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Review of the Year, Part 3: The DVDs
by Slarek
 

How times have changed. When I first wrote about the DVD medium for a web site article, I had to include a little section on how to track down these shiny plastic disks. Just a few years down the line and you won't find many general stores, corner shops, supermarkets or even garages that don't have a DVD stand somewhere in the building. Now you can pop over to Play.com and find literally thousands of DVDs at knock-down prices in a sale that seems to periodically change its name and content but effectively goes on all year. As my own collection swells to idiotic proportions ("But when will you get the time to watch them all?" my dearly missed father used to quite reasonably ask me) my addiction seems to grow – how stupid am I going to look when DVDs are replaced by some other technology and they all become obsolete, or when the plastic degrades and they all fall apart.

The present popularity of DVD as a medium has meant that a decent DVD player can now be picked up for considerably less than an even half-arsed VHS video recorder, and as DVD and hard-drive recorders become more commonplace, our favourite video recording medium for some twenty-odd years looks finally set to fade into the background. DVD is king. For now.

My top ten DVDs of 2004 are, like my selection of movies, purely subjective, not based on any earthly science. All titles have been chosen through falling into one of the four following categories:

    1. It's a great film/programme/collection that has received excellent DVD treatment;
    2. It's a great film/programme/collection that I'm just overjoyed has been released on DVD;
    3. Both of the above.

Thus I do not care a fiddler's fart if the Van Helsing disk is loaded with features – I won't have it in the house. Similarly, the long awaited (for many) release of the Star Wars trilogy on DVD cuts no ice with me this far down the line as my initial love of the first film has evolved into a weariness for the whole bloody Star Wars universe and all its merchandising (as discussed in this article). I'll leave that to the geeks who camped outside for months to see the dreadful Phantom Menace. I'm actually looking forward to the next one, because then it's all sodding well over, at last. At least I hope it is.

As with my other lists, titles are in no particular order, save for one – in a rare move, I have chosen a DVD release of the year, simply because it not only fits in category 3, it shines in it. It is one of my most treasured DVD possessions and yet seems to have received precious little coverage in the DVD press, save for a nice splash in Sight and Sound. Others that would have been included in this category – Nick Broomfield's Aileen Wuornos double and Franny Armstrong's Drowned Out – are excluded only because they were winners in the documentary round-up and so have been reviewed there. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you...

DVD Release of the Year


The Alan Clarke Collection (Region 0)

It's actually hard to put into words just how excited I was when I first heard about Blue Underground's gorgeous box set. And how confused. Now don't get me wrong, for my money Alan Clarke is one of the greatest directors this country has ever produced, a man whose uncompromising approach to his material and grass-roots understanding of his characters was matched in his later years by a determination to push the medium of television drama to its limits, something he achieved with the stunning Elephant shortly before his untimely death. No, what surprised me, given that Clarke had worked almost exclusively on British TV (plus a tiny sprinkling of feature films), was that this set was being put out in the US by an American company. And more bloody power to them. The set includes five of Clarke's finest works: the banned original BBC version of Scum, the cinema remake (given a sparkling anamorphic transfer), Made in Britain, The Firm and Elephant, plus the documentary Director: Alan Clarke. Given that this was never going to be a million seller, it is doubly impressive that it has been assembled with such care – the transfers are as good as anyone could hope for, the commentaries terrific, the menus and packaging splendidly done, and the films themselves are among the best Britain has produced in the past 30 years. A marvelous package showcasing some superb films.

