Even though the death of the DVD has long been touted, its true end did not become a forgone conclusion until the moment last February when the Blu-Ray disc won the hotly contested high-def format war. Knowing that the DVD is going the way of the 8-track though, has not stopped the majority of the home video production companies from releasing some amazing films in the DVD format. What makes things interesting about this final period of the DVD's market-cycle is that with all of the heavy-hitting titles already out on the shelves (sometimes in a fourth or fifth "special edition" version), DVD producers have had to dig through the nooks and crannies of the niche market titles to find a new stream of revenue. What this means for a fringe-watcher like me is that some films that I thought I would never see (much less in a pristine state), have been bubbling up into the consumer market.
The following is a list of DVDs that came out in 2008 that I was excited to see for the first time or that were restored to such a degree that it felt like it was my first time really seeing them. Some of these discs come from overseas so I have labeled what region they come from. Region 0 and 1 are playable on DVD players coded for the U.S. market. To play the others, you will need to get an all-region player which you can get from Amazon of other online retail stores for around sixty bucks of so. If you do not have an all-region player but have an interest in films from other countries then it is my opinion that one is almost mandatory. I think over half of the DVDs that I own are from other regions.
1.) Judex/Nuits Rouges- Georges Franju
(Masters of Cinema- Region 2 PAL)
Georges Franju teamed up twice with Jacques Champreux, grandson of Louis Feuillade, to pay tribute to Feuillade’s silent serials, Judex and Fantomas. In the first film, Judex (1963), the American magician Channing Pollock plays the title character whom, in an early scene, gets to perform his most popular stage trick (pulling doves out of thin air) in the midst of a party where he and the other guests are wearing amazingly life-like avian masks. Set to Maurice Jarre’s haunting score, the scene captivates with its assured interplay of surreal imagery and poetic symbolism, gracefully introducing the fantastical world of the film to the viewer and capturing the wonderment that was both Feuillade’s and Franju’s stock in trade. As for Nuits Rouges (1974), it is a film cobbled together from a series of misfortunes. Initially the project was to be a full-blown Fantomas serial where money was no object. As it turned out, money became an object and the rights to the character Fantomas were lost. What is left is a fairly dark and convoluted tale of master thieves, underground lairs, some vengeful Knights Templar and an army of zombie assassins all wrapped up in the look and feel of a more serious in tone, less garishly designed Danger: Diabolik.
2.) 4 By Agnes Varda/Jacquot de Nantes- Agnes Varda
(Criterion Collection- Region 1/Cine-Tamaris- Region 2 PAL)
The Criterion box set contains the films La Pointe Courte (1956), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), Le Bonheur (1965), and Vagabond (1985) and is a good introduction to Varda through her most highly touted fictional films. Varda's films have always felt to me like a personal piece of correspondence from an especially bright and inquisitive friend who periodically drops a line or two about some nuance in human nature she has discovered while on her travels. These four films are great pieces of cinematic art but more importantly, show Ms. Varda's irrepressible humanism in full bloom. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) while still projecting Varda's warmth and humanity, feels a little more like something personal to Varda. It is a cinematic biography of and love letter to Jacques Demy, her husband who passed the year before the film's release. I think that we would all consider ourselves lucky to have someone care about us to the degree that Varda cared about Demy. Jacqout de Nantes is incredibly touching and a great film to boot.
3.) Vampyr- Carl Theodor Dreyer
(Criterion Collection- Region 1/Masters of Cinema- Region 2 PAL)
An incredibly atmospheric horror film from the early talkie days, Vampyr (1930) remains to this day an outstanding cinematic journey into the world of feverish phantasmagoria. The new restorations provided on these two discs are absolutely astonishing, and if you think you have seen this film before, either on the old VHS tape or the Image DVD, think again. Watching either of these new DVDs is like seeing the film for the very first time. According to the DVD Beaver comparison between the two discs, the Masters of Cinema disc retains more of the atmospheric haze that cinematographer Rudolph Mate achieved by supposedly shooting through a piece of cheese cloth, but both it and the Criterion disc are absolutely superlative. The Criterion disc features a commentary by Tony Ryans while the Masters of Cinema disc's commentary is by Guillermo del Toro. Both men, in their own way, are aces when it comes to talking about the subject of Cinema Fantastique.
