The Most Impressive DVDs of 2007
2007 was an interesting year for DVDs. Several articles were published on the ‘leveling off’ of the DVD market, and perhaps the habit of amassing hundreds of discs had, for the average American, cooled off a bit. While DVD collectors — presumably DVD Savant’s core audience — continued on their merry plan to acquire everything they like, pundits pointed to the stats and predicted that the wealth of alternate electronic entertainment would continue to siphon away viewer interest. Not only that, the first year of Hi Def drew to an inconclusive finish, with the better part of the public either unconvinced that they need 1080 lines of video perfection, or unwilling to gamble on a VHS/Beta standoff between rival formats HD DVD and Blu-Ray. A resentment factor needs to be added in too: Heavy DVD buyers remember the fall of Laserdiscs, and can see the same thing happening all over again.
I love the look and feel of HD, but despite having the review column to feed my hobby, I don’t feel comfortable spending on new hardware in the middle of a format war. Even if money were not object, I’m still not certain I’d jump on this bandwagon. The industry treats the issue as a no-prisoners battleground. I wouldn’t be surprised if some kind of Pay Per View + downloading system came along and stole the entire market!
Of course, the question all of America is asking itself is, how does Savant sort out a list of ‘Most Impressive’ DVDs? With blind subjective pigheadedness, that’s how. Anybody knows that the most entertaining DVD available this year is probably Brad Bird’s Ratatouille. Umpteen million words have been written on the story of the rodent chef and it’s one of the biggest-selling discs, so the world hardly needs me to say more about it. Other choices were accidental or abitrary. I put off getting Children of Men on the dubious notion that I’d pick it up someday on HD, and somebody else got the available screener. I was also offered one of those secret agent case packages of Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes. But I was swamped with work at the time and couldn’t see myself watching enough of the episodes to come out with a decent review (which is how I feel about most TV series on disc).
I made a list of all the discs I reviewed last year and started chopping. A top title should be something that’s worthwhile, that I’d be ready to see again right away. Breathless is a superb disc, but that’s a once-every-five years title. Being unusual helps. An important restoration is a good factor, as is showing the nerve to put energy into a worthy title that hasn’t a chance of being a big seller. Savant is criminally partial to Science Fiction and Film Noir, but a good film in any genre is good enough for me. Extras are nice and occasionally tip the scales, but in general it’s just the movie. I can’t get my family to look at DVD extras, not even ones I worked on. Especially those. When kids grow up, they get too smart for my sneaky tricks.
That’s enough of a preamble. With my disclaimers, excuses and steroid-use denials out of the way, here then are
Taking the top slot this year is Lionsgate‘s The Silent Partner. I chose this modest thriller not only because it’s terrific, but to represent the fact that no single release of 2007 jumped out and said ‘pick me.’ Daryl Duke’s 1978 picture was a sleeper when new and is still not well known, which this year is as good a reason as any to put it up front. Curtis Hanson’s terrific script pits timid bank clerk Elliott Gould against merciless killer Christopher Plummer, leading to a hair-raising battle of wits. The movie is both charming and scary, a great combination for a crime caper. Now if Lionsgate replaced that faux-Reservoir Dogs graphic with a sexy image of Susannah York or Céline Lomez, they might sell a few copies.
Criterion‘s The 3 Penny Opera. Ever since hearing a scratchy LP of Kurt Weill music, and having a German teacher recommend a Lotte Lenya concert, I’ve been trying to see a watchable version of this early G.W. Pabst musical. Criterion’s old laserdisc was an eyesore, giving the impression that the Deutsche classics we read about in Kracauer were all lost forever. This rejuvenated Die 3groschenoper is like eyewash, and the audio is great too. Pabst simplified and restructured Brecht and Weill’s tale but the film is still dazzling … to see & hear Lenya and Carola Neher sing is a revelation. Criterion’s extras detail the complex story behind both the play and the film.
MGM‘s Witchfinder General. This one’s personal, as I witnessed ten years’ worth of efforts by restorers to get the MGM lawyers and execs to understand why it was important to undo the damage done to this movie by Orion in the 1980s. The restoration of the authentic music track was motivated by early reportage in Video Watchdog. MGM goes one step further by reconstructing the authentic pre-censorship U.K. original, essentially repositioning Michael Reeves’ effort as one of the top horror films of its time. Vincent Price plays his witch-baiting villain Matthew Hopkins completely straight, uncovering his mock-piety as political opportunism and guaranteeing the film lasting relevance. It’s The Crucible stripped of poetry and soaked in blood. Lacking great extras but the finest horror release of the year.
