Monday, December 17, 2007

VIDEO WATCHDOG'S DVD of the Year 2007

6 Votes
WITCHFINDER GENERAL

(BC, JC, SMD, SI, TL, RSU)

4 Votes
THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION (SRB, JC, SI, TL)
TWIN PEAKS DEFINITIVE GOLD COLLECTION (SMD, SI, TL, RSU)

3 Votes
ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (JC, TL, RSU)
THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY (SRB, JC, SI)

2 Votes
CLASSIC FLY COLLECTION (TL, RHS)
DOCTOR WHO COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (SI, DK)
THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY (SRB, RSU)FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD aka FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARUGON (SI, DK)
GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (SRB, DK)
HEROES - SEASON ONE (DK, TL)
IF... (TL, RSU)
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (SRB, DK)
O LUCKY MAN! (TL, RSU)
PAN'S LABYRINTH (JC, TL)
PERFORMANCE (SRB, RSU)
STANLEY KUBRICK - WARNER HOME VIDEO DIRECTORS SERIES (TL, RSU)
WHO CAN KILL A CHILD (BC, RHS)

SRB - Stephen R. Bissette
BC - Bill Cooke
JC - John Charles
SMD - Shane M. Dallmann
DK - David Kalat
SI - Sheldon Inkol
TL - Tim Lucas
RHS - Richard Harland Smith
RSU - Rebecca and Sam Umland

Note: Though Shane Dallmann didn't specifically include WITCHFINDER GENERAL on his list as a stand-alone title, he did make a special point of highlighting it in his notes for VINCENT PRICE: THE SCREAM GREATS COLLECTION, which he did select -- so I am counting this as a vote in the movie's favor.

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Editor's Choice

John Charles is right: to compile these lists is torment. No matter how hard you try, you cannot see everything; in fact, the more you do see, the task only becomes more difficult because that leaves more to be remembered, and more to be forgotten. I assume I've seen more movies on disc in the last year than most of the others on staff (with the possible exception of Kim Newman, whose own time is divided by reviewing theatrical releases), but that advantage doesn't necessarily narrow the playing field of choices.

As with anyone else, my selections have been guided as much by mood and impulse as personal taste -- that is to say, I had to choose from those titles I initially chose to watch. I didn't always go with the easy titles, but some formidable ones did get overlooked, but I do still hope to watch and review some of them, sometime or another. So my apologies, in advance, to everything from FORD AT FOX to THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY to THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY to THE THREEPENNY OPERA to LA JETÉE/SANS SOLEIL to the remastered GANJA & HESS to EARLY BERGMAN to THE MONSTER SQUAD (I was perhaps most surprised that this one didn't rank on any of our past week's lists)... discs that, for whatever reason, didn't enter the running, through no fault of their own.

To make this game a little more bearable for me and fun for you, I've divided my list into two: one for single movie releases, and another for box sets. I've also thrown in an additional list of notable DVD restorations of 2007 and a couple of "back to the drawing board" titles. Everything is listed in order of preference.

SINGLE FILM RELEASES

1. IF…. (Criterion, pictured)
Of all the DVDs I viewed in 2007, this is the one that lifted my heart highest. Lindsay Anderson’s savage and surrealistic parable about how the British school system prepares its young men to inherit the world is one of the great examples of British postwar filmmaking, a key work film of the 1960s, and now one of the great Criterion releases. Malcolm McDowell’s candid audio commentary gives an already exhilarating experience the personal element that makes this two-disc set an instant classic.

2. CALIGULA – THREE-DISC IMPERIAL EDITION (Image Entertainment)
I return to this film maudit periodically, always expecting more from it than it can actually deliver; it perpetually frustrates in that it’s never quite so good or so bad as you want it to be. But this handsome set, the unlikely crown atop Image Entertainment’s annual roster, is an important release, not least of all for presenting a reconstructed pre-release version that comes much closer to the target than either of the previous releases issued by Image nearly a decade ago. This explicit-but-not-hardcore 203-minute edition (in which the climactic barge orgy still goes on far too long to no apparent point) is made additionally attractive by two wonderfully dishy commentaries by Malcolm McDowell (moderated by the articulate Nick Redman) and Helen Mirren (moderated by Alan Jones, who exclaims at the sight of Paolo Heusch’s name in the end credits – good man! – and James Chaffin, the author of a forthcoming book on CALIGULA, whose fannish intensity emboldens him to interrupt Dame Helen a few times too often), as well as another featuring a telephone interview with one of the film’s on-set writers, Ernest Volkman (I’ll get around to this one someday, I promise). The set also includes executive producer Bob Guccione’s 156-minute hardcore theatrical version (not the R-rated version that merely snipped out the hardcore material); a wealth of deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes clips, alternate camera angle supplements (including a good deal of additional coverage of the “wedding rape”), and making-of featurettes; new interviews with director Tinto Brass and actors John Steiner and Lori Wagner; a color booklet with molto Watchdoggian liner notes by Thomas A. Ryerson and R. J. Buffalo; two DVD-ROM drafts of Gore Vidal’s original script and miscellaneous press materials; and a good deal more. The reminiscences of the participants seldom coincide but do add up to an enthralling “Rashomon” of an important end-of-an-era production; it is only when Brass speaks about the film that we find someone completely informed about its origins, its mishaps, its misfortunes, its mutinies and lawsuits. His comments about what the movie might have been (he compares his film to the extant one by comparing the original Coliseum to today's ruin) convince us that he is the auteur of this film… or, rather, he would have been, had he not been barred from the shot selection, editing, scoring and so forth by Guccione and others who had no practical experience of assembling a motion picture, much less such a complex and ornate one. Brass insists that he has no interest in going back to this project, so it remains for us to assemble what might have been in our own heads – and this outstanding set makes that goal much closer to possible.

3. KILL, BABY… KILL! (Dark Sky Films)
Actually, this one was withdrawn just prior to its release, so I'm splitting hairs a bit by including it, but this was, is, and remains a dream disc for me. This definitive (yet unauthorized) issue of Mario Bava’s most unique film – despite its title, a haunting turn-of-the-20th-century ghost story that has inspired countless filmmakers – exists only in a limited number of copies leaked to the press before the judge’s gavel fell. It’s sourced from a more beautiful and integral element than the authorized Anchor Bay release (included in THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1) and, better yet, it features a remarkable documentary in which David Gregory takes Lamberto Bava back to the original shooting locations for some reminiscing – a must-see for all Bava fans. It also features a fairly good audio commentary by Yours Truly (my second attempt), recorded in 2000 before a couple of facts were in place, so it needs redoing.

4. THAT THING YOU DO! – THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Tom Hanks co-wrote and directed this tuneful, comedic story of the meteoric rise and fall of The Wonders, an imaginary one-hit wonder pop group from the Sixties – and it’s one of the most refreshing and confident directorial debuts ever. Magically attentive to detail, meticulously well-cast, clearly in love with actors and its subject matter, it may well be not only the best movie yet made about this period of American music, but about this period of American history. The director’s cut – which adds more than 40 minutes to the original running time – achieves the unthinkable, actually improving upon a feature that I consider technically perfect and brimming with heart.

