Noel Megahey’s Top 5 DVDs of 2008

2008 - The Year in Review

Based on my lamentable track record in the previous two years, championing NoShame at the end of 2006 as “the US label whose new releases I most eagerly anticipate” only to see them never release a further title, and then proclaiming Tartan “the best distributor in 2007” only to see them go into liquidation in the middle of the following year, perhaps small independent distributors will prefer it if, in the current unstable economic climate, I don’t single any one of them out for exceptional praise this year. I think it is worth reflecting however on the wealth, diversity and quality of releases from small, mainly UK distributors in the past year and look ahead to where home-theatre viewers stand in the future with the trickle of fine Blu-ray DVD releases that have filtered through in the last quarter of 2008.

While there is no doubting the continued quality and the maintaining of a range of fine titles in their respective catalogues, personally I found 2008 to be a relatively weak year for the two major arthouse distributors on either side of the Atlantic - Criterion and the BFI. There were certainly exceptional titles from each of them however that deserve mention in any look over the best DVD releases of the year. A large part of the BFI’s catalogue seemed to me to be given over to historical documentaries and transport films, which certainly takes in some important documentary filmmaking, but it’s not an area that is of great interest to me personally. There were other notable releases, one of which does indeed feature in my favourite five DVDs of the year, and mention must also be made of the BFI’s first two Blu-ray releases in 2008, Salò and Red Desert, two important films given a new lease of life on outstanding releases. I can’t say much about Criterion however since, for the first year since I started buying DVDs, not one Criterion, new or reissue, nor a single Eclipse package was sufficiently fresh or unique enough to make me want to rewatch a film anew or upgrade from a previous DVD edition available elsewhere. That position as far as I’m concerned isn’t likely to change as Criterion start their move into Blu-ray, delving into their back-catalogue for popular titles to bring to the High Definition format. The quality will undoubtedly be up to the expected standards, and many will welcome the opportunity to see great films that will surely benefit from the increased clarity and resolution offered, but personally, I’d rather see the emphasis placed on previously unreleased titles, regardless of the format. The future of the Blu-ray is still far from assured and production is still expensive so there are risks involved, but it strikes me that the BFI’s example, so far only releasing out-of-print or previously unavailable titles that can really benefit from the format, is a better strategy than expecting people to upgrade titles they already have in acceptable Standard Definition DVD editions.

Fortunately, in the UK at least, there were plenty of other distributors providing fresh new works and lesser-known classics in quality editions. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema catalogue provided many titles to rival if not actually better their Criterion counterparts, and on the whole had a very good year, particularly if you are a fan of Kenji Mizoguchi (I’m not), or Maurice Pialat (waiting on more and they can’t come soon enough). With quality concerns foremost in presentation and supplemental features, MoC also impressed with fine editions of films as diverse as Mad Detective (on a highly-praised Blu-ray release), Vampyr and La vie de Jésus. Equally eclectic, Artificial Eye produced Feuillade’s Les Vampires, Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, two Satyajit Ray collections and three Robert Bresson titles to fill significant gaps in the collection of any discerning fan of classic world cinema, while also releasing new films by Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Catherine Breillat and André Téchiné and continuing to bring us exciting work from newer directors like Christophe Honoré, Cristian Mungiu and Pascale Ferran (you could also include Roy Andersson, Fatih Akin and Abdellatif Kechiche in that list, but their latest films personally did very little for me). With in most cases the best possible transfers and fascinating in-depth interviews with the directors involved, Artificial Eye’s releases this year have been simply outstanding. As with Criterion however, Artificial Eye have chosen to look at popular back catalogue titles for their first forays into High Definition, so it remains to be seen whether this slows down the production of newer titles.

Appreciation must also be given to the fine work of Diffusion, Petit Péché, Axiom, Soda, ICA, Drakes Avenue, Second Sight and Second Run for their support of less popular and less well-known titles, many of them never even receiving a theatrical release in the UK. I made a particular effort to cover as much as possible from these distributors for DVD Times this year, since they have been largely overlooked elsewhere. While few of them are of the kind of world-class auteur cinema offered by the bigger distributors (Axiom’s Wim Wenders releases being a notable exception), much of it nonetheless deserves wider attention – particularly titles like Daratt, Garage, Half Moon, Reprise, Born & Bred (Nacido y Criado) and XXY. Drakes Avenue demonstrated a new commitment to quality releases with their Blu-ray of Sophie Scholl, and with their taking on an interesting catalogue for the new Artificial Eye breakaway label New Wave Films, they’ll certainly be a label to watch in the coming year.

I can’t speak from personal experience, but with few exceptions most of those UK labels would also seem to offer a better quality of release than their US counterparts - Kino, Facets etc. - with little of the problems that those releases have with ghosting incurred by standards conversion. One US independent label however, Benten Films, showed tremendous commitment to exciting new filmmaking, providing exceptionally well-packaged editions of distinctive US independent cinema, most of it in the ‘mumblecore’ category. I haven’t seen any other company show anywhere near this level of care and dedication to their releases this year.

