Favorite DVD Releases of 2007: Part II. – Top 30 DVDs #1-10.
Black Test Car (1962)
Black Test Car (Fantoma)
Yasuzo Masumura is one of my favorite Japanese directors, but unfortunately many of his films are unavailable on DVD and have never been seen outside of Japan. Thankfully Fantoma has been making an effort to release many of Masumura’s films and in 2007 they released his brilliant and extremely dark satire Black Test Car (Kuro no tesuto kaa, 1962). The film takes a rather unflattering look at the corruption and greed behind the burgeoning car industry in Japan and anyone who’s familiar with the director’s earlier film Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu, 1958) will immediately spot similarities between the two movies. Masumura was a director who was clearly interested in critiquing Japan’s economic boom and exploring the ways in which American capitalism was affecting Japanese society after WW2. As much as I enjoyed the director’s colorful satire Giants and Toys (1958), I personally think Black Test Car is a more effective film dealing with similar themes and I’m grateful that Fantoma has made it available on DVD. Black Test Car features some stunning black and white photography, and Masumura’s direction is top-notch here. All the actors involved with the production deliver some great performances, but I found Jiro Tamiya and Junko Kano especially effective as a young couple whose relationship becomes deeply strained throughout the course of the film. The Fantoma DVD contains an excellent widescreen transfer of the film along with the original theatrical trailer, a biography on the director and still galleries.
Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964)
Becket (MPI Home Video)
I enjoy well-done British historical dramas and many great ones were released on DVD for the first time last year including the wonderful Anne of the Thousand Days (1968), which I also considered including on my list. But my favorite film of the bunch was Becket (1964), which is based on the Tony Award-winning play written by Jean Anouilh. The film plays somewhat free and loose with historical facts, but still manages to be an engaging and thoughtful take on the important events surrounding the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Becket (the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170). Becket was directed by the gay filmmaker Peter Glenville and he injects the film with a wonderfully subversive edge that hints at a deeper relationship between Becket and King Henry II, who are played brilliantly by Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. The film can be viewed simply as a great historical drama and I first saw it presented as an education tool when I was in high-school, but I also think Becket is one of the most sentimental and moving films ever shot about unrequited love shared between two men. Watching Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton struggle with their feelings for one another is what really keeps the film interesting and adds weight to the political power plays in the film and its dramatic conclusion. The DVD features an audio commentary from Peter O’Toole, the original trailer, an impressive still gallery and archival interviews with Richard Burton as well as composer Laurence Rosenthal and editor Anne V. Coates.
Doris Day in Caprice (1967)
Caprice (20th Century Fox)
Like movies such as Last of the Secret Agents? (1966) and Skidoo (1968), Caprice (1967) is a film often talked about disparagingly by people who’ve never actually seen it and it’s nowhere near as awful as you’ve been led to believe. Yes, the film has its problems and its stars (Doris Day and Richard Harris, who’s rarely looked so good) don’t seem to have much chemistry on screen, but this entertaining spy satire also contains some really funny bits, well-done action scenes, fantastic Ray Aghayan costumes and a wonderfully polished pop-art look thanks to director Frank Tashlin and Oscar winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy. I never expected Caprice to get a DVD release, much less one as wonderful as this, but 20th Century Fox really went all out last year. Besides a spectacular restored widescreen transfer of the film, the DVD also includes commentary tracks by film historian John Cork and Pierre Patrick, a fascinating interview with costume designer Ray Aghayan, radio interviews with Doris Day and Richard Harrison, a nice photo gallery and two interesting shorts called Double-O Doris and Doris and Marty that explores the strained relationship between the Doris Day and her husband & manager, Martin Melcher. Hopefully I’ll get around to writing a longer review of Caprice in the future, but in the meantime, I highly recommend the film if you happen to enjoy Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies as much as I do.
Chosen Survivors / The Earth Dies Screaming (Midnite Movies / 20th Century Fox)
Last year 20th Century Fox released some terrific films as part as their wonderful Midnite Movies series, including The House on Skull Mountain / The Mephisto Waltz double feature, which I also wanted to include on my list. I haven’t seen all of last year’s Midnite Movie double features, but Chosen Survivors / The Earth Dies Screaming was one of my favorites. Before the DVD was released I hadn’t seen either of these unusual science fiction films before, but I really enjoyed them. Chosen Survivors (1974) tells an apocalyptic tale about a group of strangers thrown together in a sort of underground holding tank by the U.S. military after a thermonuclear war has destroyed earth’s surface. Things get worse when bloodthirsty bats show up and start killing people. There’s something strangely compelling about the film, and it’s definitely helped by the wonderful space age set designs and cast, which includes Jackie Cooper in what has to be his creepiest role ever. The film was directed by Sutton Roley who made lots of films for television and Chosen Survivors often has a “small set” feel, but it’s also really entertaining. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) has a somewhat similar theme involving space aliens who use poison gas to wipe out the earth’s population leaving only a handful of survivors to deal with the aftermath. It was directed by the talented British director and Hammer legend Terence Fisher, who brings a lot of stylish touches to this low-budget movie. Overall I enjoyed Chosen Survivors a bit more, but The Earth Dies Screaming contains some rather creepy moments reminiscent of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). This nice looking two-disc DVD set from 20th Century Fox makes for a worthwhile night of viewing.
