THE BEST DVD/BLU-RAY TITLES OF 2008
(in no particular order)
Coyote Ugly on Blu-ray (Buena Vista)
No, I’m not kidding. Many dismissed this 2000 film as being teeny-gyrate shtick with no redeeming value whatsoever, but for those of us who know the tingly magic of Coyote Ugly, this high definition presentation of the film reminds us of the giddy pull cinema can have when it’s simply being fun. Containing both the theatrical and unrated versions of the film (the unrated one just includes more of heartthrob Adam Garcia’s bare ass and some Piper Perabo body-double boobs), this Blu-ray Disc is a veritable party in a snap-case. It’s SO STUPID. Yeah, we know. Piper Perabo can’t act. Doesn’t matter. Wait, Maria Bello is in it? Time to wake up, America: Coyote Ugly is the greatest unsung masterpiece of the decade, and this Blu-ray Disc is fantastic proof of it. DO WE SERVE WATER IN THIS BAR?
Fox Film Noir (Fox)
There were amazing classic box sets released this year – The Abbott & Costello Universal Collection, The Bette Davis (Vol.1, Vol.2 & Vol.3) and Joan Crawford Collection volumes, among others – but as much of a collection coveter as I may be, the most reliable source for exceptional old-fashioned American film comes from Fox and its Fox Film Noir collection. Each disc is cheap (less than $15), the films are monumental (even the lesser ones), and the studio regularly affixes excellent supplementary material onto each one. This year’s two major highlights were the Joan Crawford doozy Daisy Kenyon and the Mabel Alberston Black Widow, one of the more underappreciated noirs in circulation. Other titles may be more recognizable and snazzier, but Fox Film Noir’s output remains exciting, often wonderfully obscure and consistent as all get-out. Just wait until they release a full-title box set (I think I just drooled a little).
The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration (Paramount)
Considered by pretty much all Blu-ray and DVD writers as one of the best high-def titles of the year (if not the title), this Blu-ray Disc collection is proof that Francis Ford Coppola’s epic remains one of the grandest American sagas in film history. What is most brilliant about the set is that the high definition allows the performances to come through with blinding clarity. Yeah, yeah – detail is fantastic and the films have never had this much color presence – but now that the veil has been taken off our eyes, this set lets us know that the ensemble performances here are better than we ever thought (and they were astronomical to begin with). Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert De Niro – these aren’t just giants working at the top of their games: These are once-in-a-lifetime roles for some of the greatest performers of our age. Hell, this set even reminds us that Godfather III is far, far better than we remember it being, and that’s saying something.
The Lime Green Set (Absurda)
The true must-have for all cinephiles with freaky tastes, this ten-disc collection of some of David Lynch’s most outrageous moments is a treasure trove filled with lost masterworks (Industrial Symphony No. 1, The Elephant Man), unheralded gems that have finally proved to be exceptionally ahead of their times (Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet), and compilations of some of the director’s most mind-bending moments (Dumbland, The Complete Short Films of David Lynch). There’s even a ‘mystery’ disc that has no fewer than 32 (!) deleted scenes from Wild at Heart, a bonus collection that will have Lynch-heads watching and re-watching with fervency and awe.
Sleeping Beauty on Blu-ray (Buena Vista)
Blu-ray Discs still haven’t quite caught on to the American public simply because most of the time there really just isn’t all that much difference between a DVD and a Blu-ray of a film unless one has a home theatre that is completely finessed and set up to rigorous, almost THX-quality standards. That being said, if you have a home theatre that can handle it, Buena Vista’s inaugural old-school Disney animated release, Sleeping Beauty, is a thing of magic and wonder. Colors pop like firecrackers, detail is dumbfoundingly clear, and whether one chooses the original mono or newfangled surround sound mix to hear, the effect is identical: This is an exceptional film presented exceptionally.
And Buena Vista gets an MVP sticker for what is also included in this edition: A DVD. Yes, for the list price you get not only the film and a boatload of supplements, but also a stand-alone DVD that your kids can watch in their rooms while you enjoy the real thing in your mega-theatre. This may just be the future of non-download high-definition (and Pinocchio’s coming in March…).
