A Year at the Video Store

Ben Varkentine

A Year at the Video Store

When time came to prepare this year-end list for PopMatters, I found that I'd seen very little in the theaters this year about which I wished to write. I had no desire to see Harry Potter. Pearl Harbor was the most successful movie people went to knowing full well it was bad. I never summoned the motivation to see Hannibal or Shrek. I have nothing particular to say about The Mummy Returns, and I've said as much or more than I care to about Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park III in my reviews here. Apart from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Waking Life, and Lord of the Rings, I didn't see many films that I considered worthwhile this year.

But the fact that I didn't go out to see very many good movies this year doesn't mean that I didn't see very many good movies this year. I have this "day job", you see, at a local video store. I won't mention the name, but for those of you who live in Seattle, let me put it this way: I don't work for Tin Man Video, and I don't work for Cowardly Lion Video either. This store has 60,000 titles or something and we get to rent them for free, and so this year, I thought I'd make an unabashedly personal list of some of the top (and bottom) films I've seen this year -- on video.

This list is in no particular order, other than the Zen-like happenstance with which I select films. There'll also be a couple of smaller, special sections at the bottom. Enough preamble.

The Avengers (TV series 1961-1969)
See what I mean about Zen-like happenstance? The first item on my list of films isn't a film at all, but episodes of a '60s television series. Great production values, reliable character actors (and by reliable I mean that it was while watching this series I realized there were only 10 character actors in all of Britain). Formulaic, but my, what a lot of intelligence and style. And oh yes, two words: Diana Rigg.

Alice in Wonderland (Bud Townsend 1976)
So sue me, I can't resist this movie. First of all, it's a XXX rated musical. Second, it's got a scene in which Alice discovers a knight having sex, leading to the song, "What's a Girl Like You Doing on a Knight Like This?" How can you not like this movie?

Mad Love (Antonia Bird 1995)
Now to get serious on y'all -- this underrated Chris O'Donnell/Drew Barrymore film from 1995 offers us a study in the contrast that is often to be found between what's on the back of a video box and what's in the film. Based on the video box, you'd think this was a lighthearted road comedy along the lines of Bandits, but it's actually a well-acted story about coming to terms with maturity and responsibility.

Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)
A really good movie, until it cops out at the end.

Ken Burns' Jazz (2001)
Some good stories, but I can't take 12 hours or whatever the hell it is of Winton Marsalis talking on any subject.

Get On The Bus (Spike Lee 1996)
No inclination or room to get into a long discussion of race here, but I just want to say I wonder if sometimes the perception of Spike Lee's public persona isn't hurting his box office. That is to say, I think "mainstream" (meaning white) audiences may have stayed away from this film because they expected a two-hour lecture or guilt trip. In fact, it's much more evenhanded, and perceptively acted.

Cradle Will Rock (Tim Robbins 1999)
What I like about the films that Tim Robbins writes and directs is the way he combines his instincts to entertain with those to be provocative.

Full Moon In Paris (Eric Rohmer 1984)
I went on an Eric Rohmer kick for a while this year, and I found a quote from Roger Ebert that may explain why I've started to like his films, and to a lesser extent, French films in general. Ebert said most American films are about plots. Most French films are about people.

Blame it On Rio (Stanley Donen 1984)
It is still impossible to reconcile this film with the names Stanley Donen and Larry Gelbart.

Stuart Little (Rob Minkoff 1999)
Cute and sweet, and I'm not being ironic.

Notting Hill (Roger Mitchell 1999)
So sue me again, I'm a sucker for a (good) romantic comedy.

Roots (TV series 1977)
Still holds up, apart from the unfortunate sequence at the beginning with OJ Simpson.

Amistad (Steven Spielberg 1997)
I haven't read every review from when this film came out... but has someone else noticed that it's ET with Africans as aliens?

Beany and Cecil: The Special Edition (1999)
One of the best examples of a DVD extant -- so much packed onto one disc, I couldn't watch it all in four days.

Spiders (Gary Jones 2000)
Okay, so this cheapjack horror movie features my friend, Corey Klemow, in a small part, and I'm plugging it.

