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Best DVDs of 2002
by Gil Jawetz

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)
I'm no fanboy and I hate to jump on a bandwagon but let's face it, the amount of effort that went into this set is extraordinary. Not only is the expanded version of Peter Jackson's epic film far superior to the emotionally truncated theatrical version but the supplemental material is out of this world. Each documentary (on subjects like the film's cast and special effects but also on Tolkein's legacy and the task of translating his intricate reality to the screen) is a complete work made with intelligence and skill. Add to that the numerous commentary tracks and assorted other goodies and this is the one set that you can keep watching and still find new things. Still, I'd gladly give back all four discs if only Miramax would have properly released Jackson's true enduring masterpiece, Heavenly Creatures, the year's biggest missed opportunity.



2. Scratch
A simple 90 minute documentary on a very specific subject: Hip-hop DJ'ing. What could have been just another bare-bones doco DVD in fact turned out to be a lavish two-disc set, complete with hilarious how-to-be-a-DJ tutorials, extended interview segments, a terrific commentary track, and lots more. Doug Pray's incisive documentary itself is lively and funny, with audiences left wondering "what's the deal with DJs and aliens?" Just one more quirk in a sub-culture full of them. From Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay to DJ Shadow, DJ Qbert and Mixmaster Mike, this is one film filled with personality.
Full review



3. Down by Law
Jim Jarmusch is so understated you sometimes want to check his pulse. But he's definitely alive, making strange, vibrant films that play with the usual notions of character and plot, often burying his themes deep beneath the bizarre. Down by Law may be his finest work and sticking Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni in a Louisiana jail cell was a stroke of genius. Criterion's two-disc set is filled with the strange by-products of this great collaboration and the transfer of this black-and-white film is silky and beautiful. The special features are perfect for the film. Droll comments from Jarmusch, deleted scenes, a lively music video from Waits, a classic interview with Lurie (complete with his self-deprecating commentary) and, best of all, recorded phone conversations between the director and his stars.
Full review



4. Rashomon
Another in Criterion's fine series of releases by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon presents not only the film that first introduced American audiences to Japanese cinema but the director's best ever work. Pondering the nature of the truth and the complexities of the human soul, Rashomon is the rare film that affected the way people think. By telling his gripping tale from four points of view - including from beyond the grave - Kurosawa made sure that there would be no easy answers. Chilling performances, beautiful sets and cinematography and sharp, direct filmmaking ensure this film a place in history.



5. Keep the River on Your Right
As unique a movie as you're likely to see, Keep the River on Your Right takes one-of-a-kind explorer Tobias Schneebaum back to the place where, half a century earlier, he became a cannibal. Spearheaded by brave filmmaking team (and siblings) David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, the film is an odyssey of new experiences and eye-opening images. In addition to glimpsing worlds never before seen (the film delves deep into New Guinea and the Amazon) Keep the River also explores human dimensions usually shrugged off by filmmakers. With Schneebaum's advanced age, the film finds a way to present him as both a rugged explorer and a frail older man at the same time. Truly one of the biggest finds of the year.
Full review



6. Tokyo Olympiad
Kon Ichikawa's documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was meant to be a puff piece on the grand nature of the games. (2002 saw a DVD release of one of those for the recent Salt Lake City Winter Olympics; It stunk.) Instead, Ichikawa turned in a lyrical, epic visual poem, an ode to the human form and the accomplishments of the world's best athletes. At times breathtakingly inspirational, at others heartbreaking, the film uses every trick in the filmmaking book to express the magnitude of athletic achievement. Criterion's disc also includes a great deal of information on the controversy that followed the film for breaking the mold.
Full review



7. DJ Qbert's Wave Twisters and Wild Style
wave twisters Scratch wasn't the only important hip-hop release of the year. DJ Qbert (who is profiled in depth in that film) released his animated epic Wave Twisters, which combines as many visual styles as the score combines musical ones. Qbert is a master at mixing disparate elements and the fun here is in the way he reconfigures them to create something unique. Mixing old school hip-hop influences with cutting edge technology Qbert creates a deep, textured collage. His animators find the visual equivalent in their colorful, goofy images.

wild styleWild Style, on the other hand, is strictly old school. The film, which showcases the music as well as the graffiti and breakdancing of the original Bronx innovators, is one of the true originals in hip-hop culture. Filmed by Charlie Ahearn before most people had even heard of rap, Wild Style contains legendary performances and moments from raps early days. The print used for the Rhino's DVD is as good as it's going to get considering the age and condition of the film but Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy's commentary plus a generous collection of extras (not to mention the seminal film) make the disc invaluable.
Full reviews: Wave Twisters | Wild Style



