FilmWatch’s 2023 last-minute gift guide for cinephiles

From Pasolini to Jackie Chan to Werner Herzog's memoirs, here's a picture-perfect assortment of gift ideas sure to please even the most discerning movie lover.

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Everybody has a film lover in their life. At least they certainly should. And you’d think buying for them at the holidays would be easy, but cinephiles come in many stripes and often have very particular tastes. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) Here, then, are a variety of last-minute ideas that can take the place of a Regal Cinemas gift certificate.

Anyone who voluntarily identifies as a film snob appreciates the audiovisual quality, permanence, and supplemental goodies that streaming services can’t provide. The year’s best releases on disc include:

Pasolini 101: The Criterion Collection’s marquee boxed set for 2023 is this stunning compilation of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s nine 1960s features, from his neorealist debut Accattone to his stunning adaptation of Euripides’ Medea (starring operatic icon Maria Callas). The set includes hours of short films, documentaries, audio commentaries, and more, providing an authoritative look at the first decade in the career of one of cinema’s most uncompromising artists.

Jackie Chan: Emergence of a Superstar, The Jackie Chan Collection, Volume 2, and The Sonny Chiba Collection, Volume 2: Of course, great cinema can be more than just arty, intellectual ruminations on faith, sexuality, and tragedy. It can also be a kinetic ballet of violence, as best practiced by Asian cinema of the 1970s and ’80s. Criterion’s recent Jackie Chan set includes six of the films that set his martial arts stardom in motion, plus a bevy of bonus materials. Meanwhile, the increasingly impressive Shout Selects label turned out sequels to their prior releases celebrating the comedic Chan and the significantly more taciturn Chiba. Any one of these sets would delight any action flick fan—all three would be a Christmas miracle.

Computer Chess: Andrew Bujalski’s 2013 cult classic gets a deluxe 10th-anniversary Blu-ray release that’s sure to please the fans of this thoroughly odd film. Shot on primitive black-and-white video, it chronicles the increasingly weird goings-on at an early-1980s convention of computer programmers, who compete to see whose chess-playing program is the best. It includes two audio commentaries, one from a veteran computer programmer, the other from an anonymous “enthusiastic stoner.” That combination perfectly captures the movie’s vibe.  

Blackhat/Carlito’s Way/The Warriors: Another company that has been upping its game with regard to physical releases is Arrow Video. With major studios hardly bothering anymore, companies like Arrow are happy to step in and license deserving films like these three thrillers. Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015) stars Chris Hemsworth as a computer hacker sprung from prison to help track down a cyberterrorist. Brian DePalma’s Carlito’s Way (1993) features stellar performances by Al Pacino and Sean Penn as a Puerto Rican gangster in 1970s New York and his corrupt, coke-addled lawyer. Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) follows a Coney Island street gang on a desperate quest across New York City to their home turf. Each release features slick packaging, posters, and other tactile pleasures to go along with the digital goodies.

The Anna May Wong Collection: Her name is shorthand for both the fetishized Asian exoticism of the early 20th century and the talent that allowed her to transcend it. This set includes three lesser-known star turns from Wong, all released in 1938 or 1939: Dangerous to Know, Island of Lost Men, and King of Chinatown, with co-stars including Akim Tamiroff and Anthony Quinn. Informative audio commentary tracks provide context and detail for these studio classics.

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The Conformist: Perhaps the most noteworthy film restoration of the year was the 4K edition of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 classic about the lure and comforts of fascism, which goes inside the head of a young recruit (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Mussolini’s Italy as he heads on a mission to assassinate a leftist professor. Stunningly photographed and impeccably styled, it’s a visual treat and an all-too-relevant examination of the appeal of authoritarianism.

JFK: Oliver Stone may have devolved into something of a punch line, but his 1991 depiction of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his quest to bring the conspirators behind the assassination of President Kennedy to trial is masterful filmmaking. This new edition from Shout Select features the original and director’s cuts, each with a commentary from Stone, plus an entire disc’s worth of interviews, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and deleted scenes. A must-own for anyone who still has a copy of Mark Lane’s “Rush to Judgment” lying around.

For the literate cinephile

Even the most dedicated film nut can’t spend all of their time watching movies, though. Sometimes, instead, they read about them. So here are three books I came across this year that I’d want someone to give me if I hadn’t already read them.

Opposable Thumbs by Matt Singer: Singer, the editor of screencrush.com and current chair of the New York Film Critics’ Circle, has crafted a thoroughly readable, highly informative, and often quite funny chronicle of the best-known partnership in film critic history: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. In addition to providing the inside story on how a pair of not-terribly-TV-friendly Chicago newspaper critics became national icons, he gets as close as anyone could to delineating the complex relationship between two very complicated men.

Every Man for Himself and God Against All by Werner Herzog: I mean, it’s Werner Herzog’s memoirs. What more do you need to know? Co-opting the original title of his 1974 masterpiece The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog gives the lowdown on his impoverished, isolated childhood and the extraordinary filmmaking career that has followed. Herzog and his work have been documented and dissected at length, but there’s no substitute for getting the story straight from the man himself.

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer: The conundrum that Seattle author Dederer confronts—how to deal with the art of monstrous men—certainly isn’t limited to the film world. But some of its most problematic figures, from Roman Polanski to Woody Allen to Bill Cosby, inhabit that corner of our cultural world. Can we reject the artist while continuing to enjoy the art? There are no easy answers, but Dederer isn’t seeking any. Instead, she explores the contradictions and context of the age of biography in which we live, and whether the sins of Hemingway, Picasso, Miles Davis, and other pre-#MeToo abusers and egotists are comparable to those of today’s pariahs, and whether that even matters.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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