Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Best DVD / Blu-ray of 2011

If you think Top Ten film lists are arbitrary, try putting together a “best of” for DVD and Blu-ray. What’s the criteria? The best movies? Quality of video and audio mastering? Creative featurettes and archival supplements? Historical importance? Cult interest? Or some balance of all these?

I’m all for the balance, which makes it as subjective presentation as there is, so allow me to break it down into a few categories to spread out the kudos. After all, it’s hard gauge the qualitative difference between a single disc debut of a historical cult item and a deluxe box set of a classic Hollywood blockbuster from the golden age.

I did not see everything that came out in 2011, of course, or even most of it, and my viewing choices were (like anybody’s) influenced as much by my own interests as by editorial demands, and shaped by deadlines and time constraints. In particular I did not see as many manufacture-on-demand releases as I would have liked, simply because there are far more interesting releases than I have the time to see. But based on what I did get the chance to watch and explore, here are my choices for the best DVD and Blu-ray releases of 2011.

DVD of the Year

Island of Lost Souls (Criterion)
“Are we not men?” Paramount’s 1932 answer to Universal’s gothic horrors is appropriately less Universal gothic than Paramount elegance, yet it is also more weird, cruel and transgressive, a wicked horror with Charles Laughton as a the proto-Dr. Mengele vivisectionist who operates on his subjects without anesthesia or compassion in an operating room he calls “The House of Pain.” Themes of humanity, identity, instinct, sex, bestiality, compassion and cruelty roil around in the hothouse jungle fabricated in the studio out of fog and flourishes suggesting the primitive and the perverse, a feral world as claustrophobic as it is intimidating.

It has been one of most requested classics for years. Though released on VHS and laserdisc in the nineties, it had been MIA on DVD, in large part because of the deplorable condition of the vault elements. No negative exists and the best 35mm prints were still damaged and incomplete. Criterion took on the task of preparing the DVD by piecing together the best possible version from multiple sources, from a damaged fine-grain 35mm positive to a 16mm print from a private collector, and digitally repairing as much damage as possible. The result is the first complete presentation of the most perverse and the least seen of thirties horror movie landmarks. There are better looking and sounding discs this year, and more exhaustive collections of supplements, but the effort expended in creating this release and the goodwill of the contributors makes this labor of love my pick for the best of 2011. DVD and Blu-ray. Reviewed on Parallax View.

Special Edition of the Year

The Social Network (Sony)
Directed with typical technical fastidiousness and textural richness by David Fincher from a verbally dexterous script by Aaron Sorkin, this story of the creation of Facebook is less interested in how the website was created than in how a young, arrogant genius with no people skills managed to deconstruct and reconstruct the social experience as a web-based simulacrum: a club that even Mark Zuckerberg (or, rather, “Mark Zuckerberg”) could thrive in. This is a story of hubris and ambition, of friendship and jealousy, of class and cultural cache, of success as status and revenge.

Fincher is one of the most exacting filmmakers in the world today and the supplements on the DVD and Blu-ray release offer a glimpse into his process, from a reflective commentary track to the superbly produced feature-length documentary “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?,” among the many supplements. It’s as intelligent and illuminative a collection of supplements as you’ll find on DVD/Blu-ray and it’s a superbly-mastered disc to boot. DVD and Blu-ray. Reviewed on Parallax View.

Blu-ray of the Year

Taxi Driver (Sony)
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.

The film received a top-to-bottom digital restoration, which premiered at Berlin before Sony’s Blu-ray debut of the modern classic. The new restoration doesn’t “clean up” the image so much as sharpen the texture of the portrait — it’s so visceral it you can feel the heat and grime waft off the screen — and the Blu-ray features all the supplements of previous DVD releases plus the original commentary track recorded by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader for the 1986 laserdisc: one of the very first commentary tracks ever recorded. New to this edition is the interactive Blu-ray exclusive “Script to Screen” function, which scrolls actual script pages (with Scorsese’s notations) along with the film. A great presentation of a great film. Reviewed on Parallax View.

Three Colors: Blue White Red (Criterion)
Krzysztof Kieslowski ended his career with this trilogy of delicately connected films that many hold as his greatest work. Criterion returns to the original materials for new high-definition masters for the Blu-ray debut, and they are stunning. In place of the commentary tracks from the previous Miramax DVD release, Criterion offers superb video essays for each film. Reviewed for Turner Classic Movies, linked via Parallax View.

Home Video Debut of the Year

The Prowler (VCI)
The long-awaited home video debut of Joseph Losey’s superb 1951 film has been one of those acknowledged classics of film noir that many have had to take on faith for far too long. Produced by Sam Spiegel and scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (behind front Hugo Butler), it is a classic of working class envy and restless resentment of the “bad breaks” that arrogance and assumed entitlement get you. Van Heflin is superb as the sour Horatio Alger, a former golden boy turned brutal opportunist willing to do anything to get what he’s sure is due him, and he shifts from one pose to another to charm and cajole those around him with cold-blooded focus. It doesn’t look like a classic film noir—Losey uses light to reveal and lay bare rather than cast webs across the characters—and he saves the shadows for intimacy to show the corruption of emotion and the way desire clouds judgment. That subtle touch makes the savagery of the scheme all the more brutal.

