Given how much space physical media takes up, it’s hard for movie buffs to say no to the great promise of “cloud storage,” and the idea that we could summon anything we want to watch with just a couple of clicks. But so far, reality hasn’t matched the hype. Streaming services have been focused on exclusives and original programming, to the extent that the only way to have access to everything available is to spend hundreds of dollars a month on subscription fees. Meanwhile, older films keep disappearing from the digital archives; and even items that cinephiles “own” sometimes become inaccessible whenever software updates or a site shutters.
What follows then is a recommended core library of titles that every film geek—veteran or aspiring—should own on Blu-ray, and then hold on to tightly through every format war and upgrade to come. This isn’t intended as a “best movies of all time” list; nor is it meant to be comprehensive. Some great filmmakers are absent, often because they lack one outstanding Blu-ray collection that represents their work to its best advantage. These single discs and box sets were chosen for their re-playability, for the quality of their bonus features, and for how they represent a wide variety of genres, countries, eras, and auteurs. A media shelf with just these titles would in and of itself offer years of art, education, and entertainment. At the least, it’d provide a good foundation from which to build.
Cinema scholars could (and do) spend lifetimes studying the way Alfred Hitchcock delivered key narrative information through images alone, and the way he couched complex observations about human nature within gripping thrillers. This 15-film set is too heavy on the director’s lesser late-period work like Torn Curtain and Family Plot, but the wealth of bonus features attached to those movies helps to explain why Hitchcock matters. Plus, true to its name, this collection contains a generous allotment of bona fide masterpieces, including Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock’s own favorite, about a friendly misanthropic murderer), Rear Window (a wildly entertaining tale of urban voyeurism), Vertigo (an arty take on sexual obsession), North by Northwest (a rollicking spy story), and Psycho (a daring experiment in defying audience expectation ... as well as one of the scariest movies ever made).
Francis Ford Coppola’s best film is either The Godfather or The Conversation ... with Tucker: The Man and His Dream as a dark horse candidate. But the best way to understand the director—and the revolution that he tried to lead in American cinema in the 1970s—is to study this set, which tells the complete story of how Coppola and his closest colleagues spent a decade trying to update Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the moral morass that was the Vietnam War. The “Full Disclosure Edition” of Apocalypse Now includes the longer, more scattered “Redux” cut of the film, plus the flawed-but-visionary original version and Eleanor Coppola and George Hickenlooper’s feature-length making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Add in a Coppola commentary track and copious featurettes, and this collection gives a pretty full accounting of a brief moment in Hollywood history when blockbuster budgets and mad artistic ambition could coexist.
Disney has always taken home video seriously, from the days of limited edition VHS tapes in collectible clamshells, to DVD and Blu-ray sets that balance kid-friendly extras with ephemera aimed at hardcore animation geeks. Bambi is already one of the most fascinating films from the studio’s golden age. It’s a visually sumptuous, primally powerful tale of the natural world, combining pictorial realism with cartoony cuteness. The Blu-ray also contains one of the company’s all-time greatest special features: a sort of illustrated commentary track, which has actors reciting transcripts from Bambi-era story meetings while the screen juxtaposes scenes from the film with artwork from the bullpen. The result is a rare glimpse inside the creative process of one of Hollywood’s most venerable institutions.
Avant-garde filmmakers too often get excluded from canons; but while Stan Brakhage’s work represents only a fraction of what cinema’s great experimenters have had to offer over the past century, Criterion’s well-curated, extras-packed By Brakhage set does offer an essential introduction to a different way of approaching movies. Because Brakhage himself spanned decades in American underground film — working in styles ranging from diaristic home movies to explosively colorful abstract paintings — his best pieces serve as a guide to new ways of seeing the art-form. Love these films or be baffled by them; either way, it’s impossible to walk away from them without thinking that the screen is capable of containing much more than just stories and character sketches.
Because Citizen Kane has a reputation as the greatest film ever made, it’s sometimes hard for novices to approach it as marvelous piece of American showmanship, as opposed to an imposing cinematic monolith. The 75th anniversary Blu-ray helps reclaim the movie’s high entertainment value, thanks to commentary tracks by Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich that cover the artistry of director Orson Welles and his collaborators, as well as Welles’ grandiose personality. For further context, don’t stop with Kane. Pair that disc with Criterion’s edition of Welles’ freewheeling essay film F for Fake, which captures more of his curious obsessions, and adds a fascinating documentary about all the projects throughout his career that the director started but never finished.
