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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The Ten Best DVDs and Blu-Rays Of 2009

1. The Great Garrick
(Warner Home Video DVD)
Disregarding the mass market for renters and chain store shoppers, home video for people who genuinely love, live and breathe movies has formed two distinct and mutually exclusive paths. On the one path are ultra-perfect Blu-ray releases of high impact films, both admired classics and current spectacles. When delivered through a large HD monitor and a full seven-speaker-and-one-subwoofer sound system, the presentation can mimic the movie-going experience in an upscale theater, making even the dopiest movies seem spellbinding, and legitimate entertainments transcendent. But the other pathway is equally compelling. The economics of DVDs are such that distributors with access to film libraries can produce the most obscure and unknown titles on their shelves, with decent transfers even, and turn a workable profit. Such titles will probably never released on Blu-ray-it is far more likely that they will shift directly into the downloading market once a successful distribution engine is perfected. Nevertheless, those DVDs remain, for the time being, a godsend to film lovers. I recall that when the home video market was first being developed in the late 1970s, a press release from what was then MCA Universal, promoting their laser disc format, suggested that the entire ‘11,000 titles’ in their library might soon all be available at, to paraphrase, less than ten dollars apiece. Well, it didn’t happen so soon, and Universal is still too distracted to make it happen there at the moment, but damn if it isn’t happening at Warner Home Video.

Yes, it was an absolutely wonderful experience to sit on my own couch, crank up the sound and spend two hours with J.J. Abrams’ marvelously witty thrill ride, Star Trek, on Blu-ray, but as rewarding as that experience was, the greatest joy came to me this year when I finally got to settle back and watch my very own copy of Jack Smight’s Kaleidoscope, in part because of the entertainment the film has to offer, but also in part because I have been wanting-pining, actually-to see again, and own, a film that had pretty much disappeared from view after its original theatrical release in the mid-1960s, and Warner’s Archive Collection program was what made that happen.

Warner has eliminated intermediate distribution with the Archive Collection, and the DVDs-about 300 or so at the end of 2009 (including Francis Coppola’s The Rain People, Robert Altman’s Countdown, Mark Rydell’s The Fox, Love with Greta Garbo and more and more), with thirty or more being released each month-are bare bones productions that have no special features except an occasional trailer. There are no captioning or subtitling or alternate language options. There is stereophonic sound, where appropriate, and, most importantly, the films are always presented in their proper aspect ratio, with an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback (don’t miss Robert Wise’s Tribute to a Bad Man, a film that is greatly enhanced by the quality of its playback). Marketed directly from a Warner website (, the films, all of which are titles that, for one reason or another, could probably not generate sufficient attention in the regular DVD market, are also available for downloading, as Warner has unceremoniously placed itself in the pole position for home video’s next phase (to be competing, one supposes, with remastered 3-D versions of the classic blockbuster titles on a next generation disc of some sort).

I have chosen James Whale’s The Great Garrick as the representative Archive Collection title-the ‘best’ of the year-because it was the most serendipitous of the Archive Collection titles I have reviewed. Whale turns out to have been a vastly underrated director who has still not received the credit he is due, despite having been the subject of a feature film and having directed several certifiable masterpieces. The thing is, as each new title of his becomes available on DVD, it too turns out to be a masterpiece. Garrick is a period comedy on par with the best of Ernst Lubitsch, about a group of French actors who take over a countryside inn to play a practical joke on an English actor, only to have him get the drop on them. It is an utterly delightful film, quite bawdy for a 1937 feature, and despite the apparent superficiality of the characters and their intentions, a film that is, in its essence, a celebration of the warmth of the human spirit.

