The Year in DVDs:
It was an interesting year for DVDs: special "Cuts" became standard fare, deluxe editions gained silly names, and the battle for the next generation heated up. All the hype and hoopla made it harder than ever to distinguish genuine gems from gilded garbage, but a handful of discs still managed to shine. The list of best DVDs below are presented in alphabetical order (I have not included those DVDs I previously discussed here, though they are certainly among the best of the year). Links in the title link to the Cinescene review of that title where available.
Battlestar Galactica S1
When the Sci-Fi channel decided to revisit the short-lived late 70's TV series, few if any actually believed the endeavor would be worthwhile. Fans hated the thought of any tampering with the original's formula while non-fans felt the original too campy to support a serious potential series--a miniseries and two seasons later, the show has a solid group of its own fans. Several things make this set worth checking out: a good video transfer (particularly given the wide variety of stocks and visuals used in the series), a solid audio transfer, and a host of supplements that are more than just filler. Best of all, the mini-series that kicked it off is included, despite being already available as a separate disc. If you haven't given the series a shot thus far, this DVD set gives you everything you need to take the plunge.
Ben-Hur (4-Disc Collector's Edition)
MGM has certainly put a lot of effort into the set, including fixing the cropping issues that plagued the original release. There's a wealth of supplemental materials available here, and one of the best has to be the inclusion of the 1925 feature-length silent film that preceded the 1960 Oscar juggernaut.
With a solid commentary track, a music-only track, and enough documentaries & featurettes to keep you busy longer than watching the film itself, this is a solid buy for any fan. Unfortunately, the silent film isn't available separately, and Warner Bros. hasn't announced any plans to make it available apart from this lavish set, but given that the 4-disc set can be found for less than $30 pretty easily, it's a mild nuisance rather than a deal-breaker.
The Devil's Rejects (2-disc Unrated)
Many were disappointed with House of 1000 Corpses, the first cinematic foray from former White Zombie frontman and self-proclaimed horror afficionado Rob Zombie--many more will surely be disapointed in his follow-up, the decidedly and unconventionally nasty The Devil's Rejects. Continuing to celebrate the horror heritage he loves while also playfully upending it in exciting ways, Zombie pokes and prods almost sadistically, pushing the whole question of audience sympathies to new levels. For the DVD, Lion's Gate provides not only an excellent print (details are sharp even in particularly dark scenes), but a beautiful DTS-ES 6.1 audio track and great supplements (including a full-length documentary exhaustively detailing nearly every stage of production...the documentary runs longer than the feature itself!). Fans should approach the lavish attention given to an otherwise niche genre release.
Frank Miller's Sin City (Recut, Extended, Unrated)
I wasn't a huge fan of the film, but no one can deny the phenomenal look and style of Robert Rodriguez' adaptation of Frank Miller's series of graphic novels (with considerable input from Miller himself). Originally released as a movie-only DVD, the movie got the love it deserved in a quick subsequent release that include the original theatrical release, a re-edited version featuring some deleted scenes/title cards that presented each story separately, extensive making-of materials that documented the technical process of achieving the film's singular look in excruciating detail. The film has never looked or sounded better, and a miniature Sin City graphic novel pretty much sealed the deal. Though the film will certainly not appeal to everyone, it's worth a look for the breakthrough visuals, and the DVD is worth keeping for the excellent look behind the scenes.
Pixar continued its line of solid computer-animated features with this look at the secret lives of superheros. With equal parts comic book adventure, Bond-like thriller, and family comedy, The Incredibles manages to be both entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time, an intelligent departure from the scattershot approach of the more self-aware entries in animation these days. While the supplements were hit or miss, the presentation was second to one (see Star Wars comments below) with a brilliantly razor-sharp image and beautiful audio mix that together will more than justify all that money you spent on a home theater. A solid film in its own right, this disc should be on everyone's shelf as a means of convincing naysayers of just how big a difference a good home theater setup can make.
It's hard to imagine someone not having heard of ABC's suprise cult phenom and its somewhat serpentine narrative invoking everything from Dante to numerology. A non-traditional series in many respects, Lost has given television a much needed shot in the arm and provided millions with a compelling reason to return week after week. The first season's release on DVD provides a reference point by which all other shows should be measured. Each episode is pristinely presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and very likely looks & sounds better than it ever did during its initial broadcast. Some of the episodes include interesting commentary from cast & crew (though don't expect any secrets to be revealed), and the last disc in the set features over three hours of behind the scenes materials that cover everything from the series' inception to the nuts & bolts of keeping it going. If only every TV series released on DVD were treated this way.
Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith
Anyone who knows of my longstanding hatred for the franchise will no doubt be wondering just why the hell I would put this on my list of the best DVDs of the year. Well, as with Sin City (which I didn't hate, but didn't particularly care for either), this list is about great discs, not just great films. For the record, I hated Revenge of the Sith, much as I've hated nearly every other film in the franchise, but if there was one disc that set the standard for 2005, one trasfer against which all others would be judged, Revenge of the Sith was it. Digitally transferred direct from a 1080p24 source, the picture is pristine, free of the halos which marred the near perfect presentation on earlier DVD entries in the series. In addition, the audio is expansive and full-bodied, with some of the most active surrounds of any film in recent memory, and the supplements cover a wide gamut of supportive materials that flesh out both the story and the process. I wouldn't be surprised to see it remain a reference quality disc several years from now. If you have an HD set and a good home theater sound system, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better disc to show it off.
