[2 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The transition has been interesting - and aggravating - to watch. Companies that, at first, failed to embrace the digital format and all it could offer, are now taking the content-laden high road to battling the ongoing HD/Blu-ray confusion. We finally saw Holy Grail releases, titles no one thought would ever make it onto DVD, arriving in well planned marketing droves, while some filmmakers (David Fincher, Todd Field), purposefully released bare bones versions of their efforts (Zodiac, Little Children) in anticipation of far more fleshed out Special Editions. As independent producers and distributors continued to use the flexible technology as a means of getting their movies out and into the mainstream, archivists plundered vaults and resolved rights issues hoping to uncover some previous lost cinematic gems.
It was also a sad year for certain companies. Troma took a massive home theater hit, the inflated budget for its feature film Poultrygeist limiting its ability to continue providing promised direct to video titles, and Something Weird Video broke ties with Image Entertainment, ending the exploitation enterprise’s run with the commercial content provider. In fact, with the unclear clash over high definition ready to either explode or implode the industry, lots of little companies trying to champion the outsider or unusual entertainment have seen their strategies come up short. Still, 2007 was a stellar year for DVD, the big names brandishing even bigger guns to illustrate the medium’s potential - and profitability.
While the list could be much, much longer, here are SE&L“s selections for 2007’s best. Eclectic, diverse, and missing many celebrated releases (Blade Runner, anyone?), it still represents what the format does best - bringing well known and fringe films to the avid cinephile. We begin with a definite Criterion classic:
#10 - The 3 Penny Opera: The Criterion Collection
G. W. Pabst’s adaptation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 3 Penny Opera is an astounding cinematic experience - like watching M the musical as filtered through a neo-realistic view of silent-film German Expressionism. At first, you feel overwhelmed by the arch, stylized approach to the story. When it’s all over, wrapping up its cutting condemnations and finishes with a flourish, we wonder why we ever doubted it. Because of the knotty narrative turns, the backdoor wheeling and dealing, and clearly defined criticism of Germany’s lax citizenry, what started out stark and dated turns timeless and all too telling. Criterion’s presentation is just perfect, including enough context to further update the seemingly arcane approaches.
#9 - The Beatles in ‘Help!’
It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output, it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Thanks to this new deluxe two DVD version (the film has been MIA from the home theater format for years), that assessment should now change.
#8 - This Film is Not Yet Rated
If it accomplishes nothing else, Kirby Dick’s brilliant This Film is Not Yet Rated should put to rest all the arguments about the MPAA and its influence over movies. The next time you hear a spokesperson for the group argue that they “don’t determine substance or require edits,” and that “the rating is merely voluntary…etc”, you will have a factual rebuttal for all that bullshit. In fact, the MPAA is like the Warren Commission, totally unflappable in its party-line approach to any issue brought before them. But just like Oliver Stone, Dick opened a door that few have ever walked through, especially in the 40 years since the entryway was first built. His dissertation, and the wonderfully dense DVD that accompanies the documentary, is JFK.
#7 - The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 1 - 1934 - 1936
Fulfilling the wishes of longtime fans, Columbia has finally wised up, dropped the three short per package DVD format, and delivered The Three Stooges in a logistically sound chronological breakdown. Covering the first three years the performers pitched their vaudeville shtick to motion pictures, the 19 mini-masterworks presented all contain the classic line-up that most devotees prefer: mean leader Moe, absent minded minion Larry, and unbelievably brilliant bundle of butter, Curly. There is no Shemp, no Joe Besser, and definitely no Curly Joe DeRita to muck things up. While there is nothing wrong with any of these later stage substitutes, nothing beats the magic of the original Stooges. Looking over the titles offered, there is not a bad apple in the bunch.
#6 - Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters for DVD
Who says they don’t make good dada anymore? This big screen version of the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim anomaly offers three amiable (if slightly psychotic) fast food products - a shallow shake, some science-minded fries, and a babyish blob of mystery meat - taking on unhinged elements from around the universe. Part origins exploration, part satiric stream of incontinence, it may not make a lick of sense. But when you’re laughing this hard, does logic really matter? Even better, the DVD version (complete with a whole other version of the movie) reimagines the medium in a way that both embraces and mocks the special feature heavy format. It stands as a symbol of the film, and the series in general.
