Holy Mackerel, 2007 was only one page ago in this blog, and already only five days left to go before 2009! 2008 has been a pretty eventful year in my life, as it turned out—what with the book finally coming out and also with nearly killing myself in a car accident– but enough about little old me… it’s time to select the favorite DVDs of 2008, girls and boys.
The big non-event of the year, DVD-collecting-wise, was that I finally relented (after Criterion announced its first spate of Blu Ray releases) and bought a Blu Ray player as well as a slew of discs in the new format. I think losers in a war should shut up and not make any excuses, so as a former supporter of Toshiba and HD DVD, I will refrain from cracking “I told you so”-’s to those who got stuck with the Blu Ray discs unplayable in your instantly obsolete players and have to deal with the consumer-insulting concept of “firmware update.” So far my unassuming Pioneer player has shielded me from any major hiccups, and that’s just the way I hope things stay. Blu Ray, while not God’s perfect solution to the problem of high-def upgrading, still does allow us to have access to a goodly number of cinematic arts in the form that makes us a lot more appreciative of their visual and aural capacities. I guess I have made peace with the format, for now: I don’t expect me to switch over to downloadable files in HD anytime soon. I am watching the latest season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent on iTunes, for sure, but that will not stop me from buying them on DVDs, or even Blu Ray, if NBC bothers to release them at all.
Korean cinema industry continues to struggle with a host of problems, most of which are of their own making. The truly pathetic decline, or near obliteration, of the secondary market for motion pictures has been an ongoing issue for several years now, but no one is doing anything about it. The DVD market is on the last lines of life support and is paging Dr. Kervokian or anyone else who could just put it out of its misery. The proposed bill to apply the more strict anti-trust regulation on the distribution of motion pictures languishes on the shelf, gathering dust. Hollywood-ization of Korean cinema, in the sense of relentless pursuit of “high concept” movies, slavery to fashions and fads and marketing-driven film production, continues unabated, exactly when the old Hollywood models are crumbling into pieces to make way for the new architectural designs of the Darren Aronofskys and Christopher Nolans.
As for illegal downloading, all I want to say is that this is not the problem that can be fixed through legal or political means. The heart of the problem lies in the Korean consumer’s basic lack of respect for motion pictures as cultural products, and the idiotically myopic industrial policies that cater to such lack of respect to make quick bucks: the kind of marketing campaign, for instance, that suggests a movie-goer paying regular ticket price is a sucker compared to some teenaged sharpie getting discounts from using certain credit cards, etc. If you are not willing to pay your own hard-earned bucks for a product, then you don’t give a poop about it, I mean, really. You cannot call yourself a fan of Korean movies if you didn’t make any contribution to the livelihood of the people who make dem movies (unless you are Kim Jong Il, of course). Down with the illegal download!
One bright spot that warms my heart is the Korean Film Archive’s heroic and greatly underappreciated effort to preserve, excavate and make available in public old Korean films, some of which have been dug up among archives of North China and never seen the light of day for more than 40 years. And the Korean film industry continues to draw ridiculously talented men and women thoroughly devoted to filmmaking, still capable of knocking us out with films like The Chaser.
Oh well, enough of patriotic jeremiad. Let’s get down to business. As was the case with the 2007 list, the following choices do not reflect my calmly collected, rational evaluations of the movies, animations and TV series found in the respective DVDs and Blu Rays: neither do they represent what I consider to be the highest-quality presentations of the titles. This is simply a very personal and subjective list of the discs that I found intriguing, delightful, surprising, emotionally galvanizing and/or otherwise memorable. And again like last year, there is a separate list for Korean-language speakers at Djunaboard here. I know, the items are not identical. It was actually extremely difficult to pare the list down to even twenty, much less ten.
10. How the West Was Won- Blu Ray (Warner Brothers- No Region Code)
Is How the West Was Won the kind of timeless classic that can be compared favorably to the best works of John Ford and Henry Hathaway? Probably not. Still, this title was one Blu Ray disc that I thought the disc producers (in this case, Warner Brothers) could proudly point to when confronted with a consumer’s cynical question, “So what does this incredibly enhanced capacity of a Blu Ray disc do for us exactly?” The second disc features the “Smilebox” presentation of the movie that curves visible areas of the screen to simulate the original Cinerama projection: in a regular widescreen, the image projected onto three-panel screens becomes inevitably distorted. I had initially expected something borderline cheesy or in any case pretty gimmicky, but no, as soon as I started watching the first three minutes of the Smilebox version I got totally sucked into the jaw-dropping vista of snow-bound canyons, raging river currents, etc. Breathtaking is the only appropriate word here. Also included in the set is the documentary Cinerama Adventure, an exhaustive run-down on this specialty format, that is worth the price of purchase by itself.