4.) Valerie and Her Week of Wonders- Jaromil Jires
(Second Run- Region 2 PAL)
Yet another vampire film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is a fantastic little film full of unsettling themes and surreal imagery. The film centers on the main character Valerie who, upon her first menstruation, begins to see the disturbing nature of the adult world- the greed, the lust, the violence, the predatory nature of romantic love and the corrupt actions of the powerful. I have read in some reviews that there is a lot of Wilhelm Reich-style psychoanalytic subtext in this film, but I would have to say that it is more enjoyable to watch Valerie and Her Week of Wonders without that outmoded school of thought getting in the way of the implicitly fairytale-like language of the onscreen imagery . This film has been available from Facets in the U.S. for a while but this new region-2 disc from Second Run is far and away a better looking presentation.
5.) Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women- Mizoguchi Kenji
(Eclipse- Region 1)
This Eclipse box set presents Osaka Elegy (1936), Sister of the Gion (1936), Women of the Night (1948) and Street of Shame (1956) together to showcase one of the themes that Mizoguchi would return to again and again- the pragmatic needs of women in a society run by selfish and greedy men. All of these films deal with the subject of women falling into prostitution by one means or another with one film (Sisters of the Gion) focusing on the (even then) old-fashioned tradition of geisha. This box set is the first time that these films (with the exception of Street of Shame) have been available on an English subtitled DVD.
As a side note: If you are looking for a good version of Mizoguchi’s The Empress Yang Kwei Fei, Chikamatsu Monogatari, Gion Bayashi or The Woman in the Rumour then I would recommend the Region 2 Masters of Cinema discs released in 2007/2008.
6.) The Furies/Man of the West- Anthony Mann
(Criterion Collection- Region 1/MGM- Region 1)
Anthony Mann’s second western and his last true ‘psychological’ western both received DVD releases this year and both films are great, if somewhat left-field offerings from the director’s catalogue. The Furies (1950) was released in the same year as Winchester ’73 but could not be more different from that film or the rest of Mann’s westerns. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as the Electra-esque daughter of a cattle baron who gets severely bent out of shape when her father brings home a new bride-to-be. The Criterion disc comes with the Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) novel, a rare television interview with Anthony Mann and a 34-page booklet that includes a new essay by Robin Wood and an interview with Mann. The bare bones release of Man of the West (1958) from MGM might not have gotten the lush treatment that Criterion gave The Furies but at least it is finally available. In Man of the West, Gary Cooper plays a man who realizes he hasn’t quite left his past behind him after he runs into his old mentor (a violent, and half-crazed outlaw played by Lee J. Cobb) after a train robbery. Much like a Peckinpah film before it’s time, Man of the West portrays the more violent and hostile side of the American west- the side that was always alluded to in prior westerns but that, until Mann’s film, was never emphasized so unflinchingly.
7.) Syndromes and a Century- Apichatpong Weerasethakul
(BFI- Region 2 PAL)
A unique film full of symmetries and parallels, Syndromes and a Century is about as difficult to describe as it is enjoyable to watch. If you go into this film with the knowledge that it does not rely on a narrative through-line so much as a music-like structure of theme and variation, it will be a less baffling experience. The film plays out in two distinct parts. The first part takes place in a rural Thai hospital 40 years ago where the head doctor (a female) is interviewing a new male doctor assigned to the post (Weerasethakul has said that he based this part of the story on his parents who began their romance while working as rural doctors). Surrounding this introductory story are these little vignettes of the auxiliary characters carrying out their daily activities. The second story begins in the same way with the same two doctor characters, only this time it is present day and the hospital is in a big city. With the dynamics of time and place changed, the variation of the character-based vignettes change, giving the viewer a very different experience than the first part of the film. The interesting part about all of this though is that once the second part of the film gets going, all of the elements of the film begin to slowly play off of one another, communicating back and forth to create an ever expanding combination of contextual possibilities from which to appreciate the film’s developing themes. Much like with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Facets put out a DVD of this film in the U.S. but the Region 2 BFI release from the U.K. is the better looking disc by far.
