Savant Picks the Most Impressive Discs of 2010
Greetings! For the past several years I’ve started out this ‘Best of’ article with a recap of “DVD Savant’s” nefarious activities. I’ve mostly been right where I am now, writing as many as seven reviews a week. That’s even counting the disaster this summer, when my host overlords at DVDtalk decided to rearrange their web security policy and left me locked out of my own site for a few weeks. Nothing is quite so humiliating as discovering one’s true importance in “the system”. Another week of frustration and I’d have taken up a more rewarding profession, like bagging groceries at the local supermarket. Heck, what’s wrong with that? I’d be out among people being friendly!
But there was plenty of FUN in the way things turned out. Anno 2010 was TYOGI: The Year of Great Invitations.
The first big boost was blogging for the TCM Classic Film Festival for four days in late April, as a sort of honorary Turner Classic Movies online ‘Morlock’. Besides enjoying the fine films I got to soak up the atmosphere as a legit attendee, and get in a bit of quality ‘associating’ with admired writers & filmmakers Jeff Stafford, Bret Wood and Richard Harland Smith. It was also a nostalgic experience — the last time I “worked” a film festival was in 1972 and ’73 at the same venue, Grauman’s Chinese, with FILMEX.
A second amazing invitation came almost the next week. College friend, now animator and director Randall William Cook invited me to document a special event in stills and video. Ray Harryhausen’s traveling exhibit of animation puppets and memorabilia was to be displayed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and I was allowed to spend two days watching Randy and the curators at work, up close and personal with the latex rubber and manicured fur. Randy was the only one ‘authorized’ to actually touch the one-of-a-kind puppets, and every box he unpacked revealed a new masterpiece.
Then it was off to Topeka, Kansas, to give a presentation on the miniatures of 1941 at a Godzilla Festival. It was a delightful experience — an auditorium full of kids and young adults really into the titanic Japanese movie star. Writers Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski handled most of the weekend’s presentations, so the festival was also a learning experience seeing how professionals work. I also was finally able to meet in person a researcher and associate I’d known for ten years on the web only — Bill Shaffer.
So, if you weren’t expecting an end-of-year report on Savant’s showoff doings, a thousand pardons. I’ll now proceed to the subject you came to read about, this year’s trends in video and Savant’s favorite disc lists.
Savant’s picks for 2010
It’s a big Year Ten for DVD Savant’s best, or, make that favorite discs of the year. By their very nature, lists are fun but stupid, because most of them imply that what some list-maker likes is what you ought to like as well. Having given up trying to predict popular taste years ago — my Oscar picks have always been miserable losers — I’ve retreated to posing as a friendly advocate. The reaction “What’s that title doing there?” might actually induce someone to check out something that they otherwise wouldn’t. If that happens, I’m a big roaring success. If not, no refunds!
This year I felt compelled to up the number of Savant Favorites to fifteen — there were too many worthy titles. In my defense, note that I voluntarily abandoned favorites like Crack in the World, in favor of worthy titles that I’ve not seen promoted or even recognized elsewhere. That’s how it’s supposed to be, I think. The others are important releases that simply couldn’t be ignored. And as I try to explain, the fifteenth title is included almost by protest. It’s a good transfer of a great picture, but the company (Universal) showed its overall contempt for disc fans with their zero-extras release. Almost everyone else still in the disc game shows some sensitivity to the fan base that feeds them. The only thing that will atone for the crime against #15 will be a full-on Blu-ray special edition. I hereby promise to buy two of them.
A few big titles are not represented on my list simply because screeners couldn’t be acquired. Savant is grateful for the generosity of his suppliers, both studios and independents. Just the same, what I said last year still goes — Savant doesn’t mind promoting corporate products, but isn’t going to pay for the privilege!
So on to the list itself — a tall stack of terrific titles.
The Night of the Hunter
We’ve been waiting for this one for quite a while. Charles Laughton’s lone directorial effort has been out on DVD from MGM for years, yet Criterion’s licensed special edition is a revelation bar none. The new HD transfer finally uses its correct aspect ratio, and the killer extra is UCLA Archivist Robert Gitt’s 2.5-hour compilation of daily outtakes from the shoot. Even experienced film directors will want to see Laughton’s methods with his actors. We hear his ever-patient off camera voice guiding the nervous Shelley Winters and two focused child actors through some very difficult scenes. Gitt has long been showing a version of this outtake compilation on the festival circuit; that it’s been made available (in HD!) is the highlight of the year. With Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish.
