MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: THE TEN BEST

Here are my choices for the ten best DVD and DVD box sets (plus a few runners-up) for 2009, last year of the first decade of the twenty-first century.It was a horrible yet sometimes exalting time for me, the last year also of my mother Edna Wilmington’s life, suffered for the last four months of her ninety-four years in the snares of our malfunctioning, unreliable, over-rated, over-expensive and damn well broken health insurance and health care system.

The drama and tragedy of her last months threaded its way constantly through my column, as did many of the movies she loved. (Bergman, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Buster Keaton, Vivien Leigh, and her favorite of all, Gene Kelly) And I hope those of you who only wanted movie reviews here forgave me. But I also hope that her spirit reached out to some others among you — some of you who knew her, and who loved her.

She was sweet and brave and an artist and a fighter to the end. Pray God that broken health care system will improve now. Pray God my wonderful, brilliant, supremely talented painter-sculptor-writer-musician mother found happiness and peace — some place, somewhere — at last.

May the God in whom she believed all her life bless her and comfort her and keep her. One of the last things she said to me was “Oh! There’s the Christmas tree!” (It was up early for her.) But her last words to me were “Help me! Help me!” Would to God I still could.


1. The Wizard of Oz (3 Disc Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
U. S.; Victor Fleming, King Vidor (Uncredited.), 1939 (Warner)

Some movies appeal to just about everybody — like the heart-stoppingly entertaining and wonderful musical that MGM made in 1939 out of L. Frank Baum’s American fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz.

It’s a movie most of us saw for the first time in childhood and then grew up with though the years. I was 10 when CBS televised it nationally for the first time (in 1956), and I still remember the shock of joy that came over me as I watched it in the living room on Parkhurst Place, in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, with my Grampa Axel, Gramma Marie and Mother Edna — all of whom were already very familiar with it — especially when Judy Garland, as Dorothy Gale, stared at the sky above her Hollywood-Kansas barnyard backdrop, let loose those incredible 16-year-old pipes and brought down the house once again with Harold Arlen’s and E. Y. Harburg’s hair-raising ballad “Over the Rainbow.”

What a song! What a singer! What pure, shattering emotion wrapped in rapturous show biz kitsch! Then there was her fantastic supporting trio: Ray Bolger as the flopsie-mopsie, always-resourceful Scarecrow (“I would not be just a nuffin’, my head all full of stuffin’…”), Jack Haley, Jr. as the metal-bod, sentimental Tin Man (“I hear a beat! How sweet!”), and Bert Lahr as the boisterous scaredy-cat Cowardly Lion. (“Oh, it’s sad, believe me missy, when you’re born to be a sissy…”) Meeting Dorothy one by one, Singing the three parts of another Arlen-Harburg masterpiece — “If I Only Had a Brain/a Heart/da Noive” — followed by the lusty chorus of “We’re off to see the Wizard!” the four grand companions, became the most appealing quartet of adventurous buddies since the Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan.

You’d also be stumped to find a better nasty, evil witch with a more memorable creepy cackle than Margaret Hamilton’s supremely malicious Wicked Witch of the West, aka Miss Gulch, or a shinier good witch than Billie Burke’s winningly sweetie-pie Glinda. Or a more spectacular piece of Midwestern humbuggery and medicine show eloquence than Frank Morgan as Professor Miracle and the Wizard himself (and three other parts too). And what can you say about the Munchkins? (Better not say too much. This is a family movie.)

Judy’s Dorothy is a perfect centerpiece and beating heart for Oz, because she plays it with a stunning conviction, and sparkling sincerity that sets off perfectly the glorious Smith’s Premium Ham clowning and vaudeville of her three fellow travelers — and also because, at least on our second time through, we know that this is Dorothy’s dream, brought on by the cyclone and a head-bonk, and that Oz is her creation — her fairy-tale Kansas — which is why it’s both her paradise and her nightmare.

The Wizard of Oz was directed by two big studio movie masters: Victor Fleming (the Oz scenes) and the uncredited King Vidor (the Kansas prelude and coda). Their styles are not really similar — Vidor was more of a populist poet, Fleming a robust yarn-spinner — yet here, they fuse perfectly. Fleming and Vidor together presided over one of the most charmed and charming movie ensembles ever, transforming Noel Langley’s, Florence Ryerson’s and Edgar Allan Woolf’s marvelously playful and witty script and Arlen and Harburg’s fantastic songs — done by that peerless cast — into the stuff of movie magic, a show that never loses its power to grip us and tickle us and make s laugh and cry. It’s the greatest kids (plus adults) movie this side of the rainbow.

I loved it when I was 10, watching it with my childhood family. I loved it the last time I saw it,, watching it with my brave 94-year-old Mother Edna, in her hospital room, on a computer on her food table, a few days before she died. (In a movie-going life that began in the silent film era, with pictures like The Gold Rush and Grandma’s Boy, it was the very last movie that Edna ever saw.)

I love The Wizard of Oz still. I’m not alone.

Extras: Commentary by Oz-Garland scholar John Fricke; TV Specials The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic (D: Jack Haley, Jr.) and Memories of Oz ; Featurettes; Video storybook; Profiles; Sing-along feature; Outtakes; Deleted scenes; Harold Arlen’s home movies; Stills and trailer galleries; Recording sessions; Radio shows.

2. North by Northwest 50th Anniversary Edition (Two discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1959 (Warner)

Alfred Hitchcock’s great romantic/comedy/thriller — with Cary Grant, at his witty, seductive, impeccable best, as wrong man Roger Thornhill, an overly smug Madison Avenue adman who gets mistaken for an elusive spy named George Kaplan (a CIA plant who doesn’t really exist) and embarks on a wild chase from New York to Rapid City South Dakota, along with some sinister real-life spies (James Mason and Martin Landau), an elegant, ice cool blonde who may be traitor or two-timer (Eva Marie Saint), a scholarly, watchful CIA agent (Leo G. Carroll), Roger’s own skeptical, sardonic mother (Jessie Royce Landis) — and a succession of wild escapades that include a murder at the U.N., a battle on Mount Rushmore, and, most memorably, a crop dusting plane dustin’ where there ain’t no crops.

This is Hitchcock at his most entertaining, in the picaresque comic mood of his classic ’30s British thrillers The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. The cast is nonpareil. The screenplay, by Ernest Lehman, is racy, sophisticated and packed with ingenious twists, top characters and clever lines. The Bernard Herrmann score, fleet and nerve-shredding, is absolutely unemployable. And Hitchcock’s direction, as always (but even more infallibly in this case) brilliantly amuses and thrills us exactly as The Master planned. One hesitates to use the word perfection. But, in describing North by Northwest, what other word will do?

Extras: Commentary by Lehman; three excellent documentaries on Cary Grant, Hitchcock and the making of North by Northwest; trailers and TV spots.

3. Up (Four Stars)
U. S.; Pete Docter, 2009

Up, this year’s new Pixar picture, flies us right up into those realms of sky, flight and fantasy that Judy Garland’s Dorothy traveled in her Kansas twister ride to Oz, and to which little Pascal Lamorisse was whisked off by his air armada of Parisian balloons, at the end of his dad Albert’s The Red Balloon. Co-written and directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Bob Peterson, it’s almost a great children’s movie, and another strong argument that the Pixar cartoon cadre is the strongest creative force operating in mainstream Hollywood right now.

If you have children and don’t take them, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you see it without kids, you should love it anyway. And if you’re a kid, you should be in heaven. For us adults, Up will help bring back all those wondrous, heart-warming, spine-chilling childhood movie experiences, like The Wizard of Oz, The Red Balloon and the early Disney features (Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio), all the great rides that once made a kid’s trip to the movie house so intoxicating and madly enchanting. And adventurous.

Yet, in what might appear a paradox, the hero of Up — albeit with a kid sidekick — is a harsh, isolate, seemingly past-it and mean old man named Carl Frederickson, voiced with classic gruffness by Ed Asner, whose squashed grizzled features also are replicated in Carl’s onscreen face. (Asner’s performance makes his Lou Grant seem like an old softie and a sweetie-pie.)

Up seems initially about how the old are sadly abandoned and shunted aside, how they gradually lose their loves and dreams, and are forced to succumb to the world’s cruelty, indifference or smugly ageist bigotry.

All that, and almost all of Carl’s life, are conveyed in the movie’s sprightly opening sections, covering Carl’s boyhood, his meeting with the plucky little lassie, Ellie (who keeps a diary of adventures and adventures-to-be), their joint admiration for the famous Movietone Newsreel star and daring South American explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer, at his plumiest), leading up to a lyrical five minute sequence, a glorious little montage that becomes one of the most beautiful and bewitchingly sad pieces of cinema I’ve seen this year.

It’s probably the most astonishing emotional movie turnabout, and amazing emotional tone-shift from a tragic portrayal of defeated, lonely old age since…well, since F. W. Murnau tacked on that crazy, drunken, happy ending to the tale of Emil Jannings’s beleaguered ex-head porter in The Last Laugh. Except that this is an ending we definitely want to see.

I’m not going to tell you what happens next, with a few exceptions — because this is one of the funniest and most exciting of all the Pixar features. You deserve to have the jokes and the action come to you mostly fresh and unspoiled. But, of course, much of the rest of the movie takes place up there in the sky too, in Carl’s balloon house and on Muntz’s spectacular whirlybird super-dirigible-like, propeller- driven sky-ship –and there are chases and wild escapes, and the characters fight and slide all over the sky ship’s body and Carl’s porch, in scenes that will either feed your vertigo or kill it dead. Exhilarating is a word that was made for the likes of Up.

It’s exhilarating though for more than mere (Mere!) adventure and spectacle. This is a movie which spiritually delivers a well-earned knockout blow to the rejection, marginalization and sometimes abusive mistreatment that the elderly here — and elsewhere — suffer.

