Blu-Ray may be on the rise, but those DVDs on your shelf still have plenty of life left. Here are the best discs I watched in 2008 — consider them all highly recommended for rental or purchase.
Blu-Ray may be on the rise, but those DVDs on your shelf still have plenty of life left. Here are the best discs I watched in 2008 — consider them all highly recommended for rental or purchase:
The sixth volume of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes collections was the best yet, with an amazing disc devoted to the studio’s smart, snappy World War II cartoons (See Bugs Bunny battle Herman Goering! See gremlins torment Hitler himself!) and another collecting even older shorts from the black-and-white era. The beautiful condition of these ‘toons is amazing, but even more amazing is the fact that they’re still funny.
Runner-up: The second “Forbidden Hollywood” set was a big improvement on the first, with more movies (including the still-shocking “Night Nurse”) and an excellent documentary examining the rise and fall of Pre-Code Hollywood.
It was a good year for bad people, with the DVD release of several crime classics — and one new masterpiece. That new movie was “Zodiac,” director David Fincher’s methodical look at the investigation of the a San Francisco serial killer. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and (most of all) Fincher’s brilliant filmmaking, it didn’t earn a single Oscar nomination but did earn the top spot on my 2007 list. After a bare-bones release that year, it finally got the discs it deserved in 2008 — an extended cut of the movie, multiple commentary tracks and extensive features on the actual case.
Runners-up: “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Cool Hand Luke” were re-released in deluxe form by Warner Bros., and that studio delivered two more boxes in its Gangster series. Vol. 4 was so-so, but Vol. 3 held plenty of treasures, including the only movie to team Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney (“Smart Money”) and Humphrey Bogart joining Hollywood’s version of the Klan (“Black Legion”). Criterion came through with two black-and-white gems: Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant crime drama “High and Low” and Allen Baron’s low-budget tale of a hitman, “Blast of Silence.”
“Be Kind Rewind” completely snuck up on me. I expected this VHS-age fable about two slackers (Jack Black and Mos Def) who tape their own versions of Hollywood films to be funny, but the emotional impact of the ending took me by surprise. By the time it’s over, this low-budget comedy from writer-director Michel Gondry becomes a touching tribute to creation, community spirit and yes, the glories of good ol’ videotape. Be sure to watch the bonus feature devoted to the Passaic, N.J., neighborhood where the film was shot.
Runner-up: “Risky Business” isn’t just another teen sex comedy. In fact, at the ripe old age of 25, it looks sharper and smarter than ever. And it’s arguably Tom Cruise’s best performance.
Philippe Petit is my new hero. After watching him walk between the Twin Towers — and seeing the insane effort it took to set up that stunt -- I’m in awe of someone who did something amazing not for money or fame, but just because it was amazing. James Marsh’s 2008 documentary about Petit’s feat, “Man on Wire,” is pretty amazing, too.
Runner-up: Kent Jones’ “Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows” (produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese) is a sensitive, surprising look at the legendary low-budget producer behind “Cat People” and other spooky classics.
“The Dark Knight” was great, “Iron Man” was fun and “Hellboy II” was wonderfully weird, but the comic book movie that impressed me the most was “Confessions of a Super-Hero,” a beautifully shot documentary about four people who dress up in costume on the streets of Hollywood and pose for pictures. Funny, sad and deeply strange.
Runner-up: “The Dark Knight” — a so-so DVD, but a truly great movie that rewards repeated viewings.
Forget the overrated “Cloverfield." “The Mist” was the best monster movie in ages, pitting alien monsters outside a supermarket against the human monsters lurking inside. A bonus feature on the DVD allowed you to watch it as director Frank Darabont originally intended — in glorious black and white.
Runner-up: “The Strangers” was the year’s scariest movie, a tense tale of two people confronted at home by masked killers. The DVD lets you watch it in the comfort of your own home, which, of course, is even scarier.
This was a big year for the small screen. Several complete runs of great shows arrived on disc, making it seem like cancellation never happened. My personal favorite was “TV Funhouse,” a twisted take on children’s shows that was definitely not for the kiddies. Robert Smigel and company built a tiny but devoted fan following with animal puppets that actually acted like animals, but I never thought it would get a DVD release. It’s nice to be surprised.
Runners-up: HBO’s “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Deadwood” were collected in expensive sets, and AMC’s excellent “Mad Men” arrived in a box that looked like a Zippo lighter. You could also buy bare-bones versions of “Sanford and Son,” “News Radio” and the forgotten cop show “M Squad” that looked just fine on your shelf — or on your set. And speaking of HBO, the sixth season of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” arrived on DVD and might have been the best season yet. For a show of “Curb’s” quality, that’s saying something.
Some DVDs just don’t fit into any single category, like Criterion’s “Brand Upon the Brain,” the latest movie from Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin. Replaying his childhood as a nightmarish mystery set in an isolated lighthouse, Maddin uses silent film techniques to fuel his own modern movie revolution. I’ve been a fan of his for years, and this disc — with the option to choose from several narrators — captures him at his best.
Runners-up: “Mister Freedom,” a wild 1969 political satire, finally arrived on DVD in “The Delirious Fictions of William Klein,” a three-movie set from Criterion’s Eclipse label. Violent, obnoxious and smartly subversive, “Freedom” focused on a lunkheaded superhero way too dedicated to the American way. It wasn’t subtle, but this colorful, crazy film was a wild ride. (The other two movies in the set weren’t bad, either.) And Synapse Films continued its excavation of vintage exploitation cinema with two more volumes of “42nd Street Forever,” fascinating and fun collections of twisted movie trailers.
Contact Will Pfeifer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-987-1244. Read his Movie Man blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman/. See video reviews by the Movie Man at rrstar.com/multimedia.