5. PAN’S LABYRINTH (New Line Platinum Series)
Guillermo del Toro’s latest is a magnificent addition to our archive of fantasy cinema – proof that it’s possible to deal with children and fairies and still produce a film of substance. His audio commentary is the year’s best: he’s the rare filmmaker who can discuss his own work as its creator, as a critic, as a psychoanalyst, and as a fan. The other supplements offer us more than even the most voracious admirer has time to consume.

6. O LUCKY MAN! (Warner Home Video)
A long-awaited arrival on DVD, Lindsay Anderson’s second film in the “Mick Travers” triptych (preceded by IF…. and followed years later by BRITANNIA HOSPITAL) is another masterpiece, this time about life after graduation and on the theme of ambition. More approachable for American viewers, its three-hour-plus running time goes by remarkably fast thanks to Alan Price’s sagely winning songs and a consistently surprising script. After hearing the commentary for IF…., I was expecting a bit more vitality from this one (a joint effort by McDowell, writer David Sherwin, and Price) and it’s unfortunate that Warner decided to insert a disruptive disc break. The bonus documentary, Jan Harlan’s O LUCKY MALCOLM!, a feature-length profile of McDowell, is splendid. [Note: My full-length review of O LUCKY MAN! appears in the current January 08 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, also on their website here.]

7. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (MGM/Fox)
Literally for decades, I’ve been campaigning for a proper restoration of this film – the most abused of all horror-related movies, the rescored “continental” version of which has seriously and rampantly damaged the reputation of its late director, Michael Reeves (who died in 1969 at age 25), since it succeeded the director’s cut on video in the 1980s. Oddly, now that MGM has finally restored the picture – indeed, presented it uncut in America for the first time – I feel as though I’ve moved beyond it. Strange to think that IF…., made the same year by a man in his late 40s, now seems to me infinitely more angry and revolutionary and romantic than this parallel warning about the perils of politics and regimentation. MGM's restoration is not all of what makes this an important DVD release; its value also resides in the clarity of thought expressed by co-star Ian Ogilvy in his commentary, when he insists that, yes, it’s a wonderful picture… but not really a classic, rather a film whose tremendous promise some people simply cannot bring themselves to accept would remain unfulfilled. That, and the fact that Michael Reeves can finally rest in peace, now that his own best work is able to speak on his behalf.

8. ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (Criterion)
A splendid two-disc set that resurrects and updates one of Criterion’s most outstanding and outré laserdisc releases: a new anamorphic transfer of the 1964 film, a remarkably humanistic and science-rooted picture; the laserdisc commentary by its two stars, remarkably candid about the ways in which this film did and did not change their lives; and an entire second disc of valuable extras, including Michael Lennick’s canny dissection of the science fact underpinning this Ib Melchior-penned science fiction classic.

9. ERIK THE CONQUEROR (Anchor Bay)
Mario Bava’s Viking tragedy is the richest of his costume pictures, a staggering triumph of vision over budget, a terrific action picture yet every bit as contemplative and introspective as the later KNIVES OF THE AVENGER, which was more obvious about it. The wedding scene, with its pagan pageantry, numerous extras, and its shower of golden glitter, may be the single most confectionary image I saw on my widescreen monitor all year – because this disc didn’t exist at the time, I wasn’t able to pay it proper respect in MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Pure matinee movie magic. I provided the audio commentary for this disc, as well as the Cameron Mitchell interview, but hubris has nothing to do with my selection; the editing skills of producer Perry Martin made both of these supplements better than they were in their raw states.

10 (tie). HELP! (Capitol)
If any proof was needed that the DVD market is oversaturated, it’s that this long-desired release came out last month, finally, to almost no fanfare; it’s got to be the most invisible major release of the year – and it doesn’t help that the deluxe edition, the one fans want most, is so overpriced. That said, I believe in all seriousness that time will ultimately be kinder to HELP! than to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT; its sense of humor is every bit as innovative and cutting (the main titles joke of Beatles performance footage being used as a dartboard – and as an intrusion of color into their black-and-white cinematic image – is bravely self-mocking), the songs are better, their presentation is far more inventive, and David Watkin’s color photography is some of the most delicious of the decade. My only complaint: if the Beatles don’t rate the HD DVD or Blu-ray treatment, who should?

10 (tie). WALT DISNEY TREASURES: THE HARDY BOYS – THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB 1956-1957 (Walt Disney Video)
This wonderful two-disc release isn’t likely to make many year’s end lists, but that’s not because it’s undeserving. It had the misfortune to hit the market last mid-December – just in time for last-minute holiday shoppers, but too late to make the 2006 lists and, by now, long enough ago to be forgotten. It collects the entire “Mystery of the Applegate Treasure” serial starring Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk (who, it needs to be said, gives a nearly James Dean level performance as Joe Hardy), the entire episode of THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB that introduced the serial, new camera interviews with the stars, a fascinating featurette about the literary history of the Hardy Boys and author “Franklin W. Dixon” (the house name used by various different authors), and much else of interest. The original broadcast of the serial and its repeat in the late 1960s were seismic events for their respective generations, and it remains the definitive adaptation of the Dixon stories, of its time but still retaining its teasing mystery, good humor, and inviting spookiness.

MULTI-TITLE RELEASES

1. BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (Criterion, pictured)
To know that Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s comparatively compact novel runs fifteen hours does not fully prepare us for the tempestuous, tumultuous and often tender experience of it; this is not something merely to be seen, but to be lived through – a story of one man’s survival in a frighteningly mercurial and dangerous world, filled with some of the most memorable and heartbreaking characters you will ever meet. Made for German television, it is best absorbed on video and it satisfies differently depending on if you choose to absorb it all in one or two sittings, or in more occasional doses. Barbara Sukowa is astonishing from the moment she enters the picture. The final segment, unapologetically free-form and dreamlike, points the way to what David Lynch would create in the strangest passages of TWIN PEAKS. The set also includes all the documentary support one might wish, and a crucial point of reference: a fascinating 1931 film version, a mere 90 minutes long, scripted by Doblin himself.

2. STANLEY KUBRICK - WARNER HOME VIDEO DIRECTORS SERIES (Warner Home Video)
We’ve bought these films twice already on DVD, but the triple dip is truly the pièce de resistance: not only are the audio commentaries and documentary supplements essential, but Kubrick’s MGM-Warner Bros. period is now available in HD DVD and Blu-ray, where the perfect aura of his product is most palpable. The only problem with the set is that it makes one ache for the missing-in-action BARRY LYNDON, which one suspects will benefit most of all (after 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) from high definition.

3. MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1 & 2 (Anchor Bay Entertainment)
Fox’s FORD AT FOX box set (which, needless to say, wasn’t sent to us for review) is receiving a lot of attention for packaging 25 John Ford films (1/5th of them previously released) for just under $300… but shop at the right places and you can acquire the 14 different Mario Bava films collected in these two sets for about $60, in fully restored and supplemented presentations with numerous audio commentaries (most, but not all, by me). FORD AT FOX includes a modest hardcover book; for roughly the same total amount of money (a $10 difference) you can acquire these two sets and a copy of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK besides. You don’t need me to tell you which is the better value.

4. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. – THE COMPLETE SERIES (Time/Life)
This one arrived on my doorstep in time to slip in right under the wire. The packaging is a retro-delight: 41 discs in a compact silver attaché case bearing the logo of the classic NBC-TV spy series (1964-1968) in orange, white and black. Alas, the attaché case doesn’t snap covert photographs or fire daggers, but this is nevertheless one U.N.C.L.E. that ups the auntie, so to speak: it contains every episode from all four seasons, uncut and digitally remastered, as well as the original “SOLO” pilot in color, the feature ONE SPY TOO MANY, and numerous other supplements and featurettes, elegantly assembled in plastic booklets with transparent slipcases. The set is all that it claims to be – the complete series – but completists will note the absence of the other U.N.C.L.E. movies (which do contain unique footage and were released some years back as a multi-disc set in the UK) and the 1983 CBS reunion TV-movie RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. But there is pa-lenty here to keep us busy until the rest becomes available. This set is available exclusively from Time/Life, and it’s my understanding that the sets are going to be released to stores next year, one season at a time. If true, this is your only shot at acquiring the attaché case and the two bonus discs.

5. POPEYE THE SAILOR VOLUME 1 1933-1938 (Warner Home Video)
Long subjected to horrid colorization and even censorship on TBS, The Cartoon Network, Boomerang and other channels, the original B&W POPEYE cartoons produced by the Fleischer studio comprise what many animation buffs consider to be the finest collection of animation shorts ever produced. This set delivers the goods that explain why. Wonderful characters, surreal funhouse glimpses of an equally unique world, infectious songs, and daredevil animation techniques that encompass three-dimensional backdrops and a mind-bending mastery of matters of depth and perspective. And the work is supported by all the scholarship you could want. With four discs, 58 shorts, and two two-reelers in full color (and still a second set to come!), not to mention numerous scholarly commentaries and historical featurettes, this is the most important work of film restoration issued on disc this year. Had it given us “THE COMPLETE POPEYE” all in one place, such generosity might have vaulted it nearer the top of my list.

6. HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA (Gaumont Video, French import)
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Story of Cinema” is neither your story of cinema or mine; it’s “his toi,” as the punning logos sometime confess. What is contained in these five discs is an epic poem on the theme of motion pictures, their personalities, their images, their potential – a visual mash-up of images ranging from silent-era pornography to Hitchcock, from Hawks to the Nouvelle Vague, and beyond. Starting to watch this project is a bit like starting to read Nabokov’s ADA: it took me about ten minutes to find the rhythm of the piece, and then I got into it; it was almost like accepting a transfusion of someone else’s blood. Admittedly, it can be disconcerting to see documentary footage from concentration camps ebbing and flowing over and under images of 1920s copulation, but you do come out the other end of this experience with new ways of seeing, and the shorthand achieves greater coherence over time so that you’re tempted to start over from the beginning. With original cameo appearances by Alain Cuny and a very young Julie Delpy. Available stateside from Xploited Cinema.

7. THE PRISONER – 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Network Video, British import)
A&E Home Video has glutted the US market with packagings and repackagings of their same old same-old masters of this classic Patrick McGoohan series, but it took Network Video in the UK to do it right: all 17 episodes have been newly transferred from their original negatives and digitally restored, giving the still-progressive show a look of immediacy it never had even on television – the episodes somehow look more vibrant and lifelike than the TWIN PEAKS episodes in my #8 position, which were made twenty-odd years later. They have also been supplemented by seven informative audio commentaries from directors and other production crew, PDF files of the original shooting scripts (including some never produced!), and a new feature-length documentary. No McGoohan input, of course, but you want the show to retain some mystery… Available stateside from Xploited Cinema.

8. TWIN PEAKS DEFINITIVE GOLDEN COLLECTION (Paramount)
It’s natural to feel conflicted about this important release, which too closely followed a separate release of the second season (which includes audio commentaries not ported over here), but it does present the long-desired, never-before-domestically-released “first episode” cut of the pilot, the complete run of the series in one compact package, all the Log Lady intros filmed for Bravo, fresh input from David Lynch, a candidly forthcoming making-of documentary, a look at TWIN PEAKS fan getaways, and much else of interest. Aspects of the show have dated, but this set still contains some of the most progressive and harrowing material ever shot for series television – and some of the stand-out scenes in Lynch’s filmography.

9. HEROES – SEASON 1 (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
Only time will tell if this release deserved higher placement on my list, but for now, the classics must take precedence. Nevertheless, here we have one of the most impressive and sustained feats of imaginative storytelling I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing unfold on television in one tidy, generously supplemented package – undeniably, already, a great thing. Going back to the first episode after watching the last is to be astonished by how far a single season of TV can take us and its vividly sketched cast of characters, many of whom are traded between the teams of Good and Evil more times than we can count – and checking out Tim Kring’s original cut of the pilot makes its overall evolution still more remarkable. Yes, it’s like a prequel to X-MEN… but without the gaydar and without the overbearance that comes aboard with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. And it’s a pleasure to have so many episodes accompanied by helpful, spirited commentary. Take that, SOPRANOS. (Is this Malcolm McDowell’s year or what?)

10. CLASSIC FLY COLLECTION (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Kurt Neumann’s THE FLY (1958), filmed in color and scope, and its B&W scope sequel RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) have been issued on disc before. While they are very much two peas in a telepod, both featuring Vincent Price, their previous issues have always missed the companionship of their distant cousin sequel, Don Sharp’s sorely underrated and somewhat (dare I say it?) pre-Cronenbergian CURSE OF THE FLY, made in 1964 in familiar scope and B&W. This set corrects that omission and includes a featurette history of the series that ranks among the very best of its kind. Everything good I can say about this set can also likely be said of the same company’s FOX HORROR CLASSICS set, which collects three important works by director John Brahm (THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE, THE UNDYING MONSTER), which unfortunately I have yet to see.























12 NOTABLE RESTORATIONS

1. POPEYE THE SAILOR 1933-1938 (Warner Home Video)
The greatest cartoon series of them all, magnificently restored to something that looks even better than brand new.

2. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (MGM)
For the first time in a half-century, this film can be seen by American viewers as Michael Reeves actually made it. The cheesy nudity of the continental version is gone, but its soul and sinew are finally back.

3. CALIGULA – THREE-DISC IMPERIAL EDITION (Image Entertainment)
Contains a 203-minute pre-release cut that puts forth this film maudit’s best bid to date for cinematic importance. Seeing this version, I came to the conclusion that its opulent Danilo Donati sets, so grandiose as to make no allowances for camera placement and composition, were ultimately the film’s aesthetic downfall; it had to be shot with four cameras simultaneously, none (or at least few) of the compositions ideal. But finally, there is now a version of the film that warrants more than a single viewing.

4. DUCK, YOU SUCKER (MGM)
I still haven't found time to explore the wonders of MGM's SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY set, hence its omission from my multiple title/box set list, but all the accounts I've read seem to agree that Leone's epic revolutionary Western -- always a problem title on tape, laserdisc and DVD -- is now finally as complete as it's ever likely to be, with its long-missing ending finally restored. That's good enough for me.

5. THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER, VOLUME 1 and 2 (Fantoma)
These two lavishly packaged sets preserve the UCLA Film Archive restorations of Anger’s experimental shorts, produced between 1947 and 1981. Watching them is like seeing the juice put back into a blood orange, or a brace of staid museum curios recharged with their innate unholiness.

6. BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (Sony Pictures)
Though met with ill-informed controversy online, producer Kim Aubry’s work restores Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation as it originally appeared onscreen – undoing much of the chromatic reinvention applied to the picture to make it more “readable” in earlier, cruder home video transfers.

7. IF…. (Criterion)
The Criterion disc restores a small amount of footage trimmed from the film’s American release, a frontal view of headmistress Mary McLeod’s nude walk through the empty corridors of the school.

8. HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (Deimos/BCI Eclipse)
After decades of acquiring its cult audience via cut and cropped videotape presentations, the film that many fans consider Paul Naschy’s best arrives on disc as it was meant to be seen. Spanish horror at its most diabolic and merciless.

9. COUNT DRACULA (BBC Warner)
This marvelous BBC television production, usually relieved of a brief passage implying the devouring of an infant by Dracula’s wives, arrives on disc intact.

10. QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (Warner Home Video)
Granted, it’s not much to write home about, but this sexist sf-trash favorite does regain something by being available again in its original scope framing – for the first time in almost half a century. Fifty years, people. Fifty years.

11 & 12. TWISTED TERROR COLLECTION (Warner Home Video)
This Eighties-Nineties horror collection includes, without any flagging whatsoever, the never-before-released uncut versions of EYES OF A STRANGER and Wes Craven’s DEADLY FRIEND. Yesterday’s X-rating is today’s all-ages-friendly “Unrated.”


BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD

PERFORMANCE (Warner Home Video)
So close, but the missing "Here's to Old England!" grates on me. Sorry.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT/VAULT OF HORROR (20th Century Fox "Midnite Movies")
These long-awaited Amicus adaptations of EC's classic horror comics arrived on DVD half-baked. TALES appears to be alright, but VAULT is still missing the shot trimmed from US prints during the most scissor-happy days of the MPAA, a comic shot of blood being dispensed from a keg in a man's neck in a restaurant for vampires. The shot is included in a Region 2 DVD release that can be obtained from XploitedCinema.com, but the domestic transfer is more attractive.

Later today, I will be posting the announcement of VIDEO WATCHDOG's DVD of the Year, as chosen by our contributors. No fair doing the math yourself. Be surprised.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Stephen R. Bissette

Here's a surprise mid-day "Baker's Dozen" from VW contributor Stephen R. Bissette, also an award-winning novelist (ALIENS: TRIBES), legendary comics artist and publisher, blogger (see the MYRANT link to the right), and educator at the Center for Cartoon Studies. His new book is BLUR: JUNE 1999-MARCH 2000 (Black Coat Press), a collection of video review columns.

This was damned near impossible to do, given how much has hit the fan(s) this year, but here goes... and yes, I cheated and included boxed sets as single listings. So hurt me.
1. AVANT-GARDE 2: EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA 1928-1954 (Kino)
A fine companion to Kino's AVANT-GARDE 1 collection, at last providing access to "the secret cinema" peppered with so many delightful genre films ignoredby generations; even those who wished to see them rarely could -- until now. Joseph Vogel's HOUSE OF CARDS (1947), Sidney Peterson's astonishing THE CAGE (1947), Paul Leni's REBUS-FILM NO. 1 (1928), a superior transfer of James Watson and Melville Webber's Poe film THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928), plus key works by Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage (including his first film, made at age 19, never before available, and the horrific THE WAY TO SHADOW GARDEN, 1954, previously available on Zeitgeist's documentary disc BRAKHAGE), Willard Maas, James Broughton and others culminate in Jean Isidore Isou's feature TRAITE DE BAVE ET D'ETERNITE/VENOM AND ETERNITY (1951).

2. THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY (FANDO Y LIS, ELTOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN, plus a documentary; Anchor Bay)
This earned mention on the Umlands' "honorary mention" list, but it was the DVD set of the year to my mind --but then again, I was part of the EL TOPO generation, midwife of the entire Midnight Movie phenomenon. A definitive showcase of Jodorowsky's early works, including his 35-minute LA CRAVATE (1957), soundtrack CDs, Alejandro's dizzying commentary tracks, the 90-minute documentary LA CONSTELLATION, and more.

3. THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER VOLUMES 1 & 2 (Fantoma)
The Umlands also placed this with their honorary mentions but, for me, this was among the key releases of the year, long-awaited and worth that endurance test. Volume 1's inclusion of the exquisite EAUX D'ARTIFICE (1953) and Anger's delirious 'magick' epic INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME (1954), featuring a young Curtis Harrington as Cesar the somnambulist, showcases two of the most ravishing underground fantasy films ever made -- what more do you need to make a "best of the year" list?

4. THE FIRST FILMS OF SAMUEL FULLER (Criterion)
Criterion's Eclipse collections are gems, one and all, but this was my personal favorite, supplanting the poor video transfers and dubs on my shelves with top-notch, crisp 1.33:1 screen-and-heart-filling editions of Fuller's pioneer trio (1949-51). For THE STEEL HELMET alone, this is essential viewing, but Vincent Price fans shouldn't miss his turn as one of America's greatest swindlers in THE BARON OF ARIZONA, and I SHOT JESSE JAMES is the ideal companion to this year's theatrical Brad Pitt vehicle on the same subject.
Note: Too bad it wasn't the stellar edition the film deserves, but 2007 also brought Fuller's sadly buried 1982 classic WHITE DOG to DVD, too, via Substance's mediocre transfer -- not among the top of the year in DVD quality but, as a film... whoa, baby!

5. GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (Classic Media)
Another accurate David Kalat call (whose commentary track I savored, BTW), and my personal favorite of all the marvelous Classic Media Toho Master Collection to date, just because the movie is so much damned fun. Kudos to Classic, too, for including both the Japanese and American theatrical cuts. Runner up: yes, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (Tokyo Shock/MediaBlasters), but GHIDRAH takes the cake.

6. HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN (Synapse Films)
It's been a great year for resurrected Japanese gold, but this is one film I thought I'd never, ever see. Teruo Ishii's completely loopy 1969 hodgepodge of Edogawa Rampo motifs and '60s transgressive hysteria was the most fun I had all year watching a DVD.

7. THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Sony Pictures)
I'm with David K: this was the best movie I saw all year, period, and its DVD release was most welcome. Paul Verhoeven's BLACK BOOK was the second-best film I saw in a theater this year, but Sony's Region 1 R-rated DVD kept Verhoeven's reunion with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman from making my best of the year list-- until I'm certain there's not a more complete edition out there, somewhere...

