Saturday, December 23, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG's Favorite DVDs of 2006 - Part 2

EQUINOX (Criterion)

In selecting our choice for VW's Favorite DVD of 2006, we limited the contenders to only those titles which made our contributors' Top 10 lists -- no Honorable Mentions, no also-rans; only those discs that, in our estimation, were the creamiest of the crop. Criterion's EQUINOX was the only title to appear on three different primary lists, followed by Sony's THE PASSENGER, Paramount's THE CONFORMIST and 1900, and Criterion's THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN, each of which scored twice.

And now, as promised, my own personal selections...

TIM LUCAS (Editor's Choice):
Though my Favorites list does not reflect this, I spent most of my viewing hours in 2006 happily absorbed in classic television box sets: Warner's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, CBS Video's PERRY MASON (enjoyably restored to full length) and THE WILD WILD WEST (a new discovery for me, and a very pleasant one), MPI's THE RIFLEMAN (incredibly, each episode of this show seems a revelation), THE "COMBAT!" BATTLE BOX (the complete series, superbly packaged and packed with extras, released on December 6, 2005 and a repackaging of material released earlier, thus ineligible for this year's survey), Paramount's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (I'm just getting into Season 1 and the color photography -- some of it by film noir architect John Alton -- is Bava-like in its rich palette and flagrant intensity); the list goes on and on.

As always, it seems to me that the challenge of preparing any list of this sort is fighting the impulse to simply pick the 10 best Criterion titles -- which I don't think would be as "simple" as all that -- as they continue to move from strength to strength. 2006 was certainly one of the label's banner years. It was also a year of immense volume, and I apologize in advance to those labels whose outstanding product I may have missed or misfiled in memory.

Jean-Claude Brialy admires Laurence de Monaghan in CLAIRE'S KNEE, one of the highlights of Criterion's ERIC ROHMER - SIX MORAL TALES.

Criterion outdid themselves with this long-awaited but deeply satisfying presentation of my favorite film series -- a feast for the spirit and the senses. Each film has been utterly rejuvenated over the previous Fox Lorber transfers and complemented with marvelous, thoughtfully chosen extras. My full review of the set appeared in the October 2006 issue of SIGHT & SOUND and can be read here.

Don't know anything about Norman McLaren? Neither did I, and perhaps that's the best way to delve into the deep end of this endlessly rich assortment of his work in short form cinema. I'm still in the process of exploring and savoring this set, but animation and experimental film buffs will find that it rewards its purchase almost immediately with its unique and enchanting way of looking at life and art. McLaren (1914-87) was a Scottish-born, Canada-based animator who created a good deal of work with the "camera-less" technique of using strips of film as a direct sketchpad, even drawing in the soundtracks by hand. To watch these films is to sit in admiration of a boundless visual imagination and creative spirit that excites as it entertains. Seven elegantly packaged discs containing 58 short films, assorted documentaries and interviews, audio commentaries, tests, outtakes... a person could conceivably spend an entire year reaping the dividends of this collection. If your collection includes the likes of Ladislas Starevich and Stan Brakhage, this heroic release sits quite nicely between them.

Each passing year seems to further reveal this exquisite film as Krzysztof Kieslowski's finest achievement, and the greatest argument to date has been the film's belated arrival on DVD. The French label MK2 beat Criterion to the punch with their ravishing import release of this title, which included as a special limited edition incentive an actual strip of 35mm film; the exact same material was issued in the UK by Artificial Eye. However, Criterion improved on the MK2/Artificial Eye transfer in ways that are subtle, but significant enough to keep the imports on permanent ice. Additional extras further seal the deal, including a delicious book of essays and one of the year's best audio commentaries by Annette Insdorf.

