Friday, 05 February 2010 10:00

MOS DEF #3: The Best DVDs of the Decade (2000-09)

by Mark A. Altman
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The Aughts are Over! Can I hear a chorus of halleluiah! And while few may miss the passing of this somewhat disdained decade, it's hard for fans of home entertainment to quibble that it was the best ten years yet for the medium. So here's a final look at back at the triumphs in the audio/video world from way back in January 2000 to the end of 2009. These are not necessarily the best movies of the decade, in fact, few of them actually are from the recent decade past, but they are the best of the formats from the dying days of laserdisc to the decade of DVD to the short-lived HD-DVD to the dawn of Blu-ray. If your library doesn't include any of these titles, run, don't walk to pick them up today (or, in this wired age, surf your way to Amazon) to add these to your sadly deficient collection. And while the list is top-heavy with genre titles, it's only because these films lend themselves to the video and audio strengths of the format and have tended to receive the most tender loving care from the studios due to their strong commercial appeal.

1. BLADE RUNNER: FIVE-DISC COMPLETE COLLECTOR'S EDITION (2007) BD (Warner Bros) This set is quite simply extraordinary. The benchmark for BD to date, and it's hard to imagine this set ever being surpassed. Culling several different versions of the film together for the first time, the most intriguing of a rich abundance of special features is a linear alternate version of the film threading together deleted and alternate scenes along with discarded Harrison Ford narration into an absolutely mesmerizing, gonzo doppelganger to the film, in all its iterations, we know and love. Commentaries and special features are remarkably substantial and candid, including the myriad documentaries and featurettes that can be found on this indispensable collection.

2. THE PLANET OF THE APES: 40th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION (2008) BD (Fox) I once owned a cherished Japanese import box set of all of the Planet of the Apes films on laserdisc which I treated with the reverence reserved for great works of art. So it was astonishing to me when the set became an antiquated relic with the release of this phenomenal collection from Fox which not only includes all the original Planet of the Apes films (mercifully excluding the Tim Burton ape-bomination), but in addition to including most of the great material from previous releases, including the Edward G. Robinson Dr. Zaius screen test footage and Roddy McDowell home movies, that it manages to include five new short, but fascinating featurettes on the making of the films along with the revelatory re-integration of the original ending excised from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. There's also a Taschen-worthy book including in the sturdy and archival bookshelf packaging. The only thing missing are HD transfers of the short-lived live action and animated series which would have been a welcome, if somewhat superfluous, addition. Or, if you really wanted to blow my mind, the stitched together TV movies from the CBS TV series like "Life, Liberty & Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes." Then again...

3. THE ALIEN QUADRILOGY (2003) DVD (Fox). Just as the Criterion's Close Encounters, Brazil and Blade Runner along with Universal's Jaws set the gold standard for laserdiscs in the 90s, The Alien Quadrilogy was a work of remarkable film scholarship that set a new standard for DVD. Featuring all four Alien films (the great, the good and the ugly) along with hours of special footage, insightful commentary and an alternate and improved cut of Alien 3, despite David Fincher's lack of participation, this remains a towering achievement in the medium which leaves one ever more hungry for the release of the rumored Alien Cycle Blu-ray supposedly being released later this year. It was a good call, Ripley, a good call...

4. JAMES BOND: ULTIMATE COLLECTION (2006) DVD/BD (MGM) Bond, James Bond. I have lost count of how many times I have bought these films which dates back to taping them off the ABC Sunday Night Movie on my first VCR (the one that started it all... ). Subsequently, I owned them on VHS preceded by Pink Panther cartoons, later on laserdisc and on multiple versions on DVD, natch. But none of the previous versions come close to matching the Ultimate Collection (which remains irritatingly and incomprehensibly incomplete on Blu-ray as MGM either awaits the release of the next Bond film... or the result of the auction to be bought - either way it's annoying as hell that many of the best 007 films remain MIA on Blu-ray, including On Her Majesty's Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me). Every disc features a truly remarkable new 4K transfer and anyone who's seen prints of any of the Connery film's projected at a revival house in the last decade can appreciate the extraordinary restoration work done here. The exhaustive making of doc's for each film up through A View to a Kill are all here and they're spectacular. Also vintage featurettes which date back to the collector's box versions of Goldfinger and Thunderball are also plattered. It's not surprising that there's no new content on the Blu-ray's given how completely exhaustive the DVD release was in 2006. Truly, nobody does it better.

5. THE LORD OF RINGS: EXTENDED EDITIONS (2002-2004) DVD (New Line) It's hard to think of anything new to say about these films that hasn't already been said. The extended versions aren't only essential, but the exhaustive documentaries about the making of each film along are fascinating documents into the making of this monumental trilogy. It's hard to believe that by the time Return of the King came out, the extended versions had been so embraced that Jackson felt comfortable enough to excise Christopher Lee from the final cut knowing that he would be including the character in the extended edition. Definitive and unmatched in their level of detail and artistry, I can hardly wait for the inevitable Blu-ray release sometime in the next few years - although the theatrical versions aren't too shabby either which hit BD later this year.

6. SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT/THE SUPERMAN COLLECTION (2006) DVD (Warner Bros) It is almost inconceivable to me that decades after Richard Donner was fired from Superman II, Warner Bros actually reconstituted, as best as possible, the film he would have made had he been allowed to finish it. While Richard Lester's version of Superman II was a lightweight and entertaining popcorn muncher as a kid, there's no question that Donner had a far more rich and sophisticated vision for the series which could have given the franchise a far longer life than what the series ultimately devolved into with the atrocious Superman III and the even more inept Sidney J. Furie-lensed Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Donner's cut is quite simply a revelation and a fascinating cinematic artifact. Also included is Bryan Singer's love letter to Richard Donner, Superman Returns, a film which undeservedly gets a bad wrap from fans. It may commit a few missteps (for one, Kevin Spacey who seemed perfectly cast at the time is no Gene Hackman), but ultimately is a winning and fitting follow-up to the iconic first film. Accompanying all the films are a succession of superb documentaries with the highlights being a detailed examination of the Donner/Salkind brouhaha and Robert Meyer Burnett's excellent and exhaustive look at the making of Singer's opus which also offers enticing glimpse into the substantial material that was excised from the film, including Supes return to Krypton in an incomprehensibly deleted opening teaser sequence.

7. THE GODFATHER: THE COPPOLA RESTORATION (2008) BD (Paramount) Forget Star Wars, this is the real Holy Trilogy. And to Coppola's credit, he never went back and denounced his earlier work a la Lucas. Even though FFC did assemble The Complete Saga for television, a linear, and not altogether unpalatable, re-telling of the saga, which is an interesting curiosity, he never put it out on DVD or BD (it was issued in a box set for VHS), these films are among the greatest motion pictures ever made, sans Godfather III which was made to make a release date and not a masterpiece. And lest you forget, in 2008, Paramount issued a gorgeous restoration of all the films in a great box set which truly honors Gordon Willis stunning cinematography and Coppola's seminal saga. While Godfather III doesn't necessarily improve with age, it doesn't get any worse either. As is par for the course, Coppola commentary is excellent even if the special features are more slight than one would truly desire. The cast of Cloverfield espousing their love of The Godfather, really... really?!?

8. ALFRED HITCHCOCK: MASTERPIECE COLLECTION (2005) (Universal), SIGNATURE EDITION (2004) (Warner Bros), PREMIERE COLLECTION (2008) (MGM), NORTH BY NORTHWEST: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (2009) (Warner Bros) DVD/BD. Rumors of an imminent BD release of Psycho aside, it's unconscionable that the only Hitchcock film released on Blu-ray to date is the brilliant North by Northwest. No Notorious, no Rear Window, no Vertigo, no Strangers on a Train, not even Dial M for Murder in 3-D. Despite this, Alfred Hitchcock has probably seen better treatment on DVD than virtually any other filmmaker with three studios all issuing four star box sets devoted to the filmmaker (along with Lionsgate which put out a somewhat less impressive set featuring many of his earlier pictures including Murder! and Rich and Strange in 2007). The linchpin to all these collection, other than more often than not, excellent transfers, with the sole exception of MGM's Premiere Collection, has been first-rate featurettes by Laurent Bouzereau and commentaries. While MGM's beautiful brick encased Premiere Collection lacks the trademark Bouzereau docs, it does feature a beautiful transfer of Notorious with special features that rival the out-of-print Criterion version from a few years back as well as the always lively and informative Peter Bogdonovich.

9. LOST: SEASON ONE-FIVE (2005-2009) BD (Disney) The best and most extensive compilation of a television series on DVD. While VHS never lent itself to complete series compilations and laserdisc proved to expensive and unwieldy for massive compilations, DVD and BD proved perfect and not only are the episodes collected in pristine HD form on the superlative BD, but additional bonus content is extensive and excellent examining every aspect of this justly lauded series from casting to locations to the enigmatic mysteries surrounding the series mythology.

10. THE MALTESE FALCON (2006) (Warner Bros). This is what dreams are made of, a three disc set which not includes the original Maltese Falcon and the delightful Warner Bros "night at the movies" which recreates the feeling of going to the movies back in the 30's with a newsreel, cartoon and trailers, but includes the two previous versions of the film before Humphrey Bogart and John Huston created a cinematic classic as Bogart donned the fedora of dickish private dick, Sam Spade. A classic film which gets deservedly first-rate treatment on home video from Warner Bros.

10. (TIE) THE BIG SLEEP (Warner Bros) (2006). Warner Bros unearth's the original print of The Big Sleep before reshoots after the release of To Have & Have Not which made Lauren Bacall a star for an absolutely fascinating comparison. One version makes total sense, the other doesn't and ironically the one that doesn't is far superior. One of my favorite discs and films of all-time. God bless, Warner Bros.


FREAKS & GEEKS: YEARBOOK EDITION (2004) (Shout Factory). Worth going back to high school for. Paul Feige and Judd Apatow's hilarious and resonant TV series shows why Shout Factory is the Criterion of television.