2. Star Trek (Paramount Blu-ray)
But let’s not get carried away. Blu-rays, with their sound jacked up-and you can jack the sound up higher because there is less distortion-are an awesome experience. They can’t really do much to enhance the pleasure, such as it is, of watching a movie like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – can anything? – but when it comes to a film such as Death Race or even something more noble, such as Slumdog Millionaire, the precision and depth of their replication are sublimely immersive, and accentuate any and all of a film’s entertainment assets. Movies such as Terminator Salvation and Transformers Revenge of the Fallenare intended as much for the power punch Blu-rays can give them as they are for the biggest exhibition screens. For a big-budget special effects spectacle with a top-level sound mix, of which Star Trek was the most intelligent and entertaining to be released on home video in 2009, the Blu-ray experience is unsurpassable in a home video setting. While Paramount’s DVD has a commentary and a couple of minor supplements, the BD adds to those a second platter full of extra features, and the film is the sort where many viewers will be enthusiastic to learn more about its creation and the choices the filmmakers made. The quality of the BD is especially poignant with Star Trek, because the franchise began as a kind of sophisticated tin can television production, and it has been as television itself has advanced that the subsequent Star Trek TV shows and films have followed suit. It comes full circle at the very end of the feature film on BD, when Alexander Courage’s original theme pours out of your surround speakers in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. This blending of past and present is not only a goose-bumpy moment, but a final ejaculative thrill to close out the film’s cliffhanger excitements and exquisitely detailed imagination-proof not only that one can go back in time, but that one can improve upon it.

3. The Films of Michael Powell (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, DVD)

Although Sony has lagged a little bit behind a couple of the other home video companies with large studio libraries, they have gradually been dipping into their resources in a careful and conscientious manner, and so when they do release archival material on DVD, it is usually a reliably worthwhile presentation, but the outstanding double bill in the Michael Powell set-his classic 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) and his almost lost 1969 gem, Age of Consent-is an even greater accomplishment, as important to the general study of filmmaking and a capsulation of the arc of Powell’s career as it is an eminently watchable and re-watchable pair of entertainments. The two films are superficially quite different. A Matter of Life and Death was one of Powell’s great wartime soundstage productions with its artificially ultra-real Technicolor designs and uniquely imaginative blend of fantasy and romance, starring David Niven and a young Kim Hunter. Although still tantalizingly colorful, Age of Consent, on the other hand, was shot in real locations on a very moderate budget and has an edgy, lascivious atmosphere, with James Mason as an aging painter living on a remote island and a very young and nubile Helen Mirren as his model. Accompanied by commentaries and retrospective interviews, and graced with consummate image and sound transfers, the presentation is an exceptionally well-produced preservation of two exceptional films, and the collection also represents, encouragingly, the ever-dwindling number of highly regarded classic movies that have yet to become available on home video.

4. Watchmen The Ultimate Cut The Complete Story (Warner, DVD & Blu-ray)

One of the great, unexpected advantages of home video has been the outlet it has provided for film directors to disseminate their true artistic vision without the compromises required for theatrical running times. The practice is abused now and then-‘Director’s Cut’ versions of films are issued with one or two scenes that were rightfully dropped, or other material that does not, in the long run, affect the overall artistic impact of the film, and just as often, a director, happy with the theatrical version, will still restore quite a bit of material to a film just for the sake of padding it out, giving the viewer a chance to spend more time in the film’s world, but not adding significantly to its drama or thematic resonance (asRon Howard did this year with a longer rendition ofThe DaVinci Code).

The theatrical release of Zach Snyder’s Watchmenwas a failure, but Director’s Cut, which added 24 minutes of material, turned it into an outstanding feature, a comic book film with intellectual heft and a wonderful array of fascinating, engaging characters. Ultimate Cut includes an additional 29 minutes of footage-primarily animated material that was also released separately as Watchmen The Black Freighter. Playing separately, it wasn’t particularly interesting, but integrated with the rest of the movie to create a work with a total running time of 215 minutes, the animated segments break the drama into distinctive movements and also comment upon the violence and madness that the characters are experiencing. The scope of Ultimate Cut and its ambitious re-creation of the complete graphic novel that served as its basis (for comparison’s sake, a minimally animated version of the graphic novel, entitled Watchmen The Complete Motion Comic, broken into twelve episodes and running a total of 325 minutes, is also included in the set) is an inspired undermining of the film production process to which the theatrical play of the film is a minor step leading to its ultimate manifestation as a compounded DVD. Extensive special features and commentaries are also included, expanding the film’s world even more (a make-believe documentary about the characters, running 38 minutes, works as an ideal prolog to the expanded feature), as well as deconstructing how the production was planned and executed.

