Tuesday, January 02, 2007

List Me Deadly

We find ourselves in a new year, and yet I still have not posted a year end list of sorts. Well since I'm late to the party, I think I'll go in a different direction. My new release viewing this year was dreadfully low, so this post will focus on my favorite DVDs of 2006.

Best Box Set
1. The John Ford-John Wayne Film Collection
This was one set that made me jump out of my chair after reading about the early specs, and I still consider it one of my best purchases of the year and a very cherished cornerstone of my collection. What sets this set apart from others is the sheer value of it: for a little more than the price of buying the new editions of 'The Searchers' and 'Stagecoach' (included) you also get SIX OTHER MOVIES. And these are no throwaway titles (though it's admittedly hard for me to get excited about The Long Voyage Home), they're some of the best ever produced by this duo.

2. Superman: Ultimate Collector's Edition
From the You Wanted the Best You Got the Best shelf comes this gargantuan chunk of superfan bliss. The 'Superman' collection is similar to the above set in value, but gets knocked down a peg due to the famously questionable quality of (at least, depending on who you ask) two of the including movies. Even the most hard core Superman fans would admit that they could live without III and IV, but neither are without their merits (e.g. Brick Vision and Robot Hag). In addition to generously upgraded DVDs of all five movies, you also get the new Donner Version of II, the theatrical version of The Movie, old Superman cartoons, a huge documentary and even a chance to send away for 27x40 posters of each movie (I could do without five Superman posters, but have always had a spot in my heart for the 'Quest for Peace' poster).

3. Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection
This is the rare set that lets you explore the given works of a genre or director nearly completely. From the brilliant comedic director's golden era (1941-44) we get everything but The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, all packaged in a pretty attractive price. I'm sure there's plenty of fans out there like me who have heard all the praises of Sturges, but have yet to really penetrate his work (in my case, Sullivan's Travels is my lone voyage), and this set solves that problem nicely.

4. Controversial Classics Collection
A somewhat steep price is the only knock on this set, which has a nice blend of well-known classics and forgotten wonders. The beauty of this collection is that all of the movies contained were all genuinely controversial in their own way: Bad Day at Black Rock (see it!) was the first film to touch on post-WWII American-Asian hostilities, The Blackboard Jungle's violence and tension is still shocking today in some respects (not the least of which is Glen Ford's explosive performance), while A Face in the Crowd was an early examination of the power and influence wielded by the media.

5. Bogie & Bacall -- The Signature Collection
A great example of how a box set can bat 1.000 without being huge or luxurious. For a low price you simply get four genuinely excellent movies including at least two (for me it's The Big Sleep and Key Largo) that can be considered among the best ever made. This set does not offer heaps of extras, but it also has exactly zero fat on it and is a great value (gotta love the name, too).

Best Re-Issues
1. The Maltese Falcon
Like many of Bogart's movies (*cough* 'Casablanca' *cough*), this classic was in serious need of a re-issue, as it does not deserve bare-bones treatment. The resulting treatment was more than anyone could have expected, which was highlighted by the inclusion of two previous film versions of the story and also three radio adaptations. The other extras -- a new transfer, feature-length documentary, commentary and even a blooper reel -- combined to make this DVD one of the rare instances when a major studio's release is on par with what Criterion would have done.

2. The Searchers
Available on its own or in the aforementioned Ford-Wayne set, Warner Bros. celebrated this timeless movie's 50th anniversary in style. The handsome packaging foreshadowed the lavish treatment of the film inside: a stunning transfer, three wonderful featurettes, an informative commentary by the always entertaining Peter Bogdanovich (his track on 'Citizen Kane' is another good one) and an introduction by Patrick Wayne are just starters, as you also get a large assortment of lobby cards, on-set correspondance and even a 1956 comic book adaptation of the movie. The latter is a treat for 'Searchers' fans, as it was printed in the early days of the comic book code era, and as such there were significant liberties taken with the movie's storyline to omit graphic content.

3. Forbidden Planet
Another 50th anniversary edition, the classic sci-fi triumph's rich colors and amazing special effects can finally be seen as they should. Highlighting the generous extras is a spinoff movie starring Robby the Robot and the mildly disappointing but well-meaning TCM documentary 'Watch the Skies.' I was lucky enough to receive the Ultimate Collector's Edition of this for Christmas, which comes in a large tin and includes lobby cards and a Robby the Robot figurine, and let me tell you: if you're expecting to open up the tin and find a like-sized robot, you'll be disappointed (its size is even misrepresented on the official picture of the set, but at least you get a nice-sized tin). Read DVD Savant's take on the movie for his typically-engrossing analysis.

4. Brazil: The Criterion Collection
Another in Criterion's applauded effort of re-upgrading movies. In Brazil's case, it was one of the first movies to be overflowing with extras, first on laserdisc and later as one of the first huge efforts on DVD. This new version gives the movie a much needed anamorphic upgrade, and also adds a single-disc incarnation for those who don't need multiple cuts of the movie or want to pay twice as much. The extras are still eye popping, with the short 'Love Conquers All' cut dropped on America and the proper 146-minute Gilliam edit. DVD Journal regards the previous version as the best DVD ever made, and this only makes it better.

