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Best DVDs 2004

The year 2004 was monumental in the brief history of DVD. The death knell tolled for VHS, while the next big innovation started a blue-ray vs. HD DVD debate that lit up blogs and bulletin boards across the web.

:: BEST DVDS 2004 By Bill Gibron

The year 2004 was monumental in the brief history of DVD. The death knell tolled for VHS, while the next big innovation started a blue-ray vs. HD DVD debate that lit up blogs and bulletin boards across the web. With so many independent companies churning out peculiar product, options become ever more diverse. While many of these twisted titles fail to find their audience, others stand out.

It would be easy to highlight the obvious multi-disc mainstream presentations of the past year (The Star Wars box, the Ultimate Matrix Collection), as they represent a pinnacle, of sorts, in marketing and product padding. But I'll focus on those DVDs that left the most lasting impression. Some of the winners are as Tinsel Town as you will find, but others are so obscure as to be considered lost treasures. Each represents artists pushing the limits of their craft to create something remarkable.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Extended Edition (Peter Jackson)
Another year, another win by Lord of the Rings for best DVD. It almost goes without saying that Peter Jackson has set the standard for all fantasy films to come, besting George Lucas and a certain Mr. Spielberg at the game they once owned outright. Return of the King is an incredible capper to the trilogy, mixing the personal and the spectacle in fantastic style. And this extended edition gives us 50 more minutes of narrative goodness, not to mention the hours of bonus features.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

2. Disinformation: The Complete Series (Richard Metzger)
Richard Metzger has an agenda. And it's apparently too hot for the Sci-Fi Channel, which commissioned him to create an "American" version of his controversial UK series, and the result was a stroke of subversive genius. Addressing such diverse topics as performance artists, white trash Jackass style stunts, outrageous government conspiracies, and extreme pornography, the four episodes never saw the light of a Stateside cathode ray. Now, thanks to DVD, we have a chance to see what all the hubbub is about... and it's even more shocking than you can imagine.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

3. 3 Women: Criterion Collection (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman could have made any movie he wanted in 1977. Hot off the success of Nashville, his options were open. He chose to make an intricate portrait of three diffident, despondent women living in the middle of the California desert. Featuring Oscar caliber performances by Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek, and dealing with "empowerment" and loss of identity, this mesmerizing movie is the feminist manifesto deconstructed. Thanks to those passionate preservationists at Criterion, we get a stunning transfer loaded with contextual extras to help clarify and celebrate this lost American classic.

4. Sin in the Suburbs/The Swap, and How they Make It (Joe Sarno)
In a year that saw Something Weird Video release the resplendent Best of Burlesque two-disc set, as well as the amazing Doris Wishman double feature, Indecent Desires/My Brother's Wife, this Joe Sarno spectacle easily tops them all. Both films are drenched in the debauchery of the swinging singles/wife swapping experimentation of the early 1960s. Sin concentrates on a strange sex club frequented by lonely housewives, while Swap sees spouses making the matrimonial switch to satisfy that most miscreant of itches This is one relic that exposes the truth behind all those bridge clubs and cocktail parties.

5. Wattstax: 30th Anniversary Special Edition (Mel Stuart)
A half a million hippies get together on an upstate New York farm and everybody's heard about it. About 700,000 show up to a tiny island in the UK and it's a monumental musical event. But when 100,000 people of color packed the L.A. Coliseum to commemorate one of the worst episodes of urban unrest in South Central L.A.'s history, it's not even given a minor mention by music historians. Thankfully, this 30th Anniversary DVD of the Wattstax Concert is just the cure for this incredible event's lost legacy. Featuring fantastic music -- such superstars as The Staples Singers, Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes -- and evocative politics, this densely packed DVD proves that this celebration was the most important concert event of the '60s/'70s.

6. John Cassavetes - Five Films: Criterion Collection (John Cassavetes)
He is the patron saint of independent cinema, a Method acting maharaja and the undeniable icon for thousands of would-be filmmakers. But what many people forget is that John Cassavetes was, first and foremost, a deceptively brilliant filmmaker. Over the course of five features (Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night) and eight supplement laden discs, Criterion cements his heretofore ragged reputation by proving that his movies, far from being arcane examples of experimental artistry, were deeply human, humble efforts. This collection also showcases the infinite talent of Cassavetes' personal muse, his brilliant actress wife Gena Rowlands.

7. The Legend of Leigh Bowery (Charles Atlas)
There is no denying that, when it came to combining fashion with the freakish, Leigh Bowery was a genius, Twisted, talented, and a little tragic, this performance artist was "on" from the moment he woke in the morning until the time he hit the nightclub circuit dressed in another delirious design. This amazing documentary by longtime friend Charles Atlas celebrates Leigh's massive mythology while deconstructing his mix of glamour and the grotesque. This sad, stunning portrait proves that Bowery was so ahead of his time that society has yet to catch up.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

8. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Ki-Duk Kim)
Visually stunning and employing a narrative so basic that it blossoms with possible interpretations, Ki-Duk Kim's masterpiece features a mostly wordless script and a setting that evokes several planes of existence in one awe-inspiring vista. Watching this film is like being swept away on a warm tropical current.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

9. Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles)
Who knew Mario Van Peebles had it in him? Best known for such dull off-title tripe as Solo and Posse, this Hollywood playa teamed up with his revolutionary father to create a behind the scenes look at how Papa Melvin made the blaxploitation classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. The result is a love letter to the "Black is Beautiful" movement and a triumph of telling it like it was and is. Thirty-three years after the fact, Melvin and Mario here look at what it took to cast off Hollywood's stereotypical portrayals of minorities in movies. More than just a backstage saga of how a famous movie got made, it's a potent piece of propaganda.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

10. Trailer Town (Giuseppe Andrews)
Signaling either the reinvention of cinema, or its untimely death at the hands of homemade auteurs, actor Giuseppe Andrews's film is a profane paean to the furthest social fringes. Using real life residents of a California trailer park and filling their carefully scripted conversations with all manner of raunch and outrage, the film is a window into a wicked world that not many of us want to witness. These compelling, crude "characters" reveal basic truths -- mainly, that most people live forgotten lives of ranting, fucked up desperation, with a whisky chaser.

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