All but absent from TV showings for decades and never officially released on home video in any form, comes from a restoration by the Film Noir Foundation partnered with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and an insightful collection of supplements. It is the best looking disc to come from VCI to date. DVD only. Reviewed on Videodrone.

Read More “Best DVD / Blu-ray of 2011”

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Horror

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 3 – Midnight in the Garden of SIFF (Week Two)

Is Amer (Belgium, dirs: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani) a giallo—that deliriously stylish brand of Italian horror that (at its best) swirled overripe color and perverse violence with visceral imagery, voyeuristic tendencies and flamboyant camerawork—or a portrait of life imagined as a giallo? The story (such as it is) of Amer comes down to three apparently defining moments in the life of a highly imaginative (perhaps borderline mad) heroine: as a young girl trying to take in the charged emotional atmosphere surrounding her grandfather’s death (including incantations cast by a superstitious old servant and the acid-flashback imagery triggered when she spies her parents having sex), as a teenager whose shopping trip with mom explodes in sexual awareness when she comes across a motorcycle gang (are the objectifying shots of the wind wrapping her skirt around her legs, her breasts, her pouty, overripe lips their POV or her fantasy of their desire?), as a grown woman revisiting the family estate, a neglected place filled with overgrown vegetation, unresolved issues and a knife-wielding stalker (whose “reality” is as questionable as anything else seen through the mind’s eye of this woman). It’s a film seen through keyholes and ajar doors, down hallways and staircases, through windows and under doors, but mostly through the overheated mind’s eye of Ana as she transforms family drama and every day encounters into hothouse moments of sexual desire and repression, voyeurism, conspiracy, witchcraft, stalking and murder (or sees the lurid and dangerous reality under the surface that no one else notices).

Any objective understanding of the narrative is tangled up in the subjective experience of Ana (played by three different actress) and the expressionist delirium served up by Cattet and Forzani. But this isn’t mere tribute to the genre, it’s a celebration of the style, the texture, the psycho-sexual atmosphere of the best films, recreated in a triptych that could be a horror film, a coming-of-age story or a twisted Walter Mitty adventure from a Dario Argento fanatic. It isn’t necessary to know the genre to enjoy the film. While it borrows from more films than I can identify (not simply visually but its choice selection of soundtrack themes as well), it’s not commenting on any individual film so much as appropriating the style and sensibility for its own purposes. It doesn’t merely acknowledge the expressionist possibilities in a genre beloved horror fans but unknown to most people, it condenses it into a concentrated extract: a 90-minute hit of the essence of giallo as a surreal subjective journey, part sexual awakening, part repressed fear, part rarified death dream. And while the cinematic phantasmagoria is more interesting than any psychological reading or narrative understanding, it’s like mainlining decades of giallo highlights in a single screening. Quite a trip indeed.

Read More “SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 3 – Midnight in the Garden of SIFF (Week Two)”

Posted in: by Jay Kuehner, Contributors, Film Festivals

SIFF 2010: Like You Know It All

The Seattle International Film Festival is upon us again, that equally cherished and dreaded pre-summer ritual that entails queuing and going indoors just as the city is collectively preparing to spread its wings after another monochrome season of scarce daylight and, quite probably, enough drama already. Complain, however, that the fest is too long, and it will end all too soon. Moan that it’s too big, yet still lament the absence of your favorite director’s latest masterpiece (where oh where is Claire Denis’ White Material, or Eugene Green’s Portuguese Nun, or Joao Pedro Rodriguez’s To Die Like A Man?). As for the lines that still stretch down the alley behind the Egyptian theatre: haven’t we all waited longer for something far less tasty, like bad coffee for instance?

Cast your net wide at this audience-friendly (as opposed to industry-oriented) festival and something’s liable to turn up, perhaps something unexpected, just as in the fisherman Syracuse’s (Colin Farrel) catch in Neil Jordan’s improbable Irish fable Ondine; is she a mythic half-seal come to land to redeem the recovering alcoholic and his wheelchair-bound daughter? A Romanian drug runner fleeing a bust on open seas? Or, to take the whole enterprise at face value, is she a perfect narrative muse of a lingerie model who seductively chants Sigur Ros tunes to the ocean’s depths as Colin Farrel is consigned to channeling profound sympathy with his eyebrows alone? At the very least, the film boasts a smoldering, bruised palette in keeping with its nautical Irish milieu, lensed by the estimable Christopher Doyle who, it’s worth remembering, was once considered Wong Kar-Wai’s primary pair of eyes, and who delivered a master class in cinematography in typical rambling fashion at a past edition of SIFF. Has it really been that long?

Of course there is the wisdom that says it’s not the size of the catch but how you fish, an apt metaphor not only for festing but for filmmaking as well. Which is what makes Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar such an exemplary case; its protagonist is a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef who snares his fish by hand or spear, under the curious gaze of his tiny son Natan, born to an Italian mother and now thousands of miles away, surrounded by the vast sea, dwelling in a hut on stilts flanked by crocodiles and birds (one of which he proprietarily names ‘Blanquita’). Is this a fiction? A documentary? Or simply, as its director attests, just a “film” ? A genuine sleeper, graceful and direct.

Read More “SIFF 2010: Like You Know It All”