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The Most Impressive DVDs of 2002

Happy holidays! It's certainly been an interesting year for DVD, one that's seen the majors digging at least a little deeper into their libraries, and the smaller companies continuing to use ingenuity and research to find more treasures out there in the land of independent releases. The majors have by now churned through the first phalanx of the known moneymakers in their libraries, and are showing signs of reissuing some with improved transfers and better extras. In general, when they make extra trips to the vault, good things happen.

On to Savant's pick discs for 2002. This isn't a ten-best list; if it were, it would include things like Singin' in the Rain and A Hard Day's Night. It's just my personal taste, the titles that had the most meaning for me, for various reasons. On their own merit, some of the pictures below aren't even considered all that good, generally, but each carved out a piece of Savant's affection. As the studios started looking at more arcane titles, his interest rose to meet them; it was the following that really got Savant's blood circulating:

Joe versus the Volcano is like an old friend come home, the perfect title for a supposed 'critic' who likes to create the illusion of distinction by picking moderately unpopular titles to champion. Joe was trashed on release but is enjoying a rebound of appreciation. This is Tom Hanks finally carrying a movie but not yet putting on weight; Meg Ryan at the height of her charm, and John Patrick Shanley coming through with a gentle & self-effacing fable of personal values. Always a pleasure, and now watchable in a better-than-decent version. It's also very interesting as a luggage problem. Warner Home Entertainment. Other romantic keepers this year were Miramax's Italian for Beginners, Criterion's The Cranes are Flying and Columbia's Bread and Tulips.

Giants and Toys is a slap to the face - a 1958 film from a presumedly conformist & authoritarian Japan, with a satirical bite sharper than The Sweet Smell of Success and a cynical edge unmatched by Western black comedies made 20 years later. Yasuzo Masumura's tale of a cutthroat competition between candy companies is a story of the destruction of values by commercialism long before the problem was defined. A fierce attack, with screams on the soundtrack and an ending blacker than film noir. Fantoma.Other knockout Japanese runner-up rarities: Fantoma's Manji, and A.D. Vision's Daimajin Trilogy.

The Vikings is a sparkling rediscovery disc - I'd heard glowing things about Jack Cardiff's cinematography on this one for so long, and now DVD can actually give us a way to appreciate it. Kirk Douglas & Tony Curtis fighting over va-voom Janet Leigh has always been in style, but now the movie looks superior to other spectacles, too. Remastered from Technirama, the bright fijords and eerie fogs are breathtaking. Praise be to Leo, who decided to remaster this one before releasing it. MGM Home Entertainment. Also worth noting this year in the action-adventure realm: Image's Light at the Edge of the World & Columbia's Bite the Bullet.

Watership Down, and not Monsters, Inc.? I enjoyed the Pixar picture enormously but frankly, haven't yet watched the DVD. This story of the rabbits on the hill, however, still grabs me. It must be the simple attraction of being different, but Martin Rosen's semi-allegorical tale of oppression and survival is as epic as Tolkien, and presented in a style that challenges adults and frightens small children. The adaptation of Richard Adams' lengthy novel includes weird Night of the Hunter-ish musical interludes, and clever inter-species interaction: "Silly Bunnies. Where are your MATES?" Perfect formula. Warner Home Entertainment.

Our Man Flint would be a smirking guilty pleasure were it not for the fact that it inadvertently & unconsciously expresses the political aggression lurking beneath these semi-classic SuperSpy fantasies. If a benevolent (but sexist) Utopia that can end poverty, disease and inequity forever needs to be blasted off the face of the Earth, what chance have ordinary demonized enemies? The late great James Coburn (where's The President's Analyst?) plays Uncle Sam as a young go-getter, the kind who needs four playmates & reserves the right to remain totally uncommitted & aloof to the problems of others - until it's time to get radical on Evildoers. With that stupendous Jerry Goldsmith score. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 2002 was a big year for SuperSpies, with the agreeably maladroit Modesty Blaise (Fox) and the seductively silly Casino Royale (MGM) also making swinging sixties impressions.

The Long Goodbye. Fast-talkin' slow walkin' Philip Marlowe is reborn in this 70s rethink of the 40s gumshoe, and for once Robert Altman puts together a film that clicks in all departments. The laid-back, zoom-happy photography matches Elliot Gould's flaky flatfoot for style, and the story makes corruption & betrayal into an issue that's personal, yet permanently baked into the sunny Hollywood landscape. Instead of being flippant, the surprise ending now seems totally in character, Chandler redux. MGM Home Entertainment. Other hardboiled standouts this year were Columbia's worthy Fat City, Criterion's Le trou, Anchor Bay's The Criminal and Miramax's The Grifters.

Jackie Brown is the most recent entry on a Savant list which by now you'll have noticed is all older pictures. The average show today is so plain dumb, that many older films that didn't make the grade when new (not this one), now play like honest attempts at quality. AWOL from DVD for five years, this Tarantino crimefest stands tall and has no apologies to make, commercial or otherwise. If not the stylistic equal of Pulp Fiction, it's a step up in maturity for the meteoric director, with the guts to use iconic blaxploitation star Pam Grier completely against her image, surrounded by a quartet of remarkably complex male characters. Pulp of unusual quality, here. Miramax.

