Wednesday, 14 March 2012 13:00

MOS DEF #6: The Best Discs of 2011

by Mark A. Altman
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[Editor's Note: You can meet Mark Altman (along with Bits editor Bill Hunt and contributing editor Dr. Adam Jahnke) this weekend at WonderCon in Anaheim where he will be moderating several panels and autographing at the Femme Fatales booth with cast and crew from the hit Cinemax TV series.]


Another year, another column...

Sorry I've been away so long, but I'm thrilled to be back compiling the bits to render judgment on another year of home entertainment. Unfortunately, the biggest takeaway from 2011 and the flaming out of the home video juggernaut that kept the studios awash in big bucks for decades is the fact that the studio's just aren't spending the money to create new bonus features for their discs. The days of being awed by hours of in-depth and eye-opening supplements are clearly over and even the best of this year's Blu-ray featured largely re-purposed content from previous editions. Even when Universal would re-cycle their old laserdisc docs on DVD, it wasn't totally disappointing because the bonus features on those old CAV laser sets were incredible. Jaws, anyone?

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and it was mostly Criterion that was creating the best new supplements (and fabulously detailed liner notes) as the studios continue to labor under their market research that says people don't care about behind-the-scenes material or, equally worse, it's relegated to ephemeral BD-Live supplements. Now, I don't know about you, but the reason I love Blu-ray is because it's archival, it's another reason unlike a lot of you, I love the digi-book. I lurve it, actually! The digi-book screams certain movies are important, writ large, not just to be dropped into another slipcase where all discs are created equal and The Godfather can sit comfortably alongside Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and there's no sense of distinction between true classics and crap. It says these movies deserve to go on a bookcase and not just be slid into an A/V rack in your closet. You could say digi-books like the carpet in The Big Lebowski really tie the room together.

To me, I will always want to own my favorite movies on disc, just like my favorite novels (of course, I said this about CDs - and I gave up on owning those silver platters a long time ago) so digital downloads and streaming will never give me the satisfaction of having a beautifully mastered, well packaged version of my favorite classics and guilty pleasures in my permanent collection where I know they'll always be at my fingertips when I want them whether the wi-fi is down, Netflix lost the license or my wife wants to watch the Kardashians. Unfortunately, 2011 did give me the wistful feeling that I am slowly going to find myself amongst the ranks of those who collected laserdsics and that hard goods will eventually become a niche medium for cinephiles and that makes me sad... even as I dream of quadruple-dipping for 4K versions of my favorite movies in a few years.

Anyway, despite the fact that there was nothing that can be ranked alongside such milestones as The Alien Anthology (other than, well, The Alien Quadrilogy, which was largely a re-port of the previous greatest DVD set of all-time), Lord of the Rings (which was a re-port of the previous second greatest DVD set of all-time), The Planet of the Apes Cycle (other than, well, Rise of the Planet of the Apes which is a fine Blu-ray from Fox, but certainly nothing that will be looked back as an apex for the format) there are still some truly great discs that came out this past year so whaddya say we get to it so you can start hurling your slings and arrows sooner than later.

1. CITIZEN KANE (Warner Bros)

I first saw Citizen Kane on 16mm in high school and it wouldn't be an understatement that it changed my life. I know some people complain about having to flip a disc rather than have it uber-compressed on some super long films, but imagine watching half of Citizen Kane and having to wait two days to see the rest of it. It was agonizing. Subsequently, I've owned Citizen Kane on every format from VHS to laser to DVD and now Blu-ray and while I loved the old Warner Bros DVD, the new set from Warner Bros is just incredible. The restoration was worth the wait and while there's really no new supplemental material to speak of other than a few odds and ends (all appreciated) nor the inclusion of Pauline Kael's seminal Citizen Kane Book, it doesn't really need it. The old Bogdonovich and Ebert commentaries were great - and still are. RKO 247 is a welcome, if insubstantial bonus treat, while The Battle Over Citizen Kane is the real meat of the supplemental features and pretty much covers everything that needs to be said about the film. I'm one of those people who really does believe Citizen Kane is the greatest movie of all-time (sorry, Phantom Menace fans) and it's a thrill to see Warner Bros give it this loving re-release. Until the 4K disc shows up, my desire to have the definitive version of Kane on disc has been sated. Rosebud!


While collaborations like Spielberg and John Williams are few and far between, there are equally few in the world of making-of materials that have stood the test of time; Laurent and Spielberg, de Lauzirika and Scott and, to me, one on equal par is Prior and Fincher, who is potentially the most problematic as Fincher so dislikes talking about his own work. Social Network is probably not only the best movie of 2010, it's certainly the best new release of 2011 with a beautiful hi-def transfer, great audio commentaries by both Fincher and the always listenable Aaron Sorkin and terrific bonus features that do the movie justice including the riveting How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook? feature-length doc. Great movies like Social Network in true Starship Troopers tradition always beg the question, would you like to know more? In this case, I did and my questions were answered by the great supplemental package included in this sterling release.


How I wished for years that The Sweet Smell of Success would finally get the treatment it deserved on home video and, at last, my prayers were answered with this near-perfect version of Alexander MacKendrick's classic noir. Besides a transfer that puts the old MGM/UA DVD to shame, there's a great 1986 doc about MacKendrick, The Man Who Walked Away, another doc in which the brilliant James Wong Howe discusses cinematography and a video interview with Neal Gabler about Walter Winchell, who served as the not so thinly veiled inspiration for Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker. Packaged beautifully with some stunning cover art and the original title treatment which is a doozy, Sweet Smell of Success is easily one of the best catalog titles of the year, not only for its supplemental features, but the movie itself which as Sydney Falco once uttered, is like a cookie laced with arsenic.

4. BLOW OUT (Criterion)

Sure, Scarface got the buzz this year in Blu-ray circles, but let's face it, Blow Out is DePalma's best film. Pauline Kael's darling, DePalma, has never made a true masterpiece, but Blow Out comes closest to being one (yes, I love Untouchables too, but masterpiece, not really). That said, I've always been a fan and he may be one of the most fascinating contemporary directors working today with one foot in classic cinema and one foot in today and there's really no other director still working today other than Spielberg who can match his visual artistry. Other than Bonfire of the Vanities, even DePalma's misfires are always fascinating to watch, even if much of it amounts to derivative depravity as in the case of film's like Body Double and Dressed To Kill. Blow Out though is truly a great film, despite its echoes of Antonioni's Blow-Up and the Blu-ray comes fully stocked, including a fascinating early college film of DePalma, Murder a la Mod. Although the best bonus feature might be Noah Baumbach's one-on-one interview with DePalma which proves sometimes the best special features don't require any bells and whistles but can just showcase two directors sitting down and talking about their art.

5. STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm)

A conundrum, this one. Had Lucas actually included the original, untampered films on these discs, it would have easily have been the number one release of the year (even with The Phantom Menace amongst them), but it's just impossible to laud these discs too much when they remain such a slap in the face to the fans who, well, all ran out and bought them anyway. I'm the first to admit the hypocrisy and I'm also convinced these original versions will eventually be re-issued when there's more money to be gleaned from them, especially with Lucas' having shot his proverbial wad with this set which milked the Lucasfilm archives of virtually every last unreleased piece of material. Given the original films were made the in the 70s and early 80s, where EPK and behind-the-scenes footage was minimal at best, it's truly incredible that Lucas had the foresight to document the making of his films as well as he did. And these sets are beautifully packaged with some exceptional bonus material including deleted scenes from every film, although it's the original trilogy that boasts the real treasure trove here. Even the collection of Star Wars Satires which I thought was a ludicrous inclusion is actually pretty entertaining and well-done. Honestly, I haven't watched the prequels yet (and probably never will) other than to see how the CGI Yoda looked, but I can tell you the original films look great (but you knew that already) and this set is a welcome part of my collection that will remain tucked in next to my Star Wars: Definitive Collection laserdiscs as long as Lucas refuses to release the original movies... or laser rot feeds on them like the Sarlaac Pit. Either way, WTF with that idiotic scream he added? I've seen George speak several times, I've adored many of his films and I just can't understand how such a smart man can be so stupid. I realize there are compelling financial reasons why he chooses not to release the original versions of the films (which people in the know are privy too), but why he does things like add noooooo to Darth Vader watching the Emperor turn Luke into French toast, I'll never be able to fathom. That said, I love this set - against my better judgment. And I got a real kick out of Lego Star Wars: The Padwan Menace which is a lot of fun and an enjoyable chaser for the heaviness of the trilogies.

    THE KILLING (Criterion)

It was a good year for Stanley Kubrick on Blu-ray. Two of my favorite Kubrick's finally got their Blu-ray unveiling, Lolita and the underrated Barry Lyndon as part of yet another great Warner Bros set devoted to the late master. But even better was Criterion's release of Kubrick's seminal noir, The Killing, which includes one of the greatest bonus features ever: another movie. In this case, Kubrick's Killer's Kiss, which doesn't warrant a purchase on its own, but here is a welcome addition to this stellar Criterion release laden with a strong supplemental package and the requisite comprehensive liner notes, including a rare interview with Sterling Hayden.

