Physical media forever! Look, I’m not so naïve as to think all that many people out there are going to choose to buy discs instead of stream things. It’s nearly 2022, a very futuristic sounding year. I get it. But, there are just certain pleasures a digital purchase simply cannot out perform a real thing. As such, this is a list of the best Blu-ray box sets of 2021, in no particular order. The ones I found to be the most worth-the-space on your respective shelves. Certainly there are a lot of great physical media distributors out there, so this list is by no means complete. These were just the ones I liked best. Do not begrudge an old fuddy duddy his small pleasures.
Once Upon a Time in China: The Complete Films
I love the fact that Criterion continues to surprise and delight with its ever-growing catalog of eclectic and disparate film choices. Their move into the realm of Hong Kong action cinema in recent years has been especially exciting. A few years ago they put out Jackie Chan’s first two Police Story movies; last year they gave us the complete Bruce Lee. Now they’re back with writer-director-producer Tsui Hark’s historical epics, Once Upon a Time in China, being the breakthrough franchise for up-and-coming Wushu champion Jet Li.
The series follows the legendary Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, a martial artist and physician who had already been the subject of dozens of movies in the country. Tsui directed four out of the six movies; Li plays Wong in four of the six movies. The two men bring out the best in each other. The movies are not only outstanding, fast, exciting action films (hello fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping), but a real exploration of Tsui’s feelings toward Chinese history. Tsui is ethnically Chinese, born in South Vietnam, educated in the United States. As a result, he brings an outsider perspective and is both reverent and critical of China’s history. Even going on 30 years later, Once Upon a Time in China feels ahead of its time.
Years of Lead – Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers
Of all the Italian genre movies that I’ve fallen in love with over the past decade, the poliziotteschi, or Italian crime films, have been the ones that took the longest. Italy, which had enjoyed a decade of swinging progressiveness during the ’60s, was moving toward political unrest by the 1970s. Crime shot up sharply, terrorism from both far-left and far-right factions threatened the citizenry, and violence was always a hair’s breath away. This period, the “Years of Lead,” was tumultuous to say the least.
The poliziotteschi films reflected this unrest and ran the gamut from fun car chase movies to tough, downbeat crime flicks. This box set from the good folks at Arrow Films gives us five lesser known, but truly entertaining and thought-provoking movies from that period. For a full breakdown of the set, check out my review here.
The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee Collection
Staying in Europe, Severin’s excellent (and thorough) box set explores some of the films horror icon Christopher Lee made in mainland Europe in the ’60s. Some of Lee’s most interesting films come from this period and the set includes three Italian movies, two West German movies, and a Polish horror anthology series he hosted in the ’70s. Three of the movies I think are absolutely worth it for any genre fan. Castle of the Living Dead and Crypt of the Vampire, both from Italy and released in 1964, and the German film The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism from 1967. Despite the latter’s salacious name, it’s easily my favorite of the set, with a gorgeously chilly Bavarian setting and lush color which highlights some of the gorier moments.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Complete Series Limited Collector’s Edition
One of the most important, influential, and ponderous anime ever, Neon Genesis Evangelion has never looked as good as it does now thanks to this new Blu-ray set from GKIDS and Shout! Factory. The complete series limited collector’s edition includes: all 26 episodes, plus both of the original movies, in both the new updated subs and dubs and the classic subs and dubs fans remember from the 2000s. If you like the show, this is the best way to see it and hear it.
Future Boy Conan The Complete Series
And speaking of GKIDS and Shout! Factory, they’ve teamed up for a real treat. The directorial debut of one Hayao Miyazaki (heard of him?!) the 26-episode series is at once a dark, post-apocalyptic adventure and a happy, lighthearted kids show. Oh, anime. The show originally aired in 1978 and hasn’t been easy to come by in North America until now. Boasting a brand new English dub and subtitle translation, the HD presentation on this set is absolutely stunning. You can absolutely see Miyazaki’s trademark mix of whimsy and dourness on display. It feels like a great companion piece to his later feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. No wonder he became the greatest animated filmmaker of all time.
The Daimajin Trilogy
Staying in Japan, we have a fascinating trilogy of kaiju movies that all came out within the same calendar year. Each of the films has a different director, different-ish story, and different characters. Well, mostly different characters; they’re all period-set, samurai historicals that happen to end with a giant living statue god wreaking havoc on those who would do harm to his worshipers. The product of Daiei Films, the same company that made the much more traditional Gamera series, the Daimajin trilogy are generally straight forward drama films punctuated by extended third-action kaiju destruction, some of the best in the genre. For a full rundown of this set from Arrow Films, click here.
Thundarr the Barbarian Complete Series
Most of the sets in this list from 2021 have a ton of extras or value added material. This one is on here just because it surprised me and I love it. I’d never seen Thundarr the Barbarian prior to getting the Blu-ray set this year and so I assumed, wrongly, that it would be a bit like The Herculoids or the original Space Ghost. Excuses for limited-movement animated action. But boy was I wrong. It only lasted 21 episodes, but it features some of the wildest post-apocalyptic scenarios I’ve ever seen. The titular Thundarr travels the wreckage of the Earth with his companions, Princess Ariel and the large, bestial Ookla the Mok. It mixes swords and sorcery with science fiction and technology. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. Click here to check out my full Thundarr the Barbarian review.