Combustible Celluloid

Slipping a Disc: 2004

Chooosing The Year's Best DVDs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not surprisingly, the most exciting of 2004's DVDs came with more than one disc, but even that narrow field comprised over a hundred possible titles. I viewed as many as I could, and here are the champions:

1. Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition (1978, Anchor Bay)
Anchor Bay Entertainment came out ahead of everyone else with their brilliant use of the DVD medium. In the case of a film with too many baffling alternate versions floating around, they simply stuck them all together in the same four-disc collection. In a year packed with neo-zombie remakes, George A. Romero's great, satirical film still cuts like a bullet to the brain.

2. The Leopard (1963, The Criterion Collection)
Criterion did many great things in 2004, but this 3-disc set tops them all. Luchino Visconti's astonishing, heartbreaking epic was restored and re-released in theaters all the way back in 1983, but has been unavailable on home video ever since. Now viewers can see the uncut version, plus the shortened American version with Burt Lancaster's voice, as well as a third disc of interviews and extras.

3. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, Warner Home Video)
One of the most glorious Technicolor films ever made has now been restored to peak luster. The Halloween sequence especially once again has the power to take your breath away, but don't forget "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Vincente Minnelli has never been so fresh, nor has Judy Garland been so beautiful. Warner Home Video's two-disc set includes every conceivable extra, even the pilot for a terrible spinoff TV series!

4. La Belle Noiseuse (1991, New Yorker)
Another long-awaited favorite, this four-hour film from Jacques Rivette was even better upon a second viewing. Lovely Emmanuelle Beart inspires aging painter Michel Piccoli to finish a masterpiece. New Yorker's crisp full-frame presentation on two discs beautifully restores this brilliant film.

5. Judex (1917-18, Flicker Alley)
While D.W. Griffith was pioneering American cinema, Louis Feuillade was pioneering the cliffhanger adventure film. Consisting of 12 chapters, the 5-1/2 hour Judex speeds through twists, turns, thrills and spills with a playful abandon rarely seen today. Composer Robert Israel provides new music, and talks about this monumental job in a 17-minute featurette.

6. One from the Heart (1982, Fantoma)
One of the most underappreciated films of the past 25 years, Fantoma's gorgeous color restoration -- as well as Francis Ford Coppola's fresh edit -- goes a long way in re-establishing this follow-up to Apocalypse Now as an American masterpiece. The two discs collect tons of archival material hoarded at the Zoetrope building over the years.

7. The Fritz Lang Epic Collection (2004, Kino)
Kino had already released Lang's Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, and those two discs are among the gems of my collection. Now with this five-disc box set, the company has supplemented them with fresh restorations of two other Lang classics: the new, longer cut of Spies (1928) and a longer cut of Woman in the Moon (1929). The latter has long suffered a marginal reputation, but now it can emerge as a true classic. (Runner-up: Criterion's beautiful presentation of Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse)

8. More Treasures from American Film Archives (2004, National Film Preservation Foundation)
Following up their now-classic 2000 box set, the National Film Preservation Foundation's second attempt contained fifty more nuggets from cinema's past, from industrials to experimental works to cartoons to two coveted feature films: Ernst Lubitsch's Lady Windermere's Fan (1925) and a very exciting Rin-Tin-Tin adventure, Clash of the Wolves (1925).

9. Marx Brothers: The Silver Screen Collection (2004, Universal)
I confess: I think Zeppo is funny. So I was thrilled to discover this handsome six-disc set featuring the Brothers' first five films: The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933), plus a sixth (skimpy) disc of extras and a booklet. The films get better as they go, but they culminate in a full-fledged American masterpiece.

10. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, MGM/UA)
The third, longest and best of Sergio Leone's so-called "Man with No Name" trilogy finally hits DVD in its complete 3-hour version, using footage that was never incorporated into the American release. Stars Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach (along with a voice impersonator for Lee Van Cleef) even went back into the studio after 35 years to loop their remaining scenes. MGM's DVD shows off this glorious, noisy, epic concoction to superb effect, and a host of extras help explain the film's history.

Runners up:

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