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Pick of the Year 2005 – 2: The DVDs
by Slarek

If your movie tastes sit outside of the mainstream, as do mine, then it's almost inevitable that when you look back at the year's DVD releases, particular distributors tend to figure more prominently than others. The good people at Tartan and Artificial Eye have a catalogue that specifically caters for the non-mainstream viewer – as someone who organises cinema screenings for such an audience, these two distributors can provide up to fifty percent of the films for any one season between them. But the real stars this year were DVD specialists, two companies located on opposite sides of the Atlantic who have dedicated themselves to restoring and remastering great movies in one case and obtaining restored prints in the other, sometimes even obscure movies, and releasing them on sometimes superbly specified disks. They are, for the few who genuinely do not know, the venerable Criterion in the US, and Eureka's Masters of Cinema label in the UK. Both companies have had a stonking year, and I could easily have filled this list with their disks alone, and it's for that very reason that each of them get their own sections at the lead of the list.


Every year Criterion deliver some humdingers, but 2005 really saw some excellent and welcome releases, and even a couple of completely unexpected ones. The restoration of Seijun Suzuki's 1960s yakuza films Youth of the Beast and Fighting Elergy responded to a widening Western interest in these films, also reflected in the release of the Yakuza Papers – Battles Without Honour and Humanity box set from Homevision in December 2004. Acclaimed but until now not readily available works by Jacques Becker (Casque D'or, Touchez pas au grisbi), Bernado Bertolucci (La Commare secca), Michelangelo Antonioni (L'eclisse), Robert Bresson (Au hasard Balthazar), Luchino Visconti (Le notti bianche) and Volker Schlöndorff (Young Törless) were joined by celebrated classics given the Criterion makeover, including Jean Renoir's The River, François Truffaut's Jules et Jim and Shoot the Pianist, Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Powell and Pressburger's Tales of Hoffmann, Andrei Wajda's A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours, Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis, Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, Steve James' documentary Hoop Dreams and Luis Buñuel's marvellous The Phantom of Liberty. But I've narrowed my pick of this particular bunch down to four films, the first two being Japanese cinema classics that I had for some time been dreaming would get the Criterion treatment, the third one of the best documentaries on the process of film-making ever made, the fourth a controversial but brilliant British movie by one of our greatest modern directors.

Kurosawa's gloriously filmed tale of a beggar pulled from the streets to impersonate a castle lord, only to be later cast down again, has been crying out for the Criterion treatment after the eagerly anticipated UK region 2 release turned out to be such a disappointment, especially in the quality of the picture. No such problems here – the transfer on the Criterion disk is genuinely stunning, and is matched by the quality of the extra features, which include a commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, a 19 minute featurette on executive producers Francis Coppola and George Lucas, a 41 minute Toho Masterworks documentary on the making of the film, a new video piece on Kurosawa's sketches and paintings, a 48 page booklet, trailers, commercials and storyboards. A joy.

Actually the full title is Ugetsu monogatari, but I'm not complaining. This was the very first film to be entered on our [now abandoned] Wish List by me, and news of its imminent arrival had me jumping with joy, though this was nothing compared to how excited I was when I got my hands on it. A beautifully packaged 2-disk set comes with a handsome 72-page booklet containing and essay by Phillip Lopate and the three short stories that were adapted for the film, a 150-minute (yes, that's right) documentary on the film's director Kenji Mizuguchi by protégé Kaneto Shindo (more of him later), interviews with assistant director Tozuku Tanaka and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, an appreciation of the film by director Masahiro Shinoda and a commentary by Japanese cinema expert and critic Tony Rayns. The restored print looks terrific, given the film's age, and the film itself remains one of Japanese cinema's most hauntingly beautiful works.

Burden of Dreams
The 'making-of' documentary against which all others are judged, Les Blank and Maureen Gosling's record of the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is both a valuable record of a of a genuinely extraordinary shoot and a hypnotic portrait of the film-maker as obsessive, visionary madman. Criterion's disk provides a wealth of background detail on the making of the film, from Blank and Gosling's diaries to a commentary track featuring the pair, with contributions from Herzog, who also features in a retrospective interview and Blank's earlier short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. There are even a couple of deleted scenes, which had been poached by Herzog himself for inclusion in his Kinski portrait My Best Fiend.

