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Top Ten

The Year in DVD

Killer of Sheep
I am Cuba
Planet Earth

Top Ten 2007

The Year in Art We missed more exhibition openings this year than we really care to admit. Some we missed because ...

The Year in Books The Nov. 26 edition of Newsweek included a 4,700-word advertisement--um, cover story--about the Ki...

The Year in Local Music Take it from the new guy in town, there's something in the water in Baltimore. Maybe it's that fir...

The Year in Movies Edith Piaf racing from room to room looking for the lover she's just been told is dead. Joy Divisi...

The Year in Music By the time this paper hits the stands there will be God knows how may of these lists on magazine ...

The Year in News If we were cynical about the state of our city in 2006, we have become even more so after watching...

The Year in Stage When theaters are as small and underfunded as Baltimore's have usually been, the easy thing is to ...

The Year in Television Fuck Tony Soprano: there, we said it. Not only does David Chase's massive soap opera for the male ...

The Year in DVD Our consumable culture doesn’t arrive only in albums, books, movies, art, theater, and TV thes...

Posted 12/12/2007

Our consumable culture doesn’t arrive only in albums, books, movies, art, theater, and TV these days. We also have to confess a possible addiction to home video, be it via Netflix delivery, the endless joys of Video Americain, or the instant gratification of direct downloads. Of course, home video these days means DVDs.

And while we could have easily filled this Top 10 list out with our favorite new Criterion Collection releases--hello, Berlin Alexanderplatz and Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie and WR: Mysteries of the Organis,--we’re not all art-house film snobs at home. Sometimes we just want to hang out with a teenage girl or check in on the Log Lady.

1. Killer Of Sheep (Milestone Film and Video)
A notoriously AWOL indie movie that went unscreened and unreleased for years for the stupidest of reasons (no clearance rights for the multitude of popular music embedded in the soundtrack), Charles Burnett’s semi-improvised and Vittorio De Sica-like record of the lives of a poor family eking by in Watts is most striking to our modern eyes for its innocence rather than its despair. While Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is prematurely aged by his soul-deadening slaughterhouse job, his wife is loving, his family is intact, and his neighborhood is safe enough for his children to play the forgotten vacant-lot games of a generation not reared amid a deluge of crack-fueled gunfire. But Burnett’s contribution to the often too-Caucasian face of independent film still stands as a masterpiece of a genre you never knew existed--American Neo-Realism. (Violet Glaze)

2. Planet Earth (BBC/Warner)
Nature shows are a cable staple, as generally unremarkable as furry, moving wallpaper. Not so this sweeping BBC series broadcast in America for the first time this year and then released on DVD. The filmmakers spent five years hauling topnotch equipment to some of the most remote parts of the world, deploying HD technology and new wrinkles like unmanned flying camera drones to capture an unprecedentedly intimate portrait of our planet and its life. Planet Earth is jaw-dropping in its beauty (the many, many varieties of crazy-colored birds of paradise preening in the green New Guinea jungle) and sets a new standard for the sort of semi-anthropomorphized drama nature shows trade in (the camera drones can follow a chase as long as it lasts and as far as it ranges, as you alternately root for predator and prey). Most importantly, the series serves as not only a snapshot, but also maybe as a souvenir of something soon gone--it acknowledges at every turn that the species and habitats it depicts may not exist as-is in 10 years, or even five, exemplified by stunning shots of a polar bear swimming through an endless Arctic sea, searching for pack ice that gets more scarce by the day. (Lee Gardner)

3. I Am Cuba: The Ultimate Edition (Milestone Film and Video)
Sergei Urusevsky isn’t a hallowed filmmaking name—too few cinematographers are—but he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Gregg Toland, Vittorio Storaro, and Darius Khondji for what he achieves in this singularly amazing movie. Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 So Cuba sounds like another piece of social-realist propaganda with its four stories of diverse Cuban life rebelling against the exploitative capitalistic government that they won’t let make them live their lives on their knees. But Kalatozov’s direction, Enrique Pineda Barnet and Yvgeni Yevtushenko’s script, and Urusevsky’s flat-out otherworldly black-and-white cinematography conspires to turn out some of the most original and poetic imagery ever set to celluloid. And this Ultimate Edition box set is the best way to see it until you get a chance to drown in its sensory pleasure on a big screen. (Bret McCabe)

4. Sansho The Bailiff (Criterion Collection)
Cinephiles rave about how Eastern movies embody serenity and restraint, but it’s often forgotten how nobody does sad like the Japanese. And Sansho the Bailiff is a sad movie--utterly, achingly, desperately sad. Before a disgraced governor sends away his wife and children, he warns his son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) to remember that “Without mercy, man is like a beast.” Zushio and his sister Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) learn that too well, as they’re quickly separated from their mother and sold into slavery to the bailiff of the title, where they’re subjected to years of toil and beatings--until one day a new slave starts singing a song she’s learned from a concubine from her hometown: “Zushio, I long for you. Anju, I long for you.” That’s the beginning of Zushio’s transformation from beast to man, but in some ways it’s too late. An incredibly humanist movie from Kenji Mizoguchi that’s the opposite of a tearjerker, where the tears combust slowly inside you instead of spilling down your cheeks. (VG)

