The Essential DVD Debuts of 2008

I’ve done the best DVD releases of the year in some incarnation or another for years. This one is a little different. This is not a celebration of the most impressive special editions, the most stunning transfers or the best supplements. This is my list of what I consider the essential movies that debut on DVD — from long awaited classics to rare cult discoveries — done up right in worthy editions. That doesn’t mean great supplements (though those are always appreciated) but worthy transfers and fine mastering.

Forgive the U.S.-centric spin. Some of these may have been released in other countries with other region codes, but not everyone has an open-code, region free, PAL-converting DVD player. And those of us who do don’t always keep on the releases in other regions. I have a hard enough time keeping up with what’s coming out here.

This is a decidedly subjective list, influenced by personal taste, excitement of discovery (or rediscovery) and rarity. While films that have been previously available on VHS or are periodically revived in retrospectives or cable showings are still valued DVD releases, the release of something unavailable in any form is an even greater cause for celebration, and that is reflected in my subjective hierarchy.

#1 – The Films Of Budd Boetticher

The cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher with star/producer Randolph Scott and writer Burt Kennedy include some of the greatest American westerns of the fifties — or ever, for that matter. Until this year, that was a contention that many folks had to take on faith, as these films were difficult to see at best. Apart from Seven Men From Now, released on DVD a few years ago by Paramount, none of these collaborations were on DVD and the selection arbitrarily released on VHS years ago were part of a failed experiment in low-cost/low-quality tapes from Goodtimes, whose tapes were recorded in the substandard EP (extended play) mode. And of course, the two widescreen films in the cycle were only ever seen on TV or video in pan-&-scan versions, which ill-served the integrity of Boetticher’s films. Has any major American director been treated with such shabby neglect on home video as Budd Boetticher?

The five-disc set The Films of Budd Boetticher from Sony Pictures Home Video more than doubles the number of Boetticher films on DVD (before the release of this box set, only four of his 35 features were available, and only a few more on VHS and laserdisc), but more importantly, it finally gives this American director his due with beautiful editions of his essential films, especially his definitive The Tall T (mastered to fit the 16×9 frame) and his widescreen classics Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, all tightly scripted by Kennedy with a lyrical approach of dialogue, all set in an increasingly abstract nowhereland of the desert. The offbeat black comedy Buchanan Rides Alone and the grim Decision at Sundown are minor companion pieces with a few major pleasures (among them a beautiful turn by a young L.Q. Jones as an amiable young cowpoke in Buchanan). In all of them, Boetticher took the “limitations” of his stiff, craggy star and turned them into essential elements of his characters: a hard, inexpressive man at home on a horse and in the wilderness, a survivor with few words and no wasted actions. The same can be said for Boetticher’s direction: every shot of his best films is austere and pared to the essentials, yet directed with an ease that made them live and breath. Martin Scorsese provides a marvelous video introduction to The Tall T (and, by extension, the entire series) and Ride Lonesome with a mixture of historical perspective and cinephile love of the films and Clint Eastwood introduces Comanche Station, but an even greater contribution is the documentary Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, a feature-length portrait of the director and his life and career produced by Eastwood and directed by Bruce Ricker.

#2 – Murnau, Borzage and Fox

A labor of love and a gift to all lovers of silent cinema (and, for that matter, anyone who loves great cinema of any and all kinds), this magnificent box set features two silent films by F.W. Murnau and ten complete features by the much less celebrated Frank Borzage, one of cinema’s great romantics and neglected giants of silent cinema. The convergence of the two artists in this set is more than a matter of simply studio. Murnau, brought to Hollywood by Fox as a marquee director, became the studio’s artist in residence and every director came by to watch him work and soak in the expressive qualities of his style and cinematic sensibility. No one benefited more than Frank Borzage, a good director who became great as he found the imagery and approach to match his own romantic impulses. In 1927, these two directors dominated the inaugural Academy Awards: Borzage’s Seventh Heaven won for Director and Adapted Screenplay, Murnau’s Sunrise won for Cinematography and “Artistic Quality of Production” (a sort of high-art “Best Picture” award that disappeared the next year), and the two shared Janet Gaynor’s Best Actress award. Their work sets the high-water mark for the art of silent cinema at the end of the silent era.

All but one of the films — Murnau’s Sunrise, one of the unequivocal masterpieces of world cinema — has previously been available on DVD, and it has been remastered for this new release. City Girl (1930), the third of Murnau’s three films for Fox, makes its long awaited debut and it’s a beaut, but the great treasures of the collection are the holy trinity of Borzage’s romantic classics: Seventh Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star. All starring Fox’s eternal young lovers, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, they are among the most lush silent films ever made and the most entrancing celebrations of the redemptive power of love in all of cinema. Seventh Heaven and Street Angel have been available on VHS in passable editions through “Critic’s Choice,” but they look like different movies in these editions restored and remastered for DVD. Other highlights include Bad Girl, a depression-era romantic drama filled with financial pressure and tenement life (it earned Borzage his second Oscar for Best Director), a reconstruction of the partially-lost The River, a glorious film in a terrible state of degradation, and a documentary on Murnau’s lost film Four Devils, which is also celebrated in of the two beautiful books that come with the set.

