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Wilmington on DVD: The best releases of 2008

To everyone in Madison, a city I love and miss: Here are my top tens this year for both DVD singles and box sets. Here's hoping the next eight years will be better than the last -- and that the movies will help.


1. Murnau, Borzage and Fox: Films from an Era of Artistic Genius
U.S.; F. W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, 1924-1932, 20th Century Fox

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was a much admired German director, who died young after taking the world cinema by storm with his 1924 classic The Last Laugh and then captivating the American film industry with his 1927 masterpiece Sunrise, which was voted by the '50s staff of "Cahiers du Cinema (Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, et. al.) as the best film of all time.

Frank Borzage was an American ex-actor and veteran movie director whose career spanned the decades from 1916 to 1959 -- one of many Yanks influenced by Sunrise, whose own career best classic, Seventh Heaven -- also starred Janet Gaynor, winner of the 1927-8 "Best Actress" Oscar for both. This excellent 12-disc box set from Fox brings together two films by Murnau and 10 by Borzage, along with fragments or reconstructions of one lost Murnau film and one partly lost Borzage, and a documentary on both directors, and their work with their admiring studio boss, William Fox.

Includes: Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927); City GirlLazybones (Frank Borzage, 1925); Seventh Heaven (Borzage, 1927); Street Angel (Borzage, 1928); and Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929). (All Silent, with intertitles and music score.) Also includes: They Had to See Paris (Borzage, 1929); Song O' My Heart (Borzage, 1930), Liliom (Borzage, 1930); Bad Girl (Borzage, 1931); After Tomorrow (Borzage; 1932); and, Young America (Borzage, 1932). (All talkies.)

2. Georges Melies, First Wizard of Cinema
France; Georges Melies, 1896-1913, Flicker Alley/Blackhawk Films

This jewel-box of a five-disc set of movies by the astonishing French cinematic pioneer/master Georges Melies, as well as Georges Franju's brilliant 1953 documentary Le Grand Melies, is one of the most important DVD releases ever, as well as an unfailing source of cinematic joy and pleasure. This set includes 346 films and excerpts of the more than 500 he made. Watch these 13 hours' worth over several evenings, and don't let the antique style (no close-ups, painted backdrops) throw you, and you'll be infallibly, wildly entertained.

Includes: A Trip to the Moon (1902), his most famous film and a fantasy/science fiction masterpiece; The Kingdom of Fairies (1903), The Impossible Voyage (1904), The Palace of the Arabian Nights (1905), The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), The Eclipse (1907), and The Conquest of the Pole (1912). (Silent, with English intertitles and music scores.)

3. The Eclipse Series
Various nations; various directors, 1929-1990, Criterion

One of the best recent DVD ideas is this series from Criterion, who usually make splendid art film packages and box sets with lots of extras. By contrast, these no-frills box sets come in austere packaging, with less lengthy liner notes. This is a set for the real film buff cognoscenti, and those more highly knowledgeable film lovers won't be disappointed.

This year's Eclipse sets included the following, all first-rate:

Lubitsch Musicals. Starring Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier and others. With The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), and One Hour With You (1932).

Silent Ozu. The Japanese minimalist master, Yasujiro Ozu, at his silent best. With Tokyo Chorus (1931), I Was Born, But (1932), and Passing Fancy (1933).

Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women. One of the cinema's most profound feminists and period masters, looks at the dark side of women's lot. With Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of Gion (1936), Women of the Night (1948), and Street of Shame (1956).

Larisa Shepitko. The great Russian woman director, Elem Klimov's wife, who died too young. With Wings (1966) and The Ascent (1977).

Aki Kaurismaki's Proletariat Trilogy. Finland's deadpan rebel paints the world of down and out with his favorite actors. With Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990).

Rossellini's History Films: Renaissance and Enlightenment. The master of Italian neo-realism examines history and the real world of the past. With The Age of the Medici (1972), Blaise Pascal (1972), and Cartesius (1974).

4. Griffith Masterworks Two
U.S.; D. W. Griffith, 1909-1931, Kino

D.W. Griffith was the great cinematic genius of the cinema's 1910s and 1920s, a magnificent blend of pre-WW1 sensibilities, sentiment and romanticism, and his staggering command of his medium shines through in five discs of features here. Includes: The Avenging Conscience (1914, silent with music score); his classic melodrama Way Down East (1920, silent with music score); Sally of the Sawdust (1925, silent with music score); Abraham Lincoln (1930, talkie); and, The Struggle (1931, talkie). Also includes the short Edgar Allen Poe (1909, silent with music score). Extras: The 1993 Kevin Brownlow-David Gill documentary D. W. Griffith, Father of Film; introduction to Birth of Nation re-release, with Griffith and Walter Huston; introduction by Orson Welles to Sally of the Sawdust; excerpt from the Edison Studio's Uncle Tom's Cabin; photo galleries; and, trailers.

