When the history of home theater is written, what will DVD’s lasting legacy be? Will it be as a significant upgrade in technological specifications, the solid stepping stone between VHS’s analog averageness and a realistic recreation of the true theatrical experience? Perhaps it will be in the expansion of laserdiscs desire to incorporate added features—commentaries, deleted scenes—to the overall film presentation package. It could be the retrieval of old and forgotten titles from the annals of the artform, efforts either allowed to lapse by disinterested distributors or stowed away in vast vaults by careless studios. Or maybe it’s in the preservation of cinema’s past and present, a seemingly permanent archiving of our legacy behind the lens. Whatever the case, 2006 stood out as a year when digital dominated the entertainment dialogue, where each week brought new definitive releases to the growing creative catalog.
Even as HD-DVD and Blu-Ray began their battle for next generation supremacy, the old school format was making significant contributions to the overall artform. A perfect example of this is the release from Janus Films of The Essential Art House boxset. An amazing motherload of classics, this epic coffee table tome celebrated a half-century of contributions from one of the business’ most significant preservationists. Covering groundbreaking masterpieces by such influential artists as Jean Renoir (The Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion) Federico Fellini (La Strada, The White Shiek), Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Seven Samurai) and François Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim) among many, many others, it today stands as the benchmark for how DVD has redefined filmography. Along with the 20 titles listed below, it is clear that many companies feel a mandate to preserve our finest films for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
From solid single issues to amazingly complete film and television compilations, the works highlighted here argue for DVD’s continued importance. Not just as a marketable motion picture product, but as a lasting testament to an entertainment’s effect on those lucky enough to experience it. In the mind of PopMatters’ staff, these are the offerings destined to stand the test of time:
At one point in Hollywood history, Shane Black was a screenwriting god. He commanded huge paychecks for his efforts (including such noted over the top actioners as the Lethal Weapon films and The Last Boy Scout) and saw his name associated with the genre in general—for good and for bad. After a self-imposed exile, he returned with this, his first stint as both writer and director. And the results are a true return to form. Instead of focusing on explosions and exposition, Black uses his stellar cast—Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer—to create a fresh and inventive character driven post-modern noir. Funny, quirky, and just a bit unbridled, Black proves that there is much more to his motion picture modus than gunplay and gratuity.
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen
(Rocket Fuel Films; US DVD: 27 Jun 2006; UK DVD: 27 Jun 2006)
It is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in all of documentary filmmaking—contextualizing a cult entity, be it cinematic or musical—to establish an element of mainstream meaning or universality. Anyone tackling this type of fact film runs the risk of reducing their subject to an inconsequential afterthought, or worse, alienating the audience they hoped to attract. Well, it’s time to add Tim Irwin’s name to the relatively short list of motion picture puzzle solvers. His stunning We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen takes the LA punk fusion trio and flawlessly illustrates their impact on the ‘70s/‘80s rock scene. The result is one of the best rock docs ever, on par with DiG! and Some Kind of Monster in importance and insight.
Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Tania Saulnier, Gregg Henry
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 31 Mar 2006; 2006)
Writer (and now director) James Gunn holds a very odd place within current fright filmography. Responsible for the terrific Tromeo and Juliet and the quite decent remake of Dawn of the Dead, he has also foisted the forgettable pair of Scooby-Doo features on film fans’ fragile heads. This makes his first solo effort all the more creatively complicated. In some ways, Gunn is giving us the best of both worlds—a true splatter filled farce, as well as a taste of the contemporary scares that have been his box office bread and butter. Overloaded with homages to zombie films, alien invasion flicks and mindless mutant monster b-movies, Gunn delivers the kind of sensational, satiric schlock that many post-modern genre films sorely lack.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Louis Black, Bill Johnston, Daniel Johnston, Mabel Johnston, Jeff Tartakov
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 31 Mar 2006 (Limited release); 2005)
This is the kind of documentary that invents all the eventual critical clichés. It’s masterful proof that fact is far more intriguing than fiction. It uses the thread of celebrity as a means of binding together the eccentricity of musicians, the pain of dreams deferred, and the social/interpersonal unacceptability of mental illness. Yes, Johnston comes off like an underground Brian Wilson, a naïve creator of magical pop music whose bubbling inner demons eventually damaged and destroyed his soul. But perhaps the greatest lesson we ultimately learn is that some minds are never meant to heal. In Johnston’s case, they are to be tolerated and celebrated. Thanks to gifted director Jeff Feuerzeig, we can do just that. This is definitely one of the year’s best films.
