Monday, December 20, 2010

VW's Favorite DVDs of 2010: Editor's Choice

And now it's my turn.

I was fortunate enough this year to contribute to a number of worthy DVD and Blu-ray releases, including Image Entertainment's THRILLER - THE COMPLETE SERIES, Arrow Films' INFERNO and SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (UK), Mondo Vision's SZAMANKA and Synapse Films' VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Since David Kalat omitted from his list those titles he contributed to, as a conflict of interest, I will follow suit. Each of these releases would have earned a place on this list even without my contributions because they are truly remarkable presentations.

THRILLER is without question the most thoroughly and capably annotated archival television release of the year; INFERNO restores Dario Argento's 1980 classic to a level of beauty and clarity I had not even witnessed on the big screen; SZAMANKA introduces to America one of Andrzej Zulawski's most important films (indeed, an important horror film of a most unusual kind); and SPIRITS OF THE DEAD is the long-awaited, definitive version of a hard film to nail down, encompassing Fellini's masterpiece "Toby Dammit." (If truth be told, SPIRITS is probably the year's most important new release for me, being the first home video release of this title struck from the original camera negative and reinstating the English audio option.) VAMPIRE CIRCUS recently arrived by missed being processed for inclusion by the skin of its fangs. The advance word elsewhere on the net has been very positive indeed.

This is the 12th and final list of our annual overview, and I was delighted that so many of the lists provided by our contributors praised discs that fell outside my own viewing this past year. That said, I must admit to a twinge of regret that none of our contributors -- not even I -- was able to find a place in our surveys for a disc as beautiful, generous and detailed as 20th Century Fox's AVATAR - THREE DISC EXTENDED COLLECTOR'S EDITION. With new releases, I suspect we take the bells and whistles more easily for granted. With time, the value of these discs may become more deeply felt and appreciated... but by then we'll likely be on to a whole nother medium.

My list is presented, painstakingly, in order of preference, but I must stress that the entire list is preferred.

1. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1954, Criterion)
Probably one of the five or ten greatest horror films, and transcendent of genre in many ways, this disc contains the most staggering supplement ever to appear on DVD: a 2½ hour documentary composed of surviving raw footage from the original filming. This provides us with a unique glimpse into the work methods of everyone involved in the production of this American masterpiece. What this means is that we can now see actors like Lillian Gish, Robert Mitchum and Shelly Winters not only in performance but in process, and witness how Charles Laughton, in his only directorial assignment, shaped their performances.

2. THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS (1925, Kino on Video)
It's hard to believe now that I first saw METROPOLIS at a public library screening in the late 1960s that was dead silent and ran approximately one hour. I've since seen it numerous times, at numerous lengths, but this two-hour, twenty-plus minute version of Fritz Lang's masterpiece is the most revelatory─not only due to the newly recovered footage (which very nearly completes it), but also to the HD clarity which exposes previously assumed live action, miniatures or scale model shots to be animated drawings or glass matte paintings. The new footage is in rough shape, allowing it to provide its own footnotes; it adds a great deal to Fritz Rasp's sinister role as Joh Frederson's right hand man, smooths the previously jagged edges of Brigitte Helm's extraordinary triple role, and gives the whole film the breathing space to assume its rightful role as a spectacle. What was never quite so apparent to me before is that METROPOLIS is truly an opera, a film thoroughly informed by the filmmaker's love of opera as surely as Dario Argento's best work found its new direction by wedding its cutting and amplifying its visuals to the key of progressive rock. Knowing this makes its dramatic excesses and its oversimplified, perhaps overly symbolic theme into perspective, makes them more forgivable. Because of this, I find that its traditional narrative scoring─however wonderful it may be, and it carries a distinct and glorious prophecy of Franz Waxman's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN score during the creation scene in Rotwang's lab─rubs ever so slightly against the grain of what Lang's vision truly wants to be. For all that, it is a very fast-moving two-and-a-half hours and the recovered footage only serves to make it more vital, modernistic and approachable.

