2008 was a far better year for home video than it was for venturing out to the cineplex. Granted, DVD sales are slumping, but as I look back over the past twelve months, I'm thinking that this has been one of the best years yet for film collectors and other home vid cineastes as the studios continue to make their "deep library" available to all of us here in this wide audience. "DVDs are the primary force keeping film history alive," observes Dave Kehr in today's New York Times.Fans of the movies that didn't show at the local mall -- we're talking acknowledged Hollywood classics, world cinema and other essential film-cred titles, as well as "cult" favorites and obscure oddities -- had a particularly rich year. DVDs are making it easy for all of us to watch at our leisure any number of international films, world-class animation, documentaries, and other previously impossible-to-find discoveries. And when it comes to comfortable old favorites, 2008 proved that you can still bring new life to familiar classics through improved digital transfers aimed at film fans who'll trade in their old DVDs for a significant new upgrade of a favorite movie. For starters, the next-generation high-definition Blu-ray disc format has been a godsend for film buffs wondering if their favorite movies can look even better than the previous DVD editions. Sure, we expect The Dark Knight to look awesome in high-def -- the really nice surprise has been what all that extra digital juice can do for generations-old movies such as Casablanca. "It's like seeing the movie for the first time" has become an easy cliché among Blu-ray adopters, but it's a cliché with some teeth behind it.So as I look at my shelves in the Temple of Dude, I accept that I'm not just fully on board the Blu-ray bandwagon, I'm playing lead sax and tossing confetti to the crowd. As a long-time film collector, I was happy throughout 2008 to shell out for high-def enhancements of old favorites such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (which is more than a little magnificent now on my big home screen), The Godfather Trilogy: The Coppola Restoration (among the most significant digital restorations available to us), Patton, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2, Planet of the Apes, MGM's first high-def editions from the James Bond franchise (particularly the Sean Connery titles Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball), L.A. Confidential, and the original (still only, as far as I'm concerned) The Day the Earth Stood Still. Even Ray Harryhausen and Stephen Sondheim got the new Blu digital love this year. Meanwhile, this year also brought us damnfine DVD upgrades of gotta-haves such as Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. and The Apartment, and the new matched-set editions of Hitchcock's Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window. A long-awaited sample of Disney nostalgia finally arrived on DVD -- and then rapidly sold out -- when we got Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. A healthy percentage of these would fit on my list of "Disc Picks" for '08.So could a good dozen or more releases this year from The Criterion Collection, the independent company that gives us the Waterford crystal of home video discs. Big props this year go to Criterion's new Eclipse series, no-frills multidisc sets with thematic groupings such as the musicals of Ernst Lubitsch, the films of Japanese masters Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, or the controversial work of Samuel Fuller. Other notable titles receiving the red-carpet Criterion treatment were Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, the Max Ophuls set featuring The Earrings of Madame de..., Alexander Korda's The Thief of Bagdad, and Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! On top of all that, Criterion's move to Blu-ray has not only provided a remarkable new version of one of my essential faves, The Third Man, but also gave me a delightful new discovery with Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express. I covered this first wave of Blu-ray additions earlier this month.Consider all of the above as being among the discs I recommend to you personally, and as titles that remind me why I came to love movies in the first place. So you'll understand my difficulty in selecting a final, subjective handful of DVD and Blu-ray titles as my supreme Disc Picks for the past twelve months. I do enjoy the challenge, though, and caveat it only by saying that if you ask me again tomorrow the list is bound to adjust to my mood and mindset of the moment. New movies are conspicuously few, not because I don't like new movies -- or else I wouldn't be working here -- it's just that I'm deliberately avoiding a done-to-death list of obvious titles. Besides, while I love having The Dark Knight and Iron Man at home to watch any time the mood strikes me (although I haven't yet decided which is my favorite superhero-inspired movie of the year), they aren't among the contenders that give me a warm cinephilic film-fan glow when they catch my eye on my shelves. Those listed below do. These are some of 2008's discs that never fail to give me rewatchable pleasures, that make me happy to be a movie geek.
Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) (Amazon)
Georges Méliès (Wikipedia) was the stage magician who pioneered using the new medium of moving pictures to tell fantastical, whimsical, charming tales -- journeys to the moon, an expedition to battle a giant at the North Pole, weird or comic dream encounters, Arabian nights adventures, historical reconstructions, melodramas, and even erotic films -- with elaborate and clever special-effect techniques of his own invention. Specialty market production house Flicker Alley has done film history fans a great service by giving us all of Méliès' 173 surviving short films on five DVDs. I've owned a fraction of these before on earlier DVDs, and never have they looked this good or, in some cases, been this complete. The boxed set also includes an informative booklet and the short 1953 biopic by Georges Franju, Le Grand Melies. Here's where it all started. Awesome awesome awesome.
The General - The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition (Amazon)
Kino International brought out a new DVD of a film I've already owned in three other DVD editions. When reviews said that this latest disc presented the film with the vividness and clarity you get from a new high-def master struck from the original camera negative, I immediately ordered up my fourth DVD. I love it that much. Buster Keaton's 1927 epic comedy-adventure-spy-chase-thriller The General routinely tops lists of the best films from the silent era, not to mention appearing on any worthwhile list of the greatest films ever made then or now. Kino's new "Ultimate 2-Disc Edition" comes with a superb new print of Keaton's classic, a new Carl Davis score (with a 5.1 Surround option) that has become one of my favorites, and a fine collection of supporting extras. I have retired all my previous DVD editions of The General except the import from France, and Kino's has the advantage of delivering all its content in English.