On the one hand, this is an infuriating release because it's a triple dip released at a time when video consumers know that the HD release of all this material is just around the corner (and has already been shown on HDNET). On the other hand, the films have never looked so handsome or sounded so smashing on disc (new 5.1 remixes), and each film is now accompanied by its own second disc of supplementary materials, new ones (including a CBC interview with Ian Fleming and a radio dialogue between Fleming and Raymond Chandler) along with a balance of materials carried over from previous issues, as well as some premiering audio commentaries.

Thanks to this low-profile DVD release, 2006 was the year I finally caught up with this 1975 film by Michelangelo Antonioni, and it proved one of the year's most absorbing viewing experiences, and undoubtedly the most haunting. There is a formal perfection about the film, an ambition, a deliberate reach for greatness, that may or may not work against it; I'm still undecided. Yet I still marvel at the closing scene -- as I seem to do with all Antonioni. And how many DVDs can boast a Jack Nicholson audio commentary? Happily, it's a good listen and not one of those "I can't talk, I'm watching the movie" tracks that so many actors deliver, and the second commentary by journalist Aurora Irvine and screenwriter Mark Peploe is also rewarding.

This two-disc set is, at once, the perfect presentation of the film, a pitch-perfect tribute to the film, an audio commentary education, and a party on a platter. I've written about this disc at length at an earlier date on this blog, so do a Blogger Search or Google Search and track it down, in case you missed it.

7. MORE SILLY SYMPHONIES 1929-38 (Walt Disney)
I've only been dipping into this new "Walt Disney Treasures" release for the past couple of days, but I'm convinced it belongs here. The two-disc set is evenly divided between black-and-white and Technicolor cartoons and, watched in chronologic order, one can see the evolution of the Disney school of animation in a nutshell (or a tin can); one can even see major Disney characters like PINOCCHIO's Figaro in embryo. Long unseen shorts like "Hell's Bells" and "The Goddess of Spring" are important additions to our fund of animated fantasy, and the inclusion of uncut cartoons like "Cannibal Capers" (included with two different endings) and "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" make this release particularly commendable as a triumph of restoration.

8. THE CONFORMIST and 1900 (Paramount)
The best of director Bernardo Bertollucci AND cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (not to mention actress Dominique Sanda, the Garbo of the 1970s), brought to DVD in presentations that are not only pictorially splendid, but substantially more complete than they were ever shown in American theaters. These are classic films made with what might be termed contemporary classical craftsmanship, and though the subject matter is relentlessly realistic and historical, Storaro's peerless eye infuses both films with elements of the fantastic. Paramount has gifted both films with a good deal of supplemental respect, proof of the esteem in which these films are held by the film industry, though they are no longer well known by the public at large.

Here, Orson Welles' most intoxicatingly oblique, incomplete, infuriating jigsaw is viewed every way except upside down through a glass of water. The Corinth Video version of MR. ARKADIN, the CONFIDENTIAL REPORT version, and a remarkable DVD-exclusive "Comprehensive Version" are collected on three discs, along with a new paperback of the film's novelization, expert commentaries (arguably the year's best) and interviews, and the three episodes of the radio show THE LIVES OF HARRY LIME that later mutated into the film's basis. The set plays like a feature film adaptation of my own MR. ARKADIN reconstructive articles for VIDEO WATCHDOG, only much more definitive.

10. EQUINOX (Criterion)
Not just a film, but an engrossing, multi-chaptered lesson in grassroots independent film production, deal-making, and the retooling of an elaborate home movie into a full-fledged theatrical feature. The theatrical, polished EQUINOX is somehow less impressive than the film in its original, roughly-hewn state, which MONSTER KID HOME MOVIES producer Joe Busam calls "the moat impressive 'monster kid home movie' I've ever seen." That the young collaborators behind this movie grew up to become the likes of Jim Danforth, Dennis Muren and David Allen makes the material that much more compelling, and the extras explore their creative genius to even greater lengths. Allen's fairy tale short THE MAGIC TREASURE is particularly appealing. Hands down, the most exciting and generous monster-themed release of the year.

