Noel Megahey's Top 5 DVDs of 2007
While the major studios have been putting their energy into competing with each other over which blockbusters they can release to sway the Home Theatre viewing public towards one High Definition format or the other, the smaller labels have been getting on with pumping out an incredible selection of specialist and World Cinema Standard Definition releases in 2007. If the output of Classic, Independent and World Cinema on regular DVD releases maintains this standard of quality and sheer range in 2008, I for one will not be in too much of a rush to enter the High Definition format war.
This year has again seen an abundance of high quality releases from the larger independents in the UK filling in many gaps in the catalogues of important directors, often in box-set collections. Optimum with the entire Studio Canal catalogue at their disposal, contributed in the biggest way with numerous boxset releases, of which the Luis Buñuel Collection is perhaps the most notable. Artificial Eye rounded-off a solid if unadventurous year with long-awaited Kaurismäki and Fassbinder collections. The BFI however have really shone with outstanding editions of important films from Derek Jarman (The Angelic Conversation, Wittgenstein and Caravaggio), Jan Švankmajer and Mikio Naruse – the company taking their rightful place as the UK equivalent of the Criterion Collection, often surpassing the eminent US label in the quality of their releases and abundance of worthwhile extra features. For my money however, it is Tartan who has been the best distributor in 2007, with a tremendous diversity of adventurous cult, horror, Asian, international, classic and left-of-centre independent cinema releases. More importantly, they have significantly improved the quality of their transfers, gathered useful extra features and packaged their DVD sets very attractively indeed. Occasional problems still remain with their PAL conversion of Asian NTSC masters, but even here the process is much improved, rarely causing any significant problems. In particular, Tartan’s collections of their Jodorowsky, Ozu, Eisenstein and Pasolini sets have been most impressive.
Although not one of the larger independent labels, the 2007 releases from Second Run and Eureka’s Masters of Cinema imprint have also consistently been of comparable quality. Both labels got off to a somewhat slow start this year, but the latter half of the year saw three astoundingly good F.W. Murnau titles from Masters of Cinema - Nosferatu, Tabu – A Story of the South Seas and Der Letzte Mann and a rare piece of Visconti neorealism in Bellissima. Second Run meanwhile continued to bring us rarely seen East European titles with crucial releases of The Party And The Guests and Marketa Lazarova, diversifying and extending their range into challenging and unique cinema such as Artur Aristakisyan’s Palms.
The quality of the releases at some of the other smaller distributors of specialist, world and independent cinema on DVD such as Arrow, Second Sight, Yume and Drake’s Avenue has been variable but Axiom, Peccadillo Pictures and Soda Pictures have been consistently good in their quality and range of interesting titles that could easily be overlooked, between them giving very welcome releases for important films by the likes of Dumont, Fassbinder, Herzog, Suzuki, Buñuel, Sokurov, Kiarostami, Godard, Gatlif, Amelio, Resnais and Chabrol.
2007 consequently has been an outstanding year for Standard Definition DVD releases, with such a high number of important, classic films getting superlative releases that it is difficult to restrict my selection to only five, much less put them into any meaningful order. However, in terms of the quality of the DVD transfer, extras and presentation of a DVD being on a par with the importance of the film, the following DVD sets deserve mention as certainly being among the very best releases of the year:
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (Warner, UK)
Bicycle Thieves (Criterion, USA)
Breathless (Criterion, USA)
Tabu – A Story of the South Seas (Masters of Cinema, UK)
The Seventh Seal: 50th Anniversary SE (Tartan, UK)
Jan Švankmajer – The Complete Short Films (BFI, UK)
Pasolini Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (Tartan, UK)
Into Great Silence (Soda, UK)
Inland Empire (Absurda, USA)
Nosferatu (Masters of Cinema, UK)
Having acknowledged and greatly appreciated the not inconsiderable efforts of all the above, there are a number of other lesser-known DVDs released this year by new and upcoming directors that may not have been given the full works in terms of DVD presentation, may not have the profile of Bicycle Thieves or The Seventh Seal, but are nevertheless worthy of greater attention than they have perhaps received so far. Often, it’s simply that their premise can make them particularly difficult to describe in a manner that indicates their qualities. I'd take this as some measure of their greatness and originality, but perhaps I need to do more to convince others. It’s these five films then that I am going to make the focus of my selection of favourite DVD releases of 2007.