King Kong: Three Disc Deluxe Extended Edition
(Universal Pictures; US DVD: 14 Nov 2006; UK DVD: 14 Nov 2006)
Peter Jackson’s drop dead brilliant reimagining of the Giant Ape epic finally gets the full blown Lord of the Rings treatment the filmmaker is famous for. This new version has so many captivating bells and whistles that fans will be hard pressed to pass it by. Containing 13 minutes of new footage, including an intriguingly realized “Skull Island underwater creature attack” (!), another 38 minutes of deleted scenes, and an always compelling commentary from the director himself, some may still feel that Jackson let his love of the movie overwhelm his ambitions, providing this relatively simply story with way too much cinematic pomp and circumstance. Yet no one makes mega-blockbusters like this confirmed Kiwi genius. Our main man did this massive monkey proud.
One of the best experiences a viewer can have is going into a movie cold, not knowing anything substantive about a story, and coming away mesmerized and moved. This is the experience most film and music fans will have when visiting this heroic and heartbreaking documentary. After moving to LA, director Greg Whiteley discovered that Arthur “Killer” Kane, bassist for the infamous New York Dolls, had survived decades of drugs and self-indulgence to become a fellow Mormon. Determined to tell the story of his rise and fall from star to street person, Whiteley learned that the Dolls were planning a reunion—and wanted Kane onboard. It resulted in a journey back to his rock roots, and for the director, a devastating portrait of a fragile human being rebuilt.
The Complete Mr. Arkadin: The Criterion Collection
(Criterion; US DVD: 18 Apr 2006)
A film whose history is as convoluted as its narrative, Arkadin represents Orson Welles at his most insular and inspired. Writing, directing and playing the lead role of a mysterious tycoon with no memory of his past, the infamous filmmaker once again saw his vision butchered, altered and rearranged by distributors desperate for financial returns. Achingly beautiful, with many of the touches that make Welles oeuvre both visually vibrant and dramatically disorienting, Arkadin argues for an artist still vital and important, no matter the rumors and reputation. Criterion does it’s best to preserve the artist’s original vision, bringing together several divergent cuts of the film in order to offer the clearest example of Welles’ vision as possible. And the results are indeed masterful.
Superman II - The Richard Donner Cut
(Warner Brothers; US DVD: 28 Nov 2006; UK DVD: 28 Nov 2006)
Decades from now, when DVD is remembered fondly as the medium which introduced the notion of “alternate versions”, a disc like this one will be the historical precedent. Many fans of the series were unaware that Donner, the original director of Superman, was hired to helm TWO films. Created concurrently, the filmmaker was later dropped by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind who, apparently, objected to his fiscal freewheeling. Salkind friend Richard Lester was brought in to complete the project, even though Donner had shot over 75% of the sequel. For ages, the “Donner Version” was more or less an urban legend. Now, with Warners Brothers’ full permission, the fired filmmaker gets a chance to have his original vision seen by the viewing public. Talk about your digital redemptions.
Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales: The Criterion Collection
(Criterion; US DVD: 15 Aug 2006; UK DVD: 15 Aug 2006)
Though he’s considered an important part of the French New Wave of the ‘50s and ‘60s, director Eric Rohmer was not out to change the face of cinema. Unlike his convention-busting colleagues, many of whom hoped to reconfigure and reinvent film though their aesthetic experimentation, he was more concerned with bringing the dark truths and harsh realities of human interaction into the typically staid world of Hollywood hokum. Collecting all six efforts in this self-styled series—The Girl at the Monçeau Bakery, Suzanne’s Career (both 1963), The Collector (1967), My Night at Maud’s (1969) Claire’s Knee (1970) and Chloe in the Afternoon (1972)—Criterion delivers another stunning box set celebrating an important motion picture artist who forged his own unique path to greatness.
Talk about perfectly timed… we’re in a vital election year and Warner Home Video has served up the best TV series DVD set of the season. The award-winning Aaron Sorkin drama left the airwaves just this past May and already we’ve got the deluxe treatment on offer. All seven seasons come in a handsome blue box with requisite presidential seal, organized like a nifty set of government files inside—a rare occasion where the bureaucratic aesthetic is pleasing. The bonus documentaries offer a fascinating look behind the scenes, especially the 30-minute short on the live debate between Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). Yeah, the price tag is high, but this is some of the best writing and acting on a US TV drama ever, so it’s worth every penny. This is an essential addition to the DVD collection of anyone who believes in TV as a true art form.