Warner Archive Collection:
A jaw-dropping, revelatory movie about race relations that practically nobody has ever heard of. A light-skinned black doctor is barred from work in segregated America, so he and his equally light wife decide to accept a desirable practice in a New England community and pass for white. All goes well until the children reach High School age and the war comes. The U.S. Navy rejects the doctor — they simply don’t give commissions to negroes. A true story, exceedingly well written & directed and ten times more challenging than any Sidney Poitier movie. With Mel Ferrer, Beatrice Pearson, Susan Douglas Rubes, Richard Hylton and Carleton Carpenter. It’s the most important “discovery” yet from the Warner Archive Collection.
The Complete Metropolis
Heaven smiles on Buenos Aires’ film restoration miracle of the century! The recovered & rediscovered Argentine copy of an almost intact Metropolis enables the German archivists to reconstruct Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece in its full glory. The futuristic fairy tale epic is now a whole new movie and a virgin treasure trove of brilliant filmmaking and narrative construction, studded with fantastic, cinematically profound montages and set pieces. With Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gustav Frölich and Alfred Abel.
Warner Archive Collection:
The Underworld Story
From Cy Endfield, the maker of Try and Get Me! comes another abandoned and forgotten “blacklist” production. This one is possibly the most negative film noir ever about American ethics. Cops, crooks, upstanding businessmen and reporters will all let an innocent black woman hang for a murder she didn’t commit, if it suits their purposes. Profit comes first, while presumed guilt and racism run wild, abetted by a press controlled by a wealthy despot. Dan Duryea, Herbert Marshall & Gale Storm star in a movie that should have been titled “The Subversive Story”. Endfield and his writer might as well have hung signs around their necks, reading “Blacklist Me!”
Warner Home Video:
Cornered, Deadline at Dawn, Desperate, Backfire, Armored Car Robbery, Dial 1119, The Phenix City Story, Crime in the Streets
Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 5
Reaching deeper for more noir gold, Warners comes up with titles more interesting than many better known “classics”. Dick Powell battles Nazi diehards in Argentina, Susan Hayward fights to clear a sailor of murder, Steve Brodie entangles himself in a murderous mob and Charles McGraw pursues robbers on the mean streets of Los Angeles. The superior, influential Crime in the Streets is a Don Siegel juvenile delinquent thriller with John Cassavetes and James Whitmore; and the shocking, agonizing The Phenix City Story is Phil Karlson’s true account of racketeering and political assassination in a real “sin city” in Alabama.
The Snorkel, Stop Me Before I Kill!, Never Take Candy from a Stranger, Cash on Demand, Maniac, These are the Damned
The Icons of Suspense Collection, Hammer Films
Sony’s latest genre round-up (and perhaps the last, considering that they’ve started their own Burn On Demand program) offers a couple of ho-hummers but also three gotta-see Hammer mini-classics. Cash on Demand is a cracking good suspense yarn with Peter Cushing and Andre Morell involved in a confidence game and a daring bank robbery. Never Take Candy from a Stranger is an ultra-tense, non-exploitative story of a community that tries to ignore a charge of child molestation. And (finally) we get a quality uncut release of the superb Joseph Losey science fiction classic These Are the Damned. On a barren seacoast, a gang of Teddy Boy hooligans discovers a sinister underground government laboratory that is rearing a unique group of poisonous children.
Way before long-take, moving camera shots became a competition among film directors, Max Ophuls was setting the bar high in this, his last feature. The dreamlike biography of a 19th century courtesan sees the notorious Lola Montès earning a living by replaying her bawdy life every night in a gala circus of chandeliers, choreographed clowns and a platoon of juggling Lola look-alikes. Is Lola ill, or going mad? Ringleader Peter Ustinov may or may not be one of her lovers, which include army officers, a student revolutionary and the King of Bavaria. With Anton Walbrook, Martine Carol and Oscar Werner; in color and CinemaScope. Finally restored after years of butchered “distributor” versions.
Warner Archive Collection:
(When Strangers Marry)
Monogram muddied the waters for this little gem when it changed its title for a reissue; as When Strangers Marry William Castle’s clever mini-budgeted noir thriller garnered a lot of critical attention. Wait a minute, yes, this is that William Castle, a decade before his gimmick-laden horror pictures. Clearly aiming high, Castle borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock and Val Lewton, and dresses up his show in unusual camera angles and probing camera moves. No wonder Hitchcock kept an eye on this upstart, in his rear view mirror. With Dean Jagger and Kim Hunter — and a positive career stepping stone for the young Robert Mitchum.
