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The 10 Best DVDs of 2009

While it seems like they’ve been battling forever, the line in the sand between DVD and Blu-ray reached a No Man’s Land kind of clash in 2009. From content exclusives on the newest digital medium to packaging that wisely provided both, the mainstream met the enemy, and then rolled over and showed its soft commercialization underbelly. Indeed, DVD hasn’t truly given up, but you can sense its exit strategy in the air. As more and more major studios embrace the notion that cheapness equals choice (player prices are now down into the double digits – DOUBLE DIGITS) and regulations railroad the notion of home HD into every household, it’s inevitable that instead of being “almost” blu, we are about as cobalt as we can get, entertainment wise.

So in elegy for the format that lifted sound and image out of VHS mediocrity and into theatrical experience mimicry, SE&L has decided to celebrate those titles – with one major exception – that didn’t immediately kowtow to the new disc breed. Sure, more than one of these films is available on Blu-ray, but by taking out most of the mega-hyped (and yet very much well worth it) efforts, we had a chance to acknowledge the missing in action and marginal. Sure, we could have loaded up this list with every permutation of The Wizard of Oz, Star Trek (reboot and original), North by Northwest, Gone with the Wind and Fight Club that you could imagine. We could have jumped on the big Blu bang wagon for dozens of definitive Hollywood statements. Instead – with one major exception – we marched to our own digital drummer, and it was revelatory.

Not every presentation is flush with bonus features. Some have questionable technical specifications. More than a few will test your sleaze/stupidity tolerances. But one thing’s for certain – without DVD, they’d probably never see the light of a legitimate release. We begin with:

10. Dreams with Sharp Teeth

Director: Erik Nelson

Harlan Ellison is the real deal, the madman Muhammad Ali of letters. Whether it’s sci-fi, or speculative fiction, or imaginative literature (his preference tends to change over time), Ellison is the standard bearer for the genre and the hateful curve breaker, the smartest kid in the class and the smart-assiest man on the planet. You either love him, or loathe him. In this brilliant documentary on his life and legacy, we get a definitive distillation of an iconic figure of almost impossible scope. Here’s hoping it opens Ellison up to a whole new audience – and here’s knowing that they won’t be ready for him.

9. Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Director: Dario Argento

Thanks to its MIA status on DVD (until now) Four Flies on Grey Velvet was a forgotten Argento masterwork, a wholly visual free-for-all that ends up surpassing almost everything he had done before, or has done since. It sits right at the start of his oeuvre, the third film in his “unofficial” animal trilogy and the first to fully explore the various camera tricks and visual flourishes that would come to dominate his early period efforts. But there are also aspects of narrative and murder mystery subterfuge that make it feel like an unusual audition for some kind of half-thriller/half Gothic fairy tale hybrid.

8. The Sinful Dwarf

Director: Vidal Raski

There’s a moldy old maxim in exploitation that goes a little something like this – if you’re going to give potential audiences a title so titillating it overwhelms the entire notion of grindhouse gratuity, you better deliver on your implied debauchery. The Sinful Dwarf truly lives up to its lurid moniker. We get several shots of star Torben doing his best little person perversions, and the rest of the film offers nothing but nonstop nastiness. If you’ve never seen a raincoat crowd-pleaser before, get ready. Even the digital format is ill-prepared for such salaciousness.

7. Repo: The Genetic Opera

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Repo!: The Genetic Opera is a startlingly impressive and visually imaginative epic. You have literally never seen anything quite like the images Bousman puts on the screen. From the corpse-strewn catacombs with their twisted limbs of agony to the freak show finish which seems lifted from an arthouse interpretation of Sid Vicious’ “My Way” video, this is pure cinematic showmanship from someone who understands the medium implicitly. Chastise the Saw films all you want, but those poster children for torture porn allowed something like Repo!: The Genetic Opera to see the light of day. The movies are much better for it.

6. Screwballs

Director: Rafal Zielinski

Screwballs is a classic. That’s right – CLASSIC. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the seedy subgenre of teenage boys begging to get their rocks off, this surreal statement is its Gone with the Wind. Yes, it’s prurient and pasty. No, it doesn’t have the kind of redeeming social value or aesthetic merit to keep communal moral compasses from veering wildly away from true North. What it does offer, on the other hand, is nothing short of a window into the world circa the early ‘80s, and it’s quite a silly skin flick sight.

5. Johnny Got His Gun

Director: Dalton Trumbo

Though some could argue over its heavy-handed obviousness and lack of subtlety, Johnny Got his Gun remains a very strong, very disquieting cinematic statement. It gets under your skin and slowly burrows into your personal principles. Director Dalton Trumbo has often said that his is not a purely anti-war film, and he’s right. The pointlessness of combat is stressed early and often, but the movie moves beyond the boundaries of such a discussion to include thoughts about such big picture issues as the meaning of life and the quality of same.

4. The Last Horror Film: The Tromasterpiece Collection

Director: David Winters

Had he lived to see the group grope perspective of the Internet, Joe Spinell would most likely have hundreds of fan pages dedicated to his brilliance, cinematic e-scholarship focused on finding ways of getting his name out among the new breed. In truth, he’s today nothing more than a relic of a twisted time in movie macabre, nothing more than your standard Maniac. Luckily Troma has salvaged his sensational turn in this amazing lost fright film oddity. Even though he’s no longer around to enjoy it, with this truly disturbing star turn, the man’s legitimacy and legacy are secured.

3. Watchmen: The Complete Story (The Ultimate Cut)

Director: Zack Snyder

Will the real motion picture version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen please stand up? In the span of eight short months we’ve had the official theatrical release of Zach Snyder’s genius take on the title, as well as an extended Director’s Cut DVD and Blu-ray which provided more character context and clarity to what was already a masterpiece, and now a well-timed four disc release which offers what Warner Brothers is calling the “Ultimate Cut”. It’s all so confusing. No matter, though, since what was already a great movie is yet again made even better by the inclusion of even more context.

2. Zabriskie Point

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

It is often said that foreign filmmakers do a far better job of capturing the American zeitgeist, no matter the era, than their US counterparts. A perfect example of this proverb arrives in the form of Zabriskie Point. You will not see a better distillation of the entire 1960s and everything it stood for – good, bad, indifferent, insightful – than this uncompromising artistic overview. As a modernist, a moviemaker noted for his disconnected ideals and luxuriant long takes, Antonioni was still capable of contravening expectations. This movie illustrates that perfectly. It may not always succeed, but when it does, it’s more than magical. It’s meaningful.

1. Combat Shock: The Tromasterpiece Collection

Director: Buddy Giovanazzo

Made before Oliver Stone’s apologetic Platoon and containing an entire squadron of squalor, Combat Shock – or as it was originally conceived, American Nightmare – is a brilliant, brazen denouncement of how our nation treated its returning war “heroes”, and a prophetic statement of how little things would change over the next three decades. Delivering a ‘day in the life’ portrait of poverty and pain so devastating that it just might lead you to the same suicidal conclusions haunting its main character, this is starkness as a soiled symphony. Sure, there seems to be obvious nods to David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but Buddy Giovinazzo is not paying homage. Instead, he’s exploring the same urban and interpersonal horrors that stain both of those ‘70s classics, and doing so in a far ballsier manner than his far more famous celluloid brethren.