Due to various political and social tensions, it took much of the Western world until the ’90s to catch up with the stylistically simple but thematically complex cinema that sprung up in Iran in the ’80s, spearheaded in large part by director Abbas Kiarostami. The filmmaker’s 1990 movie Close-Up is one of his most sublime and enjoyable, bending the rules of both fiction and documentary by having non-actors re-stage a bizarre incident from their own lives, in which a con-man pretended to be another famous director. Criterion’s Blu-ray adds one of Kiarostami’s early neorealist films, The Traveler, plus interviews, documentaries, and a scholarly commentary track. Collectively, the extras and the films make for an excellent introduction to the man and the movement he anchored.
The collaborative demands of feature animation usually mean that directors can’t be “auteurs” per se, but the 11 films in this set are all distinctly the work of Hayao Miyazaki. His fascinations with flight, water, old European design, and limitless dreamscapes are threaded through movies as diverse as the fanciful kid-flicks My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, the action-packed adventures Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, and the strange and personal Spirited Away and The Wind Rises. Disney’s set has both the original Japanese language tracks and the thoughtful English dubs, plus some scattered TV work and Miyazaki’s recent retirement press conference, where he talks at length about the most remarkable career in animation history.
These three films are in no way an actual trilogy, given that they have different characters and unconnected stories, and are the work of two distinct directors — Ang Lee for the Oscar-winning masterpiece Crouching Tiger and Zhang Yimou for the other two. Sony packaged these together for the U.S. market because the company owns the rights to all three (and not to Hero, the Zhang picture that probably belongs here more than the Lee); and because what they do have in common is a visually splendid, emotionally rich take on the martial-arts genre. From the nuanced performances to the eye-popping stunts and sets, these movies (and the informative bonus features that come with them) present Asia’s whole cinematic subcategory of swords, sorcerers, and flying fists as some of purest image-driven storytelling in the medium.
In the second half of the 20th century, Eastern European filmmakers developed a different sensibility from their Western counterparts, facing up to the creeping political oppression in their homelands with expressive visual style, dark humor, and layered critiques of authoritarianism. All of these traits are evident in Dekalog, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ten-part meditation on the Ten Commandments, set in a housing project populated by people going through their own individual crises. Featuring a variety of storytelling approaches — from jittery suspense to dry comedy — Dekalog makes a fine compendium of what Kieslowski and his generation of Iron Curtain-era artists had to offer.
10. La Dolce Vita
For much of the first half-century of cinema as an art-form, “personal” filmmaking was limited to fringe artists and the few clever Hollywood craftsmen who could sneak their own point-of-view into mainstream product. But in the ’50s and ’60s, the world saw the sudden emergence of geniuses like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Jacques Tati, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, all capable of marshaling the resources to produce large-scale interpretations of their own quirky visions. The most inspiring talent to come out of that era was Federico Fellini, who came of age during the waning years of Italian neorealism and then went on to make dense cinematic pageants that presented his thoughts on art, politics, celebrity, Catholicism, Italian history, and gender relations. His pictures were internationally popular too. His La Dolce Vita isn’t just a sprawling study of the debauched Roman nightlife, it’s something of a cultural phenomenon, responsible for launching trends in fashion and movies — all of which are well-covered in Criterion’s Blu-ray.
11. Fat Girl
As the first flowering of the French New Wave began to wilt in the early ’70s, a new generation of filmmakers — many of them female — began making some of their earliest work, setting themselves on paths that in some cases wouldn’t become truly verdant for decades. Like the Belgian Chantal Akerman and her fellow Frenchwoman Claire Denis, writer-director Catherine Breillat has spent much of her life putting the interior lives of women onto the screen, grappling with sexual desire, self-image, and the myths and fantasies that feed social conformity. Breillat’s most potent film is Fat Girl (available on a Criterion disc with extensive bonus features), about the relationship between a sexy teen and her angry, overweight kid sister. Daringly sardonic and frequently shocking, Fat Girl is representative of a mini-wave of late 20th century/early 21st century European movies that aimed to push buttons and challenge social norms.
Over the past 15 years, Hollywood comedy has been heavily influenced by writers and directors like Adam McKay, Paul Feig, David Wain, and Judd Apatow, all nurtured in the worlds of stand-up, improv, and sketches, and all used to a process that involves multiple takes and extensive riffing. Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin shows how this kind of filmmaking can be fruitful, maximizing laugh-lines while cutting deeper than the raunchy R-rated movies that inspired it. The 40-Year-Old Virgin Blu-ray is an education in itself, with ample behind-the-scenes footage and alternate/deleted scenes that explain how these films come to be.