8. LUNACY (Zeitgeist Video)
2007 offered animation fans banquet after banquet --Warner Bros! Tex Avery! Woody Woodpecker! Fleischer Brothers Popeye! Kino's ANIMATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA! --which alone could comprise a top-12 list. This, though, was the one that shook my world. Jan Svankmajer has been well represented on DVD in 2007 (the recently released collection of his short films is damn near ideal), but his newest feature cuts deep and is as dark, dazzling and delirious as any film he's done to date. For my money, the most underrated slice of fantastique of the year, melding Poe, de Sade and the whole of surrealist cinema; this resonated in my dreams for a whole week.

9. THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1 and 2 (Anchor Bay)
There's some things you wish you could live long enough to see. The arrival of Bava's near-complete body of work via these two boxed sets is one of those things one lives for. The upside: ERIK THE CONQUEROR's Region 1 release accompanied this, and CALTIKI arrived on DVD in Italy (Xploited Cinema has it). The downside: the AIP versions are in legal limbo still, and the bump of Dark Sky's ravishing definitive release of KILL BABY KILL/OPERAZIONE PAURA from the marketplace.

10. OSKAR FISCHINGER: TEN FILMS (Center for Visual Music)
In a year to be celebrated for unprecedented viewer access to experimental/avant garde/underground film history and amazing animation, this release of abstract animator Oskar Fischinger's body of work --ten films indeed, spanning from 1921-1947 -- stands tall and pure and uncanny.

11. PERFORMANCE (Warner Home Video)
I damned Warner even as I delighted in this DVD -- if only! If only the rough cut footage were included; if only that minor but indelible line of Mick's dialogue were intact; if only... but this is as gorgeous and complete a version as we've had yet in the US since the film's original X-rated release, and Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's masterpiece is as mind-blowing as ever, so I won't look a gift horse in the -- bullethole.

12. THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY (MGM/20th Century Fox)
Another DVD set I'm glad I've lived long enough to see and savor. Sheldon Inkol and John Charles already called it, but there's no getting around this being one of the year's revelations. Now that we've also got THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES as of this year, too (via Warner's 2007 "Cult Camp Classics" sets), these revamped releases of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, the definitive THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (already released by MGM, but nice inclusion here) are more welcome than ever. But most vital of all is the most complete edition of DUCK, YOU SUCKER yet, its first stateside DVD release done up right. I've yet to compare it to the VHS (the A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE cut), the laserdisc, the taped-from-television and import versions, but this diehard Leone lover is satisfied... at last.

13. THE VAMPIRE COLLECTION (Casa Negra)
Casa Negra's procession of Mexican horror DVD releases have all been sheer pleasure, but this double-disc double-bill Fernando Mendez feast even beats BRAINIAC as their finest yet. Seeing 1957's THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE'S COFFIN with such clarity reorients one to the whole of the Mexican genre's permutations to follow, and bonus items in this set sweeten the package (the complete French photo novel of the sequel!) immeasurably.

RUNNER-UPS (beyond those cited): Casa Negra's entire line (including BLACK PIT OF DR. M!), Classic Media's daikaiju eiga Toho Master Collection, BCI's "Welcome to the Grindhouse" series, Cult Camp Classics Vol. 1-4 (Warner Home Video), and the return of MGM's Midnite Movies imprint (via Fox), plus: Criterion's Chris Marker double-bill of LA JETEE and SANS SOLEIL, Quentin Tarantino's DEATH PROOF, Takashi Miike's THE GREAT YOKAI WAR, THE HELLBENDERS, THE HOST, HOSTEL Director's Cut and HOSTEL Part II Unrated, THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (yep, the Elvira release on a double-bill with MANEATER OF HYDRA is letterboxed!), ICHI THE KILLER: Collector's Blood Bag Edition, Sony's ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION: SAM KATZMAN, IF.... (Criterion) and O LUCKY MAN!, PAN'S LABYRINTH (New Line's 2-Disc Platinum Edition), Paramount's TWIN PEAKS DEFINITIVE GOLD BOX SET, Dark Sky's WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?, MGM/Fox's WITCHFINDER GENERAL.
My Wish List of films I'm dying to see on DVD in 2008:
Curtis Harrington's complete avant-garde/underground films; Don Siegel's BABY FACE NELSON (I heard from a Kino rep two years ago they were considering this --from any quarter, please, bring it on!), Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (complete, please, with that amazing BBC doc); Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, Ishiro Honda's HALF HUMAN (the original version --fat chance, since Toho has consigned it to oblivion seemingly forever) and THE H-MAN, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Abel Gance's J'ACCUSE (heck, the whole of Gance's work!), Don Siegel's THE LINEUP, Arthur Penn's MICKEY ONE, Sam Fuller's RUN OF THE ARROW, Alejandro Jodorowsky's SANTA SANGRE, Sam Fuller's WHITE DOG (properly formatted).

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Kim Newman

VW contributor, novelist and audio commentator Kim Newman contributes to a good many other publications, and he begged off contributing a Favorite Discs list for us because he's presently tied up preparing his year's end list of 2007's theatrical releases. But Kim did thoughtfully dash off the following list of "notable UK releases that might be worth folks' attention elsewhere..."

Mind you, these are all Region 2 discs and the best sources for these are places like Amazon.co.uk (UK), Amazon.fr (France), sazuma.com and XploitedCinema.com.

LIFE ON MARS: SERIES ONE and SERIES TWO (Pictured)
Both seasons of this limited-run, time travel/subjective reality cop show are now out. A US remake is in the works, but I suspect it'll be hard to match the ingenious, affecting tone of the original. I'll concur that the BBC's releases of the new DOCTOR WHO series have been outstanding, but a word also for the job they've done on various "classic" serials - all cleaned up and with a fascinating array of extras that make even the minor efforts worth a look.

THE SHOUT and THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY
A modest plug, in that Steve Jones and I did the critical commentary tracks for these releases, but I was as taken with the rediscoveries of these little-known titles as anyone else. When Steve and I were asked to do these films, we thought there wouldn't be enough in them to fill out a track - but, actually, both films are extremely rewarding, complicated and unexpectedly scary.

LES VAMPIRES
Actually, this is a French R2 release, but it's a gorgeous box - with the Feuillade serial, plus other films, plus associational material. From a later generation, the seminal French serial BELPHEGOR, with Juliet Greco, is also out and well worth a look.

TWISTED NERVE
This psycho-thriller, controversial in its day, is out as part of a Boulting Brothers box set and on its own. Probably best-known for that Bernard Herrmann whistle Tarantino loves to sample, it has a remake-worthy central creepy idea, and an outstanding psycho performance from Hywel Bennett as a genius-level sociopath doing a Lars von Trier act as a kindly simple-minded man to cover up a murder spree.

CANYON PASSAGE and THE DEADLY COMPANIONS
These minor, auteur Westerns -- respectively from Jacques Tourneur and Sam Peckinpah -- are both only available in proper forms on R2 (there are PD pan&scans of the Peckinpah on R1 which should be avoided). Both films have been overlooked and are worthy rediscoveries. [Editor's note: reader Wade Sowers wrote to remind us that CANYON PASSAGE was in fact issued in Region 1 this year, as part of Universal's CLASSIC WESTERN ROUNDUP VOLUME 1 box set.]

