Friday, December 22, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG's Favorite DVDs of 2006 - Part 1

Julie Christie in the unsettling finale of Richard Lester's PETULIA,
one of VW's Favorite DVDs of 2006.

This year, the VIDEO WATCHDOG staff's selections of our Favorite DVDs of 2006 will be presented in two parts. I had planned to include my own choices here with those of our other reviewers, but -- as has been known to happen -- my list got out of hand, as I found myself adding Honorable Mentions, a separate Top 10 of Imports, a choice for Best DVD Restoration of 2006, and so forth. My portion, then, will appear tomorrow, but today I bring you the favorites of VW's Rebecca & Sam Umland, Kim Newman, Richard Harland Smith, David Kalat and Sheldon Inkol. Enjoy! - TL


Over half of our selections for the best DVD issues of 2006 are classics of Italian cinema. We make no apologies for over-loading our list in this way, because as it happened, 2006 saw some outstanding films by Italian filmmakers released on DVD. Our choices are not ranked.

Vittorio De Sica, in his first collaboration with Cesare Zavattini, proves that nothing can surpass a simple story well told, in this case one about a small boy emotionally devastated by his parents’ crumbling marriage. Criterion’s edition doesn’t have the vast number of supplements to which we’ve become accustomed, but those few included on the disc are insightful nonetheless.

“Fists in the pocket” is a figure for repressed anger or rage. Given the meaning of the title, it seems odd that no one seems willing to step forward and definitively call Marco Bellocchio’s first feature (1965) a horror film, but it has a number of its typical features: a tormented, alienated anti-hero, a cursed genetic inheritance (“taint of blood”), matricide, fratricide, and incest. It’s easy to forget that Criterion's mission isn’t just to present pristine versions of classic films adorned with supplements, but also to rescue certain films from undeserved or unaccountable neglect: this is one of those films. The biggest revelation of the year.

AMARCORD (Criterion)
Fellini’s purpose here seems to be nothing less than “to see a world in a grain of sand.” There may be some who are willing to dismiss Fellini’s films as quaint museum pieces of Modernist cinema or “a cinema of personal expression,” but we refuse to do that. Criterion’s 2006 two-disc reissue of one of its mainstays since the days of laserdisc is the best home video presentation of the film so far, and is loaded with supplements.

This welcome DVD release of Antonioni’s haunting film is the “international version” that restores about seven minutes of footage deleted from the American version. The disc, happily, includes an informative commentary by Jack Nicholson. There is an additional commentary by Aurora Irvine and screenwriter Mark Peploe.

THE CONFORMIST and 1900 (Paramount)
These DVD editions by Paramount -- two of Bernardo Bertollucci’s best films -- are among the major releases of the year. 1900 (Novecento, meaning, more accurately, “the twentieth century,” not the year “1900”), has its detractors, but we think the film is utterly compelling, especially in the five hour plus version released, finally, on a two disc set by Paramount. Both releases feature excellent transfers and great supplements.

Referring to Ang Lee's masterpiece as a “gay cowboy” film is as reductive as saying CASABLANCA is about an American expatriate who owns a café catering to refugees in French Morocco during World War II -- true, but such a banal description does violence to the film’s richness and complexity. Universal’s DVD issue contains an excellent presentation of the film, along with valuable supplements.

Robert Aldrich had a natural affinity for the grotesque, probably because deep down he saw the world as a tragic farce. While it is impossible to deny that WHAT EVER HAPPENED... was made in the shadow of SUNSET BLVD. (1950), for us, Aldrich’s story of two sisters bound both by necessity as well as by mutual loathing is somehow more profound -- and more compelling. As portrayed, brilliantly, by Bette Davis, the aged Baby Jane Hudson, as a garish caricature of her younger self, is as great a creation as anything in American cinema -- or Samuel Beckett, for that matter. BABY JANE is Grand Guignol, perhaps, but it is not camp, as the film is so often (and, as we see it, unjustly) characterized. However, if you want camp, go to Disc 2 and watch Bette Davis on THE ANDY WILLIAMS SHOW from 1962, belting out, in her best Chubby Checker fashion, a pop rock version of her 45 single, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

QUAY BROTHERS: THE SHORT FILMS 1979-2003 (BFI; PAL Region 2, pictured)
Based solely on this package’s attractive graphic design, the information crammed into the accompanying 24 page booklet (“A Quay Brothers Dictionary” that defines influential figures and important concepts in their work, as well as the original treatment for STREET OF CROCODILES), the value of the interviews and the audio commentaries provided by the Quay Brothers, this two-disc set issued by the British Film Institute gets our vote as the best DVD issue of the year. The information, commentaries, and interviews, as well as some of the rare shorts included on these discs, is available nowhere else.