5. The Wizard of Oz (Warner, Blu-ray)
In marked contrast to the rarity of the Michael Powell films, Warner’s home video presentations of the beloved 1939 MGM classic have not only been a ubiquity, they have repeatedly appeared on yearly ten-best lists for the quality of their transfers and extensiveness of their special features. And yet, there is no denying that with the BD presentation, Warner has exceeded itself once again with an even richer and more vivid picture transfer, a clearer and cleaner audio transfer, and a more comprehensive set of entertaining supplements that enable the viewer to understand not only how the film itself was created, but how the originalL. Frank Baum story grew out of genuine American folk culture and then thoroughly permeated the world’s consciousness with its surrealistic delights. It is also unlikely that this is the last time the film will find its place on a yearly Top Ten list, because 3-D is just around the corner, and it appears increasingly possible that within a lifetime, film companies will be remastering their classic movies as complete virtual reality experiences. It won’t be that long before home video fans can skip down the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy or fly with the monkeys and call upon the citizens of Oz to surrender her.

6. Mad Men Season Two (Lionsgate, DVD & Blu-ray)
Every year more TV episodes are released on home video than one person can possible watch within that year. The very thought of holding a season’s worth of episodes in a single boxed set is a tantalizing feeling that gives gluttony a good name. And television is, increasingly, obtaining an artistic parity with motion pictures on almost all fronts, from science-fiction epics to intimate dramas. There were many terrific shows that either arrived on home video for the first time in 2009, such as True Blood and The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, or advanced to a fresh season of innovation and entertainment, such as Heroes and Dexter, and many were accompanied by extensive special features, including commentaries on every episode and comprehensive day-to-day production diaries. There are even some, like Pushing Daisies The Complete Second Season on Blu-ray, that are a marriage made in High Definition heaven. But this year, one show stands out as the very best that both television and home video have to offer, and that is the outstanding series about a New York advertising agency in the early 1960s, Mad Men. The show’s re-creation of the past has an almost science-fiction-like alien-ness to it, yet the emotional conflicts and psychological confusions the characters are confronting are enduringly universal in their accessibility. The show, which also represents an Odyssey-like journey taken by the hero, played by John Hamm, through the consciousness of his times, is a unique and multi-faceted history lesson, but like all really good lessons, it teaches us about today as much as it teaches us about the past, and entertains us at every step. The story is exquisitely plotted, and there is a terrific array of characters, backed up by exceptionally nuanced performances (although, as one actress explains on one of the commentary tracks, once you put on the 60s outfits, the rest just comes naturally). The show is also staged and shot with a sense of quality that is equal to a feature film, and it all comes across on every meticulously transferred episode. The musical score, delivered with a 5.1-channel dimensionality, is psychically transporting. Additionally, the supplementary features are outstanding. Many episodes have two commentary tracks, and the extras not only explore in detail how the show was developed and executed, but how the realities of the 60s are reflected in the drama.

7. Coraline (Universal Studios Home Video DVD & Blu-ray)
There were a couple of animated films released in theaters and then on home video in 2009 that gained greater critical regard, such as Up and Waltz with Bashir, and perhaps rightly so, but none was more interesting from a production history standpoint than the meticulously created 3-D stop-motion feature. Henry Selick’s film, about a young girl who discovers a malignant alternate world through a secret tunnel in her house, is both creepy and entertaining, but the DVD and BD releases earn a position among the best not only for the quality of the entertainment but for drawing the curtain back upon the unique effort that went into the film’s construction. Additionally, very few of the films that were released theatrically in 3-D have gone on to appear on home video in 3-D format, and again, because it was created in a genuine three-dimensional environment, and is offered on the one release in both 2-D and 3-D formats, the DVD and BD presentations of Coraline are exceptional for the breadth they bring to the exploration of the film and for the inherent pleasures the film itself has to offer.