I was glad to see and hear Asner grumble and take off, partly because I’m sick of turning on cable TV news and hearing the cable news yowlers of the right braying or blubbering about how they don’t want their money (or as they sneakily put it, their children’s money) spent on health care, help for the disadvantaged, and other non-necessities, for the old or the otherwise marginalized — who, in their sickeningly selfish and meanly mercenary minds, are also the undeserving.

That’s the kind of theme and undercurrent that makes Up more than kid stuff. According to Up’s credits, there’s a real-life Carl and Ellie who inspired the film. So the movie has a real-life stimulus, however delightfully impossible it all became on screen. I hope that they’re happy.

4. Gone With the Wind (Ultimate Collector’s Edition, Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Victor Fleming/Sam Wood/George Cukor), 1939 (Warner)

Like the flawed but spectacular Margaret Mitchell novel from which it derives, the movie Gone With the Wind has never lost its power to enthrall and bewitch. Even as the world, the audience and the social and political currents around it change, and the movie’s vision of a charming, gallant, if sometimes foolish Old South — a land of ruined antebellum splendor destroyed by war and the invading North, but rising indomitably from its ashes — recedes into popular myth, producer David O. Selznick’s phenomenal film, can still, like Mitchell’s saucy and unconquerable heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, seduce or bulldoze almost all before it.

So can the movie’s stars: Vivien Leigh as the perfect, cynical, heart-stopping, wickedly beautiful Scarlett; Clark Gable as roguish, rakish but secretly noble Rhett Butler, with his casual heroism and impudent machismo; Olivia de Havilland as long-suffering, sweet, saintly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Leslie Howard as Melanie’s husband and Scarlett’s obsession, weak Ashley Wilkes, trapped in his ideals; and even poor lovable Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel, in all her bulky splendor, popping loose the corset of clichés that imprison her as Mammy.

And so too can the sometimes forgotten director, Victor Fleming, who guided the movie robustly along, along, aided greatly by his uncredited fellow directors, George Cukor (who began it and was fired) and Sam Wood, least of the three, who came on as a relief man and continued as second director after Fleming briefly collapsed. And second unit man and serial expert B. Reeves “Easy” Eason. And, of course Mitchell herself and writer Sidney Howard, who channeled Mitchell’s mammoth and fiercely feminine vision, and together with the liberal Republican Selznick, filtered out the worst racist excesses of the book (read the novel again if you think I’m exaggerating), with an uncredited assist from that best of all Hollywood script doctors, Ben Hecht.

Some people love Gone and still aggressively believe it, and some love it even though they can’t believe it. But few can escape part of its seductive power and spell. It was my father’s favorite movie, though as a World War 2 era refugee from Hitler’s Europe, he should have been more skeptical about Atlanta belle Mitchell’s unabashedly slanted view of contented darkie slaves and kindly white masters, living happily together once upon a time in an idyllic agrarian empire of Southern knights and ladies fair, the world gone with the wind that Mitchell so ferociously celebrates and laments. The film was, for decades, America’s most popular picture, succeeding that other super-movie Dixie myth, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and today, it remains a touchstone for film buffs, whether they hail from South or North. The DVD set, which gets better every time it reappears, is a must if you love film — and especially popular film.

Margaret Mitchell’s novel was both a romance and a revenge. She wished to present her Atlanta home and forebears as a faithful daughter of the South should, to obliterate the legend of that other great Southern-set bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and though producer David O. Selznick tried to clean the story up, and remove its more offensive tirades, it still beats with a heart of old Dixie. (In the book, Rhett is not imprisoned for blockade-running, but for killing an uppity black, and black was not the word used.) And Gone With the Wind, so beautifully designed by William Cameron Menzies, so set the template for movies about the South and the Civil War, for years to come — until the post-war era really began to blow the old magnolias away.

It’s the characters that keep it alive, and the ideal way Selznick cast them. You cannot imagine a more perfect Scarlett than the diminutive, eternally flirtatious, relentlessly sexy and ambitious Vivien Leigh, or, even without an accent or a damn, a better Rhett than Gable. De Havilland, Howard and McDaniel are equally right, even though Howard clearly doesn’t like Ashley. And Mitchell populated her book with a grand pseudo-Dickensian gallery of supporting characters, all memorably incarnated here, from Thomas Mitchell as Scarlett’s loved and fallen father Gerald O’Hara and Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat to Victor Jory as evil Yankee overseer Jonas Wilkerson. Most of them are gone now, along with both my father and mother. But Gone With the Wind and Scarlett remain.

Extras: Commentary by Rudy Behlmer; Documentaries; Featurettes; Short The Old South (Fred Zinnemann, 1940); Newsreels; Trailers; Foreign language version excerpts.

5. Casablanca (Four Stars)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1942 (Warner)

Play it again…and again. In a Warner brothers back lot Casablanca that hums with World War 2 intrigues, throbs with romance and occasionally explodes in violence, we watch one of the movies’ immortal affairs: the fiercely frustrated, tormented but sublime passion of gloomy cabaret owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart, in his most popular role) for Ilse (Ingrid Bergman, in hers), the emotionally torn woman he loves, who left him in Paris, but who now belongs to the idealistic underground leader Laszlo (Paul Henreid.) Around them swirl one of the great Hollywood supporting casts: Claude Rains as the suave and lecherous Vichy police head Renault, Conrad Veidt as the reptilian Nazi commander Strasser, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S. Z. Sakall, Marcel Dalio, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey John Qualen, and of course that indefatigable piano man Sam (Dooley Wilson).

Casablanca, which expertly melds several key ’40s Hollywood modes and genres of the era (drama, comedy, noir, spy thriller, love story) was written by the Epstein brothers (Julius and Philip) and Howard Koch and directed by that sometimes underrated master, Michael Curtiz. A big hit in its day and also a multiple Oscar winner, the movie has never stopped pleasing and rousing audiences — who always cheer when rains’ Renault snaps Round up the usual suspects! and always respond to its wily blend of tough guy sarcasm and idealistic romance, embodied by Bogart’s Rick. It’s one of the inarguable triumphs of the Hollywood Studio system, of Warner Brothers and their Hungarian émigré workhorse Curtiz, and of those two seemingly mismatched but ultimately perfect lovers Bogey and Bergman.

Extras: Introduction by Lauren Bacall; Commentaries by Roger Ebert and Rudy Behlmer; Documentaries, Featurettes, Additional scenes and outtakes; Bugs Bunny Cartoon Carrotblanca; Casablanca TV episode; Casablanca radio production with Bogart and Bergman.

6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; John Ford, 1962 (Paramount)

John Ford’s last great Western is a visually spare masterpiece about the new and old frontiers, a classic mostly unappreciated in its day. And it boasts the Casablanca of movie Western ensemble casts, a remarkable gallery topped by friendly movie legends James Stewart and John Wayne.

Stewart is Ranse Stoddard, an idealistic eastern attorney at law, who listens to Horace Greeley, and goes west to the wide-open town of Shinbone, where he discovers danger and destiny — and then returns years later for the funeral of an old friend. Wayne plays that departed friend: Tom Doniphon, a boisterous but fair-minded horse rancher, ace fast-draw gunman and Ranse’s sometimes unwilling guardian angel. Also in Shinbone: Vera Miles as Hallie, prettier than a cactus rose, caught between Ranse and Tom, a strong woman who learns how to read and sees the wilderness grow into a garden. Lee Marvin is Liberty Valance, the cattlemen’s demonic enforcer, gunslinger and murderer. Edmond O’Brien is the drunken but eloquent newspaper editor, Dutton Peabody. They’re all fantastic, at or near their very best.

The lusty supporting ensemble, including the remnants of Ford’s classic repertory company, has Andy Devine as the cowardly, free-loading Marshall Linc Appleyard, Strother Martin and Lee Van Cleef as Liberty’s violent myrmidons, John Carradine as the cattlemen’s mouthpiece, Denver Pyle, Anna Lee, Ken Murray, O. Z. Whitehead — and Carleton Young as the pushy new editor with a narrator’s voice of doom, who demands an explanation for Ranse’s presence at Tom’s funeral, and becomes privy to a shocking, poignant confession.

Liberty Valance is practically a Western noir, shot in sometimes noirish black and white, with few landscape scenes and mostly interiors. And it’s framed as a crime-story murder mystery that finally reveals the deceptive underpinnings of our social fabric and national mythos. That’s reveals, remember. Ford’s stubborn detractors often scoff at the matchless Western-maker for the scene here where Young tears up his story, explaining This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend — completely forgetting that Ford has just printed the fact to all of us, exposing the conventional history of Ranse and Valance as a lie, and the editor as a liar and cover-up artist

Although much of Liberty Valance, is a boisterous, rollicking Wild West tale, done in a rambunctious, unbuttoned, and often highly theatrical performance style, it turns into one of the saddest Westerns ever made, as elegiac as Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. I cried the first time I saw it, right at the moment when Willis Bouchey’s effusive train conductor proclaims Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance! and passenger Jimmy Stewart, giving a last dark look at his lost past, shakes out the flaming match in his hand. I still do.

Extras: Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, including audio interviews with Wayne and Stewart; documentary; trailer; picture galleries.

7. The Seventh Seal (Four Stars)
Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1957 (Criterion)

Antonius Block, a blonde and handsome, idealistic and death-haunted knight (played by Max Von Sydow) and Jons, his cynical, tough, life-embracing squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) are back from the 14th century Crusades — returning after ten bloody, battle-torn years, only to discover their homeland, Sweden, in the throes of the Black Plague, social disintegration and religious hysteria.

Disillusioned and weary, the two wend their way though villages rife with plague, outlawry and witch hunts, to Block’s castle and to this Swedish Odysseus’ Penelope equivalent, waiting wife Karin (Inga Landgre). And along the way they pick up a band of fellow pilgrims: a troupe of traveling players including the sweet and lively clowns Jof and Mia (Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson), their lecherous theater director Skat (Erik Strandmark), the bearish and volatile smith Plog (Ake Fridell) and his sluttish wife Lisa (Inga Gill), and, trailing and harassing them all, Raval (Bertil Anderberg), a vicious and amoral fallen seminarian, now a rapist and thief, whose hypocritical and false preachments helped send Block and Jons to the Crusades.

