2007 may not have always been a good year for movies -- No Country for Old Men, There Will be Blood, Atonement and Away From Her notwithstanding -- but it was another stellar year for DVDs, especially classics and boxed sets. The lists that follow -- one for sets and one for singles (sort of) -- should whet any buff's appetite.
There are no ratings this week on the "Ten Best" lists, since the winners, if not quite all the honorable mention films, were A-rated.
THE TEN BEST DVD BOX SETS
1. Ford on Fox
U.S.; John Ford, 1920-2007, 20th Century Fox
This phenomenal movie-lover's set -- covering John Ford's contract years for 20th Century Fox -- gathers together 24 of Ford's Fox features on 21 discs and may be the ultimate vindication of the auteur theory. In this beautiful package, which also includes Nick Redman's elegiac documentary Becoming John Ford, we see nearly every side of the great maker of Westerns and historical epics.
A Kipling-inspired studio romp like Wee Willie Winkie with Shirley Temple is stashed along with a landmark classic like The Grapes of Wrath, from Steinbeck. The hokey Four Men and a Prayer (stiff upper lip heroics with Richard Greene, David Niven, Loretta Young and George Sanders) rubs elbows with the sublime Oscar winner How Green Was My Valley, and Young Mr. Lincoln with Grapes' Henry Fonda is balanced with When Willie Comes Marching Home, with Dan Dailey. And we get to see both Darryl Zanuck's final release cut of My Darling Clementine (Ford's tough, lyrical Wyatt Earp western with Fonda as Earp) and Ford's earlier cut, which is better. The extras include a coffee table Ford picture book with an eloquent essay by my old friend and collaborator Joseph McBride, and three of Ford's WWII documentaries.
A great box, and if it's too rich for your blood, you can still purchase some of the movies in smaller Ford-Fox sets from Fox.
2. The BBC Natural History Collection
United Kingdom; produced by Alastair Fothergill, others; BBC Video
Naturalist-television host David Attenborough is director-star Sir Richard Attenborough's breathlessly glib younger brother. He's also one of the great figures and innovators in the history of television, as he's been proving since he dreamed up and instigated Civilisation back in the '60s and as he recently proved again with his magnificent 2006 series Planet Earth. He drives it home even more decisively in this incredible set -- with Planet Earth joined by three other superb Attenborough nature documentaries -- a portrait of life on our planet beautifully photographed, massively informative and wittily narrated.
Includes: Planet Earth (2006), The Blue Planet (2004); The Life of Mammals (2002), The Life of Birds (1998).
3. Berlin Alexanderplatz
Germany; Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980; Criterion Collection
One of the all-time great "film novels," Berlin Alexanderplatz, like the Attenborough shows, originated on TV. It's the inarguable masterpiece of German wunderkind and enfant terrible Fassbinder (who died of hard living at 36): an extraordinary 15-hour adaptation of his favorite book. It could hardly have been done better: Alfred Doblin's novel of the ultimate lumpenproletariat, Franz Biberkopf (Gunter Lamprecht) and his tortured, doom-ridden life in the 1920s' urban German underworld. Originally shown in 14 episodes, undoubtedly Fassbinder's masterwork, this splendid edition includes the earlier 1931 film of the novel by Phil Jutzi, scripted by Doblin himself. In German, with English subtitles.
4. The War
U.S.; Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, 2007; Paramount
A perfect subject for master documentarian and peerless chronicler of America, Ken Burns: World War II as seen through the eyes of American veterans who fought it and, at twilight, remember.
5. Ingmar Bergman: Four Masterworks
Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1955-60; Criterion Collection
Released in the year of his death, this collection presents four classics from the great middle period of the 20th-century's most tirelessly brilliant film writer-director, Ingmar Bergman. Packed with shining performances from his early stock company (who worked for him both on stage and screen): Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Jarl Kulle and Bergman pre-Liv ladyloves Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson -- plus the last great starring role of Swedish cinema pioneer-giant Victor Sjostrom (in Wild Strawberries).
Includes: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960). (In Swedish, with English subtitles.)
