Over the last 15 years, film has gone through an interesting transition. The high concept films that fouled the ‘80s with their air of artifice slowly faded away. The independent movement gained a major foothold within the blood stained walls of the cutthroat corporate game, while Tinsel Town discovered the value in lowering its expectations (along with the denominator used) to determine what would sell, commercially. And then there was the advent of DVD, a new home theater format that poured more money in the studio coffers than any other advancement since sound. But skittering around the outer edges and weaving its way in between the comic book adaptations and pre-packaged high profile picture, a new wave of visionary directors began dominating the cultural consciousness. Names like Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and Peter Jackson poured decades of personal fandom and fascination with the art of cinema into astounding individual and highly iconic efforts. They, in turn, inspired a new generation of wannabe craftsman to shoot for the heart as well as the head, to meld their obsessions into a new kind of movie mannerism. Five decades before, a similar stance in Italy and France was considered Earth shattering. Now, the 10 films featured here represent the mere first steps in the return of the auteur.
Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer, Jason Mewes
(Miramax; US theatrical: 19 Oct 1994 (Limited release); 1994)
Kevin Smith’s writing captured Generation X on film in Clerks better and in a more real way than its slicker brethren at the box office in 1994 (I’m looking at you Reality Bites!). Don’t get me wrong, the clichés are present in Clerks—the disaffection, the hip dialogue, the grunge style—but by the very nature of Smith’s low-budget, black and white affair, it has gritty reality that the target audience of the early ‘90s latched on to. You wouldn’t necessarily think Quick Stop convenience store register jockey Dante Hicks’ self-pity, constant whining, and confusion over his life’s direction, and Randal Graves’ absolute disdain for the people he serves at the RST Video store would make such a great movie, but because it so accurately captured the drifting feeling of college-aged confusion, it resonates.
Initially, disc one of the three-disc Miramax Collector’s Series entry will seem familiar to those who know their way around the original 1999 DVD release and the laserdisc release that was ported over from. It contains the now-classic commentary track and the Soul Asylum video from those releases, but things get more interesting from there: The print for this rough-around-the-edges classic has been cleaned up (to a level appropriate to the feel of the movie), and the “lost” scene from Dante and Randal’s visit to the funeral home in the style of Clerks: The Animated Series is available either stand-alone or integrated into the main feature via seamless branching.
Disc one also boasts the live-action reappearance of Dante and Randal in “Flying Car” from the Tonight Show short, and audition tapes. Disc two is a treat, with the “First Cut” of the movie—sporting deleted scenes and the original, morbid ending, along with a new commentary track that can be accessed a number of ways. All that said, disc three is hardly a “leftovers” disc. It features The Snowball Effect documentary on the making of Clerks, which runs 90-minutes, but piles on the information. Supplementing that is another 40-plus minutes of outtakes and deleted scenes, and a 40-plus minute Q&A exclusive to this release. Also of note is Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary, the student project that brought Smith and partner Scott Mosier together.
Smith is a fan’s filmmaker. He has the workaday man’s pedigree and pop culture plug-in of a Tarantino, but the seeming accessibility of the guy who still is working at the video store. And that comes off in every aspect of Clerks. X - 10th Anniversary Edition. It’s an exercise in how to elevate an already acclaimed indie debut, presenting a movie that overflows with sharp dialogue, amusing characters, and a D.I.Y. guerrilla filmmaking attitude in a filled-to-the-brim set.
Breaking the Waves
Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge
(Argus Film Produktie; US theatrical: 13 Nov 1996 (Limited release); 1996)
Breaking the Waves
To call Emily Watson’s performance as Breaking the Waves’ pious, child-like protagonist Bess MacNeil groundbreaking and expert is not sufficient enough praise, in this writer’s mind. More accurately, I would go so far as to call Watson’s debut (!) the best female performance of all time. Coupled with the fact that director Lars Von Trier has recently vowed to never again make a feature, this raw, emotionally gritty study of small town isolation, religious devotion, and the strong-as-steel bonds love and commitment shared by a husband and wife is a necessary addition to any real film fan’s collection.
Shot with the exciting veracity of a documentary by Von Trier and company—including the commanding Stellan Skarsgaard as Bess’ husband Jan, and the late, great Katrin Cartlidge as her outsider sister-in-law Dodo - Waves begins with a wedding but soon turns into a romantic tragedy that would make Shakespeare proud. After they marry, Jan and Bess are separated first by his job as an oil rigger at sea, and then a horrifying accident which renders him on the brink of death, and seemingly forever paralyzed. Jan convinces Bess that she must move on by pursuing a carnal life with strangers, recounting each detail to him afterwards. Bess thinks that this is what God wants of her. Everyone thinks she has lost her mind, but Jan begins to get better.
