Gabe Powers' 2006 DVD Awards
Gabe thought it was a pretty good year, and shares some of his favourites...
2006 saw the release of the next generation formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD. Some gadget nuts have jumped aboard the blue laser bandwagon, and already started rebuilding those mountainous film collections, while others (like myself) have decided to wait this battle out, and only begin reconstruction after a victor has been crowned. Personally I don't see a need to own more than half my collection in an HD format, though I suppose my collection has quite a few more B-Grade titles than most. Regardless, the introduction of the new media has made studios and consumers hesitant.
Then there's the new standard of the DVD double dip. These days buying a new DVD the week it's released is pretty much the same thing as renting it 10 years ago. With most major releases, and releases destined to cult status, you can pretty much bet that there will be a superior version on the shelves within the year. In the VHS days we had to wait on new releases, as there was almost always a sizeable schism between rental and purchase times (some countries still practice this). Though rental companies may be losing money on the new deal, the studios are making out like bandits, effectively selling the same movie to the same customer at least two times, sometimes more.
All these factor into the general dip in the 'quality' of DVD extras this year (it could also have something to do with the fact that almost every major motion picture has seen a DVD release by now), but none more than the fact that the DVD generation is jaded. Speaking for myself, I just don't care about the extra features the way I used to, and have a habit of sticking the disc on the shelf only after watching the film itself. I've even found myself buying extra free versions of films. I still revisit the great features of past releases, but fast-forwarding through the quantity over quality releases I've purchased this year is a sad sign of changing times indeed. There's something missing. Perhaps it's heart, as special edition releases like The Alien Quadrilogy (still not a word), Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition, and of course The Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition were all hand crafted by the filmmakers or their fans. These days we get a little too much raw footage plopped onto the plastic by some uncaring studio machine.
Regardless the reason, or if this drop even really exists, 2006 was a year I found myself concerned with the movies far more than their DVDs. There are a few releases on my awards list below that do represent superior extra content, but for the most part these choices are devoted to the title, not the disc. For that I apologise to DVD fans everywhere, and please, no angry comments at the bottom of the page on this subject. Also, if I haven't included it, I probably haven't seen it, or maybe I just didn't like it.
On with the "Awards".
Best Reason to Own a DVD Player in 2006: Cartoons (R1)
I confessed in my review of Batman Beyond this year that if I'm watching TV, I'm most likely watching cartoons. I love cartoons, and thank God that there's oh so very many on the market right now. Thanks to full season DVD releases I can watch the same episodes over, and over, and over again.
Cartoon Network's late night Adult Swim line-up has always been hit or miss. Aqua Teen Hunger Force and early episodes of Sea Lab are always good for a laugh, but it was Home Movies that made the channel worth its salt in the ye olde days (about 5 years ago). This year marked the release of the last episodes of Home Movies, season four, and it was with an utter sense of the bittersweet that I watched them. I still say it's the best sitcom, animated or not, since Fawlty Towers. Only Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's Spaced comes close to equalling it. Season 4 is a slight step down from Seasons 2 and 3, so perhaps it was best to end the series before it became the mediocre mess The Simpsons has become. The show's semi follow-up, Metalacolypse, is a fun time too, especially for all us recovering metal-heads.
Recent years have seen in increase in the number of original shows on Adult Swim, but the overall quality is still very inconsistent. For every Aqua Teen and Harvey Birdman there's a Tom Goes to Mayor and 12 Oz Mouse. Two shows that put themselves way ahead of the pack last year were The Boondocks and The Venture Bros.. Both series' complete first seasons were released on DVD in 2006.
The Boondocks is a politically motivated show, concerning the adventures of two black kids moved from a poor neighbourhood to a rich one by their well-to-do Grandfather. It's based on creator Aaron McGruder's morning paper comic strip, but is decidedly more adult in nature. Think of it as the Peanuts for the 2ist Century with a short fuse and violent mean streak. The abrasive social commentary within will rub some viewers the wrong way, but sometimes the truth can hurt. The duelling comedic and melancholy tones may also turn some viewers off, but it's what ultimately makes the series’ lasting impression.
Venture Bros. is a show apparently made specifically for me, and is a kind of a spoof of Johnny Quest. Every reference, joke, and character is spot on for a pop-culture geek of my specific mindset. Where else could I find a David Bowie reference bookended by a Star Wars reference and a Clarissa Explains it All reference? Fabulous voice acting and beautiful animated style don't hurt either. Season 2 was even better than season 1, and a new DVD release can't come soon enough.
In the realms of less adult animated entertainment, 2006 saw the DVD release of both my favourite television drama, and my latest television obsession, Justice League and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Justice League is purely and simply a great show, coming from the creators of the Batman, Superman, and Batman Beyond animated series. Previously unavailable in entire season collections, I've now got all but the final season on my shelf, and I've watched them each more than once. The quality of the video transfers got better with each release, from full frame, to widescreen, to finally getting an anamorphic image on the latest release. I could do with a few more commentaries next time.
Avatar was a thrilling surprise when it was first aired last year–an American, Anime styled cartoon (never a good thing), released on the Nickelodeon network for kids, that mixes equal parts Miyazaki, Tolkien, Tsui Hark, and Kurusawa. It's a recipe for disaster, but some how it works. The show is at all times touching, funny, thrilling, and obscenely engaging. The DVD collection had a pretty sorry transfer, and little in the way of features, but was still worth the purchase. Anything to ensure the series has the money to finish up next year.
