Dave Foster's Top DVDs of 2004

2004 was a great year for DVD. The quality of releases across the board has risen to a level where you can almost safely pre-order any major release and be safe in the knowledge you will receive a disc to high technical standards with a welcome bundle of extras tagged on. Why then did I have such a hard time picking a top five? Well, for the same reason I was unable to pick a top five last year, the list you see below is more a ‘five titles I particularly enjoyed and was bothered to watch’. In my role here at DVDTimes I see an enormous number of discs on a weekly basis, purchase almost an equal amount and write about even more through our news updates. What I fail to do on a regular basis is actually sit down and watch the bloody things!

Here are my choices…

Rouge

In 2003 two shining stars of Hong Kong cinema that once burnt so bright were sadly taken from us in tragic circumstances as individual as the stars themselves. Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui are two of the finest actors to grace our screens, and Stanley Kwan's 1987 adaptation of Lilian Lee's novel sees the handsome playboy and classic beauty fuse together via a powerful chemistry in this haunting romantic tale that examines relationships in two very different eras of modern society. Beautifully photographed, the striking sets and assured direction allow the leads room to blossom, with Leslie playing a role not dissimilar to others he is well known for but rarely has he hooked the audience so soon. This is however Anita's film, with her character rarely off screen she is asked to touch upon every spectrum of subtle emotion and does so with a consummate ease you can't help but wish Fleur's ghost would pay you a visit one dark and lonely night. The DVD from IVL is part of the Fortune Star remastered series, and has been chosen here not because the quality and range of extras stand out, but due to this being the first satisfying DVD release of the film. Video quality is never breathtaking but rarely do Hong Kong films of this vintage look so good, while the DTS and Dolby 5.1 remixes are respectful to the original stereo track which is also present. Extras are minimal but do include a short but above all informative and engaging interview with director Stanley Kwan. Like the film this bonus feature is subtitled in English. Particular care is given to the films packaging which is themed around the stars and pays tribute to them through included photo booklets and bookmarks.

The One Armed Swordsman Trilogy - Full Review

There have been numerous Shaw Bros. DVD releases in their native Hong Kong this year, with excellent restoration work being undertaken by Celestial Pictures and then brought to the DVD format via their relationship with IVL. Though some may even be the better films, none are quite as significant as Chang Cheh's original 1967 One Armed Swordsman picture which launched Jimmy Wang Yu to legendary status along with the director and its title character. The action packed and highly imaginative sequel Return of the One-Armed Swordsman and later re-imagining of the hero with slightly overbearing homo-erotic undertones in New One-Armed Swordsman are also included in this set looking better than they probably deserve to so many years on and still providing great entertainment with equal measures of character drama along the way. The original is not only a great film, but set the framework for so many future productions, both at Shaws and elsewhere around the world. Fans of Hong Kong cinema owe it to themselves to see these films, and fans of cinema in general wouldn't hurt to do the same.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

In 2003 Leone fans were blessed with special editions of his Once Upon A Time In... contributions so in 2004 it seemed appropriate the most famous of his early spaghetti westerns receive similar treatment. Clint Eastwood stars as Blondie, the supposed man with no name who learns of a buried treasure which he sets out to find in the backdrop of civil war America. Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef star alongside the veteran of Leone pictures competing for the gold, double-crossing their way across the cruel deserts of the west and using the sad fate of the confederate and southern armies to their advantages. The exquisitely composed widescreen photography combines with Morricone’s unforgettable score to create a film that could engage purely on an audio/visual level, and is now restored to match Leone's original Italian cut and has been brought up to date through new voice performances (for the additional scenes) by the surviving stars and loving restoration from a team of technical wizards. A simple plotline is brought to life however by the gripping characters and the tragic historical setting in which their storyline weaves itself, allowing for sensational action set pieces in amongst comic relief and commentary on the value of war. Looking better than even before the R1 SE is packaged well and comes with an informative commentary track and second disc of extras which are somewhat light in detail but most welcome for their inclusion of new interviews with Eastwood and Wallach.

