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The Top 20 Releases of 2008

Looking back on it 2008 was a pretty good year for movies, both theatrically and on home video. From big budget Hollywood superhero flicks to foreign films and classic movies the past year saw some great releases. The DVD Talk review panel got together to pick the best of the best of 2008, and after two rounds of voting and much gnashing of teeth, here's what we came up with. There are some surprising choices, and some truly great releases didn't quite make it, but that's what happens when you get a group of film geeks together. In any case, all of the entries are top-notch movies and TV shows that deserve a little extra time in the spotlight. Without further ado, here is the list:

Mad Men: Season 115. (tie) Mad Men: Season 1 - Throughout its second season, AMC's acclaimed Mad Men began to make the same inroads with the mainstream that it had at word one with critics, with star Jon Hamm even turning up to host Saturday Night Live. The setting of an advertising agency at the turn of the 1960s...the backdrop of a waning era that hides its secrets, sexuality, and self-loathing behind a prim, proper, stone-faced facade...that's compelling in its own right, but Mad Men is such an exceptionally well-crafted drama that it elevates that instantly engaging premise into what may be the single best series on television at the moment. Mad Men's keen visual eye and meticulous attention to detail demand to be experienced on DVD and Blu-ray, and its extensive set of extras -- including 23 audio commentaries! -- makes for an even more rewarding discovery on home video.

Persepolis15. (tie) Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi's uniquely personal comic book has been transformed into a splendid animated literary adaptation unlike any cartoon coming out of the major studios. Produced in France, and co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the story of a young girl's coming-of-age in Iran and the clashes between the culture she loves, the fundamentalist forces that seek to undermine it, and the European society that doesn't understand it, much less her, is a fascinating glimpse into a different world that is as visually engrossing as it is rich in narrative. The DVD only gives a small peek into the production process, but with an end result this good, why complain?

Forgetting Sarah Marshall14. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - The movies produced by Judd Apatow are renowned for their hard-R high jinks, sex-crazed vulgarities and sly pop-culture references, but what gives them resonance is something else entirely. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin, taps into the muddled mindset of the underachieving American man-boy. Jason Segel appreciates that, and he literally lets it all hang out -- insecurities, vulnerabilities, privates -- in this romantic comedy about a heartbroken schlub staying at the same resort as the starlet girlfriend who just dumped him. The movie is flat-out hilarious, and gets plenty of juice from a strong supporting cast that includes Mila Kunis, Russell Brand and Jack McBrayer. The three-disc unrated "collector's edition" has more extras than a David Lean picture -- and damn near most of it is very, very funny.

LA Confidential13. LA Confidential: Two-Disc Special Edition - Another modern classic languishing on an acceptable DVD release that nevertheless cried out for a substantial, technically brilliant update. Warner Bros. remedied its decade-old single disc release with this two-disc set that spiffed up picture and sound, while, crucially, introducing a host of worthwhile supplements, including an isolated score track highlighting Jerry Goldsmith's sterling contributions, revealing featurettes about the locations and cinematography as well as a crowded, thorough commentary track that bolstered the film's standing as one of the defining cinematic works of the Nineties.

Forbidden Hollywood Collection (Volume 2)12. (tie) Forbidden Hollywood Collection (Volume 2) - Though Fox gave them a run for its money in 2008, and smaller outfits like VCI (with their Forgotten Noir & Crime series, for instance) have a firm grip on the lower-half of the double-bill, Warner Home Video is still the label to beat when it comes to Classic Hollywood Cinema. (Of course, it helps that they own the MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO libraries, among other things.) The label's second round of "Pre-Code" titles - The Divorcee, A Free Soul, 3 on a Match, Female, and Night Nurse - exemplifies the studio's commitment not just to perennially marketable catalog staples but also lesser-known diamonds in the rough like these (especially the exceptional 3 on a Match), packaged in fine transfers and with good extras, titles like this exhibit a love for and an understanding of cinema rare among the big labels.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters12. (tie) Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - Criterion Collection - Yukio Mishima has always been a controversial figure. The late Japanese author invited public judgment, chiseling out a celebrity persona that he was forever refining, morphing his personal mythology to match that of his fiction. Screenwriter/director Paul Schrader's 1985 biopic tried to make sense of these varying narratives, yielding strange and hypnotic results. Shooting in Japan, he tied different phases of Mishima's life to specific novels, merging the biography with the fiction in compelling ways. Ken Ogata brings intelligence and ferocity to his portrayal of the author, taking us through his many ego-driven missteps and eventual public suicide. Working closely with Criterion, Schrader has restored and remastered his movie, fixing color problems and putting deleted scenes back in. Multiple audio options and a second disc full of supplemental features about the movie and the background of its subject take the viewer beyond the surface appeal of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and deeper into the story, all in one handsome package.