6. Jean Renoir Collector's Edition
France; Jean Renoir, 1925-62; Lionsgate/Studio Canal
Jean Renoir was as great an artist as his father, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (who painted his son more than once), and Renoir fils was just as much a master of sunlight and eroticism. This package brings together five superb features and two shorts, plus the likable documentary Jean Renoir: An Auteur to Remember. Alone or together, these films burn like flesh, blaze like the sun, warm your heart and soul.
Includes: La Fille de L'Eau (1925), Nana (from Emile Zola) (1926), Charleston Parade (1927), The Little Match Girl (from Hans Christian Andersen) (1928), La Marsellaise (Renoir's French Revolution) (1938), Le Testament du Dr. Cordelier (from Robert Louis Stevenson's book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) (1959), The Elusive Corporal (1962).
7. Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film
U.S.: various directors; Image
The third volume in a series invaluable for both historical and movie-buff value. This one focuses on an American specialty, the social problem film.
Includes: D.W. Griffith's 1910 Ramona, Cecil B. DeMille's 1928 The Godless Girl, Victor Schertzinger's 1929 Redskin, King Vidor's 1918 Bud's Recruit, and William Desmond Taylor's 1920 The Soul of Youth. (A famous murder victim, Taylor was a good silent movie director too.) An essential, with excellent notes, commentaries and new musical scores.
8. Viva Pedro: Pedro Almodovar Classics Collection
Spain; Pedro Almodovar, 1986-2004; Sony
From Spain's cheerfully dark-humored master of perversity, obsession, twisted desire and the postmodern woman's film, eight of his best.
Includes: Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), The Flower of My Secret (1995), Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004). (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)
9. James Bond Ultimate Collector's Set
U.K.-U.S.; various directors, 1962-2007; MGM-UA
From Sean Connery's Bond in From Russia with Love and Goldfinger to Daniel Craig's grimmer 007 in the latest Casino Royale, here's the continuous, comprehensive record of a genuine pop phenomenon, Ian Fleming's elegant agent 007, the spy we love, with a wicked tongue, an active libido, a talent for both masochism and sadism and a license (or licence) to kill. A model collector's DVD set.
10. (Tie) Heimat 3
Germany; Edgar Reitz, 2004; Facets
The third installment of Reitz's massive Heimat movies, a German TV classic that has followed its characters and their kin from the turn of the 20th century to today. Like Berlin Alexanderplatz, this is one of the great 'film novels." But Reitz imagined and wrote as well as filmed it. (In German, with English subtitles.)
10. (Tie) Film Noir Classics Collection, Vol. 4
U.S.; various directors, 1946-1955; Warner
Warner Brothers' excellent film noir series continues smashingly with 10 more dark, murderous, stylish tough-guy gems. Among the treats here: Nick Ray's lyrical They Live by Night, Anthony Mann's nightmarish Side Street (both starring Leonard Bernstein's chum Farley Granger), Andre De Toth's hard-as-nails Crime Wave (starring Sterling Hayden), Don Siegel's breezy chase thriller The Big Steal (starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer) and Jack Bernhard's compellingly weird cult movie Decoy, starring femme fatale supreme Jean Gillie. (And wait 'til you get a load of her.)
Honorable mentions: Late Ozu (Japan; Yasujiro Ozu; Criterion Collection); Lubitsch in Berlin (Germany; Ernst Lubitsch; Kino); Robert Mitchum Signature Collection (U.S.; various directors; Warners); Wim Wenders (Germany; U.S.; Wenders; Anchor Bay); Federico Fellini Directors Series (Italy; Fellini; Criterion); Jean-Luc Godard Directors Series (France; Godard; Criterion); Claude Chabrol: Tales of Deceit (France; Claude Chabrol; Pathfinder); The Judi Dench Collection (U.K.; various directors; BBC Video); Popeye the Sailor, Volume One (U.S.; Dave Fleischer, others; Paramount); Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara (Japan; Teshigahara; Criterion Collection); The Michael Haneke Collection (Austria, France; Haneke; Kino); Louis Malle Documentaries (France, U.S.; Malle; Criterion Collection); and The Harry Langdon Collection: Lost and Found (U.S.; various directors; Facets).
