This year, the best new DVDs were often old movies — restored, rejuvenated and re-released to film geeks (like myself) eager to explore cinema history. Of course, there was some noteworthy new stuff, too, including several excellent documentaries.
This year, the best new DVDs were often old movies — restored, rejuvenated and re-released to film geeks (like myself) eager to explore cinema history. Of course, there was some noteworthy new stuff, too, including several excellent documentaries. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the best DVDs and/or Blu-rays of 2011. Clear your viewing schedule and fire up your player.
“Island of Lost Souls” (Criterion) This 1933 horror movie was out of circulation for decades, banned outright in England and destined, it seems, for obscurity. Thankfully, Criterion found a decent print and made it available to modern audiences, complete with lots of imaginative extras. The star of the package is still the film, however, a genuinely unsettling masterpiece that still has the power to shock almost 80 years later.
“Bellflower” (Oscilloscope) Director/writer/producer/actor Evan Glodell is clearly a man with a vision, and he puts it all on-screen in this low-budget, high-tension film that redefines romance as an apocalyptic event. The flamethrower and muscle car Glodel built give the movie an eerie power, but even more important are the cameras he built (yes, built!) that give “Bellflower” an unforgettable look.
“Norwegian Ninja” (Dark Sky Films) The true story (sort of) of how a group of government-sponsored ninjas helped Norway navigate the treacherous waters of the Cold War in the 1970s. My favorite oddball movie of the year, it’s an action-packed, whip-smart satire of Hollywood blockbusters and international politics. As a bonus, the whole thing looks like it was directed by Wes Anderson on a budget.
“Kiss Me Deadly” (Criterion) Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) tears Los Angeles apart to uncover the secret of a mysterious leather case only to discover that he’s been chasing the end of the world. One of the wildest film noir movies ever made, “Kiss Me Deadly” never slows down for a second and consistently surprises viewers with where it’s willing to go. Criterion’s Blu-ray gets bonus points for its wonderfully retro package design.
“Superheroes” (Docurama) There were a lot of superhero movies released in 2011, but my favorite was this down-to-earth doc that aired on HBO and is now on DVD. Director Michael Barrett showcases several real-life costumed heroes doing what they can to make the streets a bit safer. You’ll be laughing when the movie starts, but by the end, you might end up admiring the heroes — and feeling a bit ashamed that you’re not doing your bit.
“Sweet Smell of Success” (Criterion) One of the greatest movies of the ’50s — and one of my all-time faves — gets a deluxe re-release on Blu-ray. There are lots of extras, but the real star is the movie itself. New York has never looked better, seen via James Wong Howe’s crisp cinematography, and the dialogue is still sharp enough to cut deep. This gets the highest possible recommendation.
“American Grindhouse” (Lorber) and “Machete Maidens Unleashed” (Dark Sky Films) Two documentaries that examine the seedy underbelly of American cinema. “American Grindhouse” covers everything from the drug dramas of the silent era to the straight-to-video quickies of the 1980s. “Machete Maidens Unleashed” tightens its focus to the no-budget action epics Roger Corman filmed in the Philippines. Both are a heck of a lot of fun.
“Marwencol” (Cinema Guild) The heartbreaking story of Mark Hogancamp, who received brain damage after being beaten outside a bar. To rebuild his life, Hogancamp constructed a stunningly elaborate miniature village and populated it with dozens of military dolls, then created elaborate stories to go with them. “Marwencol” the movie is as fascinating as Marwencol, the village, an endlessly fascinating look at the strange powers of the human mind.
Selections from Warner Archives: The DVD-on-demand arm of Warner Brothers released dozens of noteworthy discs in 2011, ranging from the postapocalyptic thrills “No Blade of Grass” to the crazy pre-Code shenanigans of “Hollywood Party.” Other favorites from the Archives: the creepy jungle drama “Kongo,” Michael Caine as a tough criminal in “Get Carter,” the action-packed “Dark of the Sun” and the four-DVD set of ancient film history, “Vitaphone Varieties.”
Here are some of the other DVDs and Blu-rays I was proud to put on my shelf in 2011:
“The Man Who Would Be King”: Sean Connery and Michael Caine in an exciting, old-fashioned epic.
“The Killng”: Stanley Kubrick’s racetrack robbery drama still packs a stylish wallop.
“I Saw the Devil”: A Korean revenge flick that goes too far — in a good way. Brace yourself.
“Blow Out”: Brian DePalma’s conspiracy thriller (starring John Travolta) is smart and slick.
“Tangled”: One of Disney’s best movies in years — and it’s not just for little girls, either.
“Four Lions”: A dark comedy about terrorism — yes, terrorism. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Birdemic”: Worst movie of all time? No, but it is one of the funniest.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop”: Fascinating documentary about street art, modern art and the hype that unites the two.
"Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss": Two of director Sam Fuller's best movies, with suitably retro covers by cartoonist Dan Clowes.
“Citizen Kane”: Seriously, how great a year is it when a “Citizen Kane” Blu-ray boxed set lands on the runner-up list?
Read Will Pfeifer’s Movie Man blog at rrstar.com/blogs/willpfeifer/ or email him at email@example.com