8.) The Films of Budd Boetticher- Budd Boetticher
(Sony- Region 1)
Many fans of the Western genre consider the teaming of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott to be in the same rank as the pairings of John Ford/John Wayne and Anthony Mann/James Stewart. After watching the five films in the box set, it is easy to see why. Boetticher’s Westerns, especially the ones written by Burt Kennedy (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), are masterful exercises in the art of spare, economical storytelling. Centered on Randolph Scott’s guilt tarnished and laconic hero, these films emphasize the inner codes and moral conflicts of a small group of main characters set in relief against the desolate and beautiful terrain of Lone Pine, California. Film critic Andrew Sarris once wrote that the Boetticher/Scott westerns were, “constructed partly as allegorical Odysseys and partly as floating poker games where every character took turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown.” Coming from someone as laden by French film theory as Sarris is, that’s a pretty spot on and insightful take on these films. The box set includes the films The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960) . Along with the DVD release of Seven Men From Now from a couple of years ago, the release of this box set pretty much covers the entirety of the Boetticher/Scott pairing. The one film that has not received a DVD released from the pair, Westbound (1959), was a contractual obligation of Scott's to Warner Brothers but neither the critics nor those involved with its making really care for it.
9.) The Queen of Black of Magic- Liliek Sudjio
(Mondo Macabro- Region 0)
When she is falsely accused of using black magic against the patrons of her smarmy ex-boyfriend’s wedding procession, Marni (Indonesian horror queen Suzzanna) is hunted down by the people of her village and thrown over a cliff. A hermit (who also happens to be a master of the dark arts), finds Marni unconscious and takes her into his hut to nurse her back from the edge of death. Once her health is regained, Marni’s rage boils over and pushes her, under the guidance of the hermit, to travel down the path of vengeance by becoming the queen of black magic. Very well shot and containing some practical effects that are ahead of the curve in regards to the 80s horror explosion (i.e.- an exploding head that outdoes the famous scene from Scanners two years later), The Queen of Black Magic (1979) is a fun little film from the culturally conservative Muslim nation of Indonesia. It slyly got away with its massively over-the-top gore shots by framing them within a “good Imam from the big city casts out the evils of a small village and teaches the natives how to be good Muslims” story arc. It is as if the director said, “Sure, there might be a scene with a guy ripping his own head off, but come on Mr. Censor, isn’t it inspiring to see a handful of villagers build an impromptu mosque and pray to Allah?” Mondo Macabro brings this movie out of obscurity in superb style with a brand new digital transfer struck from the original negative. Although amazingly entertaining now, The Queen of Black Magic is one of those films that, if shown to me when I was first stumbling across films like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead or Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case, would have completely blown my mind.
10.) The Ballad of Narayama- Imamura Shohei
This long overdue DVD release of Imamura's Palm d'Or winning retelling of the Fukuzawa Shichiro novel of the same name, The Ballad of Narayama (1983) was to me the bittersweet surprise of 2008. On the one hand I was glad that this film was finally getting a DVD release but on the other hand I had hoped that The Criterion Collection would have put this out rather than Animeigo. In the past, Animeigo had put out some spotty DVDs (e.g. Samurai Assassin) and I feared, based on how other Imamura films had fared on DVD in the Hong Kong and U.S. markets, that my waiting for a proper release of this film would have to continue. So it was to my surprise then, after watching the DVD, that Animeigo did an excellent job with this film (solid blacks (no 'dancing' pixels), good color representation, no weird artifacts and no combing or ghosting effects thanks to it being a progressive scan disc). I still wish this could have come from Criterion with an abundance of extras, but as it is this is a fine disc of a great, great movie. As for the film itself, here is a link to a good review by Stuart Galbraith IV over at dvdtalk.com. I think he probably got a defective DVD to review based on his comments (the problem he has with the repeated frames I do not have on my disc) but besides that his description of the film is on point.
