This year, in order to keep things more focused and semi-concise, I have asked our contributors to select only their Top 5 picks, with domestic and import titles fair game. The results still offer variety and were able to zone in on one specific favorite title, even though the honored title was still chosen by fewer than half of our participants.
JOHN CHARLES (Associate Editor)
SWEENEY TODD (Paramount): 2007's best horror movie. Cannibal pics (with or without zombies) are always some kind of statement about "consumer society." This movie is frank about it, and we can take the rhetoric and the gloom because it's all so paradoxically artificial and lovely, from the voices to the gouts of blood. Tonally, it's the dour flip side to BIG FISH, the other contender for Tim Burton's best film. The DVD has good docs and spares us a Burton commentary, all good choices.
INNOCENCE (Homevision): Lucile Hadzihalilovic's fable of uncertain time and unfathomable place: a boarding school deep in a forest. Girls arrive in coffins and learn certain skills before going forth into the world's mysteries. Idyllic and lovely, harsh and dreadful, metaphorical and concrete, it's told almost completely and calmly from the girls' point of view.
DEXTER: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Showtime/Paramount): More suspenseful and disturbing than Season One and deeper in its revelations and ambiguities. With boxes of new TV like this, HEROES, PUSHING DAISIES, MAD MEN etc. on top of old shows like THE UNTOUCHABLES, ROUTE 66, HONEY WEST, M SQUAD etc. to catch up on, I propose a moratorium on new releases for five years.
MICHAEL CLAYTON (Warner): Not the kind of socially earnest statement I dread from George Clooney. Suffused with the immanence of an alternate reality and edited with lovely indirectness, this is almost a subtle work of fantasy, a dangerous fairy tale complete with doppelgangers. Every scene combines classical clarity with modernist ambiguity. Tilda Swinton radiates desperation as she tries to swim in a sea of powerful men.
Omitted from this list at great pain: GEORGES MELIES: FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA (1986-1913), on the cop-out that I haven't finished watching it), BRAND UPON THE BRAIN, THE SAVAGES, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, PHASE IV, NORIKO'S DINNER TABLE, and THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY.
GAUMONT, LE CINEMA PREMIER (Paramount, France): A seven-disc set, attractively packaged in a file box, of early French cinema. Two discs offer eleven Feuillade shorts made between 1907 and 1913, ranging from staged tableaux of social realism to surreal comedy (BOUT DE ZAN VOLE UN ELEPHANT). Three contain the work of Léonce Perret, including two full-length melodramas with strikingly naturalistic performances, L'ENFANT DE PARIS and LE ROMAN DE MOUSSE (which ends as possibly the cinema’s first courtroom drama). Two represent the early career of Alice Guy, the first female film director, who proves to have made great silent comedies: try LA COURSE A LA SAUCISSE, a four-minute chase that becomes increasingly surreal, and the 1907 LE BILLET DE BANQUE, which in eleven minutes manages to prefigure Chaplin’s tramp, Hulot’s dogs, Renoir’s Boudu and even (in the moment when the tramp finds a rosary in his pocket and chucks it on the floor) Buñuel, as well as being genuinely hilarious. A trove for film historians, often a lot of fun, not infrequently beautiful.
THIS SPORTING LIFE (Criterion): A splendid restoration of Lindsay Anderson’s first masterpiece, one of the few real films to emerge from the British new wave of the period. It can be mistaken for mere social realism, but it’s far more than that – its scenes of passion have a terrifying intensity, and its structure recalls Resnais without aping him. It makes me mourn all over again the lost opportunity of Anderson’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS with Richard Harris. The two-disc set also contains (along with much else) two of his early documentaries and his dispirited final filmic statement, Is That All There Is?
Which epic from the Miriam collection? Much as I love EL CID, I’m even fonder of THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, and the Miriam restoration is the kind of treatment it deserves.
Have the colours been boosted a little? I much prefer how it looks here to the appearance of the 70mm print that turned up in Britain last year, faded to amber (appropriately elegiac, maybe, but that kind of inadvertency can pall). Even without the copious extras on the two-disc set (or three-disc, if you can find it), this would be an essential edition of Anthony Mann’s great late film.
I’ve chosen a western, though that immediately makes me wish I had room for the excellent Boetticher box. However, the restoration of Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL is extraordinary – a 1930 widescreen epic in semi-documentary style with vistas as awesome as anything in Ford or Anthony Mann. That the camera hardly ever moves only adds to the film’s power. The two-disc Region 1 set from Fox includes the reshot Academy ratio version, a fascinating comparison in itself.
