The 5 Best Movies to Buy or Stream This Week: ‘Son of Saul,’ ‘Phoenix’

This week’s two biggest home video releases were among last year’s most acclaimed foreign films – one of the them winner of the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film, the other oddly missing from those nominees (due to the often nonsensical rules for nomination). And making their Blu-ray debuts this week are a ’90s comedy fave, a ’40s classic, and a set of the most influential documentaries ever made.

ON BLU-RAY / DVD/ VOD

Son of Saul: Director László Nemes begins this concentration camp story in a tight close-up, on the face of his protagonist (masterfully portrayed by Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner tasked with herding people into the gas chambers, and cleaning up afterward. Remarkably, Nemes basically keeps the camera there for the next 107 minutes, staying on his face or over his shoulder as he goes about his terrible work, with horrible atrocities carried out either just out of sight, in the background, or on the soundtrack. It’s an extraordinary method of making this unfathomable act personal, a formalist experiment that yields stunning emotional dividends, particularly as Nemes segues from the stomach-churning logistics of how this is done, into the story of Saul seizing on one boy and deciding he must be blessed and buried rather than burned. He claims the boy is his son, although of course this can’t be true; it ultimately doesn’t matter, because it’s less about the boy than the act. Unflinching in its details, unforgettable in its effect. (Includes audio commentary, Q&A, and deleted scene.)

Phoenix: Christian Petzold reteams with Barbara star Nina Hoss for this uncompromising story of a concentration camp survivor who reunites with the husband who betrayed her, and who she still loves. She’s somewhat unrecognizable after her ordeal, and he believes her dead (and with an inheritance to collect). So he sets about “remaking” her as herself (shades of Vertigo), and Hoss is absolutely riveting as a woman putting herself back together, only to tear herself apart and start over. Petzold creates considerable suspense around the question of who’ll know what, when — right up and to and including hiss stunning ending, a powerful payoff delivered at the last possible second. (Includes featurette, interviews, and trailer.)

Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep in "Death Becomes Her"

ON BLU-RAY

Death Becomes Her: His Oscar-baiting tendencies and subsequent submergence into motion-capture and other distancing technologies make it easy to forget that once upon a time, Robert Zemeckis was primarily interested in zany comedies like Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. This 1992 effort – his last feature before the career-altering Forrest Gump – was probably that Zemeckis’ last stand, a wickedly funny tale that fuses Gothic horror comedy, innovative effects, and Hollywood satire into a heady, entertaining brew. Meryl Streep (then in the midst of a comedy phase that included Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life, and She-Devil, to which this almost plays as a corrective) and Goldie Hawn are deliciously funny as warring old friends in a fierce battle to remain young, while Bruce Willis does his wildest slapstick since Moonlighting. And Isabella Rossellini is perfection in the role she was born to play: the seductress who holds the secret to everlasting beauty. (Includes new and vintage featurettes and trailer.)

The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates: The credits for these groundbreaking documentaries read like some kind of Fantasy Filmmakers league: director Robert Drew’s crew included such future non-fiction standard bearers as Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock. Together, they created and perfected the transformative mold of “direct cinema,” using lightweight cameras and portable sound equipment to first document the Wisconsin primary campaign of a charismatic young presidential hopeful named John F. Kennedy. Primary’s low-key intimacy and behind-the-curtains access impressed many – including Kennedy himself, who subsequently invited Drew’s cameras into the White House. Adventures on the New Frontier, which aired six weeks into his tenure, is a kind of Week in the Life of the administration, sitting in on strategy sessions, national security meetings, and Ambassador G. Mennen Williams’ trip to Africa. Crisis is even better, a riveting and quietly intense tick-tock of the administration’s face-off with Governor George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama. And finally, Faces of November is an impressionistic and powerful short capturing the sights and sounds of Kennedy’s funeral, evoking the mood of a nation in sudden, stunned mourning. (Includes Primary audio commentary and alternate cut, Crisis outtakes and discussion, conversations with participants and historians, new interviews, documentary, and panel discussion.)

Brief Encounter: “What exciting lives we lead,” jokes Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) when he bumps into Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) as they’re both running errands, and the screenplay (adapted from Noel Coward’s play Still Life) is full of references to the very ordinariness of the lives of these two married people who suddenly find themselves drawn into a powerful attraction. David Lean’s direction beautifully details the keenly felt moments and small interactions that accumulate first into intimacy, and then into anguish; his inventive style uses structural flourishes and theatrical lighting to frame the story like a daydream/hallucination. Coward’s dialogue is intelligent and witty without sounding too “written” – this is a film filled with moments of small but searing truth. It is often regarded as one of the finest of all British films, and this is not an exaggeration. (Includes audio commentary, interview, featurette, Lean documentary, and trailer.)