9. The Invaders- The First Season (CBS/Paramount- Region 1)
I have still managed to miss The Man from U. N. C. L. E. but otherwise no classic TV series was as much of compelling viewing as Quinn Martin’s The Invaders. Starring Roy Thinnes as an architect who is privy to a planetary conspiracy by the aliens from outer space (whose true form is never revealed), The Invaders is a quintessential paranoid thriller in the serial form, ahead of its time in its cynical attitude toward the military and government (In one stunning episode, Jack Lord—that’s right, Steve McGarrett himself—portrays a disabled former military hero who unrepentantly sides with the aliens just so that he can reclaim his “heroic” status) as well as its subtle critique of the rural America’s parochialism and conformity. Seen 30 years later, The Invaders still does its job extremely well, in many ways remaining superior to its more obvious descendants such as X-Files in its no-nonsense dramatics and cool, unsentimental presentation of alien beings.
8. Kim Ki Young Collection (Korean Film Archive/Taewon Entertainment- Region 3)
In 2008 Korean Film Archive also released the second volume of The Past Unearthed DVD collections, this time focusing on the freshly discovered Korean motion pictures from late 1930s, and other classic titles, but for the sheer non-academic, movie-nut desirability, nothing could surpass the Kim Ki Young Collection, which gathers together four major films of the idiosyncratic filmmaker: Goryeojang (1963), The Insect Woman (1972), Promise of the Flesh (1975) and Ieodo (1977).
A filmmaker of unique talent, Kim struggled mightily against the horrid material conditions of the Korean film industry in 60s and 70s, producing arch melodramas and bizarre thrillers that defy classification or even explanation. While many of his films, including their titles, were clearly inspired by the Japanese New Wave (Even though his Goryeojang, made in 1963, is intriguingly positioned between the two internationally renowned versions of The Ballad of Narayama, one by Kinoshita Keisuke and the other by Imamura Shohei), he was far from a copycat. Simply put, no one makes movies like Kim Ki Young’s. Sometimes his films are nightmarish and otherworldly in the most fundamental sense of the words. At other times, they are unbelievably kitschy, stupefyingly pretentious or just unimaginably bizarre, funnier than any intentional satire ever could. Who could possibly forget a prostitute’s necrophilic tryst with a drowned corpse in Ieodo (1977)? Or the “vibrating multicolored candies” sex scene, filmed from below a glass table in Insect Woman (1972)?
Alas, the films collected in this box set are pretty beat up, horrendously marred by scratches, spots and splices. The Insect Woman, in particular, is shown in what is reputed to be the only surviving print, one made for submission to the Sitges Festival, badly discolored in spots with burnt-in Spanish subtitles. It grieves me to think that his films remain outside the purview of the kind of loving restorations given to a Dario Argento or a Mario Bava in the Region 1 DVD market. Still, the Korean Film Archive has done its best, especially from the academic end, including with four DVDs a hefty booklet with two bilingual critical essays and a reconstructed scenario of the permanently lost sequences from Goryeojang.
7. Man of the West (MGM/UA- Region 1)
This year’s most amazing blind-purchase DVD discovery was hands-down Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, which, despite its plain (even boring) title and bland opening sequence, is one of the most mind-boggling Westerns I have ever seen. Man of the West wrecked the entire frigging concept of “revisionist Western” for me and stunned me into contemplating just how many unsung masterpieces you don’t even heard about are out there. Had it not been directed by (recent critic’s darling) Mann and not starred Gary Cooper, would it have even seen light of the day? The only weak point of the movie is that Cooper is obviously too old to play Lee J. Cobb’s nephew, but otherwise Coop’s as dangerously ambivalent—he’s darn right scary when he begins to violently undress the howling Jack Lord while pummeling him into pulp—as I ever seen him.
6. Hammer Films: Icons of Horror Collection (Sony/Columbia- Region 1)
Sony and Columbia also released another fan favorite this year, the mis-named Icons of Adventure Collection with the sinister (and racist) Stranglers of Bombay, but I am leaning toward this one. The draw for Hammer fans is the inclusion of the rarely-seen Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, but for me a beautifully remastered Gorgon was the big surprise: compared to the drab VHS version, it really was like seeing an entirely different movie, the Sony DVD version totally unexpectedly managing to evoke the Gothic-romance atmosphere (courtesy of the superb direction by Terence Fisher), despite the sorry quality of make-up on the Gorgon. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and Scream of Fear are the other selections. All in all, a highly satisfactory package, with the quality of presentation decidedly superior to the earlier Anchor Bay releases of Hammer titles.
