Michael Mackenzie's Top DVDs of 2004

2004 has been a surprisingly good year for DVDs, with a number of unexpected gems showing up, both vintage and contemporary. While this year has done little to shake off my opinion that many DVD studios are populated by greedy, conscience-deprived bean-counters who have no conniptions about releasing multiple versions of the same film in an attempt to make buyers double-dip (the advent of separate PG-13 and R-rated versions of some films in the US being an all-new low point), for the discerning customer there have been a number of excellent releases that prove to be well worth the money.

With such a plethora of excellent films, transfers, audio mixes and bonus materials, it remains quite difficult to find many releases that offer all four in one package. I have, therefore, chosen to split this article into four different categories, concluding with a final selection of "good all round" packages.


Uma Thurman kicks ass in Kill Bill Volume 2.

Films

Because I don't visit the cinema as regularly as some of my fellow writers, I have chosen to include in this category films that debuted on DVD this year. As such, some of these films were actually released theatrically prior to 2004.

1. Arriving in the UK just in time to make the list, Pixar score yet another hit with The Incredibles. Helmed by Brad Bird of The Iron Giant fame (fame?), The Incredibles' action-packed tale of superheroes is filled with laughs, tension, excitement and emotion, easily Pixar's best film since the original Toy Story in 1995.

Cinema review by Nat Tunbridge

2. Love him or hate him, you can't deny that Michael Moore's style is effective, and Fahrenheit 9/11 represents the ultimate in emotional manipulation tactics. While Moore and his film have as many detractors as they have fans, they provide an insightful look behind doors at American politics, delving into the seedier side of the events of the last four years that those who are here put on the spot would rather you didn't see.

Cinema review by Tiffany Bradford | R2 DVD review by Mike Sutton

3. One can make the argument that Quentin Tarantino's films don't have a single original element in them, but by combining elements from a multitude of different genres and eras he has created one of the best popcorn films of the year with Kill Bill Volume 2. The Western counterpoint to Volume 1's take on Eastern cinema, Volume 2 may lag a little in terms of pacing but it remains a highly entertaining romp with just enough genuine sincerity to add emotional punch where required.

Cinema review by Kevin O'Reilly | R2 DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

4. Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville harkens back to a moment in the history of animation that has otherwise completely died out. In an age where CGI dominates, Belleville is adamantly 2D, doing what traditional animation does best and creating a completely surreal world filled with caricature and exaggerated posing. With its decidedly French style that recalls the work of Jacques Tati as well as mid-20th century Disney, Belleville represents a triumph of the image over the spoken word, with barely a line of dialogue spoken in the whole movie. This is an outstanding piece of work and one that points at where the medium of animation could go in the hands of a visionary director such as Chomet.

R2 French DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

5. Fifth place was a close battle between Hero, In My Skin and Lost in Translation, but eventually Hero won out. With its highly enjoyable blend of martial arts, subjective storytelling and eye-popping use of colour, it, like Les Triplettes de Belleville, shows just what can be achieved when imagery is allowed to take precedence over the written word. A film that has result in as much political debate as box office sales, it may not be as clever or as politically motivated as some would you have believe, but it remains a fantastic example of the sheer spectacle that cinema is capable of.

R0 Chinese DVD review by Noel Megahey | R2 Japanese DVD review by Michael Mackenzie


The Dawn of the Dead remake may not be a patch on the original but both the transfer and Sarah Polley look mighty fine.

Image Quality

1. Underworld may be a bit hit and miss when it comes down to actual storytelling, but the film is stunning to look at and Columbia Tristar's R1 Unrated Extended Cut DVD features a transfer that is close to reference quality, presenting the high-contrast, almost monochromatic cinematography at its finest. If nothing else, this disc, which also features one of the loudest Dolby Digital tracks in existence, is the perfect way to show off your expensive new home theatre system.

2. Criterion continue their virtually spotless track record with an excellent transfer for Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage), making the 45-year-old film look virtually as good as new. Showing that black and white photography has the ability to look absolutely stunning on DVD, Criterion's new transfer is a true revelation for anyone who had to put up with the beat-up, murky copies that have circulated until now. This release soundly trounces every other release of the film to date.

2. Metrodome's R2 UK release of Monster presents the film with an incredible transfer, using the highest possible bit rate to maintain the film's grain structure and get away with as little filtering as possible. The result is an incredibly film-like transfer, and one of the best of the year. DTS 5.1 audio presents the relatively flat mix in crystal-clear quality and serves as an excellent showcase for BT's powerful score, easily the composer's best work to date.

R2 DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

4. Fox's UK release of Thirteen deserves special mention for the phenomenal improvements it makes on its US counterpart. Shot on 16mm film stock, the American transfer was a nightmare of compression artefacts, clumsy noise reduction and general lack of definition. The UK version, by contrast, is a breath of fresh air, with perfectly controlled encoding and a brilliant reproduction of the natural film grain, with plenty of detail to boot. UK transfers are generally not significantly better than their US counterparts, and in many cases are in fact inferior, but this would appear to be an excellent exception to the rule.

