Pauline Kael was, quite simply, the finest film critic that ever lived — her prose was energetic, smart, colloquial, engaged, and downright pleasurable to read. To be fair, most movie geeks will already have her individual volumes, or at least her previous career-spanning retrospective, 1996’s For Keeps. But most of those books are long out of print, and going for a pretty penny on Ebay and Amazon Marketplace; since the new Age of Movies collection is slim(mer) and reasonable, and includes most of her essential works, it’s a fine introductory volume for the young film fan.
Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood
Turner Classic Movies spent three years making this seven-part documentary that is the most informative presentation of its sort since Brownlow and Gill’s indispensable Hollywood doc back in the 1980s. The difference between them is that Hollywood is nearly impossible to find anymore, while Moguls and Movie Stars was released this summer in a handsome, Digibook-bound three-disc set. This exhaustive series tracks the motion picture from the earliest days of the form (“Peepshow Pioneers”) through the fall of the studio system and the rise of the New Hollywood (“Fade Out, Fade In”). Masterfully assembled and compulsively watchable, this is one terrific set.
Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham
Few figures in film created as many iconic images as designer Saul Bass, from his memorable opening credit sequences (for films like Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, and Ocean’s 11 ) to his enduring posters (Vertigo, West Side Story, The Man with the Golden Arm) to even the ’70s-era Warner Brothers logo. His daughter Jennifer and design historian Pat Kirkham have teamed to create this coffee-table tribute to his legacy, boasting more than 1400 of the great man’s illustrations within its 428 pages.
Hickey & Boggs
So you’ve got a movie buff in the family who thinks they know ’70s cinema? Or who loves the classic detective stories of film noir? Give them this obscure masterpiece and watch their mind get blown. The criminally underseen, low-budget 1972 film reunited I Spy stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, but the tone couldn’t have been further from the breezy, light air of that series; this tale of a pair of down-on-their-luck private detectives running down a counterfeit ring is tough, brutal, and unsparing. It was Culp’s first and (unfortunately) only feature directorial effort, and he shows a ruthless efficiency as a filmmaker, while Cosby turns in a brilliantly grim, no-nonsense performance that will shock those accustomed to the huggable Dr. Huxtable. Hickey & Boggs tanked in its theatrical release and its only DVD release before this year was a laughably bad, full-screen job; MGM’s on-demand “Classics Collection” put it out this year, however, in a nicely-transferred widescreen edition. It’s a terrific, underappreciated gem.
Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection
Though the comedy team of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy is among our most beloved, their filmed output has been strangely spotty on DVD; there were only scattered releases here and there, with many of their best films altogether unavailable in the US, while full sets of Abbott & Costello, Marx Brothers, and Three Stooges movies filled the shelves of classic comedy buffs. RHI Entertainment finally filled that void this fall with this ten-disc set, collecting their sound shorts and features from their golden era at the Hal Roach Studios. Though some completists have complained about the exclusion of their silent work, the set has proven mighty popular; it’s already sold out on Amazon, though available via third-party sellers.
Crazy 4 Cult: Cult Movie Art by Gallery 1988
We’ve often used these pages to tell you about the latest exhibitions at Gallery 1988, the pop-culture obsessed California art venues (one in Los Angeles, one in Venice) who have hosted tributes to the work of John Hughes, Pee-Wee Herman, Bill Murray, and many more. Once a year, they present the “Crazy 4 Cult” show, curated by filmmaker Kevin Smith; he also pens the forward to this coffee-table presentation of the best pieces from the first four shows. (Gotta say, my favorite is probably the Fargo painting.)
The Conversation (Blu-ray)/ Blow Out (Blu-ray)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up inspired two very different filmmakers to do two equally inspired riffs in the decades following his controversial picture; both arguably (though, in this viewer’s eyes, unquestionably) topped their inspiration, and both hit Blu-ray in gorgeous new editions this year. Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation between the first two parts of The Godfather, intending it to be the kind of small, personal, European-style picture he’d use his newfound clout to produce. This story of a sound-man-for-hire who becomes obsessed by the events on a field recording is a paranoia-infused masterpiece, grounded by one of Gene Hackman’s finest performances. It makes an intriguing double-bill with the markedly more baroque Blow Out, Brian DePalma’s 1981 story of a B-movie sound man who accidentally records what may very well be a political assassination. Filled with DePalma’s trademark visual flair and enlivened by an utter gut-punch of an ending, this twisted take on post-Watergate America is one of the his strongest pictures.
Trailers from Hell: Volume 2
The website Trailers from Hell is one of the most enjoyable time-sucks on the Internet, presenting vintage trailers in their original form or with commentary by filmmakers/movie geek “gurus” like John Landis, Joe Dante, Eli Roth, Guillermo del Toro, and Edgar Wright (and even occasionally with the films’ own directors, like Jack Hill, Larry Cohen, and Roger Corman). For those who prefer their geek-infused adverts on a bigger screen than their computer, the site has released a pair of wonderful DVDs featuring some of the best clips from the site. The first is already out of print, but the second (released last summer) not only features Corman on Ski Troop Attack, Landis on Gorgo, and Guillermo del Toro covering Deep Red in both English and Spanish, but it features the Corman feature Little Shop of Horrors in its entirety. Not bad for 15 bucks.
Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota
Those who like their politics and pop culture in equal measure will love David Sirota’s smart, wry, and thought-provoking examination of the ramifications of ’80s nostalgia in our current cultural landscape. We all love our dumb ’80s flicks (well, most of us), but Sirota astutely observes and analyzes how pop hits like Top Gun, Rambo, Red Dawn, and Back to the Future (as well as TV smashes like The A Team and Family Ties) not only reflected current attitudes, but set the political narrative for decades to come. You’ll never look at Ghostbusters the same way again.
Halloween II (Blu-ray)
Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel to John Carpenter’s trend-setter isn’t exactly a groundbreaking picture; it’s a perfectly respectable slasher flick with a few good scares and (as usual) terrific turns by Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance. The necessity of HD to appreciate its texture and nuances aren’t why its recent Blu-ray release is on this list; no, we’re including it because of the special features section. There you’ll find, tucked away with little fanfare, the full-length 1984 compilation film Terror in the Aisles. Hosted by Pleasance and Blow Out co-star Nancy Allen (see, it all comes full circle), this masterfully edited shock-o-rama was never released on standard-def DVD, presumably due to the tangle of rights issues involved. But Universal appears to have found a loophole — that by making it a special feature for another film instead of its own stand-alone release, horror fans could finally toss their old VHS copies. Plus, nothing says Christmas like a bunch of clips from scary movies, am I right?