As far as we’re concerned, the high-definition “revolution” cannot happen fast enough. Although there have been many outstanding HD DVDs released this year (and many more announced for next), Warner’s HD DVD of FORBIDDEN PLANET was our favorite. We were not disappointed by the film’s stunning presentation, as the HD format delivered everything we’d been promised -- and more. Morever, the disc is loaded with supplements (in 420p, however, not in 1080p, like the feature), including the 1957 feature THE INVISIBLE BOY (in which, following FORBIDDEN PLANET, Robby the Robot has a starring role), full-length documentaries, a half-hour TV show featuring Robby, TV show excerpts, and trailers of 50s SF films. On one side of a single DVD, one has easy access to an entire evening’s worth of entertainment and information.

Janus Films’ heavy, extravagant, slip-cased box Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films; Pandora’s Box (Criterion); Charlie Chan Collection Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (Fox); Emperor of the North (Fox); When the Levees Broke (HBO; note: we saw most of Spike Lee’s documentary during its HBO premiere but haven’t had the opportunity to review the DVD issue, released late this year); and Celine and Julie Go Boating (BFI).


ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! (2 Entertain Video, R2)
A near-forgotten 1960s UK TV series given optimal presentation, with a rare insightfil making-of documentary, script.pdfs of the episodes missing from the archives, the tie-in comic strips, and much other material. Mostly studio-bound and shot as live, the show remains strikingly imaginative and bizarre, with a terrific central performance from Gerald Harper as an Edwardian adventurer preserved in ice and let loose to continue his career in the swinging 60s.

Another outstanding Criterion release, with a second disc of extras, but making this list because this is a case where the remastered transfer really brings out strengths of the film (especially its wonderful sound design) not seen in previous home video releases (including a previous UK DVD). Also, this is one of those films that gets better with every viewing.

This three-disc box edges out the DOUBLE INDEMNITY set (which has the TV movie remake) by including all three Warner Bros. adaptations of the Dashiell Hammett novel, plus three radio versions. Having gone through all the extras, I thought I should at least take a look at the main attraction, a film we all know by heart, and found myself as caught up in it as on the first viewing. Bogart grinning with amused sadism round a cigarette as he disarms Lorre is a defining moment of movie stardom.

A four-episode French TV series from 1965, about a masked figure lurking in the Louvre, starring Juliet Greco. In France, this is one of the best-remembered TV shows ever, but it's not much known elsewhere. Here's a chance to see something important. No, there are no English subs. If you don't understand French, learn. By the end of four episodes, you'll have picked up a lot. You rarely hear French, German, Italian, etc fans lament that any given DVD doesn't have subs in their languages, so it's time we Anglophones stopped whining.

PETULIA (Warner)
An underrated, still-startling picture, directed by Richard Lester, shot by Nicolas Roeg, starring Julie Christie. This hasn't looked as good since it was in cinemas.


Beloved by few, these Lon Chaney starrers hold a peculiar fascination for me and, while not representing his best work by a long shot, are an effective fair-to-middlin' showcase for his limited but engaging talents.

What a package! I would have paid the asking price to have DOCTOR X by itself on DVD, but to have MAD LOVE and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (among others) thrown into the mix makes me giddy as a schoolgirl.

A gem of early 70s atmospheric horror is given a first rate if bare bones release. An audio commentary would have been wonderful, but I'm not kicking about having this old favorite in pristine condition.

It's no NIGHT STALKER, but it's still a lot of fun and has at least one classic scare in it. I could have gotten behind this as a weekly series.

Universal has shoe-horned in several of its Eisenhower era classic SF titles with nothing in the way of extras, but again it's nice having THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, TARANTULA and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (among others) looking so pretty.