Criterion also continued their championing of cult favourites, with Jane Campion's wonderful An Angel at My Table, Orson Welles' joyously mischievous F for Fake, Nicholas Roeg's Bad Timing and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï. That last title really should be on the list here, given my love for the film, and the only reason it's not (and this is a whisker-thin miss), is the lack of extra features compared with the ones that have been selected. It's still got a fine transfer, though, and should be on the shelf of every true cinema fan. No, if I have to select one cult film from this year's Criterion releases, it has to be the one whose announcement surprised me as much as it delighted...

Now I genuinely didn't see this one coming, but maybe I should have, given their 1994 laserdisc release of the film, but then I never owned a laserdisc player and tended to avoid laserdisc catalogues for fear of disc envy. Mike Leigh's extraordinary, confrontational study of lives in nihilistic self-destruction is one of the finest British films of the past thirty years and features a script and central performance that are genuinely astonishing. That the film was picked up by Criterion was exciting enough, but that it received such superb treatment filled me with a golden glow. The transfer in particular has caused me to rethink how I judge the picture quality on DVDs of low budget films – despite its largely night-time setting and grim interiors, the picture quality is superb throughout. The 2-disk set includes a commentary by Leigh and actors David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge, a video interview with director and fan Neil LaBute, a conversation between Leigh and writer Will Self, and Leigh's short film The Short and Curlies, which co-starred David Thewlis.

Eureka: Masters of Cinema

This is the year that Eureka, through their Masters of Cinema label, really established themselves as the UK equivalent to Criterion. Though they do not have access to the more famous titles that Criterion have managed to snag, they have excelled in releasing lesser seen works from major film-makers from around the world, and have struck a particular chord here through our seemingly shared interest in Japanese cinema. Recently they have struggled with inferior original material to bring us two largely unseen Kurosawa movies, Scandal and The Idiot, both of which are worth the while of anyone interested in the work of one of cinema's finest directors, and Sadao Yamanaka's 1937 Humanity and Paper Balloons was a revelation. But it was three films by Kaneto Shindo that were to prove the real coup for Eureka, and the temptation to put all three on this list was almost oberwhelming, but I had already decided to restrict myself to just one of them, as I'd already chosen three others from the MoC catalogue. The most recent of the three, Kuroneko, is a stylish and genuinely creepy ghost story that recalls both Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan and Kenji Muzoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari, while the disk of Shindo's most famous work, the superb Onibaba, actually topped the Criterion one, which is no mean feat. But if I have to choose...

The Naked Island
An extraordinary, almost experimental drama with virtually no dialogue and a slow moving opening sequence in which two characters simply collect water and painstakingly carry it to irrigate their crops and dares to run for a staggering 30 minutes, almost a third of the film's running time, yet it which holds your attention as completely as a tense bank robbery in a top-class thriller. Despite a couple of contrast and exposure issues here and there, the transfer is very impressive, but the real selling point here is a commentary track by the Kaneto Shindo and score composer Hikaro Hayashi, an enthralling accompaniment to the film and a valuable historical document.

The three other Eureka disks I have selected were, like The Naked Island, chosen specifically for the films themselves and the quality of the transfers rather than the quatity of the included special features, which goes against my Criterion selection criteria a little, but the Masters of Cinema discs tend not to be as heavily extras weighted as their American cousins. And so, without further ado...

Vengeance is Mine
Shohei Imamura's compelling study of a real life serial killer is a favourite of mine from from some years ago that here has been transformed from the murky, 4:3 video prints of old with a first rate transfer that presents this masterful film as it deserves to be seen. Showcasing a brilliant central performance from Ken Ogata, most familiar to western audiences (well, discerning Western audiences) for his role as the title character in Paul Schrader's Mishima, this is a disturbing and complex study of an unlovely but still fascinating character, and the disk is boosted by a Tony Rayns commentary and the usual lovely booklet.