Leo McCarey’s legendary 1937 box-office disaster MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (rumoured at the time to have driven members of the audience to suicide) is at last available from BAC Video in France as PLACE AUX JEUNES. It may well be the director’s greatest film; it’s certainly his most moving (as much so in its own way as TOKYO STORY, which is a partial remake). The French subtitles are irremovable, but don’t let them put you off. The film is available as a single Region 2 disc or as part of the set HOLLYWOOD CLASSICS: LEO McCAREY, which also includes SIX OF A KIND, BELLE OF THE NINETIES and RUGGLE OF RED GAP.
GRINDHOUSE (Japanese import box set): The long-supressed (in America) theatrical cut, both extended features, all of the American supplements and a handful of exclusive Japanese extras? Okay--color me satisfied. GRINDHOUSE (Japanese import box set) The long-supressed (in America) theatrical cut, both extended features, all of the American supplements and a handful of exclusive Japanese extras? Okay--color me satisfied.
ICONS OF ADVENTURE/ICONS OF HORROR (Sony): A Hammer bumper crop is always cause for celebration, and it's nice to see such potentially "troublesome" titles as THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY and THE TERROR OF THE TONGS slip through, but it's the original British cut of THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL that would have landed on this list with or without the accompanying features. And while there's more to it than that, let me say it for the record: "DAMN you, Jekyll!!!!"
THE NAKED PREY (Criterion): One of the most gripping and influential films of my youth--and still the first thing I name when asked about horrific sequences in non-horror films. Amazing work from a near one-man-band (Cornel Wilde) with a healthy respect for nature which comes across in spite of the deliberately disturbing footage of predation by man and beast alike. This stands in direct contrast to...
STANLEY (BCI): Certainly not one of the "best" titles available this or any year, but unquestionably one of the most significant jobs of restoration performed in 2008. Over 15m of extra footage does, indeed, make William Grefe's "respect nature or die" snake thriller a stronger film... and simultaneously reveals it to be a work of contemptible hypocrisy from filmmakers every bit as bad as the fictional snake-bashers earmarked for lethal revenge in their work. Get 'em, Stanley!
WALKER (Criterion): Twenty years ago, I thought I was the only one who liked Alex Cox's ill-received followups to his acclaimed REPO MAN and SID AND NANCY. Well, STRAIGHT TO HELL justifiably remains a cult item at best, but there's nothing like a little Criterion vindication to set the record straight on Cox's astonishing biopic, headlining a mesmerizing Ed Harris as William Walker, the notorioius, self-appointed President of Nicaragua...
Honorable mentions: DIARY OF THE DEAD (Dimension Extreme), THE BLUE EYES OF THE BROKEN DOLL and HUMAN BEASTS (BCI), RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Classic Media).____________________
2. DOCTOR WHO: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SERIES (BBC Video/2 Entertain): 13 episodes, including more gems from the pen of Steven Moffat (who wrote the best episodes from previous seasons, among them “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink"), a 70m special placing The Doctor (David Tennant) on the Titanic, an 8m short teaming Tennant with the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), and over 4 hours of special features… I haven’t had time to take it all in yet, but the new DOCTOR WHO consistently delivers the goods.
3. A PISTOL FOR RINGO (Eine Pistole für Ringo, KOCH Media, PAL R2): Ducio Tessari’s outstanding 1965 Euro-Western, released in an anamorphic transfer for the first time, making up for the compromised and expensive Japanese release and the more recent (but still non-anamorphic) Thai release. English and Italian soundtracks are included in addition to the German track, but there are no English subs, unfortunately. The lack of English subs does render the extras of limited value to monolingual English speakers, but, still, this is an attractive release of an undeservedly obscure movie that makes for great holiday viewing (it takes place at Christmas). Available from http://www.amazon.de/.