5. The Collector's Choice: Budd Boetticher
U.S.; Budd Boetticher, 1957-60, Sony

Budd Boetticher was not only a master filmmaker, horseman, bullfighter and king of the B's. He was also something of a Western magician. In just five years, working with paltry budgets on minuscule shooting schedules, he made the five Western masterpieces or near-masterpieces below, all with stoic cowboy star Randolph Scott, and most with producer Harry Joe Brown -- all the movies known, not completely accurately, as the Ranown Cycle. B-Movie classics, one and all.

Includes: The Tall T (1957); Decision at Sundown (1957); Buchanan Rides Alone (1958); Ride Lonesome (1959; and, Comanche Station (1960). Extras: A Man Could Do That, a documentary on Boetticher executive produced by Clint Eastwood and written by Dave Kehr; commentaries by Taylor Hackford, Jeanine Basinger and others; intros by Eastwood, Hackford, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese; and, trailers.

6. Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin
Germany; Ernst Lubitsch, 1919-2006, Kino

The master of the stylish romantic comedies of the 1920s, '30s and '40s -- often imitated, never surpassed -- was Ernst Lubitsch, a Jewish-German emigrant to Hollywood and a rollicking genius who made sex playful, and the movies elegant and funny, viewing life and history though a never-ending series of hilarious innuendoes. Six of his best early German silent movies, five of them comedies, are in this five-disc set.

Includes: The Doll (1919) packaged with Robert Fischer documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin (2006); The Oyster Princess (1919), packaged with I Don't Want to Be a Man (1920); Anna Boleyn (1920); Sumurun (1920); and, Wildcat (1921).

7. The American Film Theatre Collection
U.S.-U.K.; various directors, 1970-75, Kino

Ely Landau's American Film Theatre was a grandly idealistic experiment that deserved to last much longer than its two seasons (1974-75): Landau produced, with superb casts and top directors, classy, intelligent and high-style versions of some of the great classic and contemporary plays of the American, British and European Theatre.

The series produced or showcased some real masterpieces -- including Laurence Olivier's magisterial film of Anton Chekhov's supremely poignant Three Sisters, John Frankenheimer's electrifying version of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, and Peter Hall's scathing transcription of his stage version of Harold Pinter's dark The Homecoming. But even granting Landau a few clunkers here (Rhinoceros), this 14-disc set is one that every lover of theater, and great acting, should own.

8. Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer
U. S.; various directors, 1916-1921, Flicker Alley

Doug Fairbanks was one of the great silent movie stars -- the movie's first and preeminent swashbuckler and a costumed hero of unmatched ebullience, the most dazzling of smiles and leaping, soaring high spirits. Most of the movies in this five-disc set, though, are modern comedies, and they show another Doug, a peer and comrade of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd, whose movies almost always gave audiences a glorious high.

Includes: His Picture in the Papers (John Emerson, 1916); The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (John Emerson, 1916); Flirting With Fate (Christy Cabanne, 1916); The Matrimaniac (Paul Powell, 1916); Wild and Woolly (John Emerson, 1917); Reaching for the Moon (John Emerson, 1917); The Modern Musketeer (Allan Dwan, 1917); When the Clouds Roll By (Victor Fleming, 1919); The Mollycoddle (Victor Fleming, 1919); The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920); and, The Nut (Theodore Reed, 1921).

9. The Films of Sergei Paradjanov
Russia; Sergei Paradjanov, 1965-1988, Kino

One of the world's greatest film directors, a protean moviemaker and a truly supreme visual stylist, was the Ukrainian-Russian Sergei Paradjanov. Paradjanov's career was cut short by censorship and a prison term, but he still produced a handful of works of extraordinary originality and immense artistry. His 1964 masterpiece, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was his only real international hit, and, as with Orson Welles, one can mourn all the films he didn't make -- as well as his cruel and stupid mistreatment by the Soviet hacks who were his nemeses.

Includes: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964); The Color of Pomegranates (1969); The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984); and, Ashik Kerib (1988). Extras: Documentaries, featurettes, interviews, photo galleries, and filmographies.

10. The Jean-Luc Godard Box Set
France-Switzerland; Jean-Luc Godard, 1983-93, Lionsgate

No 20th century filmmaker is more controversial, more improvidently loved and hated, than the French critic/cineaste Jean-Luc Godard, the impudent classicist and reformed radical who almost never makes the kind of film that financiers (or most audiences) want to see, but makes them brilliantly. Here are four of Godard's post 1980 films, all made after he returned from his years as a quasi-Marxist minimalist cinema politico and re-entered (in a way) the world of the art film he had deserted in the '60s. I like him better this way. Some don't. That's their problem.

Includes: Passion; Prenom: Carmen; Detective; and, Helas Pour Moi.


1. Shine a Light
U.S.: Martin Scorsese, 2008, Paramount

Anyone who loves movies or rock 'n' roll, or both, and doesn't get blown away at Shine a Light -- the roaring concert film/documentary with the Rolling Stones, directed by Martin Scorsese -- just isn't trying. This great picture is the vibrant record of a live 2006 concert at Manhattan's Beacon Theatre on the "Bigger Bang" tour -- and it's thrilling and sexy and knock-you-on-your-ass brilliant. Is Shine a Light the best rock concert movie ever? It's damned close. The Stones can still rock, still get it on. When they sing and play, they're the ones who -- like Bobby D. in The Last Waltz -- seem forever young. It's only rock n' roll, but we like it.