THE TEN BEST DVDS
1. The Battleship Potemkin
U.S.S.R.; Sergei Eisenstein, 1926; Kino
Eisenstein's fiery revolutionary masterpiece, an artwork that outlived its inspiration (the Russian revolution and the Soviet state). Newly restored, this is the definitive version of one of history's great films.
2. Blade Runner
U.S.; Ridley Scott, 1982-2007; Warner
The science fiction film noir classic that made a posthumous career for Philip K. Dick. One of the best DVD packages on a movie ever assembled.
3. Letters from Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers
U.S./Japan; Clint Eastwood, 2006; Warner
Two great movies that are really one: Eastwood's tough and compassionate double look at the Battle of Iwo Jima, from both the American and Japanese sides.
4. The Third Man
U.K.; Carol Reed, 1949; Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed, screenwriter Graham Greene, and stars Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Valli and Orson Welles (in his most popular role) examine corrupt postwar Vienna through a dark, tilted lens in what many now regard as the finest of all British films.
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1961-62; Criterion Collection
The world's greatest action director, Kurosawa, gives star Toshiro Mifune his greatest role, cynical, unbeatable sword-for-hire Sanjuro, in the wild classic Yojimbo and its lesser-known sequel. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
6. Bicycle Thieves
Italy; Vittorio De Sica, 1948; Criterion Collection
The heart-breaking neorealist epic of ordinary lives made transcendent by emotion: A poor, desperate workman and his young son scour Rome for the stolen bicycle they need to survive. Like Citizen Kane, this is a film that changed my life. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)
7. Don't Look Back
U.S.; D. A. Pennebaker, 1967; New Video Group
Bob Dylan, irreverently and stingingly tours England, with Joan Baez and Alan Price. One of the great concert-documentaries.
8. The 3 Penny Opera
Germany; G. W. Pabst, 1931; Criterion Collection
Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill's pop-agitprop classic explores the deadly Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife to you) and the Berlin underworld. In the German and French versions -- both directed (superbly) by G.W. Pabst.
9. I Am Cuba
Cuba/U.S.S.R.; Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964; Milestone/New Yorker
Neglected for years, this multi-part celebration of the Cuban revolution, by scenarist-poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and director Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying) has, like Potemkin, survived the myths that sired it. A virtuoso visual dazzler.
10. (Tie) The Graduate
U.S.; Mike Nichols, 1967; MGM
The quintessential '60s date movie: Dustin Hoffman's Ben is seduced by his parents' friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), then falls for her daughter, Katharine Ross. Simon and Garfunkel supply tuneful pop commentary. A Hollywood classic, copied endlessly.
10. (Tie) Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection
U.S.; Charles Burnett, 1977-2007; Milestone/New Yorker
Burnett's great low-budget indie classic about life in the California African-American streets and neighborhood, packaged with two versions of Burnett's 1983 My Brother's Wedding and four of his shorts.
10. (Tie) Army of Shadows
France; Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969; Criterion
Melville's greatest film was not one of his nonpareil gangster movies, though it feels like one. A grim tale of the World War II Resistance based on Joseph Kessel's novel, starring Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret.
From Criterion: Breathless (France; Jean-Luc Godard); Sansho the Bailiff (Japan; Kenji Mizoguchi); The Lady Vanishes (U.K.; Alfred Hitchcock); Days of Heaven (U.S.; Terrence Malick); Vengeance Is Mine (Japan; Shohei Imamura); Les Enfants Terrible (France; Jean-Pierre Melville/Jean Cocteau); Sawdust and Tinsel (Sweden; Ingmar Bergman), Mouchette (France; Robert Bresson).
From others: Our Hitler (Germany; Hans Jurgen Syberberg; Facets); Peter Pan (U.S.; Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson; Disney); Siberiade (U.S.S.R.: Andre Konchalovsky); True Heart Susie (U.S.; D.W. Griffith; Image); Prime Suspect 7 (with Helen Mirren) (U.K.; Philip Martin; Acorn Media); and The Jazz Singer (U.S. Alan Crosland; Warner).