The Most Impressive DVDs of 2004
Happy holidays once again! 2004 was the year that the original Star Wars films finally made their appearance in unoriginal form, a few years after the parade went by. As late as 2001 the legions of DVD loyal would have made it the event of the year, but so far it’s been just another quiet release, doing well, I’m sure, but no longer the dominant cultural phenom.
The beauty of DVD for the majors must be to churn out millions upon millions of copies of something like Shreck 2 and watch the gold roll in. So it’s not surprising to see that there’s still a mixed set of attitudes toward older library product. It requires more effort for less income, but is the bedrock uponwhich the industry thrives. You can’t call the DVD enthusiasts ‘early adopters’ or ‘DVD Weenies’ any more, as everyone from kids to folks in retirement homes has an interest in them. There’s a market for everything, from obscure foreign films to Deanna Durbin movies (who?).
The concept of letterboxing (which combined with 16:9 enhancement gives DVD the quality edge) has finally been adopted by the public at large. I was told the other day that someone’s 5 year old niece asked for “The Princess Diaries – widescreen only, please.” Blockbuster has reversed their blockheaded policy upon realizing that their customers scorn Pan-Scan releases. Big outlets like Wal-Mart still seem to stock widescreen DVDs on more of an accidental basis. As for the studios, the savvy marketers there can be forgivensomewhat for responding to present customer desires, instead of forming them as good mind-control marketing is supposed to. A month or so ago, I witnessed a mid-range studio exec claiming that the head of their DVD department personally detested widescreen movies, B& W movies, and any title over 20 years old. That explains a lot.
The problem comes when vocal fans make a big web-stink about particular titles. Studio personnel resent having to change their policies as it makes individual execs look bad. Some studios maintain email boxes for consumer feedback, but I’ve never heard of any exec even being aware of them, let alone monitoring them for good suggestions. Savant doesn’t get involved unless he’s asked – internal company affairs are just that.
Savant got involved in the right way last July, when Castle Keep was quietly released as a Pan-Scan disc. I wrote an uncommonly critical review, praising the movie but showing open hostility to the way its studio had betrayed its own long-held policy of beautiful enhanced transfers for widescreen movies. Others felt the same way, and more activist-oriented sites like The Home Theater Forum practically started a vigilante action. Only four months later, a widescreen version of Castle Keep appeared.
I’m still praised for that victory as being my doing, although it’s more likely that news reached Sydney Pollack or other influential individuals, and the new release happened after a couple of quiet phone calls. Interestingly enough, Universal has just released a number of Pan-Scan discs of library titles like Raggedy Man and the cult favorite Colossus: The Forbin Project – originally a Panavision film. There’s no web uproar this time. On the other hand, a similar Pan-Scan disc of Cliff Robertson’s Oscar winning Charly appears to have been delayed until 2005 so that a widescreen edition can be prepared. That was definitely the result of consumer petitioning.
This year Savant has tried to be a little more selective with his “Most Impressive” list, which I see simply as an opportunity to spout off my own choices for last year’s most exciting titles. I don’t judge by best extras or even best transfers, or by the artistic merit of the film alone – if that were so, the list would be comprised of The Leopard and nine other art films. No, watching movies is supposed to be fun, and this list of titles are almost all films that I’ll be watching again and again and be recommending tomy friends (politely, of course).
The list is skewed toward horror because this has been a great year for that genre. Criterion has expanded its release schedule, which also accounts for an unusually high count from them, even though HomeVision Entertainment makes a solid appearance, along with a couple of new high-quality releases from Koch Media. All the other studios continue their library programs, but it looks as though Savant’s eye has continually returns to Warner product. The Burbank Shield maintained a flood-level gush of great older pictures, almost always with at least one appropriate extra.
This year’s biggest trend is the emergence of quality boxed sets of themed pictures – the Alfred Hitchcock collection, the Tarzan Collection, a second huge box of Warner Looney Tunes. Nobody can get them all, although I think Indian Casino revenue has suffered as a result of the subculture of fanatic DVD purchasers collecting everything in sight. My answer to that is the same as it ever was: Don’t spend the college money or the grocery money on DVDs, and especially don’t do it under the illusion that you’re investing in a collection that will grow in value. Blu-Ray is less than two years away, and these DVDs we love so much may eventually go the way of the big silvery laser discs. I still have hundreds for no particular reason; and I can report that with a hammer and a nail, they make good outdoor mirrors to help in backing the car out of the driveway without shredding the neighbor’s fence. Another household hint from Better Homes and Obsolete Video Gear.