Nightmare Alley
A real revelation, this pitch black film noir was buried for years because of a dispute between its producer and the Fox studio, but is now available for the appreciation of all lovers of films that walk gleefully on the dark side. And despite the studio enforced ending, it's a knockout, featuring some fine performances (including heartthrob Tyrone Power playing very much against type), masterful direction from Edmund Goulding and black and white photography to die for by the great Lee Garmes. A useful commentary and a fine booklet are included, but it's the quality of the transfer that make this an essential purchase.

Punishment Park
As a huge fan of the cinema of Peter Watkins, I've been wanting to see this for years and yet somehow always managed to cock up getting to screenings or procuring tapes. By the time this disk arrived I had built my hopes up dangerously high, but to my amazement the film was actually better than I had expected, and had I caught it in the cinema it would have been right up there at the top of my films of the year. Brilliantly constructed, performed with disturbing realism and politically charged, it's as relevant today as it ever was, and despite being shot on 16mm the transfer here is jaw-droppingly good. The commentary by Dr. Jospeh A. Gomez is interesting, and the accompanying booklet is crammed with information. Superb.

the others

Despite the dominance of these two distributors, there were plenty of other disks that made demands on my credit card this year, though a fair few of those were film-only affairs that deserved the sort of treatment a more caring distributor would no doubt have given (see above). Honourable mentions should go to Artificial Eye for their solid presentations of both Moolaadé and Whisky, which made it to the cinema list, and for Ken Loach's superb Land and Freedom, which also featured an interesting commentary track by Loach and historical adviser Andy Durgan and a fine 'making of' documentary. The Lukas Moodysson Box Set collected the director's first four films together, a treat in itself, but the quality of the transfers was, shall we say, a little variable, while the Phantasm Sphere Limited Edition Box Set boasted a nice collection of extras, decent transfers and the best packaging of the year. Lars von Trier's E-Trilogy and the special edition of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy showed Tartan at the top of their game, with excellent transfers and some superb extra features, and it was great to see Wild at Heart get special edition status and a transfer to match. Near misses also include the region 1 Val Lewton Box Set, the Whisky Galore! special edition, Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (at last, but where were the extra features?), John Boorman's magnificent Point Blank (also at last, but this one at least had a commentary) and the two-disk edition of Cronenberg's The Fly. But as for the real favourites – here's the pick of the rest.

Nick Broomfield – Documenting Icons
Taking its title from Jason Wood's book of the same name, this essential collection features some of the key works from one of Britain's most enduring and important documentary film-makers. The films included are Soldier Girls (1981), Chicken Ranch (1983), The Leader, His Driver and The Driver's Wife (1991), Tracking Down Maggie (1994), Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995) and Fetishes. There are commentaries on a couple of the films (the audio quality of which is a little poor, it has to be said), extra footage, those VW TV commercials featuring Broomfield, and an excellent 71-minute trip through his career, presented by the man himself.

Cry-Baby – The Director's Cut
With extended editions and director's cuts two-a-penny these days, it's rare and wonderful to find a film that really does benefit from the tinkering, not least in the re-instatement of two little words that make one of the film's funniest moments work so much better. It's John Waters with his fun-o-meter turned up to the max, but also wildly inventive and just a little bit bonkers, and Johnny Depp is the star! The disk, now available on region 2 as well as 1, has some lovely extras, including deleted scenes, and very nice 'making-of' documentary and a typically hilarious Waters commentary.

Freaked – Special Edition
Anchor Bay show just how to handle a cult film on DVD with this superb release of Alex Winter and Tom Stern's spectacularly barmy but wildly imaginative horror comedy, which features an uncredited and barely recogniseable guest appearance by Keanu Reeves as the Dog Boy. The 2-disk set sports a sparkling transfer and a busload of extras, including a feature-length rehearsal of the entire film, a lively directors' commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, galleries, short films and even the screenplay in PDF format.

Ong-Bak – Platinum Edition
The best martial arts film in years turns its back on wire work, CGI and even stunt doubles and introduces the world to the genre's newest star in the shape of Tony Jaa. The story's not up to much but who cares? The set-pieces are devine, the fight choreography dynamic and a balletically brutal edge is provided by the Muay Thai fighting style. Premiere Asia have done the film proud with this 2-disk DVD set, with a typically fine Bey Logan commentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews and a fascinating 70-minute behind-the-scenes documentary.

Review of the Year 2005: The DVDs

article posted
3 January 2006