One other follows: Death (Bengt Ekerot), a stern-looking, bald and inescapable phantom in a black monks robe, cowl (and scowl), who informs block, after the knight awakens by the ocean, that his hour has some — and then is temporarily put off by Block’s canny suggestion that the two of them play an often-interrupted game of chess, for Block’s life. While picking up other lives along the way, the game-loving Death is happy to oblige — because, after all, in this ghastly terrain of epidemic, superstition, and torture, he rules.

As Block, the knightly philosopher and searcher, plays his evasive game with mortality, the world around him goes on — sometimes sweet (Jof and Mia’s lyrical hillside feast of milk and wild strawberries), sometimes savage — as when a deluded and beautiful young witch (Maud Hansson), is bound and burned at the stake, or when Raval succumbs horrifically to the plague.

This quintessential Ingmar Bergman film, which — along with his other major 1956-7 festival prize winners, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries — made his huge initial international reputation while also creating a new audience in the U. S. for art house cinema, The Seventh Seal has sometimes been derided for alleged pretensions and ever-dolorous Scandinavian gloom. That’s hardly fair. Bergman, as he proved over and over again, was no Nordic flash in the pan. Indeed, his long string of triumphs as Sweden’s preeminent theatre director and as a prolific movie writer-director of often extraordinary ambition and achievement, puts him easily on any sensible short list of the great twentieth century dramatic/cinematic masters.

Seventh Seal, a real classic, is no depressing, artsy, phonily serious, bloodless bore, as its detractors like to claim. Bergman’s powerful and eloquent film has a lusty comic vein and a lyrical romanticism that constantly counterbalance its philosophical darkness, doom and gloom, just as Jons’ pragmatism balances the knight’s morbid meditations. And its ambitious literary qualities, its hints of authors like Strindberg, Camus and Lagerkvist, shouldn’t be held against it.

Bergman’s dual strengths as writer and director are a large part of what makes him great, what gave him an edge throughout his career over fellow genius contemporaries who weren’t as literarily gifted and needed writing collaborators. There is no truer cinematic auteur in the history of movies than Ingmar Bergman, and it’s foolish to deny it. Cinema breathes throughout the film:the rowdy ensemble and barroom scenes, the spectacular landscapes, and even many of the rustic-sublime deep focus compositions — like the famous shot at the end of Seventh Seal, of Death and his victims dancing in black silhouette against a brilliant John Fordian skyline, while below, in their covered wagon, the sweet clowns Jof and Mia watch with their little baby son Mikael, Jof’s face rapt at his final vision. (In Swedish, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Introduction by Bergman, Commentary by Peter Cowie, Bergman’s Island documentary, interview with Max Von Sydow, tribute by Woody Allen, Bergman 101, a video filmography by Cowie, booklet with Gary Giddins essay.

8. Woodstock (Four Stars)
U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, (Criterion)
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music — The Director’s Cut (Four Stars)
U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, 1970-1994 (Warner)

Both a great rock concert movie, and a superb documentary on youth culture in the Vietnam War Years, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock — shot at the legendary 1969 Aquarian gathering at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel, N. Y. (not the nearby Woodstock) –brings back the era and all its pot-fumed tenderness, horror, humor, beauty, ugliness, and glorious absurdities, as few other movies can.

Caught by the virtuoso wide-angle cameraman Wadleigh (along with many others) in amazing handheld widescreen images full of scope and seething with energy, and cut by editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese (and others) in vividly atmospheric sequences and evocative, witty split screen juxtapositions, the movie literally overwhelms you

The original three day concert — which wound up being one of rock history’s great freebies, when the crowds, measuring a half million plus, overflowed the ability to count or charge them ticket money — is rendered with shocking, lyrical immediacy. Woodstock records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself.

It was a terrific concert. The original roster of acts in the 1970 movie included Crosby, Stills and Nash (ladling out, among others, Steve Stills’s honeyed lyric to Judy Collins, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, plus, under the closing credits, Joni Mitchell’s soaring anthem Woodstock), along with Jefferson Airplane, The Who (See Me, Feel Me the mesmerizing capper from Tommy), Richie Havens (the heartbreaking fold ballad Motherless Child), Joan Baez ( a hushed, reverent Swing Low, Sweet Chariot), Santana (the fever-drenched Black Magic Woman), Sly and the Family Stone (Taking us higher, if possible), Joe Cocker (tearing out his classic version of A Little Help from My Friends) and, as a blazing climax, guitar god Jimi Hendrix, with his legendary variations on The Star Spangled Banner (complete with sonic Hendrix booms on rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air.

Throughout, either in the epic original and this expanded director’s cut, Woodstock beautifully records both the amazing social extravaganza surrounding the music — the gargantuan sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll community that descended on Yasgur’s green farm fields, the bad trips and free food, the marijuana, nude romps and ubiquitous flashing peace signs, the ocean of communal feeling and occasional bummers — and, of course, the memorable music itself. Peace.

Extras: Deleted performances (Baez, Country Joe & The Fish, Santana, The Who, Joe Cocker, Mountain, Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield, Sha Na Na); 15 featurettes, documentary.

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

From comedian-filmmaker supreme Buster Keaton — of the porkpie hat, unsmiling puss and staggering comic athleticism — comes one of the great silent movie comedies and also one of the great Civil War pictures, shot in beautiful images that are almost eerie replicas of the look of the famous Matthew Brady Civil War 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.

Buster’s masterpiece is based on a real-life Civil War train raid episode. But here Keaton manages to surpass both the reality and cinema of warfare to create an exhilarating, violent but bloodless ballet of comic pursuit and battle. Comedies don’t get any better than this. Comedians don’t get funnier than deadpan Buster. And The General — mastered from an 35mm archive print struck from the original negative — has never looked better, or richer, or more epic, or more beautifully sepia and black-and-white. Or more Keatonesque.

Extras: Three separate scores composed, conducted or performed by Carl Davis, Robert Israel and Lee Erwin; video tours, behind-the-scenes home movies, introductions by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson; montage of Keaton train gags. Silent, with subtitles.

10. Do the Right Thing (Four Stars)
U. S.; Spike Lee, 1989

Spike Lee may have done some wrong or semi-wrong things in his life. But none of them are in this gutsy, glib and gritty Bed-Stuy masterpiece, a movie full of sizzling streets, inner tensions and great characters — played by a marvelous cast that includes Danny Aiello (in a part, Sal of Sal’s Pizzeria, intended for Robert De Niro), Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Martin Lawrence, Samuel L. Jackson (as disc jockey supreme Senor Love Daddy) and Lee himself as Da Mook. It’s all about Brooklyn, pizza and racism — and a hot day and hotter night that strips the neighborhood bare. Right on, Spike and Ernest and Barry.

Extras: Featurettes.


11. No Country for Old Men (Four Stars) (A)
U.S.; Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007 (Miramax/ Paramount Vantage)

The Coen Brothers have made a great film of Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel about a busted drug deal in the West Texas desert and the relentless three-cornered chase that follows. This brutal, spare, acidly compassionate crime thriller — a primo noir in the style of Hemingway, Mailer (The Executioner’s Song), Jim Thompson and James M. Cain — receives about as faithful and powerful a film translation as any first class American book could get these days, courtesy of those modern masters of neo-noir, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Coens make this material their own, while preserving much of McCarthy’s dark, bleak, hard-case vision. They deserved their 2007 Oscars; the cast is dead on the mark all the way. Josh Brolin is a perfect Llewellyn Moss, a seemingly lucky welder who stumbles on the death and wreckage left behind a big drug deal, finds the heroin cache and two million in a suitcase, steals the loot, gets spotted and suddenly has on his trail, the baddest of all hired-killer, clean-up man bad-asses, Anton Chigurh (played by the great Javier Bardem, the king of bad hair and no mercy).

Sugar is a sullen, murderously efficient hit man whose only flicker of compassion comes when he occasionally flips a quarter to see if he’ll kill or cut free a fresh potential victim. Bringing up the good-guy tail-end of the pursuit is that magnificent Texan Tommy Lee Jones — born and raised in the San Saba oil field region where the movie is set — who plays a kindly, solid-pro sheriff named Bell, a war vet and model citizen who just can’t understand how the world got so kill-crazy and mean, and who speaks his disillusionment in brooding melancholy monologues. (Less of them in the movie than the book, which is one reason to buy it.)

The rest of the cast, which includes Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (great on accents) as Moss’ sweet, tough Texan wife, Woody Harrelson, a wily marvel as a gabby colleague of Chigurh’s, and Barry Corbin as the old man with the cats, are all so damned good they tear your heart and freeze your blood at will. This is a tough, ruthlessly sad movie that unwinds its Peckinpah-style story slowly and calmly, knocking on Heaven’s door with barely a note of background music. (This has to have been the easiest assignment composer Carter Burwell will ever have.) It’s also the kind of movie The Getaway should have been, both times — as well as the peak of Coen, one of the all-time best film noirs or neo-noirs, and, by God, one dark, cool hell of a show.

Extras: Documentaries; interviews with the Coens, Bardem, Brolin and others.

12. Wings of Desire (2 Discs) (Four Stars)
Germany; Wim Wenders, 1987 (Criterion)

In Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ lyrical film masterpiece of urban fantasy and longing, two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) wander around Berlin and, like documentary filmmakers, keep their eye on humanity. Silent, sympathetic, both wearing well-worn overcoats and sporting pony-tails, but invisible to the Berliners, they stroll through the streets and into public and private places, observing the people of the city in their everyday routines, their private melancholy or happiness, or their extremes of emotion and crisis — from meditative study in Berlin’s lovely main library to daily work, subway riding, trancelike attendance in a rock club, childbirth, fatal bike accident or suicide.