If you’ve survived the sermon, here are
The top spot has to go to Criterion’s heaven-sent disc of Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju’s hypnotic, poetic horror film that sends the mad Edith Scob gliding down those bricked corridors like a mannequin sculpture by Jean Cocteau, bearing witness to insane atrocities being committed in her name. The disc has a wonderful transfer that captures every foggy cityscape and every stifled scream, and reveals tiny horrid details never before visible on video. Extras include Franju’s notorious docu The Blood of Beasts. May this be successful enough to spawn a string of Franju releases on DVD, starting with his Judex.
Other class-act horror films came out in exceptional DVD releases. Lemora, A Child’s Tale of The Supernatural from Synapse was practically a lost legend until its original film materials were rediscovered; Rainbeaux Smith is the innocent coveted by a vampire queen living in the center of a forest filled with ghouls – in depression-era Tennessee. Henri- Georges Clouzot’s quietly malicious thriller Le Corbeau is a twisted piece of misanthropy that almost cost the director his career after accusations of Nazi collaboration. From Criterion. And fromCriterion again is David Cronenberg’s intellectual-visceral puzzle film Videodrome, a perverse thesis on ‘reality television ‘twenty years ahead of its time. The disc has extras that allow even blockheads like Savant to understand the full depth of what Cronenberg was after.
The next dream disc of 2004 was from The Mouse. Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland Walt Disney in Space and Beyond is a 2-disc compilation that includes the three Man in Space TV shows Savant yearned to see for 40 years. Not only are they central to one of Savant’s favorite subjects, 50s space Science Fiction, they’re shot in color and are produced at a technical level that betters most of the theatrical efforts of the time. Dazzling, funny and prophetic. And with your favorite ex-Nazi scientists as well!
Almost as good was Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines – The War Years, a collection of WW2-era Disney animated material all presented uncut and uncensored. Riotous anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese cartoons are here in their racist, patriotic glory.Victory Through Air Power is Disney’s elaborate animated feature that represents a lobbyingeffort (Walt’s two bits) to back off on the mass Army assaults and win the war through long range super bombers. Fascinating stuff for historians and animation buffs.A & E‘s huge collection of the entire series of The World at War docus continues with exhaustive extra docu shows. It’s a great buy for libraries and something that most young people need to see – the events of 1939-1945are what formed the eternal-war economy we have now. The shows also have excellent capsule histories of how Nazi Germany and Tojo’s Japan came about. Lastly, the quasi docu Sherman’s March is what happens when a docu filmmaker sets out to do something on the Civil War and goes off topic to cover the variety of women he meets while trying to get the film going. We’re right there with this guy (a great narrator of romantic absurdities) all the way through a process that’s touching, hilariously droll and sometimes humiliating. From First Run Features.
Probably the most fun of any disc here and more likely to be a surprising success when viewed for the first time is Warners‘ Damn Yankees, a wonderful musical transplantation of Faust into home-grown Americana. Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston both give great original performances, and it’s presented for the first time in widescreen, with stable colors. Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen and choreographed by Bob Fosse, who contributes a classic dance number with Ms. Verdon.
Koch Lorber‘s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg corrects an earlier Fox Lorber disc by sharpening up the color, the encoding, and most importantly correct in the frame rate – the previous disc was time compressed. This is the candy-colored operetta movie with the swooning Michel Legrand music that defined Jacques Demy’s painful romanticism. It seems topical once again with its story about a young couple’s life ruined by war service and bad luck.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is that surprising late-cycle MGM musical that explodes with creativity. There’s a robust new approach to dancing and a genuine heartiness to the non-PC subject matter: seven lonely woodsmen kidnap seven eligible females just before the winter sets in. Even Jane Powell and Howard Keel shine in this one – you don’t have to be over 50 to enjoy it. From Warners. Finally, it’s not really a musical, but Fox‘s Roxie Hart lets Ginger Rogers show us how entertaining a movie can be without the fluff and nonsense of later musical versions, especially the Oscar winner called Chicago. The script is almost as funny as a Preston Sturges movie and there are a couple of dance interludes that raise the roof of the Cook County jail. This wasn’t even a Fox Studio Classic and its release was held back way after the new film won best picture. After Roxie Hart, Chicago doesn’t seem special at all.