Criterion and their licensing partner Paramount give us Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder’s blackest vision of American madness, an anti-Capracorn noir masterpiece. Wilder was vilified by both the industry and the national press for this ultra-cynical tale of unscrupulous reporters and public officials keeping a man buried alive to generate votes and revenue, in a literal Media Circus. For once a film is perfectly pitched to Kirk Douglas’ acting style, while timid Porter Hall represents the weakened, shrinking institution of honest journalism. Americans don’t like being compared to cannibals, eating up media-fed sensation and scandal. With Jan Sterling as noir’s most worthless blonde. Criterion’s unacknowledged contribution is to restore the film’s proper title … it’s been creeping around for half a century behind the moniker “The Big Carnival”.
Kino‘s Animated Soviet Propaganda: From the October Revolution to Perestroika allows us to see what Soviet Agitprop was really about, straight from the Party Line. We should have been allowed to see these official animated productions, because they justify some of Washington’s hard-line attitudes. The loathing expressed for all things American is all the more sinister when one considers that the Soviet population had little or no opportunity to see other points of view. Some of the pacifist films are undeniably powerful, but even they are soaked in anti-American bile. A wandering Russian bird is bullied into communal submission for bringing back ‘disgusting’ jazz from the west; “Cold-hearted Boeings” devastate Vietnam, killing children while hypocritical Yankee generals pray in church. Done in a variety of fascinating animation styles.
Milestone and New Yorker‘s Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection gathers two features and a score of shorts by the celebrated but under-screened Charles Burnett, a UCLA alumnus who took the African American experience beyond Blaxploitation and liberal special pleading. Great leading actors and natural performances by non-pros portray the plight of a good man numbed by a stultifying job and a lack of life options. The co-feature My Brother’s Wedding presents a more comedic take on South Central Los Angeles. All the films are fully restored and preserved; this joins I Am Cuba as another feather in Milestone’s cinematic cap.
The limit of ten titles leads us to a no-apologies Savant favorite, the Tyrone Power vehicle Captain from Castile. The critical verdict on this expensive Darryl Zanuck production was not kind, and it’s perhaps the fact that vast costume epics have become so dull that this lavish telling of Cortez’ conquest of Mexico seems exciting by default. But the film’s spirit is such that we cheer the daring conquistadores as they risk all in a mad grab for power and riches. The two best things in the film are Cesar Romero’s all-conquering grin and Alfred Newman’s superb main march theme, which express the Spanish call to plunder as a mad rush to glory. Let’s join up! Starring Jean Peters (her first film), Lee J. Cobb and an actual smoking volcano that backgrounds several awesome views of armies on the march. Fox.
Fox strikes again with That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’ Extended Cut. Everything that seemed lightweight about Hanks’ directing debut is cured with the reinstatement of nineteen minutes of footage trimmed before its 1996 theatrical release. The obvious addition is several more scenes with Charlize Theron, but the characters are deeper and funnier. The story arc of the ‘One Hit Wonders’ is improved as well; Hanks’ script now plays out perfectly. He should really keep writing and directing. In retrospect it can only be the ‘niceness’ of the show that kept its great cast from stardom. Tom Everett Scott and Steve Zahn are wonderful but the magic wand only tapped Liv Tyler. The best thing about That Thing You Do! is its sense of fun and innocence, both of which are in short supply these days.
Standing in for 101 worthy Warners releases is Peter Ustinov’s powerful 1962 version of Billy Budd, finally in a proper CinemaScope presentation. Ustinov directs a dream cast –Robert Ryan, Melvyn Douglas, John Neville, David McCallum, Ronald Lewis, Niall MacGuinness, newcomer Terence Stamp and himself in one of the best films ever about men, authority and brute injustice. High school examinations of Herman Melville’s novel usually settle for a facile Christ parable but Ustinov makes sure the movie goes further: this is as insightful a story about men of action as The Wild Bunch. Those wondering why the movie didn’t fare well on American screens need look no further than the pitiful original poster — which could serve as a label for a wine bottle.
Savant’s been whining about the delay of this last disc set for over two years. Because of my participation in all of the extras I don’t feel comfortable putting MGM‘s The Sergio Leone Anthology up at number one, even though it probably belongs there. Four separate double-disc special editions are included of Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad and The Ugly and Duck You Sucker.. The GBU disc is a repackaging of a special ed that came out three years ago but the others are all new. The Dollars discs replace inadequate 1998 releases, and all three new discs have original mono mixes as an audio option. Savant’s favorite Duck You Sucker has floundered in edited versions under wrong titles for so long that it’s a matter of personal pride to see it finally given a proper release at its full (for now) length. We can all ponder Leone’s most mysterious flashback sequence, as Duck You Sucker now ends with John Mallory’s full four-minute slow motion Irish reverie: Sean Sean Sean.
