Apologies for the long delay! My annual list of Favorite DVDs always takes longer to compile than I expect it will. You can find the first part of this list here. Now on to Part II #11-20 . . .
13. Patriotism (Criterion)
One of the most surprising and unexpected Criterion DVD releases last year was this short film made by the celebrated Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Before Criterion’s official release of Patriotism (aka Yûkoku; 1966) the film was often hard to see and rarely shown anywhere. This 27-minute long movie contains no dialogue and it’s based on a short story written by Yukio Mishima, which was also performed as a modern Noh drama on stage. It’s a rich and deeply moving piece of work full of striking images that reflect the film’s stage origins and explore the writer’s obsession with Japanese nationalism and romantic ideals. Those who are unfamiliar with Mishima’s writing, as well as the Japanese view of death and national honor, may find Patriotism a bit muddled, but the film can be enjoyed as a historical document or an important work of art. It showcases Mishima’s artistic skills and foreshadows the author’s actual suicide, which makes for fascinating as well as thought provoking viewing. The Criterion DVD is beautifully packaged and comes with extensive notes including Mishima’s original story and details about the film’s production. It also includes interviews with Yukio Mishima and a short documentary on the making of the movie. Patriotism is essential viewing for anyone who is interested in Mishima, but it’s also an important Japanese film and Criterion should be applauded for releasing it. If you’d like to read more about Yukio Mishima please see my lengthy piece on the 1968 film Black Lizard, which he also appeared in.
14. Phase IV (Legend Films)
This interesting science fiction film was the only feature-length movie directed by the legendary Saul Bass who is mostly remembered by film fans for his graphic design skills. Throughout the ’50s and well into the ’90s, Bass was responsible for some of the most amazing credit sequences and movie posters ever created. His design work for directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, John Frankenheimer and Martin Scorsese is instantly recognizable and hard to top. Saul Bass also had directing ambitions and made many short films, but Phase IV (1974) was the only full-length motion picture he directed. The film’s plot involves a strange occurrence in space that seems to only affect the Earth’s ant population. Phase IV owes quite a bit to previous science fiction films such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), but it’s still a fascinating entry into the “nature-run-amok” genre that was made popular in the ’70s. Bass’ choice to use lots of macro photography in an effort to humanize the ants in the film really make’s Phase IV stand apart from typical genre exercises. Mayo Simon’s script is also notable for the way it manages to dehumanize the scientists trying to cope with the ant problem and it smartly mixes hard science and speculative fiction to good effect. Unfortunately Legend Films released the DVD with no extras, but I’m glad that the movie is now easily available and the print looks sharp.
16. Privilege (New Yorker Video)
When you’ve seen as many films as I have, you tend to become a little jaded so whenever I discover something new that really excites me and makes me fall in love with the possibilities of cinema all over again there is reason to celebrate. Last year I was exposed to the work of director Peter Watkins for the first time after seeing his impressive 1967 film Privilege as well as Punishment Park (1971) and I knew I had stumbled onto something really special. Peter Watkins is a controversial director who likes to use non-professional actors in his pseudo-documentary style films. His work has won him many awards, but his films have also been banned due to the politically charged content and in turn very hard to see. Thankfully that’s changed in recent years and New Yorker Video has given many film enthusiasts like myself the opportunity to see his work on DVD. In Privilege, we’re introduced to an enigmatic pop singer named Steven Shorter (played by the real-life musician Paul Jones) living in a futuristic alternative London in the late ’60s. Like many pop stars and movie actors today, Steven Shorter is controlled by his “handlers” who make almost all of his decisions for him. Steven’s sterile world begins to crumble when his handlers decide that they want him to start promoting conservative values to the youth who adore him. Privilege becomes more dark and cynical as it progresses and we’re left with a smart and creative look at the effects of social conditioning filtered through popular culture. Watkins’ experimental docudrama directing style works really well here and it’s complimented by the film’s great production design and Peter Suschitzky’s excellent cinematography. Suschitzky has worked with some of my favorite directors including Joseph Losey, Ken Russell and David Cronenberg so I was excited to see his early efforts on display in this fascinating film. The performances all very good and Paul Jones does a nice job of playing the deeply troubled pop star. I also enjoyed seeing the beautiful Jean Shrimpton in her first major film role. She shows that she’s got some acting ability in Privilege so it’s a shame that she didn’t go on to appear in more films. I liked the subtle approach she took to playing Steven Shorter’s love interest and I wondered if Shrimpton had followed some acting suggestions from her real-life boyfriend at the time, Terence Stamp. New Yorker Video really did a great job on this DVD release. The film looks terrific and it comes with some interesting extras including a short documentary chronicling the career of American pop idol Paul Anka called Lonely Boy (1962) that inspired Peter Watkins to make Privilege, the film’s original trailer, a stills and poster gallery and a nice collector’s booklet.