On the fun end of the horror genre is Roman Polanski’s tender valentine to the undead The Fearless Vampire Killers in its full visual richness. Savant understands why the movie isn’t more popular; besides being spoiled by an earlier (and best forgotten) cartoonish re-cut, the show walks a narrow line between comedy and horror that isn’tgoing to be widely appreciated – it’s the junction of the amusing and the mildly creepy – visually beautiful, with weirdly beautiful music. From Warners again.
Anchor Bay has been more quiet of late, but their umpteenth release of George Romero’sDawn of the Dead – The Ultimate Edition is just too good to ignore. The exhaustive docu is almost as long as the feature, which is so lovingly presented that its identity as an exploitative gore picture is in jeopardy – it just seems like a good apocalyptic thriller now, albeit with a tendency to show heads splattering and machetes slicing into faces.Blue Underground‘s Deathdream is another legendary, seldom-seen horror film, sort of a blowback reaction to Vietnam that has real bite thanks to the acting of Lynn Carlin and John Marley. Very creepy in a unique way. And Warners treated us to Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, one of the last of the Hammer classics. Hammer productions had become rather repetitive and pointless around this time but the Baron doctor’s brain transplants and general misanthropy here but some bite back into the series.
Film Noir hit DVD in a big way in 2003, and this year saw a pack of goodies in a Warners boxed set and a lineup of good Universal titles. The most glorious of them all is Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, a perversely romantic ode to things murderous and beautiful. Jane Greer is the most enigmatic and erotic of the great noir femme fatales and the film was the first great expression of Robert Mitchum’s hep, ultra cool, almost sleepy screen persona. Murder, double-crosses and a convoluted flashback structure add to the fun – after this 1947 gem modern thrillers seem primitive. Mitchum makes lighting up a cigarette a major cinematic event; he must do it 50 times in this picture. Warners.
Of the other classic noirs put in the pipeline in 2004, the heartiest recommendations go to The Asphalt Jungle (Warners), Criss Cross (Universal), Pickup on South Street (a dandy special edition from Criterion), and Strangers on a Train & Gun Crazy (both Warners). All are guaranteed to break down resistance to B&W movies, especially if seen on a big monitor.
Liv Ullmann directed the romantic sagaKristin Lavransdatter, a major film nobody seems to know about. It’s like Lord of the Rings brought back to commonplace reality, a medieval classic with a strong female lead involved in a great love story. It sounds like a “what?” film from left field, but believe me when I say it’s up there with, or better than movies like Dr. Zhivago or Far From theMadding Crowd. From Home Vision Entertainment.
It was a good year for charming romantic movies. Lawrence Kasdan’s intense The Accidental Tourist with William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and an adorable Geena Davis always gets remembered in our house whenever someone cooks a turkey. It’s from Warners and sports a nifty Geena Davis commentary. Some lovely feelings reverberate through Alan Rudolph’s quirky, eccentric Love at Large, with Tom Berenger, Anne Archer and the irresistible Elizabeth Perkins. Even when the movie gets awkward, the goodwill it generates keeps us happy. From MGM. Warners strikes back in the most affecting of the Martin Scorsese boxed set releases, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More. Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson head a great cast in a truly unpredictable story. With another full-cooperation docu that widens our appreciation for the film.Wellspring graced us with Jacques Demy’s prequel to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the deliriously romantic Lola. The lonely diamond salesman (Marc Michel) ofUmbrellas is here the forlorn hero, hopelessly in love with Lola (Anouk Aimée) who is holding outfor the return of an old boyfriend. Interlocking love stories weave through the streets, fashioning cyclical patterns of love that repeat in new generations that think they are experiencing them for the first time. The print isn’t perfect but the movie is – Marc Michel’s musical cue fromUmbrellas is the main theme here.