#3 – La Roue / J’Accuse

My nominee for the restoration of 2008 is Flicker Alley’s amazing reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1923 masterpiece, previously unavailable in any form on home video. La Roue premiered in France at 32 reels in length, shown over the course of three days. It was edited down to 12 reels for distribution and cut even more for export. Much of that material has been lost to time, but this new restoration, reconstructed from numerous versions (including two brief but critical scenes from an abridged 9.5mm home movie print) by producers Eric Lange, David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino, brings it back up to 20 reels: the most complete version available since its premiere, running almost 270 minutes across two discs.

There really is no other director like Gance. He draws upon the full range of graphic effects, from irises to dramatic masking, double exposures to composites, and unleashes his arsenal within the first few minutes. But his technical mastery is in the service of the story, and he transforms the story of La Roue into an emotional epic. He is a master conductor who plays scenes like symphonies of feelings, continuing long past the narrative point has been established to express the emotional intensity of the characters and situations, and to add moments of pure grace to the mighty drama. It’s a working class melodrama with grand swathes of tragedy, intense scenes of destruction (the aftermath of a train wreck is an inferno suggested by bold silhouettes against burning orange tints), and devastating moments of loss and redemption directed with delicate grace. Shot over the course of three years on location at the train yards in Nice and in the French Alps, the film was released in 1923 and was years ahead of its time, influencing filmmakers all over the world (the rhythmic editing, building to a staccato fury, was appropriated by Sergei Eisenstein, among others). The restoration is beautiful and its clarity is thrown into relief when the film resorts (for brief passages) to 9.5mm footage for otherwise lost footage. Flicker Alley also released a restoration of Abel Gance’s 1919 J’Accuse, a harrowing anti-war drama and a forgotten masterpiece with a cinematic sophistication and expressive grace years ahead of its time.

#4 – La Ronde / Le Plaisir / The Earrings of Madame de…

The three Max Ophuls French classics released by Criterion are all elaborate dances of unconditional love in a conditional world of social constraints and fickle lovers. The delicious La Ronde, the greatest romantic roundelay in the cinema, is a slow dance of chance meetings, secret trysts, hopeless courtships and cuckolded lovers where everybody is somebody’s fool on the merry-go-round of love and desire. Le Plaisir is a trilogy of romantic tales told with mix of sweet generosity and a wistful sense of regret. The Earrings of Madame de…, the most elegant of these melancholy waltzes, has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. It’s not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. There’s no cynicism in Ophuls’ direction, merely a bemused irony with a dash of melancholy and sadness, and the delirious elegance of his gliding camera gives it all a delicate beauty. The films have only been available as import DVDs or, fitfully, on gray market VHS tapes of substandard quality. These releases are a much needed correction to that void.

#5 – Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies (Eclipse Series #10)

Yasujiro Ozu has been acclaimed as the most “Japanese” of Japanese film directors for his sedate, contemplative family dramas and subdued comedies, but he began his career as a director of lively silent films more indebted to Hollywood style than the quiet restraint and rigorous simplicity of his future films. His most beloved and enduring films of the silent era are his family comedies and this collection, released by Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse label, features three of the director’s richest and most delightful productions from the period. Tokyo Chorus is a light comedy with a social conscience and a serious subtext: our salaryman hero loses his job and joins the ranks of the unemployed. Passing Fancy is another family comedy set in a culture of poverty, and I Was Born, But…, a “picture book for grown-ups” (as the opening titles read), is a social satire with a hilarious portrait of childhood and a somber resignation to innocence lost. The physical quality of the prints vary (sadly, much of Japan’s early film history fell victim to poor preservation), with I Was Born, But… coming out best, and each features a bright piano score by Donald Sosin. None of these films were available in any home format before this release, and are rarely revived, and then only in comprehensive Ozu retrospectives.

#6 – Mafioso

A decade before The Godfather, Albert Lattuada deglamorized the gangster chic of the Italian mafia with this bitter satire of Sicily’s “paternal” criminal underworld. Revived at the 2006 New York Film Festival and re-released in a beautiful new restoration by Rialto, it became the cinematic rediscovery of that year. Lattuada’s direction is pitch perfect: he slips the film from a comic satire of culture clash and oblivious idealization to the grave reality of the world nobody dares admit exists, let alone defy. The film never loses its sly humor, but it turns darker with a force that packs a gut-punch, and the willful blindness to the malignant mafia simply perpetuates the cycle.