Watson’s scenes of attrition are among the most harrowing in the film. Looking purely and heavenly upwards, Bess asks God to help her through this crisis of faith. Shockingly, “God” answers: Bess provides his stern voice in their daily dialogues. The actresses’ expressions and demeanor during these scenes are some of the most powerful, truthful acting you will encounter. As Bess begins her downward spiral of debauchery and sex, the role demands Watson to basically sexually humiliate herself by donning red vinyl hot pants at times, other times appearing totally naked, shot in unflattering light at unflattering angles. The actress meets every challenge of this electric, unpredictable character.
There are as many detractors to this character and performance as there are supporters. This is likely because of Bess’ being so naïve and emotionally crippled (to the degree of being almost mentally ill) and that she so blindly trusts every man she comes across. The Church elders, her family, her husband, God, and the dangerous strangers she encounters in her sexual escapades are among some of the beasts who abuse her to some degree, but Bess soldiers on blithely. For this reason (and many others) Von Trier has been mislabeled a misogynist, when really he is the opposite: his Bess is one of cinema’s greatest heroines. The director may have written a risky, controversial character, but he also readily handed it over to Watson, an unknown woman with little acting experience who turned what some would call an offensive character into a historic film-going experience that comes along very rarely.
Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham
(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 10 Oct 1997 (General release); 1997)
“Altman-esque” is what you’re supposed to say about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, but that influence—like the many others evident in Boogie Nights—is just one building block within a distinct filmmaking sensibility. In Boogie Nights, the large number of characters and subplots is less about connecting dots in an “aha!” or degrees-of-separation way than in telling the story of one community: in this case, an unlikely, non-biological family of pornographers. It’s a dysfunctional clan, damaging to tragic ends for some characters—but also a supportive one at times, for others. Their story has an epic scope, with dramatic ups and downs. This is the type of film which the DVD format loves. It’s big and bold, with an in-your-face, immediate impact; the tension is unmistakably palpable during much of the darker second half, like a scene at a drug dealer’s house, or one where Heather Graham’s character, Roller Girl, stomps on someone’s face with her infamous skates.
But the film is also filled with details that emerge through repeated viewings—not plot details so much as details of character, acting, cinematography and dialogue. (For all his tour de force, showy camerawork, Anderson’s chief gift is writing; his characters speak in a very particular, yet resonant, style.) With this many characters, there’s so many acting methods and personalities to observe, from John C. Reilly’s perfect comic timing to the quiet, full way that actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Don Cheadle possess their relatively minor roles.
Boogie Nights is a story told in strokes big and small. It’s a family story, but also an American story. And Anderson is a storyteller who captivates you with each word. That’s evident in the film itself, but also in the commentary track that elevates this DVD’s importance to the level of “must have.” This two-disc set replaced an earlier single-disc version, with the film remastered and a variety of extras added, including a funny gag reel of outtakes, some deleted scenes, and commentaries featuring the cast. But it’s Anderson’s commentary, available on the original DVD as well, that exemplifies the art of creating a DVD extra. It turns the disc into a film education, adding an enlightening tour of the film, led by a funny and frank guide. It’s like sitting down with the director and having him blab to you for a few hours about his motivations, influences and experiences. It’s exactly what commentary tracks, and DVD extras, are for: not trivia but illumination.
The Big Lebowski
Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Tuturro
(Working Title Films; US theatrical: 6 Mar 1998 (General release); 1998)
The Big Lebowski
After their surprise hit with the relatively conventional Fargo in 1996, the Coen Brothers returned to their relentlessly idiosyncratic roots with this left-field masterpiece. An episodic, character-driven comedy set around the time of the first Gulf War, on one level it’s a highly stylized homage to Raymond Chandler’s tough but poetic detective novels, most obviously The Big Sleep. But the man reluctantly—and sporadically—playing the role of ‘detective’ here is Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, a marijuana-loving, White Russian-guzzling uber-slacker whose dedication to inertia makes him “quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the running for laziest world-wide.”