The Fall (Amazon)
Although The Fall premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, its theatrical release came last February, "presented by" its two best-known producers, David Fincher (Fight Club) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich). Ambitious, bold, heartfelt, and uniquely beautiful, it is perhaps the best overlooked film of '08. Roger Ebert gave The Fall a 4-out-of-4 rating, recommending it as "a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists. There will never be another like it." As much as anything else it celebrates our love of myth- and movie-making. I discovered The Fall not in a theater but on disc, and gush at length about it here.
I enjoyed it immensely in the theater and, now at home in my player, it continues to roll around in my head in a way that few films this year have. As storytellers and CGI wizards, the gang at Disney/Pixar never fails to impress the hell out of me. On a home theater system WALL-E's Blu-ray edition is several layers of astounding (as you'd expect from Pixar), and the extras -- such as famed cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) teaching the digital wiz-kids how to make the movie look like a movie rather than a cartoon -- just make me admire their work even more.
Casablanca - Ultimate Collector's Edition (Amazon)
Warner Home Video proved that no matter how much you have memorized every frame and line of dialogue in a movie, if the movie's good enough there's still more to discover. For me, the greatest value of Blu-ray is how it can be used to improve an old love. My review is here.
The Adventures of Robin Hood on Blu-ray (Amazon)
Warner Home Video again restores a vintage classic to a pristine vividness that's so revealing it really is like seeing the movie fresh for the first time.This big, sunny, hugely enjoyable dazzler -- impeccably cast, directed, and produced -- is a pitch-perfect action romance from 1938 and exults in all good things we associate with Golden Age Hollywood. Here in lavish portions are athletic Errol Flynn's dashing bigger-than-lifeness, Olivia de Havilland playing Maid Marian as a "bold Norman beauty" without being drippy about it, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains as the villains Sir Guy of Gisbourne and King John, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's rousing orchestral score, a thousand resplendent costumes, loads of comic byplay, and swordfight scenes that set the standard for all subsequent swordfight scenes. Making sure we miss none of it, the movie bursts from the screen with the kind of glossy, incandescent Technicolor that sears images directly into your visual cortex. Now magnificently restored with Warner's Ultra-Resolution process, The Adventures of Robin Hood displays the jewel-like colors and fine detail woven into every doublet and gown. It's beautiful, really, and like the Casablanca Blu-ray it's the very model of a definitive home video release of a beloved classic. Plus it's loaded with extras -- even the WB cartoons are in 1080p HiDef.
Zulu (Amazon UK)
Okay, here's where I cheat a little. Zulu is one of my favorite historical war movies, a big British battle epic from 1964 that introduces a young Michael Caine, who learns that you need more than a stiff upper lip when a few thousand Zulu warriors are massing around your tiny colonial fort. Peter Jackson, in the DVD extras on the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, notes that the way he filmed the Battle of Helm's Deep was directly inspired by Zulu.The home video rights to Zulu have been carelessly handled, and in North America it has been next to impossible to get a decent DVD edition of it. They tend to be technically, well, crap, with lousy transfers of subpar prints. (The last good home video edition here was the now-defunct Criterion Laserdisc.) But outside North America, Paramount Pictures has owned the film. So last year, to get a first-rate DVD here at home, I imported one from Amazon UK. However, this year I replaced my region-free DVD player with a Blu-ray player that has its region-code firmware resolutely hack-proof. That means pfft! -- I could no longer play Zulu or any other Region 2 DVD. Now, mere moments ago while "doing research" for this very article, I stumbled across these rapturous reviews at DVD Beaver and Blu-ray.com, followed by the customer reviews at Amazon UK. Paramount has released a demo-quality Blu-ray disc of Zulu! And again it's apparently available in North America only as a UK import; however, the disc is region-free and will play in any Blu-ray player anywhere! The icing on this oh-hell-yeah! cake is this: Even with the currency conversion from pounds to dollars, plus VAT tax and shipping, the total cost of this new edition of Zulu on Blu-ray set me back only $24, a bargain. Score! So while technically I haven't seen this particular edition of Zulu, it's going on my list of 2008 Disc Picks because I'm still feeling the buzz of discovering it only moments ago.And that's a feeling I get when I think about the movies I love.
Besides the other Disc Picks assembled by my fellow Film.com contributors, some more lists of the year's best DVDs are:DVD Savant's list of The Most Impressive Discs of 2008. Our own Glenn Erickson expands his choices to a wide-ranging and comprehensive rundown of the year's notable releases.Dave Kehr's New York Times piece on Notable DVDs of 2008Tribune newspapers' 10 best single-film DVDs of 2008Amazon.com's Editor's Picks, Top 100 Customer Picks, and TV-on-DVDNPR's DVDs For Videophiles Who've Seen It (Almost) AllNPR's For Discerning Couch Potatoes, The Best TV On DVDEntertainment Weekly's 10 Best Movie DVDs of 2008Entertainment Weekly's The Best and Worst TV DVDs of 2008Sight & Sound magazine's The DVDs of 2008Evening Standard's Best DVDs of 2008 Film Detail's Best DVDs of 2008Armchair Commentary's The Best DVDs of 2008: TV