How exactly should one determine the best DVD releases of any given year? Should it be based strictly on the quality of the movie, regardless of whether the extra features are excellent or anemic? Or should a tantalizing selection of bonus material be taken into the final grade, even if the featured film falls a bit short of cinematic bliss?
Hell if I know. What I do know is that of the approximately 200 DVDs I reviewed over the course of 2007, the following list of 30 titles -- containing both individual films and box sets -- are the ones that I will particularly enjoy revisiting again and again. Some contain lavish bonus features as entertaining as the movie itself, while others let the film do all the talking.
Bicycle Thieves (1948); Criterion. More commonly known in the United States as The Bicycle Thief, this is a masterpiece under any name; on my own list, only Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and possibly Akira Kurosawa's Ran rank higher when it comes to foreign-language films. A key motion picture in the burgeoning of the Italian neorealist movement, this landmark of world cinema by director Vittorio De Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini relates the harrowing circumstances that transpire when a laborer (Lamberto Maggiorani) who depends on his bike for his work (putting up posters around Rome) embarks on a frustrating search after said vehicle gets stolen. The finale is perhaps the most devastating I've ever witnessed on film.
Extras in the two-disc set include a feature on the history of Italian neorealism and an 80-page booklet.
Blade Runner (1982); Warner. Released in the infancy of the DVD age in a bare-bones edition, Ridley Scott's influential sci-fi masterpiece -- in which noirish cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) hunts androids in 2019 Los Angeles -- has long cried out for a maximum-effort DVD treatment. So it's not mere hyperbole stating that this might have been the major DVD event of 2007 (though the Stanley Kubrick Collection gives it a run for its money). But assuming you can't afford the four-disc or five-disc sets, the two-disc version isn't exactly shabby. After releasing the film in numerous incarnations over the decades (including the original theatrical version and the 1992 Director's Cut), Warner Bros. and Scott offer The Final Cut, which contains some never-before-seen footage and improved special effects.
Extras include the feature-length documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005); Universal. Before Judd Apatow crafted the summer hits Knocked Up and Superbad, he made what remains the best of the bunch, largely because it mixes honest sentiment and bawdy humor better than just about any other comparable modern comedy. Steve Carell is delightful as Andy, the man-child who belatedly makes an attempt to establish a grown-up relationship; Catherine Keener brings plenty of heart to her role as Andy's potential girlfriend; and Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Romany Malco are flat-out hilarious as the co-workers who make it their mission in life to hook Andy up.
Extras in the 2-Disc Double Your Pleasure Edition include deleted and extended scenes and cast auditions.
Green for Danger (1946); Criterion. Here's a four-star motion picture that managed to elude me until this year. A shining example of '40s British cinema at its most sterling, this gem centers on a murder that occurs at a remote English hospital during the days of World War II. Near-perfect as a mystery, the joy factor is elevated even more with the arrival of Alastair Sim, whose marvelous work as the bumbling yet shrewd Inspector Cockrill predates Peter Falk's similarly inspired work as Columbo. Fans of classic movies dare not skip this one.
Extras include audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder.
Pan's Labyrinth (2006); New Line. Not one for the kiddies, Pan's Labyrinth plays as if Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro had uncovered the darker aspects of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland and incorporated them into his own fractured fairy tale. Hoping to steer clear of her stepdad (Sergi Lopez), a brutal Fascist officer in Franco's army (the film is set in 1944 Spain), young Ofelia (Ivana Banquero) stumbles onto a magical world that turns out to be a manifestation of the fears and pains that define one's daily existence. This is full of wondrous and disturbing imagery, and The Pale Man ranks as one of the best monsters in recent cinema.
Extras in the two-disc Platinum Series edition include audio commentary by del Toro and a look at his original notes and sketches.
Re-Animator (1985); Anchor Bay. It's no match for The Evil Dead, but as far as tongue-in-bloody-cheek gorefests go, this update of the H.P. Lovecraft tale isn't bad at all. Jeffrey Combs is very funny as Herbert West, a young medical student who discovers a way to revivify humans, while David Gale (as a venal professor lusting after both West's invention and a pretty coed played by Barbara Crampton) figures in the movie's most notorious sequence, which gave a lurid new twist to the expression "giving head."