Throwdown - Full Review

While Leone was often influenced by the style of Kurosawa this Johnnie To film is an ode to the great master. Drenched in style with sublime neon-lit photography and a wonderful soundtrack which really sets the atmosphere we see the problems, ambitions and steadfastness of three regular people placed into a world ruled by Judo. This allows for many human characteristics to be explored through a storyline that moves along at a swift pace and is punctuated by several bouts of the martial art which teaches us a lesson in how to live through our setbacks. Full of sequences worthy of your favourite moments on screen, the acting is superb throughout and the deceptively slight plot develops on repeat viewings. A huge leap in quality over To's generally favoured 2004 action title Breaking News this choice is, along with several other examples this year including One Nite In Mongkok, a fine example of why 2004 was a good year for Hong Kong cinema. Certainly the best Hong Kong film that I have seen in 2004 (Kung Fu Hustle and 2046 are the only serious contenders for said crown that I can think of and am yet to see) and as my choices this year show, 2004 was also a very good year for DVDs from Hong Kong and Throwdown is another excellent example. Complete with a stylish slipcover and foldout-digipak with booklet that maintain the themes of the picture, we are treated to excellent audio and visual quality along with an engaging, informative 40-minute interview with the director (fully subtitled in English).

Ikiru

One of Kurosawa's most beloved pictures was also the first of several high-quality Criterion Collector's Editions of the master’s work to be released in 2004. Technically superb as you might expect with Kurosawa's keen eye for composition and use of music on display, Ikiru translates so well around the world because like the very best of his work its themes are truly international and, in a sad way utterly timeless. An elderly gentleman is diagnosed with stomach cancer, giving him 6-12 months to live out the rest of his life which as the narrator points out, is a life that up to now has barely even begun. As it transpires very few of us truly "live", a fact the majority are painfully aware of at various points in their lives and one that is brought to light for the film's protagonist in the cruellest of ways. Choosing to make amends in what little time he has left the audience is witness to only half of the old man's humble adventures, with his greatest work played out via the conversation that unfolds over the course of his wake. Showing every aspect of human nature Kurosawa's film also attacks the bureaucracy of the modern workplace, with a sequence in which a small party from the public are sent from section to section ringing so entirely true for someone who has been on both sides of the fence, while looking at every facet of humanity with sequences of pure joy and complete disdain as the truthfulness of the events portrayed is so intensely accurate. The Criterion release is a two-disc set boasting a restored transfer that strikes a fine-line between looking good and maintaining some level of nostalgia for those who like their print damage. The extras are few but always high in quality, with a commentary track that can be a little dry but is worth sticking out, and a bonus disc featuring two excellent documentary features from Japan running a total of two hours.

Titles which didn’t make the top five...

Two very obvious choices are the long-awaited Star Wars Trilogy which I watched from start to finish almost as soon as they were in my hands, and Return of the King: Extended Edition which although still firmly sealed is a dead cert for being one of the finest releases of the year.

There were some fine examples from the American studios in the final week of release. Garden State from 20th Century Fox is a DVD filled with several high-quality extras including commentary from the writer/director Zach Braff who truly astonishes with this debut. Not only does he give Natalie Portman her best role since Leon but he shows a vision rarely attributed to first-time directors and delivers one of the best films of the year as a result. A comedy of an altogether different kind is Anchorman. Will Ferrell has seen his career skyrocket in the last two-years and deservedly so but his efforts on Anchorman are probably the best example of his comic talent so far despite being of a strictly love/hate variety. Providing you're of the former this is a must-purchase full of hilarious bonus features and an entirely second feature length film that although not as consistent as the main feature, is a bloody good laugh all the same.

Earlier in the year Columbia Tristar impressed with a run of special edition releases, including Panic Room, Black Hawk Down and Boyz N' The Hood. Somewhat unwarranted spite flew their way for choosing to make the former titles three-disc affairs, but the end-results more than justified the additional disc with hours worth of bonus material specially created for the sets. From the same studio Hellboy also impressed with extensive bonus material on both the theatrical and director's cut editions, while Spider-Man 2 also showed how to do a blockbuster release on DVD first time round. Now all we need is that long-debated SE of Fincher's The Game to arrive in 2005...