8. Nikkatsu Noir (Criterion Collection, DVD)
That Cadillac of home video labels, The Criterion Collection, has been doing four different things lately. They have been going back through their catalog and bringing out their most ‘classic’ titles on Blu-ray, such as The Seventh Seal and Pierrot Le Fou. They have been foraging ahead with DVD releases of lesser-known classic titles, such as Hobson’s Choiceand The Exterminating Angel. They have been dabbling in classy presentations of contemporary releases, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and A Christmas Tale. And they have been raiding the archives for collections of similar films in their ‘Eclipse Series,’ where several movies with a common factor are bound together at a relatively workable price point (any fan who wants one of the titles in the set is going to want all of the titles in that set). No special features are included, but the sets, such as Rossellini’s History Films Renaissance and Enlightenment and Dusan Makavejev: Free Radical, are given the very best transfers possible. Like Warner’s Archive releases, it is these collections that stand out, because in one fell swoop, you get several terrific yet obscure films that, because of their commonalities, make ideal multiple-title viewings for an afternoon at the home cinema.

The Nikkatsu Noir collection contains five super-cool black-and-white Japanese crime films produced at the Nikkatsu film studio in the 1950s and 1960s, Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story, Seijun Suzuki’s Take Aim at the Police Van, Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I Am Waiting and Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife. Each movie depicts a different sort of crime than the others, so there is variety in the collection, but each is also strikingly photographed, superbly performed and deliriously plotted (with ultra-hip musical scores, too), so that you essentially get five separate, gloriously atmospheric thrillers in one package.

9. District 9 (Sony DVD & Blu-ray)
This year’s Cloverfield, it is the thrill of the gore blowing up all over the place that makes the somewhat overstated symbolism and drama in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi film work so brilliantly. Presented as if it has been cobbled together from surveillance cameras and news report outtakes, even when it shifts to scenes where that couldn’t possibly be so, the film has elaborately executed special effects and yet always feels like it has been entirely improvised or ‘captured’ for real. On home video, the veracity of the playback is enhanced in a manner that is unavailable in theatrical presentations, because the film looks like it was made for a video screen. The sound is also cleverly conceived to maintain the illusion of the mundane, but then underscore the excitement at all the right moments. Like Star Trek, you really look forward to seeing how the filmmakers brought it all together, so the extensive supplementary materials are rewarding, and there are also close to a half-hour of deleted sequences, most designed to explore more aspects of the society of ghettoized aliens the film is depicting.

10. The Prisoner The Complete Series (A&E, Blu-ray)
Although current television programs are zipping onto DVD and even Blu-ray as soon as their seasons finish, the rush to disseminate older shows has slowed down quite a bit. While the home video companies are gradually following through on the seasons of classic TV shows that they began releasing several years ago, sometimes with very long gaps between season sets, first time releases of older programs are being relegated to bargain labels. Some of those releases have been highly appealing, including Shout Entertainment’s Peyton Place and Timeless Media Group’s M Squad, but the transfers are often lackluster and there is usually a complete absence of special features. The Prisoner does not really fall into that category, however. In fact, like Star Trek The Original Series, which also came out on distinctively produced Blu-ray sets this year, star Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic 1967 quasi-miniseries has been available on DVD almost since the format first appeared. But the remastering the show has undergone for Blu-ray is so good, combined with the beauty of the Blu-ray delivery, that it refreshes every aspect of the program, glossing over the show’s compromises while accentuating the uniqueness of its vision and the stimulating engagement of its drama. Additionally, there is a wealth of supplementary materials that deconstruct the full history of the show’s creation and its various intentions, as well as analyzing, probably in a manner that could not have been done before he passed away, the personal storms that McGoohan endured as he forged ahead with the show. As the features end up revealing, the series became a reflection of his own psychological conflicts and demons. If there was any ambivalence about The Prisoner’s place in the TV pantheon before, the gorgeous Blu-ray boxed set eliminates all remaining doubt about its innovative intellectual brilliance and enduringly witty entertainment.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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One Response to “The Ten Best DVDs and Blu-Rays Of 2009”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon