Monday, December 28, 2009

2009: The year in DVD

There were countless great movies released on DVD in 2009, so what follows isn’t “the best” of them so much as the ones that seemed to cry out most urgently for a wider audience, some quite old, some unjustly forgotten, some previously ill-served on video, all of them very much worth your while.

The Whole Shootin’ Match
Gorgeously packaged and generously supplemented, Watchmaker’s release of Eagle Pennell’s lost 1978 debut reminds us how seldom we see resonant stories from the vast America existing between the costal metropolises. Alternately despicable and deeply endearing, old pals Sonny Carl Davis and Lou Perryman—who was sadly murdered in his Austin home earlier this year—are forever stumbling between get-rich-quick schemes and humbling disasters, between bouts of drunken revelry and bursts of terrifying lucidity. Theirs is a rambling, fumbling, comically inspired waltz across Texas.

Another chronicle of male friendship by turns appalling and touching, this 1970 feature is among the best of John Cassavetes, the father of modern American independent film. Following the death of their fourth musketeer, Peter Falk, Cassavetes and Ben Gazarra undertake one long, lost, wasted weekend, getting as far as England before they even realize what the hell happened.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Criterion’s typically deluxe release of Chantal Ackerman’s 1975 ultra-slow-building, devastating debut about three days in the life of a single mother and prostitute is impeccably preserved and encourages hypnotic revisits. Its observance of everyday banalities is so exacting and immersive as to make high drama of the smallest event, and to invite compassion and repulsion in equal measure. It also makes you wonder if Delphine Seyrig isn’t one of the great unheralded actresses of cinema history.

The Exterminating Angel, Simon of the Desert
Two crowning achievements from Luis Buñuel's prolific and under-appreciated Mexican period, the former (1962) finds Mexico City's snotty elite huddling together inexplicably in a house that they just can't seem to leave, while the latter (65) is an outrageously bizarre biopic about a saint who has to contend with Silvia Pinal's Satanic minx tempting him from his pedestal in the desert. It ends with them trapped in a cabaret where young folks gyrate to a dance called 'Radioactive Flesh.' I'm definitely performing a reenactment this New Year's Eve.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
When you spend as much time as I do compulsively gazing at the young, handsome, sleepy-eyed face of Robert Mitchum in his many films of the 1940s and 50s, it comes as something of a shock to see him as the palpably world-weary protagonist in Peter Yates’ wonderfully detailed, downbeat, Boston-based crime drama, originally released in 1973 and newly resurrected from oblivion by our dear friends at Criterion. Mitchum’s so damned good here as the titular gunrunner trying to retire, one more shifting point in the film’s wintry geometry of crime and punishment.

The Walking Dead
The diamond hiding in Warner’s otherwise pretty negligible
Karloff and Lugosi Horror Classics box, this melancholy tale, released in 1936, of a lonely man framed and sent to chair, only to be resurrected and thus able to exact his revenge, is endowed with far more poetry than its generic premise would have you believe, thanks in part to director Michael Curtiz and in part to Boris Karloff, one the true greats, who makes us believe in a sadness that follows us beyond the grave.

A Matter of Life and Death
The astonishingly beautiful use of Technicolor in Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece is only one reason to own this sublime Sony reissue. A fantastical romance perched on the edge of mortality—one sufficiently attuned to the strange workings of the mind as to garner accolades from Oliver Sacks—it finds a British WWII pilot tumbling to earth and miraculously surviving, only to be shot heavenward by his love for an American radio operator. Will the celestial tribunal allow this trans-Atlantic couple to stay together?

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 1
The Sniper (1952), The Lineup (58), Murder By Contract (58): none had been on DVD before, and every one of them is a gem, encapsulating much of what was thrilling, fascinating, daring, and deliciously nasty about the final years of the classic noir cycle. Add Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (53) into the mix and you’ve got yourself one of the best noir collections ever released. Your image of genteel 1950s America will never be the same.

Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura
Among the most woefully under-represented of Japanese directors in the West, Shohei Imamura was lovingly devoted to the seedy, the undigested, the vulgar, and the desperate masses living at the bottom of the social totem pole, a rather outrageous way to shape one's career in postwar Japan. This trio from Criterion are perhaps not my absolute favourites, but they're nonetheless crazily entertaining, terrifically perverse, often strangely beautiful tales of sex, murder, crime and obsession.


Paul Matwychuk said...

You've probably seen this already, but if you haven't, The New Pornographer's Bunuelian video for "The Laws Have Changed" will put a big smile on your face:

JB said...

Just look at all that Radioactive Flesh! Twelve hours to 2010 and I'm going into convulsions already. I can barely type!

Thanks for the link. I don't see many music videos. Of course I think the last one I did was for Grizzly Bear's 'Two Weeks,' and now every time I put on the record I keep seeing the band singing to me with those fucked up faces and it kinda gives me the chills. It's such a pretty song!