Finally, let's hear it for those net-based firms boldly putting out old TV shows that aren't likely to get an official release in the near future. In the past year, I've been enjoying or rediscovering THE CORRIDOR PEOPLE, DOOM WATCH, THE OWL SERVICE (a children's TV serial from 1970 that ought to be hailed as a major work of filmed fantasy), OUT OF THE UNKNOWN, SUPERNATURAL and THE MAD DEATH.

Tomorrow: Our week-long poll closes as VW editor Tim Lucas presents his own Favorite Discs lists (yes, that's plural) and unveils VIDEO WATCHDOG's collective choice for Best DVD of 2007.

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Shane M. Dallmann

The following list by VW contributor, filmmaker (THE FLESH EATERS) and horror host (REMO D's MANOR OF MAYHEM) Shane M. Dallmann is presented in alphabetical order:

ANGEL-A (Sony, pictured) and ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES (Weinstein)
After too long a hiatus, Luc Besson returned to the director's chair twice, serving up both a charming, black-and-white adult fairy tale... and a children's film far more capable of entertaining its target audience than the critics could force themselves to acknowledge (expecting NIKITA from ARTHUR or something)?

COOL McCOOL (BCI)
The complete run of a fantastically funny 60s animation favorite, supplemented to the hilt courtesy of Wally Wingert and the one and only Chuck McCann.

CRANK (Lionsgate)
Make all the "short attention span" jokes you like--this was a wild, constantly inventive time at the movies, and the DVD is every bit as freewheeling. Profundity: zero. Entertainment: off the hook.

THE DUNGEON OF DR. DRECK (Sub Rosa)
Made by horror hosts for fellow hosts and their fans: Dr. Dreck and Moaner the Zombie Cheerleader show how they took over their local airwaves -- and how the powers that be tried to stop them. A true story? You decide... but it's irresistible fun.

FLASH GORDON: SAVIOUR OF THE UNIVERSE EDITION (Universal)
Give Dino his due: for all the strange casting and character revampings, this is one of the most wondrously colorful, infectious and dazzling space operas ever mounted, and it's never looked or sounded better than it does here.

THE PAUL NASCHY COLLECTION (VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, EXORCISM, HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB; BCI/Deimos)
Long overdue but well worth the wait -- beautifully restored, thoroughly annotated special editions of key works from the filmography of one of the most important genre figures.

PUSS 'N BOOTS (Ryko)
Aka THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF PUSS 'N BOOTS. Probably the best buried animated treasure to surface this year, and not just because of the excellent early Miyazaki work seen during the climax -- both the long-unseen U.S. version and the new-to-the-States Japanese original get the royal treatment.

STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS (Screen Media)
Nobody dared give it a proper theatrical release, but Jeff Burr's grim World War II tale is one of the most daring, compelling and genre-informed treatments of the theme yet attempted.

TWIN PEAKS: DEFINITIVE GOLD BOX COLLECTION (Paramount)
To quote Lee Strasberg in BOARDWALK (1979): "Do you have a lifetime for me to explain it to you?"

VINCENT PRICE: THE SCREAM GREATS COLLECTION (MGM)
The restoration of WITCHFINDER GENERAL is significant enough. Surround it with six other VP favorites (including both PHIBES films and THEATER OF BLOOD) and you've got an unbeatable package, case closed.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS 30th Anniversay "Exhumed Edition" will qualify once VCI substitutes the defective print (accidentally released and promptly recalled) with the real thing thanks to the commentary and supplements alone. The BLACK CHRISTMAS remake belongs in this category as well, if only for offering us a last look at Bob Clark in action).

I would have mentioned the Classic Media GODZILLA restorations here, but I'm quite annoyed at the company for shoehorning the previously unreleased ALL MONSTERS ATTACK/GODZILLA'S REVENGE and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA special editions as "exclusives" in a comprehensive (and pricey) box set rather than offer them separately (so far). I'll also hold out for the theatrical edition of GRINDHOUSE before I praise the separated entries.

William Friedkin's BUG was one of the best films of the year, but I don't have the DVD yet. HOSTEL PART II deserves a mention on the strength of its commentaries and supplements and the wealth of Italian horror history they have to offer.

And finally, I don't dare list my PERSONAL favorite DVD of the year in the Top Ten, but I'm quite pleased with the way my first effort in the field of audio commentary/interview went in BCI's DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE (which also contains what would turn out to be the final interview of the late Nicholas Worth).

Coming later today: A Baker's Dozen from VW contributor-writer-cartoonist Stephen R. Bissette... and an overview of some choice Region 2 imports from VW contributor-novelist-audio commentator Kim Newman.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Richard Harland Smith

Today's list reflects the tastes of VW contributor Richard Harland Smith, who moonlights (or daylights, as it were) as a liner notes writer for various DVD labels and blogger at the Turner Classic Movies page, MovieMorlocks.com. His list begins with his favorite of the year, but the rest are in no particular order.

THREE FILMS BY HIROSHI TESHIGAHARA (Criterion)
Although I was familiar with WOMAN IN THE DUNES (thanks to Gordon Gow's eye-opening genre study SUSPENSE IN THE CINEMA), the larger career of Hiroshi Teshigahara was uncharted territory to me until this year. WOMAN didn't disappoint and PITFALL and FACE OF ANOTHER (pictured above) are equally compelling and gorgeously photographed meditations on post-war life in a rapidly modernizing (and westernizing) Japan. My top-slotted DVD release of the year.

CLASSIC FLY COLLECTION (20th Century Fox)
Even though I already have THE FLY and RETURN OF THE FLY on a double disc, I'm all abuzz about this new collection for the inclusion of CURSE OF THE FLY, starring the incomparable Carole Gray. If you thought RETURN was minor and depressing, brother you don't know the half of it! CURSE is one of the great soul-scarring experiences of my childhood.

THE PSYCHIC (Severin Films)
It's about bloody time somebody showed some love for this redheaded stepchild of the Lucio Fulci corpus. I'm not calling THE PSYCHIC a lost classic, just a whiter shade of Fulci and an indispensable slice of Euro-Cult.

MICHAEL SHAYNE MYSTERIES, VOL. 1 (20th Century Fox)
A great rediscovery that didn't get enough nearly enough press or praise upon its release back in the Spring. Tight, neat little comic thrillers starring the long-underrated Lloyd Nolan, backed by a slew of cherce supporting players from Hollywood's boiling B-unit.

FOX HORROR CLASSICS COLLECTION (20th Century Fox)
Fox comes through again with a dynamite collection of largely forgotten suspense thrillers and one downright supernatural shocker. I would have paid this much for THE UNDYING MONSTER alone but I'm pleased as punch to have director John Brahm's THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE as well.

SAM KATZMAN COLLECTION (Sony Pictures)
Admittedly not in the same league as the films cited above, but the titles comprising this collection are nonetheless guilty pleasures non pareil... especially THE GIANT CLAW and THE WEREWOLF. And that packaging! In a word: gimme!

CHOSEN SURVIVORS/THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (20th Century Fox "Midnite Movies")
I love CHOSEN SURVIVORS as much for what it does wrong (skimpy characterization) as what it does right (Fred Karlin's cool synth score, whose thumping bass line anticipates John Carpenter's minimalist noodlings for HALLOWEEN) and I went batty when I heard it was getting a proper DVD release. It's just one of those titles from the early 70s that had great re-telling properties on my grammar schoolyard. As for THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, I'm a sucker for 60s British sci-fi... something about thatch roofs and ro-men really sends me.