Sucked into a farcical and confusing kidnap plot through the unfortunate coincidence of having the same surname as a sinister Reaganite millionaire (the “Big Lebowski”) whose “young trophy wife” is in some sort of trouble with an oleaginous pornographer, The Dude is inveigled into assisting with the hand-over of the million dollars ransom. In career-best performances, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman (as the Dude’s boorish best friend, Vietnam Veteran Walter Sobchak) become the Laurel & Hardy of neo-noir, staggering from one misconstrued disaster to the next, Walter’s oil-slick of a personality infecting everyone he meets. Although beautifully photographed and stuffed with stunning visuals—particularly the trippy, Busby Berkeley fantasy bowling sequences—what has turned the film into a thriving cult is the uniquely characterful, exuberant and consistently hilarious dialogue, with oft-quoted lines such as “The Dude abides” or “Did I urinate on your rug?” taking on a totemic potency.
For a film that spawned its own convention—the annual “Lebowski Fest”—there’s a paucity of extras on the DVD, one made more notable by this set being tagged a “Special Edition”. Sadly, there is no DVD commentary, from the Coens or anyone else, though the brothers do appear in a short ‘making of’ doc, looking like twin genetic remixes of Woody Allen. Compulsively playing with their fingers, they chat languidly about detective fiction and the real-life Dude, former political activist Jeff ‘Seattle Seven’ Dowd, who is shown in one of Jeff Bridges’s charmingly captioned photographs, visiting the film set and “giving his blessing”. There’s also a misjudged but mercifully short spoof about having to recover and re-dub the film, and some short production notes. But repeat viewings of the film itself emphasize its multi-layered appeal, and reveal telling details like the poster of Richard Nixon bowling on The Dude’s apartment wall. Throughout, the film is packed with visual and verbal ideas which churn, collide, and come fizzing to the surface like bubbles in a jacuzzi-sized bong. DVD extras aside, this remains as essential purchase.
Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Zach Grenier, Jared Leto, Meat Loaf
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 15 Oct 1999)
Ever been punched? Real hard? Ever beat the shit out of someone just to feel your own humanity? Director David Fincher’s version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is a film that belongs on DVD. It’s about alienation from society and the incoherence of modernity. Put in simpler terms, it’s about feeling so emasculated by the world that you’ve grown man-boobs. That Robert Bly can’t save you anymore. That dead-end corporate America is sucking the marrow from your bones. Edward Norton plays a schizophrenic support-group-addict who needs to be emancipated. Brad Pitt is Tyler Durden—just the man for the job.
Why does Fight Club belong on DVD? Because you need something that seems clean and pure before you can taint it. VCRs are too messy and unless your theater is a grindhouse in Greenwich, your local AMC isn’t going to present this correctly. Ideally: Pop the DVD in. Watch the intentional static fill your screen. Pause the DVD whenever director Fincher inserts a flash subliminal frame. Play a drinking game where you down a shot of cheap whiskey every time this happens. Get drunk by the third act when Norton falls to pieces. Ideally, Fight Club isn’t a film. It’s a reckoning with your consumer soul. It’s a tract and a Bible. It’s the King James edition of vomiting over your own compliance. Fight Club isn’t a pretty movie, but that’s why you need it on a high definition, $2,000 plasma widescreen television… to give the middle finger to Best Buy. DVDs rarely come this filthy.
Andy and Larry Wachowski
Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburn, Hugo Weaving
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 31 Mar 1999 (General release); 1999)
For all intents and purposes, this is the one that started it all—Hong Kong action movies and Japanese animation style filtered through a hyper-real, cyberpunk mash-up of Through the Looking Glass, and the debut of the now-cliché “bullet time” effect. In 1999, these influences were foreign to all but the most well-versed cinephile, and the film played to pre-Millennial paranoia. The Matrix glides easily from sci-fi to noir to action flick on the premise of Keanu Reeves’ messianic Neo’s search for the answer to “What is the Matrix?” He explores reality with the help of Lawrence Fishburne’s guiding Morpheus and Carrie-Anne Moss’ mystifying Trinity; all while being pursued by Hugo Weaving’s menacing Agent Smith.
While it’s a stretch to call it the best science-fiction movie of the last 25 years (I think Blade Runner might have something to say about that), The Matrix is probably the most influential DVD ever released. Sure, movies like Memento and Donnie Darko found their audience and new life through the medium, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy stretched the format’s boundaries, but it was The Matrix that introduced the masses to the little aluminum disc.
