Combustible Celluloid

2006: The Year's Best DVDs / Holiday Gift Guide

Slipping a Disc

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Most of the year's DVDs ran toward new theatrical releases and box sets of old TV shows, but cinephiles could still find many, many treasures among the piles of shiny discs.

1. The John Ford/John Wayne Film Collection (Warner Home Video, $79.98)
John Ford was arguably the most celebrated of all American filmmakers and undeniably one of our most artistically important. Yet the grand majority of his work has been unavailable on DVD for too long. These releases brought fourteen John Ford films back to life and filled a gaping hole. The John Ford/John Wayne box includes Stagecoach (1939), The Long Voyage Home (1940), They Were Expendable (1945), 3 Godfathers (1948), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956) and The Wings of Eagles (1957). See also the John Ford Film Collection.

2. The Complete Mr. Arkadin (1955, The Criterion Collection, $49.99)
Orson Welles' least appreciated film finally gets the respect it deserves in this essential three-disc edition. Though Welles never actually completed the film in the strictest sense of the term, this set presents the two different versions that have been floating around for decades, plus a new potentially definitive version recently assembled by scholars, using all available footage.

3. Late Spring (1949, The Criterion Collection, $39.99)
The Criterion Collection is the only company to have released films by Yasujiro Ozu on DVD in the United States. This, their fifth, is second only to Tokyo Story. Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara turn in remarkable performances as a widowed father and an unmarried daughter who only want each other's happiness, even if it results in loneliness. It's a heartbreaking work, and quintessential Ozu. Criterion's second disc includes a feature-length tribute from Wim Wenders.

4. The Passenger (1975, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $24.99)
Legend has it that Jack Nicholson owned the rights to this masterpiece, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. For years, he kept it out of circulation, allowing it to show only in retrospectives. Suddenly, it re-appeared, remastered and better than ever, revealing itself to be possibly Nicholson's best work and the equal to Antonioni's L'Avventura.

5. Sam Peckinpah The Legendary Westerns Collection (Warner Home Video, $59.99)
Another gaping hole in the DVD canon was Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), which laid the old time Western to rest so that its maverick director could go on to make his balletic masterworks like The Wild Bunch (1969). This set rights that wrong, but also includes a new, remastered edition of The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and an amazing new Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) disc, featuring two cuts: a 1988 restoration that assembled most of the footage cut from the original release, and a brand-new 2005 cut, shorter and more streamlined and closer to Peckinpah's original vision.

6. Pandora's Box (1928, The Criterion Collection, $39.99)
Cult star Louise Brooks only made two major films, both directed by G.W. Pabst. Kino released Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) five long years ago, but it was worth the wait for the other one. The Criterion Collection's two-disc set comes with a miraculously restored transfer of the film with four separate musical scores to choose from. It also includes the very good documentary Looking for Lulu (1998).

7. Stalker (1979, Kino, $29.99)
Seeing Andrei Tarkovsky's sci-fi masterpiece on this new two-disc DVD proved one of the cinematic revelations of the year. It re-charged my batteries and once again made me excited about the possibilities of cinema.

8. Oldboy: Collector's Edition (2003, Tartan, $39.99)
Park Chan-wook's supreme action flick with the mysterious beginning and the twisted ending -- as well as the astounding middle section -- gets the royal treatment with this amazing box set. Among its wonders is a manga and a frame from a 35mm print, as well as three separate commentary tracks and a day-by-day video diary. If only Tartan does something like this with the even better Lady Vengeance!

9. Superman Ultimate Collector's Edition (1978-2006, Warner Home Video, $99.99)
For sheer audacity and size alone, this 14-disc set makes the list. But it also gets major points for remastering the 17 great Max and Dave Fleischer Superman cartoons, made between 1941 and 1943. Other highlights include the brand-new Richard Donner cut of Superman II and both versions of the original Superman (1978).

10. Lubitsch in Berlin (Kino, $29.99)
Barely anyone in the United States has seen these movies, both ingenious comedies and majestic costume stories, for over three-quarters of a century. So Kino's achievement in bringing them back cannot be underestimated. Titles include The Oyster Princess (1919) and the 45-minute I Don't Want to Be a Man (1919) -- available together on one disc; Sumurun (1920), Anna Boleyn (1920) and The Wildcat (1921). The latter ranks with Lubitsch's finest work. The four discs are sold separately, but Kino sells them together in a box set at their website.

11. The New World (2005, New Line, $14.99)
Terrence Malick's fourth movie was as completely misunderstood as it was unquestionably great. No other movie so vividly used physical landscapes as part of the emotional arc of the story itself. Don't trust the reviews; many of them came from Malick's unfinished, slightly longer version that screened for the press during awards season. The version on the DVD is his final cut, which moves much better.