7. BROADCAST NEWS (Criterion)

Getting repetitive I know, but I've had to put up with Fox's crappy Broadcast News DVD for over ten years so to have Criterion finally give this Jim Brooks' masterpiece its due as a gorgeous Blu-ray release which includes an array of deleted scenes included a wisely excised ending involving Holly Hunter and William Hurt as well as a swell documentary about James L. Brooks and an inter view with Susan Zirinsky, one of the inspirations for Holly Hunter's hard-driving producer. Start spreading the news, baby. Worth the wait.


Matthew Vaughn's surprisingly nifty X-Men prequel is like Mad Men with superheroes, evoking the wit and sophistication of early Bond. It's a true geek treat and while the Blu-ray itself isn't exhaustive, there's enough new material that makes it an essential purchase.


I remember seeing Blue Velvet for the first time at the Boston Film Festival and awaiting eagerly for the introduction by David Lynch who stepped on stage and said This movie changed my sex life forever and then proceeded to leave, never to be seen on stage again. Disappointing, yes. But the film that followed was not. A twisted and delightfully depraved Hardy Boys adventure, Blue Velvet has never gotten particularly great treatment on home video. And the new BD inherits most of the bonus material previously seen on the DVD. The real fun here is a mess of recently unearthed deleted scenes as well as a scathing Siskel & Ebert review of the film which makes this disc a hoot.

10. PULP FICTION/JACKIE BROWN (Miramax/Lionsgate)
      KISS ME DEADLY (Criterion)

While I have been somewhat disappointed with what Lionsgate has been doing with the old Miramax library for the most part, the long awaited release of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown on Blu-ray was more than welcome. Although most the material is re-purposed (and looks that way, regrettably), there are a few new featurettes that are more than worth your time. I particularly like new critics' retrospectives roundtable in which several film critics discuss both films and the Tarantino ouvere fairly candidly. Moderator Elvis Mitchell does his usual fine job keeping the conversation lively and there are also a few new interviews with the cast, the most interesting being John Travolta finally debunking some of the myth regarding him playing the Welcome Back, Kotter board game with Tarantino. Definitely the real meat here are the movies themselves which both look great. Love to see Reservoir Dogs, still my favorite Tarantino film, get a revisit along with the long rumored deleted scenes that almost got re-issued a few years back. And speaking of glowing suitcases, another Criterion disc that lit me up, along with its great retro pulp cover art, was Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich's Cold War-infused noir which is, by far, the greatest and most twisted Mike Hammer film ever to hit celluloid. And Criterion loads it up with its usual array of exhaustive bonus features and copious liner notes. If only Pulp Fiction had gotten this kind of love. Maybe one day or 4K.


HONORARY MENTIONS: SCARFACE (Universal) gets a nice new release with my favorite special feature being the inclusion of the original Paul Muni gangster film. The old laserdisc set had some great documentaries on the film and is replaced by some slighter, less impressive featurettes which deal with the film's prominent place in pop and hip-hop culture than the actual making of the film. THE COEN BROTHERS COLLECTION (Fox) features some great films - although there's nothing particularly special about what Fox has done with the new titles. That said, it marks the Blu debut of my favorite Coen Brothers film, Miller's Crossing, so I've included it here anyway. JURASSIC PARK: ULTIMATE TRILOGY (Universal) feature all three films of varying quality, the best being the first, which is still overrated, but notable for much of what it does right and even the second film has a virtuoso Spielberg suspense scene in which the modern master channels his inner Hitch as the characters try and crawl their way up from a splintering glass windshield as it dangles precariously over a ravine. But enough with the kids in jeopardy already. New bonus features are edifying, particularly the new Spielberg interviews, but how many times do we need to see wire frame models of dinosaurs. Love that Spielberg finally addresses the dangling unresolved Wayne Knight subplot from the first film. JEAN HARLOW: 100th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION (Warner Archives) is Warner Archives video-on-demand release of several Harlow classics (and some not) including: Saratoga, Bombshell, Girl From Missouri, Restless, Suzy, Riffraff and Personal Property. My favorite Harlow film, Red Dust is MIA due to its impending restoration, but it's a nice tribute to the blonde bombshell who is an unsung hero of early cinema. FARSCAPE (A&E/New Video) gets an acceptable up-convert of its standard def series. And even though upconversion to HD will never do the medium true justice, A&E fills the disc with such a nice selection of bonus materials including a new HD doc, Memories of Maya and 31 audio commentaries (yes, 31!), who can really quibble. CUL DE SAC (Criterion) more yummy Polanski goodness from Criterion although rumor has it the real Polanski gem is heading to Criterion this year. Hmm, what could that be - and what have you done to its eyes?

- Mark A. Altman

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