#5 - The Sergio Leone Anthology
He was born into the belly of Italian show business. By the time he was a teenager, he was very familiar with the Italian film biz. While helping out on the peplum epic The Last Days of Pompeii, he suddenly found himself behind the lens, and it would be a place he’d remain for the rest of his career. He only made nine credited films, but for fans of the spaghetti Western, four would remain major motion picture milestones. But there was much more to Sergio Leone than squinting antiheroes and one-horse towns draped in quick-draw bloodshed, as illustrated all throughout this sensational box set. It’s the perfect place to begin your journey into the bleak bombastic world of the director, and all the cinematic splendor that comes with it.
#4 - David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE
INLAND EMPIRE is a masterpiece. It is also an aggravating avant-garde amalgamation of incomplete ideas. It’s a brilliant distillation of David Lynch’s career defining dream logic. It’s also a three hour exercise in excess and a brilliant argument for the switchover to digital filmmaking. As with most works by the artist/auteur, this fragmented take on “a woman in trouble” (to quote the film’s tagline) raises many more questions than it ever dares to answer, and squeezes more imagination and invention into three hours than most movie studios manage in a lifetime. The DVD delves even deeper into the narrative, providing deleted material and additional context to show how the ‘film’ was formulated.
#3 - The Films of Kenneth Anger Volume 1 & 2
How lucky are we film fans? In the span of less than eight months (Volume 1 hit in January), we’ve been able to finally get our hands on the entire output from one of avant-garde filmmaking’s most revered names. Every single cinematic statement Anger attempted are here - from the homoerotic horror of Fireworks to the seminal Scorpio and Lucifer Rising - and they have never looked richer or more inviting. With a restoration overseen by the filmmaker himself, and a collection of added bonus features that helps to explain his importance, we finally see that there was more to this man than his craven collections of Tinsel Town tawdriness, Hollywood Babylon. He stands as a true outsider artist.
#2 - Grindhouse Presents Planet Terror/ Death Proof
As a greatest hits package of every exploitation conceit ever considered for heating up a local passion pit, Quentin Tarantino’s dazzling Death Proof stands as a sensational slice of electrified genre porn. With his creative cameos, attention to genre detail, and meta-manipulation of the medium itself, Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror stands as a pert post-modern masterpiece, one of the best self-referential scarefests ever conceived. Together, they created one of 2007’s most sublimely satisfying cinematic experiences. While we wait for the eventual DVD release of the entire Grindhouse experience, we have this pair of sensational separate releases. Each movie is modified to fit the expanded running time, and the additions are amazing - as are the enlightening extras that help flesh out the filmmakers’ intent.
#1 - The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky
Many have never heard of him. Others only know selected works - the ‘80s effort Santa Sangre, the consistently mentioned “midnight movie” El Topo - but even for those who claim an intimate knowledge of cinema, director, poet, agitator, self-described “deity” Alejandro Jodorowsky remains an enigma. This could be due to the fact that the filmmaker has only helmed seven projects in the 50 years he’s been in the business. Part of the problem is also that Jodorowsky remains a vehemently idiosyncratic artist. Like many Latino moviemakers, he lives his works and is only driven to create when the passion (and the fiscal possibility) strikes him. The final issue with his covert career is the lack of access to his major films - Fando y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain. Only the first title has ever appeared on DVD, the other two considered “lost” due to ongoing animosity between the director and infamous ‘70s business bully Allen Klein.
Now, with all wounds apparently healed, Anchor Bay is beginning the post-millennial re-evaluation of the incredibly talented maverick’s career. With The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky box set, not only do we get a chance to see the works that loom largest in the auteur’s considerable legend, but we have a chance to see the best that the digital medium has to offer as well. To go into detail on each and every extra would take pages, but, in brief, here’s what one can expect. There’s the definitive 90-minute documentary, La Constellation Jodorowsky, which provides a wonderful overview of the director’s life and career, and each movie houses a full-length audio commentaries by the auteur that really explains and illustrates his artistic ambitions and personal themes. And in doing so, it gives a forgotten film giant his more than necessary due.