Collection overview Scum (BBC) DVD review Scum (cinema) DVD review
Made in Britain DVD review The Firm DVD review Elephant DVD review

The rest of the Top 10, in no particular order

The Scorsese Collection (Region 1)
Despite tripping up with the rather overblown Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese remains one of the most consistently impressive film-makers in modern American cinema, and one whose track record now includes a number of acknowledged classics. Given this, the director has been ill served on DVD – the special editions of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull lacked commentaries, and the transfer on Raging Bull was not even anamorphic. Finally this has been put right by the good people at Warner Brothers in a box set that includes the early Who's That Knocking at My Door?, the marvelous Mean Streets (my personal favourite), his engaging, stylish and self-professed 'woman's picture' Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the splendidly twisted comedy After Hours, and a terrific, 2-disk set of his masterful Goodfellas. All of the films feature new anamorphic transfers and commentary tracks by Scorsese and cast and crew members, and Goodfellas boasts an utterly fascinating second commentary by the real-life subject of the film, Henry Hill, and the cop who caught him, Edward McDonald. And why the region 1 US release rather than the region 2 UK one? Well guess what, we got stiffed, and the region 2 set does not include Mean Streets, which frankly was my key reason for buying it, and the film is not available separately either, at least in this version.

The Singing Detective (region 2)
Available on region 1 for some time, Dennis Potter's televisual masterpiece finally arrived on region 2, and just to have it on DVD in all its glory was enough for me, but the BBC really treated us with what for my money counts as a very fine special edition. A three-disk package (that can, incidentally, be picked up for £13 on-line), the first two disks are devoted to the programme itself, which has been decently transferred, with the third disk containing some very fine extras. The two key ones are an hour long 'Close-Up' documentary and a 14 minute 'Arena' article, both on Potter, but also included is a 7 minute extract from the BBC feedback programme 'Points of View', filmographies of the main participants and a photo gallery. But the crowning glory has to be a commentary track by director Jon Amiel and producer Kenith Trodd on every episode, and despite some large gaps, it's a good one. If you've never seen it, you're in for a treat, as there has been nothing like it on UK TV since, and please, please see the original before wandering anywhere near the recent Hollywood remake.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Region 2)
The Royal Shakespeare Company's brilliant stage adaptation of the novel by a certain Charles Dickens was a stage hit in both London and New York, and was filmed for Channel 4 in 1982. It remains to this day the very finest example of a stage play committed to film, thanks in no small part to the sheer inventiveness of the production, the dazzling quality and range of the performances – 150 roles are played by just 39 actors – and the unobtrusive but consistently impressive camera direction, which most effectively captures the atmosphere and exuberance of the live performance. Beautifully directed for the stage by Trevor Nunn and featuring the (then) cream of British acting talent, including Roger Rees, Alun Armstrong, Bob Peck, Ian McNeice, David Threlfall and John Woodvine, this is magnificent theatre and enthralling television, a four act, 9 hour masterpiece whose release on DVD, though lacking extras, is warmly welcomed.

10 Rillington Place (Region 2)
Twenty years before The Silence of The Lambs gave the genre to mainstream status, American director Richard Fleischer went to London to make one of the very finest serial killer movies of all time. Based on the true story of Reginald Christie, who lured women to their death by offering an illegal abortion service, the case became especially notorious when his lodger Timothy Evans, whose young wife became one of Christie's victims, was wrongfully charged with her murder and hanged. Given the potentially sensationalist material, this a very soberly made and chillingly effective film – the hanging of Evans, the murder of his wife and the later discovery of the bodies are genuinely bone-chilling moments. Richard Attenborough gives a brilliantly understated and unsettling performance as Christie, while as Evans, John Hurt shows that a character does not have to be instantly likeable to completely engage our sympathy. For a thirty-three year old, modestly budgeted British film, the anamorphic transfer on this disk is remarkable, and looks better on DVD than many more recent releases. On the extras front there are a nice selection of short interviews with Richard Attenborough, who also provides an introduction to the film, and an informative and entertaining commentary track by John Hurt.