#7 – Come Drink with Me

The glory of the great martial arts fantasies, of heroic battles that move like warrior ballets, of gymnastic moves and fighting grace, of Jackie Chan and Jet Li… It all began with King Hu’s 1965 Hong Kong wuxia pian (”martial chivalry” genre) classic Come Drink With Me. The film soars on a lyrical mix of scruffy singing heroes, cross-dressing heroines, narcissistic villains, and fantastical action choreographed like dance, and it launched a new wave of Hong Kong filmmaking. It’s influence reverberates through everything from Bruce Lee’s martial arts thrillers of the 1970s to Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films to the Tsui Hark-led new wave of high energy, special effects laden adventures in 1980s Hong Kong, and of course, the Oscar winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee’s tribute the magical, colorful genre that King Hu reinvented with this film. Previously available only as an import, it gets a beautiful and respectful release from the Weinstein’s Dragon Dynasty label of Asian action cinema.

#8 – Classe Tous Risques / Le Deuxième Souffle

Two classics of French Crime Cinema, long unavailable in the US in any form, debuted on home video from Criterion. Claude Sautet made his directorial debut with Classe Tous Risques, a tough, lean, smart piece of French crime cinema made on the cusp of the New Wave. Like so many directors of his generation, Sautet is seduced by the romantic codes of honor among thieves and glamorizes the doom inevitable doom that such a life entails. But he never flinches from the contradictions inherent in the enigmatic antihero, whose very professionalism puts his loved ones at risk, in this minor classic of cool French crime cinema. Jean-Pierre Melville’s meticulously plotted and crisply executed crime thriller Le Deuxième Souffle has been neglected due to its long unavailability. The long overdue home video release reveals a transitional film between the romantic genre play of Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos and the austere and existential Le Samourai. The moments of light humor and romantic diversions are gone, replaced with a stripped-down direction sensitive to the minutiae of detail, and an exacting pace and meticulous editing attuned to the weight of time. Both films make brilliant use of stocky, broad-shouldered Lino Ventura, an icon of the genre and a model of stoic professionalism. Rialto Picture re-released Classe Tous Risques in a restored print for a repertory rediscovery a couple of years ago. Le Deuxième Souffle received no such revival, making this DVD the first opportunity most filmgoers have had to finally see this neglected Melville classic. Both are essential slices French genre filmmaking.

#9 – Lubitsch Musicals (Eclipse Series #8)

Ernst Lubitsch was the master of the silent movie comedy of high society manners and lusty passions and he crossed over to sound with the grace of his cultured characters, adding music and dialogue sparkling with veiled suggestion to his opulent romantic comedies of manners and mischief. Lubitsch Musicals presents four of the delicious, delectable, deft sex comedies. These musicals as earthy and randy as they come, but presented with such wit and elegance that the innuendo isn’t dirty, it’s just fun. The rich and beautiful are just as lusty as the rest of us, but they have style, at least when Lubitsch is directing them. This set, from Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse series, charts Ernst Lubitch’s first sound films with the home video debuts of his first four playfully adult musicals, three of them starring the perfectly-cast Maurice Chevalier: as a womanizing military attaché with eyes for American in Paris Jeanette MacDonald in Lubitsch’s talking picture debut The Love Parade, as The Smiling Lieutenant who courts both free-thinking showgirl Claudette Colbert and repressed princess Miriam Hopkins, and as a philandering husband in One Hour With You, a remake of his own silent masterpiece The Marriage Circle and his final “pre-code” musical. Jack Buchanan takes the lead for the non-Chevalier title Monte Carlo as a sly count who poses as a hairdresser to get into countess Jeanette MacDonald’s boudoir. Chevalier is a delight, but MacDonald is a revelation in roles of savvy, continental sophistication in matter of both love and sex.

#10 – Blast of Silence

Allen Baron’s stark, low-budget 1961 thriller about a hit man who arrives in New York City over the Christmas holiday to execute a contract on a mid-level gangster was once a holy grail of noir cinema. The production, shot on the streets of New York in black and white with a minimal crew, embraces its limitations, forgoing realism for an alienated atmosphere defined in part by the hard-boiled narration of the uncredited Lional Stander, speaking in second person like the twisted inner voice of a soul that has been simmering in antipathy and spite for years. It’s like pulp beat poetry distilled into pure misanthropic cynicism and the film plays like an unholy marriage between the docu-realist films noir of the forties and the early independent dramas of John Cassavetes. The film was almost impossible to see for years, known only by reputation until a small but revelatory revival in the nineties. Criterion’s DVD release, which also features a revelatory documentary on the film’s origins, marks its home video debut.

