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Cinema Gotham's Top Ten DVDs of 2003
Cinema Gotham

by Gil Jawetz

1. 25th Hour
Spike Lee's films are almost always inextricably tied to the city, 25th Hour more than most. Even though the razor-sharp script was written by novelist David Benioff the film is still filled with the kind of bold, contradictory statements that have made its director famous. In addition to presenting the first major film to study the post-9/11 metropolis the DVD offers superb audio and video, interesting supplemental programs and commentaries from both Benioff and Lee. While director commentary tracks may be standard fare these days this is your only chance to hear the filmmaker pass along a story he first heard right here in Cinema Gotham. The lesson to other filmmakers: Wanna get your DVD in our top ten? Just name-drop us whenever you can. Petty, but what can you do? (Review by Gil Jawetz, Interview with Spike Lee)

2. The Brother From Another Planet
We waited and waited and finally it came: A reasonably priced DVD of this New York classic. John Sayles' urban sci-fi meditation on how race is lived in America may be tough to categorize but it's always been one of a handful of films about the color line that gets it just right. Joe Morton's mute performance as the Brother is brilliant in its economy and Sayles' observations are biting, timely and often hilarious. Not to mention that this disc contains one of his typically eloquent commentaries as well as the finest transfer of this low-budget film we've ever seen. (Review by Gil Jawetz, Interview with John Sayles)

3, 4. Q: The Winged Serpent and God Told Me To
Cult auteur Larry Cohen always seems to have his finger on the pulse of something dark and weird, whether it's mass consumerism (The Stuff), modern paranoia (Phone Booth) or race and war (the brilliant Bone). This pair of New York stories shows him at both his most surreally allegorical and schlocky fun best. God Told Me To is a strikingly strange policier about religion and fanaticism that features a number of shocking visuals as well as gobs of urban grit. Q: The Winged Serpent, on the other hand, is pure stop-motion mayhem with Michael Moriarty delivering one of the all-time best monster movie performances. Taken together they demonstrate how gripping Cohen can be when he has something to say and how enchanting he can be when he just wants to cut loose. (Interview with director Larry Cohen)

5. Gangs of New York
Last year we rhapsodized about Gangs of New York when it hit theaters and there's still a tremendous amount of powerful material in the nearly three hour film. Miramax's two-disc set, however, never felt like a fully inspired release (Director Martin Scorsese is far too polite a collaborator and far too canny an employee to dish real dirt on the brothers Weinstein) but it did the thing that we always want in our historical releases: It provided oodles of context. Documentaries on the Five Points and other aspects of New York's early history rounded out a set that also featured very fine technicals and plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses into the mind-numbingly detailed work it took to pull off this flawed epic. If nothing else, however, the DVD is worth owning for access to Daniel Day-Lewis' tremendous performance as Bill the Butcher, one of modern film's most magnetically brutal characters. (Review by Gil Jawetz)

6. Best of RESFest Volume 3 (Terminal Bar)
Like all short film compilations, The Best of RESFest Volume 3 is hit-and-miss but even if all it featured was Stefan Nadelman's 23-minute masterpiece Terminal Bar it would make this list. Possibly the finest short documentary on New York City and also one of the most striking examples of computer animation used correctly, this tour through ten years of portraits taken in one midtown dive bar is funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Plagued by somewhat subpar video quality this is still required viewing for the adventurous and open-minded. (Interview with Stefan Nadelman)

7. Short Eyes
We were totally unfamiliar with Short Eyes when it showed up but were quickly drawn in to the gritty prison drama thanks to intense performances, a fierce script and shockingly brutal honesty. Set in a notorious Manhattan jail the film leaves no dynamic unexplored while fleshing out a group on inmates and guards shaken by the presence of an incarcerated pedophile. Miguel Pinero's script is raw but it also has a street poetry that can only come from experience. Thanks to an interesting commentary track from the film's director and the director of the Pinero biopic you can also find out where Short Eyes was originally written and first performed: Behind bars. (Review by Gil Jawetz)

8. Biggie & Tupac
Nick Broomfield may be one of the most devious documentary filmmakers around. Armed with his ever-present mic and headphones he fearlessly barges into any situation that may net him some information on his subjects. His investigation into the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., two of the most prominent events in an unfortunately long string of hip-hop violence, leads him from Brooklyn and Baltimore to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A movie about the inner city as much as anything else, Biggie & Tupac identifies several cracks in our society and doesn't hesitate to dive into them. As for the DVD, a commentary track on a documentary may seem redundant but when the filmmaker is as bursting with enthusiasm and opinions as Broomfield it simply becomes another outlet for analysis and investigation. Watching the film with his guidance becomes a new experience. (Interview with Nick Broomfield)

9. Revolution #9
This indie release was a non-starter theatrically but a number of critics favored it for its insightful script, fine performances and lively, dynamic directorial style. Tim McCann's take on schizophrenia and the damage it can cause in the lives of those afflicted and everyone around them was smart and powerful, especially in the relationship between Michael Risley's disturbed James and Adrienne Shelley's sweetly optimistic Kim. Both actors expertly portrayed their characters as fragile, real people and their performances were among the best of last year. Also deserving praise for his supporting turn is monologist Spalding Gray whose character displays delusions of his own, although of a more socially acceptable variety. A commentary track featuring the director and his two main stars offers good insight, even though it's presented in a choppy way. (Review by Gil Jawetz)

10. Krush Groove
Oh, Krush Groove. Just remembering first seeing this seminal rap classic back in the day feels good. Featuring real actor Blair Underwood as a Russell Simmons-type entrepreneur as well as credible performances from Kurtis Blow, Sheila E, Rick Rubin and the members of Run-DMC and the Fat Boys, Krush Groove highlights the moment when hip-hop left the streets and became big business. With Rubin and Underwood running their record label out of a dorm room and artists lining up for a shot, the film contained as good a representation as you'll find of how rap grew from something you'd do at a house party to the mega-super-hyper business it is today. And if you need any further proof that the kind of homegrown record biz dealings romanticized here can work, just check out two of the then-unknown acts who put in brief performance cameos: a raucous Beastie Boys and a screen-shattering 17 year old LL Cool J. (Review by Gil Jawetz)

Don't like my picks? DVDTalk's Jason Bovberg has thoughtfully offered up a second opinion:

Escape From New York: Collector's Edition
What list of New York-related DVDs released in 2003 would be complete without at least a mention of MGM's new special edition of Escape From New York? The original release offered hideous image quality and only a trailer. This new release goes a long way toward correcting past wrongs and includes one of the greatest audio commentaries ever recorded, from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. I've been yearning for a proper DVD release of this film, and although MGM hasn't hit a home run, the studio has at least appeased fans by digging up some cool bonus features and cleaning up that image. (Review by Jason Bovberg)

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