The rise of DVD culture presents opportunities for film critics not shared by writers on the other arts. Literary critics don't get to break the news about a great book by James Joyce or Virginia Woolf in the way that movie writers can discuss DVD issues of old movie favorites. What follows is a sampling of the year's most interesting DVDs. The list isn't remotely comprehensive--instead, we've wandered off the beaten track a bit, and the variety of selections reflects something of our personal tastes.
Except where noted, listed prices are full retail prices from Amazon.com.
The Busby Berkeley Collection
Warner Home Video
Busby Berkeley's surreal musical masterpieces were out of print on DVD for years before Warner Brothers released this indispensable set, including 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935, Footlight Parade, Dames and a disc of production numbers from these and other Berkeley films. Berkeley's giddy, girly kaleidoscopes have a dazzling Art Deco geometry, a tension between innocence and vulgarity, a fragmenting of the female body that only he could imagine on screen. The camera is a participant in his dance routines, and luckily he was not required to showcase a particular musical star, since it was the chorus that inspired him. He loved shiny black floors and dancers in white, he loved girls' faces, and other parts of their bodies, too.
There is nothing like these films, steeped in Depression misery, spiked with saucy asides, dressed by the brilliant Orry Kelly, and filled with the unique faces of Warren William, Aline MacMahon, Bebe Daniels, Joan Blondell, James Cagney, and the regulars, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Hugh Herbert, etc. While the dance numbers are exhaustively rehearsed and meticulously shot with swooping and gliding cameras, the songs are fresh, sung live on the set.
The discs are packaged with oodles of delicious extras. The special features begin with informative short documentaries, and the expert talking heads range from Richard Barrios, the author of my favorite history of musicals, A Song in the Dark, to directors John Landis and John Waters. Pertinent newreel footage, Merrie Melodies cartoons and Vitaphone shorts featuring the perky Dubin and Warren songbook follow (how many times do you want to hear "Pettin' in the Park"?), showing how the cheapskate Warner Brothers recycled their properties endlessly. There are no duds in this collection, and Cagney's fierce hoofing in Footlight Parade can't be beat. —Laura Boyes
The Conformist (Extended Edition)
Paramount Home Video
Once upon a time, Bernardo Bertolucci was the great hope of lefty cinephiles—think Susan Sontag—who longed to see a convergence of highbrow literature, revolutionary fervor and cinematic rapture. The expectations were created with his early work: There was swaggeringly precocious Before the Revolution, adapted from Stendahl's The Charterhouse of Parma when he was 22, that traced the disillusionment of a bourgeois romantic. There were the more difficult excursions of Partner and The Spider's Stratagem, adaptations of Dostoevsky and Borges, respectively. But with The Conformist, which appeared in 1970, the mature Bertolucci seemed to arrive—when he was still in his 20s.
Based on an Alberto Moravia novel, The Conformist tells the story of Marcello, a professional assassin in Fascist Italy who travels to France with his ditzy wife to carry out the murder of his left-wing former professor and his glamorous, crypto-lesbian wife. But what makes the film so special is its use of non-linear narrative that makes the kinds of associations that expository dialogue can not. The operatic flourishes, the dazzling cinematography and sensuous dance numbers of The Conformist are all motifs that would reemerge in Bertolucci's later work, from Last Tango in Paris to The Dreamers.
At $14.99, this disc is a steal because of the generous interviews with Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. At this late juncture in Bertolucci's career, it's clear that his work from the early 1970s was to be his best, and Bertolucci seems to know it: He marvels at The Conformist as if "somebody else did it, somebody else who was you, who maybe is somewhere inside me still—or maybe not." —David Fellerath
Gross Pointe: The Complete Series
The rare WB sitcom that was actually funny, Grosse Pointe combined the broad humor of creator Darren Star's Sex and the City with the premise of his previous creations, the prime-time soaps Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.
Set behind the scenes at a WB drama, the show ruthlessly satirized such WB fare as Dawson's Creek alongside Star's older shows. Characters include Irene Molloy as the bitch-off-camera lead (no comment), Kohl Sudduth as her bad-boy love interest hiding a receding hairline (no comment), and Lindsay Sloane as the meek best friend who, in the original version of the pilot, only got the job because of a powerful relative (again, no comment).
The off-camera storylines are funny enough, but the show-within-the-show gives Grosse Pointe extra bite; Sloane's character falls into a coma with a "live or die" hotline sponsored by Subway, while Bonnie Sommerville's naïve ingénue is rewritten from a hayseed cousin to a stripper/prostitute after her ex-boyfriend publishes nude photos of her.
A number of celebrities played themselves in guest spots, including Jason Priestley as Sudduth's sex-addicts sponsor and Sarah Michelle Gellar (who wants a lesbian kiss with Sloane's character). The WB's audience didn't know what to make of this, but thankfully Amazon.com has reissued the series in an online exclusive with commentary and a new interview with Star. The episode where Molloy gains weight to play Monica Lewinsky in an Oliver Stone film and actually becomes nice is worth the price of the set by itself. —Zack Smith
Hustle: Complete Season One
Hustle is a larky and coolly glam BBC TV series hidden away on the debased cable channel AMC. A workplace dramedy about a multi-generational crew of con artists, the oddball cast reinvents the motto "you can't cheat an honest man" one episode at a time. Leading the team is Adrian Lester as Mickey Bricks, natty dresser, brilliant schemer and exacting father figure. Lester is a Shakespearean actor and song and dance man; he was both in Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost. Issues of race—he's black—are mostly ignored, but occasionally arise in challenging contexts. His mentor is played by American actor Robert Vaughn. Vaughn is in his 70s but his vibe is completely that of his swinging '60s icon, Napoleon Solo, aka The Man from UNCLE. My curiosity about the show was piqued in the first place because of the teaming of Vaughn and Marc Warren, playing Danny Blue, an impatient Cockney upstart and aspirant to Mickey's throne. Warren, pouty and with a shaggy blond hairdo, bears more than a passing resemblance to David McCallum, the other Man from UNCLE, and creates a visual pun with Vaughn whenever they share the frame.
The de rigeur sexpot is Jaime Murray, a brainy brunette with a tart repartee. Rounding out the crew is the "fixer" facilitating the gang's gadget and computer hacking needs, played by mild mannered Robert Glenister.
This first season of six cons (those BBC series are short and to the point) includes one of the very best, about a forged Mondrian which might rewrite art history and the rapacious dealer who lusts after it. The extras aren't much, about 20 minutes of interviews split between the two discs, and some puffery to read; perhaps there will be more when Season Two comes out in February. —Laura Boyes
Michael Haneke 4-Pack
$119.80 (currently selling for 30 percent off on KINO's Web site, www.kino.com)
"Un film de Michael Haneke. The words signal a mugging." So wrote a critic for the online magazine Slate about the late-blooming Austrian director whose best-known films came after he spent years toiling in the cinematic backwater of Austria, working on stage and for television before shifting to the movies. Now, in one of the year's best DVD treats for those of us who believe that Haneke is one the most thoughtful, ethical and aesthetically rigorous filmmakers working today, Kino Video has issued four of his early Austrian films in a single set.
As it turns out, Haneke's Austrian films are about as merciless and terrifying as his recent ones, and they also reveal a remarkable consistency of vision—which his detractors might call "limited." My favorite is his first feature, The Seventh Continent, in which a striving young middle-class family decides to pull up stakes and "emigrate." No spoilers here, except to say that they don't quite leave the house. In Benny's Video, a neglected teenager builds a fortress of his bedroom, with surveillance equipment beaming images of the outside world into his darkened redoubt. The inevitable carnage that ensues is shot and edited with the surgical precision of Hitchcock. 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance is an effort to convey the tenuous bonds between individuals in a modern alienated culture that could snap at any moment.
Finally, there's Funny Games, a widely loathed film in which a bourgeois family arrive at their country house only to encounter a pair of sadistic killers. The aim here is to show violence as violence—painful, terrifying and immoral—not as disposable entertainment. This Brechtian film is an excruciating watch, a movie in which the only appropriate response is revulsion. Still, some of us admire it.
Thanks to the strength of these early works, Haneke got a phone call from one of Europe's most popular actresses, Juliette Binoche. Would Haneke come to France and make a movie for her? Haneke happily complied with Code Unknown, a fragmentary tale of Parisian outsiders, which kicked off his present run of French movies. Next year, however, we will see Haneke's Hollywood debut, a remake of Funny Games with Naomi Watts. It may be a terrible idea, but I don't plan to miss it.
Each DVD in the Kino series includes an interview with Haneke, in which he discusses the film at length and reveals himself to be far warmer and cheerier than his movies would suggest. —David Fellerath
St. Elsewhere: Season One
20th Century Fox
Before Meredith Grey began her dysfunctional affair with McDreamy and Dr. House routinely abused his patients each week, there was a series that redefined the medical drama by injecting it with a healthy dose of reality and dysfunction. Airing on NBC from 1982 to 1988, St. Elsewhere won a number of Emmys and launched the careers of several actors (including Denzel Washington, David Morse, Howie Mandel and Ed Begley Jr.) while also giving great showcases to such veteran performers as Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd and William Daniels.
Set at decaying Boston hospital St. Eligius, the series combined realistic medical stories with comic storylines and outright surreality; an episode about a sleep study, for example, contained both the chilling confession of a recently deceased rapist and a shot-for-shot recreation of ZZ Tops's "Legs" video. The award-winning first season doesn't quite have this balance, with creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who would later create Northern Exposure, emphasizing darker stories that earned them the nicknames "Dr. Death and Mr. Depression," and a focus on David Birney's Ben Samuels, who disappeared after the first season. But talented writers, including Oz's Tom Fontana, offer some excellent storylines, including one with a just-out-of-acting-school Tim Robbins as an arrogant bomber.
Influencing everything from today's medical dramas to Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere was, as NBC put it, "where television went to get better." Even if it was just the product of an autistic boy with a snow globe. —Zack Smith
3 Films by Louis Malle
$79.95, or $29.95 each
The banality of evil may be a concept that has achieved its own banality, but Lacombe, Lucien, Louis Malle's most unseen must-see film from 1974, is a gripping and often mordant excursion into that territory. Lucien Lacombe is an ordinary farm boy in France in the last year of World War II, a creature of the land most adept at the tasks of tracking and killing small game—indeed, when he slaughters a chicken, he administers the coup de grace with a slash of his bare hand. Bored with his job swabbing hospital floors and humiliated by the sight of his mother putting out for their landlord and boss, he decides to volunteer for the Resistance. Only problem: the local recruiter is Lucien's former schoolteacher who remembers what an idiot his student was. So, quite by accident, Lucien ends up working for the Gestapo in the provincial capital. As the film makes clear, however, it's all the same to him as long as he is able to taste the sweetness of having power over others for a change. But Malle doesn't settle for making Lucien a monster—although he can be that, too. Instead, he's kind of an anti-Candide, floating opportunistically from one safe harbor to another in those evil times.
Criterion has included Lacombe, Lucien in a three-fer with two far better-known Malle films. One is his 1987 return to the theme of youngsters in Nazi-world, Au Revoir Les Enfants, in which French Catholic schoolkids conspire to hide a Jewish student in their midst. Murmur of the Heart is a coming of age tale from 1971, in which a teenaged boy comes to terms with his not-that-much-older and very hot mom, and that recently provided inspiration for The Squid and the Whale.
Purchased separately, the three films come with minimal DVD extras but contain long essays (including Pauline Kael on Lacombe). The boxed set includes a bonus disc containing, among other tidbits, archival television interviews with Malle, who died in 1995. —David Fellerath
Transformers: The Movie (20th anniversary edition)
For a generation of children growing up in the 1980s, the most traumatic cartoon death wasn't Bambi's mom, but Optimus Prime, the mouthless hero/big rig prone to such utterances as "Autobots, transform and roll out!" Recently re-released in a two-disc anniversary edition, Transformers: The Movie is a film that's equal parts time capsule, camp classic and damn good fun. An expansion of the 1984 cartoon series designed to help sell a line of action figures (it worked), the film chronicles how the car-based Autobots' battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons is taken to a new level when Prime perishes and Decepticon leader Megatron is upgraded into Galvatron by the ravenous robot-planet Unicron, while young Autobot Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) tries to avoid being eaten by the Sharkticon servants of the five-faced Quintessons and recover the Matrix of Leadership. And if that last sentence made absolutely no sense to you ... you probably weren't a kid in 1986.
For non-TransFans, the film offers a variety of campy treasures, such as Orson Welles' last role as Unicron (the aforementioned ravenous planet), Monty Python alum Eric Idle as the voice of a race of biker-bots who speak in TV commercials, and Stan Bush's memorably awful tune "The Touch," recycled by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. And there's plenty for fans of the show, including fan and filmmaker commentaries and a never-aired-in-America episode that set up some of the film's characters (sadly, it does not include the episode from the subsequent season where Galvatron is sent to a therapy planet). True, next year's big-budget live-action Transformers film directed by Michael Bay and co-starring Bernie Mac will probably be campy as well. But it won't be as much fun. —Zack Smith
Ultimate James Bond Collection
MGM Video and DVD
Four volumes, $89.98 each
Ian Fleming's James Bond is more than cinema's longest running film series. At 21 official films and counting dating back to Dr. No in 1962, two "unofficial" ones, and a plethora of spoofs and knock-offs, the Bond series is not only a paradigm of primordial masculinity but a collection of snapshots capturing our ever-evolving zeitgeist. Bond was born a Soviet-era Cold Warrior, but he began the war on terrorism against SPECTRE long before there was an al Qaeda (and even ventured into Afghanistan during 1987's The Living Daylights). He flew a space shuttle into outer space in 1979's Moonraker, two years before the Columbia's maiden voyage. Today, when we hear Sean Connery in Goldfinger observe, "My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit; that's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs," the line is a perfect marriage of cool and kitsch.
The newly minted Ultimate James Bond Collection comes on the heels of previous releases of the Bond series on DVD in 2000 and 2003. However, this edition is the definitive compilation. The first 20 films are divided into four volumes, two discs per movie, with each film given a frame-by-frame visual restoration by Lowry Digital Images, upgraded Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, and a brand-new DTS 5.1 mix (which I prefer over Dolby). Many special features carry over from the previous releases, but there are a bevy of new gems, including previously unseen deleted scenes and vintage advertising and "making of" vignettes. However, chief among them are new audio commentaries by Roger Moore for his seven films. —Neil Morris