Cinema 16: European Short Films (Region 2)
A truly wonderful collection of largely unseen short films from a slew of great European directors, including Tom Tykwer, Lucas Moodysson, Patrice Leconte, Krzystof Kieslowski, Lars von Trier, Roy Andersson, Peter Mullan and John-Luc Godard. It is always fascinating to see successful feature directors working within the restrictions of the short film format, and the variety of styles and approaches presented here makes for a rich and rewarding viewing experience, which itself is enhanced by the quality of the transfers and the fact that most of the films are accompanied by a commentary track, often by the film-makers themselves. Within the collection are a several films that have already made their mark on the film world – Jan Svankmajer's surrealistic Jabberwocky, Godard's Charlotte et Veronique, on tous les garçons s'applent Patrick, Peter Mullan's powerful Fridge, and Chris Morris's bizarre My Wrongs #8245-8249 & 117 – as well as a graduation film – Lars von Trier's Nocturne – and a stylistic rehearsal for a later feature – Roy Andersson's Härlig är Jorden. One of my personal favourites remains Patrice Leconte's Le Batteur du Bolero, a hilarious, one-shot piece that has no plot and works almost completely through its delightful central performance.

Ran (Region 2)
Increasingly, the half-hearted DVD treatment of the classic films of one cinema's greatest film-makers is becoming a thing of the past, with Criterion offering fabulous transfers of films such as Red Beard and The Hidden Fortress and promising to do likewise in the near future with Kagemusha, but here Warner came close to beating them at their own game with this excellent two-disc release of Kuroswawa's epic take on 'King Lear', which boasts a near-perfect transfer of the film, whose glorious picture quality shines no matter what equipment it its played on – it drew awed gasps even on my humble laptop. I'd have been happy enough with that, but Warner's trump card was to include on the second disk Chris Marker's fascinating, intimate portrait of the director at work, A.K., making it effectively a two-film set for the price of one. Some have described Ran as a lesser Kurosawa film, but it most definitely is not, and the sheer scale and scope of the action sequences seems particularly eye-opening given the modern preference for generating large battle scenes on computer. One almost wishes Warner had their hands on Yojimbo instead of the BFI...

Videodrome (Region 1)
What would any annual listing be without a Criterion disk? Of their many fine releases this year, which includes George Franju's Eyes Without a Face, Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum and Kurosawa's Stray Dog and Ikiru, this has to be my favourite. As a hard-core Cronenberg fan who has followed the director from his early days, I may admire the hell out of The Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers, but my heart has always been with the earlier films, and on its release Videodrome was the best cinematic mindfuck money could buy. Criterion's transfer is gorgeous, the mono soundtrack clearer than anyone has the right to expect and the extras are plentiful and fascinating, none more so than the expected commentary track and Cronenberg's delightful and surprising short film, Camera. Even the packaging is a joy, the DVD set designed to look like a Betamax tape, complete with hand-written labels. A lovely release.

Dracula: The Legacy Collection (Region 1)
As a vampire genre aficionado, this region 1 release was manna from Heaven, a handsomely packaged three-disk collection that included all of Universal Studios' classic Dracula titles, from the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi original to the faltering but still interesting multi-monster House of Dracula. Though Browning's film and the George Melford's superior Spanish language version Drácula had been released before, it was the inclusion of the extraordinary Dracula's Daughter and the intriguing Son of Dracula that really made this a must-have – both films had qualities that belied their possible cash-in, follow-up status, and Dracula's Daughter in retrospect seems some years ahead of its time. Presentation of all of the films was first class, although print quality tended to improve with the more recent films and extras were limited to Dracula, but given that this set could be bought on-line for under £18, this has to be one of the best value DVD releases of the year.

Dracula DVD review Spanish Drácula DVD review
Dracula's Daughter DVD review Son of Dracula DVD review
House of Dracula DVD review  

