The Most Impressive DVDs of 2006
Happy holidays once again! 2005 was the year that the DVD market supposedly hit a profitability ceiling. That really means that the corporate profit meter is momentarily stuck at Fabulous and refuses to rise to the Obscenely Fabulous mark. Perhaps the public at large has lost the thrill of buying everything they see (and the number of releases is so high!) but I have to think also that Hollywood is making fewer new movies that anybody gives a damn about. Most of the big action thrillers of the past few years have already collapsed into memory mush. Quick! Name the last five years’ Best-Picture Oscar winners! How many have you watched on DVD lately? Going to a sequel or remake these days is like checking into McDonalds for more of the same. That gives all the marbles to three or four gigantic hits per year, while the rest starve.
The big story this year has been the launch of two competing HD systems. The only people I know who have gotten into HD are wealthy & curious or are reviewers with machines provided by their employers. Savant hasn’t the discretionary funds to want to make the plunge, although I might buy an HD disc or two without having a player,
as I once did back in 1987 with a laserdisc of The Wild Bunch. I certainly appreciate the quality difference. I’ve seen HD on a good home video projector at a friend’s house, and it’s basically watching a movie in a theater. I attended ‘premiere’ screenings of the new Forbidden Planet and Superman II discs that filled even the screen at the Egyptian with a good-quality image. But I’m still in this racket for the content of the films; DVD quality will suffice for home use until there’s only one system. Savant was never an early adopter, and although I sidestepped the VHS versus Beta skirmish, I’ve still got 400 ‘collectable’ laserdiscs. For rich folks or those with PlayStation HD capability, I say go for it!
This year’s Savant ‘best of’ list is once again simply my personal taste, the discs that meant the most to me or that come to mind when I want to unwind and review something I really liked. This time I’ve enlarged the ‘also ran’ list to encompass every disc I saw last year that I’d recommend as a blind check-it-out: But let the buyer beware! If you already hate Sci-Fi, I’m not claiming that my picks in that genre will appeal!
With the disclaimers, excuses and 5th-Amendment pleas out of the way, here then are
The top slot goes this year to Criterion‘s Pandora’s Box. It’s a silent movie, but Louise Brooks as Lulu is timeless: She’s the girl that turned your head in college, the one in your dreams or the one just around the corner. G. W. Pabst transformed a cautionary tale about a man-killing vamp into a universal story of attraction and seduction, innocence and culpability. Every man Lulu meets will compromise his life to possess her, and yet none of them really do. The final sequence in London is perhaps the most complete movie statement about sex, life and death that there is. Presented at an appropriate frame rate, Criterion’s transfer restores many small connective pieces, including some listed as missing in the old Simon & Schuster published film script. Disc producer Issa Clubb gives the show four musical choices and adds two documentaries that comprise the best prime-source research on Ms. Brooks and her wild life.
Savant doesn’t normally review Region 2 discs but this Czechoslovakian import was too personally important to ignore. Filmexport’s Ikarie XB 1 is a superb futuristic space odyssey. The space pioneers attend to their jobs, celebrate birthdays, hold dances, and look forward to a completely unknown future. But the threat of the past returns when they investigate a 200 year-old piece of space junk that still has live nuclear bombs on board. The technically advanced, unusually mature film culminates in an optimistic, inspiring sense of wonder. A.I.P. released it here in a cut and dubbed version as Voyage to the End of the Universe.
Sam Peckinpah’s The Legendary Westerns Collection started 2006 off with a bang — and a spurt or two of blood — giving us beautiful new transfers of Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The transfer of The Wild Bunch is greatly improved over the 9 year-old flipper disc and the problematic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is presented in two versions, a 1988 so-called director’s cut and a 2005 restoration cut. All the discs feature interesting extras from Nick Redman and a clutch of noted Peckinpah authors. From Warner DVD.
We’ve been waiting for this one for a long time. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s personal wartime drama A Canterbury Tale is a valentine to a nation of free-thinking patriots. The odd story about three modern ‘pilgrims’ who find the answer to their wishes in Canterbury shows England to be a stack of contradictions, yet gives more reasons why the country needs to be saved than a dozen rah-rah battle epics. With unforgettable images like Sheila Sim walking through the bombed town in her “Land Girl” outfit, and a medieval falconer’s bird transforming into a Spitfire fighter plane across a 2001– like time-jumping match-cut. Criterion‘s disc producer is Karen Stetler.
