View from the Couch

A discerning list of 2009’s best DVD releases

Year-end “best-of” lists give me the jitters. Yes, I know: poor Phil. It’s true, though.

Ranking 12 months’ worth of DVD releases is an overwhelming task. Worse still is the mad rush to watch as many as possible as the year fades in an effort to catch an overlooked title. The stacks of unwatched screeners that skyscraper over my desk only compound the nerves. Is a gem buried that deserves attention? Did I forget something? Hard as it might be, these questions are best ignored.

Thousands of DVDs are released each year. No one has the time or constitution to watch all of them (if such a person exists, I shudder at the thought of their Gollum-like existence). The dense market guarantees that noteworthy films will pass unnoticed. It’s an unavoidable fact that must be accepted, thoroughness be damned.

The only option is to focus on those that bounded to the top — the ones that drove you wild. This favors personal tastes, but that’s an afterthought if readers trust the critic.

Luckily, I cast a wide net this year, snaring essential art-house releases, avant-garde pioneers, forgotten classics, unsung indies, unique and poignant docs and more. The selections are a small representation of the year’s finest DVD releases, but they deserve my lauds and, hopefully, yours as well.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) The release of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece was one of the year’s most anticipated. Running over three hours, Jeanne Dielman documents three days in the life of a seemingly average Belgian widow/ mother/part-time prostitute, played to perfection by Delphine Seyrig. Using long, composed, stationary takes, Akerman captures the details of Jeanne’s life: meal preparation, shopping, bathing, folding laundry, welcoming daily Johns. Sitting through this everyday minutia is a challenge, but eventually a mesmerizing rhythm takes shape. When this rhythm slowly breaks, it’s jarring to the viewer and Jeanne alike, creating cracks that lead the latter to tragic devastation. The Criterion Collection packs this two-DVD edition with bonuses that flesh out the feature perfectly, most notably footage of screen veteran Seyrig and 25-year-old Akerman’s behind-the-scenes tete-a-tetes.

Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve With feet in the worlds of early-20th-century Parisian Surrealist art and academic natural science, French filmmaker Jean Painleve was a prototypical Renaissance man. He melded his influences brilliantly in hundreds of mesmerizing nature films, each of which doubled as experimental shorts with their Jazz soundtracks, obtuse titles and subjects (seahorse reproduction, octopi environs, sea urchins, freezing water) and cinematography breathtaking in its artistry. This three-DVD set from the Criterion Collection collects 23 films from Painleve’s 50-year career. It’s guaranteed to change the way you look at both the natural world and cinema.

Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Timecrimes (2007) Charlie Kaufman and Nacho Vigalondo’s mindbenders benefit from the home-video format more than any releases in recent memory, as each must be watched at least twice for full appreciation. The intricate stories about a theatre director producing a play based on his own life and a man caught in a time loop, respectively, beg study and inspection. Their sophistication is revealed through the new layers, hidden details and meaningful asides that are overlooked at first glance.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008) Roman Polanski is everywhere right now, but missing from much of the editorializing and news cycles are the facts behind the sexual assault trial that led him to flee the United States for European exile. Marina Zenovich’s documentary fills the gaps with even precision, revealing much missing behind the noise. The acts that Polanski perpetrated against his 13-year-old victim are detailed in full. They are despicable, inexcusable and criminal. However, investigations and interviews show judicial misconduct at nearly every level of the subsequent trial. When the prosecuting attorney states that he doesn’t blame Polanski for fleeing, perceptions of the media maelstrom are immediately thrown for a loop.

Momma’s Man (2008) This independent comedy flew under the radar despite critical nods, which was a shame — Momma’s Man is wonderful gem. It tells the story of a thirtysomething who visits his parents in New York City, only to decide that he doesn’t want to return to his wife, baby, job and life of responsibility in Los Angeles. He’d rather sit in his childhood loft, reminisce about youth, dig through crates of nostalgia and look up old friends and flames. It’s as sharp a commentary on male adulthood as any put to screen, with quirky, touching humor lightening the blade. The son of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, writer/director Azazel Jacobs casts his father and mother in the film, which brings a believable intimacy and familiarity. He also shot Momma’s Man in his parents’ ephemera-packed loft apartment, and half of the film’s fun is exploring their bohemian cavern.

The Exiles (1961) Milestone Films deserves an award for their work restoring and distributing important works of forgotten cinema. The Exiles ranks amongst their finest. Kent Mackenzie’s film follows a group of young Native Americans living in downtown Los Angeles over the course of one long evening of partying, cruising, fighting and panging for love. Based on interviews conducted with Native Americans living in L.A.’s Bunker Hill, The Exiles is an energetic and authentic snapshot of marginalized youth struggling with assimilation, cultural heritage, modernity and a universal uncertainty about one’s place in the world. The restored black and white print is stunning as well, accentuating the pop of L.A.’s wild urban nightlife and the smooth cream of its dewy morning haze.

American Swing (2008) Manhattan swingers’ club Plato’s Retreat has lived in legend since its mid-’70s heyday, but most have no clue as to what really went down behind its closed doors. American Swing blasts off the hinges for an inside look at the loose love, open sex and Disco that drove the nightclub’s infamy. The film goes into eye-popping, explicit detail, but it’s no cheap exploitationer. Directors Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart instead frame the action around the rise, prime and fall of American sexual liberation, in particular how it affected the club’s founder, the “King of Swing” Larry Levenson, who walked the walk until his dying day.

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