The decade’s best lists are rolling in by the truck load, but I’m interested in a different, yet equally important (to my mind) kind of list – this soon to be past decade has presented the most important development in film connoisseurship since VHS, the digital versatile disc, affectionately dubbed the DVD. The introduction of the video cassette and its effects of film viewing habits cannot be overstated. Not only enabling us film fanatics to posses, watch and rewatch our favorite films, over and over, (changing film scholarship, academic or otherwise, in the process), but allowing even the most casual viewer to procure a personal object. Obviously, this has engendered not only a huge shift in how we consume media, but also the business of consumption itself. VHS changed studio distribution patterns, regional and international release windows, international copyright laws and sales, created an entirely new revenue stream for studios and their corporate conglomerate parent companies, and forever altered how we interact with, and ultimately value, images – filmed or otherwise. DVD has heightened that phenomena, not only with an increased awareness of sound and picture quality, but more importantly, an increased awareness of aspect ratios. Those of us raised on VHS became accustomed to experiencing film on demand, but DVD became a bracing rejoinder that we recognize that what we were experiencing was not in actuality a home based phenomena. In other words, we became aware that watching our favorite movies in the comfort of our own homes was not in any way ideal. As far as I know, Michael Mann was the first director to demand that the VHS reproduction of his film ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ be presented in letterboxed format, virtually unheard of at that time. And while letterboxed VHS caught on as a niche collectors format, it wasn’t until the introduction of DVD that reproduction of original aspect ratios became not only accepted, but the norm (witness the gradual decline of fullscreen DVD, a practice not unrelated to, but which predates, the ascendance of widescreen TVs). People might not have any interest in the technical lingo of ‘scope and widescreen, 1:85 versus 2:35, or the classic academy ratio of 1:33, nor the preferred European ration of 1:66. Regardless, even the casual viewer now knows what those black bars at the top and bottom of their screen signifies. Simply put, it signifies artistic intent, and an increased awareness of how to best appreciate that intent.
Obviously, the home viewing experience is nowhere near unproblematic – the very great critic Fred Camper has an essential article on how viewing films on TV differs from film projection, and there has been numerous spats on what exactly constitutes a films original aspect ratio (most recently a heated exchange on Universal’s 50th Anniversary release of Welles’s ‘Touch of Evil’). Admittedly, it is entirely possible to project a film print incorrectly, and I’ve seen 35mm prints on the big screen that pale in comparison to my restored DVD copies. Even Mr. Camper capitulated at one point, and supervised a Criterion Collection set of Stan Brakhage films. There’s also those extreme restorations that have been carried out digitally, existing only on disc form and therefore circumventing the original format in which the object was created (film stock, 35mm or otherwise). This can be done with intelligence and erudition, ala the recent Coppola supervised restoration of ‘The Godfather’, or can be done ineptly, ala the recent Friedkin supervised restoration of ‘The French Connection’.
All of which is to suggest the multitude of complexities inherent in film viewing, either in a theatre or at home. Nonetheless, I’d like to single out my favorite DVDs of the decade – a decade that belonged, for better or for worse, to the rise of DVD, as both market force and collector’s choice. For the record, these choices are based on 1. DVDs that I own, not only that I’ve seen or know about, 2. I’m basically Region 1 locked. Sorry; and 3. A combination of quality of film and maximizing of the format’s capabilities. In other words, regardless of how much I value Hill’s ‘The Driver’, de Toth’s ‘Day of the Outlaw’, Ray’s ‘Bitter Victory’, Aldrich’s ‘Attack!’, or Universal’s Marlene Dietrich Collection (and how amazed I am that these films exist for my consumption at home on my couch), these discs don’t exactly epitomize what the format is capable of. Conversely, films like Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy use the format brilliantly, with exhaustive behind-the-scenes features and substantially different cuts of the films themselves. These novelties aside, additional bells and whistles don’t elevate the actual films from big budget novelties, and ultimately epitomize the darkside of DVD as pure marketing device – a special edition version of a film appearing just before its sequel hits theatres has become endemic.
Sony’s Budd Boetticher Collection: an essential revelation, and evidence of the format’s ability to resurrect a reputation, while introducing Boetticher to a new generation and allowing entry to the pantheon with Ford, Hawks, Mann (Anthony) and de Toth. Hopefully we’ll get a Region 1 Allan Dwan set sooner rather than later.