5. Underworld's perfect partner in crime is the equally vapid but relatively entertaining remake of Dawn of the Dead. Universal's R1 Unrated Director's Cut DVD features a very strong transfer that shows off the film's high-contrast, saturated, gritty photography in an extremely positive way. Like Underworld, the film also has a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 track that makes the most of all the film's screams and explosions.

R1 DVD review by Michael Mackenzie


Prepare to deafen yourselves with Underworld.

Audio Quality

1. For sheer DTS thrills, you can't beat Hero. Featuring deep bass, surround effects a-plenty and some genuinely imaginative moments of audio design (just check out that fight in the chess house), the film is easily this year's best example of 5.1 audio mixing. Although in terms of video quality no release seems to match the Japanese 2-disc edition, it would seem that all versions include the same sumptuous DTS track.

R0 Chinese DVD review by Noel Megahey | R2 Japanese DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

2. Dario Argento's latest thriller, The Card Player, may not come close to matching the splendour of his 1970s hits, but the Czech R2 DVD, by Hollywood Classic Entertainment, contains one of the best audio mixes of the year. Featuring a pounding full bit rate DTS track, The Card Player becomes a slightly more enjoyable affair when all the unearthly shrieks, gunshots and Claudio Simonetti's effectively rhythmic score are pounding out from all five speakers.

R2 Czech DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

3. Audio design has always figured heavily in Quentin Tarantino's films, and Kill Bill Volume 1 is no exception. Although all releases seem to be somewhat disappointing in terms of image quality, their DTS audio mixes are superb across the board, seamlessly sliding between bombastic, over the top music and genuinely subtle sound effects design.

R1 DVD review by Colin Polonowski | R2 Japanese DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

4. A perfect example of what you can achieve by simply making a soundtrack incredibly loud, what Underworld's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in terms of sheer aggressive eardrum-pounding. The perfect solution for how to spend a relaxing evening in front of the TV? No, but it's sure to make your fellow home theatre system geeks green with envy when you show off just how loud your speakers can go.

R1 DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

5. Finally, demonstrating just how good a simple mono mix can sound, I've reserved a special spot for Criterion's Videodrome release. While those who demand full 5.1 remixes on every single DVD they purchase, Criterion's decision to respect the original film by leaving it as it was intended to be heard has to be respected, and the presentation is virtually flawless: a real triumph of single-channel mixing.


The Panic Room Special Edition delivers everything you could possibly want to know about the making of the film.

Extras

Everyone will no doubt be crooning over New Line's Extended Edition release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King this year, so I've decided to ignore it in favour of some other releases that would otherwise be unfairly losing out on their moment in the spotlight. All of the packages listed below are excellent, and it was difficult to arrange them in order of quality, so rest assured you can't go wrong with any of these releases.

1. Anchor Bay have pulled out all the stops with their R1 Ultimate Edition of Dawn of the Dead. Presenting three very different cuts of the film on three discs - George A. Romero's preferred cut, the unrated theatrical version; the lengthy Cannes extended cut; and Dario Argento's more action-oriented Italian cut - zombie fans are presented with a case study of the ways in which editing can completely alter the tone of a movie. There's more to come, however, with three different feature-length commentaries and a fourth disc chock-full of documentary materials, including Roy Frumkes' fabled Document of the Dead.

R1 DVD review by D.J. Nock

2. Having taken its sweet time to reach us, Columbia Tristar's special edition of Panic Room does not disappoint. Spread over a whopping 3 discs, the extras cover every aspect of the production, with some extremely insightful production demonstrations that lend a fresh eye to the technical aspects of filmmaking. The highlight, however, is the superb writers' commentary featuring screenwriter/producer David Koepp and special guest William Goldman, who wax lyrical about any and every aspect of screenwriting that comes to mind. Goldman's comments about scooters and Gigli (see "Turkey of the Year", below) deserve to be played and replayed for years to come.

R1 DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

3. Criterion's release of Videodrome pulls out all the stops, presenting the film with a solid transfer that only narrowly missed being included in the A/V Quality line-up. The real joys, however, are to be found in the bonus features. Two superb commentaries, one featuring David Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, the other featuring Debbie Harry and the delightfully intellectual James Woods, are presented on the first disc, along with Cronenberg's 2000 short Camera, while the second disc is filled to the brim with insightful archive materials and new features produced specially for the DVD. The highlight has got to be the so-called "Bootleg Video" section, which provides uncut presentations of the various dodgy porn and snuff videos that Max Renn peruses in the film, for which the accompanying commentaries are worth the price of admission alone.