Having said all of that, none of it need necessarily come into consideration when selecting which films and DVDs pleased most on a personal level over the year. It’s always a delight to see a worthy film getting fine treatment on DVD, but there is also great pleasure to be had in discovering something fresh and different, something that shows craft, invention and an original way of presenting ideas in the medium and I think it’s that, as well as the desire to share the discoveries of films that don’t really get enough coverage or attention, that more than anything that has influenced the choices below and made writing for DVD Times such a pleasure this year.

Top 5 DVDs 2008

1. 1 Giant Leap: What About Me? - Duncan Bridgeman, Jamie Catto (4-DVD, UK)

The Blu-ray release of Ron Fricke’s Baraka deservedly gained much praise and newfound acclaim, but two British musicians under the name of 1 Giant Leap showed this year that non-narrative filmmaking when combined with the intangible qualities of music can still touch on an emotional and spiritual level and present the world from a new perspective, showing that unity can still be found in the diversity of thought, behaviour and culture. Interacting with great thinkers and musicians across the world, their second film What About Me?, a film of consummate craft as well as a musical project, is inspired and inspirational but impossible to categorise and it consequently hasn’t received the attention it merits, despite even being the subject of a TV series on C4 in the UK. On a superb 2-DVD package from 4-DVD however, with a flawless transfer, every conceivable extra feature you could hope for and having endless rewatch value, for my money it’s by far the best DVD release of the year.

(Full review)

2. The Bill Douglas Trilogy - Bill Douglas (BFI, UK)

Not being an admirer of British heritage cinema of the likes of Mike Leigh, Terence Davies and even some of Ken Loach with their often dreary wallowing in personal and human misery, I had no great expectations for what appeared to be an obscure 1970s’ slice of gritty semi-autobiographical kitchen-sink drama uncovered by the BFI. Despite initial impressions that seemed to confirm those fears, there’s no sense of sepia-tinted nostalgia in Bill Douglas’s three mid-length films of an early life of childhood poverty and misery in a Scottish mining village, but rather a brilliant brutal authenticity for the vagaries of human behaviour in small communities bearing generations of deprivation and deep-seated bitterness. If the film seems artless, it’s only through a studious avoidance of the kind of academicism in structure, narrative and social content more commonly associated with this type of British cinema in favour of a deeper and purer means of expression. There are scenes and imagery here, as powerful as anything out of a Béla Tarr film, that are likely to remain seared in your memory for a long time afterwards. The BFI’s 2-disc DVD edition is reliably brilliant and comprehensive in supporting features.

(Full review)

3. L’Enfance nue - Maurice Pialat (Eureka/Masters of Cinema, UK)

Up until now it’s only the later films of Maurice Pialat that have generally been available outside of France, but most of Pialat’s best work can be found in his early, semi-autobiographical films where the director confronts personal subjects with a striking degree of honesty, realism and insight. Using mostly non-professional actors, examining the psychological damage inflicted on one particularly troublesome young boy given up for adoption and moved around from one family to the next, while showing it within the social context of ordinary families in suburban France, Pialat’s debut film made in 1968 at the mature age of 43 consequently remains a powerful piece of filmmaking. Picking up all the wonderfully entertaining and informative extra features available up to now only on the French DVD of the film and giving the film an amazing transfer as well as an additional booklet with illuminating essays and interviews, the Masters of Cinema 2-disc edition is a delightful way to begin a rediscovery of one of the greatest directors in modern French cinema that will continue through a series of further releases in the coming year.

(Full review)

4. Quiet City & Dance Party USA - Aaron Katz (Benten Films, USA)

Each of the releases from Benten Pictures this year was a little treasure trove of goodness, the DVDs – often lushly packaged 2-disc sets – filled with uncommonly worthwhile extra features. But it’s the films themselves that have impressed the most, each one idiosyncratically surprising and delighting with their fresh and unique approach to filmmaking mainly on a the subject matter that is often little more than the age-old boy-meets-girl situation. Aaron Katz I think demonstrated best in these two films just what can be achieved with such a simple subject, non-professional actors and zero budget, managing to draw the viewer into the magic, the mystery and the potential of the chance encounter without ever following a conventional path.

(Full review)

5. Valerie and her Week of Wonders - Jaromil Jireš (Second Run)

I can make no claims to Valerie and her Week of Wonders being a masterpiece or even to understanding half of what is going on in the unbridled imagination of a young girl’s delirious and chastely erotic vampyric response to oncoming womanhood, but the visual splendour, mood and haunting imagery – reminiscent of one of the Quay Brothers’ live-action films – is quite unlike anything else I’ve seen on DVD this year. That doesn’t mean it’s either gratuitous or meaningless, but rather it seems to fully explore personal impressions and emotions with associative imagery outside of conventional symbolism, expanding what cinema can achieve as a means of expressing the inexpressible. Credit and gratitude must go to Second Run for continuing to bring us such wonderful, mysterious cinema that can only have limited commercial potential, but unlimited pleasure to the small group of fans of world cinema willing to seek out such treasures.

(Full review)

Noel Megahey’s Previous Top 5 DVD listings - 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007

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