One of the most influential documentary filmmakers of all time, Errol Morris has shown over and over that non-fiction storytelling can be playful and literary as well as informative. His first three features — contained on two separately sold, well-supplemented Criterion discs — run the gamut from the true-crime mystery The Thin Blue Line to the deadpan ethnography of Vernon, Florida. The best of the bunch though is Gates of Heaven, a one-of-a-kind wonder that initially seems to be about rival pet cemeteries but gradually reveals itself as a colorful, heartbreaking portrait of American hopes and dreams. Like the best fiction films, Gates of Heaven can be watched a dozen times and be interpreted a dozen different ways.
In one of the featurettes on the loaded Goodfellas Blu-ray, one of the gangster film’s famous fans, director Jon Favreau, admits that no matter where he is or what his plans are, if he turns on his TV and some cable channel is showing this movie, he’ll watch all the way to the end. Director Martin Scorsese has made more sophisticated and personal pictures than Goodfellas; and sometimes he seems to regret that his career and his style have come to be defined by one flashy, violent, mob saga. But so it goes. This film contains so much of what’s made Scorsese one of the greats, from the lived-in performances to the cinematic bravura. This Blu-ray does the film justice too, with featurettes that place it in the context of the director’s career and the American gangster movie in general.
The invaluable archivists at Flicker Alley are responsible for these two packed sets, which collect some of the finest surviving examples of early 20th century American cinema, with plenty of documentaries and commentary tracks to provide some historical perspective. The Sennett anthology presents the work one of the movies’ first impresarios, who threw all sorts of talented people and technical innovations at the paying public, not necessarily out of any artistic integrity but because his Keystone Studios was perpetually in search of the next big thing. One of Sennett’s discoveries was Chaplin, who later left his Keystone boss and settled in for two years at Mutual, where he started experimenting with the techniques and tones that would later appear in his feature-length masterpieces of the ’20s and ’30s. All together, these two collections bring together hours of culturally significant films, which document the birth of an art-form and the remnants of a long-vanished America.
16. Malcolm X
It took every bit of clout that Spike Lee built up over his first decade in the spotlight to get this biopic of one of the 20th century’s most polarizing political figures into theaters; and Lee sure didn’t waste the opportunities he made for himself. Malcom X is a triumph on multiple levels, from Denzel Washington’s charismatic, career-best lead performance to the way the director takes advantage of his subject’s long and varied life to make a movie that pays homage to multiple cinematic influences: MGM musicals, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, and even David Lean. The Blu-ray goes in depth into how Lee pulled it off, via interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that’ll make a nice primer for any future filmmakers willing to sacrifice everything for their dream project.
Robert Altman was never fully a part of the film-school-trained early ’70s “New Hollywood” crowd that included Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas; but the run of movies he made in the first half of the decade did exemplify the true spirit of that group, and how they sought to reshape classic Hollywood genres into culturally relevant pop-art. Altman’s first heyday (though not his last) culminated with 1975’s Nashville, a radical reinvention of the musical that pinged between two dozen disparate characters in and around the country music industry. Funny, tragic, masterfully acted, and dazzling both to the eyes and ears (thanks to Altman’s roving camera and overlapping dialogue), Nashville is an environment as much as it is a motion picture, and a wonderful place to get lost.
One of the first American directors to rise to the challenge of what auteurs like Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa were doing overseas, Stanley Kubrick started as an independent before working within the Hollywood system. He spent years between projects, carefully crafting what were essentially expensive art films, designed to be pored over by obsessives looking to understand his intricate visual designs and aloof, ironic take on humanity. The eight movies in The Masterpiece Collection cover everything he made from 1962 to his death in 1999, supplemented by multiple lengthy documentaries about his life and career as a whole. They encompass such disparate genres as political satire (Dr. Strangelove), brainy science-fiction (2001), dystopian social commentary (A Clockwork Orange), literary adaptation (Barry Lyndon), gothic horror (The Shining), and wartime adventure (Full Metal Jacket). Each of these films — plus the harder-to-categorize Lolita and Eyes Wide Shut — are all distinctly the work of the same hyper-controlling crank, who always knew exactly what he wanted in the frame, and left everyone else to puzzle over why.
It’s not entirely apt to say that a director as successful as Steven Spielberg “hasn’t gotten his due,” but it’s true that — like Alfred Hitchcock before him — he’s often been taken for granted, and unfairly dismissed as a shallow panderer. The eclectic batch of films included in this set are hardly a comprehensive collection of Spielberg’s best. (There’s no Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, or A.I., to name just a few). But it does have three of his most beloved movies, Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park, each supported by extensive extras. To that the Director’s Collection adds two exciting low-budget early works (Duel and The Sugarland Express), two clumsy failures (1941 and Always), and one underrated blockbuster (The Lost World). Together, they tell their own kind of story, about a popular artist who actually hasn’t played it safe, but has instead applied his innate entertainer’s instincts to movies meant both to play on the audience’s emotions and to provoke them into thinking about what really matters in their own lives.