12. Saraband (2005, Sony Pictures Classics, $19.99)
My favorite film from 2005 -- and Ingmar Bergman's emergence from retirement -- barely caused a rustle when it was released theatrically, so hopefully more people will be able to enjoy it at home. Not much of a stretch since Bergman shot it on video for Swedish television. The DVD comes with a documentary that reveals the octogenarian at the height of his powers, spry, lucid and still enthusiastic.

13. Bad Brains: Live at CBGB 1982 (MVD, $16.99)
If there was ever any question as to the greatness of this Washington DC punk/reggae band, this astonishing video, shot over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and December 26 of 1982, settles it. This was the band that all other bands went to see, and you'll hear many musicians claim that they were at these shows. Despite the primitive equipment available to them, the audio and video quality here is impossibly superb.

14. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, The Criterion Collection, $39.99)
If Warner Home Video filled a wide hole in John Ford's DVD canon, the Criterion Collection concentrated on a single masterpiece, and possibly his greatest work. This wonderful film perfectly balances all of Ford's tendencies, from his bawdy sense of humor, his patriotism, his mythical sense of history and his gorgeous, cinematic poetry.

15. My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Buena Vista, $29.99)
Disney has done a remarkable job releasing all of Hayao Miyazaki's astounding animated works to DVD -- as well as the other Studio Ghibli films -- and treating every frame of his work with the utmost respect. This year's bundle included the new Howl's Moving Castle and the extraordinary Whisper of the Heart (the only film by the late Yoshifumi Kondo), but My Neighbor Totoro holds a special place in many hearts. Additionally, it finally replaces the junky, dubbed and panned-and-scanned disc released by Fox back in 2002.

16. We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005, Plexifilm, $24.99)
When I reviewed this rock documentary theatrically, it was good enough to turn me into a Minutemen fan, and the new DVD is good enough to please even the most rabid of our number. My favorite extra on this two-disc set is the "unplugged" sequence, recorded years before the MTV phenomenon, which reveals a new power behind their songs.

17. Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier (1979/2001, Paramount, $19.99)
Finally assembled for the first time we have the original, slapdash, mad genius cut from 1979, and the more carefully refined 2001 cut, with Coppola commentary tracks on both and a huge number of extras.

18. Bad Santa: The Director's Cut (2003, Buena Vista, $19.99)
Forget the theatrical release and "Badder Santa," this new cut brings Terry Zwigoff's great comedy closer to his own personal vision, capturing the more thoughtful, wistful tone that made Crumb (1995) and Ghost World (2001) the masterworks they are.

19. Forbidden Hollywood: Volume One (Warner Home Video, $39.99)
Though Alfred E. Green will never be remembered as a great auteur, his Baby Face (1933) will always be remembered as the most brutal, vicious and brilliant example of pre-code Hollywood, with an exemplary performance by Barbara Stanwyck. An uncut version was recently discovered, and this two-disc set collects it and the original, plus two other pre-code classics. James Whale's Waterloo Bridge (1931), starring the incomparable Mae Clarke, in particular is a pleasant surprise.

20. The Conformist (1970, Paramount, $14.99)
Bernardo Bertolucci's dazzling early Italian-language feature has long been another impossible-to-see essential canon film. Its 2006 theatrical and DVD release bring cinephiles closer to a state of bliss.

21. The Intruder (2004, Wellspring, $24.98)
Claire Denis' latest film is her densest to date, and possibly her most brilliant. I saw it twice, and I'm still not sure I've unpacked it completely, but it's a great pleasure trying.

22. Viridiana (1961, The Criterion Collection, $29.99)
This masterpiece from one of my favorite filmmakers, Luis Bunuel, perhaps lacks the bite it once had, but it's still a collection of compulsively fetishistic images from a man who knows he's being wicked but can't help himself.

23. Ultraman: Series One (1966, BCI Eclipse, $39.99)
I used to thrill to Ultraman on the "Captain Cosmic" TV show after school when I was a kid, and it was a pleasure to revisit the old show on this great new DVD box set, featuring both the familiar dubbed English soundtrack as well as the original Japanese.

24. Phantom (1922, Flicker Alley, $29.99)
Nearly everyone agrees that Murnau's Phantom is one of his lesser works, but one or two moments at the very least are worth re-visiting, and it's still a pleasure to have it available in this immaculate DVD edition.

25. Beyond the Rocks (1922, Milestone, $29.99)
It's always something of a small miracle when a film gets rescued from oblivion, as was the case with this rarity, one of the few examples of two big stars (Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson) teaming up in one production during the silent era. It's a relatively minor film in the grand scheme of things, but so wonderful to have it with us.

Runners Up:

Movies Unlimtied