Warner Bro’s John Wayne/John Ford:
Fox’s Ford at Fox: two releases that finally give the master his due. Ford has quickly become one of the filmmakers best represented in the digital format, and we are all the richer for it. Accompanied by an exquisite hard back book and ample supplemental materials, this box set is easily the equivalent of a college course.
Universal’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection: Ditto. If I’m not mistaken, with the exception of ‘Under Capricorn’, every Hitchcock film is now available for home viewing. With the decline of repertory theatres, it is increasingly difficult to see the films of the masters on a big screen, so I suppose we’ll take what we can get. Minus his early British films, you get the full gamut here, from the acknowledged masterpieces to some lesser known gems to those eccentric, late-period oddities: Family Plot, Frenzy, and Topaz, all of which are underrated.
Tati’s Playtime: Jonathan Rosenbaum has famously quoted Noel Burch that Playtime might be the first genuinely ‘open’ film, fulfilling the dreams of Bazin’s fabled ‘democratic’, long-take based cinema, and a film which requires not only multiple viewings, but viewings from different seats in the same theatre. Home video might not be the best venue with which to put this theory to the test, but Criterion’s superior edition of the film at least gives us the chance to revisit Tati’s grand folly for the grace of its design, its production values, and the intricacy of its choreography. It might be blasphemous of me to suggest this, but I value Tati over Chaplin and Keaton – all three comedians are inherently modern, but only Tati seems to have bent celluloid to his own whims in so fearless a manner.
Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar: If I where cornered with a gun to my head, then I might have to admit that this is my favorite film of all time. I encountered it early on, totally unaware of Bresson as an artist, and while I could initially make neither heads nor tails out of what was unfolding in front of me, it felt new and special – unique in a way I had never encountered before. Half a dozen viewings later, I’ve decoded some of the films mysteries, but by no means all – Bresson remains, along with Dreyer, one of those opaque masters. Totally concrete – every composition and edit lands with force, and no gesture or glance is wasted - yet ephemeral, and threatening to float away at a moments notice. I was lucky enough to see the film twice on the big screen in ’99, but revisiting the film required seeking out a bootleg vhs copy - suitable enough, although it was not unlike trying to watch a movie through a window, from some distance, with the screen covered by various layers of cloth - in other words, the ghost of an image. Thanks to Criterion for removing at least a few of those distracting layers.
Fantoma’s The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volumes I & II: our favorite experimental phantom of Hollywood, and a grand alchemist cum fetishist, finally gets some respect. This is an essential starting point for any understanding of avant garde film. Tom Gunning: ‘Anger does it all, bending the essential stuff of cinema into works that transport a viewer even while the filmmaker strips enthrallment and enchantment of any alibi of innocence.’
Criterion’s John Cassavettes: Five Films: It’s not quite accurate to claim that Cassavettes invented the American independent film, but it is a useful short hand. One has to experience the exhilaration of his peculiar brand of emotional damage, a kind of manic nervousness that results in absurdity and comedy as much as it does violence. This box set includes the exhaustive, nearly three hour documentary ‘A Constant Forge’.
Criterion’s Contempt: available for ages only on a pan and scan, dubbed VHS release, Criterion unleashed the full force of Godard’s acerbic masterpiece with this beautiful restored disc, overflowing with bountiful extras (the conversation between Godard and Fritz Land is a revelation). Meanwhile, witness the eroding of a relationship in all its protracted agony, one of the most searing set pieces in all of film.
Eclipse’s Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu: perhaps no national cinema has benefited more from the digital revolution than Japan. We’ve gradually shifted from Kurosawa to Ozu, and then to Mizoguchi. Now, we can asses the contributions of Naruse and Shimizu as well.
The Big Red One: The Reconstruction: Or, a resurrection; bless Warner Bro’s for giving Richard Schickel the money to produce this DVD package. Not only is the film about 45 minutes longer than the only know previous edition, but even more importantly, key sequences have been reworked and expanded, deepening the film’s narrative and emotional range, and the psychological ramifications of boys at war. War is hell, but in Fuller’s world, it is also sometimes surreal, sometimes absurd, and occasionally funny.