Special mentionTouch Of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition

The 1998 “revision” of Orson Welles’ wild masterpiece of a baroque border town murder mystery has been on DVD, but the earlier versions — the original 93-minute version released in 1958, the 108-minute preview version rediscovered in the Universal vaults in 1975 (and which had since supplanted the release version in all repertory showings) — had never been on home video in any form until this two-disc set from Universal. The care they put into restoring versions that, but for historians, Welles completists and obsessives (not mutually exclusive categories), have become footnotes to history. Yet they are history, the versions that critics and fans saw and judged before the days of home video and long before the reconstruction of the ideal version (one that never existed, but might have) was even contemplated. This lovingly produced set, with four commentary tracks and a reproduction of the original memo that started the whole business, is a gift to us all.

Honorable Mentionsfilms which, upon reviewing, reflection, or simply reconsideration in another frame of mind, could have found purchase on this list.

Singles:

An Autumn Afternoon – Ozu’s final film. Criterion.

Boomerang / Road House – Two minor classics of film noir from Fox.

Death Of A Cyclist – Juan Antonio Bardem’s bitter indictment of Franco’s repressive Spain in the guise of a noir melodrama. Criterion.

El Cid – Anthony Mann’s brawny historical epic finally gets all its glory on home video. The Weinstein Company’s The Miriam Collection.

Lost Highway – David Lynch’s wild ride of dopplegangers, time shifts, surreal images and plot twists finally arrives on DVD. Universal

Man of the West – Another Anthony Mann, this one a stark sunset western, finally in all its widescreen anti-glory. MGM

Midnight/ Easy Living / The Major and the Minor / She Done Him Wrong – Four marvelous comedies of the thirties and forties from the Universal Cinema Classics collection

Pierrot Le Fou / La Chinoise / Le Gai Savoir – Three by Jean-Luc Godard. Criterion/Koch

Privilege – Music and image as commodity in Peter Watkins’ 1967 social satire. New Yorker.

Satantango – Bela Tarr’s acclaimed 1994 epic. Facets.

Sets:

The Delirious Fictions Of William Klein (Eclipse Series #9) (Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? / Mr. Freedom / The Model Couple) – Three unconventional fictions from fashion photographer turned documentary filmmaker William Klein. Criterion/Eclipse

Jean-Luc Godard: 3-Disc Collector’s Edition (Passion / First Name: Carmen / Detective / Helas Pour Moi) – Previously available on VHS, debuting on DVD. Lionsgate

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women (Eclipse Series #13) (Osaka Elegy / Sisters of the Gion / Women of the Night / Street of Shame) – Four films from the great Japanese director. Criterion/Eclipse

Larisa Shepitko (Eclipse Series #11) (The Ascent / Wings) – Neither of these films from the largely unknown Soviet director have been available on home video in the U.S.. Criterion/Eclipse

TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 2 (The Divorcee / A Free Soul / Three on a Match / Female / Night Nurse) – If only for the notorious, deliciously disreputable Night Nurse with Barbara Stanwyck. And the unbelievably tawdry Three on a Match. And…. Warner

Silent Cinema:

A Throw of Dice – German craftsmanship and Indian artistry come together in this exotic adventure from India. Kino

The Lodger (in the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection) – Alfred Hitchcock’s first classic has been on DVD before, but never in a satisfactory edition. Until now. MGM

Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer – Before he was the first action hero, he was “Doug,” as this five-disc set reminds up. Flicker Alley

D. W. Griffith Masterworks 2 – Includes his 1920 masterpiece Way Down East and Kevin Brownlow’s definitive documentary on the director. Kino

The Outlaw and His Wife РThe devastating drama by Victor Sj̦str̦m, one of the godfathers of Swedish cinema. Kino

Biggest disappointmentOrson Welles’ Don Quixote

I don’t hold Image, the producer of the DVD, responsible for the content of this atrocious version of Orson Welles’ famously unfinished film. It is the only authorized version available and they surely felt an opportunity to make a rarity available to the public. But that doesn’t change the fact that this 1992 “reconstruction,” haphazardly cobbled together by legendary exploitation director turned indifferent B-movie hack Jesus Franco, is irresponsible at best and criminally negligent at worst as a representation of Welles’ surviving work, let alone his intentions in transforming the footage into a narrative. The quality of the footage on screen is awful and the video manipulation of Welles’ imagery is the height of artistic arrogance.

Here are few companion lists:

Michael Atkinson’s “Best Straight to DVD Films of 2008”

Video Watchblog’s Favorite DVDs of 2008

My “Best DVDs of 2008” list for MSN

Update: December 31

Dave Kehr’s “Notable DVDs of 2008” at the New York Times

Update: January 9, 2009

DVD & Blu-ray DVDs of the Year 2008, from DVD Beaver

DVD Savant’s Most Impressive Discs of 2008, from DVD Talk