Powaqqatsi is a nostalgic favorite, and another title given more loving attention than we had reason to expect. Impeccably transferred, and with its wonderful Philip Glass score stunningly remixed, this is a visual delight. You want to stop several times along the way and applaud the beauty of the images. The weak sister in the popularity stakes with the trippier Koyannisqatsi, it's the second in a trilogy of visual documentaries by Godfrey Reggio, the third of which just had a typical invisible release. Not the best year for a movie with an anti-aggression political agenda. MGM Home Entertainment. Other docus that knocked me out this year were First Run Features' Fighter, Docu Rama's The Atomic Cafe and Home Vision Entertainment's Grass, Twist, and Comic Book Confidential.

The Alec Guinness Collection is a prime example of quality independent DVD production - Anchor Bay is consistently turning out excellent English and European films with transfers better than many library efforts by the majors. Each of these (almost all) Ealing films - Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers, The Captain's Paradise, and The Lavender Hill Mob - is a gem, all starring the inimitable Guinness, and each distinct in its approach. Unlike most modern comedies, these films are each directed with a specific tone and pitch to their humor; one doesn't feel like a moron watching them. From Anchor Bay, of course, home of those consistently entertaining and authoritative liner notes by Avie Hern.

The Outer Limits The Original Series Volume One stretches the quality envelope somewhat, cramming 32 fifty-minute episodes onto just four discs, but in the final accounting, this set is probably the quantity buy of the year. The first season of this enormously influential series is a dictionary of What Every Sci Fi Writer Needs to Know, even when the episode in question is a negative example. At least four shows here rival the best of bigscreen SciFi. Once available in pricey boxed laser sets, this is a treasure trove. MGM Home Entertainment. Other SciFi signposts this year were Criterion's Solaris and MGM's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

Them! is ripe for rediscovery, and it's time that the kids who love cuddly insect fear romps like Aliens and Starship Troopers find out where it all came from. An overachieving monster film that tops many noir efforts with its stylish visuals, Gordon Douglas' giant ants best even Godzilla at expressing nuclear terror in the genre vernacular. The oversized picnic pests provide the perfect McCarthy enemy - a robotic, murderous, growing threat that doesn't need to be negotiated with or taken to the U.N.. With very warm and loving American heroes (James Arness, James Whitmore) to rescue children and secretly detain witnesses. Warner Home Entertainment.

Curse of the Demon / Night of the Demon double-bills the English & American variants of Jacques Tourneur's masterpiece, a satanic thriller that stands apart from the Italian, Hammer and Corman schools of chill-dom that followed. Surely one of the best Horror films ever made, this definitive disc was only made possible after a studio rep carefully negotiated to recover an irreplaceable lost element (my review has the scoop on that one). Dana Andrews ("What's to drink here?"), Peggy Cummins, and nefarious Niall McGinnis play Musical Death Runes with a little piece of paper in this superior picture. Columbia TriStar. Other Horror screams of interest this year were Universal's Brotherhood of the Wolf and MGM's The Hound of the Baskervilles and Masque of the Red Death.

As usual, my top ten swells to twelve, but I have a second list of discs that represented special effort by their producers - either because, in a mass market that rewards stultifying sameness, they bothered to bring out such rarified goods, or for going beyond the call of duty in the presentation. Let's face it, I didn't want to whittle down the favorites and skip all the arcane goodies to be had last year:

Invaders from Mars isn't actually a restoration - it's just a viewable copy of this treasured picture, at last, taken from a surviving 35mm CineColor print that would look perfect if it weren't for a lot of hairline scratches. This is what CGI digital cleanup was made for. The first Wade Williams 'collection' item to become a best-of anything, this favorite little work of art just barely makes the cut. Image Entertainment.

First Men IN the Moon's place here stands in for all of the Harryhausen films released this year by Columbia, bless 'em. A more rounded entertainment than most of Ray's work, in previous video attempts this almost-faithful H.G. Wells adaptation had a grainy picture and very bad audio - but the new disc is a beauty. Savant harped on the previous dearth of Dynamation delectables, but the Torch Lady mercifully gave us the works in 2002: 20 Million Miles to Earth, Earth versus the Flying Saucers, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Mysterious Island. Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

Invasion U.S.A. is the kind of laughable relic typically ignored by the majors, and relegated to greymarket sludge tapes. But fear not, as an ambitious independent gave it the royal treatment. A stock-footage marathon with a Criswell-like hypnotist dispensing practical foreign policy - dig in and arm to the teeth - this rabid fear machine shows families wiped out by flood waters from a nuked Boulder Dam ("Step on it! The water's getting closer!") and a Manhattan lounge babe toppling from a skyscraper while pursued by rapist Bolsheviks. And there's always Noel Neill as an airline clerk politely telling a ticket buyer that flights to Montana have been cancelled - due to Atomic wipeout. "Next in line, please!". Tip-top restoration, essential viewing. This is how we still view the world. Synapse.

