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The 10 Best DVDs of 2007
by Peter Sobczynski

Like the headline says, these are the 10 best DVDs of 2007--nothing more (well, maybe a little more) and nothing less.

More than 43 DVDs were released in 2007–okay, 44 if you count the latest edition of “The Evil Dead”–and while many of them were serviceable enough, a few of them were impressive enough to deserve a place on the shelves of any serious home-video buff. Below are the ten best that I came across in the past year and a few alternate suggestions that were just as strong but failed to make the final cut. Enjoy.

Remember, this Friday's column will be the annual M.I.A. edition looking at ten notable and intriguing movies that have yet to make their appearance on DVD. What oddities, obscurities and cult favorites made this year's list--all will be revealed in a couple of days.

1. BLADE RUNNER–ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Warner Home Video. $78.92): For years, fans of Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1982 sci-fi cult favorite had to make do with a substandard DVD released during the early days of the format (which was considered to be a fairly lackluster presentation even back then) but their wildest fantasies of a truly special special edition were more than fully realized with the end-of-the-year release of this behemoth–a five-disc set that collected five different versions of the film (including a pre-release workprint that has been a sort of Holy Grail ever since it was accidentally uncovered in the early 1990's), a fascinating 3 ½-hour-long documentary that covered every single aspect of its long history, 45 minutes of previously unseen deleted scenes strung together in a manner that suggested a sixth variant of the story proper, a slew of commentaries and featurettes and even a tiny replica of one of the ultra-cool Spinner cars used in the film. Although plenty of classic titles were given the deluxe treatment (including the must-own sets dedicated to Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” this set may well be the single most complete and all-encompassing set dedicated to a single film in the history of home video.

2. ACE IN THE HOLE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Once again, the good folks at Criterion released a killer slate of beautifully-produced and lavishly appointed DVDs aimed at the serious cineaste, including such essential titles as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” Lindsay Anderson’s “If. . .,” “Overlord,” “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and “Army of Shadows.” However, their greatest achievement was to offer consumers the first-ever home-video release of Billy Wilder’s corrosive 1951 drama about a craven news reporter (Kirk Douglas) who stumbles upon the story of his career when a man becomes trapped in a mine. Just to finally have a non-bootleg copy of this gem would have satisfied most film lovers but the company went the extra mile with such fascinating supplements as a 1980 documentary on Wilder, vintage interviews with Wilder, Douglas and co-writer Walter Newman and an afterword from Spike Lee expressing his love for one of Wilder’s finest screen achievements.

3. THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY (MGM Home Entertainment. $89.98): After the deluxe treatment that Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” received a couple of years ago, most people assumed that similar treatments would be forthcoming for “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More,” the other two titles in the legendary “Man With No Name” spaghetti western trilogy that he did with Clint Eastwood in the 1960's and the versions that appeared in this collection (beautifully restored and with informative commentaries from Leone scholar Christopher Frayling) didn’t disappoint. What did come as an unexpected and wholly delightful surprise was that MGM would also put together a definitive release of Leone’s “Duck, You Sucker,”a wild and politically oriented 1971 western (in which a Mexican peasant (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary on the run (James Coburn), team up to thwart oppressors during the Mexican revolution) that restored the heavily-edited film to its full 157-minute length for the first time in America and revealed it for the work of genius that it was. (In an added bonus for Leone buffs, Warner Home Video released “The Colossus of Rhodes,” the 1961 swords-and-sandals epic that marked his official directorial debut, which meant that all seven of Leone’s films were now available on DVD in reasonably intact form.) Other must-own director sets included “The First Films of Samuel Fuller” (Criterion’s offering of the first three films from the celebrated B-movie favorite), Anchor Bay’s two “The Bava Box” offerings (which afforded the lion’s share of the films from the acclaimed Italian cult favorite with their best and most complete home-video releases ever) and Warner’s “The Directors Series: Stanley Kubrick” (which offered special editions of “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut” that were so impressive that the set might have topped this list if it weren’t for the fact that Warners should have done this years ago and because of the inexplicable absence of “Lolita” and the great “Barry Lyndon” from the collection.)

