As streaming becomes more commonplace and directors like Martin Scorcese speak out about the services and their overall curation practices, certain boutique Blu-ray publishers are using their output as a way to create what is, essentially, film school in a box. Whether you’re looking for works of the great silent masters such as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, or the output of old Hollywood legends like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, there’s a little bit of everything for all types of movie fans. Below is a list of five of the essential Blu-rays to check out if you’re looking for film school outside of the classroom.
Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg at Paramount, 1930-1935 (Indicator / Criterion Collection)
One of the premier examples of the early collaborations between a director and actress, the work of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg is an extremely interesting one. Though their output would begin in the mid-1920s and kick into gear with The Blue Angel in 1930’s Germany, this particular set picks up soon after as it showcases their work in Hollywood primarily before the Hays Code went into effect. The end result is Dietrich at what is arguably her peak and Sternberg right alongside her. The Indicator box set from the UK is about to go out of print, but Criterion’s will remain. Each has its pros and cons, though the Indicator set has a handful of worthy extra bonus features.
Indicator does a great job of also including extras that might otherwise be overlooked or omitted entirely on many other sets. A great example of that here is on the bonus features for Shanghai Express, as they shine a light not on Dietrich or Sternberg, but instead on a supporting actor in the film, Anna May Wong. Wong has largely been considered to be one of the, if not the first, Chinese American movie stars, and this 20-or so minute feature included here gives a nice overview of her life and role in the film. It’s just one of the many features that round out the work of these two legends of early Hollywood.
Collaborations: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li (Imprint Films)
Sadly, with the way things are right now, there simply aren’t that many English-friendly releases of box sets featuring Asian directors. There are a few that are the exception, such as Criterion’s release of Wong Kar-wai’s films, and Arrow’s recent release of ‘Shawscope Volume 1’, which brings together a number of Shaw Brothers movies. But when it comes to many of the heavy hitters, such as Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, they are largely absent from the format.
That’s why when up-and-coming label Imprint Films from Australia announced ‘Collaborations: The Cinema of Zhang Yimou & Gong Li’, it was a major win for the format. This set has brought together 8 films from the famed director-actress duo with a plethora of extras alongside it. Many of the special features include Tony Rayns, a critic who you might be familiar with if you’ve purchased any Asian films from any of the major boutique publishers. Along with all the audiovisual extras, there’s also a nice lengthy booklet included featuring a number of great essays for you to dive into after watching the films. This is definitely a release to check out if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of Chinese cinema.
Buster Keaton: The Complete Short Films 1917-1923 (Eureka)
Recently gone out of print, this box set, which initially featured a hefty book to go alongside it, will be reissued soon by Eureka. Sadly, though company’s like Criterion have done a good job of putting out many of Charlie Chaplin’s finest films, a box set featuring his work and bringing it all together has largely been absent in the US. That’s why, when taking a look at the other king of silent film comedy, Buster Keaton, this box set was a revelation. This set spans from 1917 to 1923, the year in which he’d direct Our Hospitality, a major landmark in his career.
Bringing together 36 short films, this is definitely the box set to grab if you’re wanting to learn more about Keaton and his work. It gives you an essential understanding of his techniques both as an actor and as a director, including some of his earliest work as a filmmaker, namely, in the form of One Week and Convict 13. The 184-page book will be missing from the upcoming reissue, but it’s still a box set that’s worthy of showcasing one of the silent era’s greatest stars and a great primer for anyone looking to learn more about Keaton.
Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema (Criterion Collection)
What many might consider the be-all-end-all of movie box sets, the Criterion Collection’s release of ‘Ingmar Bergman‘s Cinema’ is quite simply put, essential for film fans. It might just be the prime example when someone thinks of when they hear about the concept of film school in a DVD set. Criterion has done a lot of these types of releases, as this list could easily just have included their Agnès Varda or Jacques Demy box sets, which give a great understanding of the French New Wave.
Bergman is one of the titans of the film world, and having a largely comprehensive box set of almost all of his works is incredibly important. It’s easy to undersell how essential a release of this caliber is, but when you consider that you’re getting 39 films and a 248-page book, the amount of time you can spend learning about film simply through this set alone is staggering. Criterion explains that they arranged this set as a film festival, and it definitely shows in its design and execution.
Gamera: The Showa Era + Gamera: The Heisei Trilogy (Arrow Films)
Originally released as one big box set, Arrow’s Gamera output can now be found in two box sets, separating them into the Showa and Heisei era featuring the famous kaiju. Out of all the other picks on this list, this is probably the most unconventional box set to consider when you’re talking about a film education in DVD form. However, Japanese kaiju films are, no doubt, one of the more important genre staples in the film industry, and a major part of Japan’s cinematic output.
Arrow, as they almost always do when it comes to genre filmmaking, goes all out with these sets. Criterion’s own release of a kaiju giant, Godzilla, is also a great set, but rather than highlighting that release, the focus on Gamera is important because of how comprehensive the set is. Both sets are packed with a wide variety of extras, as commentaries are present on every film, as well as archival features and documentaries. This is definitely a niche release in comparison to the Godzilla set, but it’s still one that is important when wanting to learn more about kaiju and its importance in film.
As the Blu-ray format continues to expand as far as publishers are concerned, even a more centered exploration of the industry has been undertaken, as genres like folk horror or lesser-known Japanese yokai films are examined. These alternative avenues for those studying film have opened up opportunities that were once almost always relegated to university classrooms. This is explored even more in detail when jumping into supplementary features on these discs, as, oftentimes, hours worth of extras including features from scholars and experts on the titles are included, allowing for continued exploration and understanding of these movies. As publishers continue to put together great projects in regards to their work, it speaks to the large chasm in between themselves and most conventional streaming services and shows the great service they can provide for budding cinephiles.