Whatever (Susan Skoog 1998)
A great little unpredictable teen film. And I mean unpredictable. Every time I thought the plot was going one way, it went another. As far away from the likes of Whatever it Takes (see below) as it is possible to get.

Sleep With Me (Rory Kelly 1994)
I just gotta mention this -- the worst movie I have seen since I started working at a video store, and one of the worst I've ever seen. Gang-written by six writers, it has no voice, no point of view, no reason for being.

Deterrence (Rod Lurie 1999)
Writer/director Rod Lurie is like Aaron Sorkin without the language.

Christmas in August (Jin-Ho Hur 1998)
This Korean film is the kind of movie I cherish: a deeply felt story of the way one man sets about ordering his last days. Subtly written, beautifully acted, exquisitely directed. It's a gem.

My Own Country (Mira Nair 1998, made for tv)
The true story of a compassionate Indian-born doctor who becomes one of the first in the U.S. to specialize in treating AIDS patients, it avoids the "disease of the week" TV movie syndrome and becomes a portrait of a man in his communities.

Some Girl (Rory Kelly 1998)
Made me wonder why star/co-writer Marissa Ribisi hasn't had Gwyneth Paltrow's career.

The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle 1984)
Just an example of a film I loved as a 13-year-old that still holds up today.

Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky 1984)
And speaking of films that hold up. I watched both The Last Starfighter and Moscow on the Hudson in their relatively new DVD editions. Which reminds me that some of the best DVD commentaries I've heard this year include:

Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon 1985)
In which almost all of the surviving cast members essentially MST3K their own movie.

Living Out Loud (Richard LaGravenese 1998)
Writer/director Richard LaGravenese speaks candidly about the strengths and weaknesses of his first film as a director, and more valuably about the nature of the creative process for him.

Waking the Dead (Keith Gordon 2000)
One of the best films of 2000, has perceptive commentary by director Keith Gordon. It's also a good showcase for another DVD feature: deleted scenes. In many cases, these are clearly best left on the cutting room floor, but sometimes, as here, you'll wonder how they could lose them.

Quills (Philip Kaufman 2000)
Another of the best of 2000, features commentary not by director Kaufman but -- oh heavenly days -- the writer, Doug Wright, which is only fitting, considering its subject.

Whatever it Takes (David Rayner 2000)
I recommend this not because it's a particularly good movie (it's not, though Marla Sokoloff has a nice way with a line), but as a warning to would-be directors. Listen to the commentary and note how many times the director talks about the compromises needed to complete his unambitious little teen movie. Then imagine what you have to do to make a good one.

Reindeer Games (John Frankenheimer 2000)
On the other hand, this is an example of when a "director's cut" is not necessarily the better one. But then, I think I'm on record as being the only person besides John Frankenheimer to like this film publicly, so...

Psycho (Gus Van Sant 1998)
With one stroke, Gus Van Sant gives up his membership in the artistic community. The commentary's most notable for reinforcing Anne Heche's reputation as a whackaloon -- and a stupid one.

Since 9/11, I've been looking at a lot of historical documentaries, and wishing we had a Roosevelt, a Truman, to lead us right now. Among the best I've found have been:

Edward R. Murrow: The McCarthy Years (released by CBS News on Fox Home Video, hosted by Walter Cronkite 1993)
Almost as much as I wish we had a Roosevelt to lead us instead of a Shrub, I wish we had a Murrow to watch John Ashcroft.

Seeing Red (Julia Reichert 1983)
A film about American Communists that pretty much lets them speak for themselves and lets the viewer make up his or her own mind. The scene that stays with me is one of a former party member poo-pooing his radical youth -- but then being moved to tears when he reads a letter he wrote to his wife during that period, full of passion for change.

The War Room (Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker 1993)
So there's this great moment where James Carville tells the campaign workers that if they don't let Republican dirty tricks keep Clinton out of the White House, they won't have to worry about them again. Mr. Carville, meet Mr. Starr.

Here's hoping next year is a damn sight better than the last one, for all of us.

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