Bigger than Life
Nicholas Ray’s most neurotic masterpiece examines the catastrophic psychid effect of a new drug on a middle-class schoolteacher. The film is now regarded as unusually sensitive to the troubling contradictions in the materialistic America of 1955.The miracle drug cortisone save’s James Mason’s life, but overdoses spin his personality off into delusions of grandeur and paternalistic mania. Is he crazy, or is he only expressing his rebellious true nature, repressed by society’s limits? “Father Knows Best” becomes a frightening ’50s monster: “God Was Wrong!” With Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau; Mason also produced.
Warner Archive Collection:
The Last Flight
Another forgotten Pre-code curiosity that plays far better than some of the better known films on the same subject, The Lost Generation. A group of WW1 fliers drift between European capitols, drinking and womanizing; none of them wants to admit that they belong to the walking wounded, emotionally speaking. John Monk Saunders wrote some of the big early aviation movies; this one strays into F. Scott Fitzgerald territory and doesn’t compromise. With an interesting cast from early-talkie genre successes: Richard Barthelmess, David Manners, Johnny Mack Brown, and the fascinating Helen Chandler, playing a part that’s a 1,000% more interesting than her starring role in Dracula. It’s William Dieterle’s first American film.
Hen’s Tooth Video:
Battle of the River Plate
(Pursuit of the Graf Spee)
Somebody cares! Hen’s Tooth Video took the trouble to import this handsome transfer of a Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger “Archers” thriller that Americans have seen only in wretched video transfers. The true story of the cat & mouse trapping of the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee in the South Atlantic looks and sounds great in a widescreen transfer that revives its original VistaVision dimensions. Peter Finch, Bernard Lee, Anthony Quayle, John Gregson, and Ian Hunter are the hunters and the hunted in this classic sea adventure.
Ride with the Devil
Ang Lee’s fascinating & ferocious true story of the Kansas Border Wars is an unexpected dazzler – it takes place on the fringes of the War Between the States, providing plenty of food for thought about guerilla conflicts everywhere. Wanna talk about Terrorism? Watch the sacking and burning of Lawrence, Kansas, perpetrated by Americans on Americans. Terrific non- PC appraisals of the crazy political and racial alliances of the times — and it’s a slightly longer director’s cut, too. With Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Jewel, Simon Baker.
Underworld, The Last Command, The Docks of New York
3 Silent Films by Josef von Sternberg
Fans laboring under the illusion that Josef von Sternberg’s great work began with The Blue Angel will be floored by the intensity and lush visuals of these three silent masterpieces. Underworld is noted as the first ‘modern’ gangster film, and The Last Command is an acting tour-de-force by a transplanted German actor, Emil Jannings. The Docks of New York has been described as the pinnacle of great silent cinema — a dialogue soundtrack would surely only get in the way. Packed with Criterion extras.
Warner Archive Collection:
You’re a Big Boy Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s first studio directing job is an unjustly ignored delight, with a great cast (Peter Kastner, Karen Black, Elizabeth Hartman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Michael Dunn, Tony Bill, Julie Harris) and an anarchic, eclectic show-off job of direction that has fun with every student film gimmick from the 1960s. This is the one with The Albino Hypnotherapist with a Wooden Leg. Don’t look at the ugly poster (too late) and instead imagine the soundtrack by The Lovin’ Spoonful — this is a delightful charmer that “predicts” Coppola acolyte George Lucas’s American Graffiti.
This is Joe Dante’s marvelous comedy treat about juvenile monster film fandom under the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I include it here as a protest gesture … I’m excited to have this special favorite on DVD but incensed that Universal should give it a thoughtless, no-frills presentation. Check out most any Dante DVD: his fans re-watch them to hear hilarious audio commentaries and pore over the fascinating goodies he saves from the cutting room. The Grinches at Univer-swollen give us zilch. “Maybe when it comes to Blu-ray” doesn’t wash considering the studio’s uncommitted Blu-ray policy. So there.
So those are the Big Fifteen. I’m not exactly sure what to call this second, additional list of linked titles. The term “runners up” is the modern equivalent of “losers” and most of the titles below could easily have ended up in the top list if it wasn’t for my peculiar taste and subjective priorities. If I were judging along previous guidelines, leaning heavily on my genre prejudices, I’m sure that Crack in the World would have been a top title — that’s the influence of powerful childhood memories. That I’m putting nostalgia aside shows definite progress in my maturity! Or so I keep telling myself. Frankly, these are all great.