Like all the best cash cows, the studios whored out this property in as many ways as possible. It spawned a largely masturbatory two-sequel exercise and an anime stop-gap filler, all of which was re-released in 2004 in a swollen ten-disc offering (and has just been released again in the HD DVD format on 22 May 2007). But it was the original 1999 release that was the first disc to surpass the three million sales mark in the U.S. That disc provided the first formal introduction of the medium’s potential by offering a complete package, showing off both the technical and supplementary capabilities of the format. For a single-disc, first-generation release, the original Matrix disc lured many early adopters away from their laserdiscs, and converted scores of neophytes over from VHS.
Sporting an anamorphic widescreen presentation and stunning 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, even today this is a movie to show off a home theater. But when you throw in two commentary tracks, themed branching to behind-the-scenes footage from within the main feature, promotional featurettes, DVD-ROM access, and Easter eggs, there is a lot of muscle behind the good looks.
This disc, released before the marketing geniuses flooded the stores with super-deluxe, double-secret probation, triple-dog dare, ultimate director’s special collector’s editions, is full of everything that makes DVDs special to the cinephile and fun for Joe Six-Pack. That’s why, nearly eight years on, the original release of The Matrix is still worth picking up and essential to every DVD collection.
“You hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”
(Toei Co. Ltd)
Okay, technically Battle Royale hasn’t been officially released here in America, although this Region 0 DVD is popular enough that you can purchase it on Amazon instead of having to scour for it on Asian import websites. And besides, it’s doubtful that anyone could improve on this release anyway, since it’s packed to the gills with the sort of quirky extras you can only find when a DVD is produced by fans instead of a soulless corporation out to make a quick buck.
At first glance Battle Royale seems like just Lord of the Flies for the 21st century. A class of 42 high school students is stranded on a small island, given weapons and other tools at random, and instructed to kill each other as part of a government-sponsored initiative to reduce the population. But Battle Royale is really a genre-bending “growing up is hell” metaphor along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Harry Potter. The film’s brilliant insight is that the students don’t descend into savagery in order to survive, but reenact the same cliquish rivalries they were a part of in school: the geeks band together to hatch an escape plan, the popular girls grow paranoid and turn on each other, and a number of lovesick boys (and girls) vow to protect the object of their affections right up until the very end.
A great deal of the DVD’s special features consist of casual behind-the-scenes footage, including a 50-minute piece titled “Making of Battle Royale” that takes us through most of the filming process from the point of view of the cast and director Kinji Fukasaku. The rest of the features include candid interviews, auditions, a press conference, the premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the director’s mission statement, and even a word of praise from Quentin Tarantino (who is apparently required to comment on every semi-famous Asian film). But the most touching extra is a birthday greeting from the cast and crew for Fukasaku, who was 70 years old at the time of filming and passed away in 2003. As his mission statement and interviews make clear, this director learned growing up during World War II to always be suspicious of adults and authority figures, and even at 70, he’s still young enough at heart to empathize with these frightened teenagers and elevate what could have been a mindless exercise in ultraviolence into something disturbing and poetic.
Guy Pierce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris
(Newmarket Capital Group; 2001)
The premise of Memento is so good that you imagine there’s no way the film can follow through, but writer/director Christopher Nolan does that and more. Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator, finds his life in ruins and he doesn’t have a clue why because he’s lost his short-term memory. His wife’s been murdered and he’s forced to write down what he knows on Post-Its, his skin, backs of Polaroids—whatever he can find. But can he trust his own notes—the “memories” he’s made? Using reverse chronology, a smoky, noir style, and a smart, witty script he adapted from his brother Jonathan’s short story, Nolan keeps you biting your nails waiting to find out. Guy Pearce portrays Shelby’s confusion and determination in about the most sympathetic, charismatic way possible—you’re rooting for this guy, wasted as he is. As a pair of “friends” literally fighting for Shelby’s mind, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano turn in career-best performances. The genius of Memento is that you can view it as a meditation on memory, trust, identity, and loss—or you can just ride with it on its wild, mind-bending trip. Either way, you’ll want to own this one because you’ll have to watch it again.
Like a lot of good films, Memento has been issued on DVD several times with some overlapping features. The two-disc “Widescreen Limited Edition”, readily available, is choice due to Nolan’s hands-on involvement. He’s helped design the disc’s special features to be a series of puzzles and mindbenders not unlike the film itself. You’ll have to use Shelby’s “police profile” for clues on how to unlock some of the features. Among the best are a Nolan commentary track with alternate endings (!) depending on how the track is accessed, and a chronologically-ordered edit of the film. Ever a gamesman, Nolan offers hints and insights on his website, christophernolan.net. Don’t let the ensuing avalanche of weak chronology-bending, memory-exploring films put you off the superlative original—it’s the only fix you’ll need.
