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Best DVDs of 2001
Gil Jawetz

Best DVDs of 2001 - Gil Jawetz

It was to have been the year that we entered a future envisioned by Stanley Kubrick as a clean, precise science experiment. In fact, the late director imagined us spending the year exploring the great unknown beyond the stars. Instead, we found that our future is mired in the past and that there are unknown nightmares lying dormant within our own cities. So, we ended up spending the last quarter of the year looking over our shoulders instead of forward, at the movie screen.

Trying to determine what the best DVDs to come out in 2001 were is kind of like trying to appreciate artwork hanging on the walls of an elephant cage. The paintings are nice but you feel like you're trying to ignore something huge. The events of September and their ongoing repercussions have taken a little bit of the fun out of movie watching. For a while we were too stunned to watch anything. Then we either tried to absorb only news shows and politically conscious material or to surround ourselves with mindless entertainment to lessen some of the stress. If we can look past all that stuff for a moment, however, we can see that this was an unbelievable year for DVD. The highly anticipated releases of some classics, the continuation of some worthwhile series, and some quality new releases made this perhaps the best DVD release year to date (and maybe ever; We're gonna run out of the big time classics eventually).

For my money these were the most interesting releases of the year. There were certainly a lot of worthwhile discs that I never got my hands on. (Lets be optimistic and say "that I have yet to get my hands on." After all, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is in my player right now awaiting my attention...) But in terms of mixing accessibility with sheer quality and the occasional curve ball, you couldn't come up with a list of ten finer DVDs, or rather fifteen.

1) Do the Right Thing (Criterion Collection) - If Criterion had just ported over the great transfer and extras from their landmark laserdisc of Spike Lee's finest film this would make the list. What makes this the best, however, is the heartbreakingly clear new anamorphic transfer. With colors and detail crisper than the original theatrical prints and a soundtrack with all the bombast and range of this passionate film (plus a bonus PCM uncompressed soundtrack just for fun), Do the Right Thing comes closer to reference quality than any low-budget "smart" film has any right. The terrific cast and crew commentary track made the leap from the old format, as did the amazing selection of documentaries (including Rene St. Clair's hour long film The Making of Do The Right Thing, one of the most honest of its kind ever made, and generous amounts of Lee's own behind the scenes video) along with a smattering of new features, like the fascinating visit to the Brooklyn location Lee and line producer Jon Kilik made over ten years later. Criterion's disc is so exciting because it treats this film, possibly the most confoundingly complex of the last 25 years, with the reverence it deserves, but also with a critical eye. From Terminator X's first scritch-scratch at the top of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" through to Mookie's final, confusingly real cash pickup, Do the Right Thing throws more aspects of human behavior on the screen than any other and leaves the audience, exhausted, to figure out why. (full review)

2) The X-Files Season 3 and The X-Files Season 4 - The first two seasons of this great Fox series were filled with excellent episodes pitting the endlessly spunky Agents Mulder and Scully against aliens, monsters, and sinister humans, but it was during the masterful third season and the near-perfect fourth that The X-Files really hit its stride. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson perfectly embodied their characters and the stories became almost universally engaging. The clunkers were few and far between and the high points were plentiful: "Pusher", "Nisei", and "Wetwired from season 3 all expanded our love for the show's dual heroes while providing just the right balance of thrills and chills, as did season 4's "Unruhe", "Paper Hearts", and "Small Potatoes". The real stand-outs from seasons 3 and 4 (the comical "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" and controversial "Home", respectively) were among the best of the series' nine years, but if one episode tipped the scales between these two sets, it was season 3's "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", guest starring a never better Peter Boyle. In 44 short minutes creator Chris Carter, writer Darin Morgan, and director David Nutter produced one of the most perfect pieces of pop entertainment and one of the finest television episodes ever aired.

