Monday, December 10, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: The Umlands

This week, Video WatchBlog begins its week-long accounting of our contributors' favorite DVD releases of the past year. We'll wrap up at the end of the week with my own Editor's Choice selections and the naming of VIDEO WATCHDOG's annual selection for DVD of the Year (the release that appeared most frequently and placed most highly in our collected lists). We begin with...

Rebecca and Sam Umland

Our list last year was heavily weighted toward classics of the Italian cinema, but this year our choices are slightly more heterogeneous, although our selection includes several classics of the British cinema. Our choices are not ranked.

1. PERFORMANCE (Warner Home Video)
Despite the unfortunate soundtrack gaffe (the omission of Turner’s line, “Here’s to old England!”) this legendary film looks splendid on home video. Unless Warner commissions a restoration of the roughly 3m cut shortly before the film’s U.S. premiere, this is as a complete a version as we’re ever likely to get of this masterpiece. At the very least, a second pressing -- with the soundtrack corrected -- would be welcome.

With all the hoopla surrounding Warner’s DVD release of PERFORMANCE, this unaccountably neglected British classic from 1962 starring Tom Courtenay (knighted in 2001) and directed by Tony Richardson (with a small supporting role by James Fox), released the same week as the PERFORMANCE DVD, was overlooked.

3. and 4. IF…. (Criterion) and O LUCKY MAN! (Warner Home Video)
In a remarkable serendipity, the first two films of the unofficial trilogy starring Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis were released on DVD in the same year, about four months apart. These British classics were long overdue on DVD, the latter another one of the year’s welcome releases from the Warner film archives. Criterion’s two-disc set is outstanding (with the supplements primarily devoted to the second disc), and while we were delighted finally to have O LUCKY MAN! on DVD, too bad Warner didn’t issue it on HD DVD or Blu-ray so as to avoid spreading the film over two SD DVDs.

We list here the title of the box set featuring the SD DVD Two-Disc Special Editions, but each of the five feature films included in this box set—2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, EYES WIDE SHUT (Unrated Edition), THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET, are all available in high definition (both HD DVD and Blu-ray); we have the HD DVD versions, which look and sound tremendous. Warner’s box set also includes the Jan Harlan documentary titled STANLEY KUBRICK-A LIFE IN PICTURES.

We’re cheating on this one, as our Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition [HD DVD version] hasn’t yet arrived in the mail, but this is most certainly one of 2007’s major home video releases as far as we’re concerned. We’re including it among this year’s choices because it wouldn’t qualify for a 2008 release. There are actually seven different versions being issued: in addition to the HD DVD version, it is also available as a Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray Disc, and of course there’s a five-disc SD DVD edition. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition is packaged in a limited edition, numbered, Deckard briefcase (which in the film contained the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test apparatus) and is to feature collectable memorabilia such as a Spinner car replica, Unicorn figurine, illustration and photo cards, and a lenticular motion film clip in Lucite. Moreover, the “Blade Runner Trilogy—25th Anniversary” three-CD box set featuring Vangelis’ remastered score (from 1994) and additional, unreleased tracks is available as an exclusive. 2007 is clearly a big year for BLADE RUNNER enthusiasts.

7. THE JAZZ SINGER (Warner Home Video)
Warner Home Video has given one of the most famous and historic films in its extensive library the deluxe treatment with this three-disc DVD package. It goes without saying that the early sound film has been beautifully restored, but Warner has also included many rarities, including a reproduction of the original souvenir program, behind-the-scenes stills, photographs, and other reproductions. A 90-minute documentary provides an engaging and lucid account of the development of the sound film and how Warner’s Vitaphone system worked, but it’s the supplemental short films of the early sound era that are of immense historic value: Al Jolson shorts, radio show adaptations, theatrical trailers, and there’s even a Tex Avery cartoon, “I Love to Singa” (1936), that’s a wonderful spoof of THE JAZZ SINGER starring a bird named Owl Jolson. The package also includes an entire disc (running close to four hours) devoted to early Vitagraph shorts that in fact is an amazing historical document memorializing late vaudeville performers.

This package has it all—the pilot, the European theatrical version, and every one of the 29 episodes including the Log Lady introductions, and collectable memorabilia. All in all a wonderful box set if you’re a TWIN PEAKS enthusiast. Please note that it doesn’t contain all of the supplements found on the previous First Season and Second Season box sets, but the series’ devoted fans will already have these sets anyway.

Byron Haskin’s delightful fantasy remains undiminished after more than forty years. One of our favorite films that we watch once a year (the old Criterion LD got a workout), we weren’t disappointed by Criterion’s crisp, colorful anamorphic DVD transfer. While Criterion has given the film only a one-disc treatment, the supplements, including the audio commentaries, are excellent.

10. THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
Written and directed by Philip Kaufman, with a great cast of ruffians including Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, R. G. Armstrong, Luke Askew, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Royal Dano, this highly singular film is a Western made with a New Wave sensibility, including digressions, non-sequiturs, and, yes—jump cuts. Although arguably influenced by the work of Robert Altman (M*A*S*H* but also McCABE AND MRS. MILLER), its more distant precursor would seem to be Anthony Mann’s MAN OF THE WEST (1958), a defamiliarized Western landscape populated not by character “types” but by eccentrics, lunatics, and religious zealots. This is another one of those titles that were long overdue on DVD.

OUR HONORABLE MENTIONS: THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER VOLUMES 1 & 2 (Fantoma); Jean-Pierre Melville’s ARMY OF SHADOWS and LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (Criterion); Andrei Tarkovsky’s IVAN'S CHILDHOOD (Criterion); Ingmar Bergman’s SAWDUST AND TINSEL (Criterion); UNIVERSAL HORROR CLASSIC MOVIE ARCHIVE (five films; Universal Studios Home Entertainment/Best Buy exclusive); STAR TREK -- SEASON ONE (The Original Series; Paramount, HD DVD/SD combo set derived from original negatives); CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION VOLUME 3 (Fox); THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY (FANDO Y LIS, EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, plus a documentary; Anchor Bay).
Our Choice for Distributor of the year: Warner Home Video.
Tomorrow: The top picks of VW Associate Editor John Charles.

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