Friday, December 14, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: David Kalat

Today's list compiles the favorites of VW contributor David Kalat, also the author of J-HORROR (Vertical Press) and the man behind the DVD company devoted to films that fall through the cracks, All Day Entertainment.

I was 10 years old when I first saw DOCTOR WHO: it was Episode 3 of "The Stones of Blood," broadcast on PBS. I have nursed my dedicated fandom long enough now to have my own 10 year old child (and a 7 year old) whose Who-mania matches my own—they read DOCTOR WHO MONTHLY, collect the action figures, groove to the soundtrack album. Ever since the show returned so triumphantly in 2005, it has been a focal point of my family’s TV quality time. As long as they keep making it, I’ll keep listing the box sets as among my favorite discs of the year.

2. HEROES - SEASON 1 (Universal)
Most of my friends and family were caught up with HEROES during its broadcast run, but I missed the first half of the first season and didn’t want to join a serial drama in medias res. So I waited, not so patiently, for this DVD box set, which I hungrily devoured in about two weeks. The current half season has been a disappointment, but after such an astounding first season what wouldn’t have been? Few TV shows come out on day one at full strength—most need some time to mature and find their voice. This is a rare creation, and further proof that the best cinema these days is on TV. Also available on HD DVD.

Robert Youngson is a curious figure in film preservation. In his day, he was the kind of person who represented the precise antithesis of the VIDEO WATCHDOG ethos: he took perfectly good movies and cut them up, re-edited them, retooled them into new forms. But, in the decades that have elapsed since he tinkered with these classics of silent comedy, many of the films he adapted have all but vanished, their nitrates dissolved into pools of silver flakes, their prints wasted away and lost. Youngson’s work paradoxically preserved the footage in question, and there’s scarcely a film preservationist today who doesn’t thank him for it. This DVD presents his first two comedy compilations, rich with the big names of Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase, but also studded with rare clips of lesser comics and forgotten treasures. Most silent comedy aficionados of a certain age learned their passion from watching these films in their youth, and they still work wonders on neophytes and silent comedy virgins. There are unauthorized pirate DVDs available of these and other Youngson compilations -- VW’ers should steer clear of those with the Televista label -- but this legit release from Genius Entertainment is fully licensed and mastered from top quality elements.

Warner's Film Noir collections have always been must-have items in my book, but with this latest installment they have substantially raised the bar. The earlier volumes were packed with the biggies, well-heeled exemplars of 1940s crime thriller cool; this box doubles the number of movies and reaches deeper into the bin for more obscure (and precious) gems. Add in commentaries and featurettes, and you’ve got one of the best entertainment bargains going.

5. THE AKI KAURISMAKI COLLECTION VOLUME 3 (Sandrew Metronome, Finnish R2 import)
I lived in Germany in 1990-1991, and in the center of the little Schwartzwald town was a movie theater that only ran midnight cult movies. The favored selections were MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA. I fell in love with LENINGRAD COWBOY’s offbeat dry wit, as did nearly every other college student in Freiburg. When I saw that another film by director Aki Kaurismaki was coming to the local film society, I was first in line. The movie was one of Kaurismaki’s earliest works, HAMLET GOES BUSINESS. It took Shakespeare’s tragedy and turned it into a Cold War political allegory rich in slapstick. If you have a hard time imagining such a thing, then that’s all the more reason to see it. I give high marks to anyone whose Hamlet adaptation includes the line, “Ham? Let me at it!” I have spent the entire time since then looking for this film on video. I even started trading DVDs with a friend in Finland hoping he could locate what Google could not. Imagine my delight when this Region 2 UK disc came out in October! It has Kaurismaki’s first 3 films, remastered with English subtitles, all for a low, low price. Now that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! [Editor's Note: mistakenly lists HAMLET GOES BUSINESS as being included on THE AKI KAURISMAKI COLLECTION VOLUME 2, but it's actually on VOLUME 3 as David describes.]

6. RETRIBUTION (Hong Kong import)
I’d watch anything by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and as soon as I did I’d likely list it here as one of my faves, so I’m pleased to note that, despite my mindless fanboy obsession, this thriller is actually extremely good.

7. THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Sony Pictures)
I’ve always been a sucker for a good espionage paranoia thriller and, having lived in Germany just after the Wall fell and Reunification began, I find this Cold War drama has a special allure. I saw the film in New York -- one of the few times I actually made it to a real theater this year for anything other than a kids’ film -- and I think it might be the best movie I saw all year, in any format or any genre. Also available in Blu-ray.

8. THE HOST (Magnolia Home Entertainment)
I’ve been a monster movie fan for over 30 years, and I’ve very nearly seen it all. For a giant monster flick to come along that surprises me, thrills me, enraptures me—that is an amazing achievement. I was fortunate enough to see this in the theater with a packed house, and now I can recreate the experience at home. Available as a single and as a two-disc "collectors edition."

9. FRANKENSTEIN VS BARUGON (Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters)
The movie itself is a silly concoction best enjoyed while doing something else—like eating popcorn, or having a pillow fight. I’d already seen it about as many times as I cared to, and the Japanese laserdisc suited me just fine, until this fabulous Media Blasters disc came along to make it feel fresh and new again. A stellar job, a DVD done right.

I know, I shouldn’t be plugging a disc I was involved with, but come on—they didn’t use most of the bonus features I provided and my commentary track is utterly dispensible. What makes this worthwhile are the movies themselves—the Japanese edition and the American theatrical recut (which I believe improves slightly on the original version). Awhile back, the Mobius discussion group had a thread about which movies members had collected multiple copies of. I have some offenders—a handful of movies I’ve somehow managed to buy ten times over, in a futile search for the “perfect” version. But then there are movies like this, long unavailable and dearly wished-for. And then, magically, they appear—already perfect!

I previously announced that our Favorite lists would wrap up at the end of this week, but we still have lists from Shane M. Dallmann and Richard Harland Smith to post before getting to mine and VIDEO WATCHDOG's consensus choice for Best DVD of 2007, so our lists will continue on through the weekend.

Tomorrow: the top picks of VW contributor and Movie Morlocks blogger Richard Harland Smith.

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