Satire never got better than Theodore J. Flicker’s lighting-strikes-once political spoof The President’s Analyst, which effectively lays the SuperSpy genre to rest by relating it to the way the world really works. Oval Office shrink James Coburn becomes a paranoid but then discovers that the conspiracies he imagines are all real. Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden shine in a wacky plot that transcends the basic comedy-skit structure. For a finale the satire leaps into Science Fiction territory, linking ideas of the Internet with Disneyland’s A Visit With Mr. Lincoln. This is the movie that had to re-dub to change “FBI” and “CIA” to “FBR” and “CEA.” From Paramount.
Stanley Kubrick’s movie needs no introduction or even explanation, but I found Columbia TriStar‘s Dr. Strangelove 40th Anniversary Edition to be the version worth waiting for — all at a consistent aspect ratio and as sharp as a tack, with the image on the dark side when it’s supposed to be dark. And some good extras too, including funny Goon Squad-type footage with Peter Sellers. Columbia TriStar also came up with a nifty-looking widescreen enhanced disc of Arthur Penn’s near-hysterical The Chase, the movie where Marlon Brando seems to have gotten involved just so he can undergo one of the most graphic beatings ever dished out in color and Panavision. Texas is an evil bog of racism, bigotry, sexual jealousy and wife-swapping sin in what could be called Bad Night for Robert Redford. Jane Fonda, James Fox and Angie Dickinson are there too; the film ends with a quasi-re-creation of the Oswald slaying.
The heavy-duty classic offerings this year are a lively bunch, all of them coveted titles previously unavailable in decent versions. Criterion dominates through its access to the cream of the crop and its meticulous attention to detail. Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse has previously looked like a rag pile except in infrequent museum showings; here it’s as clear as a bell, sound and picture. The early conspiracy film shows the mad Mabuse running an ’empire of crime’ by proxy from his asylum cell; even after his death he appears as a horrifying demon with huge praying-mantis eyes. Criterion’s choice of commentators is the terrific David Kalat of All Day DVD, and he’s an encyclopedia of fascinating information.
A licensing arrangement between Criterion and Fox made possible a giant disc of The Leopard, with the original and the dubbed (massacred) versions and some great extras that help explain the historical context of the Italianrisorgimento. More Fritz Lang perfectionism comes with a definitive disc of “M” in a newly-sourced transfer that makes the film look brand new. Again, inspired extras add to the riches. The extras aren’t all that much, but Koch Lorber‘s special edition of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is certainly the release we’ve been waiting for, an excellent-quality transfer of the biggest Italian art movie hit ever.
I tend to think that international events prompted the release of a number of politically themed films last year. Known as the most compelling movie about revolutionary insurrection, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers invented a mock-documentary style to tell its story of the Algerian resistance to French Colonial rule in a way that wouldn’t come off as propaganda. An honest and open-minded look at the reality of torture and oppression, terror and mass murder as weapons in modern rebellion. Criterion devotes a second disc to the making of the film, and a third to the geo-political facts of the Algerian war, with one extra a discussion by U.S. ‘security’ experts of the lessons learned from the movie.
Other provocative political pix found DVD shelf space this year. Volker Schlöndorff’s chilling Circle of Deceit was filmed right in the middle of a civil war in Beirut, and makes its point explaining how foreign aid feeds the slaughter. It stars Bruno Ganz and Hanna Schygulla, from Kino Video. Claude Chabrol’s brooding period drama Story of Women recounts a little-known true horror from occupied France, a woman (Isabelle Huppert) guillotined for vice-oriented crimes to appease German ‘moralists.’ It’s from Home Vision Entertainment.Another coup from Home Vision is England’s first full-length animated feature film, Halas and Batchelor’s Animal Farm, based on the book by George Orwell. The disc extras document and explain why the animators changed the ending to make the oppressed barnyard animals revolt against their pig leaders. The initial sponsor of the movie was the American CIA, eager to quietly create anti-Soviet propaganda.
Multi-disc collections made a big splash in 2004 as studio marketers realized that it’s better to sell a$50 package of discs than watch five or six individual releases wither on the crowded store shelves.Universal scored with three new Monster Legacy Collections, the sentimental favorite of which was The Creature From the Black Lagoon: The Legacy Collection. All three of the Gill Man features are here, with great commentaries and a docu from Tom Weaver and David J. Skal.
