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Published: Wednesday, 12/19/2007

2007: The year's best DVDs

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

What a rotten world.

First, they took away the LP. No longer was there a double album to unfold across your lap, with a picture of Peter Frampton swirling a glass of cognac (or something) to moon over.

CDs filled the void for a while - but not really, though package them by the gross, call it a box set ("Childhood Classics of Albania, 1845-1965," for instance), and we can pretend that showmanship lives. Now they're taking away the CD and replacing that with MP3 files and liner notes to print out - though no one does.

This is no way to give gifts.

So, as I do annually, I turn to the DVD this holiday - home video, the last refuge of the truly wasteful, the best friend of last-minute holiday shoppers. For how long?

Not long.

That's DVD in 2007.

Just biding time, awaiting the day you'll download your movies, just as you download your music. Already big-box electronics stores are devoting less shelf space to discs - and it took the VHS tape almost 30 years to get written off. Meanwhile, chances are you neither require nor want the complete Gilmore Girls - all 42 discs, for $258. Or the complete run of Full House (32 discs, $170). But I say relish this indulgence - while you're still able.

The year in DVD was the year of studios concocting ever-extravagant reasons for making the DVD relevant in your life again. Generally, this meant super-sizing everything - delivering the complete X-Files (61 discs). Or the seriously, no-really-we-mean-it-this-time final edit of Blade Runner, packaged in a chrome brief -

case for $79. And The United Artists 90th Anniversary Prestige Collection - the year's most extravagant set, at 110 discs (and 90 films) for $870.

See, roughly 10 years into the life cycle of the DVD, you now take the format for granted. Which may beconvenient for you, but it's bad for studios and makes their annual sales charts sad. Someone's going to lose a third home. The format is approaching exhaustion - home video is expected to do $24 billion, down from years past when the format had been a license to print $10s and $20s. Video game sales outpace DVD - Halo 3 (at $60 a pop) sold more copies its first day of release than Shrek the Third sold at a quarter of the price. Rentals are flat - Blockbuster is cutting 400 jobs. And as if Hollywood needed any more problems, you've heard about this writers' strike that's going on.

Please. Won't you help?

I offer this plea because, for mere hundreds of dollars a day, you could put the DVD market back in black. Do you want a studio suit to drive a two-year-old car that isn't vintage?

Don't do it for the needy folks who run the home-entertainment wings of our major conglomerates. Do it because, as the format matures, it gets wiser. The DVDs mentioned in this story are my favorites of 2007 - which, by chance, make fine last-minute Christmas presents.

That said, one size does not fit all. A badly chosen DVD is more impersonal than a gift card. So, as usual, included a handful of suggested demographics and great discs to suit them. (But no, you can't borrow my glue gun.)

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.

Characteristics: Twitchy. Hard to buy for; their collection of Criterion Collection titles is included in a living will. Appreciates the sound of their own voice (but not as much as the sound of Marty's, as in Scorsese, as in duh). Best to drop off a gift then run.

Recommended: The trouble with these folks is that they've already seen everything. What's nice about Criterion's new editions of Breathless (Criterion, $39.95), Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 French New Wave classic, and Days of Heaven, Terrence Malick's aching 1978 Richard Gere romance, is the new eyes Criterion's impeccable transfers and wisely-chosen extras supply. But there's nothing like a neglected classic to appease a filmy fussbudget. I've got you covered: I Am Cuba (Milestone, $44.95), unseen for decades, is a legendary hybrid of revolutionary blather and Cuban triptych, with a absorbing full-length history of the film included, cleverly bundled together in a cigar box. Even better from Milestone: Charles Burnett's 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep ($39.95), being released on home video for the first time. A seminal work of black cinema, and a key influence on the rise of American independents, its working-class ethos carries through the ample extras: four short films (including a new one) and Burnett's second movie, My Brother's Wedding, itself a minor masterpiece.

The best DVD of the year.

Characteristics: Zero attention span. Falls asleep in front of the Discovery Channel at 3 a.m. Craves variety. Prone to leaving the room and asking what they missed. Watches little television.

Recommended: Two things. The Pixar Short Films Collection, Vol. 1 (Buena Vista, $29.99), an unintentional history of digital animation, with 13 shorts (many first seen at the beginning of its features) which served as training ground for a generation of computer-assisted animators. As a cool bonus, you get shorts that Pixar produced for Sesame Street. Consider these Buster Keaton shorts for the 21st Century. Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series (Warner, $79.98), a simple idea (a profile of the variety of creatures found on the planet) pulled off with such astonishing footage and patience it renders those big children's books devoted to animals almost useless. Best seen in hi-def, if possible. (Also, sold out already in many stores, including on Amazon.)

Characteristics: Proudly old-school. Appreciates new music but goes on (and on) about Johnny Cash. Owns a stack of Norm Chomsky.