4. THE LAST WINTER (IFC): Graced with a much higher budget than his earlier trilogy of revisionist horror, it should come as no surprise that THE LAST WINTER is the most expansive of Larry Fessenden’s movies, as well as a distillation and summation of his prior work. Like NO TELLING, HABIT and WENDIGO, THE LAST WINTER serves up melancholy horror, but this time it’s melancholy on a planetary level. Following a Toronto screening of HABIT, Fessenden stated that, in an ideal world, the audience wouldn’t know what kind of a movie they were about to watch, and would get drawn in by the drama before being blindsided by the fantastic. Of course, that’s not how the marketplace works, and Fessenden’s restrained, low-key approach to the horror genre can leave some fans feeling frustrated. For those on Fessenden’s wavelength, however, his “arthouse horror films” often resonate in ways that typical scary movies just don’t. Fessenden sees horror films as an attempt at “accepting death [and] coming to terms with our limitations.” It’s impossible to watch THE LAST WINTER without comparing it to John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982); the biggest difference is that, this time, instead of an alien threat coming to our planet, it’s the planet itself that has turned against humanity. Fessenden is much more concerned with messages than Carpenter is, and while his movie does not come close to providing the horror or thrills that THE THING does, THE LAST WINTER has its own, different strengths, among them a genuine emotional dimension, mounting dread, and a poignant and moving climax. A worthy release of the latest feature from one of the most original and interesting voices working in the horror genre today.
THE COLLECTOR'S CHOICE: THE FILMS OF BUDD BOETTICHER (Sony): Following up the excellent standalone edition of SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, here are all the other Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns (THE TALL T, DECISION AT SUNDOWN, BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE, RIDE LONSESOME, COMANCHE STATION), plus a documentary, celebrity intros, etc. Endlessly rewatchable films in optimal editions.
THE OWL SERVICE (Network UK import): I contributed an essay to the liner notes of the R2 Network release of this 1969 TV serial, adapted from the novel by Alan Garner. Three teenagers – notably Gillian Hills (BEAT GIRL, BLOW UP, DEMONS OF THE MIND) in her greatest role – discover mysteriously decorated crockery in the attic of a remote house in Wales, and are caught up in the cyclical re-enactment of an ancient, tragic legend. Ostensibly for kids, this does many startling things adult drama would be afraid of these days. I listed this last year as a bootleg, but the official release is splendid.
TOUCH OF EVIL (Universal): When I reviewed an earlier release of the ‘restored version’ of this major title, containing a cut of the film re-edited after Welles’ death in accordance with a memo he made at the time of the original release, I said it was a shame that the disc didn’t include also the previously accepted version of the film, arguing that the Welles memo was a negotiating document (making suggestions he didn’t really want to fight for as bargaining chips to get the changes he wanted) rather than a hard-and-fast plan. Well, the 50th Anniversary R1 edition from Universal has two versions. The original theatrical release and a longer, ‘preview’ cut (the default version in the UK for as long as I can remember), plus four commentary tracks (including one from the late Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston) and documentaries. Now, the job is done …
GET SMART (HBO): I have the nicely-packaged R1 box set of all five seasons, but various R1 and R2 single season releases are around or coming. In viewing, I’m near the end of Season Three, when the show is slipping slightly – but the earlier episodes hold up remarkably well, not so much for the snappy satire (a commentator in Sight & Sound said Get Smart gave a better sense of how the CIA conducted its business than THE GOOD SHEPHERD) and clever gadgetry but the endlessly funny central relationships, as the blithe, confident idiot Max (Don Adams) is taken to be a superspy genius by everyone, including his more competent but loveblind partner 99 (Barbara Feldon), except his eternally frustrated, driven-to-the-edge-of-insanity Chief (Ed Platt).
PHASE IV (Legend Films): How wonderful to have this 70s rarity - the only feature film ever directed by main title creator Saul Bass - available on DVD and a good-looking one, too. Me Generation sci-fi ponderousness at its best!
RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Classic Media): I never would have packaged these two daikaiju eiga together but I'm glad somebody did... and who better than Toho? Answer: nobody.
RICCO THE MEAN MACHINE (Dark Sky Films): It's so great to have this particularly nasty piece of Euro-sleaze available (especially after such a long delay due to legal wrangling), complete, uncut and gin clear in all its acid-washed glory. If you're been able to watch Manny Zarzo castrated on a 52" flatscreen... a drink to you, sir.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Dimension): Happy 40th birthday, NOTLD, and what a gorgeous, sharp transfer to mark the occasion. We all grew up with this classic looking like a kinescope on any number of late, late show broadcasts and public domain video tapes; if you haven't revisited this in optimum condition, you may well see it as if for the first time. Toss all previous editions onto the fire.
2. THEM (Dark Sky Films): As much as I enjoyed THE STRANGERS, the exceptionally scary American takeoff of this taut French horror film, somehow THEM left more of a lasting impact on me; those unexplained noises than emanate from my downstairs periodically are now cause for investigation. So riveting is the film’s home invasion component that the dénouement cannot quite measure up to it, but I never felt cheated—not sure if I ever have felt that way following a modern movie experience that failed to reach eighty minutes. Fortunately this DVD is augmented with a collection of featurettes that are worth investing some time in. Skillfully photographed and edited, THEM is one of the most accomplished exercises in suspense to be released on DVD this past year.