Of course, the first thing that’s wrong with the list above is that this year’s most consistent provider of quality library titles — older films that aficionados like Savant dote on — is grossly under-represented. Warner Home Video has been releasing killer discs of all kinds of archive goodies like there’s no tomorrow, with elaborate boxed sets coming out at least every two weeks. And that’s not to mention making many of the hotter titles available on HD and Blu-Ray. They introduced the first Film Noir branded line and solved the studio problem with marginal oddities with their clever Cult Camp sets. That’s why the second list below is so important. Warners doesn’t dominate, but it comes close.
Here, in alphabetical order, are discs or disc sets from 2007 that Savant heartily recommends:
Air Force Warners
Angel Face Warners
Apocalypto Buena Vista
Army of Shadows Criterion
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman Warners
Away from Her Lionsgate
Battleship Potemkin Kino
Berlin Alexanderplatz Criterion
Bicycle Thieves Criterion
A Big Hand for the Little Lady Warners
Black Book Sony
The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down First Look Pictures
Bridge to Terabithia Disney DVD
Brute Force Criterion
Luis Buñuel: The Young One + Gran Casino Lionsgate
The Cave of Silken Web Image / Shaw Bros.
Chinatown Special Collector’s Edition Paramount
The Colossus of Rhodes Warners
Crime Wave + Decoy Warners
The Day of the Triffids 1981 BBC-Warners
Days of Heaven Criterion
Erik the Conqueror Anchor Bay
Fixed Bayonets Fox
Gentleman Jim Warners
The Graduate MGM
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid Universal
Green for Danger Criterion
His Majesty O’Keefe Warners
The Holy Mountain Abkco/Anchor Bay
Horrors of Malformed Men Synapse
The Host Magnolia Entertainment
Hot Fuzz Universal
How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman New Yorker
I Am Cuba The Ultimate Edition Milestone / New Yorker
If …. Criterion
Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War First Run Features
The Intruder Buena Vista 10/02/07
It’s A Wonderful Life Paramount
Jane Eyre Fox
La jetée; + Sans soleil Criterion
The Lady Vanishes Criterion
Land of the Pharaohs Warners
Lisbon Story Lionsgate
The Lives of Others Sony
The Lookout Miramax
Malpertuis Barrel Entertainment
The Screwfly Solution Masters of Horror: Joe Dante: Anchor Bay / Starz
The Method 8/11/07
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Warners
Miracle in the Rain Warners
My Sister Maria Arte / Rainbow
Mystery Street + Act of Violence Warners
The Naked City Criterion
No End In Sight Magnolia
Pan’s Labyrinth New Line
Perversion Story Severin
Le petit lieutenant Koch Lorber
Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea New Video / Docurama
Play Dirty Warner
Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938 MGM
Robinson Crusoe on Mars Criterion
Sacco and Vanzetti First Run Features
Shinobi no mono AnimEigo
Sins of the Fleshapoids Other Cinema
The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales Facets / Cinemateca
The Skin Game Lionsgate
Spider Baby Dark Sky
Straight Time Warners
The Stranger MGM
A Summer Place Warners
Ten Canoes Palm Pictures
Tension + Where Danger Lives Warners
They Live by Night + Side Street Warners
Thieves Like Us MGM
True Confessions MGM
Twilight Zone: The Movie Warners
Two-Lane Blacktop Criterion
Under the Volcano Criterion
Up The Down Staircase Warners
The Way I Spent the End of The World Film Movement
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs Criterion
Who Can Kill a Child? Dark Sky
The Yakuza Warners
In going through the lists I also found three discs from other regions, and a review for a dream title that’s not yet on disc anywhere:
Caltiki – il mostro immortale NoShame (Italy)
The Deadly Companions Futurefilm (Finland)
Things to Come Network & Granada (U.K.)
The End of the World (La fin du monde)
2007 was an interesting year for DVD Savant. Looking at the documentation, the site uploaded 205 separate reviews since this week last December. Since many of those are multiple-title reviews, it’s difficult to tally exactly how many discs I’ve covered. 2008 may bring some changes, which I’ll try to cover in a long-overdue update to my yearly re-evaluations; the last one I did officially was in December of 2001! I try not to go into too much detail in Savant’s frontpage column, but this may be the year that merits a ‘where am I and how did I get here?’ update. I’m just grateful that I have so many friends out there; that’s the true bounty of this page.
Cheers to all and thank you once again for all the notes, suggestions and corrections, especially from those who’ve from time to time helped me straighten out my thinking.
Glenn Erickson, December 15, 2007
Check out the other DVD Savant Favored Disc Roundups:
Savant’s 2008 favored disc roundup
Savant’s 2006 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!