THE OMEGA MAN (Warner Home Video)
Available in HD and Blu-ray, either of these remastered DVDs will do as a testament to this enduring schlock classic. Watch this back-to-back with CHOSEN SURVIVORS for a freefalling Lincoln Kilpatrick double-bill.

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (Dark Sky Films)
I never ever thought this disturbing Spanish horror film would ever ever rate an American DVD release and I'm ever glad to be wrong. If you haven't seen this muy creepy island-set thriller, run-- don't walk-- to get your hands on a copy. But send your kids to the mall first.

THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (BCI/Eclipse)
This is just one of a slew of Paul Naschy movies put out by BCI/Eclipse and all are equally noteworthy but I think this title (alternatively known as THE CRAVING) is a stand-out due to its relative rarity and good production values. If you're a Naschy newbie, sink your teeth into this!

Tomorrow: A rule-bending list from VW contributor, filmmaker and horror host Shane M. Dallmann.

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.


1. DOCTOR WHO - THE COMPLETE THIRD SERIES (BBC Warner)
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.

3. THE FIRST KINGS OF COMEDY COLLECTION (Genius Entertainment)
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.

4. FILM NOIR COLLECTION VOLUME 4 (Warner Home Video)
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: Amazon.com 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.

10. GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (Classic Media)
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.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Sheldon Inkol

Today's Top Ten (well, Eleven) List reflects the year's end choices of VW contributor and filmmaker Sheldon Inkol:

I don't have PAN'S LABYRINTH, IF... or BLADE RUNNER yet, but those are titles that should probably be on this list. With that in mind...


1. TWIN PEAKS DEFINITIVE GOLD BOX EDITION (Paramount)
In last year's list, I asked for the second season... and I got something definitive. Well, almost definitive. If only those deleted scenes from TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME were included...

2. CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES (FRIEDHOF OHNE KREUZE, Anolis, PAL R0)
Robert Hossein's undeservedly obscure Euro-Western, in a definitive package that features surprising revelations about the credited non-participation of Dario Argento... and the uncredited participation of Sergio Leone! Available as an import from Xploited Cinema.

3. DR. WHO THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON and DR. WHO THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (BBC Video/2 Entertain)
Two seasons released at either end of 2007. A great time to be a fan of the Doctor.

4. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (MGM)
Properly and respectfully restored, and doing justice to the memory of Michael Reeves.

5. THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY (MGM/20th Century Fox)
Including improved releases of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and the first-ever R1 release of DUCK, YOU SUCKER, in its most complete form yet.

6. FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters)
An entertaining and comprehensive treatment given to a childhood pleasure. If you enjoy bizarre endings that come out of left field, you owe it to yourself to experience the unbelievably loopy Devilfish finale.

7. THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1 (Anchor Bay)
Finally, KILL, BABY...KILL! in widescreen with the original Italian soundtrack and English subtitles. (Too bad it doesn't have a certain commentary track you've probably heard of.) Also, BLACK SUNDAY and welcome upgrades of BLACK SABBATH and THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

8. THE HELLBENDERS (Anchor Bay)
Sergio Corbucci's underrated, existential Spaghetti Western. A big influence on Quentin Tarantino and worthy of rediscovery in its own right.

9. BEDAZZLED (20th Century Fox)
Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Eleanor Bron and Raquel Welch, all in their prime. And still very, very funny 40 years later.

10. THE CHOCOLATE WAR (MGM)
Keith Gordon's unusual directorial debut, making its first appearance on DVD.

11. A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (TOTE AMIGO, Koch Media, R2 PAL)
Not just another release of Damiano Damiani's classic Spaghetti Western, but notable for its inclusion of two different English audio tracks, one appearing on DVD for the first time and superior to the dub job found on earlier R1 releases. Also available from Xploited Cinema.

Last year's TWIN PEAKS wish came true, and then some, so here's my Wish List for 2008:

ANDY WARHOL'S BAD
Monte Hellman's CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (restored and widescreen)
Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET
Larry Fessenden's THE LAST WINTER
MESSIAH OF EVIL (restored and widescreen)
Sergio Corbucci's NAVAJO JOE
Michael Tolkin's THE NEW AGE
TWO LIVING, ONE DEAD starring Patrick McGoohan
THE WITCHMAKER

Tomorrow: The year's top picks as chosen by VW contributor, author, and Mr. All Day Entertainment, David Kalat.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: Bill Cooke

Today's list comes to us from VW contributor, filmmaker and educator Bill Cooke:

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968, MGM / 20th Century Fox)
Finally, MGM’s long-in-the-pipeline director’s cut of Michael Reeve’s swan song renders the flawed British import DVD, and any memories of those abominable domestic releases rescored with a synthesizer, gloriously obsolete. The transfer is gorgeously detailed, bringing fresh vitality to this landmark modern horror film.

WHO CAN KILL A CHILD (1976, Dark Sky)
Aka ISLAND OF THE DAMNED
Strange, suspenseful Spanish thriller from Narcisco Ibañez Serrador throws a vacationing couple on an island of murdering children. As in Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, we’re left to ponder the reasons why. Dark Sky presents the uncut version.

THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (1959, Casa Negra)
Those who dismiss Mexican horror films probably haven’t seen this one from Fernando Méndez, the director of EL VAMPIRO (1957). Striking B&W atmosphere recalls the early work of Mario Bava. Casa Negra, the company that gave us this and other nicely restored Mexican horror films these past two years is now, sadly, out of business.

THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958) / THE VAMPIRE (1957) (MGM / 20th Century Fox)
In this fun double-bill of late-Fifties American vampire films, each takes a radically different approach to the material. THE VAMPIRE is a typical 1950s variation on Jekyll & Hyde and is the better film for its superior screenplay by Pat Fielder (THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD), mixing sympathetic characters and dark humor. THE RETURN OF DRACULA returns to the character’s supernatural origins, but places him in modern times as a metaphor for communist invaders. RETURN includes the color insert shot usually missing from TV prints.

Süpermen: Dönüyor (1979, Omar Films - Greek import)
In this Bizarro World version of the Richard Donner film (translated title: SUPERMAN RETURNS!), a lanky Turkish Superman uses his X-Ray vision to peek at women’s undies, reverts into a crude action figure whenever he flies, and gets into lots of repetitious fistfights with gangsters on sets made for a buck ninety-five. This PAL-formatted disc from Greece was mastered from a tape source and looks pretty rough, though it’s an improvement over former bootlegs and contains an extra B&W Turkish superhero feature (Demir Yumruk: Deluer Geliyor) to sweeten the deal. Available from Xploited Cinema.

UNIVERSAL HORROR: CLASSIC MOVIE ARCHIVE (Universal)
A couple of important titles—MAN-MADE MONSTER and NIGHT MONSTER—are combined with some minor filler—HORROR ISLAND and THE BLACK CAT (1941)—for this Best Buy exclusive that gets us ever closer to completing the Universal horror library. CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN is also included, dashing any hopes for an “Ape Woman Legacy” set. No sign of Rondo Hatton or Uni-owned Paramount titles yet, which makes these likely candidates for next Halloween’s offerings.

