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Cover Story: Essential Home Viewing

'Best DVDs of the Year' lists are odd beasts

By Phil Morehart · December 19th, 2007 · Cover Story

No critic/reviewer has the time and/or energy to watch every DVD that floats across his or her desk. It's an impossible task, save for those who can survive without sleep, food, bathing, fresh air, sunlight and social interaction. We watch what we can, but some titles are sacrificed.

Unfortunately, obscure, marginalized, specialized titles are often pushed aside for releases easily recognizable to the readership. The safe choice is often the easiest. That might sound presumptuous and pretentious, but it happens. The nature of the beast favors the favorites. But should it?

For example, the new Blade Runner Ultimate Collector''s Edition -- an impressive, massive five-DVD set packaged in a silver briefcase featuring the theatrical version, international cut and new director's final cut of the sci-fi classic -- will probably be included in many lists, but is it really that special? Blade Runner is no stranger to the DVD market, having been available in multiple editions throughout the years.

The same can be said of the straight-from-theatrical mega-blockbusters. Having mopped-up critically and financially, do their DVDs really need more hoopla? Take Superbad, for instance. The film and supplementary features contained in its new two-DVD Special Edition are quite hilarious, but does it merit inclusion on lists dedicated to DVD releases?

The past year saw the release of films that truly benefit from the advantages that the DVD format allows. The list includes challenging works from visionary auteurs previously discussed only in film classes or read about in textbooks due to their unavailability -- films and programs from great directors that fill gaps in their already esteemed canons and probing documentaries that continue to grow long after their brief theatrical runs.

These are the releases that deserve the accolades.

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume 2 unleashed a quintet of rare, late-career shorts from the legendary experimental filmmaker. A former child actor, author of the controversial celebrity tell-all Hollywood Babylon, member of the Church of Satan and Aleister Crowley devotee, Anger created brilliant bursts that melded together beautifully poetic images, druggy psychedelia, homoeroticism, occult mayhem, pop culture and Rock & Roll, influencing the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Guy Maddin and predicting the visual style of the modern music video.

These shorts find Anger at his wildest. Of particular note are his odes to the occult -- 1969's Invocation of My Demon Brother, a trippy, surprisingly funny document of a black magik ritual with appearances by Manson family member Bobby Beausoleil, The Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithful and Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey and a tape loop drone score by Mick Jagger; and 1981's Lucifer Rising, an elaborate, epic masterpiece filmed in Egypt, England and Germany starring Marianne Faithful that details occult ceremonies through the ages.

Even wilder cinematic excursions are found in The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, a five-DVD boxed set containing three absolutely essential films from the Chilean actor/director, and WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie, two Criterion Collection releases from Yugoslavian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev.

Jodorowsky's films are the definitive "midnight movies." In fact, 1970's El Topo was one of the first. A bizarre western full of surreal occurrences, religious mysticisms, grotesqueries and odd theatrics about a lone gunslinger's search for enlightenment, it became an underground cult sensation thanks to a long-run of dope-hazed, late-night screenings at New York City's Elgin Theater in the early '70s. John Lennon claimed it to be his favorite film.

Along with El Topo, the set includes 1973's The Holy Mountain, an equally freaked-out metaphysical journey filmed on a higher budget, and Fando and Lis, Jodorowsky's first feature, which incited riots upon premiere at the Acapulco Film Festival in 1968.

Makavejev's films are as boisterous and surreal as Jodorowsky's yet possess a revolutionary, comic, absurdist bent achieved by juxtaposing and weaving multiple stories through each other.

Banned upon release in Yugoslavia, 1971's WR: Mysteries of the Organism ponders the power of the orgasm upon the Communist state by mashing documentary footage of controversial psychosexual philosopher/psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich with the exploits of a group of sexually liberated woman. 1974's Sweet Movie follows a libidinous path as well but amped to ridiculous degrees, running through a beauty contest for virgins held to find a bride for a dumb, wealthy Texan with a gold penis; a river boat cruise where sugar, sex and children converge; and a gross-out orgy of food, vomit, feces and urine. Not stuff for the weak, but the brave will find its beauty.

The DVD releases of two creative zeniths from American director David Lynch both reminded fans of his good old days and projected his vision for the future.

The 10-DVD set Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition gathers all 29 episodes from Lynch and David Frost's seminal early-'90s television series about a small Northwestern logging town turned upside-down and inside-out by the murder of seemingly innocent, all-American high schooler Laura Palmer. Of prime note is the inclusion of the awesome feature-length pilot episode that introduced the weird to the world -- previously unavailable on DVD in the U.S. until now.

Lynch's latest film, Inland Empire, is almost better suited to the DVD format than theatrical projection. Filmed with small digital cameras (Lynch's new preferred method of operation), Inland Empire is awash with grain, pixilation and intense colors that magnified oddly on the big screen. They feel right at home on the compressed small screen, however, giving the film the look of a terrifying, claustrophobic home-video nightmare.

Socially conscious documentaries are perhaps best served by DVD, as their availability allows for the furtherance of their message beyond the movie house. Nothing exemplifies this better than Michael Moore's astonishing examination of America's failing health care system, Sicko.

Though lauded at Cannes and by critics, Sicko enjoyed only a brief theatrical run, which is unfortunate -- its testimony deserved a larger audience. Thanks to the long shelf life of DVD, this can happen.

Sicko's supplementary features are among the best this year, including a slew of deleted scenes that further drive home Moore's damning thesis.

On the flip side of Sicko is Helvetica, a documentary released to little fanfare that will definitely find its audience thanks to DVD. The film takes a dry premise -- the history and impact of the Helvetica font -- and twists it into a globetrotting lesson on modern and post-modern culture, graphic design, typography and psychology backed by a cool, minimalist Electronica/Indie Rock soundtrack.

Arts students will eat this film up, but the layperson will be fascinated as the uses of the utilitarian font in everyday life are revealed. Helvetica changes the way we look at the world, as all cinema should.



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