CITIZEN KANE (2001) (Warner Bros). Amazing DVD, just bring us the damn Blu-ray already. I mean Wayne's World II is on Blu-ray, but not Citizen Kane. Rosebud, indeed.

RIFFIFI (Criterion) (2001). Criterion's excellent release of the Jules Dassin French crime caper.

APOCALYPSE NOW: THE COMPLETE DOSSIER (Paramount) (2006). What's better than one version of Apocalypse Now, both versions. Somebody should clue Lucas into how it's done... The original's better, but Redux is still worth a watch if only for the French plantation sequence.

THE THIRD MAN (2007) (Criterion Collection). Better than a Cuckoo clock, Criterion's premiere Blu-ray which is a re-port of their excellent 2007 DVD is a must-own.

BRAZIL (2006) (Criterion Collection). It would have been in my Top 10 except the original laserdisc was released in the 90s which is really what earns the honor.

THE KILLERS (Criterion Collection) (2003). As if finally getting The Killers on DVD wasn't enough, Criterion throws on the hackneyed TV remake with Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan which is a kitsch fan's nirvana. While you're at it, pick up Point Blank (Warner Bros.) too.

MR. ARKADIN (a.k.a. CONFIDENTIAL REPORT) (2006) (Criterion Collection). Three versions of Orson Welles' underrated film. Fascinating and great bonus materials to boot.

JAWS (2000) (Universal). Again, it'd rank far higher if it wasn't a re-port of the sensational DVD box set which not only features a definitive documentary on the making of the film, but also deleted scenes which are a total hoot. "I ain't going, Mr. Quint, I aint' going on that rusty old barge... " Priceless.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY/EYES WIDE SHUT/A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (2008) (Warner Bros). I can't completely give kudos to Warner Bros for their third Stanley Kubrick collection since Lolita and Barry Lyndon, not to mention, The Killing are all M.I.A. from Blu-ray (and HD-DVD, for that matter). That said, it's initial salvo of Kubrick releases in hi-def are all amazing.

SINGING IN THE RAIN (2002) (Warner Bros). This may be getting repetitive, but Blu-ray please. The only musical people who hate musicals like me truly love. Excellent restoration and fine special features compliment this delightful film.

CHARADE (Criterion) (2004). Somehow this Stanley Donen classic fell into the public domain and was issued on a succession of ever more horrible VHS and DVDs until Criterion finally rescued it and gave it the TLC it truly delivered. The best Hitchcock film, Hitchcock never made. One of the greatest thriller ever made. Blu-ray, please!

THE WIZARD OF OZ: 70 ANNIVERSARY ULTIMATE COLLECTORS EDITION (Warner Bros). The definitive version of this beloved classic in a flawless 8K transfer along with special features that go on for days. Part the curtains for this one.

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE - DIRECTOR'S EDITION (2001) (Paramount) A wonderful revisiting of the Trek movie franchise supplemented by some excellent new special effects and judicious editing that invite a complete re-appraisal of this unjustly derided sci-fi classic. Some of the better bonus materials on any Trek disc include a look at the abandoned Trek: Phase II series from the mid-70s and rare make-up and costume fittings which make this worth the price alone. A wonderful and deserving tribute to the great Robert Wise - not to mention, Gene Roddenberry.

DAWN OF THE DEAD (Anchor Bay). The horror, the horror... from the company that invented the quadruple dip... and make it worth it. You'll never need another version of Dawn of the Dead again.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Sony). Three versions of this cerebral sci-fi masterpiece from Steven Spielberg. One of the first Blu-rays (not to mention laserdiscs) and still one of the best.

HALLOWEEN (Anchor Bay). Sure, I've lost track of how many times this has been released on DVD, but one of them was the best. I don't remember which. That's how many times they've released this film...

(2000) (Disney). The key word being Ultimate. This Toy Story may be in the attic with the imminent release of the Blu-ray, but this two film collection was an early indication of the potential for DVD and remains a wonderful and relevant set today.

STARSHIP TROOPERS (Sony). The former demo disc champion for DVD (I always preferred it to The Fifth Element). Three versions on DVD, but the BD still bests them all. Great Paul Verhoeven commentary as he battles back in defense of his satiric sci-fi classic. Take that, haters.

CRIME STORY: VOLUME ONE/TWO (Anchor Bay). Michael Mann's OTHER classic TV series. Both seasons of this unjustly obscure series released on DVD feature original music tracks (unlike Wiseguy) and remains one of the best TV series of all time with early appearances by Julia Roberts and Kevin Spacey among others.

THE STAR WARS TRILOGY. With a major caveat, the Kevin Burns documentary is phenomenal, but with the original cuts MIA, it's hardly definitive if we have to suffer through Greedo firing first and Darth Vader calling for his shuttle to get back to his Star Destroyer in Empire. As if we didn't get it without stock footage from Jedi explaining it to us. As for the prequels, the less said the better. Fortunately, Blu-ray gives Lucas a whole new chance to get it right. May the Force be with him.

NEXT COLUMN: The latest and greatest in Blu-ray including WWII in HD, Goodfellas, Angel Heart and much more.

- Mark A. Altman

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