It is Berlin before the destruction of the Wall and its brightly colored wall paintings, a black-and-white Berlin, almost empty of hubbub or noise, but linked to the city of past cinema, from Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a City to Wenders’ own 1970 Summer in the City to this movie, which was originally called Der Himmel uber Berlin (Heaven Over Berlin). And both angels watch it all without interfering, though occasionally they will drop a sympathetic hand on the shoulders of the suffering, or help a dying person though the last agonizing moments of life.

Finally, one of them, Damiel, decides he must somehow cross over from the world of the passive, voyeuristic angels to the earthly realm of the actively joyous or sorrowful humans. He falls quietly but madly in love.

Wings of Desire (or Heaven Over Berlin) belongs loosely to that strain of pop-metaphysical angels-among-us romantic fantasy that includes Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) and Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife (with angel Cary Grant).

But Wings has a different mood and style than any of its angelic predecessors — just as dreamy, but more meditative and somber, befitting a film dedicated to Wenders’ own cinematic angels Yasujiro (Ozu), Francois (Truffaut) and Andrei (Tarkovsky). The poetic, often wordless Wings script is by Wenders, with six or so dialogue scenes by the estimable novelist-playwright-filmmaker Peter Handke, and lots of day-to-day improvisation. The incredible, gorgeous cinematography, bathed in light in both color and black-and-white came from the genius eye and hand of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, 78-year-old Henri Alekan.

The cast includes, besides Ganz, Sander, Dommartin and Falk, the legendary, then 86-year-old Curt Bois, the pickpocket of Casablanca, playing the film’s old poet Homer. Wenders’ assistant director was the young Claire Denis (who later made Chocolat and 35 Shots of Rum). All of these artists and actors achieved a celestial peak with Wings of Desire — a movie that shows some angels among us and brings down Heaven over Berlin. (In German and English, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentary by Wenders and, more briefly, Peter Falk (one of the best commentaries ever put on a DVD release); 2003 documentary The Angels Among Us, with interviews with Wenders, Ganz, Falk, Sander, Handke and Kneiper; on-set TV documentary Wim Wenders Berlin Jan. 1987; interview with Alekan; featurettes on Alekan and Bois; deleted scenes and outtakes; trailers; booklet with poem by Handke. and essays by Wenders (from the film’s first treatment) and Michael Atkinson.

13. Z (Four Stars)
France; Costa-Gavras, 1970 (Criterion)

Back in 1969 and 1970, Costa-Gavras’s Z looked like the hippest, fastest, gutsiest political thriller you could possibly make, and when Gavras and writer Jorge Semprun wrote a credit line that any similarity to real-life events wasn’t coincidental, but intentional, the campus crowds I saw it with, roared their approval. This explosive movie, which present’s Gavras and Semprun’s view of the Lambrakis assassination, and the ascension to power of the tyrannical Greek Colonels, was both an impudent, in-their-faces docudrama and a blistering thriller — and it was exhilarating on both levels. I happen to love Gavras’ earlier forgotten comic film noir The Sleeping Car Murders, and his later Missing, but he never made a better movie than Z. And he probably never will.

Z, based on a roman a clef by Vassilis Vassilikos, is daringly written, excitingly shot and brilliantly acted. Yves Montand (a Sleeping Car vet) and Irene Papas radiate integrity as the victim and his widow, producer Jacques Perrin and Jean Louis Trintingant (two more Sleeping Car Murders alumni) are the intrepid reporter and incorruptible prosecutor (based on a real-life prosecutor who eventually became Greece’s president) and Renato Salvatore and Marcel Bozzufi are among the gargoylish, malevolent gang of high-level and low-life villains. Z, as Pauline Kael wrote, damned near…blasts you out of your seat — and it’s as much from its sheer political audacity as from its gut-punching thrills and shocks. Daring too is its final coda, which reveals how justice can be transgressed even when the truth will out. Sadly, Colonels of one kind or another are always with us. But Z suggests that at least they can be indicted in the tribunal of the movies.

Extras: Commentary by Peter Cowie; Interviews with Costa-Gavras and cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Archival interviews with Costa-Gavras, Jacques Perrin, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Pierre Dux, and Vassilis Vassilikos; Trailer; Booklet with Armond White essay and credits.

14. It’s a Wonderful Life (Four Stars)
U. S.; Frank Capra, 1946 (Paramount)

Frank Capra’s holiday masterpiece about George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small-town guy on the brink of suicide, who is shown by a whimsical guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) what would have happened if he’d never lived, what a difference his life really made and why it truly is more blessed to give than to receive.

In many ways, it’s Dickens’ A Christmas Carol done in reverse. Here, on a magical Christmas Eve, a good man is made to understand the meaning of his life, and the consequences of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Scrooge is made to understand the consequences of selfishness. (Scrooge was, coincidentally, a regular Christmas season radio role for Lionel Barrymore, who plays Wonderful Life’s banker-villain Old Man Potter). For Capra, the scares, laughter and tears come as readily as they do in Dickens’ literary classic. The script, by turns witty and sentimental, is by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (The Diary of Anne Frank and the Thin Man movies) and a raft of uncredited others, including Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and Dorothy Parker. The great, rambunctious cast includes Stewart, Barrymore, Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Gloria Grahame, Beulah Bondi, Sheldon Leonard, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen. You’ve seen it before, but it always works. And it always will.

Extras: Documentary, interviews.

15. Pinocchio (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, 1940 (Walt Disney)

When you wish upon a star…. A little wooden-boy puppet named Pinocchio (voiced by Dickie Jones), the cherubic-looking apple of his father/toymaker Gepetto’s (Christian Rub) eye, has one huge desire. He wants to be a real ‘live boy. With the help of the seraphic Blue Fairy and his hard-working conscience, Jiminy Cricket (irresistibly voiced by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards), he has a good shot. But the lively, curious little puppet is tragically susceptible to conmen, especially a foxy glib fox named Honest John (Walter Catlett) and his rascally cat sidekick, Gideon. These two bad influences waylay Pinoke from the straight and narrow, and send him off to a world of high life, adventure and danger: to a wicked puppeteer/showman named Stromboli, to Pleasure Island, an evil Disneyland where boys become fun-seeking donkeys, and finally, into the belly of Monstro the Whale.

Pinocchio (1940), based on the Collodi classic, is one of the five great early Disney features, movies never really surpassed in the whole Walt canon; the others were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, (1937), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). Many critic/cartoon buffs think Pinocchio the best of them all, and — even though nothing will ever replace Dumbo in my flying-elephant heart — they may be right. The technique is incredible. The film’s heart really beats. This is one feature cartoon that makes you laugh and cry and feel. Certainly this is the version you want to own. And not just for your kids.

Extras: Featurettes.

16. Faces (Four Stars)
U.S.; John Cassavetes, 1968 (Criterion Collection)

Laughs, boozing, sexual desire, humiliation, deceit and terrifying sadness: This is some of what we see flickering across the extraordinary faces inside John Cassavetes’ low-budget independent classic. Here they are: A hard-edged Hollywood businessman named Dickie Forst (John Marley), a sweet-tempered prostitute named Jeannie Rapp (Gena Rowlands), her two drunken johns Freddie and Jim (Fred Draper and Val Avery), Dickie’s quietly despairing wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) and her good-natured, young Whiskey-a-Go-Go one night stand Chet (Seymour Cassel). It’s a gallery of laughter, wasted affluence, anger and pain, starting with Dickie at the end of a business day in a screening room, when the night of booze, revelry and sex is just about to start, and ending up at his home on the morning after — as Dickie returns from his boozy whoring after Chet tries to save Maria from a suicide attempt.

John Cassavetes’ 1968 independent film classic, Faces, used the same improvisatory, cast-participation techniques he’d pioneered in the 1959 and 1961 versions of his revolutionary debut film Shadows (See below) — and to stunning, powerful effect. Cassavetes’ actors, a ferociously candid ensemble of friends and frequent co-workers (including The Godfather’s Marley and John’s wife and longtime partner Gena), helped write the script in rehearsal, workshop-style, after the director set up the situations. But Faces — though shot in black-and-white partly at the director’s own home, the rough hand-held cinema verite camera style that often drives Cassavetes detractors nuts — was one of his major critical and box-office successes, and one of the most widely admired and influential independent U. S. film dramas of the ’60s.

The characters do what we expect in a Cassavetes’ film: They laugh, they drink, they yell at each other. And they face, suddenly, rude awakenings that shock them right out of their temporary illusions. Faces is an American film masterpiece about ’60s malaise, by a maverick genius filmmaker revered in both European and American filmmaking circles: John Cassavetes. An unbuttoned, angry, loving guy who knew how the hell people ticked.

Extras: Documentary Making ‘Faces’; alternate opening scene; 1968 episode on Cassavetes from French TV series Cineastes de notre temps; featurette on Faces’ lighting by cinematographer/associate producer Al Ruban; booklet with Stuart Klawans essay.

17. El Dorado (Two Disc Centennial Collection) (Four Stars)
U. S.; Howard Hawks, 1967 (Paramount)

In that ’50s-’60s movie Western dreamland we know so well, aging sure-shot hero John Wayne, recovering drunk Robert Mitchum, cocky kid James Caan and colorful old coot Arthur Hunnicutt are besieged in the town jail by a corrupt rancher’s hired guns, just as Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan once were in Howard Hawks’ pop classic Rio Bravo. The approach is similar — easy-going, impeccably done, character-rich comedy laced with an occasional shootout or barroom brawl, with a little romance thrown in (Charlene Holt and the spunky Michelle Carey fill in for Angie Dickinson’s immortal Feathers), one scene and gunfight rolling with consummate smoothness and expertise into another, ending with a blazing gun-down climax and the comforting sight of two triumphant guys strolling down a Western street.

Like Rio Bravo, El Dorado is seamlessly professional and an awful lot of fun. But the mood is different, the look crisper and more elegiac, the heroes more fallible. Wayne’s Cole Thornton has a handicap Rio Bravo’s John T. Chance never had to suffer: a bullet lodged near his spine (too dangerous to remove till after the battle is over) that periodically twists him into paralysis and screaming pain. Mitchum’s J. P. Harrah stinks and staggers more than Martin’s Dude (the role that got Dino tagged, wrongly, as a big drinker). Caan’s Mississippi can throw a knife but he can’t shoot for shit. And Hunnicutt’s Bull often seems handier with his bugle and a wisecrack than his cackling, deadly counterpart, Brennan’s dynamite-heaving Stumpy.

