Out of the Cloud, Against the Stream

For those who still want a hard copy, 2011 brought an abundance of eclectic, sometimes eccentric DVD releases


get a bit jittery come December. A nervous tick sets in. An anxiety rests deep in the gut.

It’s time to pick the best DVD releases of the year.

And I have no idea what to choose. Not for lack of selections, of course. 

This year has been particularly strong in regards to the quality of DVD releases, despite the medium’s unsure future in the hands of consumers who want programming streamed digitally rather than delivered on flimsy plastic discs. 

This strength makes selecting favorites difficult. Where to begin? The avenues are many. I would love to wax on about incredible releases that capitalize on the restorative and curatorial powers of home video. The Criterion Collection leads the charge in this regard, with new releases of classics both forgotten and obscure. 

Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939) and Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) have long been available on DVD, but their new Criterion releases raise the bar. The restored prints stun and the bonus features are from heaven. Criterion is famed for packing micro film history departments onto their DVDs and the supplementary behind-the-scenes and retrospective docs, commentary tracks and bonus booklets included with these three follow suit.

The Eclipse Series sub-label is the Criterion Collection’s little brother, releasing no-frills boxed sets devoted to specific directors, studios, etc. And like many younger siblings, it’s a bit more rebellious. Eclipse Series No. 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara is a perfect example.

Warped World collects five features that a young Kurahara, the Japanese director of the internationally acclaimed Antarctica (1983), made fresh from film school in the ’60s. These noirs and dramas are brash, wild and stylized fun, but they’re much more, shedding invaluable light on a youth culture finding itself in a country recovering from WWII destruction.

Additional foreign language faves include Margot Benacerraf’s lush, lyrical docudrama about salt miners on a Venezuelan peninsula, Araya (1959); French legend Agnes Varda’s documentary, Daguerreotypes (1976), on the rue Daguerre in Paris, where she lived for many years; and Thai director Apichatpong Weerasthkul’s Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011), the dreamy Cannes-winner that charts the days leading up to an old man’s death and the ghosts, Sasquatch-like jungle men and other magical beings and family members who prepare him for his journey.

I’d like to gush about the absolutely bonkers horror, sci-fi and other genre flicks that warped my brain this year, as well. 

Criterion earns its keep with the release of two greats: The Phantom Carriage (1921), Swedish director Victor Sjostrom’s silent ghost story riffing on the legend that the last man to die each year inherits the reins of Death’s coach, and The Island of Lost Souls (1932), the classic H.G. Wells adaptation starring Charles Laughton as the mad doctor who creates an island of man/animal hybrids, led by a very hairy Bela Lugosi.

I went crazy over Doghouse, a madcap, uber-violent, battle-of-the-sexes zombie film that follows a group of city dudes into the country for a vacation at a village known for its high babe-to-man ratio. Upon arrival, they find the women of their dreams have turned into man-eating (and only man-eating) zombies. 

Doghouse skirts close to straight-up misogyny as the men dispatch the undead dames, most of which are scantily clad and horny even in death. The male characters are so dim, though, that you root for the zoms as they give the guys their just desserts.

Norway’s Trollhunter (2010) and Spain’s The Last Circus (2010) deserve lauds, as well, for their perfect blends of horror and dark humor.

The mockumentary Trollhunter employs the “found footage” trope to great success as it follows a group of filmmakers who stumble upon Norway’s best kept secret: Trolls are real. And dangerous. Trailing Norway’s best trollhunter through mountainous and fjord-drenched landscapes, they witness insane sights with potential to shake the country’s core.

The Last Circus goes inside a circus as it makes the rounds during Franco’s regime, revealing the warped lives behind the cheer and the face paint. 

The story is familiar: A sad clown falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist who is exploited and abused by another (in this case, a rather vicious fellow clown). His advances spurned, sad clown channels moping into mayhem. With heavy artillery. And knives. And hot irons. Brilliant.

The DVDs that impressed me the most this year had nothing to do with curatorial integrity, artistic vision or scare factor, however. It was all about availability.

Time is in short supply, forcing many folks to skip the theatrical exhibitions of many hyped films. Luckily, the ever-tightening window between a film’s theatrical release and its home video debut allows one to catch these films within months (often weeks) of original release. 

Of course, there’s no substitute for witnessing the majesty of a film projected widescreen as intended, but for those strapped for time, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Takasi Miike’s new samurai classic 13 Assassins, Werner Herzog’s 3-D doc, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Errol Morris’ Tabloid and many more of the year’s best films are available a short trip away at the local video store. 

If that video store is even around anymore. But that’s another story... ©