Friday, January 13, 2006

Bloodshot Eye, Empty Wallet: 20 DVDs I Heart in 2005

This took me an inexcusable two weeks to put together. So I hope you find something to enjoy or bitch about.

Actually, due to poverty, I drastically altered my DVD habit in '05. But renting reintroduced me to the good habits of eclectic viewing. Simply: I'm more prone to watch movies and explore genres that I'm not predisposed to like, if I'm not buying it. That sounds obvious, but anyone else with a hundred unwatched discs knows what I mean.

Since these lists tend to degenerate into superlative-fests, and amount to little more than "good movie, good transfer, good extras," I'll try to elaborate on what makes the release specifically worthy of the format, or at least why it hit me personally. With three of my Top 20 films making debuts this year, after Dellamorte Dellamore makes it to R1 DVD, my lists will get decidedly more calm.

20. Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities - Celebrated Shorts, 1920s - 1960s (Walt Disney Home Video)

Both Disney titles on this list have some transfer or source quality issues. But I suggest you stuff all caveats, crack the tin, and inhale deep. The Company has a tendency to homogenize their history to create an illusion of timeless continuity. The Treasures line, and this release in particular, are about a different, and far more fascinating Disney, with difficult beginnings, avant-garde experimentation, failures and ideas too big to realize. With nearly a whole disc of "Alice Comedies" alone, is the true birth of Walt Disney's art (until Maltin wants to give us a Kansas City Shorts collection), history we're lucky this stubborn studio wants to share. I can't lie - it may be antiquated, you may find it boring or esoteric. But no hard-core Disneyhead could live without this mainline hit of raw Walt.

19. "The Simpsons" - The Complete Seventh Season (Fox TV) / "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - The Chosen Collecton (Fox TV)

Witness the last Great American Sitcom before it slid from grace. Actually all seven "Simpsons" boxes are cornerstones of any DVD library, and I think we're becoming blasé towards the effort it takes to provide commentaries for every single episode. I find these the most compulsively consumable, and whole-day-wasting of all supplements. Season 6 could just as easily be on this list, but Season 7 sidestepped a silly packaging controversy, and contains my favorite episode, the raucous, caffeine-addled "22 Short Films About Springfield." It doesn't even need praise: there's just nothing else like it in TV.

I gave these two a "tie," because the slab of a "Buffy" set is a bit of a cheat: it collects seven seasons of previously issued discs. Chosen Collection is convenient, economical, attractive and essential. Instead of feeling like a double-dip rip-off, it is a relief for groaning DVD shelves.

Here's hoping for a "M*A*S*H Chosen Collection when that massive run is finished.

18. Bringing Up Baby (Warner)

It's acquired taste, this lost genre. The screwball comedy was systematically de-screwed, de-fanged, and de-comedied into the watery milk modern romantic comedy. So here's maybe the blackest of them all, with a worldview so scary it's a step away from noir. Humans are all moronic, science fails in the face of chaos, and one man's ordered life is torn apart through no fault of his own, and forces beyond his control. The only animal fit to survive is Love, and it's portrayed as a rampaging, destructive natural force. Metaphorically, everybody dies at the end. Ha ha. Keeps getting funnier, every time you see it, which is why need a DVD.

Note to God: Please stop letting the terminally boring and never-insightful Peter Bogdonavich have anything to do with DVD production. I know he likes movies a lot, but that doesn't mean he has anything useful to say about them. Didn't Gregg Araki say this movie is more important than Citizen Kane? Get that guy on a commentary!

17. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Criterion)

The sole "new release" on this list. Most directors go their whole lives without making a film so accomplished. I try not to revisit Anderson's films too often, so they will retain their power. But still, something different will make me cry every time. Last time it was Zissou shutting off Jane's tape recorder out of embarrassment, Ned looking plaintively at his new stationary, seeing a life he never had, and Alistair's gentle and knowing concedence: "I've got an excuse. I'm part gay." No matter how you change, Anderson's films change with you. Besides the insightful commentary, the extras are cute but ineffectual. Still, you'll want this disc around in 20 years.

16.The Blind Dead Collection (Blue Underground)

Prying open the coffin-lid (literally!) on this set is accompanied by long-held-in sighs of relief from European horror dorks across the globe. It may be imperfect, but it's a big, brave, and finally beautiful undertaking. I honestly didn't know these pictures had it in them to look so nice! The Knights Templar ride out in higher style than you've ever seen. Oh and this is the only coffin-shaped box that fits just fine on your shelf, so thanks for that, too.