El Dorado — written by longtime Hawks collaborator Leigh Brackett, who co-scripted Rio Bravo with Jules Furthman –began as an adaptation of Harry Brown’s Western novel The Stars in the Courses; Brackett described it then as a sort of Western Greek tragedy. But Hawks, who had shown a tragic or dark vein early in his career (The Dawn Patrol, The Road to Glory, Scarface), showed more upbeat tastes later on, and he switched the plot midstream to Return to Rio Bravo to get back in his own comfort zone. It’s hard to complain, even though Brackett thought her original script was the best she ever wrote for Hawks. Hell, we like this quartet so much, we don’t want them shot up either.

I love this movie, and I don’t agree at all with the contingent that ranks El Dorado way below Rio Bravo, or the anti-western bunch who think both movies are over-aged, over-weight clunkers. It’s a fine-looking show; the very fussy cinematographer was Hal Rosson, who shot The Wizard of Oz, The Asphalt Jungle and Duel in the Sun. The memorable score and title song are by Frank Sinatra’s master arranger Nelson Riddle (Only the Lonely).

And the supporting cast is top-notch: R. G. Armstrong plays the good rancher, Ed Asner is the corrupt one, Chris George is Asner’s unfailingly professional top gun, and Paul Fix is the doctor who won’t take a chance on extracting the Duke’s bullet. All this talent and experience sits well on a movie that jauntily celebrates professionalism and movingly defies age. (Hawks was 71 when it was released.) For me, everything here works –and even if something doesn’t quite hit the mark (like Mississippi’s gunmanship), I like it anyway.

By the way, the Remington-like oil paintings under the credits are by Olaf Wieghorst– who also pops up as an actor playing the Swedish gunsmith Larsen, and makes an allusion to Hawks admirer François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. The poem El Dorado that Jimmy Caan keeps reciting (Ride, boldly ride) is by another great American pro whom the French admired: Edgar Allan Poe.

Extras (an unusually good batch): Commentaries by Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel, Todd McCarthy and Ed Asner; documentary; interview with A. C. Lyles; vintage featurette, trailer.

18. Monsoon Wedding (Two discs) (Four Stars)
India; Mira Nair, 2002 (Criterion Collection)

Mira Nair’s joyous movie about a wedding in Dehli — constantly disrupted by family squabbles, sudden crises, covert romantic interludes, cultural clashes among the guests, dark buried secrets erupting to the surface and finally, a full-blown monsoon rainfall, not to mention a musical climax that outdoes Bollywood — is both her most popular film and her best. It’s her Rules of the Game, an ensemble masterpiece by a filmmaker whose work is often the epitome of cinema multiculturalism. In many ways, she seems to have been pointing toward this grand amalgam of comedy and tragedy in all her work, both fiction and documentary.

Nair, working with a script by her young Columbia film student, Sabrina Dhawan, wittily and lovingly penetrates the colorful, dense surface of a landmark two-family event. In an upper middle class household, a bride and groom, who have other loves and interests, are about to join together two families, one Bengali, one (like Nair herself) Punjabi, with long histories, seen and unseen. And, as they do, all jolly hell (and heaven) is about to break loose. The intoxicating result, Monsoon Wedding, is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s too-neglected classic A Wedding, of course, though it’s a happier, more buoyant film, and it also suggests Shakespearean comedy at its most Midsummer Night’s Dreamy.

Nair’s superb cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Shefali Shetty, Tillotamma Shone, Vasundhara Das and, as the irritating event planner, Vijay Raaz. The gorgeous, sparkling production design and cinematography are by Stephanie Carroll and Declan Quinn. The lilting, infectious music is by Mychael Danna. And probably only one filmmaker in the world could have drawn it all together, or so seamlessly managed this magnificent multicultural Indian jamboree: Mira Nair, whose work ranges from urban neorealist tragedy (Salaam Bombay) to poignant family drama (The Namesake) to romantic fantasy (Kama Sutra). All those threads merge here, in her greatest work. (in English and Bengali, with English subtitles.)

Also included in the package are three short documentaries by Nair — So Far from India (1982), India Cabaret (1985), and The Laughing Club of India (2000) –and four Nair fiction shorts: The Day the Mercedes Became a Hat (1993), 11’09”01 – September 11 (Segment: India) (2002), Migration 2001), and How Can It Be? (2008). All seven films have introductions by Nair.

Extras: Commentary by Nair; interviews with Shah, Quinn and Carroll; trailer; booklet with essay by Pico Iyer.

19. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (3 Discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.; David Hand, 1937 (Disney)

A fairytale movie perfect for children, and the grownups who accompany them, this is one of the landmark movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the first great animated feature (unless you count Lotte Reiniger’s marvelous 1926 silhouette film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed), blessed with still thoroughly charming and thrilling imagery and one of the finest of all cartoon song scores. (Leigh Harline’s set includes “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Heigh Ho” — and not many cartoon songs wind up getting a jazz prince Miles Davis to cover them). The voice actors include Adriana Caselotti as Snow White, Lucille LaVerne, Pinto Goofy Colvig and Billy Gilbert.

Walt Disney’s pride and joy, with both DVD and Blu-ray discs in one package. It never really ages — any more than Dopey, Sleepy, Bashful, Grumpy and Doc do.

Extras: Commentary by animator John Canemaker, music video, games, sing-along, original Disney storyboards, and featurettes.

20. (tie) Winged Migration (Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
France/Germany/Italy/Spain/Switzerland; Jacques Perrin & Jacques Cluzaud, 2001 (Sony)

One of the most beautiful and stunningly photographed of all wild life documentaries, this fascinating film follows flocks on the wing of migrating birds all over the world — not from the earth below, where we always see them, but at eye-level, wing-level, flying alongside them as they traverse countries and continents through the air on their regular seasonal migratory flights. Special cameras and devices were devised for the flight shoots; what they record is so amazing that, even without a conventional narrative thread, the experience of the film becomes hypnotic, exalting. Co-directed by Jacques Perrin, the producer of Microcosmos, and the young actor who played the intrepid reporter in Z, If you haven’t seen his Winged Migration, your life is poorer and more earthbound.

(tie) The Last Metro (Two discs) (Four Stars)
France; Francois Truffaut, 1980 (Criterion Collection)

Francois Truffaut’s highly popular and seductively expert star vehicle for Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu is set during the war years in Nazi-occupied France. As always, Truffaut finds something to be nostalgic about, something to celebrate, something to deplore — and something to remind him of the movies of his youth.

Deneuve, maddeningly beautiful as ever, plays Marion Steiner, the star and boss of a beleaguered theater troupe beset by political intrigues, war turmoil, and fascist critics (Jean-Louis Richard, who resembles a few editors I’ve had). Depardieu is her amorously persistent, magnetic costar; and Heinz Bennett plays Lucas Steiner, her husband and renowned playwright/director, whom she’s trying to smuggle out of the country. A big hit and major French prize-winner, this is Truffaut’s theatrical variant on his love poem to the cinema Day for Night — and it’s also his Casablanca. (Play it again, Catherine and Gerard.) It reveals again what a warm-hearted guy — and what a great filmmaker — he was. (In French with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentaries by Depardieu, Annette Insdorf, Serge Toubiana and others; deleted scene; TV and video interviews with Truffaut, Deneuve, Depardieu and Jean Poiret; Nestor Almendros; the 1958 short Une Histoire d’Eau, by Truffaut and his youthful movie-loving buddy Jean-Luc Godard; trailer; a booklet with an excellent essay by Armond White.


1. TCM Greatest Classics Film Collections: American Musicals, Best Picture Winners, Murder Mysteries, John Wayne Westerns (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1941-1972 (TCM/Warners)

I have a personal reason for placing these TCM/Warners collections first on my list this year. The TCM American Musicals set contains my mother Edna’s all-time favorite movie, “Singin’ in the Rain,” with her favorite movie star, Gene Kelly. We played Gene’s morning dance in the rain, which was Edna’s favorite number from the picture, at the end of her funeral — right after I said goodbye to her for the last time.

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Musicals (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various directors, 1944-53 (TCM/Warners)

Includes: Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) Four Stars. Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1948) Three and a Half Stars. Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, 1952) Four Stars. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953). Four Stars.

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Oscar Winners (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various directors, 1942-58 (TCM/Warners)

Includes: Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942) Three and a Half Stars. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) Four Stars. An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) Four Stars. Gigi ((Vincente Minnelli, 1958) Four Stars.

TCM Greatest Classics Films Collection: John Wayne Westerns (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various directors, 1948-1972 (TCM/Warners)

Included: Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948) Three and a Half Stars. The Searchers (Ford, 1956) Four Stars. Rio Bravo (Ford, 1959) Four Stars. The Cowboys (Mark Rydell, 1972) Three Stars.

TCM Greatest Classics Film Collection: Murder Mysteries (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1941-1954 (TCM/Warners)

Includes: The Maltese Falcon (U.S.; John Huston, 1941) Four Stars. The Big Sleep (U.S.; Howard Hawks, 1946) Four Stars. The Postman Always Rings Twice (U.S.; Tay Garnett, 1946) Three and a Half Stars. Dial M for Murder (U.S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) Three and a Half Stars.

2. AK100: 25 Films of Akira Kurosawa (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1943-93 (Criterion)

One of the finest DVD box sets ever assembled, even though, of course, most buffs will own most of the films it contains already. This magnificent collection gathers together 25 gems from Akira Kurosawa, the sensei (or master)– one of the three giants of the Japanese Cinema’s Golden Age (with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi) and the father of the modern action-adventure movie.