CLOSE, BUT HAVE A CIGAR (in no particular order):

We're getting past the creamiest cream of the crop, but it's still a wealth of laughs and grace notes, delivered with eye-popping color and a delightful bounty of extras.

The Showtime series' first season had a handful of gems -- Joe Dante's "Homecoming", Takashi Miike's "Imprint", Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House", Dario Argento's "Jenifer" and Larry Cohen's "Pick Me Up" are particularly worth acquiring -- but horror buffs with deep pockets and a deep fascination with the challenges of genre adaptation and short form filmmaking will find any and all of these individual sets rewarding on some level. The extras are more valuable than the main features on half or more of these titles.

Sorry, Richard Donner, but your "Director's Cut" of SUPERMAN II is kind of a lox, despite a couple of interesting additions and fresh footage of Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, to name a few. That said, this mammoth 14-disc set -- in a tin-encased lenticular slipcase -- includes all of the Superman features made to date (including 1950's SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN) and there are some fans, like myself, who would consider the set's (finally!) perfect and glorious transfers of the original Fleischer cartoons adequate compensation for its asking price. I've seen all the previously issued Fleischer cartoon collections, and believe me, you haven't seen the Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons till you've seen them here -- given the same lustre as Warner's LOONEY TUNES sets.

V FOR VENDETTA (Warner, pictured)
CASINO ROYALE came close but, ultimately, this was the most impressive major studio production I saw in 2006 - a majestically realized adaptation of the Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel. Available in standard "fullscreen," widescreen single, widescreen two-disc, widescreen two-disc with Guy Fawkes mask, and HD editions.

PANDORA'S BOX (Criterion)
The definitive presentation of the G. W. Pabst classic, which looks cleaner and more complete than ever before, and is presented with a choice of three different musical accompaniments (one by Peer Raben, who scored Fassbinder's BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ). There are some engrossing supplementary programs devoted to Pabst and Louise Brooks, and it's all handsomely packaged with a book of some new and all the relevant essays -- and my copy arrived in the mail on the day of Brooksie's centenary. DVD Savant Glenn Erickson has chosen this as the most impressive DVD of the year, and I can see his point... but I was frankly a bit put off by the audio commentary, which more often than not I found uninvitingly academic.

Of all the new horror films I saw this year, this was by far the most effective. Shot on the cheap by Takashi Shimizu between JU-ON assignments, it tackles nothing less than the subject of people's attractions to what they fear and taps into areas of horror that seem both primal and advanced.

Worth acquiring, if only for Roy William Neill's extraordinary THE BLACK ROOM (1935); it's Karloff's DEAD RINGERS, as he plays twin brothers -- one murderous, one innocent -- and gives three astounding performances, one as the murderer posing as his own dead brother. A marvel of trick photography, as well. Also includes THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, BEFORE I HANG and THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU.

David Cronenberg's best film since DEAD RINGERS (1988), brought to disc with interesting extras and one of the director's customarily intelligent, informative and well-spoken audio commentaries.

WRITER OF O (Zeitgeist Films)
Pola Rapaport's exploration of STORY OF O author Pauline Réàge, part documentary, part docudrama, part first-person confession. A rewarding examination of literature at its most courageous, and a moving study of the purpose and process of writing fiction.

THE MAGUS (20th Century Fox)
The film, based on the best-seller by John Fowles, is a bit of a misfire but it's a damnably interesting one and a pleasure to finally see in its original scope ratio. Without delving into the story, suffice to say that it belongs on the shelf with mind-game movies like PERFORMANCE, THE STUNT MAN, and THE GAME. A very nice bonus is a 20-some-minutes profile of author Fowles, with candid input from friends and his step-daughter.