4. The Italian 2-disc special edition release of Lilo & Stitch is a fantastic affair, featuring an excellent commentary and nearly four hours' worth of documentary materials, giving an intimate look at the process behind the creation of this excellent modern-day Disney release. With the US special edition delayed until some point later in 2005, now would be the perfect time to buy this superb Italian version and in doing so give Eisner's executives the middle finger for continually pushing this title back.

R2 Italian DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

5. Finally, arriving just in time to make the list, Criterion's new restoration of Fritz Lang's M is an excellent affair, providing not only the film's most satisfying audio-visual presentation to date but also including a mass of extra features, including a retrospective documentary on the film's history at the hands of various censors and producers, an insightful interview with Lang conducted by William Friedkin, recordings of original lectures on the film by editor Paul Falkenberg, various essays and galleries, and an excellent commentary by scholars Eric Rentschler and Anton Kaes.


Ren & Stimpy get a decent DVD release at last.

All-round Favourite Packages

While none of these releases would take home top accolades in every single category, they as a whole represent my favourite overall packages of the year.

1. Criterion's Videodrome package is an overall superb effort, finally giving one of David Cronenberg's most celebrated works the presentation it deserves. From the unique packaging, designed to look like a Betamax cassette, to the near-perfect transfer, to the crisp mono soundtrack, to its revealing bonus features, The Criterion Collection #248 belongs on everyone's shelf.

2. It may not be completely unedited, as the title and packaging would suggest, but even so, The Ren & Stimpy Show Uncut - The The First and Second Seasons is an excellent release. With previously unseen footage restored to a number of cartoons, and an entire episode, Man's Best Friend, banned for over a decade, finally making its appearance, plus a number of hilarious commentaries by crazed Canadian John Kricfalusi and his wacky pals, cartoon fans the world over owe it to themselves to add a copy of this 3-disc set to their collections.

R1 DVD review by Michael Mackenzie

3. Want to know what the Disney studio got up to during the Second World War? Walt Disney Treasures: Walt Disney on the Front Lines is like a trip back in time, presenting a huge number of their cartoon shorts, as well as a feature-length movie, Victory Through Air Power, uncut and remastered for the first time. Gasp as Donald Duck warns us about the evils of Nazism, hark at the Seven Dwarfs hawking bonds, and marvel as Donald Duck embarks on a career in the US army. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to dismiss these cartoons as misleading and syrupy (barring the highly disturbing Education for Death), but when taken in their proper context they remain a fascinating document of the period.

4. Disney scores yet again with their Platinum Edition Gift Set of Aladdin, delivering a thoroughly enjoyable film with a very good presentation and solid extras (which improve on those of last year's The Lion King Platinum Edition in every way), along with a nicely-illustrated although lightweight book, an "exclusive" (i.e. mass-produced) 35mm film frame, and brand new illustrations of the main characters by their original supervising animators. The package may be a complete gimmick - none of the box set's contents are as exclusive as Disney would like you to think - but given the surprisingly low price, it really is an excellent set.

5. Its image quality may be a little disappointing and the bonus features are only marginally better than those included on the film's Western releases, but the Japanese version of Kill Bill Volume 1 deserves to be seen by anyone who thought the standard Western cut was good. With more gore, more animation and a significantly extended cut of the fight in the House of the Blue Leaves - in full colour no less - the Japanese cut greatly improves the film by substantially upping the ante and over-the-top violence. Although no-one will be particularly surprised if Quentin Tarantino eventually releases "full-strength Kill Bill" outside Japan, for the time being this remains the only way to experience what is in my opinion a vastly superior version of this extremely enjoyable movie.

R2 Japanese DVD review by Michael Mackenzie


How embarrassing.

Turkey of the Year

Okay, I know this film was released in 2003, but since I didn't do one of these round-ups last year I felt I just had to include it here. In many ways, it doesn't feel as if it was over a year ago that I came into contact with Gigli, the full horror of which cannot possibly be understood unless you have seen the film for yourself. Judging by its box office returns, however, it would seem that word of mouth was enough to steer people away - a true shame, given that the full effect of experiencing this Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez monstrosity cannot ever be successfully put into writing. Without a doubt the worst film I have ever paid to see (yes, I would rather sit through The Matrix Reloaded again than endure this blot on the movie-making landscape), this train-wreck of a film sees Affleck and Lopez's gangster characters holding hostage/babysitting a young man with autism, a disorder that is inexplicably played here for laughs. Other highlights include Lopez's character (a member of that special group of lesbians that is capable of hopping the fence upon finding the right man) discussing the various merits of penises and vaginas, Ben Affleck removing a corpse's thumb with a plastic knife, and Al Pacino and Christopher Walken both thoroughly embarrassing themselves in walk-on parts. The film even ends with a beach party as Affleck and the newly heterosexualized Lopez drive off into the sunset.

Historical note: Gigli, for a brief period in time, had the dubious honour of holding IMDB's #1 position in their Bottom 100 list, before settling into a slightly less discomfiting 22nd place.

Unbelievably generous cinema review by Kevin O'Reilly

Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:44:01

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