3) Citizen Kane and The Godfather: DVD Collection - Yeah, yeah, everyone's going on and on about these, but that's simply because they represent the very best in Hollywood history. (You don't see me touting the Phantom Menace DVD's considerable technical qualities because the movie doesn't deliver) At heart, they are also surprisingly similar: young directors with grand visions incompatible with contemporary Hollywood trends, huge, decades-long stories that tread the outer limits of human emotion, and power-hungry central characters that, over time, came to resemble their directors, doomed to haunt these films forever, but rarely to revisit their artistic successes. That both sets feature engaging supplemental material is only fitting (I'll be working through Godfather's documentaries and commentary tracks well into 2002); After all, they're the best we've got.

4) In the Heat of the Night - Mere days into the new year (nine, to be exact) MGM released yet another in their non-stop flood of low-priced classics. What made this one different, however, was that actual attention seemed to have been paid to quality. The anamorphic transfer of this tough, gritty film looks better than it ever has, maintaining the harsh beauty of Haskell Wexler's unforgiving cinematography without looking rough or beat up. The only extra of note is the commentary track, but it's one of the best. Straight talk from director Norman Jewison, Wexler, and costars Rod Steiger and Lee Grant proves that the story behind this landmark civil rights thriller is as fascinating as the story on the screen. (full review)

5) The House of Mirth and Memento - The best film of 2000 and one of the best from 2001 both received somewhat subdued DVD releases, but each highlighted its main asset: The movie itself. Memento featured the most mind-bending plot trajectory in years, a slippery, mysterious mindwarp that demanded the full attention of its audience. The House of Mirth featured its own brand of mindgame as Edith Wharton's turn of the century society nightmares made mincemeat of Lily Bart, portrayed amazingly by Gillian Anderson in the best film performance in years by anyone. Neither is heavy on the extras (Memento delivers yet another IFC interview from professional ass-kiss Elvis Mitchell, House of Mirth a strangely uncommunicative commentary from director Terence Davies) but that's ok. The prints and transfers are nearly flawless and the movies themselves engaging enough to demand an uninterrupted viewing. Followed by another. And another. And another. (full review - The House of Mirth)

6) Anne Frank - What a shock this one came as. "Oh, a Disney version of Anne Frank," I thought. "That should be funny. Maybe it'll be a musical on ice." Two nights, three hours, and countless tears later I realized that I had just watched one of the most masterful renditions of this tragically memorable story ever told. Heading the universally impressive production was Hannah Taylor-Gordon, a 14 year old girl who somehow managed to embody the innocence, sweetness, spunk, precociousness, and, ultimately, the tragedy, of this celebrated young woman. To call this performance a tour de force is to reduce it to a showbiz catch phrase. In reality it is a monument to humanity and loss. The DVD, bereft of extras, focuses all attention on one little girl and her inconceivably sad story. (full review)

7) Rear Window - With nearly all of Hitchcock's great films out on DVD (Foreign Correspondant where are you?) from DVD friendly companies like Criterion and Warner Brothers, Universal's special edition of Rear Window was the year's best by a hair (Criterion's Notorious came close). The movie is one of Hitch's most complex, commenting on a lot of things as once: modern day anxieties, marital paranoia, audience voyeurism. But this is hardly a dry dissertation. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly both turn in some of their finest work in a film with impossibly tight pacing, plotting, and an amazing set doubling for a Greenwich Village courtyard that should have been preserved plank by plank so that visitors could take a look through that celebrated window for themselves.

8) Grey Gardens (Criterion Collection) - What a curious film Grey Gardens is. Taking as their subject some nearly-forgotten Bouvier relatives, the Maysles brothers (Gimme Shelter) turned what could have been a boring gabfest into one of the most engaging cinematic journeys through human pathos. Big and little Edie form one of the most unique mother-daughter combos around and the movie documents their eternal isolation in a crumbling, decrepit Hamptons house (the house is the third star of the movie). Criterion's generous extras (a commentary from the filmmakers, 1975 audio interviews and a 2000 phone update with little Edie, lots more) helps add context, but really the film is its own kind of masterpiece. 2001 also saw Criterion's release of the Maysles' first film, the nearly as good Salesman. (full review)