The Wire: The Complete Series (HBO)
Don’t give up on it right away – it takes about three episodes for you to truly believe that it’s the best show you’ve ever seen.
In so many ways, this Baltimore cop/drug drama is more of the same, but once it gets its viewers nice and complacent, it takes its narrative tendrils and shakes you until you’re dizzy. The Sopranos may have been flashier and Sex and the City more participant and relevant to modern culture, but The Wire is an epic work of art that may very well outlast those two iconoclastic series as time marches on. Stellar performances, hard-hitting writing, exceptionally dire character conundrums – The Wire really is ‘that good’.
That being said, this full series set is for inductees to the series and not for long-termers. There’s not a lot here to appeal to those who have already purchased a few seasons of the show (a gag reel and a couple other throwaways). But if you haven’t yet experienced it, dive in. You won’t be sorry.
The X-Files: I Want to Believe on Blu-ray (Fox)
No one saw it in theatres, but this high definition incarnation of this cool and involving thriller almost replicates the film’s ethereal theatrical presence. In a summer filled with cacophonous proto-intellectual nonsense (that means you, Dark Knight), subdued, adult fare like I Want to Believe got completely cornholed, but even though the film isn’t air-tight entertainment, it deserves to be seen. And this Blu-ray presentation is both gorgeous and comprehensive: All the bonuses, commentaries and all-around goodies included on this set are enough to keep X-Files junkies busy for hours – and Hell, there’s even a chance that your girlfriend will like it, too.
Zodiac on HD DVD (Paramount)
Paramount has announced a mid-January 2009 release of this film on Blu-ray, but I wanted to include it on this list as being the last great HD DVD edition released before that nasty ol’ format war came to a close last year. Fincher went from grotesquely overdone hyperdrama (Panic Room) to wildly engrossing crime drama with this marvelous 2007 film, and while the director’s cut of the film doesn’t exactly contain a ton of new stuff, its subliminal appendices definitely flush out the movie’s throbbing, paranoiac sense of moody darkness. And the fact that there was nothing on this two-HD DVD set that wasn’t presented in high definition made it a real reference-quality affair. HD DVD may already be the Beta Tape of the new millennium, but what a Beta Tape it was…
Criterion in 2008…
Your buddy Mike is a self-diagnosed Criterion-phile, and this year brought some of the company’s grandest, most exceptional releases. Instead of having these marvels infiltrate the rest of my top ten list (and therefore knocking everything else out), I thought I’d give my precious little Criterion babies a top ten list of their own (and look at how I cheat and put as many on there as I can – oh, my precious…). And yes, I’m typing in a Gollum voice right now.
Just to have Cleo From 5 to 7 and Vagabond remastered is delicious, but throw in Le Pointe Corte and Le Bonheur and you have a bona fide blitzkrieg of unique cinema from one of France’s most under-the-radar auteurs. Varda herself pops up all over the place here, offering interviews, both contemporary and vintage shorts (including a great one starring Jean-Luc Godard). Essential.
High and Low
This Postwar Kurosawa set is notable for what is unfamiliar to those of us who are still in their nascent phases of Kurosawa appreciation (No Regrets for Our Youth and The Idiot have been hard to find for years), and High and Low’s remastered edition is worth applauding simply for reminding us how essential of a thriller that film is. Akira will always be globally recognized as the preeminent director of samurai films, but his modern thrillers showcase just as much technical and dramatic savvy as stuff like Seven Samurai.
An Autumn Afternoon
What a treat to soak up both the beginning and the finale of Yasujiro’s heart-wrenching career: I Was Born, But… is one of the master’s most endearing and earnest treatises on the fine line between responsibility and instinct, and An Autumn Afternoon (his last film) – well, it’s enough to break your heart. Showcasing an absolutely monolithic performance from Chishu Ryu as an aging businessman dealing with age and grown-up children, the act of watching this picture was one of the more enrapturing and transcendent moments of 2008 for this writer.