15. The Candy Snatchers (Subversive Cinema)

Rescued from total oblivion by the up-and-coming darlings at Subversive, Candy Snatchers is a truly outrageous sick-joke kidnapping exploiter. The astounding trailer makes it look like a gleeful, kitschy romp, but the real thing is infinitely smarter and nastier. With a Coen-brothers-loopy plot and great cast of diverse characters cutting through a wide swath of socioeconomic classes, the jewels in Snatchers crown are Vince Martorano and Ben Piazza's respectively sweat-beaded and hilarious performances. I don't want to oversell a cheapo crime caper, and I know the crazy turn into overblown melodrama doesn't work for everyone, but in this case, the little guy tries 100 times harder.

14. The Val Lewton Collection (Warner)

Woah, easy, guys! Lewton's a few steps away from household name, but here's a big, chunky, vault-clearing box. There is maybe no classier way to totally creep your shit out than these movies, and Tom Weaver is the best film historian commentator in the business; but I do not need to sell you on either idea. Let us hope its acclaim spurs other studios to clean out their Golden Age horror catalogs.

13. Bambi - Platinum Edition (Walt Disney Home Video)

After a few years of snide, latter-day coffer-fillers (Aladdin, Lion King) clogging the Platinum Edition pipeline, here comes the sweetest slice of perfection in the Disney canon. A microcosm examination of what it means to be a living creature on this planet, Disney has never since surpassed Bambi's achievements in storytelling ease, richness, or animation. There's some artifacting issues, but otherwise the film done nothing but justice on the most attractive Platinum yet. I'm not sure why Disney is getting stingier with commentary tracks, since those put together for past Platinums, and Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty are some of the best on record.

12. Twilight Zone - The Definitive Edition - Season 2 (Image Entertainment)

Third time's a charm for TZ. Very few shows in history could benefit from - or withstand - such exhaustive scrutiny as the supplements here. The joys of rewatching Twilight Zone constantly are widely known, but these discs are beeeeeutiful - and there wasn't even much wrong with the last editions! Season 2 gets the prize for containing my all-time fave "Nick of Time," the totally whacked-out "The Howling Man," and simply for not being Season 4. These encyclopedic sets will confirm for all that Serling was one of the great humanist fantasists of his age.

11. The Bela Lugosi Collection (Universal)

And me, I just would've been happy with The Black Cat, but if you want to throw in Invisible Ray, then hey, we're on our way to digitally reconstructing Shock Theater! The only problem with these second-tier horror classics is that like their even more poverty-ridden cousins, they go down like honey roasted peanuts, and you want more, more. Yum. Those with classier taste than mine may substitute the Hammer Collection or move the Lewton box up a couple pegs. Snobs.

10. The Fly (Fox)

Psychic ills erupt in physically violent ways all over Cronenberg's work, but none so spectacularly as The Fly. Whatever your poison, there's something to gross you out here. Plus, in addition to the usual fixations, Fly is also a meditation on the monster movie itself, and as always, it's an essay by a guy smarter than you. As for the DVD, that, ladies and monkey-cats, is how you make a making-of documentary.

9. Rebel Without a Cause (Warner)

The most Shakespearian of JD pictures, and one of the most subversive studio hits of the '50s, Rebel continues to tear at the fabric of American straight-spined hypocrisy: if we love families so much, why do we do such a poor job of preserving them? It may be a "classic" because of The Sainthood of James Dean, but here he earns it in spades, and the DVD preserves his nuanced performance in detail. Go ahead, and use your DVD player like a microscope to dissect the star's cell-structure: I suggest zooming in on Dean's hands and face for further study. For me, it's not even Dean, but the paperback-cover-painting cinematography, Sal Mineo's sweet and sad performance, and all these iconic, mythic-scope images dumped over what used to and would continue to be, essentially an exploitation genre. Extras out the wazoo. No studio knows how to look after its own like Warner.

8. L'Eclisse (Criterion)

Speaking of acquired tastes... Antonioni's chilly exploration of how we are miserable sods and then stop existing, is preserved on museum-quality DVD. The ending is one of the most reality-shaking shock finales I know. With Antonioni, if you can't see these pictures with crystal-clarity, you're not seeing it at all.
Now if Criterion would get their hooks on La Notte...