The Lord of the Rings: Special Extended Editions
(New Line Cinema; US DVD: 14 Dec 2004)
The Lord of the Rings
While considerably less “artsy” (and therefore less respected by communities of esoteric film snobs everywhere) the Lord of the Rings trilogy is still one of the most magical pieces of cinema to have ever been created. With unrivaled special effects, a milieu as august as it is warm, and impeccably beautiful cinematography, Lord of the Rings almost single-handedly (with marginal assistance from that wizarding wunderkind Harry Potter) revitalized the fantasy genre. Most modern films either run roughshod into campy blockbuster territory or fiercely arm themselves against such mainstream relegation by slathering on conspicuous stylistic deviations from the norm or by dealing with “edgy” thematic material. Lord of the Rings, however, breaks from both these painfully-too-frequent molds and succeeds in being a sincere and enchanting foray into another world without a single trapping of pretension. The twelve total discs comprised by the Platinum Series Special Extended Edition beautifully capture how this phenomenon was created, the look behind scenes actually making the films more miraculous and wonderful.
Truthfully, these special features are what earns the LotR Platinum Series Special Edition a place in the pantheon of DVDs Everyone Should Own. Setting the high water mark for glamorized, stuffed editions, these collections include almost an extra hour of footage left on the editing floor from each of the three films. Furthermore, this supplementary material is not the typical five second snippits added on to a pre-existing scene and called a new scene. Many of the deleted scenes illuminate whole other plot lines and subtleties that had to be cut to make the films temporally digestible. In addition to a beautiful panoply of edited out substance, these discs provide mind-numbingly comprehensive making-ofs and more interviews than one could shake a sword at (pardon the awful idiom). Fleshing out the gargantuan production process, rather than stripping away the magical valence to expose cold technology, the sheer enormity of the undertaking is impressed upon viewers and the films gain a sense of real world enchantment. Finally, all is packaged in sublime foil, textured boxes replete with maps and diagrams. The Lord of the Rings Platinum Series Special Editions truly sets the paradigm for classy and effective enhanced releases as opposed to the bloated superficial model that many follow in order to make a quick re-profit on older films.
Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Dominique Lewis, Jean Sincere, Spencer Fox, Sarah Vowell, John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn Brad Bird
(Disney; US theatrical: 5 Nov 2004; 2004)
As the animation field expands with each passing year, it seems like so-called family films are being designed not to be good, but to be good enough: enough fart jokes to keep the kids staring at the screen, enough pop culture references to nudge the adults so they won’t fall asleep. Thank the animation gods then for Pixar, whose films stand head and shoulders above the rest. And The Incredibles, written and directed by Brad Bird, might be their finest yet; it’s a whiz-bang superhero yarn that’s fun on the surface level of spandex costumes and indestructible robots, yet dares to tackle weightier matters. How many other movies, animated or otherwise, are so honest about the compromises of middle age, the drudgery of working a job you hate, and even fears of infidelity and suburban angst?
The Incredibles represents a step up for Pixar not just in the maturity of their storytelling, but the level of their artistic craft: after rendering toys, bugs, and fish, this is their first movie devoted to the strangest creatures of all—human beings. Bird and his crack team of animators bypass making their characters life-like in favor of actually bringing them to life. In the movie’s most enthralling moment, little hellion Dash realizes that his super-speed is fast enough that he can run on water, and we watch as his look of disbelief erupts into a maniacal laugh. It’s the spontaneity of this little gesture that makes the heroes of The Incredibles more believable than most flesh-and-blood characters.
As with most of Pixar’s DVDs, the special features are refreshingly candid and feel like a peak inside the coolest clubhouse of artistic types imaginable. In a revealing 27-minute documentary made up of fly-on-the-wall footage, no one is shy about Bird’s larger-than-life personality and occasional temper (one Pixar staffer strums a guitar and sings an impromptu song about “the 800-pound gorilla making this movie”). Other gems include government files on the superheroes featured in the movie, deleted scenes with commentary from Bird, and a hilarious short film about a feeble-minded babysitter tasked with taking care of Jack-Jack, the family’s newborn baby whose superpowers make him more dangerous than an atom bomb.