Monday, December 17, 2007

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.


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.

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.]

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.

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.

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?

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”


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, 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.

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