5. The Dark Knight- Blu Ray (Warner Brothers- No Region Code)
For some reasons a few people whose opinions I greatly respect seem determined not to like The Dark Knight. Ah well, it would actually stimulate my Contrarian Impulse if everyone agrees with me on the merit of this summer blockbuster that also happens to be a head-spinning crime thriller qua film noir, a complex multi-character drama with a miraculous ensemble of actors delivering thoroughly satisfying performances on all accounts and a startling treatise on the hypocrisies of American law-and-order mentality and yes, even comic-book super-heroism. Can a super-hero franchise movie deconstruct its own myth to this extent and get away with it? Sure, to the tune of 900 million bucks in worldwide box office performance. And this is way before even mentioning the terrifying mystery that is the Joker as interpreted by the late Heath Ledger.
I claim that The Dark Knight has a far, far more perceptive take on the post-9/11, Bush-year American Zeitgeist than any so-called liberal anti-Iraq War film made in last two years (Rendition? Lions for Lambs? I don’t think so. In the Valley of Elah, a very good movie, still cannot match the diagnosis of the problem and prescriptions provided in the Batman sequel), but hey, let’s not get too excited. All I want to note here is that it is a movie like The Dark Knight that indeed provides rationalizations for switching to Blu Ray, or run to the nearest IMAX theater.
4. The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto (Kim Stim Collection/Kino Video- Region 1)
The “exquisite” in the title is not hyperbole. Neither would be adjectives like “haunting,” “enchanting” and “mystifying.” This DVD collects seven short animated films of Kawamoto Kihachiro, a master of puppet animation and long-time President of the Animator’s Association in Japan. Kawamoto, who had apprenticed at Kratky Studio in Prague under the mentorship of Jiri Trnka, soon developed his own unique style that combines the austere aesthetics of bunraku and noh with the stop-motion techniques. The DVD includes the utterly unforgettable showcases of this style, “The Demon” and “Dojoji Temple,” both adapted from folk stories in the Tales of Now and the Past, but it also demonstrates, in other works including the Kafkaesque parable “An Anthropo-Cynical Farce” (with dialogues in French) and the indescribable “A Poet’s Life,” the stunning range of his skills and the sumptuousness of his tastes as an artist. Finally, even though most of the animated shorts are squarely intended for adults, I would be remiss if I neglect to mention the subtle yet expansive sense of humor that infuses them.
3. The Naked Prey (Criterion- Region 1)
‘50s minor action star Cornell Wilde was also an independent producer and director. Taking the real-life story of the explorer John Colter and his dire experience with Blackfoot Indians as a basis, he fashioned a harrowing tale of survival and filmed it in South Africa with some of the top-class black actors living under the apartheid system. Dismissed by some critics as in poor taste and overly brutal at the time of theatrical release, Naked Prey is now positioned to be properly appreciated not only for its directorial acumen and wonderful performances, but also for its lyrical beauty and astoundingly cathartic finale. Criterion’s 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is absolutely magnificent, standing out even among its staple of restorations.
2. The Fire Within (Criterion- Region 1)
Watching The Fire Within was at once an explosively exhilarating and a deeply unsettling experience. With apologies to Michelangelo Antonioni, L’Aaventura feels like a fashion show with a very egotistical designer harboring in the background next to this searing portrayal by Louis Malle of a man who is slowly sliding into spiritual, and soon to be culminating in physical, death.
Malle has always been my favorite nouvelle vague filmmaker, even though there are few films of his that I could enjoy or have fun with, as I could with Truffaut or even Godard. The Fire Within is probably one of the monumentally feel-bad movies I have seen in my life, and yet the particular truths laid bare in it, embodied in the extraordinary performance of Maurice Ronet, a European actor of yesteryear whose early passing I mourn more than anyone else’s, haunt my dreams like no other.
1. L. A. Confidential- Blu Ray (Warner Brothers- No Region Code)
And here we go, the no. 1 disc I bought this year. L. A. Confidential. This velvety-on-surface but tough-as-iron-inside dame has not aged at all. No, I take it back, she actually improves with age, in all aspects. For me this is what contemporary American cinema is all about, and to build superb characters around an exceptionally well-managed narrative and come up with a story that alters the reality of the lived world through our newfound perception of it. The very definition of cinematic art.
Enough ramblings! I hope you enjoyed my list this year around, too, and as anyone who puts something like this together would wish, you might be a tad more interested in checking out one or more items mentioned in it for yourself. Thanks for reading, and I will be back with more DVD reviews and interviews of SF/cultural studies people very soon.