the DVD Distributors: The Best Vault Raiders of 2005
By DAVE KEHR
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
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.
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
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
DARK SKY FILMS
"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
FIRST RUN FEATURES
"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
KINO ON VIDEO
"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
MGM HOME VIDEO
"Panic in Year Zero"/"The Last Man on Earth," $14.94.
"Hindle Wakes," "Piccadilly," each $29.95. www.milestonefilms.com
"For Your Height Only," $24.95. www.mondomacabrodvd.com
NATIONAL CENTER FOR JEWISH FILM
Films of Edgar G. Ulmer: "American Matchmaker," "Green
Fields," "The Light Ahead," "The Singing Blacksmith,"
$36 each, $126 for all four. www.jewishfilm.org
NEW LINE HOME ENTERTAINMENT
"The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection," six discs, $89.95. www.newline.com/he/dvd
NEW YORKER FILMS
"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
PARAMOUNT HOME VIDEO
"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
20TH CENTURY FOX HOME VIDEO
"House of Bamboo," "Hush ... Hush Sweet Charlotte,"
"Two for the Road," "Whirlpool," each $14.98. www.foxhome.com
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOME ENTERTAINMENT
"The Bela Lugosi Collection," $26.98; "The Palm Beach Story,"
WARNER HOME VIDEO
"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.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company