This one wins the out-of-left-field Criterion award of the season. These films – Wings and The Ascent – are so revolutionary in their quiet construction and execution that it’s a wonder Shepitko isn’t more recognized in the vocabulary of international film. That may soon change, however: These are the kind of ahead-of-their-time films that take on layers of new fans in each generation of filmgoers that disover them. In a few decades, she’ll have a pristine reputation in the cinematic world: Mark my word.
The most disturbing film of all time and in every way, shape and form one of the best, this volcano of a movie from Pier Paolo Pasolini is simultaneously implicitly dramatic and brain-meltingly intelligent in a way that is more often than not as chilling as it is evocative. Salò is by no means an easy film to sit through – it was never meant to be user-friendly – but it’s the kind of picture that stays with you forever. It will give some people nightmares for sure, but this is one of the few films I’d push for every film-viewer to see at least once in their lifetimes. It’s a staggering achievement, one that seems prescient, relevant and tragic decades after its initial release. And this new Criterion edition is loaded to the gills with short documentaries and investigations of the film that continue to beg the question: If Pasolini had lived to make another film (he was murdered shortly after Salò’s completion), what on Earth would it have looked like?
The Last Emperor
This Oscar-winning epic doesn’t have the avant-garde musings of Bernardo Bertolucci’s most recent cinematic feats, nor does it have the poppy charm of the director’s early work, but The Last Emperor remains one of the most enveloping cinematic experiences from the 1980s. With an international cast and crew, The Last Emperor isn’t a Chinese film, nor is it an Italian one: Somehow, Bertolucci was able to make the tragic tale of Emperor Pu Yi a truly personal and global tale of regal impotence in the face of blossoming culture. And this multi-disc edition houses the longer (if more diluted) television version of the film, as well as multiple documentaries, interviews and treatises on the film and its continued relevance.
The Thief of Bagdad
The Small Back Room
The Thief of Bagdad is the more recognizable title of these two Michael Powell pictures released by Criterion last year (he collaborated with Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan on Bagdad and Emeric Pressburger on Small Back Room), but both of these films crackle with wonder and attention to storytelling prowess. The special effects and fantastical sagas will keep you affixed to Thief of Bagdad, but don’t underestimate the subtle nuance of Small Back Room’s espionage subterfuge: It may not have Bagdad’s preternatural bents, but it weaves a web of unique intrigue nonetheless.
The Earrings of Madame de…
Max Ophuls finally makes it to Criterion DVD and the results are nothing short of revelatory. The Earrings of Madame de… is a bona fide classic, but the real treat of these releases are the regal attention to audio/video quality and supplements on La ronde and Le plaisir. The Criterion collector in me wishes they were all in a big box set together (all three are mandatory viewing), but that’s the only real gripe I have for these titles. Astonishing.
Le deuxième souffle
These two Jean-Pierre Melville pictures aren’t the ones the famous French director is most prominently remember for making, but even as one-offs, they’re sublime in their sleek elegance and narrative mystery. Jean-Paul Belmondo turns in an exceptional performance in Le doulos that anchors the whole picture, and there’s such a rollicking sense of life in Le deuxième souffle that it’s nearly impossible to resist. It’s enough to make you wish fedoras were still in style.
Wow. Samuel Fuller was known for his social-issue pictures in the sixties, but White Dog – an 80s film if ever there was one – is the kind of powderkeg, devil-may-care expose of racism in the modern world that simply isn’t made any more (what it lacks in political correctness it compensates for with exceptional astute intelligence). This tale of an attack dog trained only to pounce on humans with black skin has everything adventurous film-goers can handle: A tricky storyline, a killer Burl Ives supporting performance, and a legendary turn from Paul Winfield as the dog trainer who makes it his life mission to ‘de-train’ the dog at the film’s center. Films don’t come more bristling, controversial and illuminating than this one.
Criterion on Blu-ray
A quick ‘plus-one’ for my Criterion list this year: The company joined the high definition revolution this winter, and the results are pretty extraordinary. The first titles are hit and miss in aesthetic quality for this writer – I’ll pass on Bottle Rocket and The Third Man – but the Blu-ray presence of The Man Who Fell to Earth is nothing short of eye-popping. And there will be more in this section in next year’s column: I just received my Blu-ray screener of The Last Emperor and it’s amazing…