Recommended: If I'm Not There only confused them, try The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965 (Columbia, $19.98), which compiles footage of both Dylan's intimate "workshop" shows (played offstage) and the infamous "going electric" performance. (When you give it, fail to mention the performance itself is less than historic.) For pure oddball variety, The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show (CMV, $39.95) needn't be given to a country-music fan, but anyone with a fascination of strange, dusty corners of music history. See Cash play with Louis Armstrong, Dylan, Derek and the Dominoes, and dozens of others. It wasn't much of a year for music documentaries but You're Gonna Miss Me: A Film About Roky Erickson (Palm, $24.98) is a heartbreaking, meticulous picture about a forgotten and influential musician (the leader of the 13th Floor Elevators) whose life went awry in the saddest ways. And finally, when they ever get around to giving major awards to works of film preservation, Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900 - 1934 (Image, $89.99) deserves a shot, a reclamation job of a box which gathers 48 vintage shorts, intended to raise awareness of racism, unfair labor practices, and so on. Stirring and stuffed.

Characteristics: Loves movies but can't afford the gas it takes to drive to Ann Arbor and Detroit to see the movies which never open in Toledo at all. Habitual whiner.

Recommended: This is England (IFC, $19.95), a well-observed tale about a fatherless boy who falls in with a group of older kids, some warm and kind, and others, racist and dangerous; a vibrant picture about the necessity of trying on personas, only to be left with yourself. One of the year's best (and little seen) pictures. David Lynch's Inland Empire (Rhino, $29.95) is, to put it mildly, not for everyone. But on disc, with three hours of dream logic and Laura Dern that's hard to watch in one sitting, it burrows into your imagination. Just don't bother deciphering it. After the Wedding (IFC, $19.95), a woefully-neglected Danish melodrama about a man (Mads Mikkelsen, the bad guy in Casino Royale) who leaves a Bombay orphanage only to discover he has a daughter with his former wife. Sounds insane, rings true to life.

Characteristics: Can't get behind what everyone gets behind. Always on the lookout for the ignored and reflexively derided. Often feels impossible to please.

Recommended: Arguably the most underrated film of 2007, by critics and audiences alike (though critics were a bit kinder), was Billy Ray's masterful espionage flick Breach (Universal, $19.98), a true-life retelling of the infamous Robert Hanssen story and his secrets and lies. Chris Cooper plays FBI agent Hanssen, Ryan Phillippe is his young charge, and Laura Linney is the department head convinced Hanssen is leaking info to the Soviets. Efficient and satisfying. Neither efficient nor satisfying, intentionally, is Zodiac (Fox, $29.99), David Fincher's most accomplished work, a tale of obsession - and closer in spirit to All the President's Men than any serial killer movie. The longer it goes on (to nearly three hours), the more engrossing it gets, a crime procedural with wit enough to avoid easy answers. And Diggers (Magnolia, $29.98) is neither obsessive nor intense, a small-scale story of friendship among fisherman, in the Diner mold; after Knocked Up, it gives Paul Rudd the most room to shine. (Unexpectedly touching.)

Characteristics: Sweetly obnoxious. Appreciates a good fart. Cracks a joke about everything, especially if they're uncomfortable. Swears like a longshoreman, oddly attractive to women.

Recommended: The other day Entertainment Weekly named Judd Apatow, comedy svengali, the smartest person in Hollywood. This was news if you assume only pictures that play art cinemas are smart. (They're not - these designations have more to do with marketing now than quality.) What made that title not especially surprising, however, are Apatow's films, which dominated comedy this year. And with good reason. Knocked Up (Universal, $29.98) is the perfect example, sweet and crude and closely observed and still watchable on a fifth and sixth viewing. Superbad (Sony, $28.95) is those things and more, with unbearably uncomfortable youthful truths. But you know those. The find is The TV Set (Fox, $27.98) which Apatow produced with director Jake Kasdan (who made the next Apatow film, Walk Hard). It opened and closed last spring in a blink, and that was too bad: A satire of network television, with David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver, it's a shrewd meditation on how mediocrity and pretense conspires, gathering at the margins of creativity, and choking it.

•

Characteristics: Sees no point in attending a large theater for a small movie. Goes to movies on opening day. Owns a $3,000 TV and 9 sets of surround speakers.

Recommended: Stanley Kubrick never did small, and fittingly, the new Stanley Kubrick: Warner Home Video Director Series box set (Warner, $79.98) is something of a salute to dreaming in wide screen. You get most of the classics in their lush remastered glory, including A Clockwork Orange, 2001, The Shining - minus Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory. But it's an opportune time to reconsider Eyes Wide Shut, and that two-hour documentary on Kubrick (itself a separate disc) is a keeper. Speaking of second or third chances: Blade Runner: The Five-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition (Warner, $78.95) should replace all previous versions, offering five separate cuts of the same film and, I believe, Ridley Scott's toenail clippings. The Godzilla Collection (Classic Media, $79.98) doesn't stand up to second viewings. But its seven classic Japanese monster movies, with the original Japanese language tracks as an option, has the ageless feel of a puppet show. And no big-screen TV will really do justice to Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition (Universal, $39.95). It offers three fine-looking masters of the Steven Spielberg classic (his most poetic), and a handful of documentaries, but most of all, it offers a reminder that the best holiday presents are invitations.

Sometimes to share.

In this case, to go to a theater.



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