Project X and New Yorker have been producing handsome discs of the collected works of Peter Watkins, a remarkable filmmaker and all-round rebel. The War Game & Culloden are the two BBC shows that made Watkins’ reputation as the most creative English TV producer/director of the decade. Watkins’ style is to film events as if they were being covered by news cameras, and Culloden picks a particularly ugly battle between Scottish Highlanders and British troops in 1746. The even more famous The War Game tells the truth about Britain’s dishonest civil defense establishment by dramatizing what would likely happen in the event of a nuclear strike in Kent. The BBC refused to show the film and lied that they hadn’t been coerced into suppressing it by the government. The War Game finally saw exhibition as a theatrical release … and Peter Watkins was no longer welcome at the BBC. A terrific show.
Five years ago Toho wasn’t cooperating with any American distributor except Sony, and their backlog of classic Kaiju films simply wasn’t available in this country. The original Japanese version of the very first Godzilla film made its American theatrical premiere two years ago with the stern declaration that it would not be made available to home video. This Classic Media / Sony Music set graces us with a 2-disc presentation of Gojira, the Japanese-language original and Godzilla, the Terry Morse English-language re-edit that cleverly shoehorns Raymond Burr into the proceedings. The quality is high, allowing American fans to appreciate the original’s sober focus on the horror of the atomic bomb. Excellent commentaries by Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle examine the ‘Big G’ phenomenon from all angles.
For plain funny entertainment, the best disc in this year’s stack is Universal‘s Preston Sturges The Filmmaker Collection, with Christmas in July, The Great McGinty, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Moment and Hail the Conquering Hero. That’s Sturges’ entire Paramount output save for The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which came out last year. There was never a string of comedies to compare with this before or after. Each exhibits Sturges’ knack for devastating wit and his weakness for freewheeling slapstick: “It’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” The Ale & Quail Club. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Obscure? Old-fashioned? Irrelevant? Richard Attenborough’s anti-war musical Oh! What a Lovely War would be welcome any time, but seems particularly apt this Christmas season. The ‘antiquated’ quagmire of World War One is still highly topical. In this weird fantasy version of the war, the trenches are a realistic horror while the home front is represented as a fun-fair amusement pier. Troops just disappear as they set off to the front, and unbelievably callous generals spend thousands of lives a day on insane but face-saving battle strategies. The highly imaginative musical numbers are built around original 1917-era songs with wickedly mordant lyrics. With practically every British actor alive and breathing in 1969. From Paramount.
This one will really cause some head-scratching, but Dark Sky‘s The Creation of the Humanoids, a micro-budgeted 1962 obscurity, shines with true literary Sci-Fi brilliance; it may be maladroit filmmaking but for ideas it’s a marvel. In a Philip K. Dick-like future, robots are supplanting people. The only opposition comes from a reactionary cult of Nazi-like bullies and terrorists that is losing out to changing times: It’s becoming difficult to distinguish the clunky ‘Clickers’ from organic human beings. Creation is mostly talk, talk and more talk but Jay Simm’s script predates 101 Sci-Fi ‘revelations’ of the 70s and 80s. The film makes an attractive case for ‘artificial immortality’ and even tackles the social issue of robot-human cohabitation. Double billed with the disposable War Between the Planets, and heartily recommended.
Tipping this year’s top ten balance further in the direction of Science Fiction, Universal’s The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection breaks out a bushel of much-awaited 50s titles: Tarantula, The Mole People, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Monolith Monsters and Monster on the Campus. A couple are borderline camp turkeys, but Tarantula is a bona fide classic and The Incredible Shrinking Man one of the most liberating pictures of its decade. Among some disputable full-frame transfers, Shrinking Man is presented for the first time in its widescreen glory and looks better than ever. And it even has an intriguing teaser trailer narrated by Orson Welles.
Savant has once again checked the tally; he’s chalked up 414 reviews since this week last December — it’s been a banner year for ‘library’ titles. The biggest contributor by far has been Warner Bros.; they’ve averaged several five fat boxed sets a month — with five and more titles in each. Universal has also picked up the pace with their multi-title releases. They’ve lately stopped trying to pack four features on single discs (that netted unwanted Q.C. grief) and are doing fine. Sony and MGM practically fell off the radar for library fare, what with the MGM distribution arrangement ‘migrating’ over to Fox. The paralysis of slow transitions means that very little of interest came out of MGM this year. We don’t know yet what their eventual product flow will be like.