9) John Waters Collection 2: Polyester / Desperate Living and
John Waters Collection 3: Pink Flamingos / Female Trouble - John Waters never does anything by half, so it's fitting that each of these releases would feature two movies. Polyester might be his most satisfying cinematic endeavor, with Divine tragically drinking her way through many Elizabeth Taylor mornings and Tab Hunter pointing a finger like it's the only one that matters, all in glorious Odorama. Backed with Desperate Living, possibly Waters' most depraved film (the opening minutes are the most manic-panic of any movie), volume 2 illustrates both the highs and lows of Waters' cultural spectrum, and finds them both pretty close to the bottom. Volume 3 pairs the immortal Pink Flamingos (mmm-mmmm!) with its follow-up, the wild Female Trouble. All four films feature Waters' commentary, always among the funniest and most entertaining and, even though he occasionally repeats anecdotes, they're each worth a listen. As for the films, they're all filled with Waters' unique blend of madness and genuine human compassion, only the cast of characters is filled with a gang of slobs and freaks. They're all here: Edith Massey, David Lochary, Jean Hill, Mary Vivian Pierce, and the howlingly funny Mink Stole. As a special treat those who bought both of these sets (as well as the inferior Pecker / Hairspray volume) could send away for a free disc of Waters related bonus material, including the hilarious "Love Letter to Edie". (full reviews: volume 2 | volume 3 | bonus disc)

10) Absolutely Fabulous Complete Collection - Three seasons of this classic Britcom were not enough for fans, but at least they've all been compiled in one neat little box set. Edina and Patsy may be the least socially redeeming characters ever to foul up the airwaves with their drinking and drugging, but at the end of the day you love them even more for it. Three discs with six episodes each present all the old episodes plus a generous helping of hilarious outtakes. (A fourth disc has fun, but non-essential extras) Each episode is worth infinite viewings, making the upcoming new season DVD set another must-buy.

11) Rock 'n' Roll High School - The transfer and most of the extras are holdovers from the laserdisc (the transfer is non-anamorphic, the commentary doesn't reflect recent events), but with the premature passing in 2001 of Joey Ramone, the movie's rockin' godfather, it's nice to have. The story is typical teen movie school-burning music-loving mayhem, but the punk edge (reluctantly added by producer Roger Corman) and the Ramones' surf-rock noise help elevate it to the status of heartfelt classic. We miss ya, ya big mook. (full review)

12) Pride and Prejudice: The Special Edition - This one is a mixed blessing. The original release of this BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel featured a blurry transfer, closing credits every hour (and it's over five hours), and an excessive price tag. This re-release fixes all of these flaws but replaces the old transfer with a cold, desaturated new one. Some fans claim to prefer the original transfer's golden warmth to the new one's crisp coolness. Regardless, another version is highly unlikely and the lively cast, beautiful settings, and perfect source material make up for any reservations. Austen's tale of the Bennet sisters (and specifically Elizabeth, played by the charming Jennifer Ehle) is the perfect movie to stretch out over a couple of nights. (full review)

Honorable Mentions:
Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Todd Haynes' Safe, Startup.com, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live in New York City, Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon, Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls, The Simspons: The Complete First Season.

Worst DVDs of the Year:
Mike Leigh's Meantime for taking a worthwhile film from an important filmmaker and turning it into a garbled, blurry unwatchable mess, and Syd Barrett's First Trip for wasting 11 minutes of my time.

- Gil Jawetz

DVD Talk Reviewers and Columnists take on the Top DVDs of 2001 :
DVD Talk Main Best of 2001 Page
Aaron Beierle
Brian R. Boisvert
Jason Bovberg
Phillip Duncan
Glenn Erickson (DVD Savant)
G. Noel Gross (CineSchlock-O-Rama)
Chris Hughes
Gil Jawetz
Matt Langdon
Holly Ordway
John Wallis

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