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.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

DVD: ‘Landmarks of Early Soviet Film’

The title of Flicker Alley’s box set Landmarks of Early Soviet Film: A Four-Disc DVD Collection Of 8 Groundbreaking Films may sound like dry lesson plan in film history on the surface. There are a lot of viewers, even lovers of movie classics, who consider watching any silent film not by Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton as the film history equivalent of eating your vegetables — good for you but hardly fun — and place the often stridently propagandistic features of early Soviet cinema high on that list. Perhaps the most valuable revelation of this collection is the diversity of filmmaking, from dynamic dramas to witty comedies to striking documentaries, even among those committed to the aesthetic of montage. The concept that meaning comes not simply from the shot but in the way shots are juxtaposed was more than a guiding for many of the filmmakers, it was the filmmaking equivalent of revolutionary credentials, but the application and purpose was different for each filmmaker.

The set features work by the three most famous Soviet proponents of montage: Sergei Eisenstein, who essays on principles of editing were reflected in such films as Battleship Potemkin and October; Dziga Vertov, who apprenticed in political newsreels before graduating to features and soaring to Man With a Movie Camera; and Lev Kuleshov, who coined the term ‘montage’ and first explored the possibilities in experiments and early films his student workshop. These three directors popularized primacy of editing in both practice and theory. Just as illuminating, however, is the inclusion of filmmakers with different ideas and approaches to montage and to filmmaking in general. Montage is not just one thing, as these films illustrate. It encompasses ideas and arguments, emotions and excitement, suspense and tension, dramatic effect, revelation and humor: the perfect cut as punchline delivery. It was also a short-lived aesthetic in Soviet cinema. “Formalism” was condemned as a bourgeois concept and montage directors fell out of favor. This collection celebrates a brief period of cinematic experimentation.

Porfiriy Podobed as the flag-waving Mr. West

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), the debut feature from Lev Kuleshov, is a political cartoon of a Soviet satire that knowingly spoofs American stereotypes of “Bolshevik revolutionaries” through the comically surreal odyssey of the gullible Mr. West (Porfiri Podobed, dressed to evoke a middle-aged Harold Lloyd), an American politician on a fact-finding mission to the Soviet Union. Arriving with star-spangled socks and a head full of the most sinister stereotypes of the barbarous state of the communist peoples, he’s kidnapped by a gang of con artists who deliver his worst Bolshevik nightmare, complete with a staged “trial” the plays out likes a piece of anti-Bolshevik theater by way of a German Expressionist horror, as a preamble to prying him from his money. While Kuleshov and crew (including future filmmaker V.I. Pudovkin, who collaborated on the script) present the communist caricatures with a knowing wink to its Soviet audience, its equally absurd American clichés — such as West’s cowboy sidekick (played by future director Boris Barnet) arriving in Moscow in chaps and cowboy hat, shooting up the streets like a drunken cowhand and lassoing a car like it was a runaway horse — are played for culture clash comedy: the crazy hayseed in the big city. By the end, of course, our wide-eyed Mr. West is introduced to the true face of communism and the glories of the Soviet ideal, but along the way Kuleshov creates a breakneck mix of chase film, cliffhanger adventure and slapstick comedy with cartoonish twists. It’s American popular entertainment refracted through a Soviet lens. It’s also very funny, highly inventive and quite knowing in its appropriation of cinema clichés.

More on By the Law, The House on Trubnaya Square, Old and New, Salt for Svanetia and others at Turner Classic Movies.