A Snake of June (Region 2 Japan)
Shinya Tsukamoto continues in his peculiar dual role as one of the most talented and individualistic film-makers working in cinema today and one of the most internationally under-appreciated. His most recent work slipped out almost unnoticed in the UK under Tartan's 'Asia Extreme' banner, yet received a handsome 2-disk special edition release in its native Japan, and though this is technically a 2003 release, its 2004 cinema release in the UK certainly qualifies it in my own, self-written rule book. A typically extraordinary work, it initially makes for sometimes uncomfortable viewing, but repeated screenings have certainly convinced me that it is further confirmation of Tsukamoto's bold and peculiar genius. The picture quality on this Japanese special edition is superior to Tartan's release and the extras are plentiful and very informative – only one problem, English subtitles are restricted to the main feature, so you'll need to brush up on your Japanese to get the best out of it. A real shame, given the background information supplied on character and technique, but still worth it for the picture and DTS sound.
DVD Ups and Downs 2004

Good News, Everyone!
Born-again Tartan
Independent UK distributor Tartan took a lot of flak for their early DVD releases and rightly so – the transfer quality on some ranged from poor to downright shocking, their original version of Miike Takashi's Audition being fuzzy and dark with no shadow detail at all, and a soundtrack that was accompanied by a constant hiss of the sort that used to plague old non-hi-fi VHS tapes. At the end of 2003 Tartan made a pledge that all of their future releases would include DTS tracks, and followed this up by drastically improving the quality of the video at the same time. Given that Tartan's catalogue is, along with that of Artificial Eye, the most interesting one on the UK film and video scene, this has been great news, especially as they have been re-releasing some of their shabbier back-catalogue titles such as Audition and Hard Boiled with genuinely remastered picture and sound. Artificial Eye would do well to take note and start upping those Dolby 2 tracks to 5.1.
Re-releases
This used to piss me off something rotten in the days of VHS: a film you love would come out on tape and you'd buy it even though the picture was cropped because you've been waiting for it to come out for ages, and few films were released on tape in widescreen. Then six months later a widescreen version would come out and you'd buy that too, and a few months after that there was the director's cut... This sort of thing still happens, of course – I have a fair number of DVDs that I have ended up replacing with the special edition of the same title, and that still irks a little, but one type of re-release has lifted my spirits this year. In the past once a title was released on DVD then it was a good chance that was the version you were stuck with – the rights were bought, the disk put out, that's your lot, mate. Which is fine as long as the distributor does a decent job of the release, but when they bugger it up the pain is uniquely unpleasant – you've waited so long for the title to appear and now it has, it's poo, and the opportunity to get it right has come and gone. But this year has seen that start of a most encouraging trend – release rights have started moving from one company to another at an accelerated rate, and titles I thought were doomed have been given a second chance. Good examples of this include La Haine, Breaker Morant, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Hellraiser and Blue Velvet. Of course, still the best protection against the Bad Disk Phenomenon is a multi-region DVD player – just because a title blows on regions 1 and 2, hang around and a decent version may appear on region 4. Yojimbo, anyone?

D'OH!
How many discs?
There has been an increasing trend in the past year or two to unnecessarily spread a film and its extras over or even three DVDs in order to:
a) resell the same package and make it look like a new release;
b) disguise the fact that there aren't actually many extras at all; or
c) bump up the price.
A typical example this year was the special edition of John Carpenter's The Fog, a single disk release on region 1 that arrived with the same features spread over two disks on region 2. Of course, it could be argued that as a PAL transfer takes up more space, there was no room for the extras on one disk, but I direct your attention back to the original release of Carpenter's The Thing, which though non-anamorphic was otherwise a very nice transfer and managed to include a 90 minute documentary and a host of other features on the same disk. The most transparent example of this practice saw M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense re-issued as a 2-disk special edition....with exactly the same features that were on the original release.
'Digitally remastered'
Abused DVD terms #17. You see it all the time, films that have been 'digitally remastered' for a new DVD release. Wow, that's what we want. Well, given that many of these releases have only appeared on film or on analogue tape before, their first DVD release is also their first appearance in a digital format, and this by just transferring the film to DVD in whatever condition it was found it could constitute a form of 'digital remastering'. Never trust this claim – a prime example is Manga's recent region 2 release of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tokyo Fist.

Related articles
Review of the Year 2004, Part 1: The Documentaries
Review of the Year 2004, Part 2: The Movies