Trapped in limbo since it was originally announced early in 2000, Criterion's transfer of Powell/Pressburger's colorful opera deserves points for being released at all (especially given that it's one of my favorites--one that I've been eagerly awaiting since that early announcement). Thankfully, this release has more than just that going for it. Continuing Criterion's sterling tradition of meticulous restoration and extensive documentation, The Tales of Hoffmann looks better than it probably did even on its initial release, especially given the age and condition of the original elements. While nearly all of the supplements sing, the unsung hero for me is the inclusion of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a short musical film directed by Michael Powell shortly after the release of Tales. A wonderful addition to anyone's shelf.
I had read about Ugetsu monogatari for years before I finally had the chance to see it. When the opportunity finally presented itself, I am happy to say that even years of expectation did nothing to diminish the impact of Kenji Mizoguchi's spectacular work. Finally available on DVD, Ugetsu shines in a 2-disc set from Criterion that comes closest to being my favorite releases of the year. Along with a sharp restoration, the set includes one of the best commentary tracks of the year, a personal appreciation from Double Suicide director Masahiro Shinoda, the 2 1/2 hour documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director (1975), and a 72 page booklet with some great essays and analysis. Of all the solid releases Criterion had in the past year, this is hands down one of the best--a brilliant release of a stunning film.
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941
Ok...nearly every other disc on this list is here because of a combination of superb presentation and quality filmmaking. This one is here simply because it exists. Showcasing nearly 20 hours of experimental filmmaking from the first half of cinema's existence (a time when, oddly enough, a lot of it was experimental in some way or another). This is not a set to showcase the restoration abilities of an aesthete studio, nor a showcase disc to demo your expensive sound system--this is a set for true film buffs interested in every aspect of film's evolution. Included films range from the purely abstract to the odd/abandoned--Eisenstein's Mexican footage is here, along with sections of David Bradley's Peer Gynt featuring Charlton Heston (pictured). While not every film is of equal interest, the sheer volume included on this set will keep cinephiles happily exploring for weeks if not months.
Some of the Worst
The DVDs listed below aren't inherently bad in and of themselves, but they each reflect certain lamentable trends in the industry that range from mildly irritating to deeply troubling.
Scarface: The decision to make Paul Muni's 1932 film available only as part of an exorbitantly priced deluxe set with the 1982 film (the exact same DVD of which retails separately for under $15) is an insult, especially given the growing trend of including relevant features on otherwise moderately priced sets (see "Battlestar Galactica," Ben-Hur, and The Tales of Hoffmann above for examples).
13 Going On 30--The Fun & Flirty Edition etc.: I have nothing against this particular DVD, but it is indicative of a recent trend that irks me, that of giving stupid subtitles to re-releases (see also Tommy Boy--The Holy Schnike Edition and Ferris Bueller's Day Off--The Bueller...Bueller... Edition for other examples). The list of idiotic names for DVD re-releases seems to get longer every week. Hopefully this trend will die as quickly as it was born.
Gone in 60 Seconds--Unrated Director's Cut etc.: I'm all for bonus footage as a supplement, or even multiple versions made available through seamless branching (a la T2 or Aliens), but does every DVD have to be an "unrated special edition?" While some films are substantively different (check The Devil's Rejects), many of these "unrated special editions" amount to little more than a marketing ploy, featuring extra footage that not only deserved to be cut in the first place, but which would ultimately have had no affect on the film's final rating to begin with. Adding six seconds of banal dialogue to a scene is hardly deserving of the attention generated by selling it as a sensational new version.
The Warriors--Director's Cut: I'm glad to have the new anamorphic transfer, but Hill's decision to follow in Lucas' footsteps and re-edit the film while allowing the original theatrical release to disappear is a bad idea at best. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening more and more, and I can see a day when certain theatrical releases literally cease to exist the moment they leave theaters.
Edward Scissorhands--Anniversary Collector's Tin: Presumably re-released to capitalize on the theatrical releases of Tim Burton's Charlie & The Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride, this set represented one of the longest running and worst trends in DVD history, that of gratuitous re-releases. Like MGM's repackaging of John Carpenter's The Fog, the new Scissorhands DVD contained no new features, no remastered print, no remixed audio. In fact, by all accounts, it appeared to be the exact same disc as previously released with a shiny new package, a move that inevitably confuses consumers and ultimately hurts the industry.
A Look Ahead
The new year is already two months behind us, but it promises to be one of the most exciting years in home theater in some time. Already, souped up re-releases of some classic back catalog titles have hit shelves with new transfers, remixed sound, and extensive supplements (Network, Midnight Cowboy, All The President's Men, and Dog Day Afternoon are just a few of the ones that have already come out, and release dates for a dozen others have been confirmed by various studios); studios continue to dig deeper into their back catalog to release amazing box sets of otherwise unavailable material (the recent Harold Lloyd set is a wonderful example); and supplemental material has crossed over from being optional filler to a substantive component of any major release. As if that weren't enough, the next-gen format war will soon begin in earnest, bringing with it bittersweet promises of jaw-dropping picture and sound along with the realization that many of us will begin (yet again) rebuilding our collections. Even as we celebrate home theater formats accomplishments from the past year, we're already looking forward to the great strides that await us in the year to come.
©2006 Ed Owens