not sure why they went and flipped that order in the end, but it doesn’t sound right to my ears anymore). “Outrage”, a Yakuza actioner, felt a bit flat by Kitano’s standards, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn that its sequel upped the stakes and found more success. You can check it out now on VOD before it has its limited theatrical release in early 2014.
5. “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?” (2013)
Director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Be Kind Rewind”) brings his trademark preciousness and glee to bear on this 90-minute documentary about linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, found here conversing with the director about his theory of the nature of language. Gondry filmed the talk and then animated it, “Waking Life”-style, and the result is a singular combination of theoretical rigor and cinematic whimsy.