MALIBU HIGH (1979) / TRIP WITH THE TEACHER (1975, BCI Eclipse)
In an attempt to tap into brand-name recognition of the Tarantino/Rodriguez GRINDHOUSE (which actually turned out to be one of the biggest box-office flops of the year), BCI has resumed their “Starlight Drive-in” series of double under the new banner, “Welcome to the Grindhouse.” Whatever the headline, exploitation fans have cause to rejoice as long as these trashy and shamefully entertaining Crown International double features continue to come out, including this inspired pairing of a teen-rebellion drama gone horribly, horribly wrong with a head-on collision between the biker genre and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

I AM CUBA – THE ULTIMATE EDITION (Milestone)
Mikhail Kalatazov’s communist-propaganda masterpiece receives the Special Edition treatment, complete with a scintillating transfer and clever cigar-box packaging. This anthological look at Castro’s revolution is among the most beautifully photographed films, with Kalatazov’s moving camera achieving one breathtaking, sustained long take after another.

ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION: SAM KATZMAN (Columbia Tri-Star)
Who’d have thought a giant corporation would greenlight a box set devoted to prolific “B” film producer Sam Katzman and even title the set after him? It’s not as if anybody in the mainstream knows the name. Oh well, even if it doesn’t make a lot of commercial sense, genre aficionados are certainly pleased to finally have pristine copies of THE GIANT CLAW, THE WEREWOLF, ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU and CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.

INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (Sony)
Aka MONSTER ZERO
2007 was an incredible year for stateside kaiju eiga fans, with Sony’s and Media Blasters’ subtitled, features-filled special editions of the Toho science-fiction canon. Picking just one is a daunting task, but this one—the sixth Godzilla film and an historic mating of the giant-monster and space opera genres—has a slight edge for containing a dazzling transfer of the American version (so we can hear Nick Adams yell “You dirty, stinkin’ rats!” in his own tongue) and a slew of great supplements.
Tomorrow: The Top Eleven picks -- and the Wish List -- of another of VW's filmmaking contributors... Sheldon Inkol.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007: John Charles

Today's list is from VIDEO WATCHDOG associate editor John Charles:

I simultaneously love and hate year end lists like this. Love 'em because it's great to hear the opinions of everyone else on staff at VW, hate 'em because I never have enough time see anywhere near as many of the year's releases as I would like. There is also the matter of street dates, which is why you won't see BLADE RUNNER: FIVE DISC ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION below, though it would almost certainly be nestled on top. The following DVDs -- listed alphabetically -- may not represent the absolute pinnacle of the industry's output in 2007, but they either more than met or completely exceeded my expectations.

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (MGM)
FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (MGM)
DUCK YOU SUCKER (MGM)
It's not clear why we, here in Region 1, had to wait so long to get our hands on these incredible Sergio Leone restorations, but they were well worth the wait (and we got the much preferable original mono tracks to boot).

FROM BEYOND (MGM)
The restored footage wasn't nearly as dramatic as what I'd imagined it would be based on director Stuart Gordon's descriptions of it in the past, but a very good rendering nonetheless that easily relegates the wretched HK DVD to coaster status.

HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (BCI)
This is the first of BCI's Paul Naschy titles that I have acquired and it certainly encouraged me to continue exploring. The presentation greatly exceeds Crash Cinema's crummy, unauthorized disc and the extras, while limited, satisfy.

KING BOXER (Dragon Dynasty)
Better known as 5 FINGERS OF DEATH, this Shaw Brothers production started the kung fu craze on these shores and has long been the victim of substandard of "public domain" transfers. Thankfully, it has never looked better via Dragon Dynasty's appropriately reverential release.

THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION Vol. 1 (Anchor Bay)
Five of this fine director's films return to the marketplace in largely improved presentations, nice packaging and a very reasonable price. They also found a guy who knows a lot about him to do some commentaries.

PAN'S LABYRINTH: 2 DISC PLATINUM SERIES (New Line)
Guillermo Del Toro's breathtakingly designed and incredibly moving fantasy arrived on Region 1 disc with all of the respect and diversity of supplementary materiaI I'd hoped for.

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (Criterion)
Criterion's finally follows up their widely praised LD edition of Byron Haskin's cult favorite with an equally exemplary DVD that carries over all of the supplements, while also adding a terrific Michael Lennick featurette detailing what we have learned about The Red Planet in the interim.

WITCHFINDER GENERAL (MGM)
Another long delayed title (it was classified by the various Canadian provincial classification boards in March of 2005) that, thankfully, didn't disappoint -- despite being light on supplements.

Tomorrow: The top picks of VW contributor and filmmaker Bill Cooke.

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.

2. THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER (Warner Home Video)
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.

5. STANLEY KUBRICK—WARNER HOME VIDEO'S DIRECTORS SERIES (Warner Home Video)
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.

6. BLADE RUNNER ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION (Warner Home Video)
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 Amazon.com 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.

8. TWIN PEAKS—DEFINITIVE GOLD BOX EDITION (Paramount DVD)
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.

9. ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (Criterion)
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.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

All the Sights and Sounds of the Dark

The January 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND is a major one -- not least of all as it concerns me personally. It contains my monthly "NoZone" column (this month devoted to Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN!, a personal favorite) of course, but also a welcome and instructive letter pertaining to my earlier review of Charles Crichton's excellent THE THIRD SECRET, two different advertisements for my MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, and also D.K. Holm's much-appreciated review of same. I'm pleased by the fact that this issue contains SIGHT & SOUND's coverage of my favorite film of the year, I'M NOT THERE, as well as their annual survey of the year's best films. The latter has been posted in advance at their website and you can find what I and many other critics have to say about our five picks in a special PDF file downloadable here.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Best Are Still to Come

It's been quiet here of late, but rest assured I've been busily blogging -- it's just that the end results aren't ready for posting yet. I'm using my spare time these days, of which there's little, to organize Video WatchBlog's year-end lists of VW's Favorite DVDs of 2007, which I'll begin posting next week.

I already have some guest lists in hand -- from associate editor John Charles and contributors Richard Harland Smith and David Kalat, and others should be forthcoming -- and I'm finalizing a few lists of my own. I think the fairest way to approach my own lists is to organize them into at least three groupings: Stand Alone Titles, Box Sets, and a separate list of Notable Restorations. These will be mostly domestic releases but there will also be some Imports mixed in. If HD/Blu-ray releases ever get up to what I consider speed (and they did make an advance this year, particularly with the Kubrick Collection and Anchor Bay's recent rash of horror titles), I'll have to start herding them into an exclusive list as well. Naturally, all of my lists are predicated on what might be termed "natural selection," because there's a vast number of discs there simply wasn't time or the ready desire to see. So bias is not only built into the list, but into the nomination process -- I can only write about the best of what I wanted to see in the first place... hence, "Favorite DVDs of 2007," because none of us can promise that our choices are any better than the releases we didn't see.