Over a three year period, BBS produced seven films: HEAD, EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, DRIVE HE SAID, A SAFE PLACE, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS─six of which encompass the arc of work that made Jack Nicholson a star and an actor worthy of stardom. This set contains all seven films and couches them in a wealth of exhilarating extras─audio commentaries, documentaries, interviews, archival materials─pertaining to each film and the company as a whole. Though not fantastic in nature, at least not wholly so, this set represents the college attended by the class that graduated from Roger Corman High School and incidentally underscores the value of the work that actors like Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper and filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich did with Corman. And the HEAD disc contains, for the first time ever on home video, the 1966 screen tests of Micky Braddock (Dolenz) and Peter Tork, as well as ensemble tests that show The Monkees acting with other wannabees. For Monkees fans, this footage alone is worth the cost of the set. It's almost enough to make one overlook the not inconsiderable fact that the film itself has been remixed in 5.1, with the songs sounding far better than they do on Rhino's newly remastered HEAD soundtrack box set.

4. HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT'S INFERNO (2009, Park Circus, Region 2)
This documentary by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea tells the story of the great French suspense director's ill-fated 1963 project with Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani, about a middle-aged husband's festering jealousy about his younger wife, which ended when Clouzot suffered a heart attack two weeks into the filming. Collected here, for the first time, is an assemblage of loose and edited footage from those two weeks, footage that promises─even at a distance of almost 40 years─to catapult cinema into new visual vocabularies of human psychology and derangement. Clouzot ventures beyond narrative images to dwell obsessively on the beauty of Romy Schneider, using her as the centerpiece of numerous enthralling special effects, color and makeup tests, and superimpositions. Though presented in the scientific context of a documentary, this is one of the sexiest films ever made. Reportedly coming stateside from Flicker Alley.

I'm working hard to hold myself in rational check here, because Universal's Blu-ray remastering of PSYCHO, coupled with ADX's 5.1 audio remix, begs to be hailed as the restoration of the year. It unearths visual and sonic elements of the film that feel every bit as long-buried as the lost footage from METROPOLIS or Clouzot's INFERNO. I'm talking about the deeper register now available to the double basses in Bernard Herrmann's orchestra, which make the murder of Marion Crane somehow more traumatic and revolting, and the way the rainfall now heard outside the Bates Motel as Marion checks in places us, with her, in a shower from the get-go. The little rear-channel kick in the pipes just before the shower water is heard in the front channels, and the deep idling sound of Arbogast's car motor. Likewise, the refining of the B&W cinematography has become revelatory in its own way, bringing us into more intimate contact with nearly all the performances. In Janet Leigh's case, this scrutiny presents us with one of the great tragic performances of the past half-century, and the densely layered eloquence of Joseph Stefano's dialogue retains its place at the very pinnacle of the genre. The extras on the second disc are mostly ported over from previous editions but remain valuable, with an excellent making-of documentary by Laurent Bouzereau and a sampling of the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interview that reveals the two men more at odds than print suggested, building to a satisfying assertion from Hitchcock about PSYCHO being a film that asserts its value almost entirely in cinematic terms.

The regularity with which Warner/Turner/MGM keeps trumping past editions of this title has become tedious, but the first Blu-ray issue of the Victor Fleming classic obliterates even the memory of the $1,000,000 digital three-strip restoration of a few years ago. Every check in Dorothy's gingham dress is herein preserved in crystal clarity, and the ruby slippers sparkle and hold the eye in long shots as they never have before. Remarkably, the enhanced clarity of the presentation doesn't unearth faults so much as the film crew's peerless eye for detail in terms of makeup and set design, a standard of quality that carries through to every department on the production in a truly timeless manner. There is simply infinitely more here to appreciate, and even to notice for the first time. True, the box set is padded with a third disc devoted to a lengthy MGM studio history documentary available elsewhere, but the second disc includes some worthwhile arcana, including the earlier silent film adaptations of THE WIZARD OF OZ and a selection of L. Frank Baum's own Méliès-influenced shorts adaptating his Oz stories, and a made-for-TV movie about Baum starring John Ritter.

7. FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1914-15, Kino on Video)
In 1998, when I reviewed JUVE VS. FANTOMAS in VW 43, 45m of one serial was all that could easily be seen of Louis Feuillade's epic five-hour serial adaptation of the popular crime pulps of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. JUVE VS. FANTOMAS alone runs 62m in this complete edition. This release belatedly follows earlier issues of this material in France and the UK, and is included here for its importance rather than its novelty. The supplements on Universal's PSYCHO disc would have us believe that Hitchcock was sui generis, but Hitchcock learned everything about the fundamentals of suspense from Fritz Lang and Feuillade. Kino's set has some fine supplements, including other Feuillade shorts and two lively David Kalat commentaries, but it is very disappointing that numerous extras from the other sets were not ported over, including Georges Franju's interview with Marcel Allain.

8. THE GENERAL (1920, Kino on Video)
Despite being an admirer of Keaton's work, for some reason it was not until this year that I finally caught up with the film most commonly cited as his masterpiece. I'm glad I did, because this Blu-ray issue is like looking through a glass window into another time -- culled from an archival print taken from the original camera negative, it is a magnificent feat of restoration, and presented with a choice of three different musical accompaniments. Worth seeing not only for the work of genius that is is, but for the ripples it sent out, influencing (for example) Sergio Leone's later work on THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and even ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

Flicker Alley's five-disc set GEORGE MELIES FIRST WIZARD OF CINEMA 1896-1913) from 2008 seemed exhaustive but an additional 28 shorts by this seminal fantasist came to light only after its release. Also included are a couple of shorts by Méliès' Spanish counterpart Segundo de Chomón, sometimes mistaken for the work of the French master and no less brilliant.

10. THE T.A.M.I. SHOW (1965, Shout! Factory)
In which James Brown throws down a still-resonating gauntlet to the bill-topping Rolling Stones, who haven't even written "Satisfaction" yet. This all-star live performance, filmed with television cameras at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, has a little something for everyone (Mersey Beat, Motown, soul, girl group, soul, beach music, garage band) and it's all pretty much cream of the crop. Even some of the lesser bands have the power to make one misty. Speaking of crop, it's been impossible to see this film in its original widescreen format since its original release, especially with The Beach Boys' set intact, and this disc restores all that. The surprise of the film, once you notice that Teri Garr is one of the background dancers, is how much musical history she's able to eclipse with her frenzied flailings.

THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939, Universal)
THE T.A.M.I. SHOW (Shout! Factory)

Directed respectively by John Guillermin and Robert Day, these British-produced Gordon Scott adventures raise Edgar Rice Burroughs' character to a level of maturity and rousing excitement that his long-running film franchise would never enjoy so fully again. GREATEST ADVENTURE features one of the earliest screen appearances of Sean Connery, as a stooge to main menace Niall McGuinness, and the heavies in MAGNIFICENT are as good as they come: John Carradine, Jock Mahoney and Al Mulock. Two of the finest matinee movies of their time, these deserved an official release from Warner Home Video, and much more ballyhoo than they got. If you care about action and adventure cinema, don't let anything stand in the way of ordering these burn-to-order discs from Warner Archive.

(2009, Shout! Factory)
While his TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD (2007) still awaits release, Larry Blamire's subsequent three Bantam Street productions arrived on disc this year in splendid presentations. These movie-smart, absurdist parodies─tackling fantasy-adventure, old dark house movies and ONE STEP BEYOND, respectively─not only share one of the most delightful repertory acting ensembles ever assembled, but they stand on their own comic merits (you don't need the reference points to laugh, yet they run hilariously deep) and they represent pretty much the only real, consistent wit found in American comedies today. Blamire's work is a testament to what can still be achieved when shooting digitally and strictly to low budget, and it's time some forward-looking studio (assuming there is such a thing) repaid his ingenuity with an opportunity to advance to the next level.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent list, as expected, though I thought OZ came out in the fall of '09. (Of course, it's the kind of release that keeps on giving.) As a film fan, I thank you for your contributions to INFERNO, et al; as a Tarzan fan, I'm that much more frustrated now that Warner Archive does not have a Canadian distribution channel.


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