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Best DVDs of 2002
by Chris Hughes

The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring: Special Extended Edition

In the short history of DVD a handful of special editions have risen to a level of excellence so lofty as to practically create a category of their own. Examples of this thoroughbred class include Pixar's Ultimate Toy Box, Criterion's Brazil and Artisan's Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

In 2002, New Line trumped them all and released what may well be the crowning DVD achievement to date: The Fellowship of the Ring: Special Extended Edition. This mammoth four-disc set is overflowing with engaging content that takes the viewer directly to the heart of Peter Jackson's fantasy epic. Every aspect of the creative process is examined in detail through interviews, photographs, paintings, behind-the-scenes footage and no less than four audio commentary tracks. If that sounds like overkill, think again. There isn't an ounce of fat on this amazing set. Each and every piece of documentary content provides valuable insight that leads to a deeper appreciation of the craft of big-budget movie making.

Of course the real highlight of the release is the extended cut of the film. This unique version of Fellowship of the Ring adds about a half-hour of footage to the theatrical cut. Various extended, re-cut and freshly added scenes serve to open up the landscape, flesh out the main characters and bring the narrative closer to Tolkien's original. The digital transfer to disc is reference quality and the finely crafted audio tracks are arguably the best available on the format. Add gorgeous, thoughtful packaging and you have a DVD that deserves a spot on every collector's shelf.


Mr. Show - The Complete First and Second Seasons

In certain circles the most anticipated release of 2002 was the cult sketch comedy program Mr. Show. Created by the writing/stand-up/improv team of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the first two seasons of Mr. Show (10 episodes) aired in 1995 and 1996. Like an edgy update of Monty Python's Flying Circus, each half-hour installment of Mr. Show is a stream-of-consciousness collection of sketches, linking devices and improbable characters that defy easy definition. Bob and David assault every topic under the sun from politics (Senator Tankerbell and the inherent perils of federal arts funding), corporate America (GloboChem presents the pansexual spokescreature Pit-Pat) and Paul Allen (Work is Play!), to rock and roll (Titanica’s “Try Suicide”) and Cops (fan favorite Ronnie Dobbs).

Extras on the set include some of the most hilarious audio commentary tracks to be heard this side of Kevin Smith’s infamous Mall Rats outing, a side splitting short: "Fuzz" the Musical featuring Ronnie Dobbs, footage of Bob and David doing Mr. Show material live and a half-hour teaser showing highlights from season three. Fans of the program know that this set almost didn’t reach retailer’s shelves at all so its appearance in 2002 was a cause for celebration. Here’s hoping that HBO will see fit to release the remaining seasons in 2003.


Reservoir Dogs 10th Anniversary Special Edition – Mr. Brown

Though his star seems to have lost some of its shine in recent years, a good argument can be made that Quentin Tarantino remains one of (if not the) most influential contemporary filmmakers. By now everyone knows about Tarantino’s hip, naturalistic dialogue, his trendy nods to 60s cult culture, his highly stylized camera work and the nonlinear structure of his best films. These techniques have been imitated over the last decade to the point of virtual ubiquity so it can be difficult to recall how unexpected Reservoir Dogs seemed to its first-run audiences. Reservoir Dogs (and Pulp Fiction) changed the landscape of hard-boiled Hollywood crime films irrevocably and catapulted Tarantino’s career to lofty heights.

Reservoir Dogs 10th Anniversary Special Edition includes a nice selection of extra features including deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentary, a very interesting documentary on the state of independent film in 1992 and a whole lot more. Much has been made of the quality of the transfer, which in comparison to the previous non-anamorphic version exhibits muted colors and low contrast, but I don’t think this is a fatal flaw. The image could have been juiced up a bit but it’s far from un-watchable and the transfer shouldn’t keep you from adding Reservoir Dogs to your collection.


Rashomon

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s best known film has to be Seven Samurai but my personal favorite is Rashomon. Calculatingly innovative, Rashomon is an investigation into the nature of subjectivity, truth and the application of justice. As is the case with all of Kurosawa’s finest films, Rashomon is flowing, lyrical and impeccably composed right down to the individual frame. The nonlinear narrative recounts a single event from four distinct viewpoints, leaving it to the viewer to determine where objectivity enters the picture. This technique has been used again and again in Hollywood movies ever since Rashomon's release.

Criterion’s restoration of Rashomon is crisp and clean with deep blacks, pure whites, impeccable contrast and nary a hint of digital compression artifacts. The sound elements exhibit a surprisingly broad dynamic range and are substantially free from pops, hiss and other major flaws. Extras on the disc include a fascinating audio commentary by Japanese-film historian Robert Altman, text screens with the stories that inspired Kurosawa’s screenplay, excellent new English subtitles and excerpts from a documentary on Kurosawa’s cinematographer Kazuo Miygawa.

Rashomon introduced Hollywood to Kurosawa and its influence continues to color the work of contemporary directors worldwide. If film can be thought of in lyrical terms then Rashomon is visual poetry. This Criterion release is a welcome addition to any collection.


Singin' in the Rain

When it comes to the outstanding restoration efforts of 2002 the clear champion has to be Warner Brothers’ stunning special edition of Singin’ in the Rain. Released in 1950, Gene Kelly’s spectacular song, dance and comedy extravaganza hit the screen in blazing Technicolor hues. Singin’ in the Rain became an instant classic and a pillar of the musical genre. Unfortunately, over the years, the original three strip Technicolor masters experienced significant fading, shrinking and other symptoms of age, all of which were very evident on Warner’s original DVD release.