Like any other subset of cinema, concert films can be blandly functional, or they can be so inspired that even viewers who don’t care about the performers become transfixed. Even if Talking Heads weren’t making exuberantly joyous music in Stop Making Sense, this Blu-ray would still be highly recommended for its commentary track, where the band’s frontman David Byrne and director Jonathan Demme describe how they approached the project. Thinking in terms of visual impact as well as how best to capture a dynamic musical moment, the two shaped the performance and the editing so that each song would have at least one unique element, and so that the personalities of the musicians on the stage would shine through, making them into characters of a kind. When critics talk about the greatness of Stop Making Sense, they often point to certain formal elements — like the minimal use of crowd shots — which can make the film sound gimmicky. Demme and Byrne offer a plainer explanation: They treated the show as a special event, and tried to tell its story, by making sure that every shot served a purpose.
21. Tarantino XX
In the ’60s and ’70s, the first “film school brats” brought new life to Hollywood. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, Quentin Tarantino led a generation of “video store brats,” who’d internalized the movies of that earlier generation — alongside hundreds of foreign obscurities and disreputable cheapies found on the dusty shelves of VHS rental shops. Tarantino XX will undoubtedly be updated someday to include his two most recent pictures, the Westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. But honestly, those two films don’t quite measure up to the eight endlessly re-watchable titles included in this 20th anniversary set. The director’s progression from the twisty, flavorful low-budget crime story of Reservoir Dogs to the grand, audacious alternate-history WWII epic Inglourious Basterds is an impressive one. Just studying those two movies, Pulp Fiction, and the two Kill Bills would give young cinephiles a lively education, pointing them toward multiple genres and movements in world cinema. Then, as a reward for all that research, the students can kick back with Jackie Brown, which remains Tarantino’s most purely pleasurable piece of work.
The Scorseses and Spielbergs of the world were mostly working with Hollywood money as they celebrated and subverted American cinema in the ’70s; but directors like George Romero, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper remained on the fringes of the industry, reinventing the horror and action genres in ways that were still deeply personal, if far less arty. Even now, Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hits hard, mixing grubby docu-realism with creatively disgusting art-direction in ways that are genuinely discomfiting — all well-explained in the 40th anniversary Blu-ray set’s hours of bonus features. Hooper’s more polished (but no less disturbing) The Funhouse deserves to be just as infamous. Scream! Factory’s Blu-ray is one of the label’s best, containing all the fascinating “how they did it” detail that the company’s known for, all in service of hailing The Funhouse as an ’80s horror classic.
Any one of the three Toy Storys would be an essential Blu-ray purchase, not just for the movies’ entertainment value but because the crisp digital mastering and Pixar’s refreshingly forthright bonus features make these discs the gold standard for how to handle a home video release. It’s really almost incidental that this trilogy tops itself from entry to entry, starting with the brisk, breezy first film and then adding more characters, crazier plot twists, more vivid animation, and deeper emotional resonance in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. Alternately clever, pulse-pounding, and tear-jerking, these movies constitute some of the modern era’s most fully satisfying viewing experiences.
Most of the characters in Universal’s horror stable — Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and others — already existed in the culture before the studio put them on the screen. But the eight films in this set cemented a lot of their look and mythology, creating images and moments so seared into the public consciousness that over a half-century later other artists are still working either with or self-consciously against them. The Essential Collection adds over 12 hours of bonus features to classics like The Bride of Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature From the Black Lagoon, bringing them back down to Earth by pointing out how they were the products of a Hollywood studio system and a popular genre that went through a lot of changes from the ’30s to the ’50s.
When director Edgar Wright first collaborated with writer/actor Simon Pegg on a wry zombie movie parody, few would’ve guessed that this one beloved cult hit would spark a whole oddball trilogy. Shaun of the Dead, the cop spoof Hot Fuzz, and the alien invasion comedy The World’s End form a surprisingly cohesive statement about friendship, geek culture, and a changing England. And the Blu-ray collection is a statement of a different kind, revealing what happens when movie buffs who’ve grown up in the DVD and Blu-ray era get to sit in the driver’s seat. The wealth of supplemental materials here — some goofy, some surprising, most honest and informative — will undoubtedly inspire an as-yet-unknown young filmmaker’s own impressive career.