Hailing the DVD Distributors: The Best Vault Raiders of 2005
Published: December 30, 2005

There were 53,737 different DVD's available in the North American market as of Dec. 14, not counting imports and pornographic films, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, a trade association. That's a lot of titles - far more than a mere human could possibly keep up with (though I sometimes think most of them are piled in my kitchen).

By now, DVD's have become much more than a delivery system for recent Hollywood hits. There are vast numbers of how-to titles; countless videos intended to make your offspring smarter (while getting them hooked on franchised cartoon characters); rafts of music and sports videos; and vast, uncharted realms of old television shows and prematurely canceled new ones.

Together, these almost certainly account for a far greater share of the DVD market than movies. But movies are what the medium does best. Because DVD's demand better source material than did the relatively low-fi media of VHS tape and laser disc, movies are now coming out in versions far superior to anything that's been seen since their original theatrical releases; in a few cases, like the digitally realigned Technicolor restorations from Warner Brothers and other producers ("The Wizard of Oz," "The Band Wagon"), the films actually look better in some respects than they did when they were first made.

The range of available films has grown tremendously, too. Where the major studios once contented themselves with reissues of Oscar winners and a handful of chestnuts, the more enterprising now dig into their libraries for movies that haven't been seen in decades. Independent labels are bringing in not just established art-house classics but also obscure titles drawn from the secret history of Italian horror films, Cantonese martial-arts movies, German crime thrillers and Bollywood musicals. And the avant-garde is making inroads, though compilations devoted to individual artists like Stan Brakhage and George Kuchar as well as anthologies like Bruce Posner's amazing "Unseen Cinema - Early American Avant-Garde Film," a groundbreaking seven-disc set that attempts nothing less than a redefinition of the field.

It is, in short, an exciting, exhausting and expensive time to be a movie lover. Rather than offer a list of the 10 or 20 "best" DVD releases of 2005 - how do you compare a sleekly engineered release of a recent Hollywood blockbuster with an obscure Filipino action film wrenched from a moldering negative? - it seemed more useful to look at what individual distributors achieved in the last year. Many of these companies have developed distinct personalities, as easily recognizable - if not more so - than some of the filmmakers they distribute.

The Titans
At the top of the heap stand the twin titans of Warner Home Video and the Criterion Collection, companies with radically different missions but equally strong commitments to quality. Warner, of course, has the Warner Brothers film library to draw on, a collection that now includes, thanks to Ted Turner, a good part of MGM, the totality of RKO and a large number of independent productions. But if Warner has Bogart, Criterion has Bergman - Ingmar, that is, along with the rest of the European classics that were the core of the old Janus Films theatrical library.

For 2005, Warner's headline release was the three-disc "King Kong" set, a superb packaging of the 1933 classic (transferred from a vintage print discovered in Britain, with all the naughty bits that were cut for the American theatrical reissue still startlingly intact) along with the curious, self-parodying sequel "Son of Kong" and the quasi-remake of 1949, "Mighty Joe Young." These are all titles familiar from years of television exposure, yet the Warner's set made them look burstingly new - particularly "Joe Young," which seems to have been taken directly from the camera negative. It's a sign of Warner's attention to detail that the fire sequence in "Joe Young," in which the big ape rescues a bunch of kids from a flaming orphanage, has been transferred with its original red tinting, a dramatic effect that much enhances the scene's impact. (Similarly, the tropical sequence in "The Sea Hawk," included in Warner's "Errol Flynn Signature Collection," has been restored to its original sepia tone.) All this, plus commentaries from the legendary stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen and the contemporary special effects wizard Ken Ralston, a documentary on the film's producer and co-director Merian C. Cooper directed by the film scholar Kevin Brownlow and even the original Max Steiner overture combine to create the definitive version of a key film that continues to live in the global subconscious.

Warner also deserves high marks for the second volume of its "Film Noir Classic Collection," a five-title boxed set that found a way to valorize lesser-known films like Robert Wise's "Born to Kill" (1947), Max Nosseck's "Dillinger" (1945, with commentary by John Milius) and Richard Fleischer's "Narrow Margin" (1952, with commentary by William Friedkin). It is one thing to reissue "The Wizard of Oz" in an excellent new edition, as Warner also did this year, but something quite different to take on neglected films and return them to the public eye. This is not just preserving our film heritage, but actively expanding it.

"The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection," which ended up at the Time-Warner subsidiary New Line Home Entertainment rather than the parent company, would be my pick for the best boxed set of the year - a seven-disc collection that, though eccentrically arranged, brought together a generous selection of Lloyd's silent classics, including "Safety Last" (1923) and "The Kid Brother" (1927), with three hours of bonus material that included a selection of Lloyd's 3-D photographs.