Beginning with ’50s-’60s masterpieces Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo, Kurosawa pioneered an explosive, ingenious style of multiple camera use and brilliantly cadenced rapid-fire editing that revolutionized action moviemaking, enormously influencing Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, which is an unabashed knockoff of Yojimbo), Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales), and many, many others.

But, if he had never shot an action scene, Kurosawa would still have been a great moviemaker. A master also of dark-hued drama, lusty comedy and poignant romance, he was a widely read and richly endowed artist whose major literary influences included the Russian novelists (he adapted both Dostoyevsky and Gorky) and Shakespeare’s plays. His transformations of Macbeth into Throne of Blood and King Lear into Ran are among the most celebrated and justly admired of all Shakespearean films.

Kurosawa has his cinematic peers. But he has no superiors, not even his idol Ford. This Criterion collection is expensive, and it contains few extras and only four films unavailable elsewhere. But as a rich compendium of an extraordinary, unparalleled career, it is, like Kurosawa himself, matchless. (All the films in AK100 are Japanese productions directed by Kurosawa, in Japanese, with English subtitles.)

Includes: Sanshiro Sugata (1943) Three Stars. The Most Beautiful (1944) Three Stars. Sanshiro Sugata: Part Two (1945) Three Stars. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tale (1945) Three and a Half Stars. No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) Three Stars. One Wonderful Sunday (1947) Three Stars. Drunken Angel (1948) Four Stars. Stray Dog (1949) Four Stars. Scandal (1950) Three and a half Stars.

Rashomon (1950) Four Stars. The Idiot (1951) Three and a Half Stars. Ikiru (1952) Four Stars. Seven Samurai (1954) Four Stars. I Live in Fear (1955) Three and a Half Stars. Throne of Blood (1957) Four Stars. The Lower Depths (1957) Three and a Half Stars. The Hidden Fortress (1958) Four Stars. The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Four Stars.

Yojimbo (1961) Four Stars. Sanjuro (1962) Four Stars. High and Low (1963) Four Stars. Red Beard (1965) Four Stars. Dodes’ka-den (1970) Four Stars. Kagemusha (1980) Four Stars. Madadayo (1993) Three and a Half Stars.

Cast members include: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka, Setsuko Hara, Masayuki Mori, Minoru Chiaki, Isuzu Yamada, Maxim Munzuk, Tatsuo Matsumura, Yoshikata Zushi, Kamatari Fujiwara, Ko Kimura.
Extras: Book The Warrior’s Camera: the Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.

3. Murnau (6 discs)
Kino Germany, U. S.;
F. W. Murnau, 192-Murnau (Four Stars)
Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1921 (Kino)

Here is a set that should be a cornerstone of any movie lover’s collection: six beautiful and often remarkable silent films by a great director too often neglected and ignored, F. W. Murnau.

Born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe in Bielefeld, Germany of mixed German-Swedish descent, Murnau (who adopted his last name from a city where he worked in theatre as a young man) was a genius of film — part of the great post-war German wave that also produced Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and G. W. Pabst. A student of art history and a protégé of theatrical legend Max Reinhardt, he had the best camera eye of all of them, and he helped bring the visual and dramatic treasures of great painting and theatre into the movies, creating works of high emotion, macabre moodiness and sometimes supernatural beauty. In Murnau’s matchless composition and design, we can see some of the dense, exact virtuosity of the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer and Breughel, whom he revered; and the major literature he adapted included classics by Goethe, Moliere and Bram Stoker.

Eventually, Murnau emigrated to Hollywood, where he created two American masterpieces, 1927’s Sunrise and 1931’s Tabu, before dying in 1931, at 42, at the peak of his powers, in a car accident.

This wonderful box set replaces an early Kino 5-film Murnau box that included the South Seas classic Tabu (Milestone’s release, and still available from them), but lacked Kino’s recently restored versions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh and the rediscovered The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke. (Sunrise is available in the excellent Murnau, Borzage and Fox set from 20th Century Fox, along with his flawed but interesting 1930 City Girl.) Kino’s new edition pays fitting tribute to a true master of cinema. (All the films are German silents directed by Murnau, with music scores and either English intertitles, or German intertitles with English subtitles.)

Includes: The Haunted Castle (Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1921) Three Stars. A gathering of aristocrats at a gloomy, rain-drenched chateau includes a sinister count (Lothar Mehnert), who may be his brother’s murderer — as well as the brother’s beautiful widow and a strange man of God. An earlier Murnau ghost story that pales next to Nosferatu, made the next year. But it still provides some eerie pleasures. Nosferatu (1922) Four Stars. One of the creepiest and most poetically sinister horror movies ever, Murnau’s uncredited (and court-challenged) adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is also one of the finest silent films. And it has one of the great horrific film monsters: Max Schreck as Count Orlok (Dracula) who looks (and acts) like a walking corpse, dry as dust and famished for blood. Murnau shot this classic on both palatial, cavernous sets and in the actual Carpathian mountains, and it’s the film signal achievement that it makes vampires seem real, German expressionism seem naturalistic, and death seem close, seductive.

The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924) Three Stars. This sunny, seaside, romantic comedy/farce pits a pleasure-loving Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke) against scheming bankers, crooks, a famous Swedish con man (Alfred Abel), a Russian princess (Mady Christians), and four crazy revolutionaries. A totally off type assignment for Murnau — it suggests Lubitsch at his airiest — which he acquits delightfully. The Last Laugh (1924) Four Stars An old, proud hotel porter (played magnificently by Emil Jannings), guides guests and luggage into Berlin’s swanky Atlantic Hotel, resplendent in a uniform that suggests a Transylvanian general. But one day, he is heartlessly robbed of his position — and his precious coat — and exiled to the lowly, humiliating job of washroom attendant. Distraught, he steals the uniform for one more appearance at a wedding –but the theft may be discovered, and the broken old man crucified by the cruel laughter of his neighbors. Brilliantly directed by Murnau, this great film has been considered a classic from its first release, when its innovative camerawork and powerful story stunned viewers worldwide. This is a restoration of the lesser seen (and superior) German release version.

Tartuffe (1925) Three and a Half Stars. All too short but lusciously and wittily done version, made with real taste and elegance, of the classic Moliere comedy about a religious hypocrite and con man (Jannings), his wealthy dupe (Werner Dr. Caligari Krauss) and the gull’s beauteous wife (Lil Dagover), who sees through Tartuffe. A real treat. Faust (1926) A Four Stars. This visually splendid version of Goethe’s classic play about the old scholar Faust (Gosta Ekman) who pursues youth and love, and finds destruction, with the aid of a lecherous, capering Mephistopheles (Jannings, at his ripest and hammiest), was an artistic high point for Murnau. His love of the great painters and great theatre find here a perfect synthesis. With, as the young lovers, Camilla Horn and the later prolific Hollywood director, William Dieterle.

Extras: Documentaries on Murnau, Nosferatu and The Last Laugh; commentary on The Finances of the Grand Duke by David Kalat; excerpts from eight Murnau films; orchestral accompaniments (including the original Giuseppe Becce score for The Last Laugh, rerecorded); screen test footage of Lubitsch’s abandoned 1923 film Marguerite and Faust; and photo and set design painting galleries.

4. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I (Four Stars)
U. S.; Various Directors, 1952-58 (Sony)

Film noir has become such an infallible movie buff brand name that we’ve been deluged with film noir box sets, some only dubiously noir and irredeemable second or third (or even fourth) rate. I don’t think you should straitjacket the genre into too many hard and fast definitions, but a film noir is not just any crime movie released some time between 1940 and 1962 (or even earlier). Nor does the genre begin with Double Indemnity and end with Touch of Evil.

This is one set though, like the Warner and Kino noir boxes, that you should definitely check out, and, if you’re a true noir buff, definitely own. Five vintage black and white Columbia noirs are packed tight together here, all good (or great), all in pristine looking prints, with good extras. (The noir experts contributing include Martin Scorsese, Eddie Muller, and James Ellroy — who gets demerits for some forced jokes and for dubbing himself The white knight of the far right.) The quintet of movies includes one inarguable top-rank classic (Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat), one inarguable minor classic (Don Siegel’s The Lineup with its fantastic San Francisco chase sequence) and three genuine sleepers, including The Sniper, Five Against the House and Irving Lerner’s ultra-low-budget existential hit man saga, Murder by Contract.

Includes: The Sniper (U.S.; Edward Dmytryk, 1952). Three Stars. A Frisco sniper (Arthur Franz) holds a city in terror. Dmytryk at his nourish Murder My Sweet-Crossfire best. With Adolphe Menjou as a tough cop. The Big Heat (U. S.; Fritz Lang, 1953). Four Stars. Fritz Lang’s great scorching revenge sage about the grim, bereaved ex-cop (Glenn Ford) on a one-man vendetta against the suave crime boss (Alexander Scourby) whose bomb killed the cop’s wife (Jocelyn Brando) — and his opposite number, Gloria Grahame as the moll who falls for Ford after her hood boyfriend, mob torpedo Vince (Lee Marvin at his absolute snarling meanest) scars her face with flung hot coffee, caffeine used as a lethal weapon. Five Against the House (U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1955). Three Stars. Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore and Kerwin Mathews are four college buddies and a knockout lounge singer who get tied up in robbing a Reno casino for kicks. A smooth, fast Karlson job and a good, if minor, heist thriller with stellar psycho-villainy from Keith.

The Lineup’ (U.S.; Don Siegel, 1958). Three and a Half Stars. A movie version of the hit TV cop show, starring Warner Anderson and Tom Tully as tough Dragnet-style Frisco cops; in the film, Emile Meyer replaces Tully. But Siegel and writer Stirling Silliphant ditch the fuzz early to concentrate instead on lots of Frisco scenery and three terrific crooks on a heroine-collecting kill spree: Richard Jaeckel as the baby-faced dipso wheelman, Robert Keith (Brian’s dad) as the aesthete/manager who collects victim’s last words, and Eli Wallach, a wow as Dancer, the psychopath killer. Terrifically well directed; the final car pursuit and gun-down is the cream of the black-and-white pre-Bullitt-French Connection chases. Murder by Contract (U.S.; Irving Lerner, 1958). Three and a Half Stars. Made for peanuts, this low budget L. A. crime odyssey is almost as good an example as Ulmer’s Detour of noir economy of means. Vince Edwards is the finicky assassin who keeps blowing his shots to kill a mob witness; Herschel Bernardi (the cop on Blake Edwards’ TV Peter Gunn) is his adoring guide. As Scorsese says in his intro, this is a low-budget thriller with Antonioni touches.