Top 5 DVDs 2008
1. Be With Me – Eric Khoo (Peccadillo Pictures, UK)
Eric Khoo’s extraordinary film is made up of several little vignettes, three beautiful but simple stories of misplaced love and failure to communicate. Each of the almost dialogue-free segments is exquisitely made – almost too perfectly made in fact - covering with textbook precision distinct age groups, love in its various forms and methods of communication which range from text messages to food. What elevates the film however is Khoo’s extraordinary idea to intersperse these little stories with the real-life story of Teresa Chan, a deaf and blind woman who has managed to deal with almost insurmountable difficulties. Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Teresa Chan’s story becomes the emotional heart of the film, thematically linking each of the other parts and giving them real depth and meaning. On DVD this remarkable film is given a superb UK release by the consistently reliable Peccadillo Pictures, with a fine transfer and good extra features.
2. Frozen Land - Aku Louhimies (ICA Projects, UK)
Invariably releasing barebones transfers of basic quality, it may seem like a bad joke to include any DVD release by ICA Projects in any list of DVDs of the year, but Aku Louhimies’s film deserves special mention. Ambitiously taking on a story by Tolstoy already filmed brilliantly by Robert Bresson as L'Argent, the young Finnish director puts his own spin on a tale where a simple incident spirals into a series of horrifying events, applying it to Finnish society and succeeding in drawing out even greater depths, ambiguities and modern social relevance from the original story’s already complex moral issues. Be warned however that Frozen Land presents a particularly harsh and bleak outlook and is not for the faint-hearted. A clear anamorphic transfer is about the best you can expect from ICA Projects on their DVD release and that is indeed all you get.
3. Bamako - Abderrahmane Sissako (Artificial Eye, UK)
I’m convinced that there is no way of making Bamako sound interesting. It consists largely of a mock trial set up in the courtyard of a house in Mali to put charges of exploitation against the actions of the World Bank and the IMF that keep the African nations struggling to cope with crippling debts – but trust me, it is a much more compelling film than it sounds. Bamako is certainly a polemic and has an important political point to make, but it is also impassioned and inventive filmmaking that explores the capabilities of cinema, the director Abderrahmane Sissako keeping the film interesting in so many imaginative ways without resorting to Michael Moore-style stunts. Artificial Eye’s DVD release is strong, with a reasonably clear transfer and good supporting material in the features.
4. Johanna - Kornél Mundruczó (Tartan, UK)
If the basic premise of Bamako makes it a hard film to sell, how to you convince people about the merits of an original Hungarian horror film-opera (when even a Hungarian opera would be considered something of a rarity), based on Joan of Arc, but set in a modern-day hospital where one of the nurses uses sex to heal her patients? And is there any opera that has a libretto that throws up unusual lines like “Lets run to the Urology Department”? There is more to Kornél Mundruczó’s film though than just its novelty value, and if Johanna isn’t the greatest opera ever written, it is at least a superbly crafted film and well-performed by the cast. A bold experiment indeed and well worth another look, particularly as it has such a superb presentation on DVD by Tartan.
5. Dans Paris - Christophe Honoré (Artificial Eye, UK)
Christophe Honoré has not yet had the same level of attention that has been given to another young French filmmaker with whom he has much in common, François Ozon, but with two remarkable releases in the space of a year - Dans Paris and Les Chansons d’Amour, like Ozon, Honoré is quickly moving away from the hit-and-miss scattershot of his early work towards finding his own voice within the framework of classic French cinema. Honoré has found his inspiration is within the Nouvelle Vague of the 60s, but through that means of expression the director paradoxically finds his own voice and manages in Dans Paris to make a film that is about cinema as much as it is cinema. Beyond the stylisations there is a deep underlying sincerity and truth in his depiction of his characters and their relationships with each other and the world around them. Artificial Eye’s DVD release brings out those qualities though a fine transfer and a fascinating interview with the director.
Noel Megahey’s Previous Top 5 DVD listings - 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006