PETULIA (Warner)
One of the great American films of the 1960s, Richard Lester's satirical portrait of middle-aged romance with a kooky member of the Pepsi generation is close to a career best for nearly all its participants, from George C. Scott and Julie Christie to cameraman Nicolas Roeg and composer John Barry (one of his finest non-007 scores). It also had the good fortune to be filmed in San Francisco while its psychedelic music scene was in full bloom, and offers mesmerizing glimpses of The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin). Edited by Antony Gibbs, whose trademark time-fracturing style later resurfaced in Roeg's PERFORMANCE and WALKABOUT.

KING KONG - DELUXE EXTENDED EDITION (Universal), GOJIRA (Classic Media), I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER - DON GLUT'S AMATEUR MOVIES (Cinema Epoch), JIGOKU (Criterion) and THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (Criterion) -- all likely contenders for my lists, which I haven't been able to screen as yet.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (Sony); WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN THREE ACTS (HBO - like the Umlands, based on the broadcast, as I haven't seen the DVD); ANDY WARHOL - A DOCUMENTARY FILM (PBS); NAKED CITY - SETS 1, 2 and 3 and LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP (Image Entertainment); PERRY MASON: SEASON 1, VOLUME 1 (CBS Video); THE WILD WILD WEST: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (CBS Video); THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - ULTIMATE EDITION, VIOLENT MIDNIGHT and HORROR OF PARTY BEACH/THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (Dark Sky Films); DUST DEVIL (Subversive Cinema); BLACK CHRISTMAS (Critical Mass); Michele Soavi's CEMETERY MAN (20th Century Fox), UNO BIANCA and ST. FRANCIS (both NoShame Films); BLACK PIT OF DR. M (Casa Negra); THE BRAINIAC (Casa Negra); THE TARZAN COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 (Warner); HENRI LANGLOIS: PHANTOM OF THE CINÉMATHEQUE (Kino on Video); MACUMBA SEXUAL (Severin Films); ABIGAIL LESLIE IS BACK IN TOWN and LAURA'S TOYS (Retro-Seduction Cinema); and THE ZACHERLEY ARCHIVES (Zacktapes/PS Productions), a wonderful compendium of all the surviving kinescopes of John Zacherle's telecasts -- and more -- which actually came out late last year, but which escaped my notice till 2006.

1. THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (Reel 23, Dutch, pictured)
The most visionary new film I saw in 2006. A staggeringly dead-on adaptation of J. G. Ballard's non-narrative novel of a doctor's nervous breakdown and the doors of perception it opens for him and others. Although Jonathan Weiss's independently-produced film was first completed circa 2000, it had to wait until this year, and this import DVD, for its first significant distribution. It may not be for everyone, but for science fiction cinema it represents a quantum leap.

Criterion released their own Louis Malle box set this year, 3 BY LOUIS MALLE, as well as a stand-alone release of his dazzling debut, ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (a thriller with a score by Miles Davis). Here they were beaten at their own game by two box sets from Optimum, which include several key titles not yet available in the States in any form -- notably LES AMANTS/THE LOVERS (1958, VOL 1), featuring Jeanne Moreau at her sexiest; ZAZIE DANS LE MÉTRO (1960, VOL 1), the zany kaleidoscope of a movie that arguably launched what we now know as "the Sixties"; LE FEU FOLLET (1963, VOL 1), a gripping study of post-detox depression with a great performance by Maurice Ronet; and the erotic Freudian dreamscape BLACK MOON (1975, VOL 2).

3. FANTOMAS (Artificial Eye, UK)
All five of Louis Feuillade's feature-length silent serials based on the exploits of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain's masked genius of crime -- available for the first time with English intertitles, and an introduction by VW's own Kim Newman.

4. IKARIE XB-1 (Filmexport, Czech)
Just about the last thing I ever expected to find on DVD: the original Czechoslovakian film that was the basis of the AIP import curiosity VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE UNIVERSE. One wishes, for reference's sake, that both versions had been included in full, but only the opening and closing titles of the AIP version are included -- but to have the original film in its intended form, in 16:9 widescreen with English subtitles... this alone previously seemed too much to hope for.