Great cinema it's not (it's not even great camp cinema), but there's a compelling aura of post-Camelot ennui hagging this shaggy dog story of a disfigured NASA android (and passable JFK lookalike) facing down Martian invaders to a quasi-Merseyside backbeat. [Check out RHS's full-length FMTSM review at, link above. - TL]

JIGOKU (Criterion)
There's so much classic Japanese horror needing to be on DVD and this is a great start.

EQUINOX (Criterion)
I'll admit to balking at the prospect of the Criterion Collection treatment for this title... but I'll willingly eat my hat after seeing both the grand treatment afforded this still obscure but influential horror title and what the behind-the-scenes story tells us about the art of film-making.

I had very little to do with this release (apart from writing the box copy), so I don't feel it's too much of a sweetheart deal to praise this lavish collector's edition. It may even be more than this very modest movie deserves, but you can't fault NoShame for going the distance for their consumers. And the amulet is wicked cool.

Finally, I'll get to see the rest of THE BOOGEY MAN WILL GET YOU! And again, the asking price would have been worth it for THE BLACK ROOM alone. Karloff lives!


GOJIRA (Classic Media)
I’ve been waiting for something like this since the very first day I went to a seminar on DVD technology back in 1995. What more can I say?

INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH KEATON (Laughsmith/Mackinac Media)
In last year’s list, I stupidly cited a disc that, I hadn’t realized, was a one-off DVD-R I bought at a convention that wasn’t commercially available. But since it was a Keaton rarity, I was blind to those demerits. This year I have the pleasure of listing a disc that is indeed widely commercially available, and the best work (so far) of the bright minds behind Laughsmith. If you love cinema, you must by definition love Buster Keaton, and if you love Buster Keaton you probably have obsessively watched and rewatched his films. But even so, if you think you’ve seen it all, this lovingly packaged disc collects some true gems that will startle even the diehard fans. I’ve heard a sequel is in the works, and I can hardly wait.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers working today, and while the majority of his recent work is well represented on DVD, his enormous back-catalog of pre-CURE flicks remain obscure and unavailable even in Japan. I’ve been longing for a release for Kurosawa’s SWEET HOME for years, but this fabulous treat is even better. It’s like a mad slasher film by the makers of THE OFFICE, a wicked satire packed with ripe visuals and colorful characters. Add an enlightening commentary by scholar Tom Mes, and you’ve got a movie that keeps on giving. (OK, now where’s SWEET HOME?)

This edition is adapted slightly from the actual live broadcast so daring attempted in 2005—but the excellent commentary track explains the logic and justifies the decision. Like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, this is a remake mounted by folks with abundant respect for the original source.

I don’t have much truck with the conventional wisdom that Orson Welles did his best work early in Hollywood, and then flamed out. For me, his low-budget European pictures are more inventive and rewarding for their idiosyncrasies. Criterion’s megatastic presentation of this Eurocult thriller goes a long way towards proving my point, and ranks alongside their similarly-inspired deluxe version of BRAZIL as one of the best applications of DVD. Watching these three variants and their attendant bonus features is like a VIDEO WATCHDOG article come to life.

A&E dug deep into the vaults for these rarely-seen episodes. I considered myself a serious AVENGERS fan and I had never seen these before, and knew almost nothing about them. They are experimental, and crude—in both content and ragged archival picture quality. Honor Blackman’s Mrs. Gale is not yet a full-timer, sharing the co-star slot with such characters as Venus Smith (!), Steed’s character is still embryonic and sometimes wears a derby instead of a bowler (sacrilege!), and the storytelling is not as tight as it would be just a year later -- but the effect is like watching the creative process at work. It’s the next best thing to sitting in on the actual production conferences as one of the best shows of the 1960s was born.

TYPHOON (NTSC import, CJ Entertainment)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—the best movies being made today are being made in South Korea. This puts American action movies to shame. Plus it has real depth—a geopolitical thriller that refuses to buy into absolutist concepts of good guys and bad guys. Why don’t movies like this get released to theaters anymore?

Taiwanese cinema has long been the movie-world’s version of PBS: committed to highbrow notions of culture and edification, willfully defiant of what people might wish to watch, and dependent on government handouts to stay afloat. Then, in the past couple of years, along came a handful of upstarts to challenge the traditions and say, well, what’s stopping us from trying to make something fun? This Taiwanese variant of the J-Horror style is an extraordinary debut by some brash youths with a real eye for how to make the screen sparkle.

