The Most Impressive Discs of 2009
Film restorationist Michael Hyatt at the Academy screening premiere of his film restoration of Day of the Triffids, October 30, 2009.
Happy holidays, as they say — DVD Savant’s ten best, or, make that ten favorite disc list of the year comes back for its ninth go-round. It’s been an eventful year, for this site but also for the DVD biz as a whole. I’ve found that film reviewing on the web is better than ever — in some ways. Over on the home site DVDtalk, the quality level of the writing is a huge improvement on what it was just three years ago. Is it my imagination or are there fewer flaky fanboy review sites about? Perhaps my readers have pointed me to enough good ones that I’ve just put the others out of mind.
Those readers not in a coma know that 2009’s recession appeared to hit the DVD business as well. Just as the percentage of film people unemployed soared, slowing DVD sales took an even steeper dive. This after being a success story and sales bonanza for ten years straight. In other words disc companies could no longer just announce their products and have consumers waiting for street dates. The DVD biz is typical of new-age business … as soon as the Gold Rush was over the big companies stopped releasing deeper library titles and induced more layoffs in their ever-shrinking Home Video departments. If you find bad information on a DVD package or some other kind of screw-up, think before you chew out some Home Video employee — believe me, everybody below executive level is being worked to death.
When product doesn’t move, companies drop their consultants and start re-packaging the big titles for the umpteenth time, scrimping on the frills. Fox, Paramount and Warners’ active release programs for great old pictures either stopped cold or slowed to a trickle. Para froze up, putting out only a trickle of repackaged ‘classic’ DVDs that had seen release just a few years ago. Fox’s Studio Classics and Film Noir branded lines evaporated. Warners’ flow of great boxed sets slowed to a crawl. Sublicensing came back in a big way, a development with occasional fringe benefits. Criterion suddenly found access to class act titles from several studios. They have Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life for next March, which is cause for celebration. Could Elia Kazan’s Wild River be far off?
It isn’t just the recession, of course. The novelty of DVD has been replaced by the newer options of cable and satellite TV and a growing downloading culture. Just as “the kids” abandoned CDs for web downloads of music, breaking the back of the (top-heavy, bloated) music industry, only DVD collectors are interested in amassing thousands of movie discs. College dorm web commandos know how to get most everything off the web, so it’s old “I wanna hold a collectible item in my hand” folk like yours truly who hanker after commercial product. That’s an exaggeration, but not a big one.
Savant finally acquired a true 1080p-capable HDMI setup this year, along with HD cable (which has finally stabilized and looks great, at least in my specific area). The ability to record shows at odd times, watch them and discard them is intoxicating. I’ve caught up on many classics I’ve been avoiding for years from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which is now cablecasting with an HD signal. These days I rarely spin up my old laser player … it’s been months since I wanted to see Matinee again and gave it a whirl. Now when I plop down in front of the TV, exhausted, just searching out a disc to see seems like too much effort (how spoiled can a person get?). But just by clicking my remote I can see what I’ve recorded off the cable … it’s just pushing a few buttons, and a lot of it is in (1080i) HD.
Warners took the next evolutionary step in disc marketing last March by inaugurating their Warner Archive Collection business model, a complete switcheroo from the way movie discs have been sold the last ten years. As studio schemes to squeeze money from consumers go, this one actually begins with the notion (insane! demented!) of giving film fans what they beg for. A new mini-unit within WB burns discs on demand and sells them directly through websites. The plusses to the studio are many, starting with the fact that the Burn On Demand (BOD) model does an end run around major marketing costs. Making only what’s already sold means no backlog of inventory requiring storage, security, accounting, transport. No stacks of 8,000 copies of a title accidentally mis-pressed. Web sales means no retail sales negotiations, wholesalers, middlemen, lawyers, etc. The drawback is that the discs are sold as-is. The WB website offers viewers a sample of the title, but on a small website screen. The quality can vary depending on whether a particular title was remastered last year for German TV, or hasn’t been touched since the 1980s. It’s sometimes hit & miss. I’m hoping that they don’t release a favorite old Irene Dunne musical called Sweet Adeline until the cash can be found to remaster it … the 1992 VHS I still play looks pretty bad, and I want to see something better. Warners Archive discs also have no extras besides an occasional trailer. I’ll talk more about BOD discs in my essay when I “premiere” the new 2010 Savant Wish List, coming before New Years’.
Blu-ray appears to be hanging on and growing, as more consumers escape the clutches of economic uncertainty (knock on wood) and prices for players dip to affordable levels. If they aren’t buying BD discs yet, movie fans are definitely into rentals. Despite what you’ve heard, Blu-Ray HD does look better than cable HD and far better than up-rezzed DVD. It all depends on what you’re after. I never felt the need for a super high-end stereo system, but I was certainly impressed when listening to pal Steve Nielson’s perfectly tuned system. In the same way, when I’m watching an engrossing movie the quality of the image is an enhancement factor as opposed to the whole show. But there’s no denying that when I see a Pixar movie, or Into the Wild or Children of Men, the ultra bright, ultra sharp image is a big
But wait! Doesn’t my movie website have to be all about ME?