Fox‘s record with its own library continues to be good, what with a welcome helping of spy films. The Kremlin Letter got pushed back over transfer quality issues and Boomerang! may have been axed for legal problems, which is a shame … and I know that some lucky reviewers got a few early copies!
But the year was mostly one pleasant surprise after another. Here, in alphabetical order, are discs or disc sets from 2006 that Savant heartily recommends:
American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt Paramount/PBS Home Video 01.14.06
Astaire and Rogers Collection Volume 2: Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Carefree, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle Warners 10/31/06
Atragon Kaitei gunkan Media Blasters 01/27/06
La bête humaine Criterion 2/04/06
Billy Wilder Speaks Kino 9.26.06
Body Heat Warners 11.07.06
The Brainiac El barón del terror CasaNegra 9.16.06
Brazil Criterion 9.12.06
The Busby Berkeley Collection: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, Golddiggers of 1935 Warners 3.18.06
Cabin in the Sky Warners; 01/17/06
The Cecil B. DeMille Collection: Sign of the Cross, Four Frightened People, Cleopatra, The Crusades, Union Pacific Universal 5.23.06
Cemetery Man Dellamorte Dellamore Anchor Bay – Fox 5.23.06
The Children are Watching Us I bambini ci guardano Criterion 3/21/06
City for Conquest Warners 7.04.06
The Clay Bird Matir moina Milestone – New Yorker 11/18/06
The Conformist La conformista Paramount 12.05.06
Bette Davis Collection 2: Jezebel, Marked Woman, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Old Acquaintance and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Warners 5.27.06
Decision Before Dawn Fox 5.23.06
Marlene Dietrich The Glamour Collection: Morocco, Blonde Venus, The Flame of New Orleans, The Devil is a Woman & Golden Earrings Universal 4.04.06
Double Indemnity Universal 8.15.06
Dune Extended Edition (1984) Universal 2/11/06
Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell & Kenyon Milestone – New Yorker 7/22/06
Elevator to the Gallows Ascenseur pour l’echafaud Criterion 5.19.06
Equinox Criterion 6/27/06
Fallen Angel   Fox 3.11.06
The Fallen Idol Criterion 11.07.06
Film Noir 3: Lady in the Lake, His Kind of Woman, Border Incident, The Racket & On Dangerous Ground Warners 7/14/06
Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 1: Waterloo Bridge, Red-Headed Woman & Baby Face Warners 12.12.06
Forbidden Planet Ultimate Collector’s Edition Warners 11.14.06
John Ford Collection: The Lost Patrol, The Informer, Mary of Scotland, Sergeant Rutledge, Cheyenne Autumn Warners 5/30/06
The Fountainhead Warners 11.14.06
Fourteen Hours Fox 8.15.06
Grand Prix Warners 7.08.06
Carole Lombard The Glamour Collection: Man of the World, Hands Across the Table, We’re Not Dressing, Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across, True Confession Universal 4.08.06
Heart Like a Wheel Anchor Bay – Fox 8.12.06
A History of Violence New Line 3/07/06
Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season Two Universal 10.28.06
Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection: Doctor X, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Mad Love, Mark of the Vampire, The Devil-Doll, The Return of Doctor X Warners 10.10.06
Humphrey Bogart the Signature Collection: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1931), Satan Met a Lady, All Through the Night, Across the Pacific, Action in the North Atlantic, Passage to Marseille Warners 10.16.06
Island in the Sun Fox 01/07/06
It’s Always Fair Weather Warners 4.15.06
Japan’s Longest Day Nihon no ichiban nagai hi AnimEigo 9.16.06
Jigoku Criterion 9.19.06
Johnny Belinda Warners 2/08.06
Icons of Horror – Boris Karloff: The Black Room, The Man They Could Not Hang, Before I Hang ,The Boogie Man Will Get You Sony 10/31/06
King Kong (2005) Universal 4.01.06
Kings Row Warners 8.22.06
The Last Days of Mussolini NoShame 12/23/06
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) Legend 10.02.06
The Long Good Friday Anchor Bay 4.01.06
The Loved One Warners 8.04.06
Lovers of the Arctic Circle Los amantes del Círculo Polar Home Vision – Image 5/13/06
Loving Couples Älskande par Project X – New Yorker 6.10.06