Among some other desirable comedy boxes from Universal was The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection. Even though the extras were practically non-existent, the set is a standout simply because it gathers together the Marx boys’ first five features starting with the stage-bound The Cocoanuts and ending with what critics consider their best film, Duck Soup. Savant’s personal idea of Marxist perfection isHorse Feathers, but to each his own. Over at Warners, the anticipated Alfred Hitchcock set was a slam dunk that received only okay treatment overall, but Warners‘ The Tarzan Collection is a labor of love, with six carefully remastered “ahh-eee-ahh” melodramas including the pre-code Tarzan and His Mate with its peek-a-boo nudity and over-the-top gory mayhem. Plus a solid docu that untangles the entire Tarzan story from Edgar Rice Burroughs forward. Criterion made a serious dent in Savant’s appreciation of film acting and direction with their boxed set John Cassavetes: Five Films, accompanying his classics Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night with superb interview and docu footage with Cassavetes and his family of actor friends. When we see the actor-director in his garage editing setup talking about his style of filmmaking, we want to turn back the clock and volunteer to work too.
Savant never actually said that this was a ten best list, but he can’t count anyway and ended up with a short stack of honorable mentions to toot about. I did my best to make the top ten above my personal favorites, but I’m ready anytime to re-watch the entertaining runners-up below.
Savant had a lot to do with the goodies on MGM‘s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but it would be, uh, unfair to hold that against it. It’s a very good disc. With a controversial remixed track and some fancy extras, including funny interview material with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach.
Savant helped start a web ruckus that got this one reissued (with only a 3-month gap) in a decent Panavision widescreen transfer. Sydney Pollack’s surreal Castle Keep is a pretentious art film and a bizarre send-up of War movies all in one. With Burt Lancaster and a Volkswagen that refuses to die. From Columbia TriStar.
It’s borderline hardcore smut but has to be the most creative soft-core part-animated musical Zap Comic-inspired Toontown fever dream ever put on film. Forbidden Zone features the great Danny Elfman and his Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, Hervé Villiachaize and Susan Tyrell. From Fantoma.
Fox was just promoting Master and Commander, but the agreeable fallout was a string of sailing-oriented movies that yielded the excellent sleeper A High Wind in Jamaica with Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, directed by Alexander MacKendrick. Now they need to follow up with MacKendrick’s A Boy Ten Feet Tall (Sammy Goes South).
A-a-and, it’s Fox once more with the superior Jet-ace zoom-a-thon The Hunters. Cool cat Robert Mitchum shows jive clown Robert Wagner what being really hip is all about, and director Dick Powell shows us plenty of one-of-a-kind real Sabre Jets slicing through the skies over Korea. And Warners strikes one more time with its chiller-diller double bill of Village of the Damned & Children of the Damned. The Eyes That Paralyze and Hypnotize have never looked better, even though neither film is a 100% success. Those glowing eyes were never forgotten by anyone who saw them back in 1960.
The list here is of course idiosyncratic, and comes with a “don’t recommend all of these films at home” disclaimer. But it’s honest … why I’m attracted to The Gill Man is a private mystery between me and my own conscience. Please remember that trying to choose only respectable films for one’s favorites is never a good idea. For that matter, making a list like this probably isn’t a good idea, but it’s a last chance to tout my fatheaded opinions, which has to be why anybody gets into this racket. Why am I thinking of Groucho Marx as I write that?
What I’m finding out is that, as the big studios reach further into their vaults, Savant sees the sheer volume of excellent library product giving them a bigger showing this year than ever. May they keep up the good work.
So, bravely we go into the future. 2005 already has a promising bunch of titles and boxed sets both announced and rumored, like an anticipated Sam Peckinpah Western collection, the exact nature of which I can only guess at. It’s being reported that Fox will bring out Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, a cult fan favorite. Criterion may be coming out with A Canterbury Tale, which will compensate for another Powell-Pressburger title from Columbia that Savant wrongly reported was on the way last year. I now make sure such ‘news’ is given proper rumor status.
Have a happy holiday … thanks for all the letters, advice, corrections and the warm reception to the first DVD Savant review book. Let’s all try to survive until next year’s holiday season … Glenn Erickson
December 19, 2004
Check out the other DVD Savant Favored Disc Roundups:
Savant’s 2009 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2008 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2007 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2006 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2005 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2003 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2002 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2001 favored disc roundup
This has been a yearly tradition since 2001. Happy Holidays!