Clerks. 10th Anniversary Edition was very close to making the final line-up but is let down by poor decisions on the bonus features presentation. They shoot hours worth of new bonus material in widescreen, and then fail to enhance the footage for widescreen TVs. This bothers me no end and along with a rather pointless second disc with a terrible, utterly lazy presentation of the original cut and a commentary track filled with the sounds of the human digestive system ruined one of the more promising special edition releases of the year.

Labels that impressed…

Tartan - I know what you're thinking, NTSC>PAL transfers and some shoddy release tactics but, they have improved beyond all realistic expectations in the past year with the deal made between them and DTS proving to be the turning point. No longer do fans of Asian or indeed any world cinema begin to fear the worst when Tartan are attached to a title, instead the prospect of subtitled commentaries and ported special feature content from the native countries DVD release springs to mind...something that cannot be said for studios we used to expect so much more from (*cough*Premier Asia*cough*). There is still room for improvement, but if they can achieve half the leap forward in 2005 to what they managed in 2004, we should have a very exciting year ahead of us.

ADV Films - The proliferation of Anime on DVD here in the UK continues to both surprise and please, with ADV Films leading the way in terms of quality and quantity. Not only are they bringing their licensed content from their American cousins to these shores, but we are seeing series licensed especially for these shores with releases that mimic their Geneon R1 counterparts and go that step further by offering UK fans exclusive (and often superior) artwork. The recent introduction of series collections should begin paving the way to more 'Limited Edition' style extras, while the recent line of live-action titles leave much to be desired but can only improve with time. MVM are also to be congratulated in their efforts to maintain a steady release rate (an area US stalwarts like Bandai are completely lacking on this side of the Atlantic) but their quality control is still in need of some improvements.

Fox UK - Out of all the major players who operate on both sides of the Atlantic Fox are the only studio who regularly go that one step further for their British customers. Not only is the quality of each and every major release an absolute pleasure, but on a frequent basis we are seeing exclusive two-disc editions of their biggest titles arriving at the same time as our American friends make do with a single-disc offering. The Day After Tomorrow, Garfield and I, Robot are just three recent examples with the second disc not only being exclusive to R2-4 audiences, but also featuring some of the most compelling and indepth bonus material you could ask for on a major blockbuster release. The UK exclusives continue throughout their TV on DVD range, with the complete series of Roswell, Millennium and Murder One out there, available to buy right now while the R1 releases are barely into the second (or even first) seasons.

Warner USA - Another major player their Region 1 efforts this past year have earned them somewhat legendary status amongst fans of classic cinema. Where the likes of MGM and Universal fumble the release of their much loved classics Warner have shown a love and dedication to the numerous classics in their catalogue and released them not only on discs that have seen immense man hours go into them, but at a price even the most cautious of DVD spenders wouldn't sniff at. With many more to come in the initial few months of the New Year they can only go from strength to strength, and with any luck those of you interested in more recent hits should begin to see some long-awaited special editions hit the shelves in 2005.

Labels that disappointed…

Hong Kong Legends - Now don't get me wrong, the quality across the HKL range of titles hasn't decreased this year with many excellent discs including John Woo’s long awaited Bullet in the Head. But, where HKL have maintained a good level of quality, several new contenders have arrived on the scene to compete and are trumping them in more ways the one. Most notably we have the Fortune Star High-Def remastered transfers for many classic Hong Kong movies which have been licensed to Fox in America and IVL in Hong Kong. These transfers are not only superior to the majority of Hong Kong Legends own remastering efforts, but are available for incredibly low prices thanks to the retail price adopted by Fox, and to a lesser degree IVL. The latter however are releasing the more interesting titles, with an eclectic range of Hong Kong cinema that goes beyond the martial arts and contemporary action thrillers HKL seem intent on restricting themselves too. It's not all about the quality though, a strange thing to say but for two years now fans have put up with Hong Kong Legends cut down, single title per month release strategy that when combined with their frankly boring choice of genre pictures is a total disappointment. 2005 should yield better results from the label, as they too are now a licensee of the Fortune Star High-Def masters which begin with their January DVD release of Warriors Two, but whether they can ever return to their former glory will come down to their willingness to adapt and go that extra mile in the swamped Asian film market.