Mist12. (tie) Mist - Stephen King once described his original short story -- a handful of survivors in a sleepy Maine town barricading themselves inside a supermarket against some sinister force masked by the mist outside -- as The Alamo directed by Bert I. Gordon. It's a comparison that seems even more apt now that the black-and-white photography that director Frank Darabont originally envisioned is a part of The Mist's two-disc special edition release on DVD and Blu-ray, joined by a color version that's a throwback to the sorts of horror flicks AIP used to plaster across drive-ins throughout the 1970s. The claustrophobia, the inescapable paranoia that gradually consumes so many of the survivors, the unflinchingly brutal attacks by this otherworldly force, one of the most haunting, disturbing endings in years...it all makes for one of the most memorable horror flicks of 2008.

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters11. (tie) King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - Classic arcades fans rejoice, because The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is one of this year's most enjoyable films. Director Seth Gordon's enjoyable tale of David (Steve Wiebe) and Goliath (Billy Mitchell) reminds us that great games---and the spirit of competition---will never die. Their battleground is Donkey Kong: Billy's high score of 21 years had apparently been shattered by a middle-school teacher from Redmond, Washington...and though the new high score had yet to be verified, a head-to-head confrontation was inevitable. Loaded with plenty of colorful characters, nostalgic 80s music and more classic cabinets than you can shake a quarter at, The King of Kong is just what Dr. Mario ordered. The DVD package from New Line comes fully equipped with plenty of terrific bonus features, making this a must-own for classic gamers and documentary fans alike.

Sleeping Beauty11. (tie) Sleeping Beauty- Fans of this '59 Disney classic with little patience for auction sites or exuberant online price tags can finally breathe a sigh of relief. One of the crown jewels from the House of Mouse's vaulted, out-of-print animated films, Sleeping Beauty, now has an easily accessible Platinum Edition to enjoy for years to come - without that fear of damaging some priceless relic when popping it into your player. But it's more than just the availability of a hard-to-find classic that makes both the DVD and the Blu-ray sets worthwhile; newly remastered in an awe-inspiring "expanded" 2.55:1 image with all of their top-shelf polish glistening from frame to frame, Disney's quintessential fantasy animated film has quite literally never looked better, whether we're talking about the stellar standard definition release or the gasp-worthy premiere Platinum Blu-ray. Matched with an equally impressive array of audio tracks and a treasure trove of special features that dive deep into the magic behind the film, both of these carefully-crafted packages are stunningly comprehensive and a joy to explore time and time again.

Dr. NoFrom Russia with Love10. Dr. No / From Russia with Love (Blu-ray) - Revelatory. Infuriating. Opposite extremes apply to Fox-MGM's high-def debut of its Classic James Bond Series. The damn things just wouldn't play on tens of thousands of Blu-ray players, of myriad makes and models - until belatedly-offered firmware fixed most of the problems. Fox-MGM's "Yeah, so what?" non-response to all the online spleen-venting didn't win them any friends; nor did they respond to our repeated requests for an interview about the problem....And yet, there's no denying that the Lowry Digital cleanup they commissioned, most spectacularly on the first two 007 adventures with Sean Connery, was an eye-popping revelation - even for those of us who remember these movies in 35mm, on big theater screens. Honey Rider was never more luscious, Rosa Klebb never more menacing.

Touch Of Evil9. Touch Of Evil - 50th Anniversary Edition - Touch of Evil is one of the greatest cinematic puzzles in the great and puzzling career of Orson Welles. Like most of his films, this one was full of creative innovation far ahead of its time, yet its checkered history, like so many of its creator's efforts, has been dogged by what might have been. The DVD age has offered us a fantastic opportunity to study troubled films like this, and this new 2-disc edition contains three versions of Touch of Evil: the amazing restoration done in accordance with Welles' notes, the most commonly known commercial release, and a preview cut, long mistaken for a director's cut. Stuffed with commentaries and extras, sleuthing movie fans can now bend out all the twists and turns of this fantastic crime picture.

Baraka8. Baraka Blu-ray - 2008 was the year that boutique labels finally began releasing art house cinema on Blu-ray. MPI beat labels like Criterion and Eureka's Masters of Cinema to launch with its Blu-ray release of Ron Fricke's 1992 pan-global tone poem Baraka. Short of seeing it projected in its original 70mm glory, this transcendent travelogue shot in 152 locations on six continents could hardly look finer than it does here. This "reference quality" Blu-ray release is a must-have for home theater enthusiasts whose tastes run more toward world cinema than summer blockbuster.

The Sopranos:  The Complete Series7. The Sopranos: The Complete Series - The Sopranos earned its acclaim not just for intense mob or family drama. More than that, it did a fantastic job at depicting real life. You were always required to read between the lines. This audience was never insulted by having the material dumbed down. More importantly, Tony Soprano couldn't simply be given a 'good' or 'bad' label, and certain events never had a traditional television resolution. The Sopranos took many bold steps throughout its run, including a highly debated finale. Now that the entire series is available in a package that reflects the high quality of the show itself, including new extras and remastered video, The Sopranos - The Complete Series is easily one of the finest purchases of 2008 by far.