Photo credit Darren Gross.
Yours truly had a good year personally as well, with DVD Savant picking up readers and perhaps more credibility. A Horror-Sci Fi-Fantasy award called a Rondo is given out every year, with many little statuettes of their mascot Rondo Hatton distributed to lucky winners. In March of 2009 I received an email from a friend saying I’d won as “Reviewer of the Year”. Now, I make jokes about shameless self-promotion but the fact is that I do almost none, and although I check out the Classic Horror Film Board several times a week to see what’s what and who’s insulting who, I don’t spend much effort thumping my amazing activities (huh?) impressive accomplishments (wha?) and dropping names of celebrity friends and associates (where? who?). That makes it doubly gratifying that a bunch of like-minded fantastic film fans vote me the prize, when DVD Savant isn’t even dedicated specifically to that kind of movie. It was a big boost, I kid you not … the voters even overlooked my occasional opinion-soaked reviews of political documentaries. Bless ’em, says I.
This year I’ve simplified my Best of somewhat, with ten top titles and about twenty-five that certainly qualified. It’s completely subjective. If you began taking the discs away from me one by one these are the titles that I’d hang onto the hardest. Some discs not mentioned are surely better movies (UP) or more impressive restorations but this list is more personal. It’s also slanted toward virgin releases; many fine reissues of previously released titles have been slighted. Several reportedly amazing titles would probably be here had a screener been made available — Savant doesn’t mind promoting corporate products, but isn’t going to pay for the privilege. Gee, how principled can one get?
So on to the list itself — which hopefully won’t have readers rolling their eyes. I like ’em.
Sony takes top honors this year for creativity in Deep Library releases — while everyone else backed off Sony began a long-delayed push of classic films. I picked the tiny 1951 Arch Oboler production Five for the top slot because it’s an unheralded gem and a perfect example of a great picture one expects to remain ignored and forgotten. The first End Of the World drama gathers a few confused and conflicted survivors to attempt to start a new existence. The stark B&W photography and nicely judged imagery impart an impressive feeling of doom, even as the group hangs on to hope. One of Sony’s inexplicably titled “Martini Movies”, with its title purposely misspelled on the packaging.
Translux Films / Microcinema:
Death in the Garden
(La mort en ce jardin)
The fascinating “middle career” of Luis Buñuel — after his blacklisting in New York but before his breakthrough international success in the 1960s — is slowly coming to the fore. Microcinema’s colorful transfer of this odd hybrid jungle adventure / political satire is a moral parable with a stellar cast (Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel) and impressive action scenes filmed on location in Mexico. Again, rarity and quality is the standout quality — I’ve been snooping for Buñuel pictures from this era for forty years, and have never seen this one turn up before, in any format.
Battle in Outer Space, The H-Man & Mothra
Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection
Brilliant color, fantastic imagery and imaginative monsters rule these early Toho special effects spectaculars, all in breathtaking TohoScope and all presented in twin Japanese and American import versions. Earth rockets engage an armada of alien flying saucers in Battle in Outer Space, eighteen years before Star Wars, while a spooky host of liquid-man blob monsters terrorizes Tokyo in The H-Man. And the wondrous Kaiju fairy tale Mothra features tiny twin princesses and their enormous protector god-monster Mosura, fighting back against the greed and exploitation of gangster businessmen.
The Human Condition
Nine hours long, Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece transcends all notions of tragedy in its account of a decent and ethical man (Tatsuya Nakadai) caught in ever-worsening straits at the end of WW2 in China. Actual conversation: Savant: “I can’t believe it. All that terrible suffering for so long, and it has to end like this.” Savant’s patient spouse: “Listen to yourself. You’re watching a movie called The Human Condition and you expect it to have a happy ending?”
Warner Archive Collection:
Gabriel over the White House
This is the most deserving representative title I could find from Warners’ new Burn on Demand scheme. The Collection includes all manner of rarities for fans that know what to look for. Gregory La Cava’s delirious, reactionary movie is a religious tract with the mission to tell Depression America that all would be better if the President dissolved the government and assumed dictatorial powers. Walter Huston is terrific as the playboy political hack revived by a visit from an angel and inspired to solve all of our problems. The President quashes gangsterism with summary executions, puts the unemployed to work and uses threats to force our allies to pay their war debts. Executive producer William Randolph Hearst hoped FDR would be this kind of dictator, and when that didn’t happened, turned against him. An amazing piece of political extremism entirely relevant to our present national situation.