The Holy Mountain (1973)
The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky: Fando y Lis / El Topo / The Holy Mountain (Starz / Anchor Bay)
This impressive DVD collection features three of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s earliest films and besides one major complaint I have (when will we get a good NTSC Region 1 DVD release of the director’s best film, Santa Sangre?), this really is a spectacular collection of avant-garde cinema that should be savored. Jodorowsky’s surreal efforts play with genre expectations and are loaded with iconographic imagery and strange landscapes that I never get tired of exploring. El Topo (1970) is probably my favorite film in the collection, but The Holy Mountain (1974) gets more interesting with each viewing. Alejandro Jodorowsky is a fascinating artist and this important collection sheds some much needed light on his body of work. This new DVD set features beautiful restored and re-mastered transfers of his films, plus many impressive extras including soundtracks for El Topo and The Holy Mountain, exclusive in-depth interviews and a feature-length documentary about the director, photo galleries and Jodorowsky’s directorial debut short called La Cravate, which was long thought lost.
Anais Nin in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)
The Films of Kenneth Anger” Vol. 1 and Vol. 2(Fantoma)
Fantoma should be applauded for bringing this terrific two-volume collection of Kenneth Anger’s esoteric short films (1947-1981) to DVD. Previously I had only seen a few of Anger’s films (Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, 1954 and Invocation of My Demon Brother, 1969) on poor-quality videos, but Fantoma really did a spectacular job of restoring these experimental movies and they look better than ever. I’ve only managed to watch the first volume of this new DVD collection myself, but I wanted to include both volumes on my list because I think Anger’s work is smart, challenging, thought provoking and well worth seeking out. Many interesting counterculture figures and artists such as Anais Nin, Anton LaVey, Mick Jagger and filmmaker Curtis Harrington appear in Anger’s films and collaborated with him, which makes these films important historical documents as well as fascinating viewing. Extras include a deluxe 48-page book with an introduction by Martin Scorsese, audio commentary from Kenneth Anger, rare outtakes and more.
The Singing Street (1952)
Free Cinema (Facets)
This amazing three-disc DVD collection from Facets collects many influential short films from Britain’s Free Cinema movement, which helped reinvent documentary in the early 1950s and gave birth to the British New Wave. Working on shoestring budgets with hand-held 16mm cameras, directors like Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson were able to create startling films that brilliantly brought Britain and its working-class citizens to life, while exploring the underlying social tensions that seemed to be lingering right under the countries surface after WW2. This is the first time these important films (shot between 1952-1963) have been made available on Region 1 DVD and they really highlight the imagination and intelligence of these young British filmmakers, who would go on to create some of the greatest films made in the sixties and seventies. This three-disc DVD collection includes an extensive booklet from the BFI (British Film Institute) and an interesting documentary about the Free Cinema Movement. I hope to write much more about the films in this wonderful collection soon.
Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)
Horrors of Malformed Men (Synapse Films)
For years I’ve been hoping someone would unearth this rare experimental Japanese horror film that was often assumed lost after it was banned in Japan shortly after its initial release, so you can imagine how happy and surprised I was to discover that Synapse was releasing it on DVD last year. Thankfully the film did not disappoint and Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) turned out to be one of the most fascinating Japanese horror films I’ve ever seen. Horrors of Malformed Men is based on an original novel by the popular Japanese author Edogawa Rampo that borrows a lot from H. G. Wells’ classic The Island of Dr. Moreau. Director Teruo Ishii takes what could have been a somewhat familiar premise and turns it into a fascinating fever dream that combines Butoh dance, stunning color photography and a haunting soundtrack by famed composer Masao Yagi. You might laugh, you might cry and you might even have your mind blown by this unapologetically strange and surreal film. Be sure to watch the great interviews included on the DVD with directors Shinya Tsukamoto and Minoru Kawasaki, which only add to the film’s enjoyment and offer an interesting look at the influence this unusual movie had on a new generation of Japanese filmmakers. Other great extras include audio commentary by author Mark Schilling, the original Japanese trailer, a poster gallery and detailed biographies of director Teruo Ishii and author Edogawa Rampo.
Malcolm McDowell in If…. (1968)
If…. (Criterion Collection)
When I first saw Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) it deeply affected me and helped spark my lifelong interest in British cinema. Over the years my admiration for Anderson’s smart film about British youth “revolting against the status quo and daring to imagine what it might be like to put something else in its place” (David Ehrenstein – from his Criterion Essay written for DVD release of If….) has only grown. In the film Malcolm McDowell gives an iconic performance as a troubled student named Mick Travis who rebels against the system with his imagination and wits. I love the way Anderson creatively mixes color with black and white photography within If…. in order to give Mick Travis an inner life that’s so incredibly rich that he seems to literally live and breath right on the screen. If…. has often been compared to Jean Vigo’s 1932 classic Zero for Conduct and Anderson was undoubtedly inspired to some degree by that film, but If…. is clearly a product of the turbulant times that it was made in and frankly it’s a superior and more complex effort that ranks as one of the greatest and most important British films of the sixties. Criterion really did a remarkable job on their two-disc DVD presentation of If…., which includes a newly restored high-definition digital transfer of the film approved by cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, an insightful audio commentary with actor Malcolm McDowell and film historian David Robinson, interviews with McDowell, Ondricek, Anderson’s assistant Stephen Frears, producer Michael Medwin and screenwriter David Sherwin, Anderson’s Academy Award–winning documentary about a school for deaf children called Thursday’s Children (1954) narrated by Richard Burton and a very nice booklet featuring articles about the film by David Ehrenstein, as well as screenwriter David Sherwin and director Lindsay Anderson.
Links to the first, third and fourth part of my Favorite DVD Releases of 2007 list can be found here:
– Favorite DVD Releases of 2007: Part I. – The DVD Year in Review – An Introduction
– Favorite DVDs of 2007 Part III. (#11-20)
– Favorite DVDs of 2007 Part IV. (#21-30)
Part III. of my Favorite DVD Releases of 2007 – #11-20 will be posted soon so stay tuned!