Bright Lights Film Journal

The Best classic DVDs of 2009

1. AGE OF CONSENT (1964, d. Michael Powell).
 A very young Helen Mirren smolders in Michael Powell’s final film; it’s her debut and she’s already ripe as a succulent anything and a good enough as an actress that if you ask her to play a pouty uber-earthy seductive urchin (DR. NO’s Ursula Andress as drawn by R. Crumb) she can deliver that, and a fully developed Aussie lass, richly shadowed with complexly crosshatched emotions at the same time, without straining herself. The two disc set is dynamite, including A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, AKA STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. (Read original post here)

2. THE CHEAT (1931, d. George Abbott)
“What’s so sordidly pre-code about it all is that the “cheat” of the title refers not to Tallulah cheating at cards, or cheating on her husband via infidelity, but rather cheating on Pichel–our lonesome bachelor– by trying to back out of their deal (bread for sex) after he’s already paid off her gambling debts. In other words this sort of deal was–in the pre-code universe–as valid and holy (pr unholy) as the state of marriage itself. She’s just being “gay and modern” to toss a f-ck poor Pichel’s way, but backing out of the date makes her the titular lady of dishonesty.” (Read full set review “Loucheness Unchecked” here)

3. WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933, d. William Wellman)
“…one of the most absorbing, clear-eyed, unsentimental pieces of social realism that pre-dates Grapes of Wrath (1939). It’s the Over the Edge (1979) of the Depression, telling the tale of the “children of the forgotten men” , boys (and some well-concealed girls) who leave their starving families behind , so as not to be a burden , and ride the rails in packs, hurling rocks and eggs at the railroad bulls who try to stop them, beat them, and in one case rape them (a very intense pre-Code moment).” It’s simply devastating in its power, truth and finally, beauty. Read the full review of FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD III here.

4. UNDERWORLD USA / CRIMSON KIMONO ( 1961, d. Sam Fuller) The last two films in the amazing Sam Fuller boxed set make it worth the price. I’ve always found it hard to write about Fuller, maybe because his work is so pure, so beautiful in its primitive perfection. Both these films are rich in Weegee style urban photography and tell similar stories: a sexy witness to a crime holed up with a boozy old broad/beatnik who’s de-facto son figure is one super fast shark of self-interest. In UNDERWORLD, Cliff Robertson is the sneering hardhead who turns into a good guy by default when he goes up against bags sleazier than himself. Beatrice Kay is the boozy older woman who lets Cliff hang out in the back of her bar. And Dolores Dorn is sexily vapid as Cuddles, the witness who may be in danger. Pow! Bang! KIMONO has a cameo by Fuller as one of Glen Corbett’s snitches! Kapow! Racism leads to low self-esteem! Strippers! Too bad Fuller gets lost in Japanese love triangles instead of the easy KILLERS-like rapport between Corbett and too-cool Japanese-American cop James Shigeta; when they’re just two joes solving a case while living together in a posh hotel there’s a nice level of low-key camaraderie with cool bits of business that let you know these guys have been through one major shitstorm in Korea and now move and think together like a single unit. But it’s all only so you can understand why Shigeta is so upset to be part of this otherwise Caucasian geometry, since even here in Little Tokyo, a Nisei can’t kiss a white chick unless it’s all highlighted with day-glo pink like a used cultural studies text book. Typically brilliant pick-up line: “We don’t like being called cops, like girls don’t like being called broads.”

5. REPULSION (1965, d. Roman Polanski)
There isn’t any other version, with Criterion’s beautifully stripped job enabling us to see all the weirdness we were promised by gushing art snob reviews and could never see for ourselves in the ratty DVDs of old. And if ever there was a reason to buy a blu ray player, Criterion’s REPULSION is actually cheaper on blu-ray, at least via Amazon. As Kim Morgan says, Polanski Understands Women! The film ain’t no barrel of laughs, but it’s potent… and necessary, as the waves of mutant hostility against Morgan’s piece proves. (PS, I talked myself into buying a blu-ray writing this, and comment more on the Repulsion-blu experience on my Acidemic).

6.  FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971, d. Dario Argento)
“The long-awaited decent DVD release of 4 Flies on Gray Velvet is a late-inning coup for anyone trying to lose their moral compass, and you should be trying, because it’s harder than you think. Luckily, Argento’s films–even at their worst–are never “safe” and always rich in moral ambiguity: Good guys are hipster artists driven to risk their friends’ lives in finding the killer, more out of perverse fascination than genuine empathy for the victims; the killers have their reasons–usually mental illness caused by brutal child abuse, and police hardly matter, except as deadpan mashers waiting around on the sidelines with their bushels of red herring.” (Acidemic 2/09)

7. GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE (1968, d. Jack Cardiff)
Just because I can never get more than 10 minutes into this without falling asleep doesn’t mean it’s bad. Jack Cardiff (the photographer of all those surreal, glowing Powell-Pressburger films) + Marianne Faithfull + bikes, man. Imagine a feminist flashback EASY RIDER, based on some piece of French paperback smut, and I mean that sincerely; it was the female BROWN BUNNY of its era! What a double feature they’d make!

8. MADE IN USA (1966)
If you’ve ever basked in the primary pop glow of Pierrot Le Fou and wished Godard had made a whole slew of movies in widescreen color with Karina, guns and anti-American sloganeering, then Made in USA is your film, though it could easily be the last of that slew. It delivers the goods while showing you just how much less good such goods are a second time; the flower that burns brightest fades fastest, and in this case fading means growing wise to its own capacity for metaphor mixing. Made just one year after Fou, it seems as if it’s the end of a double decade run of sequels.(“Someone Left a Maoist in the Rain“)

9. ZABRISKIE POINT (1970, d. Michelangelo Antonioni)
“The bands are all good: Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia, Roscoe Holcomb singing “I wish I was a single girl again.” Rod “Time Machine” Taylor is the breadhead with a modernist office who shacks up with a hippie temp Daria Halperin. Soon she’s driving off to meet him at some potential desert community he’s making blueprints for, while meanwhile the young radical of her dreams is maybe killing a cop at the campus demonstration, then stealing a pink plane. Dude! He can fly a plane, you’d think he could get a job.” (Zabriskie Point is Anywhere)

10. MARLENE (1984, d. Maximillian Schell)
Award for least publicity of the year, this long awaited region 1 DVD crept out of the waistband of the Kino label and quietly sat there amidst the usual documentary suspects, hoping patient fans would notice. I’d heard so much great stuff about this I knew I’d be disappointed, and I wasn’t. Basically we hear Dietrich ranting and bullying like a dour Teutonic matriarch for whom anything outside her own preferences is kitsch and camp, a grandparent you dread visiting, and your parents are even more nervous and eager to leave than you are. Dietrich lies about being an only child, bullies the film crew and otherwise divas it up without allowing herself to be photographed. Oh yeah, and she’s often drunk! Not really ideal for single sitting viewing, this is no doubt a great film to get schnockered to at six in the morning, pretending you’re flipping through old scrap books with the Divine One herself..

Read also, if you choose, my best of the decade and best of the year – and know I love you, in any decade, in any year, in any format.