3. ICONS OF HORROR: HAMMER FILMS (Sony): This addition to Sony’s Icons of Horror Collection offers tremendous value at its $24.96 SRP, but at the moment the savvy internet shopper can give it a home for well under $20. Hell, I would have paid $20 just for THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL, or the enjoyable PSYCHO permutation SCREAM OF FEAR. Also included in the 2-disc set are THE GORGON and the merely passable Hammer film THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB. Special features are limited to theatrical trailers, but each film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced widescreen version for the first time in the U.S. I’ll take multiple widescreen films over supplemental material any day.
4. IRON MAN (Paramount): I cannot say I’m a big fan of the superhero genre; heretofore my two faves were UNBREAKABLE and THE INCREDIBLES. But IRON MAN is as good as any film of this type that preceded it, especially alongside such modern catastrophes as SUPERMAN RETURNS and the crummy X-MEN films. If anything comes along to trump IRON MAN’s surprisingly intelligent screenplay and spot-on performances anytime soon—well—let’s face it, that just isn’t likely to happen (count me among the few who found THE DARK KNIGHT to be a bit overrated). IRON MAN on Blu-ray delivers a particularly potent demonstration of the format’s potential, along with the expected amount of supplemental material (a lot).
5. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (Universal): I seldom laugh much at mainstream comedies, but no other film this past year made me laugh to the extent of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. As a fan of VERONICA MARS, it’s always good to see Kristen Bell (aside from Kiyoshi Kurosawa remakes), even though Mila Kunis and Russell Brand effectively steal the show. I’m still no Judd Apatow fan; I truly hated PINEAPPLE EXPRESS—probably the worst film I saw theatrically this past year. But FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is undeniably funny and well worth repeat viewings. It’s available in various DVD incarnations, including a loaded 3-disc DVD, as well as a Blu-ray disc.
HIGH AND LOW (7/22/2008), THE ORPHANAGE (4/22/2008), THE STRANGERS (10/21/2008), THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS (1/29/2008), ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (11/18/2008).
The flood of great and rare cinema being made available for home viewing continued unabated in 2008. Indeed, it is now hardly possible to keep up with every worthwhile release: I haven't yet purchased Artificial Eye's HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA, while my pile of unwatched discs has now hit the ceiling, and contains films by Visconti, Dreyer, Melville, Naruse, Resnais and Shepitko. The following must therefore be seen as less a definitive list than a casual guide to DVDs which were of personal importance.
1- KENJI MIZOGUCHI box sets (Masters of Cinema and Eclipse): Masters of Cinema released many sublime films last year, including masterpieces by Lang, Pialat, Antonioni and Murnau. Perhaps the finest were those contained in their four Mizoguchi double-billl discs, which, along with Eclipse's FALLEN WOMEN collection, finally provided some long overdue DVD exposure for one of the greatest directors of all time. Now if only somebody would release an English-subtitled transfer of THE LOVE OF SUMAKO THE ACTRESS.
2- MARCO FERRERI COLLECTION (Koch Lorber): Another great director whose reputation has suffered from his work's lack of availability, Marco Ferreri seemed an unlikely candidate for the box set treatment. Koch Lorber's very welcome 8-disc collection (which includes an excellent documentary) contains a mixture of Ferreri's better known films (LA GRANDE BOUFFE, TALES OF ORDINARY MADNESS) and rarities such as EL COCHECITO and THE SEED OF MAN. The set's highlight is the rarely seen uncut 113-minute version of the remarkable BYE BYE MONKEY, running 19 minutes longer than Image's disc, which eliminated the character played by William Berger (still uncredited here).
3- MIKLOS JANCSCO (Second Run): Second Run is another UK-based company releasing films for love rather than profit. Recent highlights include Miklós Jancsó's THE ROUND UP, THE RED AND THE WHITE and MY WAY HOME, all of which are accompanied by episodes of the director's documentary series MESSAGE OF STONES. Second Run's tireless founder Mehelli Modhi even brought Jancsó to London to help promote these discs: meeting him was among the most memorable events of 2008.
4- TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (Criterion) and TRAPPED ASHES (Lionsgate): It's been almost two decades since the words "Directed by Monte Hellman" last appeared on our screens, so seeing them five times in one year certainly suggested things were looking up. Four of these directorial efforts consist of documentaries made by Hellman for Criterion's splendid TWO-LANE BLACKTOP disc, which also includes some fascinating screen tests and a new commentary track, as well as a flawless transfer of the film. The fifth is "Stanley's Girlfriend," part of Dennis Bartok's anthology TRAPPED ASHES. The version of this sublime short (a more perfect 27 minutes is difficult to imagine) found in the actual film has been damagingly shortened and reworked, but Hellman's original cut, shown separately at Cannes, is included on Lionsgate's Region 1 disc as an extra.
5- THE FLOCK (High Fliers): The image has been cropped to 1.85, there are no extras, and, quite frankly, the film isn't even that good. But the totally unexpected appearance of Andrew Lau's much revised and reshot (by Niels Mueller) US debut in a director's cut released straight to DVD by a minor UK distributor was certainly cause for celebration. High Fliers didn't bother to boast (and probably didn't even know) about the restored status of their transfer, but any resemblance between this version and the producer's cut (a Region 1 disc of which is available from Genius, whose packaging includes a still from a scene that only appears in the Region 2 edition) is purely coincidental. A comparison of the two variants testifies eloquently to the difference between a film made by a filmmaker and a film made by a committee.____________________
REBECCA & SAM UMLAND
Our “best of” choices are presented in no particular order. Two of our choices are the Blu-ray editions of the films, although the same material is available in SD DVD as well.
PLANET OF THE APES: 40-YEAR EVOLUTION (20th Century-Fox, 5-Blu-ray Disc set):
For long-standing fans of the Planet of the Apes series such as ourselves, this is the definitive set to have of this series—finally! Besides the HD image quality, both theatrical and director’s cuts of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES are included, as well as many hours of exclusive supplements. The set also includes a hardcover book of exclusive photos and other materials.
THE INVADERS: THE FIRST SEASON (Paramount 4-DVD set): Although short-lived, the Quinn Martin produced series THE INVADERS (1967-68)—about the Cassandra-like David Vincent vainly trying to warn the world of an invasion by aliens from outer space—is vintage television at its (paranoid) best. We long looked forward to this series appearing on Region 1 DVD (season two is to appear on Region 1 DVD in late January 2009), and we were not disappointed by the presentation of the series in this excellent box set. Not only does the set include the unedited, never-aired version of the pilot (“Beachhead”), but there are new introductions to each episode provided by Roy Thinnes as well as other supplements. What’s more, the transfers are excellent.
DAVID LYNCH: THE LIME GREEN SET (Absurda): This 10-DVD set is an absolute must-have for fans of Lynch’s work, or those wishing for an extended introduction. The LIME GREEN SET includes 1) ERASERHEAD; 2) the (remastered) ERASERHEAD soundtrack; 3) THE SHORT FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH; 4) THE ELEPHANT MAN, presented here with a new audio mix approved by David Lynch and interesting new supplements; 5) THE ELEPHANT MAN EXTRAS, which includes a documentary plus new interviews with David Lynch and John Hurt; 6) BLUE VELVET with a new Lynch-approved DD 5.1 mix exclusive to this set; 7) WILD AT HEART (identical to the 2005 MGM Sp. Ed.); 8) DVD debut of INDUSTRIAL SYMPHONY No. 1, presented in 4:3 standard as well as 16:9 anamorphic WS; 9) DUMBLAND; Disc 10 is the highly anticipated “Mystery DVD,” which includes roughly three dozen deleted scenes from WILD AT HEART, episodes of OUT YONDER; 4 episodes of RABBITS, and several short clips transferred from 16mm material from the late 60s while Lynch was still in Philadelphia, the “Twin Peaks Festival Greeting” (a short film Lynch recently made for the Twin Peaks Festival), and many other rare pieces. Additionally, the box comes with a 30-page booklet of stills with many rare photos.
BECKET (MPI Blu-ray): BECKET, starring Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas à Becket, is one of our all-time favorite films, a grand historical epic about two old friends who become enemies. It was the martyred Thomas Becket, after all, that prompted Chaucer’s entourage in THE CANTERBURY TALES to undertake their pilgrimage to Canterbury, where the shrine to Becket is located. MPI’s BD issue of the restored print is simply outstanding. We’re delighted to be able to retire our roughly twenty-years old (standard transfer) laser disc.
WHITE DOG (Criterion): We met the inimical Sam Fuller at the 1981 Telluride Film Festival, by which time the filming of WHITE DOG had been completed, but we have waited the twenty-seven years since that weekend to see this film. For us this release was the biggest revelation of the year. We had no idea what to expect, but we were more than impressed by WHITE DOG, one of the final films of the famed auteur.