At least one of the “D”s in DVD has to stand for “diversity”. As Blu-ray continues to tread water, earning as many converts as distancing disgruntled fans, the digital medium continues to prosper – artistically, at least. Thanks to advances in technology, Internet avenues of self-distribution, and the ability to put one’s own art out on display for everyone to see, the cornucopia of product one can indulge in is simply mind-boggling. A full time critic, on a simple schedule, could watch close to 325 discs a year (six to seven a week). Even those of us who make time for other medium find ourselves struggling at well over 200 (the official SE&L mark is somewhere around 145). Naturally, this makes a Best of list almost impossible. Even worse, some companies we could count on for classic commerce – Something Weird, Troma – were out of the mix all together (or, in the case of the latter, until the Summer of 2008).
Still, it was an interesting year. The au courant bonus feature du jour is, undoubtedly, the “digital copy” – a version of the film you can download to your laptop or IPod for entertainment portability. Of course, something like The Dark Knight clearly suffers from being shrunk down to less than IMAX size. Even worse, the dirty little secret of the high definition format was finally revealed – just because a disc claims to be HD, doesn’t mean the studio shelled out the cash to make over the image to provide more depth. For many, it’s just too cost prohibitive. Thus many a messageboard argument has started over if a revisit to a classic title is worth the hefty monetary reinvestment. For some, no amount of bells or whistles could bring them to repurchase catalog items merely ported over from the standard DVD edition. Thus the big Blu struggles, and probably will continue to do so.
Still, outside the controversy and web-based clamor, a few titles stood out. SE&L chose the ones closest to our heart, while reminding our readers that the best thing about a DVD is still the film (or films) it contains. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating – a Criterion Collection of Crap is still crap. But a barebones version of a masterpiece is still something special. So without further ado, here are the choices for 2008:
#10 – The Cinematic Titanic Collection
Over the last few years, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy have been holding down the MST3K fort by creating audio only commentaries for their Rifftrax project. Now, series originator Joe Hodgson has collected the rest of the cast (Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein) to create a whole new in theater satire. Each of the five self-distributed “episodes” created in 2008 reminds you of why, some 20 years after these Midwestern comedians first decided to dump on bad movies, the formula is as funny as ever. There’s nary a bad installment in the bunch.
#9 – Brand Upon the Brain! – The Criterion Collection
One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. This overview of his childhood, fashioned like a German Expressionistic horror mystery, is supposedly almost 97% psychologically “true”. Of course, what that means to Maddin, and his fans, is anyone’s guess.
#8 – The Three Stooges Collection – Volumes 2 & 3
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 1937 to 42, the 47 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.
#7 – Wanted
As with many post-millennial movies, Wanted is based on a series of graphic novels. Like the best of those adaptations, screenwriters Mark Millar and J. G. Jones use the foundation of the series as a jumping off point. A brilliant and baffling action effort, the movie proposes the latest nerd as closet gladiator, an archetype that seems to never lose cinematic weight. It then pits him against the classic cabal, a secret society that’s been doing the world’s dirty work for so long that we can’t imagine life without it. The results are as outrageous as they are transcendent.
#6 – The Mist: 2 Disc Special Edition
It needs to be repeated, just in case you missed it the first time – Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of determined fright flick that few in the industry know how to make – or even comprehend. Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, – the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant.
#5 – I’m Not There: 2 Disc Special Edition
Todd Haynes has balls. He took on the most difficult of subjects (the life and shapeshifting times of songwriter extraordinaire Bob Dylan) and found a way to be both factual and fanciful. Reimagining the artistic chameleon as one of six distinct personas, and hiring an equal number of actors to play them, Haynes helped put into perspective an important, influential artist whose vocation seemed stuck in a constant state of flux. Now, thanks to DVD, everything confusing is clear as crystal. On a commentary track that should be mandatory listening for any would-be bonus feature participant, the director goes into excruciating detail, explaining almost every facet of his fascinating film.
#4 – Ken Russell at the BBC
Before he became the “bad boy” of British cinema, middle aged maverick Russell was making amazing musical biographies for UK television. This masterful boxset contains six of his best – Elgar, The Debussy Film, Always on Sunday, Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World, Dante’s Inferno, and Summer of Song. Sadly, his slam on Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils, was pulled at the last minute. Still, with famous faces like Oliver Reed and Vivian Pickles along for the ride, this collection is a revelation, and a testament to one of the most criminally underrated directors of all time.
#3 – Hellboy II: The Golden Army – 3 Disc Special Edition
Sometimes, the most outrageous vision is the most personal. As part of the amazing three disc DVD presentation we hear director Guillermo Del Toro, in his own self-deprecating way, explain how the larger than life flights of fancy peppered throughout the underappreciated Summer blockbuster represents an literal illustration of his own fertile imagination. It’s everything he wanted the original film to be and much, much more. Purposefully plotting out certain scenes to thematically represent his view of mankind and its uneasy coexistence with forces outside of reality, Del Toro delivers the kind of wide-eyed entertainment that will only grow in approval in the coming years.
#2 – Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead Tromasterpiece Collection
If Poultrygeist is a certified ‘Tromasterpiece’ – and it most certainly is – then the stunning three disc DVD treatment of the title is its Hearts of Darkness. Like that memorable documentary of Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, there is an accompanying Making-of featurette entitled Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger than Chicken. In it, we witness nearly ninety minutes of infighting, exasperation, and the well-plucked perfection that comes from such a meeting of fertile, often unhinged minds. All the problems Kaufman and crew face on the film, from reluctant DP divadom to abject naked actress angst, are captured. As with other Troma projects, the onset mayhem sometimes threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. Here, it makes the good great, and the special something spectacular.
#1 – Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom – Criterion Collection
In some ways, it’s better to begin by discussing what Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló is not. It is not the most horrific or grotesque movie ever made. Certainly, the revolting elements used by the filmmaker to fashion his “power = corruption” rants are truly disturbing, but they are often buffered by an aesthetic detachment that’s so remote it leaves their impact suppressed. Similarly, this is not a complicated cinematic screed. From the moment we witness the forced marriage of the libertines’ daughters to the madmen in charge, we realize that Pasolini is offering a very obvious allegory. By moving de Sade into the 20th century, and using Mussolini and his complicit populace as metaphors, the notion of authoritarianism as an ugly aphrodisiac for all manner of debauched behavior is crystal clear.
Finally, it is not child pornography. Granted, the sight of several underage actors posing in various stages of undress (including copious full frontal nudity) will be alarming to our post-millennial PC posturing, but again, this director doesn’t sensationalize sex. Instead, it is handled in such an impartial, almost inert manner that only the most psychologically disturbed pervert would find this film enticing. Upon reflection, Salo is really nothing more than political commentary carried to outrageous, unsettling extremes. The result is repulsive, artistic, and memorable indeed.