There must be a gazillion DVDs released every month, and most of it is just filler, nothing worthy of adding to a serious or even semi-serious film collection. But 2007 saw a number of significant releases as well, though they may not get much display space at your local big box retailer. Below are just a handful of the best DVD releases of the year.
Killer of Sheep
One of the best theatrical releases of the year is also one of the best DVD releases of the year. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep languished in relative obscurity for decades, primarily due to the expense required to clear the rights to the songs used in the film. Milestone Films finally got the job done and gave the film a proper release, 30 years after its completion, and the result was a revelation. Burnett’s film is a powerful portrait of black urban life in post-Civil Rights Movement America, a stark, personal movie that imports the aesthetic of the Italian neo-realists of the 1950s to 1970s Los Angeles.
Milestone’s DVD edition not only contains the seminal Killer of Sheep, but a slightly more recent Burnett film, My Brother’s Wedding, included here in both its original 1983 release version and in a new director’s cut. Extras include a commentary track on Killer of Sheep by Burnett and Lincoln Center Film Society Program Director Richard Peña and a few of Burnett’s critically acclaimed short films, including a new five-minute film, Quiet as Kept, looking at life in post-Katrina New Orleans.
$39.95. Milestone Films. www.milestonefilms.com.
I Am Cuba
Milestone is also responsible for perhaps the most lavish and unique DVD package of the year in the form of Mikhail Kalatozov’s long-forgotten cinematic poem of the Cuban Revolution, I Am Cuba. This is quite simply an extraordinary film, and Milestone’s three-disc set does it justice. Not only does the set come packed in a cigar box, but it includes a wealth of extras, including two fascinating documentaries, one about the film itself and one on the career of Kalatozov. For a complete review, see the Daily Planet’s Dec. 7 edition.
$44.95. Milestone Films. www.milestonefilms.com.
Earlier this year, Criterion, one of the premiere producers of special edition DVDs, launched a new line of discs. The Eclipse collection provided a way for the company to spotlight overlooked films that otherwise might not ever see the light of day on DVD. The company only puts out a few titles per month in its line of special editions, each featuring painstakingly beautiful transfers of classic and significant films. However this arduous production process limits output, leaving many worthy films on the shelf. Thus the Eclipse series allows the company to release bare-bones editions—at least by Criterion standards—of films deserving of preservation.
The sets are not cheap, but the price is reasonable considering the quality and rarity of the films they contain, as well as the transfers that Criterion has undertaken. Each is an attractively packaged several-disc set, and though the discs don’t contain any extra feature, they do include thoughtful liner notes that place the films and their makers in historical context.
Previous releases include a collection of five early films by Ingmar Bergman; a set of seven documentaries by Louis Malle; five later works by revered Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu; two films by 1930s French director Raymond Bernard; the first few films made by Samuel Fuller; and Carlos Saura’s Flamenco Trilogy. Due for release in the near feature are a collection of five post-war films by Akira Kurosawa and a set of four musicals by Ernst Lubitsch.
Prices range from $35 to $65. Criterion Collection. www.criterion.com.
POV 20th Anniversary Collection
PBS celebrated the 20th anniversary of its critically acclaimed POV documentary series this year by releasing a limited edition DVD set containing 15 great films. This beautifully designed special edition is packaged like an album, with three discs to a page and accompanying notes for each.
The films run the gamut from one of its earliest presentations, American Tongues, examining the diversity and the English language as spoken in various dialects throughout the country, to powerful topical films about civil rights, and other social and environmental issues.
Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1994. The film follows the career of the artist/architect from her first major project, the Vietnam War Memorial, through many other works, tracking the evolution of a woman who transformed America’s notion of what a memorial could and should be.
Taking on the Kennedys follows the Rhode Island congressional campaign of underdog Republican Kevin Vigilante as the optimistic, stay-positive candidate is ultimately forced to sacrifice his principals in order to engage in battle with his moneyed, mud-slinging rival Patrick Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy.
These are just two examples. There’s more than 20 hours worth of great documentary filmmaking in this impressive collection. The price may be a bit steep, but proceeds benefit both POV and American Documentary, the non-profit organization that presents the long-running series.
$249.95. PBS. www.pbs.org/pov.
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Granada Television Series
There have been many film versions of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes over the decades, and fans of the master detective are quick to defend their favorites. Basil Rathbone is still considered by many to be the quintessential Holmes. However, Rathbone never had the pleasure of filming any of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Those films were all written specifically for the screen.
In the 1980s and ’90s, England’s Granada Television undertook the daunting task of faithfully adapting the original short stories and novels with a brand new Holmes. Jeremy Brett proved more than up to the challenge, creating a version that is to this day in its complexity, its faithfulness, its breadth and dynamism, the definitive celluloid incarnation of the character.
MPI Home Video has released the shows on DVD over the years individually and as box sets, one for each series of the show and one for the five feature-length films. Now the company has released the entire oeuvre in an excellent 12-disc box set. Though Brett and company fell short of their goal of adapting all 56 of the Sherlock short stories and all four of the novels, they achieved something quite remarkable. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Granada Television Series—41 shows in all—is not just a compendium of television shows, but the best, most ambitious translation of Doyle’s works for the screen.