4. POPEYE THE SAILOR: 1933-1938, VOL.1 (Warner Home Video. $64.98): Animation buffs had a lot to choose from this past year, including the latest “Looney Tunes” and “Walt Disney Treasures” collections and sets dedicated to Woody Woodpecker and Droopy. However, the real jaw-dropper of the bunch was this 4-disc beauty that brought together the first 60 cartoons featuring E.C. Segar’s eternally popular spinach-chomping sailor (all of which were restored so beautifully that just the sight of them took the breath of many a fan away), highly informative documentaries on the early days of the animation industry and the development of “Popeye” as a cartoon property, numerous historical commentaries and sixteen bonus cartoons from the silent era. As astounding as the set was on historical and technical grounds, the best thing about it was how well the shorts have held up over the years–although these cartoons have always taken a back seat to the rival offerings from Disney and Warner Brothers, this set makes a convincing argument that they were the equal of anything offered by their competitors.

5. TWIN PEAKS–THE DEFINITIVE GOLD BOX EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $99.99): Just after the long-awaited set of the second (and final) season of David Lynch’s legendarily odd 1990-1991 soap opera parody/homage was released after a delay of nearly six years this past spring, it was announced that there would be a super-deluxe edition that would include those episodes along with the long-out-of-print Season One episodes and brand-new extras. This is the kind of double-dipping that would normally drive consumers mad with frustration but in the case of this 10-disc set, it was more than worth the repurchase. Not only did it include every episode, it also gave fans the first-ever Region One release of the original pilot episode (in both the original broadcast version and the one prepared for European theatrical release with a decidedly different ending), deleted scenes, a feature-length documentary on the show’s rise and fall and ephemera such as a series of “Peaks”-themed commercials for a Japanese coffee company and the “Peaks”-related sketches from when star Kyle MacLachlan hosted “Saturday Night Live.” The only thing missing from this box (not counting the still-missing deleted scenes from the feature-film spinoff “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”) was a piece of pie and a damn fine cuppa joe. Some of the other great TV sets released this year included “Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show,” “My So-Called Life: The Complete Series,” “Heroes–The Complete First Season,” “Dr Katz: Professional Therapist–The Complete Series” and “The Secrets of Isis–The Complete Series”

6. THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION, VOLUME ONE: 1934-1936 (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): After alienating fans of the eternally popular slapstick trio with compilation discs that were indifferently programmed, sloppily produced and wildly overpriced, Sony finally did right by the Stooges by offering up the first installment of what they promise will be the chronological release of every one of the 190 shorts they made throughout their career. Instead of using the same worn prints that have played on TV for decades, the 19 shorts featured here have clearly been restored and those who have been used to those beat-up transfers may be shocked with how good they look after all the time that has passed since their original release. And since many of the Stooges best shorts, including “Punch Drunks,” “Three Little Pigskins” and the Oscar-winning “Men In Black,” were among the initial offerings collected here, this set is, appropriately, a no-brainer for anyone in the mood to laugh. Fans of classic comedy were also treated this year with the releases of “W.C. Fields Comedy Collection, Volume 2,” which saw the long-awaited release of his 1941 surrealist masterpiece “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” and “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection,”a 4-disc set that convincingly argued the long-forgotten silent comedian’s position as the equal of such contemporaries as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

7. THE WAR (PBS Home Video. $129.99): Although Ken Burns’ latest epic-length documentary–a seven-part, 15-hour-long look at how World War II affected our nation by looking at it through the eyes of four individuals from four different communities–was as heavily hyped as any Hollywood blockbuster in recent memory, this was the rare film that actually lived up to all of the advanced word. In fact, not only is it as good as any of Burns’ other achievements, it will go down as the definitive documentary treatment on the subject of WW II.

