Hard to believe it's been 20 years since the first DVD showed up at our door, isn't it? (We quickly learned it didn't fit very well into our VHS player and that there wasn't much point in rewinding one anyway.) 2016 may not have brought us the flying cars and sassy robot housemaids we expected, but it was another terrific year for classic (and not-so-classic) releases in standard Def Hi Def, 4K, 2K, and all sorts of other technical wizardry we needn't go into here.

As we roll forward, most of the most savory releases are new restorations of vintage films, some of which weren't on DVD before but many of which are upgrades, on Blu-ray. The major studios as a rule aren't as interested in releasing gems from the vaults, so smaller companies have stepped in to license material for release, plus we've seen some thrilling restorations of lost-and-nearly-forgotten films, plus of course the Warner Archive is our go-to company for vibrant releases from its holdings, which include not only Warners but also MGM, RKO, and Monogram(!). So kudos to Olive Films, Cohen Media Group, VCI, Criterion, Kino Lorber, The Film Detective, Thunderbean Animation, and other companies who kept us supplied with terrific new releases every single month of the year.

Traditionally, our annual awards fall into the following categories

  • Great films in worthy new packages
  • Cult favorites worthy of attention
  • Well-done collections that showcase artists, series, or studios
  • Whatever else we saw that we enjoyed

With that verbose introduction, here are our favorite releases of 2016...

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (Mill Creek BD) Dr. Seuss wrote and designed this stunningly odd (even by his standards) live-action musical nightmare starring Tommy Rettig, the kid from Lassie. Hans Conried has his greatest role as the child-hating piano teacher from hell. Mill Creek released a bunch of nice low-budget DVDs and BDs (mostly licensed from Sony), including pairs of Hammer and William Castle horror double-features. Nice job!

Bitter Rice (Criterion BD/DVD) Planting season in the rice paddies of Northern Italy means women come from all over the country to spend several weeks in back-breaking labor - with payment in 30 lbs. of rice to take back home to their hungry villages. A pair of he-and-she jewel thieves on the lam stash their loot with the women in the barracks, and she stays to keep an eye on it while he goes off to get some buddies - and plan the REALLY big haul of stealing all the rice before it can be doled out or shipped away. Much sex, violence, and drama ensues in this 1949 eye-opener from director Giuseppe De Santis. Also making our list from Criterion, another classic Italian film Bicycle Thieves.

Cat People (Criterion BD/DVD) In the early 1940s, producer Val Lewton was assigned to make B-movie horror films for RKO, and since he didn’t like B-movie horror films, he made psychological terrors like this one with horror film gloss. Simone Simon is a panther woman, unless she isn’t. Kind of hard to tell. Watch out for the bus in Central Park, though, THAT'S for sure.

Chimes at Midnight (Criterion BD/DVD) Orson Welles’ much-maligned Shakespearean film is cleaned up and given a beautiful restoration that really makes it appear we’re watching a new masterpiece. It won't be the last Welles' Shakespearean offering on our list, either.

Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (Olive Films BD/DVD) 1950s sci-fi at its daffiest, as Rocket Man flies again in a collection of twelve 30-min. featurettes originally produced (partially) as a TV series and then expanded to be sort of serial chapters, sort of short subjects. Hilarious yet not without excitement in its way. The evil would-be Emperor of the Universe wears a goldfish hat.

The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear (Thunderbean BD) The Thunderbean Animation gang does a superb job rescuing 1920s-1950s cartoons from public domain hell, cleaning ‘em up, and presenting them in high definition, with a wealth of extra material. We look forward to their releases more than any other company when it comes to animation (especially since Warners hasn’t released any Looney Tunes sets in years). While these aren't GREAT cartoons, it's wonderful to see them looking like new and to enjoy them for what they are, extremely entertaining examples of a studio badly trying to find its own Mickey Mouse in the 1930s. And Thunderbean has our favorite non-Mickey offering coming in 2017: Flip the Frog!

The Defenders: Season 1 (Shout! Factory DVD) The best classic TV release of the year; E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed star as a father and son team of lawyers, but these aren’t generally whodunits like Perry Mason: they deal with the legal and ethical issues involved with defending a client who is often guilty.