8. Unforgiven and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
unforgiven Clint Eastwood has spent his career building iconic men, men who barely need to mumble a couple of words before you know how tough and gritty they are. But with his 1991 film Unforgiven he brought them back down to human scale, tearing them apart and looking inside to find the wounded souls and unglorified truths behind the myths. The extras are plentiful, if a bit underwhelming, but the crystal clear transfer and engaging sound make the special edition a must see.

one flew Unforgiven harkens back to the glory days of 70's filmmaking but Cuckoo's Nest is a big part of why that decade is so revered in the first place. Milos Forman's delicate, transcendent ode to mental insanity (or sanity, actually) is perfectly shot by Haskell Wexler and superbly acted by a cast of then-unknowns, many of whom are now big stars. But the entire enterprise hinges on the masterful performance of one Jack Nicholson. His RP McMurphy is one of Hollywood's most enduring characters and with this terrific two-disc set a whole new generation of moviegoers should get to find out why.
Full review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest



9. The Last Waltz and The King of Comedy
Martin Scorsese is the best American filmmaker of the modern era. Period. His films, however, have been pretty under-represented on DVD (which is strange considering how he champions film preservation and was an early supporter of laserdisc.) Taxi Driver has a fine special edition and Criterion put out a great disc of The Last Temptation of Christ but many of his other films (Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas) are only so far available in lackluster bare-bones editions. This year two of his less well-known films made their way out in fine shape: His outstanding concert film The Last Waltz, an epic peek at the final performance by The Band featuring a who's-who of great 70's rock, and King of Comedy, arguably his darkest film, which came out just at the end of the year in a simple but satisfying low-budget edition.
Full review: King of Comedy



10. Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 2
With all the X-Files sets worth buying out of the way, fans of TV sci-fi (with a kick) needed something new to obsess on. Following the fun first season Buffy entered its sophomore year with style, continuing its mix of old and new mythology with smart, dark plots and a twisty emotional landscape. Some griped over the graininess of the imagery (hey, that's the way the show looks!) but no one could argue with the content. Angel got bad, Drusilla got mad, a major character got dead, and John Ritter turned up in one of his weirdest roles ever. Plus, the second season introduced one of TV's coolest characters: James Marsters' William the Bloody, a.k.a. Spike. And somehow Fox found it in their hearts to price this full-season set at nearly half the cost of their X-Files sets. Why? Why ask? Cheers, mate!



11. PNYC: Portishead Roseland New York
UK trance-rock-jazz-punk-metal-trip-hop outfit Portishead have been pretty low-key for the last few years leaving fans to wonder if they even still exist. The only notable release this year was the DVD of their 1997 live video, which could have been just another video-to-DVD port. Instead, however, the band dropped in all their videos plus some other goodies, including the self-dubbed "embarrassing" short film "How to Kill a Dead Man." Perhaps not an earth-shattering release but the orchestra-accented versions of the band's outstanding songs were a welcome release for a loyal following eager for new stuff.
Full review



12. Ghost World
A sleeper theatrical release Ghost World was the perfect discovery on DVD. Steve Buscemi's best performance to date plus the unstoppable sarcasm of the terrific Thora Birch made seeing Ghost World a highlight for the year. Plus, the character "Doug" was one of the most incredible minute-long roles ever put on screen. Terry Zwigoff's subtle direction and comic book artist Daniel Clowes' great characters combined into something totally unique. These characters are who we are at our most bitter moments. As for the extra features, all I can say is "Jaan Pehechaan Ho!"




The year's best reissue: The Herzog / Kinski Collection
Other than a new transfer for Nosferatu this box basically compiles Anchor Bay's previous Herzog / Kinski releases into one beautiful box. With classics like Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Nosferatu, misunderstood masterpieces Cobra Verde and Fitzcarraldo and the minimalist anguish of Woyzek this is a set that burns with intensity and rage. Kinski was a mad actor and Herzog his equal behind the camera. The lengths they drove each other to are barely believable, as detailed in the set's sixth disc, the celebrated documentary My Best Fiend.
Full reviews: Nosferatu | Woyzeck | Cobra Verde | My Best Fiend



The year's worst DVD: Charles Manson Superstar
It's always tough picking the worst DVD. Is it the one with the most incompetent presentation? The worst content? The most worthless ideas? This one covers all those categories. An unthinking "exploration" into Manson's mind that features endless brain-numbing interviews with the man while throwing in third-grade art project graphics and tiny scraps on information about his crimes. The director seems a fan of Manson, an unwholesome position, but one that should at least cause the piece to take on a unique point of view. Instead, however, it just drones on and on and on...
Full review

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