Age of Consent & A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)
The Films of Michael Powell
We’ve been promised A Matter of Life and Death for seven years, and Michael Powell’s glorious Technicolor fantasy (filmed by Jack Cardiff) still possesses magical powers amid its 101 clever cinema tricks. Kim Hunter and David Niven are the Brit and Yankee lovers caught between Earth & Heaven as heavenly judges debate the future relationship between their countries. Age of Consent is an enchanting idyll of artistic endeavor and budding sexuality on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. James Mason is marvelous as the artist who fascinates islander Helen Mirren, a curious local girl who might as well be a mermaid. A great double bill.
Roman Polanski showed everyone how to make a rip-roaring modern psychological horror film with this tale of a neurotic manicurist (Catherine Deneuve) who flips out when left alone in a London apartment. The improved resolution of Blu-ray increases the film’s impact twofold, while the uncompressed original audio — a pioneering nuanced soundscape — takes on a terrifying life of its own. Knife in the Water got Polanski out of Poland but this scary thriller opened the doors to Hollywood and beyond.
Warner Home Video:
WHV thoughtfully saved this John Ford classic for standard DVD, where it can include a really good commentary from critic Peter Bogdanovich and actor Harry Carey Jr.. Bogdanovich plays audio interview excerpts with director Ford while Carey’s recall of the location filming is so good, he even remembers the names of specific horses. John Ford’s personal production is a sweet-hearted and gentle wagon train movie starring Ben Johnson and Joanne Dru, filmed in Monument Valley and apparently set up to allow Ford to stage scenes he loved. With some surprisingly nasty bad guys and a folksy but witty script.
It’s a relief to finally give my old Wellspring disc the heave-ho; Criterion’s new “Z” is an enormous improvement. Costa-Gavras’ exposé thriller of the assassination of a politician in Greece politicized audiences all around the world and won an Oscar for best Foreign Film. Yves Montand, Irene Papas and Jean-Louis Trintignant star. The extras include a commentary and a wealth of interview material.
Warner Home Video:
Lookin’ to Get Out
Hal Ashby’s comedy about crooks and gamblers in Las Vegas was so badly reviewed that I almost didn’t see it when it was new. Star Jon Voight brought Warners’ attention to an early cut finished before a studio re-cut that hacked out fifteen minutes of character setup. The result is a revelation that restores balance and reason to characters that just seemed hysterical in the short version. It’s a case of a fun picture rediscovered; tiny Angelina Jolie now appears in a small bit part.
In previous years I’ve listed practically all the films I reviewed in an ‘honorable mention’ category. To make things more reasonable, the following discs are titles I pulled when looking for a top ten. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order. As you’ll see, most are just as worthy as the choices in the top ten, and I recommend them highly.
An American in Paris
(Warner Home Video) 3.31.09
The Battle of Chile
(Icarus Films) 12.19.09
The Beast of the City
(Warner Archive Collection) 5.30.09
Au bonheur des dames
(Facets Video / Arte) 5.30.09
The Sniper, The Big Heat, Five Against the House, The Lineup & Murder by Contract
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics 1 (Sony) 10.31.09
(Milestone / Oscilloscope 11.14.09
(Warner Archive Collection) 10.20.09
Far from the Madding Crowd
(Warner Home Video) 1.31.09
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Il Generale Della Rovere
(Warner Archive Collection) 10.10.09
Japanese Girls at the Harbor, Mr. Thank You, The Masseurs and a Woman & Ornamental Hairpin
Travels With Hiroshi (Criterion) 4.04.09
Kuhle Wampe or, Who Owns the World?
(DEFA / Omnimago) 6.09.09
The Last Days of Disco (Criterion) 10.10.09
Last Year at Marienbad
An Angel for Satan & The Long Hair of Death
Un angelo per Satana; I lunghi capelli della morte (Midnight Choir / Ryko) 2.24.09
I Am Waiting, Rusty Knife, Take Aim at the Police Van, Cruel Gun Story & A Colt Is My Passport
Nikkatsu Noir: Eclipse Series 17 8.29.09
North by Northwest
(Warner Home Video) 10.31.09
Our Man in Havana
(Sony Martini Movies) 01.24.09
(Dark Sky) 4.28.09
(Facets Video) 9.12.09
(Warner Archive Collection) 10.06.09
La sorella di Satana (Dark Sky) 4.14.09
(Warner Home Video) 6.02.09
So that’s the way it breaks down for this year. It’s not perversity that causes me to choose a #1 disc that nobody else will, honest. I’m also aware that at this writing there are still fourteen days left in December, so if a new disc arrives that screams out for attention, I’ll act accordingly. Don’t forget to look for the updated 2010 Savant Wish List and its accompanying article, where I’ll be discussing the effect of the new “Burn On Demand” discs on the Home Video landscape.
Glenn Erickson, December 16, 2009
The henchman “Slim” tracks his foe in a recovered scene from the restored, full-length Metropolis, which is due for release early next year!
Check out previous DVD Savant Favored Disc Roundups:
Savant’s 2007 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!