5. Seven Samurai: The Criterion Collection
Perhaps a more impressive Criterion re-issue was their new three-disc 'Seven Samurai.' The Kurosawa classic put Criterion on the mainstream map for unmatched DVD quality and was their top-seller for a long time. Not only does the new version one-up the original's lauded transfer, but also adds two more discs full of extras including exhaustive documentaries (such as a two hour Kurosawa conversation produced by the Director's Guild of Japan) as well as a booklet packed with essays.

Best of the Best
Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season
In another huge DVD year, this release probably made the most waves just for what it represented. Definitely no stranger to DVD, Lorne Michaels and company upped the ante by committing to what they have been dared by fans to do from the beginning: give us everything. And it's all here: every uncut episode and even the musical guests. To me, the biggest whopper of this idea is imagining down the road when we have thirty-some seasons for sale, and the inevitable BOX SET TO END ALL BOX SETS featuring EVERY season with somewhere in the neighborhood of 200+ discs! What this also signals is the strength of the DVD format, because I doubt that NBC would release six or so SNL seasons on DVD, then commit to Blue Ray or HD-DVD and leave DVD in the cold. If this is a true commitment, it's one that will span years.

Dazed and Confused: The Criterion Collection
This was a personal slam dunk, that feeling you get when Criterion chooses one of 'your' movies that you never thought would have gotten the treatment, and boy did it get it: appropriately outrageous cover art, a Linklater commentary, documentaries and a booklet full of high-quality essays. This is just a loving tribute to a great movie that means a lot to plenty of people, and has even managed to increase my love for it (best example: Linklater clues us in on the scene with Carl's mom pulling the shotgun being his tribute to the similar scene in 'Night of the Hunter').

Essential Art House - Fifty Years of Janus Films
I'm not exactly recommending this one -- I'm not sure I would even want it if I had the means -- but it's reassuring to know that something like this exists (sort of how the Pagani Zonda deserves to be worshipped, even if it really has no place in the world). I think of this as the Galactus of DVD -- Criterion saying 'you call that a knife, this is a knife' and promptly pulling out a MOAB bomb. For the low low MSRP of $850, you get a 50 disc phonebook of a set includes 50 films and a 200 page book that will provide equal wonder and horror for anyone in your home.

Best Trends
1. Movies within movies
I noticed this one last year when the Wizard of Oz three disc set included long-forgotten silent treatments of the classic story, and you're seeing it more often now, as evidenced by a few of the above. I love seeing extras like this that break from the mold.

2. Slim-line box sets
It seems that the days of box sets the size of a phone book are coming to an end, as studios are starting to catch on to the idea of using slim-line (or slim-pack, whatever you call the very thin packages) holders inside sets to reduce their girth. Not only does it look better, but it makes everything much easier to handle without wear and tear.

3. More economical 'discing'
Like the above, the days of DVDs having two discs just for the hell of it seem to be dead too. The worst example of this for me was the old double-disc version of 'Big Trouble in Little China,' which put the full screen version on one disc and the widescreen on the other, despite the fact that there were few extras to take up space. It seems that since prices of DVDs are getting lower and lower, manufacturers are more apt to keep them low by keeping everything on one disc.

Best of 2007?
Bicycle Thieves: The Criterion Collection
Another Criterion that will hit home with me, Bicycle Thieves is one of the best movies you will ever see and is very deserving of some world class DVD treatment. Though it's set in post WWII Italy, this is simply a timeless movie about life that has indescribable highs and lows of genuine emotion. Haven't heard any specs on this one yet, but I'm sure it will be top notch.

Long-rumored Eyes Wide Shut special edition
There have been rumors practically since its theatrical release about a definitive director's cut of 'Eyes Wide Shut,' and there's some 'truthy' information about its future being bounced around lately. Initially this focused on the controversial decision to digitally mask some of the more graphic elements of the orgy scene, but now the most anticipated feature of the DVD would be an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Kubrick's more recent movies are presented in open matte full screen at his famous request, reportedly believing that full screen looked better on televisions -- and he obviously did not live to see the day of widescreen TVs. The most recent 'Eyes Wide Shut' DVD is presented in the actual aspect ratio it was filmed in (it was matted on the top and bottom for its theatrical run), but it's frustrating to watch on a widescreen TV and the picture itself could use a remastering.

Tom Goes to the Mayor: The Complete Series
It's a small triumph that this short-lived, much-loved [adult swim] series is coming to DVD, but it's a minor miracle that it's all going to be on one three disc collection. If you missed Tom's original run, it was a strangely animated and even stranger written show, that was always bizarre and hilarious. Its crude underground origins are similar to South Park's, and I hope it enjoys more popularity on DVD.

Night of the Comet/Solarbabies
Just announced from MGM, a pair of 80s scifi movies that had long languished in the Night of the Creeps/Monster Squad level of digital non-existance. I'm very familiar with Solarbabies, one of those movies that you could always count on HBO to show way too many times in the late 80s. Combining a little of a Mad Max-like apocalypse future with teen angst and some roller skates -- 'Solarbabies' is pure magic. I've seen bits and pieces of 'Night of the Comet' -- a tale of valley girls trying to save the world after a large scale disaster, and it'll be tough to keep me away from this one.

Criterion's Eclipse series

A very exciting announcement from Criterion has been their decision to start a new line devoted to forgotten/cult films, which will be offered at an affordable (around $15) price. The only movies on the Eclipse line so far is a collection of Ingmar Bergman's earliest efforts, but you know there's going to be an announcement or two down the road that will really blow your socks off.

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