Castle of Blood is really Danza macabra, the confluence of Barbara Steele and Euro Horror eroticism that put the Swoon back in morbidity. An atypical good effort from Antonio Margheriti, the uncut version of this key Italian classic has been only a footnote and a saucy still or two for 38 years; the restoration of its mildly sexier moments has a charge more potent than all the full-frontal genre boredom that eventually ensued. Another "Scour the holdings and Beg for missing elements" labor of love, this is an important release. From Synapse, otra vez. Savant's other standout 'castle of blood' gotta-see disc this year was Columbia's Roman Polanski's Macbeth.

The Children of Paradise might be the kind of uppity classic that appeals to movie lovers who'd rather be at the opera, but the brush-up job given the DVD release shows the difference good digital restoration can make. Rather dank and grungy on the (good) laserdisc, the epic theatrical romance now sparkles with life, amour, and tragedy. The Criterion Collection has so consistently turned out these wonderful restorations, we've been taking them for granted ... until we spin one up on the player. This year we've enjoyed super editions of films as diverse as Red Beard, Ratcatcher, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Loves of a Blonde, Bob le Flambeur, Hearts and Minds - enough to be a top ten by themselves. The Criterion Collection.

The Complete Monterey Pop Collection is another miraculous revival - the disc supplements to the remastered concert film resurrect a couple of dozen classic rock, folk and soul performances unseen and unheard for 34 years. That, and separate features made of Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding's sizzling Monterey sets, make this very charmingly presented boxed set a knockout for music fans. The Criterion Collection again, like, far out.

Hercules in the Haunted World may be a little late in coming, after Image's Mario Bava Collection wave of 1999-2001, but by presenting the maestro's lowly sword'n sandal epic in its original Italian-language form, the graces of Bava's art can be appreciated by us all, instead of making us take the genre pundits at their word. Reg Park's beefy hero does his musclebound thing, but the real star here are the expertly-marshalled visuals. They turn Cinecittá's standing sets into something totally eerie and cinematically-generated - a special Bava dimension of color and atmosphere. With a greenish-grim Christopher Lee presiding over the villainy. Fantoma.

Sunset Blvd. is another disc that I expected to be good, but which turned out even better. Late on the DVD bandwagon and slow to cotton to the notion of top quality, Paramount is now treating its slow trickle of library releases to consistently high standards. This Billy Wilder classic has been digitally buffed with a process that, properly applied, reduces grain without erasing detail - with the result that the shiny, brilliant image resembles an original archive print. "After all - the lady's paying". Paramount Home Video. The Mountain also did bang-up work this year on its Audrey Hepburn flicks Roman Holiday and War and Peace.

The Thief of Bagdad is a Rank film, and this visual restoration was actually done by the BFI, but MGM is still to be praised for taking the effort to bring it out. The granddaddy of fantastic Arabian adventures, with more magic, romance and colorful fairytale charm than a decade of Disney, this is a Korda superproduction with then - cutting edge effects and a superb score by Miklos Rosza. It's too good for kids - they wouldn't understand the timeless longing and sadness in the Eden-like scene in the Sultan's garden. A slightly disappointing audio quality can't hurt this one. With Conrad Veidt as the perfectly reptilian Jaffar. MGM Home Entertainment.

Horror of Dracula. Enough said. When DVD came out, and Savant stared at his 400 or so carefully collected, budget-breaking laserdiscs that were soon to become so much dead weight, he sighed, "Well, at least maybe they'll bring out a good version of Horror of Dracula." After several years of watching the eyes of Warner representatives glaze over at the mention of things like Hammer films and big bug movies, the studio finally came to their senses in 2002. They're still in no hurry, but when something does show up (even in those aggravating snapper cases) it's well done. This vampire epic is the crown jewel of Hammer's entire output, and the richly colored transfer restores most of the gloss of the original Technicolor presentation - a bit soft here and there, and not capturing the right blue or green in every scene, but stunning just the same. The widespread pooh-poohing of Warner's work on this title and last year's The Mummy for overscanning some shots (and in general, not treating the humble genre entries to million-dollar restorations) can't diminish the impact of finally seeing Terence Fisher's masterpiece in a proper form: characters are no longer cropped offscreen, Christopher Lee's face shocks with its pallid glee, and the blood gushes faster than a Texas oilfield. Warner Home Entertainment.

2002 was a good year for DVD, and a frightening one in almost every other aspect. As we give thanks for our relative security and luxury this Christmas, Savant will offer a prayer for peace and sanity, and a better world for the children. Thanks to my correspondents and critics for their encouragement and lively discussion, of everything from DVD to how people around the world feel about ... what's happening around the world. Thanks for your patience and tolerance.

Glenn Erickson, December 21, 2002

Check out the other DVD Savant Favored Disc Roundups:

Savant's 2009 favored disc roundup
Savant's 2008 favored disc roundup
Savant's 2007 favored disc roundup
Savant's 2006 favored disc roundup
Savant's 2005 favored disc roundup
Savant's 2004 favored disc roundup
Savant's 2003 favored disc roundup
Savant's 2001 favored disc roundup

This has been a yearly tradition since 2001. Happy Holidays!

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