Incidentally, we created a special ITB Raspberry Award (The “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear All Bunched Up Into One Day” award) for anyone who binge-watches a classic TV show or serial. Be warned.

Fixed Bayonets (Kino Lorber BD/DVD) Sam Fuller’s terrific Korean War picture, low-budget yet thrillingly effective in every scene. Richard Basehart stars as the reluctant leader of a small suicide squad left to cover so the main bulk of our Army can escape from the Commies.

Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection (Universal BD) NOW we’re talkin’: All eight films in the original Frankenstein series, five of which in HD for the first time. Ready for the titles? Sure you are: Frankenstein, Bride of, Son of, Ghost of, Meets the Wolf Man, House of, Abbott and Costello meet, plus House of Dracula, which also features the Monster. Now THIS you can binge. (There’s also a Wolf Man legacy set, but that contains four movies that are also in THIS collection, what with the Wolf Man getting around a lot).

The Gang’s All Here (Twilight Time BD) We’re never happy about Twilight Time’s releases; oh, they’re really nice and all, but pricey and limited releases (usually 3,000) and you have to order them online under a deadline and, well, we don’t like to be hassled. That said, we own a handful of their releases and enjoy them once we get them. This is a stunningly bright 1943 Technicolor Alice Faye/Carmen Miranda musical.

Cary Grant: Vault Collection (Universal DVD) Universal dips into the Paramount Pictures vault (it owns most of the pre-1948 Paramounts) more than it does its own, for some reason. Anyway, this includes a great array of Paramount (and some Universal) Grant films, 18 in all. Also available from Universal this year: Mae West, The Essential Collection (9 films). Last year gave us a must-have W.C. Fields set, so we truly appreciate these Universal DVD offerings. 

Hammer Horror 8-film Collection (Universal BD) Because the Hammers were financed by different American partners (Universal, Columbia, and Warner Bros.) their classic horror films are spread out amongst a number of companies. This set includes two of their best films, Brides of Dracula and Curse of the Werewolf, although Universal seems to have mis-framed them at 2:1 ratio instead of 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 (for you aspect ratio geeks out there, of which I’m one).

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Criterion BD/DVD) Gosh, we couldn’t overlook our all-time favorite romantic comedy, now, could we? Robert Montgomery dies before his time and is sent back to earth to find a new body; Claude Rains is Mr. Jordan in this gem that was remade several times, including the pretty good Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty.

The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber BD) Kino has begun releasing Fox films noir in HD, and move we wholeheartedly applaud. This is a WW2 thriller about a nest of spies in Manhattan.

I Confess (Warner Archive BD) One of Hitchcock’s most consistently underrated classics; Montgomery Clift is a priest suspected of murder, and he knows the real killer but learned it in a confessional and thus can’t say anything. Filmed in Quebec. If you think you've seen all the great Hitchcocks, check out this one!

Invisible Invaders (Kino Lorber BD) Hey, what can we say? We’ve always been a sucker for cheap, low-grade 1950s science-fiction, including this one, about aliens from space inhabiting corpses and making them traipse around. This is considered by most zombie experts to be one of the inspirations for Night of the Living Dead. (Yes, there ARE zombie experts.)

It Came from Outer Space (Universal BD) This 1953 sci-fi classic was released as a Best Buy exclusive – in a combo 3D/2D set, for less than $10! Now THIS is what will get the U.S. economy moving again. Anyway, a ship from Somewhere Else crashes into the American NW desert and wants us all to stay out of its way while it changes its tires (or whatever the flying saucer equivalent of tires is).

J’Accuse (Olive Films BD/DVD) Abel Nance’s powerful 1938 anti-war shocker features the sole survivor of a platoon from the first World War who raises the ghosts of his dead comrades to prevent the next one. One of the great rediscoveries of the year. A flawed film, but if you stick around until the end, you'll never forget it.

