Michael Brooke's Top DVDs of 2001

Almost exactly five years ago, I wrote a university essay on the difficulties of distributing foreign-language and minority-interest films in a country that seems increasingly in thrall to the Hollywood machine.

Since I’d spent the 1990s watching most of my favourite cinemas either close outright or steer their programming firmly in the direction of the mainstream just to stay in business, accompanied by terrestrial TV virtually abandoning foreign-language programming (can you imagine today’s Channel Four doing a Tarkovsky retrospective at 9pm on Saturdays? They did in 1988!), it wasn’t the most wildly optimistic piece I ever wrote – but I did try to end on an upbeat note by saying that the then brand new DVD format, with its potential for multiple languages and subtitles, offered at least a faint glimmer of hope.

At the time, I thought I was being hopelessly Utopian – but my prediction came true faster than I could ever have imagined. True, when I first bought my player in early 1999, the number of foreign-language titles was relatively tiny – in Britain, Das Boot was the only one available for months, and even in America there was only a handful of major arthouse titles plus some Hong Kong films on local labels – but things improved very noticeably during 2000 and dramatically during 2001.

The crucial difference between this year and last, I think, is that we end it with access to a far wider range of films available with English subtitles that never achieved British distribution in any form. France has provided especially fertile ground, but I also picked up titles from Italy, the Czech Republic, Russia, Hong Kong and even Thailand that I’d either never had the opportunity to see before or missed a one-off festival screening.

The biggest project by far is that launched by the Russian Cinema Council, offering 120 discs spanning the whole of Russian cinema history, covering most of the expected titles and a huge amount of previously unknown material. I first heard of this in late 1999, when it seemed so impossibly ambitious that when I heard nothing for over a year I assumed it had simply shrivelled and died for lack of support. But early this year I got my hands on a promotional disc with numerous clips and trailers, many of remarkably high quality.

This quality, thankfully, was largely maintained on the discs themselves – I’ve sampled ten to date, and can confirm that they all offer a very similar package: an often startlingly good print (a revelation to those of us who discovered Russian cinema via 16mm dupes or low-quality VHS), a transfer that, minor technical quibbles aside, is far closer to Criterion than Tartan, and a fascinatingly electic selection of extras, many of which are hidden by decidedly idiosyncratic menus. Best of all, the discs are trilingual throughout, with just about everything available in English. Viy was the first of their discs that I reviewed, and it remains my favourite.

Nothing else can match the Ruscico project for sheer crazed ambition, but Criterion had a very good year. Alexander Larman has already rightly singled out Spartacus, their most impressive package since Brazil, so I’ll nominate Häxan as my favourite Criterion disc of 2001, offering two separate (and fascinatingly different) versions of the film, both in amazingly good prints considering the film was made in 1920, plus an intelligent and impressively wide-ranging set of extras covering both the film and the subject of witchcraft in general.

Anchor Bay went from strength to strength, not only opening a UK arm (many of whose initial releases matched or bettered their US counterparts) but also releasing what to me was something of a Holy Grail – a version of Dario Argento’s Suspiria that actually delivered the all-out assault on the senses that Argento originally intended and which I’d never managed to experience until now despite seeing countless versions over the last twenty years or so. With the original four-track sound remixed to room-shaking seven-channel Dolby Digital and DTS, plus a stunning anamorphic transfer that made it look virtually wet from the lab, even the relative paucity of extras hardly mattered.

Another major development in 2001 was the extremely low-key launch of the DVD-Audio format, though whether it has much of a future remains debatable. In terms of pure technical quality, it offers the most exciting audio experience I’ve ever come across in a domestic setting – effectively, we’re talking uncompressed six-channel sound with noticeably greater depth and range than either Dolby Digital or DTS and three times as many speakers than PCM – but the software has significantly failed to live up to its potential thus far. So I’m nominating Bela Fleck: The Bluegrass Sessions vol.2 (vol.1 is only on CD) more by default than anything else, as it’s the one disc I’ve encountered that showcases everything that DVD-Audio can do to such a degree that it’s made even non-audiophile friends let out a spontaneous “wow!”. But while it’s technically extraordinary, it’s musically somewhat bland – so I hope that 2002 brings something rather more ambitious.

So far I’ve praised companies and formats rather than discs – but there was one release that stood head and shoulders above the rest. TF1’s In the Mood for Love is an absolutely gorgeous package in every way that may just be my favourite DVD package ever. Completely eclipsing early efforts from Mei Ah and Tartan, this offers an outstanding transfer and some of the most imaginative extras I’ve ever seen, including multiple Easter Eggs. Better still, despite the French source, English speakers are fully catered for – in fact, they get a better deal! Criterion are releasing their own version in early 2002, but it will have to be truly spectacular to rival this.

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