Extras in the two-disc set include the 70-minute documentary Re-Animator Resurrectus and a green highlighter pen made to look like the serum-filled needle used throughout the picture.
RoboCop (1987); Fox/MGM. A modern classic of sci-fi cinema, this excessively violent yet also refreshingly satirical movie, set in futuristic Detroit, casts Peter Weller as the once human cop who, after being gunned down by criminals, is now mostly machine. With memories of his past life still percolating beneath the surface, he sets out after the creeps who gunned him down. Director Paul Verhoeven offers an old-fashioned revenge flick with high-tech trimmings, and the film's comic riffs on our future world seem less absurd with each passing year.
Extras in the two-disc 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition include four deleted scenes and an entertaining piece on the movie's superb villains (played by Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer and Ronny Cox).
The Sergio Leone Anthology (1964-1972); Fox/MGM. The three films in Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name" trilogy, which created the "spaghetti Western" and made Clint Eastwood a superstar, were already available on DVD, but it's nice to finally have the trio -- 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, 1965's For a Few Dollars More and 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- packaged in one elaborate box set. Plus, the anthology includes the DVD debut of 1972's Duck, You Sucker (starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger), making this a nice addition to the library of Leone completists.
Extras in the eight-disc set include pieces on Leone and composer Ennio Morricone (whose scores for these films are incredible) and interviews with Eastwood.
Stanley Kubrick Collection (1968-1999); Warner. There's no arguing Stanley Kubrick's standing as one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and here we (finally!) have a collection that brings together most of the titles from the final chapters of his career (with four making their debuts as widescreen -- as opposed to pan-and-scan -- DVDs). The acknowledged masterpiece is 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, though even that one has its detractors. Ranking the rest of the controversial flicks included here, I prefer 1987's Full Metal Jacket and 1999's Eyes Wide Shut (both grotesquely underrated) over 1971's A Clockwork Orange and 1980's The Shining, though clearly there isn't a dud in the bunch.
Extras include audio commentaries and documentaries. The Eyes Wide Shut set includes both the R-rated U.S. version and the unrated international cut. And there's also a bonus disc containing the 2-1/2-hour documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.
The Third Man (1949); Criterion. This British classic from director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, in which hack American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) searches for his shady friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in post-WWII Vienna, is notable for many achievements: Lime's first appearance, rightly regarded as one of cinema's greatest entrances (needless to say, clueless fanboys participating in a recent IMDb poll placed it far below Johnny Depp's Pirates of the Caribbean entrance; sigh ...); Anton Karas' excellent zither score; and Harry's "cuckoo clock" speech. Bonus points for including one of my all-time fave quips (directed at Holly): "You were born to be murdered."
Extras in the two-disc set include a 90-minute making-of documentary and a look at the original U.K. press book.
The Rest Of The Best:
Back to School: Extracurricular Edition (1986); Fox/MGM.
Bram Stoker's Dracula: Collector's Edition (1992); Columbia.
Casino Royale (2006); Columbia/MGM.
Children of Men (2006); Universal.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition (1977); Columbia.
The Coen Brothers Movie Collection (1985-1996); Columbia/MGM.
Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 (1946-1955); Warner.
The Graduate: 40th Anniversary Edition (1967); Fox/MGM.
The Guns of Navarone: Collector's Edition (1961); Columbia.
Hairspray: Shake & Shimmy Edition (2007); New Line.
Labyrinth (1986); Sony.
Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist (1925-1942); Criterion.
Rio Bravo: Special Edition (1959); Warner.
Shakespeare Collection (1935-1996); Warner.
Shortbus (2006); THINKFilm.
Taxi Driver: Collector's Edition (1976); Columbia.
Twelve O'Clock High: Cinema Classics Collection (1949); Fox.
Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition (1990-1991); Paramount.
Vincent Price: MGM Scream Legends Collection (1962-1974); Fox/MGM.
Yojimbo (1961) & Sanjuro (1962) two-pack; Criterion.
NEXT WEEK: The best and worst movies of 2007.