Premier Asia - Oh dear, I'm not being nice am I?! Hong Kong Legends sister label started off well, Bichunmoo was their debut title and remains to this day an excellent release. Since then however we've been treated to the International Cut on two of their releases, a shoddy looking transfer on Volcano High, and the apparent cash-in single disc edition of The Grudge (Ju-On) prior to the long-planned two-disc special edition that will presumably appear sometime in 2005. Out of a frankly pathetic three releases this year, only Champion proved to be half-decent with the original cut and full special edition treatment, but even then the extras were lacking and the Bey Logan/Mike Leeder audio commentary a poor substitute for a subtitled filmmakers track. Tartan was the first to set this precedent in the UK and Premier Asia seriously needs to follow suit, because their less than dynamic duo just don't cut it.

Fox USA - I've seen a lot of Fox Region 1 discs this year and an equal number for the already applauded Fox Region 2 efforts. On the whole there is little to separate them, range of extras, release dates, even pricing on both sides of the Atlantic is to be commended. Where Fox USA disappoint is their dubious release tactics on high-profile blockbusters including Garfield, I, Robot and The Day After Tomorrow - with single-disc R1 editions arriving simultaneously with double-disc R2 editions. Good news for British DVD supporters but of course bad for our American friends and R1 importers, who have also seen previous double-disc R1 editions removed from the market only to be replaced by stripped down movie-only editions. Of course the Region 1 market will eventually see these recent R2 double-disc editions ported over, but there is more to the Fox USA story that has bothered me this year. Namely the irksome American fetish with Pan & Scan transfers, something the majority of studios either mostly flat out ignore (kudos Columbia Tristar) or bow to with the release of separate Widescreen and Full Screen editions (BVHE, Universal, Warner etc). Fox however insist on those godforsaken flippers placing the widescreen version on side two of all things, with the Pan & Scan monstrosity on the first side. This not only introduces the problem of disc care for the consumer, but also raises doubts in the technical quality of the transfer, with the temptation clearly there to go for single-layer sides and lower the manufacturing costs even more (a single-layer double sided disc is cheaper to manufacture than a dual-layer single sided disc, which is why back in the early days of DVD many longer films were released as flippers). These trends appear to be continuing well into 2005, with single-disc R1 editions of Alien Vs. Predator being duped by a double-disc R2, and the double-sided releases effecting most titles including the relatively obscure pictures like I Heart Hucakabees.

New Line deserve much of the same criticism levelled at Fox for their Widescreen/Full Screen approach, as while they don't use flippers they have begun a new trend whereby they sacrifice DTS audio in favour of placing both transfer options on a single dual-layered disc. This practice has even led to the oft maligned EIV trumping them on several occasions.

Universal - On both Region 1 and 2 this year we have seen some disturbing trends continue and expand. The worst of these is the studio's tendency to re-release a movie purely as a promotional push for the sequel. Combined with some utterly ridiculous special edition tags, the likes of The Bourne Identity, Pitch Black and more recently Meet the Parents have seen reissues this year which despite what the marketing might say, are either inferior to the original editions or barely worth a second purchase with additional puff pieces, missing extras from the original releases and in the case of The Bourne Identity a distinct lack of audio oomph with the DTS track cut out. Universal are also the guiltiest of releasing multiple editions of a single title the first time round, with Rated, Unrated, Widescreen, Fullscreen, Giftpacks, Limited Editions and what have you appearing all at once on Region 1. Moving to the UK side of things we see the same trend with the reissues to promote sequels, but the multiple editions is something we fortunately lack though quite often that comes at the expense of a cut-down DVD release that offers some combination of the multiple versions released in America.

Warner UK - For their shoddy treatment of the UK market with poor use of their American parent's good work. It may not be completely their fault, rights to certain titles are held by different studios in the UK so when their classic titles arrive here in box set form we often see a reduced number of films included. This I can accept, but to charge the UK consumer more and to then reduce the included extras and frequently not include the original mono soundtracks shows complete disrespect for their market. Hitchcock, The Marx Brothers, both suffered as did many more with present day movies also suffering as we saw a sad excuse for a Mystic River DVD release in comparison to the R1 this year.

Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:34:01

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