7. The Wizard of Oz - Three Disc Collector's Edition (Warner)

I can't report on how it looked in 1939, but to me, Wizard of Oz should look as eye-searing as possible. As for the supplements... it's a twister! Look, by now we know every facet of this film's production and history, down to every shooting day's lunch break and how many times Judy coughed during recording session retakes. There probably aren't new anecdotes to impart, but the massive package includes invaluable collections of silent film and Baum-related materials. Very strange and stylish cover art wins points from me. This is the most worshipful release of the year, but hey. Oz is an alter from which we cannot unshackle ourselves.

6. Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 3 (Warner)

These are the funniest films our nation ever produced, and forever transformed the face of American comedy. These are the most-played discs in the house. All Bob Clampett and '30s cartoon fans have call to rejoice over Vol. 3. Just restoring and collecting these cartoons would take enough effort (though cripes, somebody should've taken a pass at those Snafu shorts), but the assembled supplements are a class apart. History and analysis is covered from both layperson and animation nerd perspectives. The Frank Taschlin appreciation is thoroughly informative and insightful. Michael Barrier and Greg Ford's tracks have made them king audio commentators of these boxes, with constant surprising fresh perspectives and useful information. But the fanboy highlight is probably John Kricfalusi gushing all over Clampett's "Gruesome Twosome," and calling Friz Freleng "boring."

5. The Bird With Crystal Plumage (Blue Underground)

I Heart B.U. so much I wanted them to be #1 this year. Given the near-holy status of the film and the sweet perfection of the disc, it only means there are some how four discs better than one of the best DVDs I have ever seen. It was formerly enough just to have most of Argento uncut on disc, but the library looks shoddier with each passing year. Blue Underground wipes the slate, goes back to square one, and reminds us that Jesus Christ, did this kid know what he was doing.

4. Edison - Invention of the Movies (Kino / MoMA)

"Shucks, thanks for the validation!," says old Tom

Going in, I figured Invention of the Movies would be educational, a bit dreary, and only of interest to students of early cinema, and mostly as a reference tool. Coming out, four discs later, I was exhausted, grinning, and soaking wet with history. In a way it's four whole discs of supplements, in another it's one massive documentary, in another, it's hundreds of films. Either way, it's so fun and fascinating and important, the supplements best any book on the subject I've ever read, and in proper context these shorts are engrossing like never before. Here is the first movie, and you can watch it in your house. The first movie. The heart skips.

The gorgeous box and wistful menu music also make this the DVD packaging of the year. No other contenders.

3. King Kong (Warner)

Leave the porch light on long enough, and your babies will come home. The restoration isn't as crystal clear as one might hope, but it's a damn sight better than ever before. Kong is a pleasure to freeze-frame, and view in slow motion, and let us never take these things for granted.

FOUR HOURS of Alien Quadirilogy-level exhaustive making-of and historical documentaries. The multimedia presentation of Willis O'Brein's still born Creation is worth the price of admission, and Mr. Jackson's Spider Pit reconstruction is perhaps the DVD supplement of the year. You'll be shocked it doesn't have a spine number

2. Danger: Diabolik (Paramount)

Pure pop exhilaration, brought to color-drenched, oversexed, totally immoral life by Paramount's sparkling DVD. Extra heaping of kudos for the extras; though Tim Lucas isn't working from his usual meticulous historical and analytical notes, he still squeezes out the commentary of the year with star John Phillip Law, and Steve Bissette's comics-to-film featurette is the only insightful documentary of its type (they're usually for the comics-illiterate). It's between this and Blood and Black Lace for my favorite Bava film. For the first time in home video history, somebody did right by Diabolik.

Except for that ugly cover.

1. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Criterion)

If you're crazy in love with Man Who Fell to Earth, Criterion's put together a box to make you cry. Personally, it's my favorite science fiction film, and grows in my estimation every year. Most films will yield more secrets on repeat viewings, but Man Who Fell is inexhaustible. The dystopia is the world you already know and live in, but the film is a web of rhyming lines, and images, variable metaphors, fractured mirrors and looping timelines so infinitely complex it can't all be comprehended the first time through. Perhaps never. So whether you're watching for Bowie's performance-of-a-lifetime, or to savor the grace notes, you and your DVD player can fiddle with this puzzle-box for hours and years.

There's something to this disc which makes it stand out beyond even Criterion's usual respectful buff and shine: someone obviously loved this movie dearly.

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