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Top Ten

The Year in DVDs

By Lee Gardner and Bret McCabe | Posted 12/10/2008

1. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Criterion)

Even in an age where you can search up footage of anything online, Salo, freshly reissued with typical care by Criterion, still carries a transgressive charge. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini cannily transposed the Marquis de Sadeís novel of sadomasochism to the WWII Italian Fascist republic of Salo, wherein four wealthy and powerful men and a cadre of thuggish young guards kidnap local nubiles, male and female alike, strip them of their clothes, and then set to work torturing, raping, and degrading them at length. Thereís no tasteful cutting away, although Pasoliniís camera keeps an uninvolved distance, a remove that only helps strengthen his ringing indictment of those who capitulate to abusive power, as well as those who merely sit back and watch it take hold. (Lee Gardner)

2. Sukiyaki Western Django (First Look Pictures)

Prolific iconoclastic Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer), a filmmaker known for going overboard, goes way off the deep end with this uncatergorizable epic. Borrowing liberally from spaghetti Westerns, samurai flicks, over-the-top Asian action movies, and, seemingly, Engrish web sites, Sukiyaki Western Django is exactly the sort of what-the-fuck you'd expect from Miike--sword and gun-wielding Japanese actors speaking idiomatic English underscored by English subtitles--and one of the most visually stunning feats you'll see, almost becoming as two-dimensional and flat as the magna comics. It's ultimately empty, but it's the densest nothing ever to hit a screen. (Bret McCabe)

3. Budd Boetticher Box Set (Sony)/Seven Men From Now (Paramount)

Between 1956 and 1960, director Budd Boetticher made a string of Westerns with over-the-hill cowboy star Randolph Scott. Though they were ďBĒ pictures, shot in a few days for little money, Boetticherís terse craftsmanship has helped them win a cult following among film nerds, a cult thatís set to expand thanks to these 2008 releases. Seven Men From Now, the first Boetticher/Scott movie, set the template for the best of the rest: an upright loner on a quest (Scott) finds himself thrown together in a lonesome place with both someone to protect (often a woman) and someone who wishes him ill (played by the likes of Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, and Claude Akins). Psychological and moral complications ensue, even though the narrative remains bone straight. The deluxe five-film Boetticher box includes a couple of competent misfires, but The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station are pure formalist Western perfection and can stand tall in the company of John Fordís or Anthony Mannís work any day. (LG)

4. State of Play (BBC Warner)

Everybody who thinks HBO owned the tautly drawn drama series in the 2000s thanks to The Sopranos and The Wire needs to check out this 2003 BBC miniseries. Opening with a drug killing, State of Play winds its story around a journalist's investigation of said murder and the seemingly unrelated death of a Parliamentary researcher. Created by Paul Abbott, who cut his writing teeth on the whip-smart Cracker, and starring a bevy of familiar U.K. faces (John Simm, James Macavoy, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker), Play quickly becomes an intense political thriller over its six hours. (BM)

5. The Wayward Cloud (Strand)

Tsai Ming-liangís 2005 semi-sequel to his 2001 art-house hit What Time Is It There? never got a decent theatrical release in the United States, and, frankly, itís easy to see why. The Taiwanese director had already intrigued/tested the patience of American audiences with his patented super-long static shots and elliptical-at-best narratives, but itís hard to blame distributors for balking at a candy-colored, soft-core porno, lip-sync musical about love and sex and intimacy and watermelons. Patently loony and often more than a little disturbing, The Wayward Cloud uses eye-popping, jaw-dropping musical sequences--dancing penis head, anyone?--as well as Tsaiís trademark dry wit and sly poignancy to explore the various barriers that keep contemporary young urbanites apart. It would have looked great on a big screen, but this Strand DVD release offers the next best thing. (LG)

6. Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4 (Zeitgeist Films)

Long championed as one of queer cinema's vanguards of the 1980s, the late Derek Jarman was a visionary filmmaker, period. Since his 1994 death, it feels like experimental--and queer and overtly political and otherwise non-narrative cinema in general--has somehow been pushed further into the underground. Hopefully this Zeitgeist four-DVD box can help correct that, offering three of his more disparate works--the 1986 Carravaggio biopic, 1987's dreamlike The Angelic Conversation, and 1993's profoundly elegiac sensory experiment Blue--along with his 1993 Wittgenstein, which not only tells the story of the Austrian-born philosopher but also finds Jarman economically streamlining his ornate anti-realist visual styles. (BM)

7. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (Rhino Entertainment)

Almost more a legend than an actual movie, 1981ís fictional punk-rock opus Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains existed for a generation solely on nth-generation VHS dubs and the occasional surprise late-night cable appearance. While this freshly scrubbed DVD release reveals a movie wobbly and dated in many ways, with ridiculous studio-added ďupbeatĒ ending intact, Diane Laneís snarling performance as a small-town girl with a band who talks her way onto a tour with a British punk band--Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols and Paul Simonon of the Clash, fronted by a babyfaced Ray Winstone--and up the ladder of success still leaps off the screen, and the essential sad details of the backstage rock-biz milieu still ring true. And she still doesnít put out. (LG)

8. Heartbeat Detector (New Yorker Films)

Think Michael Clayton with Nazis. If that sounds a little too over cooked and contrived, consider that its director, Nicolas Klotz, treats the subject more as philosophical investigation than corporate thriller, and that it stars Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace) as the psychologist who discovers that his employer, a German global giant, might have amassed its fortunes with some undesirable partners back in the proverbial day. Much more intelligent than the sum of its hot-topic parts. (BM)

9. Comedy Centralís TV Funhouse (Comedy Central)

In 2000, Saturday Night Live evil genius Robert Smigel took some time off from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and his other pressing duties to create a mere eight underseen episodes of the most inappropriate kids' show ever. A cast of cheap-looking, unlovable domestic-animal puppets tell filthy jokes, hump, do drugs, engage in illegal activities, excrete, backstab each other, and generally behave like the venal beasts of the species generally considered their superior, interspersed with an assortment of typically perverse Smigel cartoon shorts, bits with clueless nice-guy host Doug, and guest stars ranging from Robert Goulet to George Wendt. Fuzzy animal puppets kicking a child out of his bedroom so they can do lines of Christmas cheer in powder form is only really funny once, but itís pretty funny. (LG)

10. Le Doulos (Criterion Collection)

The movie is a French neo-noir that comes from 1962. The setting is the Parisian underworld. The dodgy nightclub owner is Michel Piccoli. The snitch paranoid that a just released prisoner is out to get him is Jean-Paul Belmondo. The title refers to a type of hat, the kind worn by the informer, hence why "doulos" becomes slang for a criminal canary. The cinematography is black and white. Almost everybody smokes. And the director is Jean-Pierre Melville. Need we say more? (BM)

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