5. Army of Shadows (Criterion Collection)
Nothing much actually happens for the first 25 minutes of 1969 WWII drama Army of Shadows. Taciturn French engineer Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is transported to a Vichy prison camp. He spends time with, but apart from, the other prisoners. He picks a weedy communist to help him hatch an escape plan but is soon transferred to Gestapo headquarters in Paris. At that point, writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge) reveals with shocking suddenness that Gerbier, and his movie, are far more than they seem. That dynamic of the unassuming surface hiding life-and-death secrets plays out again and again as Gerbier and his fellow Resistance fighters go about their activities with as much cool as they can muster, always aware (and frequently reminded) that even the slightest misstep or casual encounter with a suspicious German could mean torture and death for them and everyone they know. Yet they fight on, taking on unbelievable risks and murdering even their closest allies if need be, despite the fact that they have little hope of surviving, much less “winning.” Melville was a member of the Resistance himself, and while the gray, grim look of the movie and its relentless, airless tension border on stylized, they add weight to the its unromantic take on the Resistance’s almost existential struggle. Panned on its initial French run and never released in the States, Army of Shadows returned with a revelatory U.S. run in 2006, and now Criterion does justice to what may be Melville’s finest work. (LG)

6. The Films of Kenneth Anger Vol. I and Vol. II (Fantoma)
Long trapped in the murky quality of VHS tapes—and, more often than not, copies of copies of VHS tapes—Fantoma finally released this year the seminal filmography of landmark underground American filmmaker Kenneth Anger in quality editions. Vol. 1 includes shorts “Puce Moment” and “Rabbit’s Moon,” along with those big bangs of post-war avant-garde, “Fireworks” and the intoxicating “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.” Vol. II turns up the pyrotechnics with Anger’s best-known works, from 1964’s thermonuclear “Scorpio Rising” through his 1972 “Lucifer Rising,” hitting the three-minute homoerotic blast of “Kustom Kar Kommandos” and 1969’s Rolling Stones-invoking “Inauguration of My Demon Brother.” The transfers are pristine, the extras informative and intriguing, and, refreshingly, Anger’s imagery—much of which has been appropriated by more commercial advertising and movies—retains its ability to surprise. (BM)

7. Ace in the Hole (Criterion Collection)
Knowing that this vicious little nugget of noir from genre-master Billy Wilder was unavailable on any home format for decades made film fanatics gnash their teeth, but thankfully the good folks at Criterion have finally presented this spookily prescient indictment of the TV news blood circus. Kirk Douglas plays a soulless newspaper man who milks news of a miner trapped underground for every drop of publicity--even purposely prolonging the rescue effort in order to guarantee a full week’s run of headlines, with tragic results. Ace in the Hole not only pre-dates other media-critical movies such as Network or Wag the Dog by decades, but it’s a meaner, leaner son of a bitch than any of them. (VG)

8. Mala Noche (Criterion Collection)
Director Gus Van Sant’s debut feature has been out of circulation for the better part of 20 years, and maybe that’s as it should be. It would have been a little weird if this black-and-white 1985 shoestring gem had been reissued, say, when Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester were ruling the box office. But Van Sant has returned to making more idiosyncratic movies, and Mala Noche’s return at this point serves to underline the kind of talent and sui generis vision that Hollywood couldn’t stamp out. What plot there is is typically ’80s-indie skeletal and underachieving: Scruffy young Walt (Tim Streeter) becomes obsessed with Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a teenage Mexican who frequents the Portland, Ore., skid-row liquor store where Walt works; the boy rebuffs him and disappears, leaving Walt and Johnny’s fellow illegal Roberto (Ray Monge) to form an uneasy relationship. The movie meanders, and although Streeter exudes enough kindness to avoid seeming like a creep, the performances are amateur at best. But Van Sant and cinematographer John J. Campbell use stunning high-contrast black and white cinematography to limn a strangely beautiful everyday world of rainy streets and crappy late-night bedrooms that elevates Mala Noche into the canon of great depictions of the lonely American night. (LG)

9. Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition (The Complete Series) (Paramount Home Video)
The only thing you need to have on your Xmas list for the David Lynch fan in your life, though you may kick yourself for getting it for that special someone. For the first time the entire scary, brilliant, ludicrous, loopy, incomprehensible, and finally sphincter-puckering soap opera created by Lynch and David Frost is available on 10 DVDs, chronicling the typical American small town with its typically steamy high-school girls and its, perhaps, atypically scandalous underbelly of crime, drugs, rape, and murder. Twenty-nine episodes, including both international and U.S. versions of the original pilot, remastered with 5.1 Dolby sound and a wealth of nerdtastic extras. Your Peaks fanatic will love you, and then disappear to watch the entire series for the second or 82nd time. Don’t worry: It can be done in one 24-hour sitting. (BM)

10. My So-Called Life: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory)
The sublime series that put the thumbscrews to its era’s deluge of 90210-style bullshit about senior high follows the aptly named ethereal Angela (Claire Danes, more perfectly cast than she’s ever been since) through the heartbreaking slog of female adolescence, in all its pointlessness, powerlessness, bursts of hope, and cataclysmic disappointments. What’s most striking now is how the show is shot in a soft nimbus glow that makes it feel like it was always intended to appear recalled from memory. Women who weathered high school in the grunge era will feel the same way watching this collection as Angela feels about the agony and ecstasy of her unattainable crush Jordan (Jared Leto): “You’re so beautiful it hurts to look at you.” (VG)

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.

The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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