The top 50 DVDs of 2011
Countdown the list and buy your favourite titles online
The Star Wars Saga Blu-ray
20th Century Fox
It’s the box set that got the nerdsphere bickering: all six movies, from the crowd-pleasing escapist brilliance of the original trilogy to the tax-based travesty of ‘The Phantom Menace’. All the talk focused on a handful of egregious audio ‘enhancements’ – Ben Kenobi’s Sand People-scaring bellow now sounds like Kenny Everett trapping his fingers in a door – but the packaging is every bit as bad, a parade of pastel-shaded fantasy art so hippy-drippily awful you almost expect a drawing of Han Solo riding a unicorn. Still, there’s no getting away from how magnificent the original movies (and large chunks of the prequels) are, and the set is stuffed with enough extras – docs, deleted scenes (at last!) and behind-the-scenes footage – to flatten a wookie.
Il Posto (1961)
Dir Ermanno Olmi
‘Il Posto’ by Ermanno Olmi nods to the bittersweet, faintly politicised coming-of-age tales of the Czech New Wave (‘Closely Observed Trains’ and ‘A Blonde in Love’ especially) as a young, feckless teen travels to Milan and for a date with destiny as he accepts a job in a soulless corporation.
Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Dir John Cassavetes
‘Minnie and Moskowitz’ is routinely described as one of John Cassavetes’s more accessible works, like that’s some sort of bad thing. And sure, this is a more undemanding watch than many of the intense and (pointedly) rambling films the maverick director gave birth to. But the idea at its core – can two people with absolutely nothing in common learn to love each other? – is tackled with similar gusto and intricacy, and the long and lovely route to its answer is just as nuanced, impulsive and bittersweet. Like a grubbier, grimier, grainer precursor to ‘Annie Hall’ it’s a film that will have you gulping in despair at one moment and swooning in loved-up fervour the next. Bliss.
John Smith boxset
Dir John Smith
The name of Walthamstow-born film and video artist John Smith crops up regularly in cineaste articles, on end-of-year lists and in various film festival catalogues, but for those who haven't actually seen any of his work, this brilliant three-disc DVD box set produced by London’s Lux imprint amply fills that void. Operating on a similar fringe to such eccentric landscape chroniclers as Patrick Keiller and Andrew Kötting, Smith’s implementation of meandering, deadpan monologues, most of which are delivered in his charming cockneyfied drawl, also makes him feel like the avant garde’s answer to Derek and Clive. But while Smith’s bone-dry sense of humour remains a prominent feature in nearly every one of these 20 short works, it never muffles the playful intellectual rigour on show. A superb collection from an artist who deserves wider exposure.
Masters of Cinema
Dir Shohei Imamura
Japanese director Shohei Imamura, who died in 2006, is best known as one of modern cinema’s most fearless chroniclers of the bawdy lives of the underclass. This grotesque 1961 satire presents them at their most morally and physically depraved, taking in the sexual shenanigans and dodgy dealings going down in a hellish coastal Japanese burg during the era of US occupation. Kinta (Nagato Hiroyuki) is the street punk who carries the main thread of this satisfyingly rambling film, his scheme to take advantage of rising pork prices by starting a pig farm slowly entwining him in a tangle of Yakuza in-fighting and military corruption.
Molly Dineen Collection: Vol 1- 3
Dir Molly Dineen
Molly Dineen’s documentary career started before it had even begun when her 1987 National Film and Television School student film, ‘Home from the Hill’, was bought by the BBC, re-edited and screened under the banner of the ‘40 Minutes’ series on BBC2. That film is included in the first of three volumes of her work released this year by the BFI. Dineen’s quietly observational, gently interventionist handheld filmmaking style doesn’t forgive or berate: she seeks to understand. Her interests are in tradition, institutions and the rubbing up of the old against the new. It must take a certain sort of filmmaker – determined but likeable, searching but inconspicuous – to craft such illuminating films as these.
8 Million Ways To Die (1986)
Second Sight Films
Dir Hal Ashby
It’s hard to think of an American actor with a more consistently interesting CV than Jeff Bridges, and with renewed public interest following his 2010 Oscar win came a welcome reissue for two unfairly overlooked starring vehicles. ‘The Last American Hero’, from 1973, features young Jeff as a backwoods tearaway who takes to stock car racing in an attempt to pay for his moonshiner dad’s legal fees. There’s nothing exceptional about the film – Bridges’s typically laconic and likeable performance aside – but it’s a thoroughly entertaining rags-to-riches story told with intelligence and aplomb. ‘8 Million Ways to Die’, from 1986, is a trickier but in many ways more interesting proposition, sporting a script by Oliver Stone which was later retooled by ‘Chinatown’ scribe Robert Towne and reportedly ignored by legendary director Hal Ashby, whose last feature film it would prove to be. It’s a stark slice of LA noir filtered through Ashby’s trademark shambolic, semi-improvised style and featuring one of Bridges’s most committed and cutting performances.
Dir Jan Svankmajer
The intricate, intangible logic behind the process of thoughts, dreams and memories is a subject very much in vogue in contemporary filmmaking. But one director whose curiosity in this field has produced – time and again – the most remarkable, vivid and strangely plausible works of cinema is Czechoslovakian iconoclast Jan Svankmajer. Taking Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book as his starting point, Svankmajer immediately made the material his own by having the famed white rabbit spring to life from within a glass specimen cabinet, yank some rusty nails from its paws and then spill sawdust from its chest as it dashes from the nursery. Cute, eh? The levels of irony and understatement had already been set in a prologue, where Alice (Kristna Kohoutová) announces the ensuring pandemonium as ‘a film made for children… perhaps’. But there is no perhaps: this is a film for children, though one with the bold and entirely reasonable intention of scaring the wits out of the little blighters.
The Iron Horse
Masters of Cinema
Dir John Ford
‘Springfield, Illinois, in the days when a transcontinental railroad was but a dream’ reads the opening intertitle to John Ford’s fifty-first film (shot at the age of 29), a ripsnorting take on the creation myths of modern America. This vivacious and rousing silent epic concerns a young man’s determination to reclaim the American wilderness after he witnesses his pops being scalped by a dirty, two-fingered Cheyenne. It channels all the ground-level pressures of laying tracks for the titular steam train (all captured with a near-verité candour) into a story which crams in barroom brawls, corporate deception, teeth extraction, range wars, union-busting and the historic forging of a lifelong link between the American frontiers.
Dir Jules Dassin
‘Rififi’ marks the culmination of director Jules Dassin’s fascination with the seamier underbelly of the world’s great capitals, following his inadvertent creation of the NYPD procedural with ‘The Naked City’ and his shadowy investigation into London’s lowlifes with ‘Night and the City’. Here, our heroes are a band of surly Parisian crooks getting together for one big job: ripping off a diamond wholesaler. It’s a story that has since become familiar, but ‘Rififi’ set the template, and it’s fair to say it has never been bettered. The wordless, near 30-minute heist sequence is a masterclass in tension, though even that is outshone by the woozy, devastating car-crash finale. ‘Rififi’ is a joyous film, packed with wit and humour, music and dance, visual invention and remarkable insight. Buy, beg, borrow or steal.