Short Ends and Leader’s 10 Best DVDs of 2011

Every year, we here at Short Ends and Leader get into an argument over the way in which we “determine” this category. While many stand around and scream about the titles we don’t include (insert name of famous film – say Citizen Kane – released on Blu-ray with a bountiful selection of added content) while staring, stunned, at what we chose to champion. The debate always comes down to something akin to commerciality vs….well, weird. It seems like everything we love about the format gets shuttered aside when the major studios decide to unleash their big cinematic guns. Instead of digging beneath the surface and seeing what lies below, we are supposed to kowtow to the companies that control the format and give them even more publicity.

Well, that’s never been the case and won’t be this year. As a matter of fact, aside from a Manufactured on Demand offering from one of the major multinational, the rest of 2011’s list comes from fringe distributors. It’s not like we go out of our way to cheer for the underdog, but when the choices are the latest mediocre movie from the supposed hit factory of Hollywood, or some long lost entry from a true cinematic auteur, we’ll take the newly discovered treasure any day. Again, many of the entries here are older titles brought up to date thanks to the digital medium. Only a couple come from the last few years. What this indicates is that our list for the Best DVDs of 2011 is all about artistic archeology. We’ve dug through the drek and discovered a collection of gems that any film fan would be foolish not to own. So keep your Collector’s Edition of The Lion King. We’ll stick with these:

#10: Repo Chick (dir. Alex Cox)

God bless Alex Cox. Few filmmakers follow their own peculiar muse, no matter how much grief or career complaints they seem to get. Long wanting to be his own boss, so to speak, to answer to no one except his own imagination. Infinitesimal financing or not, this is one writer/director dining on his own unique perspective, plating up servings for those strong enough to tackle his tastes. Such is the case with this snarky, satisfying riff on his first mainstream hit. Changing the gender and the main motivation are the least of this creative copy joys. Watching Cox work is magic enough.

#9: AC/DC – Let There Be Rock Blu-ray (dir. Eric Dionysius and Eric Mistler)

Here is Bon Scott: shirtless, tight jeaned, arms festooned with what looks like a longshoreman’s version of prison and/or biker tattoos, and a mop of hair hiding his often sheepish, mischievous grin. The minute he walks on the small French stage for the opening number, “Live Wire”, he literally commands it. Guitarist Angus Young, decked out in his customary school boy’s uniform, can duck walk from one side of the venue to the other, his face an O-mouthed expression of power chord chaos and yet he can’t pull the Let There Be Rock spotlight away from Scott. The result is rock concert bliss.

#8: 3 Idiots (dir. Rajkumar Hirani)

At nearly three hours in length, 3 Idiots is the most epic coming of age college hijinx comedy ever. It’s also the most heartwarming, endearing, and insightful. Taking down the draconian philosophy surrounding higher education in India (everything centers on class placement, competition, and oppressive cutthroat tactics), director Rajkumar Hirani mixes melodrama with message to deliver a delightful dismissal of such practices. Sprawled over 14 years and filled with all manner of cinematic styles – farce, musical, serious dramatics, meta commentary – it goes from confusing to classic so gracefully that you feel foolish for not recognizing the reversal when it happens.

#7: Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (dir. Norman Cohen)

If you think that Spike Milligan’s take on war will resemble that classic scene from The Meaning of Life (an elaborate birthday celebration in the trenches) or the entire fourth series of Blackadder, you’d be wrong. Instead, just like its title, this farce is a sly, subversive experience. It sneaks up on you like a well played prank, avoiding the pratfalls and pantomime we’ve come to expect from such a comedy subgenre. While Milligan plays fast and loose with the facts of his actual service, it’s indebted in an approach that argues for the pointless inhumanity, and droll English cheek, of those who sacrificed so much for so many.

#6: Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fisher (dir. Josh Rubin)

It’s hard to say if Larry “Wild Man” Fischer deserves better. Like other surrealist acts before and since – The Shaggs, Daniel Johnston – he’s not really what one would call a ‘traditional’ musician. Those who’ve heard him have never forgotten the experience. Derailroaded does a brilliant job of arguing for who he is, giving various voices a chance to establish the benchmark that the music may not. Similarly, since most of Fischer’s dealings have involved a close personal as well as professional relationship, the insights into his mixed up mindset are equally exposed.

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#5: Highway Patrolman (dir. Alex Cox)

Highway Patrolman is a revelation. As with the other lost entries in Alex Cox’s oeuvre, it indicates that this complicated artist, a man who literally gained international fame and lost it within a significantly short period of time, was unfair judged and critically castigated. As we went off to make the kind of movies he could, he created many a misjudged masterwork. This take on police work in the problematic backwaters of Mexico may seem like the standard set-up for corruption among cops. What it winds up being is an amazing character study carved out of a clever deconstruction of the genre types.

#4: Snuff Box (dir. Michael Cumming)

Snuff Box is a bloody work of art. It’s genius. It’s hilarious. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen in either a British or American comedy. Take David Lynch’s strange sensation On the Air, throw in a bit of Monty Python, a smidgen of Bottom, and the collective consciousness from a couple dozen insane asylums…and you’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes this six part series so great. So many amazing ideas clash and cram into each other, the result being yet another flawlessly executed blackout guaranteed to make your sides split and your brain twist. And then it gets funny. REALLY funny.

#3: Snack Bar Budapest (dir. Tinto Brass)

Snack Bar Budapest is like a waking dream. It’s star Giancarlo Giannini looking downtrodden and slovenly while all around him Italy explodes in get rich quick possibilities. For his part, director Tinto Brass ladles on the luxuries. There are times when the film feels like a cross between Blade Runner and a grunge version of Brazil. The use of neon emphasizes the gloom and glamour of the time, while the acting and compositions keep the story centered on the dilemmas between the players. Though the ending turns things a bit too contrived, the overall vibe of Snack Bar Budapest is like the last act of a dying man.

#2: The Trip (dir. Michael Winterbottom)

Nobody should look this miserable having a supposedly good time. No one, be it on holiday or as part of a cook’s tour of Northern England, should be so angst-ridden and afraid. But that’s exactly the look that UK funnyman Steve Coogan carries throughout this likeable, laugh-filled quasi-documentary . Taken from a six part UK series co-starring the artist formerly/currently known as Alan Partridge and his comedian/impressionist buddy Rob Brydon, what was supposed to be a sunny adventure with his live-in love turns into a battle of wits between two men whose company they could each care less for. It’s a war we want to watch over and over again.

#1: Santa Sangre Blu-ray (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky )

Part giallo, part phantasmagorical parade, Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky adapting his otherwise outsized style for a more “commercial” approach. While it didn’t seem that way when the movie was first released in 1989, time and the expectations have definitely caught up with the arthouse agent provocateur. With the advent of DVD, and the discovery of thousands of likeminded motion picture makers from around the world, Jodorowsky’s ideas have become the foundation for an entire subgenre of genius. As with his other masterpieces – Topo and Mountain – the director is digging through a vast imagination wasteland, conjuring heroes and villains, saints and demons with a dramatic drive reserved for only the finest film minds. He then sprinkles on his own unique allusions to make the sometimes elusive metaphors even more meaningful.