Repulsion (Criterion Collection)
Many people would rather not think the worst about Roman Polanski because he once made such great movies, few of them better than his 1965 second feature, given a decent DVD release at last by Criterion. Left alone in her apartment, Catherine Denueve's wan young mouse withdraws until she finds the walls closing in, cracking, and eventually reaching out for her, with murderous results. Polanski's unsettling compositions and skin-crawling detail (periodic shots of a half-cooked rabbit slowly decomposing in the summer heat) give the movie a creeping dread that's all the more effective for the ordinariness of the setting. Falling apart has rarely been this brilliantly captured on screen.
The Human Condition (Criterion Collection)
There's nothing small about Masaki Kobayashi's 1959-61 nine-hour masterwork: the proverbial cast of thousands, remote locations captured in epic widescreen, weighty issues of society and the soul. And yet, thanks to Kobayashi's focused direction and Tatsuya Nakadai's performance, this story of a young Japanese idealist trying to keep his morals and his skin intact through work, war, and survival in World War II Manchuria captures a struggle of surprising depth and intimacy.
Synechdoche, New York (Sony)
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut was a little too Kaufman-esque for some during its first run. The story of theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his attempt to make art at the scale and depth and detail of life is, however, exactly the kind of film that rewards multiple viewings. Watch it once as a comedy (it was secretly one of the most hilarious films of 2008). Watch it again just for how great Samantha Morton is. Watch it again for the mise-en-scene. The possibilities are endless.
Martyrs (The Weinstein Company)
A kidnapped little girl escapes from her mysterious torturers only to show up at a seemingly random middle-class family's door 15 years later to spatter the walls with their innards. But just when you think you've got French director Pascal Laugier's 2008 film pegged as a particularly gruesome bloody-tanktop gorno revenge flick, it bursts through into a whole new realm of wrong and just keeps going. Kubrickian in ambition and relentless in its brutality, Martyrs has been dividing horror nerds ever since its Region 1 DVD release, not least because of what it implies about anyone who will sit through it.
Lonely Are the Brave (Universal)
It's just a 1962 B-movie that trades in a theme that would soon become hackneyed: the passing of the Old West. But this was a labor of love for Kirk Douglas, and it shows. The star was rarely better as an unreformed cowboy in the modern Southwest who ambles into civilization looking for a friend and winds up afoul of the local law and on the run from a posse equipped with walkie-talkies and helicopters. This is about as existential as the genre ever got.
This Danny McBride/Jody Hill series about a washed-up Major League pitcher adrift in his North Carolina hometown reportedly got picked up for another season, so this will probably be back in re-runs, but if you don't have HBO you missed the most profoundly profane comedy of the year.
A Matter of Life and Death (Sony)
The initial DVD issue of this 1946 Powell and Pressburger classic can fetch hundreds in online auctions, so its recent re-release is a godsend. Not only did director Michael Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff capture one of the great Technicolor romances (David Niven is a downed WWII pilot, Kim Hunter is the woman he wants to cheat death for), but their stunning black-and-white Heaven is like no place on earth.
Grindhouse cinema wasn't just an American phenomenon. As Mark Hartley's zippy 2008 documentary reveals, the 1970s Aussie exploitation film industry might have been the most out of control of them all, a veritable assembly line of low comedy, high body counts, rampant nudity, and kung fu. And if you can avoid a seizure during the film's frenzied clip-o-ramas, you've pretty much seen it all.
Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Magnolia)
Director/co-star Tony Stone armed himself with a digital video camera, some rough costumes, a minimal cast, and access to some Vermont woods and created a strangely convincing depiction of two Vikings stranded on the primordial American coast with little hope of making it home. Something about the hand-held graininess of DV and Stone's home-movie patience help Severed Ways resonate more than mere LARP shenanigans. Even the black metal on the soundtrack can't manage to make it feel tongue-in-cheek.
The Warner Archive
A new model for putting obscure titles back in print, the Warner Archive website offers burned-to-order DVDs and downloads of hundreds of film and television titles from the thousands-deep Warner Bros. studio vaults—everything from Our Gang shorts to Katherine Hepburn's breakout Christopher Strong to cult TV series Then Came Bronson to oddball Munchkin backstage comedy Under the Rainbow to scary-ass '70s made-for-TV flick Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. The prices aren't as budget as you might expect, but the whole thing has been worth the trouble if only for bringing new-wave concert film Urgh! A Music War back to non-bootleg life.