Johnny Guitar (Olive Signature BD) We’ve got a full review coming up shortly, but just know that Olive Films kicked off the most exciting series of U.S. releases this year; the Signature series is a massive undertaking that presents worthy (or unusual) films in a deluxe set packed with extras. This release features the stunningly wonderful Joan Crawford/Robert Ryan psychological Western in correct widescreen ratio for the first time. It's like seeing it for the first time.

The Knack and How to Get It (Kino Lorber) Here in the Balcony, we love presenting films that make other people scratch their heads. This one is based on a very funny play, turned into a quirky movie with Michael Crawford, from the director of A Hard Day’s Night. We loved it while our guests went "Huh?"

Macbeth (Olive Signature) Congratulations to Olive Films for nailing down our Official ITB Best Blu-ray Release of 2016; Republic Pictures was looking for a little bit of polish to its B-movie/serial reputation in 1948 when they brought in Orson Welles to direct and star in the Shakespeare classic, but they got a low-budget but faithful adaptation that was delivered for the most part in Scottish brogue that American audiences had trouble with. The film was recut and reedited (well, you know how it was with Welles films) in 1950 and this set includes both versions, plus a slew of featurettes on the production. And the film (even with its Scottish brogue) is a truly great versions of Shakespeare’s triumph. All Blu-ray presentations should be this good. As of this writing, no further Olive Signature films have been announced, but we sure hope they're comin'.

The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection (Universal) Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and yes, Zeppo, star in their first five films, all for Paramount and all restored to new luster for this set – although, alas, arguably the funniest of them, Horse Feathers, is still missing footage. In particular, the first two, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, are massive upgrades from what was available before. The other films are the classics Duck Soup and Monkey Business.

Monster of Piedras Blancas (Olive Films BD/DVD) See what we said before about 1950s science-fiction and horror titles. His is a crab man who lives near a lighthouse and enjoys ripping the heads off his victims. Ouch.

Movie Movie (Kino Lorber BD/DVD) Hey, we loved this kitschy late ‘70s tribute to early ‘30s movies. This is a double-feature (both starring George C. Scott), one a musical in color and one a B&W boxing drama.

Private Property (Cinelicious BD/DVD combo) Outré once-lost thriller with two homicidal maniacs stalking a lonely housewife in Beverly Hills; from Leslie Stevens, creator of The Outer Limits, and starring his wife. The most sensational “lost” rediscovery of the year.

The Return of Dracula (Kino Lorber BD) Francis Lederer is a Count Dracula who seems to have flown as a bat right into Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in this 1958 horror favorite that features a non-B&W surprise at the end.

Shield for Murder (Kino Lorber BD/DVD) “Dame-Hungry Killer Cop Runs Berserk!” is not only the blurb on the poster (and disc cover), it’s pretty much the plot of the film. Edmond O’Brien stars in one of those seedy little pictures that’ll cause you to feel unclean just by watchin’ it.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Kino Lorber BD) Robert Shaw and his band have taken a subway train hostage; Walter Matthau is the transit cop trying to save the lives of the hostages in this edge-of-your-seat thriller from the early 1970s. Matthau could do

T.A.M.I. Show / The Big T.N.T. Show (Shout! Factory BD) Closed-circuit broadcasts from the mid-1960s featuring all the big non-Beatle Rock & Roll performers of the day, including The Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Ronettes, Jan & Dean, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown, Ray Charles, The Byrds, and numerous others.

Try and Get Me (Olive Films BD/DVD) Olive consistently digs out these mostly forgotten but wonderful crime dramas/noirs; this has Lloyd Bridges and Frank Lovejoy as kidnappers and Richard Carlson as the journalist whose lack of ethics blows up the entire town in a taut masterpiece, one of the most rewatchable of all film releases this year.

Wild in the Streets (Olive Films) Another cult favorite from those wacky 1960s; teenagers get the right to vote and Max Frost and his Troopers take over the White House. Is this… the Shape of Things to Come?

Woman on the Run (Flicker Alley BD/DVD combo) Ann Sheridan is after her husband, who’s the target of both cops ‘n’ killers in hot pursuit across the dark streets of San Francisco. A breath-taking restoration of a film that was all but lost.

Favorite ITB Discs of the Year 2016