Extras: Commentaries by Eddie Muller (The Sniper) and Muller and James Ellroy (The Lineup); Talks by Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Michael Mann.

5. Harry Potter Years 1-6 (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.-U.K.; Various Directors, 2001-2009 (Warner)

The Harry Potter series started a little overblown and saccharine, and then, as Harry and his buddies and Hogwort classmates aged and learned more wizardry and witchery, it got progressively darker and more visually and dramatically ambitious. Now, it’s practically an adult art film series, as much as a gathering place for literate, fantasy-loving kids. This six film set charts the young wizard’s progress, in one of the producing and publishing phenomenons of our time. Unlike many box-office monoliths, it’s worth a look. (All films are U.S.-U.K. productions)

Includes: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001) Two and a Half Stars. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002) Two and a Half Stars. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004). Three and a Half Stars. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005). Three and a Half Stars. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007). Three Stars.

Composite Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, John Hurt, John Cleese, Fiona Shaw, Kenneth Branagh, Warwick Davis, Julie Walters, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Julie Christie, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Brendan Gleeson, Shirley Henderson, Helena Bonham Carter, Imelda Staunton. Richard Griffiths.

Extras: Documentaries, Featurettes.

6. The Samuel Fuller Collection (Four Stars)
U.S.; Sam Fuller & Others, 1937-1961 (Columbia)

Sam Fuller, justly and auteurishly celebrated in this invaluable little anthology of all his Columbia studio writer and directorial credits, was quite a guy. He was not only a master of the crime thriller, film noir, war movie, Western and newspaper drama, and a King of the B’s (and A’s as well) in the Cahier du Cinema-fueled heyday of the Hollywood auteur.

He was a genuine character: a cigar-chewing, straight-shooting, cheerfully cynical ex-newsman and WW2 vet. He was schooled in combat in the famous First Division, the subject of his 1980 WW2 masterpiece (still unrestored) The Big Red One. And he was an absolutely ace craftsman, a natural storyteller, and a subversive maverick who could easily hop both sides of any fence, explode movie clichés from the inside, and compel your attention with the fervid eloquence of a carny hustler and the street smarts of a wised-up cop. Fuller’s writer-directorial style, packed with salty dialogue, full-blooded acting, elegant long takes, brutal shock cuts, and canny eruptions of violence and sexuality, was a film technique vigorous, riveting, full-throttle, sometimes ferocious — and unmistakably his own.

This box set contains five movies to which Fuller contributed the original story, the novel source, or on which he wrote or co-wrote the script (Shockproof and It Happened in Hollywood), plus two raw, straight-up, Fuller-to-the-bone classics, in which he directed his own screenplay (the cop thriller and interracial romance The Crimson Kimono and the ultra-hard-boiled gangster saga Underworld, U. S. A.). Two of the better movies here join Sam with two other American directorial auteurs and film noir masters, the elegant Douglas Sirk (Shockproof) and hard-hitting Phil Karlson (Scandal Sheet).

Sam was a great storyteller, a great reporter and a soldier who never quit — and all of those qualities simmer and shine through his best movies. This set, is a fitting tribute for a tough-guy genius. Wherever he is, we hope the presses are running, the scripts are tight, the studio execs are out of his hair, and the cigars are scrumptious. Go get ’em, Sam.

Includes: It Happened in Hollywood (U.S.; Harry Lachman, 1937). Three Stars. Adventure in Sahara (U.S.; D. Ross Lederman, 1938). Two and a Half Stars. Power of the Press (U.S.; Lew Landers, 1943) Two and a Half Stars.

Shockproof (U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1949). Three and a Half Stars. Cornel Wilde is a straight-arrow L. A. parole officer crazy about his knockout parolee (Patricia Knight); eventually, they’re forced into love-on-the-run. Co-writer Fuller and director Sirk may seem an odd couple. But, despite an outlandish happy ending (Shockproof’s last scene should have been cut), this is a high-grade ’40s noir.

Scandal Sheet (U.S.; Phil Karlson, 1952). Three and a Half Stars. Broderick Crawford is a high-powered big city tabloid editor hiding his past, who accidentally kills his ex-wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and then has to put his star crime reporter (John Derek) on the story, assisted by smart sob sister Donna Reed. Another high-grade (’50s this time) noir with a Big Clock twist and another questionable but happily unsentimental ending. The Crimson Kimono (U.S.; Sam Fuller, 1959). Two best-buddy Korean War vet L. A. cops (Caucasian Glenn Corbett and Japanese-American James Shigeta), fall out when both fall for a sexy artist (Victoria Shaw), who’s involved in their homicide case: the murder of a striptease dancer. This black and white wide screen noir is very characteristic Fuller. With Anna Lee, off-type as a salty-tongued drunken painter, and lots of L. A. Little Tokyo street color.

Underworld, U. S. A. (U.S.; Fuller, 1961). Four Stars. Cliff Robertson is Tolly Devlin, a cynical safecracker, who’s out to kill the four criminals whom, as a kid, he saw beating and murdering his dad, three of whom later rose to the top of the crime syndicate. This Count of Monte Cristo-like crime drama is Fuller in his prime, at his best and smartest and roughest. It’s as noir as Pickup on South Street, as tough as The Steel Helmet, as shocking as The Big Red One, as crazy as Shock Corridor.

Extras: Presentations by Tim Robbins, Curtis Hanson (on The Crimson Kimono) and Martin Scorsese (on Underworld, U. S. A.); Documentary Samuel Fuller, Storyteller, containing interviews with Scorsese, Hanson, Robbins, Wim Wenders, and Christa and Sam Fuller

7. Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three: William Wellman (Three and a Half Stars)
U. S.; William Wellman, 1931-33 (Warner Bros./TCM Archives)

William Wellman was a raging bull of a maverick moviemaker, a two-fisted guy who liked to cry, and who loved airplanes, dancers, battling authority and making movies — and one of the most interesting segments of his career is the one we see here. These are his films from the pre-Code era, when he was churning out (mostly for Warner Brothers), fast racy movies that tended to show life as it is — adultery, prostitution, gangsterism, bootlegging, Depression and social unrest — without the filters of Hollywood’s later era of censorship.

This was the period when Wellman made the Jimmy Cagney gangster classic Public Enemy. It’s not included here, but you can tell these six films are from the same unbuttoned and daring studio era. The TCM set contains lots of nifty extras, including two good documentaries on Wellman, and one masterpiece, Wellman’s great rough-house saga of kids on trains in the Depression, Wild Boys of the Road, starring Frankie Darro and Wellman’s wife (and ex-Busby Berkeley dancer) Dorothy Coonan. Boys is the peak movie here, but the other five all have strong moments, vital imagery and audacious themes and stories. Right on, Wild Bill! All fiction features directed by William Wellman.

Includes: Other Men’s Women (William Wellman, 1931). (Three Stars) Surprisingly strong triangle tale set in the world of trains and engineers, with Grant Withers, Mary Astor and Regis Toomey. (Cagney, in his pre-star days, has a supporting role; had he played the lead, this might have been a Warners classic. The Purchase Price (1932). (Two and a Half Stars). Somewhat reminiscent of Murnau’s City Girl, this peculiar romance has torrid Barbara Stanwyck as a tough city chantoozie on the lam, seeking refuge with stalwart Midwestern farmer George Brent. Outrageous but fun.

Frisco Jenny (1933). (Two and a Half Stars) Madame X-style soap opera, with elegant sufferer Ruth Chatterton as the rich Frisco madame, who watches her illegitimate son (Donald Cook) rise to success and (unfortunately for her ) moral idealism. Midnight Mary (1933). (Three Stars) The incredibly gorgeous young Loretta Young (who was as photogenic as Garbo or Dietrich) plays a tough beauty from the streets who becomes the moll of a brutal gangster (Ricardo Cortez) and the lovelight of a kind rich boy (Franchot Tone). Crazy clichéd stuff, but it really works. A sleeper. Heroes for Sale (1933) (Three Stars). One of the looniest political message movies ever, with self-sacrificing WWI vet Richard Barthelmess, traveling through a pageant of Depression adventures and tragedies (including a labor riot exploding around poor Loretta Young). There’s even a Communist inventor. All of it teaches us something about the New Deal and other political new waves.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) (Four Stars) Back in the 1960s, campus radicals, anti-war protestors and other rebels were crazy about this movie. And it still holds up both as blistering melodrama and as powerful populist moviemaking. In the depths of the Depression, two buddies (Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips) hit the road to help their strapped parents. On the way from the Midwest to New York City, they pick up a girl hobo (Dorothy Coonan), and endure hardship, starvation, train rape (by guard Ward Bond) and riots. One of Wellman’s very best, along with Wings Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Story of G. I. Joe. You’ll be amazed at how this movie gets to you.

Extras: Documentaries Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (D: Todd Robinson) (Three Stars) and The Men Who Made the Movies (Richard Schickel) Three Stars (B); commentaries; three S. S. Van Dine murder mystery shorts; cartoons, trailers.

8. The Golden Age of Television (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1953-1958 (Criterion)

The Golden Age of Television is a title that usually refers to the remarkable period of live TV drama which ran from the late ’40s through the early ’60s, with a heyday that really started around 1953 — the year when writer Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, debuted to thunderous acclaim on The Goodyear Television Playhouse. (Among the other signature shows: Studio One, Philco Playhouse, The U. S. Steel Hour, Kraft Television Theater, and, the best of them, Playhouse 90.)

