This Holiday Season You Can Watch Three Classics On Blu-Ray

”It’s a Wonderful Life,” ”Reds,” and ”Citizen Kane” are now available on blu-ray

Though it flopped upon its release in 1946, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life went on to become a perennial Christmas fable about a small-town man who learns how much his existence has mattered to those around him. It’s a deeply affecting movie and only, say, a magazine columnist with a little bit of inner Scrooge would mutter under his breath half a “Bah, humbug.” But Wonderful Life chases its bathos awfully hard and never bothers disguising manipulations that reveal more than intended. As essayist Michael Ventura once observed, what does it mean that, for all its supposed corruption and venality, the alternate-reality town of Pottersville that would have existed had George Bailey never been born often seems so much more alive, so much more human, than Bedford Falls, which is sanitized to the point of seeming embalmed?

Never mind. One thing about director Frank Capra’s dark confection (now issued as a special 75th-anniversary Blu-ray) remains unimpeachable: About 15 years ago, I was at an office Christmas party and, being the fun guy I am, settled into the corner to watch Wonderful Life on TV as the festivities unfolded around me; although the sound was all the way down, I was newly awed by the mute performance of James Stewart. It may have been that night I realized that, with all due respect to Brando and Streep, Stewart was probably our greatest American film actor. Nobody has ever done despair like Jimmy—a complicated emotion that’s not quite sorrow, not quite rage, not quite terror but a bit of all of them, a grief of the soul. For Stewart’s performance alone, It’s a Wonderful Life deserves its place among the angels and all the heavenly bells that ring for them.

From the time it opened 40 years ago, Warren Beatty’s Reds was a picture of paradox: an old-fashioned period epic about early-twentieth-century radicals released during the ultraconservative presidency of Ronald Reagan. As a labor of love for Beatty, Reds couldn’t help wearing its heart on its sleeve for its tableau of writers, activists, and hard-boiled editors with their combustible mix of politics, art, and sex, as well as for the real-life “witnesses” interspersed throughout who remember them.

On rich display in this just-released Blu-ray edition, the superb cast includes Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Maureen Stapleton, and Diane Keaton giving her best performance ever and stealing the film. In the end, Reds isn’t about bolshevism per se—the toxic seeds of a repressive and murderous Stalinism already are apparent—but quintessentially American dreamers for whom Beatty’s exuberance is so infectious that, all the controversies notwithstanding, the Academy couldn’t deny him a Best Director Oscar. When Beatty showed the film to the Reagans at the White House, even Ronnie, by all accounts, wished wistfully for a happier ending.

If Criterion didn’t score the Blu-ray release of the year with last spring’s World of Wong Kar Wai, then its new 80th-anniversary Citizen Kane seals the deal. Just a gunshot short of noir, the story of a newspaper tycoon told after his death by those who knew him (or thought they did) becomes more conflicted each time it’s seen. That the facts of things aren’t always the same as the truth of them is something Orson Wells, the film’s director and cowriter, understood instinctively and was canny enough to make the movie’s point.

If the fragments are threaded by anything, it’s Welles himself, who had conquered everything in his path by the age of 25, radio and theater triumphs behind him and an unprecedented Hollywood contract in his pocket. Kane became bigger than not only William Randolph Hearst—the real-life publisher who saw a little too much of himself in the film and tried to suppress it by threat and blackmail—but Welles too; it’s the manifestation of an American dream that’s always bigger than its dreamer, and Welles meant to confirm that dream while also questioning it at every moment. Like his creation itself, he flirted with American madness so as to feel American rapture.

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