And though the adaptations remain loyal to the original tales, these are indeed adaptations. Doyle’s stories, told in the first person by his sidekick Dr. Watson, are not entirely cinematic. Most of the action and dialogue revolves around Holmes, with Watson most often playing the role of astonished observer. The Granada series takes much-needed liberties with this arrangement, transferring key dialogue to Watson to keep the stories moving on the screen, creating more give and take and indeed a more friendly and collegial partnership between the two men.
Watson, played in the first series by David Burke and later by Edward Hardwicke, is a much more substantive character than the structure of the original tales allowed him to be. It’s not that Doyle disregarded him, it’s just that the first-person format cast him as narrator rather than as an equal protagonist.
Brett plays every facet of the Holmes character: his shifting moods which take him from haughtiness, arrogance and condescension to warmth, compassion, sensitivity and kindness; his eccentricity and stubbornness and his depression and drug addiction. This is Sherlock in all his complexity, a genius tormented by a life that is too mundane for his extraordinary mind.
The price of the set may be high, but this is an excellent body of work that easily lends itself to repeated viewings. For even when the solution is known, there is still the tremendous charisma and charm of Jeremy Brett and the compassion, humanity and devotion of Watson in the form of Burke and Hardwicke.
$229.98. MPI Home Video. www.mpihomevideo.com.
F.W. Murnau’s gothic horror masterpiece Nosferatu has been available in any number of DVD editions over the years, in varying degrees of quality. It is probably one of the most widely seen silent films among modern audiences.
Kino’s new edition of the film far surpasses every previous release. It’s like seeing the film for the first time. Celluloid deteriorates over the years, and surviving prints of Nosferatu have been marred by an unsteady, high-contrast image and the loss or fading of the picture’s many color tints. But the restoration work in this new version is excellent: The image quality is vastly improved, and the original tints have been recreated, making this the most accurate version to date.
But perhaps the most noteworthy attribute of this two-disc set is the score. For decades the original score for the film has been lost. Many of the scores that accompanied previous DVD editions of the film have been good. But Kino’s previous release contained two synthesizer scores — interesting and effective at times, but more appropriate as alternatives to a more period-appropriate orchestral or Wurlitzer score. Now the film finally gets the proper treatment, as Berndt Heller has finally tracked down the Hans Erdmann’s original score from 1922 and recorded it with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony.
Finally a resurrection worthy of Count Orlock.
$29.95. Kino International. www.kino.com.
Also from Kino is a new two-disc edition of a rarely seen genre classic, Merian Cooper’s 1935 production of She, directed by Irving Pichel. It’s a strange film, a curious little thriller of three people in search of a flame that grants immortality. Starring Randolph Scott, Helen Gahagan, Helen Back and the great character actor Nigel Bruce, the film is certainly dated in its approach and a bit slow in its pacing, but is nevertheless and intriguing glimpse at fantasy filmmaking in the early sound era.
The DVD edition is presented by famed animation and special effects guru Ray Harryhausen. It was one of his favorite films, and this edition has the bonus of presenting the movie both in its original black and white and in a new digitally colorized version, the process overseen by Harryhausen himself. Whatever your perceptions and memories of the clumsy colorization processes of the past, prepare to have them shattered. The subtlety and depth of this new version is surprisingly convincing, providing a whole different way to experience the film.
Many directors preferred black and white, of course, and to colorize their films may not seem respectful in the least. But Harryhausen knew many of the people involved in She and other low-budget films of the era, and knew that they would have preferred to make these films in color given the money. Harryhausen also believes that many viewers these days simply refuse to watch anything in black and white, and thus colorization is the only way to get them to take a look at the great films of the past. But what’s crucial here is that the color version is provided as a complement to the black and white version, not as a replacement.
$24.95. Kino International. www.kino.com.
Kino released another classic silent film this year that may prove to be a definitive edition. Battleship Potemkin is one of the most influential films ever made. Director Sergei Eisenstein’s editing techniques, known as montage, were richly displayed in this dramatization of an event from the Russian Revolution. The famous Odessa Steps sequence has inspired countless filmmakers over the ensuing decades.
With this release, Kino signaled that perhaps it was on its way to becoming a bit more sophisticated in its packaging and design. Here the company sticks to original artwork from the film’s original release, lending greater dignity to the release. The set includes a 42-minute documentary on the restoration of the film.
$29.95. Kino International. www.kino.com.
The Jazz Singer
Warner Bros. released a deluxe box set of the film that put the company on the map back in 1927. The Jazz Singer wasn’t the first sound picture, but it’s the one that sparked the shift to the new technology.
This three-disc set includes a wealth of extras, including dozens of Vitaphone shorts of Vaudeville acts from the era, and an excellent documentary covering the evolution of synchronized sound technology, its effect on motion pictures and the end of the silent era. It may not be great film, but it’s a hugely important one, and Warner Bros. has given it its due with this release.
$39.95. Warner Bros.