8. BLACK EMANNUELLE’S BOX VOLUME 1/VOLUME 2 (Severin Films. $69.95 each): Of course, the typical DVD fanatic cannot live on highbrow titles alone–one sometimes needs to unwind with something on the sexy, silly and sleazy side. No DVD company better understood that principle better this year than Severin Films, which has been cranking out top-notch editions of long-forgotten Eurosleaze oddities with the kind of care that Criterion lavishes on their more esteemed offerings. Although the company put out a number of titles near and dear to the hearts of exploitation film fanatics, ranging from the more obscure efforts of cult filmmakers such as Jess Franco (“Mansion of the Living Dead”) and Lucio Fulci (“The Eroticist”) to such skin-flick classics as “Vanessa” and “Laure,” I have to give the nod to these two box sets commemorating the often-jaw-dropping sexploitation film series that sprang up in the 1970's to cash in on the success of the otherwise unrelated “Emmanuelle” films.

Each set included three beautifully restored titles, nifty extras (including the oftentimes hilarious trailers and interviews with some of the participants) and even a pair of CD’s capturing the maddeningly catchy music heard in the films and for those whose cinematic tastes veer towards the wild side, these limited-edition sets became must-have collectors items. Other key exploitation titles to appear in 2007 included “Caligula–The Imperial Edition” (a 3-disc set commemorating the infamous porno epic that included 2 versions of the film, deleted scenes, documentaries and hilariously candid commentary tracks from co-stars Malcolm McDowell–whose comments on the DVDs for “If. . .,” “O Lucky Man,” “Royal Flush” and “A Clockwork Orange” are also not to be missed–and Helen Mirren), BCI/Eclipse’s series of “Welcome to the Grindhouse” double-feature collections and the four “Cult Camp Classics” box sets that finally brought viewers such beloved and long-awaited titles as “Land of the Pharaohs,” “Zero Hour,” “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” and the immortal “Trog.”

9. INLAND EMPIRE (Absurda/Rhino. $29.98): Having disappointed some of his fans with the bare-bones DVD treatment afforded to his previous film, the 2001 mind-bender “Mulholland Drive,” David Lynch went the other direction for this overstuffed two-disc set dedicated to his latest film, a brilliant and baffling three-hour epic that started out ordinarily enough–ambitious actress (Laura Dern in her best performance to date) is hired to star in a film with a decidedly dark history–and quickly transformed into something truly strange and unknowable even by Lynchian standards. Besides a superlative transfer of the film (which is even more impressive when you realize that Lynch shot the entire thing on commercial-grade digital video cameras), the DVD also included a whopping 75 minutes of deleted scenes (all of which could have been reinserted back into the film proper as far as I am concerned), a surprisingly candid behind-the-scenes look at its production, interviews with Lynch and Dern, the short film “Ballerina” and a brief featurette that shows Lynch telling a couple of stories while showing us how to make quinoa. Hell, Lynch even broke from his past tradition and allowed chapter breaks to be included, an important concession since this is the kind of film that people will be picking apart and analyzing for years to come.

10. THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): 2007 saw the release of a lot of long-rumored special editions of cult favorites from the horror genre (even a bit of low-budget nastiness like the mad slasher epic “The Burning” got the deluxe treatment) but even the most optimistic fans were probably taken aback when MGM presented them with something that they had heard about for years but probably never expected to see in their lifetimes–a beautifully-restored version of the memorably dark effort from the late Michael Reeves, in which Vincent Price gave his single greatest performance as a 17th-century sadist who went from town to town to identify and torture “witches” purely for profit, that was cut to ribbons for its aborted 1968 release. That would have been more than enough, especially for a title that was never going to burn up the sales charts, but the company also included featurettes on Price, the film and its long and tangled history as well as an entertaining commentary track from co-star Ian Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove. At a time when most studios are either dumping catalogue titles on the market without a thought or simply ignoring them altogether, this essential item was something to treasure.

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originally posted: 01/03/08 05:43:18
last updated: 01/03/08 06:26:24
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