1. “Thief” (Criterion)The film: Criterion is putting out two seminal heist films today, yet though one clearly influenced the other, Michael Mann’s feature debut “Thief” not only incorporates the lessons of Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” but expands upon them, crafting a classic of impressionistic, intimate crime drama that somehow remains cool and aloof while longing with every fiber of its being. James Caan has rarely, if ever, been better as the master thief who is smart enough to realize how stupid it is for a man like him to dream even as he gives in to fantasy. When reality at last disabuses him of the potential for happiness, his self-destruction is more terrifying than anyone else’s attacks on him could ever be.
The disc: A sparkling 4K restoration brings back the cobalt tinting lost in the original DVD pressing, while an old audio commentary with Mann and Caan and some new interviews with each of them, as well as Tangerine Dream’s Johannes Schmoelling, round out the modest extras.
2. “Sunrise” (20th Century Fox)
The film: Quite possibly the finest silent film produced on U.S. soil, German ex-pat F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” is sublime poetry, the perfect marriage of the limits of silent aesthetic style and crowd-pleasing, mainstream substance. The plot, as with the best silents, is elemental: a man (George O’Brien) plots to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) so as to escape to the city to live with his mistress (Margaret Livingston). In practice, though, the film is endlessly complex, communicating undulating moods of temptation, guilt and love through every technique silent cinema offered, as well as a few flights of weightless fancy that were all Murnau’s own.
The disc: Hardcore cinephiles likely already have the stuffed, region-free Blu-Ray from the UK’s prestigious Masters of Cinema line, but Fox has finally dusted off one of the best films made under its auspices for the hi-def treatment at home. The good news is that, contrary to the bare-bones releases typically offered on Fox’s Blu-Ray editions of classics, this release appears to carry over all the extras that appeared on the MoC version, including boasting two versions of the film, its theatrical version and the original Movietone cut. This is a must-buy for anyone who does not already own the import.
3. “The Butler” (Starz/Anchor Bay)
The film: Lee Daniels finds his calling subduing his splenetic style just enough to play, superficially, by the rules of the Hollywood biopic. Nevertheless, “The Butler” is so instantly identifiable as one of the director’s works that the absurd possessive foisted upon the film’s title to differentiate it from a silent film would almost be appropriate even without the ridiculous controversy. Focused on the life of a White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who experiences decades of seismic political and social change from the vantage point of a man tasked to serve in silence, “The Butler” is a sly critique of the willful “apolitical” nature of other biopics, using the life of a man expressly forbidden to voice a political opinion to prove the point that the mere fact of life is political, especially when that life belongs to a person of color in America. Sufficiently toned down so that his usual garishness comes off as bawdy and carnal in the way that de-sexed, cipher-dependant Hollywood films never are, Daniels delivers his best film yet.
The disc: Appropriate, perhaps, given the humility and reservation of the film’s protagonist, “The Butler” hits home video with a modest assortment of extras, including a brief making-of documentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel(?) and a short featurette interviewing some of the still-living Freedom Riders.
4. “You’re Next” (Lionsgate)
The film: “Mumblecore,” the most over- and mis-used cinematic term du jour, is stretched permanently by “You’re Next,” a horror film that adheres to (and casts from) the independent “movement” until it swiftly moves into other generic waters. “You’re Next” offers the chance to see mumblecore expanded out of its narrow definition or, if you’re insistently against those movies on principle, the chance to see its brightest stars gruesomely dispatched. Everyone’s a winner.
The disc: Two separate commentary tracks hint at a stuffed package that fails to materialize, with only one other feature, a making-of EPK, to complete Lionsgate’s disc.
5. “20 Feet from Stardom” (Starz/Anchor Bay)
The film: Music documentaries are, almost without fail, the lowest form of nonfiction, unabashed nostalgia trips that boil down to glorified playlists with visual accompaniment, with direction so unimaginative that even iTunes screen saver mode has more to keep the eyes occupied. But there’s no denying that sometimes, even the most hard-hearted cynic can’t resist one of these things, and “20 Feet from Stardom,” about the soul singers primarily known as the background vocalists for hits by superstars from Springsteen to the Stones, goes out of its way to check enough boxes to raise anyone’s interest. It’s got the usual, unfairly overlooked talent, but also the added draw of its contrast between these gifted, magnetic black women and their relationship to an industry that overwhelmingly favors white men. It’s the latter that gives the film a focus and a subtext that most music docs lack, giving the viewer something to think about besides how great the music they made is.
The disc: Starz/Anchor Bay’s disc comes with deleted scenes and a Q&A with director and subjects, as well as a short film called “The Buddy System.”
Best of the rest: a 15th anniversary edition of Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ‘66” (Lionsgate) guaranteed to make some Gen X-ers feel old; Blake Edwards’ “Blind Date” (Image Entertainment), a farce starring both Bruce Willis and Kim Basinger on the eve of both becoming mega-stars; Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” (20th Century Fox), a message movie that has managed to maintain some of its power thanks to Sidney Poitier’s fierce pride and Rod Steiger’s believably altered good ol’ boy; James Ponsoldt’s acclaimed, naturalistic teen romance “The Spectacular Now” (Lionsgate); and “Enough Said” (20th Century Fox), Nicole Holofcener’s imperfect but pleasing midlife romance, featuring stand-out performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, who never got the chance to crawl out from Tony Soprano’s shadow the way work like this promised he would.