It was a period of extraordinary achievement by often young and stellar new actors (Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, Jack Lemmon, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, James Dean and many others), by skilled directors quickly mastering an entirely new medium (notably Sidney Lumet, Franklin Schaffner, Robert Mulligan, Dan Petrie, Ralph Nelson, Delbert Mann and the Young Turk star of the group, John Frankenheimer), and especially by a whole slew of sometimes brilliant and daring young writers, able (perhaps because they were answering in these cases only to a sponsor or two rather than a whole entrenched network corporation) to demonstrate a literary and dramatic ambition, a sense of real life humanity, and an active social conscience, that often surpassed the serious movies of that time, the then-active black list period (among the star wordsmiths, Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, James Costigan, and JP Miller).

But it was also a period lost to us for decades, since its only remnants and records were on often mediocre-quality and fading old kinescopes: copies of the original programs photographed right off of TV monitors, during the original broadcasts.

This excellent new Criterion set offers eight Golden Age dramas, restored from the original kinescopes, as they were re-broadcast for the 1981 TV anthology series The Golden Age of Television, with the original 1981 introductions and interviews.

These live dramas had an excitement and immediacy that can’t really be matched in most filmed TV dramas today. Despite their minimal sets and seemingly bare-bones black-and-white visual technique (which still required considerable technique by the technicians and real virtuosity from the actors and directors), the best of these shows can still sear themselves into your memory. They were also laboratories and showcases for some tremendous writing and some extraordinary acting. (The original Marty is better-acted than the movie, especially by Steiger.)

Includes: Marty ( Delbert Mann, 1953). Four Stars. Written by Paddy Chayefsky. The famous tale of a lonely Italian-American butcher and how he finds unlikely love at a dance hall, while ignoring his Mickey Spillane-loving chums. Brilliant dialogue by Chayefsky and acting by Steiger as Marty, Esther Minciotti as his mother, Joe Mantell, Nehemiah Persoff and others as his buddies, and Nancy Marchand as Marty’s equally lonely opposite number.

Patterns (Fielder Cook, 1955). Three and a Half Stars. Written by Rod Serling. Richard Kiley is Fred Staples, a young executive who undergoes a horrendous baptism by fire: hired to replace Andy Sloane, a good, decent, veteran industrial relations exec (Ed Begley) by Ramsie, the ruthless, cold-blooded company head (Everett Sloane), who is trying to drive the vet to despair and retirement. I’ve seen corporate sadism like this; it’s not exaggerated. Patterns is another legendary show, wired up tight as a ticking bomb in this live version.

No Time for Sergeants (Alex Segal, 1955). Three Stars. Written by Ira Levin, from Mac Hyman’s novel. Andy Griffith in the role that made him a star: as the ever-grinning, heavy-drawling, amiable snafu specialist Will Stockdale, who makes a cornpone-and-grits mess of the Army. With Robert Emhardt. A Wind from the South (Daniel Petrie, 1955). Three Stars. Written by James Costigan. The best TV actress of the whole Golden Age, Julie Harris, luminously plays Irish working woman Shevawn ( a role written for Siobhan McKenna), looking for romance. With Donald Woods, who says he fell in love with Harris here. You will too.

Bang the Drum Slowly (Daniel Petrie, 1956). Three and a Half Stars. Writer Arnold Schulman adapts Mark Harris’ novel, about the pathos of fading careers and mortality in baseball. And Paul Newman, in his breakthrough movie year of Somebody Up There Likes Me, plays a similar athlete-author role here: 20-game-winning pitcher and writer Henry Wiggen, who, despite upper-office and managerial cruelty, tries to make the last season of his slow-witted, dying catcher-roommate, Bruce Pearson (Albert Salmi), a happy one. With Rudy Bond and George Peppard. In the 1973 movie version, scripted by Harris, Michael Moriarity and Robert De Niro played the Newman and Salmi roles.

Requiem for a Heavyweight (Ralph Nelson, 1956). Four Stars. Written by Serling. Jack Palance plays battered vet heavyweight boxer Mountain McClintock, an aging vet who, like Serling’s earlier Andy Sloane, is being pushed out and humiliated, this time by his own scheming manager, Maish (Keenan Wynn). Kim Hunter and Ed Wynn (Keenan’s dad) are Grace and Army, Mountain’s compassionate social worker and trainer. This is quintessential Serling, the best-regarded TV drama of his pre-Twilight Zone years. The movie, which was also directed by Nelson (who gets my vote as the most underrated of the Golden Age helmsmen), starred Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Julie Harris, and Mickey Rooney in the four main roles. (In addition, a fascinating drama about the backstage turbulence behind Requiem, later ran on Desilu Playhouse, called The Man in the Funny Suit, written and directed by Nelson and costarring, as themselves, Ed and Keenan Wynn, Red Skelton, Serling and Nelson.)

The Comedian (John Frankenheimer, 1957). Four Stars. Written by Serling, from a story by Lehman. With Marty, this is the best show in this entire set: a no-holds-barred portrait of a vicious, egomaniacal TV comedian, roughly based on Milton Berle, and of the self-centered comic’s fast-paced, cynical, spinning-like-a-top show biz world. Mickey Rooney brilliantly plays Sammy Hogarth, the venomous comedian; Hunter and Edmond O’Brien are Sammy’s long-suffering wife and alienated head writer, and jazz singer Mel Torme is Sammy’s gentler, kinder brother. Besides offering an amazing gallery of live TV acting — by the incandescent and indefatigable Rooney, but by the others as well — The Comedian is also an incredible feat of live-camera directorial technique by Frankenheimer. His nonstop control of the piece is awesome.

Days of Wine and Roses (John Frankenheimer, 1958). Four Stars. Written by JP Miller. As we watch, a beautiful young couple descends into alcoholism, lovingly, darkly, painfully, screamingly. The movie version of Miller’s story, costarring Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick and Charles Bickford (as Remick’s father) is extraordinary and moving. But so is this original TV version, costarring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie and Bickford, and directed by Frankenheimer — who would later himself fall into, and escape from, alcoholism.

Extras: Commentaries by Frankenheimer, Mann, Nelson and Petrie; interviews with Griffith, Harris, Rooney, Steiger, Hunter, Kiley, Robertson, Laurie and others; booklet with essay and liner notes by Ron Simon.

9. Rossellini’s History Films (Renaissance and Enlightenment) (Four stars)
France/Italy; Roberto Rossellini, 1972-74 (Criterion)

A real revelation. Rossellini spent the last decade and a half of his life shooting historical dramas for European television, and though they’ve been mostly ignored, these three beautifully restored films — and Tag Gallagher’s admirable defense of them in the notes — prove that they’re a crucial part of Rossellini’s filmography.

Indeed, the austere, moving Blaise Pascal, about the thinking reed Catholic philosopher and Pensees author Pascal (played superbly by one of Resnais’ later stock company, the warily sensitive Pierre Arditi ) and the magnificent three-part, five hour epic The Age of the Medici, whose subject is Cosimo the banker/art-collector instead of the usual, more famous, scheming, sexier Lorenzo — strike me as neglected masterpieces. Only slightly behind them is Cartesius, a bio-film on the more obnoxious Rene Descartes, whose I think, therefore I am becomes the film’s equivalent of Dirty Harry’s non-Descartean signature line Go ahead; make my day.

Don’t expect the super-charged, super-theatrical period filmmaking of a Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) or a Sergei Bondarchuk (War and Peace) though — or even the more sober, and proudly literate historical recreations of the average ’70s PBS drama in the era of I, Claudius. (The Age of the Medici, astonishingly, was turned down by American public television, though Rossellini had deliberately geared the film toward a U. S. sale by shooting it in English.) These are truly thoughtful dramas about truly thoughtful heroes.

Included: The Age of the Medici (Italy/France; Rossellini, 1972) Four Stars. With Marcello Di Falco as Cosimo de Medici and Virginio Gazzolo as Leon Battista Alberti. In English or in Italian, with English subtitles. Blaise Pascal (Italy/France; Rossellini, 1972) Four Stars. With Pierre Arditi as Pascal. In French or Italian, with English subtitles. Cartesius (Italy/France; Rossellini, 1974) Three and a Half Stars. With Ugo Cardea as Rene Descartes. In Italian, with English subtitles.

10. (Tie) Pig, Pimps and Battleships: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (Three discs)
Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1961-4 (Criterion)

Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura is an absolute master at psychology, and showing the dark side of Japanese life and society, the danger zone of sexuality and evil we often see or glimpse in Kurosawa, but rarely in Ozu or Mizoguchi.

The ’60s films in this excellent set are rightly regarded as Imamura’s first masterpieces, and their subjects and themes are as candid, lacerating and as unsparing as they came in that era: crime and corruption in a postwar port city in the great dark comedy Pigs and Battleships, and the abuse and mistreatment of Japanese women in the classics The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder. All films are Japanese productions, in Japanese, with English subtitles.

Included: Pigs and Battleships, (Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1961) Four Stars. The Insect Woman (Imamura, 1963) Four Stars. Intentions of Murder (Imamura, 1964). Extras: Interviews with Imamura and critic Tony Rayns, documentary, booklets with essays by Rayns, James Quandt and Audie Bock.

(Tie) The Andrzej Munk Trilogy (Four Stars)
Poland; Andrzej Munk, 1957— (PolArt/Facets)

Andrzej Munk may be the greatest Eastern European filmmaker most of us have barely heard of. He never had even an arthouse American hit. And he died at 40, after making only five films. The best of them is here: the 1957 classic Eroica, the great dark comedy about the nature of heroism in the Polish anti-Nazi resistance and in the Nazi war camps. Also here are two lesser known but deeply absorbing and engaging works, the 1957 noir train mystery Man on the Tracks, and the surprisingly bubbly 1960 satire on ’50s Polish Communist rule, Bad Luck. (In Polish, with English subtitles.)

Includes: Eroica (Poland; Andrzej Munk, 1957) Four Stars. Man on the Tracks

– Michael Wilmington
December 29, 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