Probably my favorite DVD package this year was Criterion's "Boudu Saved From Drowning," which combined the latest French restoration of Jean Renoir's paean to paganism - embodied by the world's most repulsively lovable tramp, played by Michel Simon - with a wealth of inventive extras, including an interactive map of Paris that allowed viewers to follow Boudu's peristaltic path through the city (he is swallowed by the Seine on one side of the city and expelled by it on the other). And then there were "The Tales of Hoffmann" (1951) directed by Michael Powell; Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" (1985); Robert Bresson's indispensible "Pickpocket" (1959, on a disc that also included Babette Mangolte's fascinating documentary, "The Models of 'Pickpocket' "); Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu" (1953); "Le Samourai" (1967) by Jean-Pierre Melville; "The Flowers of St. Francis" (1950) by Roberto Rossellini; Michelangelo Antonioni's sublime "L'Eclisse" (1962); and Jules Dassin's 1950 "Night and the City" (1950). All this, and boxed sets for John Cassavetes (eight discs), Andrej Wajda's "war trilogy" and four overlooked Japanese swordplay films packaged as "Rebel Samurai." All wonderful stuff, and it never seems to stop coming.

Other Studio Treasures
The sleeping giant that is 20th Century Fox Home Video bestirred itself this year with the introduction of its "Fox Film Noir" series, 12 films so far (with more on the way in March) drawn from the studio vaults and presented in absolutely first-class transfers. The black-and-white of Otto Preminger's brilliant "Whirlpool" fairly pops from the screen, as does the color and CinemaScope of Sam Fuller's "House of Bamboo," a movie available for generations only in pan and scan television prints with badly faded color. Fox's "Studio Classics" series still seems to be lazily relying on Oscar-sanctioned but now nearly unwatchable titles like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and "Song of Bernadette," but things are picking up with livelier items like Robert Aldrich's "Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte" and Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road." Now, if only Fox could be convinced to examine its silent and pre-code holdings, a tremendous resource that includes some crucial titles by John Ford, F. W. Murnau, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Allan Dwan and other canonical figures of the American cinema.

As the owner of the pre-1948 Paramount titles, as well as an almost completely unexplored library of its own, Universal Studios Home Entertainment has tremendous potential, though so far the company seems reluctant to go beyond its celebrated horror films. "The Bela Lugosi Collection" was a nice try, cramming no less than five Lugosi titles (including Edgar G. Ulmer's 1934 masterpiece, "The Black Cat") onto a single, double-sided disc, and their budget release of Preston Sturges's ultimate screwball comedy, "The Palm Beach Story," was probably the biggest bargain of the year (list price: $12.99). But while the company continues its quixotic quest to issue all of its Abbott and Costello and Ma and Pa Kettle programmers on DVD, it leases out classics like Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" and Don Siegel's "The Killers" to Criterion, leaving its own studio heritage in the hands of others.

Paramount, having sold off its best titles to Universal in the early days of television, doesn't have much of a library remaining, though it has shown some resourcefulness in the last year, reviving little gems like Lewis Milestone's 1946 "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," George Cukor's 1960 "Heller in Pink Tights" (the real first gay cowboy movie) and Blake Edwards's eternally reviled but quite interesting "Darling Lili" (1970). But it's Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, the current owner of the Columbia, United Artists and the later MGM library, that has been the consistent underperformer. With all the excellent material under its control, the company seems content to colorize its Three Stooges shorts and let it go at that, though some interesting discs, including a terrific drive-in double bill of Ray Milland's "Panic in Year Zero" and "The Last Man on Earth" by Ubaldo B. Ragona, have slipped out through MGM Home Video (current owners of the American International library). MGM is now a Sony subsidiary that, one hopes, will continue to be permitted to follow its own path.

Disney, of course, has long been the one company with a passionate commitment to its past, perhaps because its past is still producing gigantic licensing revenue. This year brought gorgeous digital restorations of "Bambi" (1942) and "Cinderella" (1950), tricked up with phony stereo soundtracks and (I suspect) colors brightened for television consumption, but still excellent editions with copious extras. The continuing "Disney Treasures" series, curated by Leonard Maltin, has just yielded a fine collection of "Disney Rarities" (including some of the silent "Alice in Cartoonland" films that began Disney's career), and there is bound to be much more to come from Disney's well-maintained vaults.

The Indies
And then, for the wild world of the indies - those publishers unaffiliated with major studios who have to make their own discoveries. Kino on Video continues to dominate the independent field, with a steady stream of surprises like Fritz Lang's ultra-rare "The House by the River" and the "Slapstick Symposium" series produced with France's Lobster Films. The two volumes in "The Charley Chase Collection" assembles some crucial early work by the comedy genius Leo McCarey ("The Awful Truth"), including the most formally perfect two-reeler I know, the 1926 "Mighty Like a Moose." And Kino's first venture with the Museum of Modern Art has resulted in "Edison: The Invention of the Movies," a four-disc set produced for video by Bret Wood and containing some 140 short films from the earliest years of the medium.

New Yorker Films - like Kino, the video spinoff of a long-established New York theatrical distributor - has radically upgraded its DVD output in recent months. "The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach," by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, brings the rigorous work of these pioneering minimalist-materialists to the medium for the first time, in an edition that pays full respect to Mr. Straub's austere intentions. Milestone, a kitchen-table company that specializes in silent features and exotic travelogs, brought out two overlooked behemoths of the British silent cinema, E. A. Dupont's extravagant, Expressionistic melodrama "Piccadilly" (1929) and Maurice Elvy's working-class drama "Hindle Wakes" (1927), both startling discoveries that would otherwise have remained unknown in this country.

NoShame Video, an Italian-American company operating out of California, has carved out a niche for itself with its dual-pronged program of art-house revivals (including Bernardo Bertolucci's "Partner" and the anthology film "Boccaccio 70") and grind-house oddities (including Umberto Lenzi's genuinely disturbing "Almost Human"). Mondo Macabro, a British-based outfit, continues to amaze and astound with its pop discoveries from around the world, including "For Your Height Only," a secret agent spoof from the Philippines starring the two-and-a-half-foot-tall performer Weng Weng.

On a (much) more dignified note, First Run Features has been concentrating on documentaries and political films, bringing together the influential and entertaining first-person work of the documentarian Ross McElwee for a distinguished boxed set, and releasing selected titles from the East German studio DEFA, now owned by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "The DEFA Sci-Fi Collection" brings together three cold-war fantasies of space travel and Communist domination of the known universe, blending outrageous camp and Marxist ideology.

Tartan, another British company, has found its niche with its "Asia Extreme" series, which has introduced the work of the formally brilliant South Korean filmmaker Park Chanwook to American audiences ("Old Boy," "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," the forthcoming "Lady Vengeance") as well as several horror and suspense films from the busy Asian market, like Kim Jee-woon's subtle and insinuating "A Tale of Two Sisters."

One could go on, and one will - praising the Chicago-based Dark Sky Films for its discovery of Arnold Laven's striking "Without Warning!," a pioneering serial killer film, and Zeitgeist Films for its dedication to important contemporary auteurs like Guy Maddin ("Cowards Bend the Knee") and Jia Zhangke ("The World"), and the National Center for Jewish Film for releasing all four of Edgar Ulmer's Yiddish films in restored editions. But the DVD player is beckoning, and I think it is time for me to get back to the couch.

A Year's Feast for the Cinematic Epicure
Here is a listing of the DVD's discussed in this article, with their original suggested prices. Most are available at a discount from online retailers and the distributors' Web sites.
"Boudu Saved From Drowning," $29.95; "John Cassavetes: Five Films," eight discs, $124.95; "L'Eclisse," two discs, $39.95; "The Flowers of St. Francis," $29.95; "Night and the City," $39.95; "Pickpocket," $39.95; "Ran," $39.95; "Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics," four discs, $99.95; "Le Samourai," $29.95; "The Tales of Hoffmann," $39.95; "Ugetsu," two discs, $39.95; "Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films," three discs, $79.95. www.criterionco.com
"Without Warning!," $14.98. www.darkskyfilms.com
"Bambi" Platinum Edition, two discs, $29.99; "Cinderella" Special Edition, two discs, $29.99; "Disney Rarities, Celebrated Shorts: 1920's-1960's," two discs, $32.99. http://disneyvideos.disney.go.com
"The DEFA Sci-Fi Collection," three discs, $59.95; "The Ross McElwee DVD Collection," five discs, $99.95. www.firstrunfeatures.com
"Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941," seven discs, $99.99. www.image-entertainment.com

"The Charley Chase Collection" and "The Charley Chase Collection 2," each $24.95; "Edison: the Invention of the Movies," four discs, $99.95; "The House by the River," $24.95. www.kino.com
"Panic in Year Zero"/"The Last Man on Earth," $14.94. www.mgm.com/video.do
"Hindle Wakes," "Piccadilly," each $29.95. www.milestonefilms.com
"For Your Height Only," $24.95. www.mondomacabrodvd.com
Films of Edgar G. Ulmer: "American Matchmaker," "Green Fields," "The Light Ahead," "The Singing Blacksmith," $36 each, $126 for all four. www.jewishfilm.org
"The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection," six discs, $89.95. www.newline.com/he/dvd
"The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach," $29.95. www.newyorkerfilms.com
"Almost Human," $19.95; "Boccaccio 70," two discs, $29.95; "Partner," two discs, $29.95. www.noshamefilms.com
"Darling Lili," "Heller in Pink Tights," "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers," each $14.99. http://homevideo.paramount.com
"Old Boy," "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "A Tale of Two Sisters," each $24.99. www.tartanvideousa.com
"House of Bamboo," "Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte," "Two for the Road," "Whirlpool," each $14.98. www.foxhome.com
"The Bela Lugosi Collection," $26.98; "The Palm Beach Story," $12.98. http://homevideo.universalstudios.com
"Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 2," five discs, $49.95; "Errol Flynn Signature Collection," six discs, $59.95; "The King Kong Collection," four discs, $39.98; "The Wizard of Oz" Collector's Edition, three discs, $49.98. http://whv.warnerbros.com
"Cowards Bend the Knee," "The World," each $29.99. www.zeitgeistfilms.com

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company