Here are some of the other notable DVD releases from this past year (Region 1 if not otherwise noted):
-Akasen Chitai/Yokihi (Mizoguchi Kenji)- Masters of Cinema R2 PAL UK
-An Autumn Afternoon (Ozu Yasujiro, 1962)- Criterion
-Antonio Gaudí (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1984)- Criterion
-The Apartment Collector's Edition (Billy Wilder, 1960)- MGM
-The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930)- 20th Century Fox
-Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982)- Edko R3 NTSC
-Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight (Ishii Teruo, 1973)- Discotek Media
-Carve Her Name with Pride (Lewis Gilbert, 1958)- United Artists
-The Case of the Bloody Iris (Giuliano Carmineo, 1972)- Blue Underground
-Chikamatsu Monogatari/Uwasa no Onna (Mizoguchi Kenji, 1954)- Masters of Cinema R2 PAL UK
-The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 & 2- Universal
-Come Drink with Me (King Hu, 1966)- Dragon Dynasty
-Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)- Fox Home Entertainment
-Der letzte Mann (F.W. Murnau , 1924)- Masters of Cinema R2 PAL UK
-Eclipse Series #8: Lubitsch Musicals- Criterion
-El Cid 2-Disc Limited Collector's Edition (Anthony Mann, 1961)- Miriam Collection
-The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964)- Miriam Collection
-The Films of Sergei Paradjanov- Kino
-Five (Abbas Kirostami, 2003)- BFI R2 PAL UK
-Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007)- IFC
-Fox Classic Western Collection- 20th Century Fox
-Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema- Flicker Alley
-German Expressionism Collection- Kino
-Hammer Icons of Adventure Collection- Sony Pictures
-Hammer Icons of Horror Collection- Sony Pictures
-The Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang , 1986)- Xi'an Film Studio R3
-James Stewart Western Collection- Universal
-L'Argent (Marcel L'Herbier, 1928)- Masters of Cinema R2 PAL UK
-Le Deuxieme Souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966)- Criterion
-Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)- Criterion
-Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915)- Artificial Eye R2 PAL UK
-Life Is a Bed of Roses (Alain Resnais, 1983)- Kino
-Love Unto Death (Alain Resnais, 1984)- Kino
-Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada, 1962)- Criterion
-The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder, 1942)- Universal
-Melo (Alain Resnais, 1986)- Kino
-Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939)- Universal
-Miss Julie (Alf Sjöberg, 1951)- Criterion
-Moontide (Archie Mayo 1942)- Fox Film Noir
-Murnau, Borzage and Fox Box Set- Fox Home Entertainment
-The Naked Prey (Cornel Wilde, 1966)- Criterion
-The Nanny (Seth Holt, 1965)- Fox Home Entertainment
-The One That Got Away (Roy Ward Baker, 1957)- United Artists
-Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, 2006)- Yume Pictures R2 PAL UK
-Psycho Special 2-dic Edition (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)- Universal Studios
-Rear Window Special 2-disc Edition (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954 )- Universal Studios
-Road House (Jean Negulesco, 1948)- Fox Film Noir
-Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti , 1960)- Masters of Cinema R2 PAL UK
-Roman Holiday 2-disc Special Edition (William Wyler, 1953)- Paramount
-Sabrina 2-disc Special Edition (Billy Wilder, 1954)- Paramount
-The Secret Invasion (Roger Corman, 1964)- United Artists
-Shimizu Hiroshi Collection Vol. 2 (Four Seasons of Children)- Shochiku Home Video R2
-Short Night of Glass Dolls (Aldo Lado, 1971)- Blue Underground
-The Small Back Room (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1949)- Criterion
-Sunset Boulevard 2-disc Special Edition (Billy Wilder, 1950)- Paramount
-Tai-Chi Master (Yuen Woo-Ping, 1993)- Dragon Dynasty
-Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)- Second Run R2 PAL UK
-Ugetsu Monogatari/Oyu-Sama (2 films by Mizoguchi Kenji)- Masters of Cinema R2 PAL UK
-Vertigo Special 2-disc Edition (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)-Universal Studios
-Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 3- Warner
-Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 4- Warner
-Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection- Warner
-White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)- Criterion
-Who Saw Her Die? (Aldo Lado, 1972)- Blue Underground
-The Wolves (Gosha Hideo, 1972)- Animeigo
And finally, If you want to see what other, more knowledgeable folks had to say about the DVD releases of 2008, then here are some more "best of" lists from beyond the great internets:
-Sight and Sound