For the new two-disc special edition Warner digitized each and every frame of the three Technicolor master strips, color corrected them, cleaned up scratches, removed flaws and recombined them into a digital master that has to be seen to be believed. Singin’ in the Rain looks almost as good as the day it was released. The color saturation is unbelievable and the picture detail is unimpeachable. There isn’t the slightest hint of compression artifacting or edge enhancement. Singin’ in the Rain is an endlessly entertaining classic that will keep you smiling while giving your TV a real workout.


Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard is an enigmatic film. Though frequently classified as noir, it can just as easily be thought of as a straight drama, dark comedy and/or social commentary. One thing is certain: Sunset Boulevard is an established classic and arguably director Billy Wilder’s greatest film.

Sunset Boulevard’s plot revolves around the twisted relationship between a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) and a middle-aged has-been actress (Gloria Swanson). It’s an investigation of the dark side of Hollywood culture at mid-century, an indictment of narcissism and a finely rendered character study. Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond is the highlight of the movie, and thanks to an incredible performance, her character has become as iconic in American culture as Dickens’ Miss Havisham is in Britain.

The long wait for Sunset Boulevard on DVD ended in 2002 with this serviceable release. Though the film elements themselves seem very clean and free from scratches and blemishes, the digital transfer looks over-compressed and suffers from aggressive edge enhancement. These flaws are far from fatal though, and shouldn’t stop fans of the film from purchasing this DVD.


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are responsible for some of the great films of the 1940s and arguably the best British films ever made. Until recently my knowledge of Powell and Pressburger’s work was limited to sporadic airings of their most famous film, The Red Shoes, on local TV. It wasn’t until I saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp that I began to fully comprehend their genius.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is certainly among the finest character studies ever committed to film. The protagonist, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey in a stunningly deep and nuanced performance), is presented to us first as a bumbling, heavyset old military man with an eccentric mustache and pedantic speech pattern. The movie quickly shifts gears, showing us the events of Candy’s early career that shaped him into the lampoon-able archetype we meet at the start of the film. Along the way, we’re treated to a tenderly sympathetic portrait of a man who, in the end, commands well-earned respect in spite of his trouble adjusting to new realities.

Because it was considered overly critical of the British military establishment (a significant issue as Blimp was made at the height of World War II), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was drastically edited shortly after its release. Nearly 50 minutes of footage were removed from the film and the remaining scenes were re-edited to remove the nonlinear flashback structure. The Criterion release reconstructs the original cut and running time while offering a fairly comprehensive restoration of the film elements. Special features include an audio commentary with Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese, a 24-minute documentary on the making of the film, production stills and more.


Metropolis

Considered the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, Osamu Tezuka is perhaps best known to Americans as the artist behind the 60s era TV cartoon Astro Boy. Tezuka, the father of manga (and by extension anime), was a prolific creator of comic books throughout his life, many of which have been made into animated features and television shows.

Metropolis, adapted from Tezuka’s early manga by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and directed by Rintaro (Galaxy Express 999), is a stunning blend of handmade and computer animation. The story was inspired by Fritz Lang’s live action film of the same name and features many of Tezuka’s quirky stock characters. The plot follows Lang’s version fairly closely, but the real highlight of Metropolis isn’t the plot. It’s the fantastic vistas, robots and baroque set pieces that make this film so rewarding.

The two-disc special edition contains some interesting ancillary content including a brief making-of featurette, interviews with the artists and filmmakers, a Tezuka biography and an extensive gallery of conceptual art and character design. Metropolis is an amazing visual spectacle that transcends the anime genre and should have a broad appeal, akin to that of other animated films including Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell.


A Hard Day's Night

By 1964 The Beatles were already topping UK charts and Beatlemania was beginning to take America by storm. The release of A Hard Day’s Night solidified the band’s status as a genuine media phenomenon and firmly planted an image of the Fab Four’s quirky personalities in the minds of teenagers from coast to coast.

The Miramax Collector’s Series release of A Hard Day’s Night gives us the film in an immaculately restored version, free of the ravages of age and augmented by stereo recordings of the songs. Reading the box, one could get the impression that there’s a wide variety of extras on the two-disc set, but the bulk of the content is really just an extensive collection of interviews with Beatles-related figures including Sir. George Martin, director Richard Lester, producer Denis O’Dell and others. Notably absent are any of the members of The Beatles themselves.

Viewed nearly forty years after its release, A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t seem nearly as innovative as it once must have, but it’s still a valuable historical document and a suitably entertaining movie. The transfer is nearly pristine and the audio has never sounded better. Only the inclusion of comments from the surviving members of the band would have made this disc better.


Mickey Mouse in Black and White

I’ve never been a big Disney fan. When I was a child the company had already become the profit-hungry entertainment machine with a disturbing social agenda that we know today. There was a time in the 1920s and 30s though, when Disney cartoons were full of the same kind of irreverent hilarity that most people associate with Warner Brothers’ Looney Toons. It was during this formative period that Mickey Mouse made Walt Disney a household name and established the animated short film as a distinctly American genre, opening the way for everything from Daffy Duck to the Powerpuff Girls.

Mickey Mouse in Black and White collects some of the best Disney shorts from 1928 through 1935 and presents them in beautiful, crisp, clean versions. From Steamboat Willie and Mickey’s Nightmare through Building a Building and Mickey’s Service Station, the cream of the crop is here. The disc itself and several of the cartoons are augmented by friendly and informative introductions by film critic Leonard Maltin. He helps put the films in context and gives a little historical perspective on this phase of Mickey’s career.

Disney should be commended for putting complete and uncut versions of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons on these discs. There’s no place for political correctness when it comes to the preservation of our artistic heritage, and for once Disney seems to clearly recognize that fact.

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