My daughter Ann has become a huge Whovian lately, thanks to the revival series with Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant. It has inspired her to seek out the classic series on DVD, and so we sat down to enjoy this together. I expected her to reject it, since the 1963 iteration is so exceedingly different than its current manifestation, but she ate it up and couldn’t get enough. Proof if any were needed that classics endure.

FANTOMAS (Artificial Eye, PAL R2)
This 2 disc set from England is not much different from the French disc put out nearly a decade ago—it loses some of the French edition’s extras and is more spartanly packaged. However, it adds something the French import lacked—English subtitles. Now, nobody reading this has an excuse not to rush out and join Fantomania!

ARSENE LUPIN (Thai import) is a French pulp blockbuster that might yet launch a new franchise; THE BUSTER KEATON 65TH ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION (Sony) gives props to a much-maligned era in Keaton’s career but overdue for reappraisal; HOLLYWOOD'S LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION (Warner); THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (Casa Negra) is a packed-house of an exploitation movie with no less than three “monsters” on the loose; and DANCING LADY (Warner) offers a Pre-Code musical with Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire and the Three Stooges, a huge “I Love Beer” finale -- what more could you want?


1. EQUINOX (Criterion)
Perfect. I've waited a long time for this release, but I couldn't have dreamed it would be this good. Whether or not you like the movie, odds are you'll enjoy this DVD. I completely concur with Bill Cooke's review in the current VW. Essential.

2. BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (20th Century Fox, pictured)
Almost perfect. Another long-awaited DVD that exceeds expectations. If only it had some of those tantalizing deleted scenes glimpsed in the stills galleries...

3. METROPOLITAN (Criterion)
Appropriately enough, released on Valentine's Day. A smart, funny, wistful movie I never grow tired of. Watching it is like spending time with old friends. If you like Whit Stillman's debut, I strongly recommend his BARCELONA and, to a lesser extent, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (in which several METROPOLITAN characters make a cameo appearance).

4. PETULIA (Warner)
Richard Lester. Nicolas Roeg. John Barry. George C. Scott. Julie Christie. It starts with a Janis Joplin performance staged for the movie and shot by Roeg... and it just gets better, culminating in one of the most haunting endings ever. It may be a time capsule fashioned at the end of the Sixties but the emotional content is more relevant than ever. I find it shattering.

Doctor Who done right, with a focus on moral dilemmas and human emotions. Thirteen episodes of excellent TV and nearly five hours of special features. "The Unquiet Dead", "Dalek", "The Empty Child" two-parter and the season finale are simply outstanding drama, whether or not you care for the Doctor. The packaging is annoyingly awkward, though.

An excellent if clunkily titled box set featuring RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, THE WILD BUNCH, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and two versions (although neither can be definitive) of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. I admit I unloaded CABLE HOGUE and replaced it with MAJOR DUNDEE, but a worthwhile purchase nonetheless.

7. THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN COLLECTION VOL. 12-16 (Wild East Productions)
Taken individually, none of Wild East's 2006 Italo-Western releases (THE DIRTY OUTLAWS, GENTLEMAN KILLER, TASTE OF KILLING, MATALO! and A REASON TO KILL, A REASON TO DIE!) could be objectively termed an indispensable DVD, but collectively they represent an important and ongoing campaign to preserve the most obscure and rare titles of a dead sub-genre. Wild East shows us what fans are capable of accomplishing and their efforts should be applauded by those of us who love cult movies.

8. THE PROPOSITION (Capri Releasing/Maple Pictures)
This has to be the most brutal and depressing Christmas movie ever made, and is certainly a potent antidote for excessive holiday cheer (even moreso than BLACK CHRISTMAS). But it is also beautifully and sincerely executed, with a great cast bringing a smart and morally complex script (the first by Nick Cave) to life.

Despite the reported absence of some sound effects (not immediately apparent to me), this is an attractive release of a horror classic that still stands up over 30 years later. The generous extras also capture important testimonials from participants who have only recently passed away.

10. ERASERHEAD (Absurda)
Yes, I know this has been available for a few years now, but David Lynch's "dream of dark and troubling things" only became widely available through retail outlets at an affordable price in January of 2006. The extras are fascinating but do leave one wanting more. Hopefully a R1 LOST HIGHWAY and the second season of TWIN PEAKS will surface in 2007.

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