Eric Rohmer's most recent sequence of films -- A TALE OF SPRINGTIME (1989), A WINTER'S TALE (1992), A SUMMER'S TALE (1996) and AN AUTUMN TALE (1998) -- are here collected in a handsome set, festooned with director interviews and trailers. The films themselves are not as essential as Rohmer's earlier work, but the master's touch -- his appreciation of the magic that arbitrarily springs to life between two people -- remains deft and unmistakable. An essential companion piece to Criterion's SIX MORAL TALES set.

This box set collects four films based on the work of British author Graham Greene, two of which (THE THIRD MAN and THE FALLEN IDOL) are somewhat better served by their Criterion editions. Where this set becomes essential is in its presentation of the shattering BRIGHTON ROCK (US: YOUNG SCARFACE, with Richard Attenborough as one of the iciest crooks you'll ever meet onscreen) and THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1953), which allows the set to bookend with an outstanding lead performance by THIRD MAN supporting player Trevor Howard. British filmmaking at its finest, from first disc to last.

7. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (Gaumont, France)
This two-disc set is analogous to 20th Century Fox's BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: it takes one of the great cult movies of our time, gives it a definitive presentation, and assembles its cast to pay festive tribute to it over the length of a second disc. Includes a 5.1 audio remix of the feature that raises the goosebumps.


This disc, the first-ever digital presentation of Mario Bava's 1961 Viking adventure, represents the first time it has been widely available for viewing in its original ratio and color values in 45 years. One of those films that can't be properly appreciated in a faded, cropped print, this is a prolonged wow of the senses -- a worthy companion piece to your copy of Fantoma's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD. Sweetening the pot is an hour-long documentary focusing on Bava as a special effects master, which offers generous footage from Bava's only two known television interviews with an English subtitles option.

A gorgeous thing. This limited edition import (3000 copies) is packaged in a kind of hardcover book and, after enjoying its contents, you start agonizing about the wait you'll have to endure before you can fill a whole shelf with other titles in this series. (I hope there will be more.) Directed by Javier Aguirre, THE HUNCHBACK OF THE MORGUE is rightly celebrated as one of Paul Naschy's best performances and one of his most interesting romantic variations on a theme. Warning: Animal lovers (even rat haters) may take exception to scenes involving the immolation of live rats. Includes Naschy's first audio commentary (in Spanish, with English subtitles) and a 34-page color booklet of illustrated essays by Naschy authorities Mirek Lipinski and Christian Kessler.

At long last, a better-than-watchable presentation of one of Luís Buñuel's most delirious films -- the one about the dinner party that refuses to break up and gradually devolves into barbarism. No frills, but this movie doesn't need them; it's enough to finally see everything that's going on.

And last but not least...

Restoration-wise, the buzz on the street this year is the outstanding job done for MGM's JAMES BOND ULTIMATE EDITIONs. Truth is, the Bond films have always looked good on DVD, even if some of the minor details pertaining to the original release prints have only been properly replicated in this latest round. But in simple terms of comparing things, as they used to look, to how they look now on DVD, the most enormous and gratifying improvement is to be found in the color episodes of the 1950s TV syndication series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.

These color episodes were originally broadcast in black-and-white, and when they were syndicated to stations in color in the mid-to-late Sixties, they were saddled with cheap color processing that gave them an ugly, porridgey look that got ten times worse whenever one scene was about to dissolve into the next. Fans assumed that the show must have been filmed with some kind of chintzy '50s color process, doomed to quick and smudgy fading, but Eureka! On DVD, these color episodes now evince a bold color design and sharp detail that's gone unsuspected for the past 50+ years. Yes, these later episodes can be juvenile and silly at times -- but have you read a '50s Superman comic recently? The beefed-up color makes sense of these later episodes by reminding us that they were intended to be DC comic book stories of the period brought to life. Consequently, the restoration compels us to reassess the work at hand and regard the series, as a whole, as a greater all-around success.

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