Dark Knight6. (tie) Dark Knight - There's no denying that Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight completely owned the summer of 2008, not to mention the hype-fueled months before it. Headlined by a penultimate performance from the late Heath Ledger (not to mention strong showings by Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and others), this action-packed epic only edged the bar higher for big-screen comic book adaptations. Batman disciples have waited patiently since summer for The Dark Knight on DVD and Blu-ray---and for the most part, the releases should satisfy fans of the film. Nolan's follow-up to Batman Begins plays well on the small screen---and even though Warner's DVD package isn't without a few issues, it undoubtedly sold like hotcakes as the holiday shopping season whipped by.

Tropic Thunder6. (tie) Tropic Thunder - Last summer was pretty amazing when it came to movies. With several excellent action flicks (Iron Man, Dark Knight,) fun cartoons (Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda,) and decent remakes and sequels (Indiana Jones, Get Smart) it was quite an exciting couple of months for movie buffs. Out of the several comedies that were released though, one stood out head and shoulders above its peers: Tropic Thunder. This parody of war films and Hollywood itself featured an all star ensemble cast and was absolutely hilarious. It was so successful in skewering pretentious Hollywood stereotypes in general and war films in particular, it's going to be hard for anyone to make a serious Viet Nam movie for the next decade. This outrageously funny film is one of the great releases of 2008.

Bonnie & Clyde5. Bonnie & Clyde - Groundbreaking in its day for its frank portrayal of violence, Arthur Penn's 1967 portrait of the famous bank-robbing lovers has managed to outlast the bloody buzz thanks to its quirky psychology and off-kilter editing style. Warren Beatty plays Clyde and a young, sexy Faye Dunaway plays Bonnie, and their animal lust--and, in Clyde's case, at times a lack thereof--is equal to their primal drive for action. The movie throbs with the characters' unseemly impulses, and the criminal path they cut across Depression-era America is equal parts folklore, social rebellion, and pure selfish desire. This new boxed set version, also available as a cheaper two-disc edition, has a beautiful transfer, insightful new extras, and a special photo book, making it the definitive version of this American classic, a bridge between Golden Age Hollywood and the rise of the enfant terrible directors of the 1970s.

Wire4. Wire: Complete Series - There are few smarter investments of 60 hours of your time and $90 of your money than this box, which collects the entirety of what many (including this reviewer) have dubbed The Great American Television Series. For a too-brief five season run, The Wire was a sprawling, insightful, heartbreaking testament to what the medium is and what it can do. By turns ruthlessly intelligent, shockingly brutal, dizzyingly complex, and darkly comic, this series is proof positive that it is indeed possible for television to be an art form, one with the ability to tell stories of greater scope and depth than films, plays, or even novels. Its authenticity and respect for its audience make it a uniquely rewarding program, and one that grows even richer with repeat viewings.

Iron Man3. Iron Man - Sure, superhero flicks have been a summer mainstay for years now, but 2008 sported the best slate yet: The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, and the most deliriously fun of the bunch, Iron Man. With its smirking sense of humor, the inspired casting of Robert Downey, Jr., just the right amount of drama and emotional turmoil, and a heckuva lot of four-color superheroic action, Iron Man was the perfect way to kick off a summer at the movies. It's such a clever, kinetic, and infectiously good time that Iron Man would probably be worth a nod on a year-end list on its own, but its lavish special edition release on DVD and Blu-ray leaves Shellhead soaring high above pretty much everything else

Wall-E2. Wall-E - Pixar scored another triumph in 2008 with this poignant, provocative and thoroughly crowd-pleasing sci-fi tale about a trash-compacting robot toiling away on Planet Earth long after it's been abandoned as a massive garbage heap. Helmed by Finding Nemo's Andrew Stanton, WALL-E is pure cinematic alchemy, from a largely wordless first act that recalls Chaplin's silent-comedy classics to the movie's biting commentary on a gluttonous, consumer-driven society increasingly dependent on technology. At its heart, however, is an affecting love story -- one between robots, one between the filmmakers and the whole of humanity. The three-disc edition gives WALL-E the loving treatment it deserves. The visuals are as breathtaking as they were on the big screen, while an array of worthwhile extras is highlighted by "The Pixar Story," a comprehensive and fascinating 88-minute documentary on the celebrated studio.

Godfather - Coppola Restorations1. Godfather - Coppola Restorations - Oh, the howls that erupted when DVD-oholics learned that Francis Ford Coppola was putting the finishing touches on the most extensive restorations yet undertaken for his beloved, acclaimed Godfather triptych. How dare he release another version of the trilogy just seven years after it first hit DVD? Well, home theater technology -- and the arrival of Blu-ray, in particular -- has come a long way since the beginning of the decade, which meant these cinematic gems were overdue for a polish. And what a revelation; the first two Godfather films sparkle in a way they likely haven't since their first screenings in the early Seventies. The crisp, warm and wonderfully detailed images are nearly just as fans remember -- no small feat in an age of digital wizardry. The best part? Paramount slimmed down the set, shelf space-wise, but kept all of the bonus features, even adding a few new ones to the pile. Arguably the year's best re-issue and certainly its most rewarding.


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