Criterion’s The Complete Mr. Arkadin: something of a misnomer, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out in several commentaries. The complex history and travels of Welle’s orphan film are far to complex to be easily resolved into a definitive, final version. Instead, we are offered three different versions of the film, allowing those interested to study variation after variation – some minute, and some more drastic. Plus, we get an essential audio commentary on the ‘Cornith’ version, with Rosenbaum and the great James Naremore discussing Welles and the various iterations of Arkadin. Not only is this film history class in a box, but it suggests the archival possibilities of the medium.
Criterion’s By Brakhage: An Anthology: once you’ve made your way through those Kenneth Anger films, you can start on this set. P. Adams Sitney has claimed that Brakhage had the most astonishing career in the history of cinema, leaving a body of work consisting of over 400 films over the last fifty years, and I’m not about to disagree. Brakhage wants to change the way we see the world, not only as a photo chemical phenomena but deep into our central nervous system.
Chris Marker’s AK: this is actually an extra feature on Criterion’s two disc release of Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’. I wish I was as enthusiastic about Kurosawa as Marker is, but nevertheless his poetic, essayistic making-of film journal is a small masterpiece of the personal documentary. There’s an interesting number of very great films that have been packaged as ‘bonus features’ on discs for other different films. I suppose one should just be grateful that these films are available at all, but I fear that this ghettoizing suggests that these films are somehow less than important. See also ’10 on Ten’, attached to Kiarostami’s ‘Ten’ (Zeitgeist Video); Wender’s ‘Tokyo Ga’, on the second disc of Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’ (Criterion); Zhang-ke’s ‘Dong’, released with his ‘Still Life’ (the now defunct New Yorker Video).
Auteurs in a box: A brief appreciation of a particular phenomena – the grouping of otherwise disparate auteurist masterpieces into box sets dedicated to a particular star personality. I certainly understand studios trying to capitalize in any way they can on an easy, ready made, selling point. More often than not it results in us getting a group of films that might not otherwise ever see the light of day. Case in point, Warner Brother’s Film Noir series: my personal favorite is volume five, with films by Andre de Toth (Crimewave) and Anthony Mann (Side Street). The real gem is Nick Ray’s glorious directorial debut, the phenomenal ‘They live By Night’, the first (and best) version of Bonnie and Clyde, and an ideal introduction to this supreme master. Sony’s Cary Grant box set has got two (count’em) Howard Hawks masterpieces – the definitive screwball romance yarn ‘His Girl Friday’ and the tough-guys-don’t-cry action vehicle ‘Only Angels Have Wings’. It’s a combo that represents the long running Hawksian dialectic between action and comedy, the masculine and the feminine, and always that particular sense of mortality so prevalent in Hawk’s work. We also get Leo McCarey’s ‘The Awful Truth’ and George Cukor’s underrated ‘Holiday’. Rounding out the set is the ok George Steven’s ‘The Talk of the Town’. At least it’s not as lugubrious as Steven’s prestige, Oscar bait vehicles. Warner Bros’ Robert Mitchum box set offers us one of Vincente Minnelli’s greatest efforts, the family melodrama ‘Home From the Hill’. Mitchum is particularly fierce as an emotionally distant Southern patriarch tearing his family apart. Otto Preminger’s ‘Angel Face’ is one of the great noirs, with a deceitful Jean Simmons wrapping Mitchum around her little finger until he cracks. It’s one of Preminger’s darkest thrillers, with a mechanical precision leading inexorably to one of the great cruel endings of all time. There’s also that strange, auteurist odd duck – the Von Sternberg/Nick Ray mash-up ‘Macao. While both are great directors, neither sensibility translates much in this noir-ish little crime thriller. Some nice photography and a certain level of pessimism make it an intriguing one-off. Rounding out the set is ‘The Yakuza’, which boasts some of the finest credits ever (directed by Sydney Pollack, from a screenplay by Paul Shrader and Robert Towne) for such a tepid crime picture. Mitchum soldiers through it, stoic as ever.
Up next for List-O-Mania: the albums of the year, my 100 best films of the decade (in conjunction with Mr. Andrew Alexander Dowd), wrapping up 2009, and some abandoned fragments on both a great recent film and a great older film.