Essential Home Viewing

A discerning look at the year in DVDs

Dec 23, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Choosing the year’s best DVDs is a difficult task. The market has become so large, divergent, inclusive and specialized that comprehensive surveys are Herculean efforts, with the only guarantee being that something of worth is overlooked.

So why bother? Simple. Aside from being critical eyes, film writers serve a parallel function as guides to the vast world of cinema. It’s a weighty obligation that rides between objective critique and subjective preference, leaning heavily towards the latter. It’s in this spirit of public service that I approach my own list of the year’s best.

These are the DVDs that would not leave me alone this year, that I couldn’t shut up about, that I desperately wanted everyone to see. They run the gauntlet from silent classics and precious foreign wonders to relative obscurities and pure guilty pleasure.

Many are far from the year’s “best” or “most important” or “best-selling” releases, but some fall within these ranks without question. Nevertheless, they all hit my awesome button, which is good enough for me.

J’Accuse (1919)/La Roue (1923)
World cinema classics from the silent era — many thought lost forever — found new life this year, notably Swedish legend Victor Sjostrom’s A Man There Was (1917) and The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), the British/Indian co-production, A Throw of Dice (1929) and sets devoted to George Melies. Of the lot, two classics by French master Abel Gance rose brilliantly high.

On the surface, J’Accuse and La Roue are simple melodramas about love torn by wartime and an incestuous love triangle, respectively. Gance elevates the material, though, through an epic re-write of the young language of cinema. Montage, cutting, superimposition, length (La Roue runs over four hours), special effects and poetic elements were experimented upon to create seismic amalgams of form and emotion that changed the course of the medium forever.

These releases received deserved respect from Flicker Alley, which packaged each with supplemental discs full of bonuses and booklets of exhaustive critical essays.

The General (1926)
Stone-faced funnyman Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece about a Confederate locomotive engineer on a mission to save his loves (a girl and a train) from Union Army hands received an exceptional re-release from Kino.

Re-mastered from a 35mm archive print struck from an original camera negative, The General has never looked better with a new crisp sheen that allows Keaton’s sophisticated physical comedy to shine. A supplemental disc of extras — three separate audio tracks (including a theatre organ score for the complete vaudeville vibe), behind-the-scenes footage, two fascinating intros by Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles and more — seals the deal.

Belles Toujours (2006)
Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s Belles Toujours is a testament to tenacity. Theoretically, it should not exist. Its premise is pure hubris, sequelizing Bunuel’s untouchable 1967 classic, Belle de Jour, which starred Catherine Deneuve as a bored, wealthy Parisian housewife turned whore. Also, de Oliveira was 97 years old during production — an age that finds many waiting to go gently into that good night.

Thankfully, these challenges only make the film more precious. Belles Toujours is pure elegance from start to finish. The meeting of the now-aged ex-prostitute Belle ( played by Bulle Ogier) and her tormenter (Michel Piccoli) begins as a cat-and-mouse game through Paris and culminates in a hushed, intense dinner where memories and time are mediated and meditated upon.

The Delirious Fictions of William Klein
The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series outdid itself with a three-DVD collection devoted to the cinematic output of William Klein, an American ex-pat living in Paris who found fame as a Vogue photographer in the 1960s before turning to cinema. Definitely products of their era and influences, Klein’s films are an anarchic blend of still and moving images, surrealism, pop-art aesthetics, satire and social critique.

The set includes Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), a stylized skewer of the fashion industry filmed in beautiful blackand-white; Mr. Freedom (1969), a colorful romp that follows an American superhero to Paris to fight Communism; and The Model Couple (1977), a portrait of a married couple who agree to undergo a surveillance experiment that predates the contemporary reality-show craze by 30 years.

Six in Paris (1965)/Mister Lonely (2007)
Indie enfant terrible Harmony Korine (Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy) quietly returned from a near-decade long sabbatical from feature filmmaking with a beautiful mess about a Michael Jackson impersonator in Paris (Milk’s Diego Luna) who runs away with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) to a countryside estate inhabited by other celebrity wannabes. Really.

The ultimate, unflinching curio, Mister Lonely amazes and confounds as wonderfully staged sequences and tender moments butt heads with absolutely infuriating and often embarrassing bits. Reconciling these conflicts allows the film to remain with viewers long after the credits roll — whether the effect is intended is another story.

Hammer Films: Icons of Horror Collection
The long-anticipated release of rarities from Britain’s premiere horror house, Hammer Films, was cause for celebration. Made in conjunction with Columbia Pictures, the four featured gems fall in the shadow of the studio’s more famous Universal collaborations, but they are pure Hammer, deep with Gothic atmosphere, studied chills and pure entertainment chops.

The two-DVD set includes The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), Scream of Fear (1961), The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) and my personal favorite, The Gorgon (1964), a fun spooker starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing that finds the snake-headed Medusa of Greek myth terrorizing the British moors. Weirdly brilliant!

And This Is Free (1964)
Mike Shea’s cinema verite classic is a lesson in the Blues told through Chicago’s long-gone Maxwell Street open-air market — an unparalleled melting pot of ethic, social, commercial, culinary and, most importantly, musical influences.

Anything and everything, legal and illegal, could be found on Maxwell Street, but the music was the star. And This Is Free captures blisteringly raw Blues and Gospel performed street-side by musicians integral to both the Chicago Blues sound and the history of music itself — Robert Nighthawk, Blind Arvella Gray, Carrie Robinson, Floyd Jones, Jim Brewer and more.

In addition to the film, Shanachie’s release contains valuable historical bonus features, a CD of Maxwell Street blues regulars (including Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter) and a booklet full of reminiscences. Essential.