Madmen of Mandoras + The Devil’s Hand & They Saved Hitler’s Brain BCI Eclipse 10.03.06
Magdalena’s Brain Heretic 10.06.06
Masters of Horror: Joe Dante: Homecoming Anchor Bay 7/01/06
Metropolitan Criterion 3/07/06
Mr. Arkadin Criterion 4/11/06
The Most Beautiful Wife La moglie più bella NoShame 11/28/06
Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) Warners 11/18/06
Nate and Hayes Paramount 7/11/06
The Paul Newman Collection: Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Left Handed Gun, The Young Philadelphians, Harper, Pocket Money, The MacKintosh Man, The Drowning Pool Warners 11.21.06
The Night of the Iguana Warners 4.29.06
The Nun’s Story Warners 5.16.06
The Passenger Professione: Reporter Sony 4.18.06
The Perfect (Ferpect) Crime Crimen Ferpecto  Netflix Exclusive 3.14.06
Playtime 2006 reissue Criterion 10.02.06
The President’s Last Bang Geuddae geusaramdeul Kino 3.18.06
Putney Swope Home Vision – Image 08.29.065
Quick Change Warners 2.14.06
The Quiller Memorandum Fox 11.25.06
Rediscover Jacques Feyder: Queen of Atlantis, Crainquebille, Faces of Children Image – Blackhawk 12/18/06
Rice People Neak sre Facets Video 6.20.06
Eric Rohmer Six Moral Tales: The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Suzanne’s Career, My Night at Maud’s, La Collectionneuse, Claire’s Knee, Love in the Afternoon Criterion 8/17/06
Roma cittá libera NoShame 9.09.06
Ryan’s Daughter Warners 2/08.06
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Fox 6.06.06
Schultze Gets the Blues Paramount 10.24.06
The Seven-Ups Fox 5.19.06
Sólo con tu pareja Criterion 10.26.06
James Stewart The Signature Collection: The Stratton Story, The Naked Spur, The Spirit of St. Louis, The FBI Story, Firecreek, The Cheyenne Social Club Warners 8/08/06
Stormy Weather Fox 01/17/06
Superman II The Richard Donner Cut Warners 12.09.06
Sweet Bird of Youth Warners 4/22/06
A Tale of Two Cities Warners 10.28.06
The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weissmuller Vol 2: Tarzan Triumphs, Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, Tarzan and the Amazons, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, Tarzan and the Huntress, Tarzan and the Mermaids Warners 7.1.04
This Island Earth Universal 8.26,06
Track of the Cat Paramount 6.06.06
Unwed Mother + Too Soon to Love VCI – Kit Parker 5/06/06
V for Vendetta Warners 7/22/06
The Virgin Spring Jungfraukällan Criterion 01/30/06
John Wayne John Ford Collection: Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles Warners 6.03.06
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? Kdo chce zabít Jessii? Facets 10.28.06
Winter Soldier Millarium Zero – New Yorker 4.15.06
Yi Yi Criterion 8.05.06
Young Mr. Lincoln Criterion 02.25.06
I’m sure many readers will consider this top ten list rather a cheat, what with the second list of over a hundred titles, many of which could easily be up top. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was up top until I realized I’d skipped the Preston Sturges Collection. If a title like The Creation of the Humanoids gets the nod, it’s only because a class presentation like Eric Rohmer Six Moral Tales didn’t seem as immediate to this reviewer. It’s all just subjectivity, like radiosubjective fallout.
In general, I feel that the Savant column still works. I get plenty of emails from happy readers that have tried a wild Savant suggestion and found something new. That makes me either a helpful guide or a corrupter of morals, depending on what one finds when they actually take one of my suggestions. I don’t get much hate mail (a blessing), indicating that I might be doing this job well. It’s either that, or hateful people find me boring!
On a semi-personal note, I think we have a good chance in 2007 of seeing the three Sergio Leone double-disc special editions Savant helped finish over two years ago: Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and Duck You Sucker. They were released in Region 2 but not here. If they do show
up, I selfishly hope that our extras remain intact. Sometimes it all seems too much to hope for!
Glenn Erickson, December 15, 2006
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 2005 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2004 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!