Noel Megahey's Top 5 DVDs of 2006
Even as we move ever closer towards a High Definition format for home cinema viewing, the output of Standard Definition DVDs continued to expand throughout 2006, particularly in the range of World Cinema releases. Not even taking the growth in the international market, where the availability of titles is even greater for those willing to explore the catalogues of European and Asian DVD retailers, in the UK and USA the established foreign and arthouse film distributors of Artificial Eye, Tartan, BFI, Eureka/Masters of Cinema, Optimum, Pathé, Criterion and Koch Lorber have continued to enrich their catalogue with both strong new titles, classics being revisited and remastered, others being released on DVD for the first time.
In the rush to get titles out, releases are increasingly taking the form of boxset collections - Tartan with massive sets of major works by Bergman, Ozu and Haneke, Artificial Eye with Haneke, Rohmer and The Japanese Masters, Optimum with the Malle, Second Sight with Ophuls, Masters of Cinema with Naruse and Keaton and Criterion with Rohmer and Malle - all of these offering the viewer affordable introductions into important works of classic and modern international cinema. With Studio Canal’s acquisition of Optimum, we can look forward to this trend continuing, with Buñuel and Godard collections already announced that look set to improve on any previously released editions in the UK. Criterion have finally got with the programme and will also be stepping up their output in this way with their new Eclipse line of barebones boxset collections.
While the established distributors certainly haven’t been slack in 2006, the range of available World Cinema titles has been supplemented with newer companies like Nouveaux, Soda, Axiom, Infinity Arthouse, Yume in the UK, First Run and NoShame in the US, who have brought to the market a variety of lesser known treasures – some titles new and experimental, others potential classics rescued from obscurity, many of them well worth exploring.
So having acknowledged the wealth and quality of material made available over the last year, the real pleasures I have had in my viewing during 2006 have been in being given the opportunity to see and write about some distinctive films with a unique voice that, through trying to find a new way to express intangible concepts, have to some extent pushed the cinematic format into new areas. There are certainly more daring and experimental films out there, as well as better packaged DVD sets with pristine prints and all the trimmings, but the choices I have selected for my Top 5 DVDs of the year are films that I personally think have something important to say, presented a new way of looking at the world, and in doing so have contributed something unique not only to the world of filmmaking, but have enriched my own experience of film viewing and DVD reviewing this year.
1. 8 Films de Jean Paul Civeyrac, Jean Paul Civeyrac (Blaq Out, France)
As well as being a perfect example of the comprehensive boxset collection that in its totality throws new light on a whole body of work, the films in this collection of one of France’s most interesting new directors are among the most fascinating and unique works of cinema I have seen this year. Civeyrac’s films occupy some mysterious place where dreams and reality, the past and present, the living and the dead all coexist and take on tangibility in dark, ethereal, yet resolutely physical form. Blaq Out’s French edition lacks any substantial extra features, essays, interviews, commentaries or even contextual or biographical information about the director, but the films themselves are very well presented, with English subtitles, and fascinating enough in their own right to justify its expense.
2. Sátántangó, Béla Tarr (Artificial Eye, UK)
Filming in black-and-white and following his characters slogging down sodden roads and through muddy fields using very long takes in real-time, Tarr simultaneously captures the gritty earthiness and harsh realism of the world he sees, as well as the indefinable characteristics of the nature of the people who inhabit it. Running to over seven hours and very, very slow indeed, Sátántangó is the ultimate in challenging arthouse filmmaking, but the power of Tarr’s vision is fully felt. Rarely seen in the UK due to its excessive length and obviously challenging nature, a DVD release has been awaited so long that the lack of extra features and non-anamorphic status on the UK edition from Artificial Eye are of little consequence. This remains one of the most remarkable filmmaking experiences you will see anywhere this year.
3. The Quay Brothers: Short Films 1979 – 2003, The Quay Brothers (BFI, UK)
There are few worldviews in cinema as unique as that of the Quay Brothers, drawing on dark East European literature, mythology and design concepts, and feeding it through their disturbing yet compelling experiments in stop-motion animation. The sheer variety of themes and techniques displayed across the thirteen short film included here across the BFI’s 2-disc set, impeccably presented with flawless new transfers and supported by a wealth of extra features, make this one of the most richly rewarding releases of the year.
4. The Atrocity Exhibition, Jonathan Weiss (Reel23, International)
It’s surprising that, despite having his works brought to the screen by David Cronenberg (Crash) and Steven Spielberg (Empire Of The Sun) the most successful film adaptation of the work of J.G. Ballard comes from Jonathan Weiss’s film version of his most difficult and non-narrative fiction, The Atrocity Exhibition. Through an exploration by typically deranged Ballardian scientists of the key events of the 20th century – Hiroshima, Vietnam, the assassination of President Kennedy, the death of Marilyn Monroe - the film most successfully touches on all the personal obsessions of one of the most unique chroniclers of the neuroses of modern society. With a commentary track not only by the director, but by J.G Ballard himself, Reel23’s DVD release becomes indispensable to anyone looking for provocative and challenging cinema.
5. Valerio Zurlini Box Set: The Early Masterpieces (NoShame, USA)
The release of two lost Italian films from the 1950’s might not appear to fit in with my selection of experimental and unique modern worldviews presented in DVD releases this year, but in justification I think I can safely say that there is no-one else making films anything quite like those of Valerio Zurlini. Of the two films included in the set, Girl With A Suitcase featuring a young Claudia Cardinale received the most plaudits, but for my money the astonishing romantic wartime melodrama Violent Summer starring Jean-Louis Trintignant was the biggest rediscovery of the year. All but forgotten and rescued from obscurity, each of the films is treated to an impeccable presentation on DVD from NoShame who, more than Criterion, are the US label whose new releases I most eagerly anticipate.
Noel Megahey’s Previous Top 5 DVD listings - 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005