17. Rodan/War of the Gargantuas (Classic Media)
I love a good giant monster movie and Classic Media packaged two of director Ishirô Honda‘s best monster movies together for this impressive DVD release. Rodan was Honda’s popular 1956 follow-up to Godzilla and it’s a classic in its own right, but I personally like the unforgettable craziness that can be found in the director’s 1966 effort War of the Gargantuas much more. War of the Gargantuas has never been available on DVD before and if you enjoy ’60s style monster mayhem complete with psychedelic flourishes and a catchy musical number, then you’ll enjoy this sequel to Honda’s Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). The film stars cult icon Russ Tamblyn in one his most unforgettable roles as a young doctor trying to help a group of Japanese scientists figure out why giant monsters are attacking Tokyo. Are the Gargantuas just unexplainable giant anomalies with bad tempers or are they man-made creatures with a personal vendetta? You’ll have to watch to find out! This 2-Disc DVD set comes with lots of worthwhile extras including two versions of War of the Gargantuas (the uncut Japanese film with English subtitles and the English-dubbed U.S. version) as well as an interesting original documentary called Bringing Godzilla Down to Size.
18. Simon, King of the Witches (Dark Sky Films)
Simon, King of the Witches (1971) is not the best film that made my Favorite DVDs of 2008 list, but there’s something undeniably appealing about this unusual American horror film that has developed somewhat of a cult following over the years. The plot revolves around the rise and fall of one Simon Sinestrari (Andrew Prine). Simon is a charismatic magician who uses his abilities to charm a group of wealthy and influential L.A. residents who shower him with praise and money. Unfortunately, none of them are really prepared to dance with the devil so when things start to go horribly wrong, Simon is forced to take drastic actions. The film was written by Robert Phippeny, a practicing magician who brought a lot of his own experience to the script, but the film never takes itself very seriously. Simon breaks the fourth wall in the movie’s opening minutes by looking straight at the camera and telling us who he is and as the film unfolds the underlying black humor becomes more and more apparent. Andrew Prine is great as the cocky and charismatic Simon and he manages to hold the film together even during its dullest moments. Warhol superstar Ultra Violet even shows up as the leader of some naked Wiccan ritual that Simon ridicules mercilessly. Director Bruce Kessler worked mostly in television during the ’60s and ’70s and there is a static look to the film that screams “made for TV movie” but don’t let that discourage you! The film also features some creative special effects and a great psychedelic scene involving Simon’s trip through a mirror that makes up for how dreary the rest of the film looks. Dark Sky Films really did an outstanding job on their DVD release of Simon, King of the Witches. It includes a nice looking widescreen print of the film, the original trailer and radio spot, as well as insightful interviews with director Bruce Kessler and the film’s star Andrew Prine. It’s a shame that the major studios so rarely put the same kind of effort and care into releasing their films on DVD.
19. The Skull (Legend Films)
The Skull (1965) has long been one of my favorite British horror movies from director and award winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, so I was thrilled to find out that Legend Films would be releasing it in widescreen on DVD. The Skull was adapted from a short story by the talented horror writer Robert Bloch called The Skull of the Marquis de Sade and it tells the dark tale of Dr. Christopher Maitland played to perfection by the late great Peter Cushing. The good doctor likes to collect unusual esoteric relics and when he gets offered the chance to own the skull of the famed Marquis Des Sade naturally he jumps at the opportunity. Unfortunately for him the skull is haunted by the spectre of the malevolent (according to the film) De Sade who begins to take control of the unsuspecting Dr. Maitland. The Skull is one of Freddie Francis’ best color films and also one of the best British horror films ever produced by Hammer rival Amicus. The direction is tops and Francis conjures up some impressive visuals that are sure to please even the most discriminating horror fans. All the performances in the film are solid, but horror regulars Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and the under appreciated Patrick Wymark deliver some of their best work in The Skull. The movie also includes a memorable score by the talented Elisabeth Lutyens. Lutyens was the first female composer to create soundtracks for British film and she made her mark working on great horror movies and thrillers such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), The Earth Dies Screaming (1965) The Psychopath (1966) and Theatre of Death (1966).This bare bones DVD release doesn’t offer anything in the way of extras except for the original trailer but the widescreen uncut restored print of the film does look fantastic, which makes this disc well worth owning.
20. This Sporting Life (Criterion)
I’d really like to write a more lengthy post about this terrific Lindsay Anderson film and hopefully I’ll find the time to in the future, but in the meantime you can read my brief comments about This Sporting Life (1963) here.
A few films that might have made my list if I had the opportunity to see them: Ken Russell at the BBC (collection), Blast of Silence (1961), Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), Mandingo (1975) and The Wolves (1972).
And that concludes the third year of Cinebeats annual Favorite DVDs of the year report! Legends Films really made its mark on my list this year and as usual, Criterion dominated it. 2009 is shaping up to be an interesting year for DVD releases and next month I hope to start sharing My Favorite DVDs of the Week with readers once more.
Next month also marks Cinebeats third year anniversary and I want to make it special so if all goes well you can expect to see a flood of activity here in April! In the meantime, you can still follow Cinebeats at Twitter where I often share bits of film and TV-related chatter.