The Actuality Dramas of Allan King Warrendale, A Married Couple, Come On Children, Dying at Grace, Memory for Max Claire, Ida and Company -Criterion 10/05.10
Appointment with Danger -Olive Films 7.13.10
The Baader Meinhof Complex -MPI Home Video Blu-ray 4.10.10
Black Narcissus -Criterion Blu-ray 8.01.10
Black Orpheus -Criterion Blu-ray 8.18.10
The Bridge on the River Kwai -Sony Blu-ray 10.16.10
Cary Grant: The Early Years The Last Outpost, Devil and the Deep, The Eagle and the Hawk -TCM Vault Collection/Universal 4.17.10
Central Airport -Warner Archive Collection 5.04.10
Chaplin at Keystone -Flicker Alley 11.02.10
Che -Criterion Blu-ray 01.23.10
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II + Human Desire, Pushover, The Brothers Rico, Nightfall, City of Fear -Sony 7.06.10
Crack in the World -Olive Films 7.10.10
The Cyclops -Warner Archive Collection (1957) 11.27.10
Doctor Zhivago -Warner Home Video Blu-ray 4.24.10
Fantasia & Fantasia 2000 -Disney Blu-ray Blu-ray 11.30.10
Fantômas – The Complete Saga -Disney Blu-ray 9.21.10
Fog over Frisco -Warner Archive Collection 10.02.10
Forbidden Planet -Warner Home Video Blu-ray 09.04.10
The Gangster -Warner Archive Collection 11.30.10
George Bernard Shaw on Film Major Barbara, Caesar and Cleopatra, Androcles and the Lion -Eclipse 03.09.10
Girlfriends -Warner Archive Collection 5.25.10
Gone with the Wind -Warner Home Video 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray 3.13.10
Goodfellas -Warner Home Video Blu-ray 2.02.10
Palace -Scorpion Releasing 12.11.10
Hand in Hand -Sony 11.30.10
Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie -Icarus Films 10.26.10
In the Mood -Warner Archive Collection 6.12.10
Jason and the Argonauts -Sony Blu-ray 7.03.10
King Kong -Warner Home Video (1933) Blu-ray 9.25.10
The Leopard -Criterion Blu-ray 6.19.10
The Locket -Warner Archive Collection 10.12.10
Machine Gun McCain -Blue Underground Blu-ray 8.24.10
Madam Satan -Warner Archive Collection 11.23.10
The Mafu Cage -Scorpion Releasing 10.30.10
Make Way for Tomorrow -Criterion 3.06.10
The Maltese Falcon -Warner Home Video Blu-ray 9.28.10
Mammy -Warner Archive Collection (1930) 4.13.10
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence -Criterion Blu-ray 9.25.10
Middletown -Icarus Films 9.29.10
Monte Walsh -CBS/Paramount 11.20.10
Mutiny on the Bounty -Warner Home Video Blu-ray 11.23.10
New York Confidential -VCI 7.10.10
No Orchids for Miss Blandish -VCI 8.10.10
Paths of Glory -Criterion Blu-ray 10.30.10
Psycho -Universal Blu-ray 10.12.10
Rancho Notorious -Warner Archive Collection 11.10.09
Rasputin and the Empress -Warner Archive Collection 3.23.10
The Red Shoes -Criterion Blu-ray 7.18.10
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero -Criterion 2.02.10
711 Ocean Drive -Sony Screen Classics Burn on Demand 10.23.10
Seven Samurai -Criterion Blu-ray 10.23.10
Sherlock Jr. / Three Ages -Kino International Blu-ray 12.01.10
Split Second -Warner Archive Collection 1.16.10
Stagecoach -Criterion Blu-ray 5.25.10
Stop-Motion Marvels! -Thunderbean Animation 06.08.10
Straight to Hell Returns -Microcinema 12.05.10
Stranger on the Third Floor -Warner Archive Collection 10.30.10
Summer and Smoke -Olive Films 11.02.10
Sundown -TCM 10.16.10
The Thin Red Line -Criterion Blu-ray 10.09.10
Vampire Circus -Synapse Blu-ray 12.18.10
Voyager -Scorpion Releasing 8.14.10
Who? -Scorpion Releasing 11.23.10
The Wizard of Oz 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition -Warner Home Video Blu-ray 03.09.10
Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg -New Video Group/Docurama 9.04.10
The hits and emails and the positive response to my Savant facebook page definitely help keep this unusual ‘activity’ going. I’m most appreciative for the interest and enthusiasm and tolerance of my readers. Let’s all hope for a better 2011 — !
Glenn Erickson, December 11, 2010
Check out previous DVD Savant Favored Disc Roundups:
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 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!