2. La Ronde
France; Max Ophuls, 1950, Criterion

3. Le Plaisir
France; Max Ophuls, 1951, Criterion

4. The Earrings of Madame de...
France; Max Ophuls, 1953, Criterion

Here are three great film romances by the great German-French-Hollywood director -- and the master of all in this genre -- Max Ophuls. The director specialized in sensuous dramas about star-crossed lovers or erotic roundelays and here he gives us a brilliant whirling all-star adaptation of Artur Schnitzler's cynical sex play La Ronde; a trio of suave, haunting Guy de Maupassant stories in Le Plaisir; and an ironic love tragedy from Louise de Vilmorin's novella The Earrings of Madame de.... All three are as lovely and intoxicating as moonlight and champagne. (In English and French, with English subtitles.)

5. The Last Laugh
Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1924, Kino

One of the great silent films: F.W. Murnau's masterpiece about an old hotel porter (magnificently played by Emil Jannings), and his tragic demotion at a luxury hotel. Brilliantly directed, The Last Laugh has been considered a classic from its first release, when its innovative camerawork and powerful story stunned viewers. Kino's superb set contains both the foreign release (which many of us know) and the lesser seen (and superior) German version, which actually uses different takes.

6. Lawrence of Arabia (Collector's Edition)
U.S.-U.K.; David Lean, 1962, Columbia/TriStar

Peter O'Toole shines as warrior-poet T.E. Lawrence in one of the screen's really magnificent historical adventure epics. Lawrence of Arabia is so beautifully photographed on its desert locations that it sometimes seems a shame to miss it in 70 millimeter on a widescreen. It's also brilliantly written (by the credited Robert Bolt and the uncredited Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman) and splendidly acted, by a cast that includes Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tavi ("I am a river to my people!"), Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal, Jack Hawkins as Gen. Allenby, Arthur Kennedy as a newsman based on Lowell Thomas, Jose Ferrer as the Turkish Bey, and in his starmaking performance, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif as Lawrence's warrior friend Sherif Ali.

7. Bonnie and Clyde
U.S.; Arthur Penn, 1967, Warner

Arthur Penn and his fantastic writers, David Newman and Robert Benton (and uncredited script doctor Robert Towne) re-imagine the Depression gangster era, seeing one of its most notorious bank gangs as self-deluding innocents drunk on glamour, excitement and their public image, and the whole era are as an analogue for Vietnam-cursed America. Then they blow it all to Hell. A ferocious, lyrical classic. Producer-star Warren Beatty assembled a perfect cast -- Beatty himself` as cocky but impotent Clyde Barrow, Faye Dunaway as his mistress-in-crime Bonnie Parker, Gene Hackman (what an actor!) as genial brother Buck Barrow, Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder and Evans Evans. God, they're all great. So is the movie.

8. The Last Emperor
Italy/U.K./China; Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987, Criterion

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 Best Picture Oscar winner is about the lush life and long fall of China's last emperor, Pu Yi (John Lone) -- who became just another guy when Mao Zedong's revolution swept away the last vestiges of the old China. And it was in some ways, the peak of Bertolucci's career. Certainly, it's the most sumptuous and visually scintillating of all his film collaborations with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

9. The Red Balloon/White Mane
France; Albert Lamorisse, 1953-1956, Criterion

The Red Balloon -- Albert Lamorisse's beautifully visualized fable about a small boy (played by Lamorisse's blond little son Pascal) and his wayward red balloon, which seems to be alive -- fills our eyes with the richly colored sights of '50s Paris. And it fills our hearts and minds with wistful, luscious fantasy, despite using only the most minimal special effects (an invisible wire on the balloon's trailing string) to tell a story as classic and poignant as a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. White Mane (Crin Blanc) which won a Cannes Grand Prix three years earlier is essentially the same story -- this time, with a boy (Alain Emery) and a wild white horse. (In French, with English subtitles).

10. The General (Ultimate 2 Disc Edition)
U.S.; Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman, 1927, Kino

From comedian-filmmaker supreme Buster Keaton comes one of the great silent movie comedies and also one of the great Civil War pictures, shot in unforgettable images that are almost eerie replicas of the look of Matthew Brady's battlefield photographs. Through them, Buster, as lovelorn railman Johnny Gray -- trying to woo his beloved, soldier-loving Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and then trying to rescue, from Union Army marauders, his equally beloved locomotive The General -- moves like a sad-faced but furiously alive ghost dancer. Mastered from an 35mm archive print struck from the original negative, the film has never looked better, or richer, or more epic, or more beautifully sepia and black-and-white.

Honorable mentions: El Cid (U.S.; Anthony Mann, 1961, Miriam Collection/Genius Products); 12 Angry Men (U.S.; Sidney Lumet, 1957, MGM); La Roue (France; Abel Gance, 1922, Flicker Alley); Satantango (Hungary; Bela Tarr, 1994, Facets); and WallE (U.S.; Andrew Stanton, 2008, Disney).

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