Best Film Hitchcock Never Made Staring Minors: Tie, Hard Candy (R1) and Brick (R1)
What if Alfred Hitchcock was still alive? Might he work for the Disney Channel? I'd like to think so, especially if the Disney Channel was into producing thoroughly 'R' rated thrillers like these. If you hadn't guessed by that weak introduction, this section of my awards has been concocted simply to bring attention to two of the finest films of 2006, neither of which has an impressive enough DVD release to make this list any other way.
Brick is a Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler styled film Noir, with classically stylized dialogue and motivations. The only catch is that the story takes place at an American High School, and the characters are age appropriate. This absurd set-up works because the film's makers and actors take the story and method deathly serious about 90% of the time. Only when it serves the film, when humour or levity is absolutely necessary does anyone let on how silly the concept is. A good examples is a dialogue between the protagonist and a teenage drug lord who converse in the drug lord's kitchen as his mommy pours juice for everyone.
If meant to be taken seriously, Brick couldn't had it not been for the amazing efforts of its young actors. It is all stylized dialogue to be sure, hard-boiled, razor tongued, and unnatural, but I haven't seen any other film this year more deserving of the best ensemble-acting award.
The DVD is rather lacklustre, with a collection of deleted scenes and some screen tests, and I hope that a cult reputation leads to a more elaborate double-dip sometime in the near future. The transfer is gorgeous, every over saturated colour and light is beautifully rendered, and darker scenes are relatively free of noise. The Dolby Digital Surround track is the disc's finest feature, and is extremely aggressive at ideal points. Brick has a smashing soundtrack and some very imaginative sound design, both of which take it far beyond its rather meagre budget. The commentary track gives insight, but not quite enough.
Hard Candy was a film I looked forward to, but missed during its theatrical run. Negative reviews made me a bit hesitant, but when I finally got around to tossing the disc in my player I was instantly enthralled. The twisty-turny tale of a dame and a dude locked in an apartment, both of which are revealed to be a lot more than they seem on the surface would, I'd like to think, make Hitchcock proud. Like Brick, the hook here is the fact that the dame is a headstrong, under-age girl, and that she's the aggressor.
Some scenes in Hard Candy are so utterly uncomfortable that I felt nauseous by film's end, but it was the hard earned kind of nausea that comes with effective storytelling and imagination peeking, not the kind that comes with gross-out special effects. The film is one of the more beautiful of the year, and though it consists mainly of two people and one stage, it's constantly visually engaging, no small feet. The use of colour is brilliant.
I'm sure the one thing even the film's detractors will agree on is the performance of the under-age dame herself, Ellen Page. Page's performance is entirely menacing, especially considering her stature, but never did I lose my sense of sympathy for the little vigilante. Page's performance is so good, in fact, that I dislike X-Men 3 just a little bit more for hiring her as Kitty Pride, and then not utilising her to full potential. Props are also in order for antagonist (or protagonist, depending on your point of view) Patrick Wilson, who is also pretty damn sympathetic for a paedophile.
The DVD has a rather brief, but ultimately successful making of documentary, that most of all gets the viewer into the mind of the writer and the director. The actual filming process is lacking in the doc, but the post release stories are priceless. Not a great DVD (there are some minor noise issues with the video), but worth a look.
Biggest Surprise: Monster House (R1)
With the general quality of non-Pixar, computer animated features peaking somewhere between "worthless" and "painful", who'd have thought that this mo-cap horror flick for kids would mop the proverbial floor with Pixar's 2006 release, Cars? I didn't bother seeing Monster House in theatres, even though the 3-D possibilities were tempting, and assumed I wouldn't see it on DVD either - considering my general dislike of the film's trailer and concept. Monster House was also made by a bunch of nobodies, with executive producer credits that smacked of name recognition over quality. I was so very freaking wrong.
Monster House is easily the best mainstream animated films of 2006, and probably one of the top 10 films of any category released this year. The key here isn't the wondrous world of motion captured computer animation, but a solid story, a great script, and some of the best children's performances I've seen since The Sixth Sense. Without pandering to its audience, the film manages to settle itself well within the realms of children's entertainment, but also manages enough funny exchanges and one-liners to make the grown-ups in the audience laugh out loud.
"Are you guys like mentally challenged? Because if you are, I'm certified to teach you softball."
The DVD leaves a bit to be desired, as it's generally lacking in extra features, but the A/V quality of the direct to digital transfer is perfect. I can't even imagine how amazing the HD version must look. The behind the scenes featurette is informative and interesting enough, but I could see a larger set being released sometime in the near future. There's too much to this process to be covered in 30 minutes.
Best Reason to Double Dip*: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Ultimate Edition (R1)
Sometimes we double dip because a previous version of a DVD are lacking in special features. Sometimes a previous release isn't anamorphically enhanced, or all that well digitally mastered. Some of us even freak out about new surround sound or packaging. This year's re-release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a worthy purchase for all these reason. I wrote a rather lengthy review here, and included some screen caps from the previous R1 and R2 special editions for reader comparison, check it out here.
Though R1 folks will be more excited about extra features than R2 folks (who already had most of the extras available to them on an earlier release), everyone can get excited about the new transfer, which is nothing short of amazing. There's something to be said for dirt and grain when it comes to such a raw film, but proper framing, anamorphic enhancement, and colour brightening are all most welcome additions. This set is a must own for all horror film fans.
*not including my top three
Best Per-Capita Extras: Clerks II (R1)
Kevin Smith's Clerks follow up was a contender for my 'Biggest Surprise' award, but Monster House was the better movie, and thus the bigger surprise. That said, I was still pleasantly surprised by Smith's latest offering, especially considering the declining quality, and my declining interest, in his more recent work. The film is worth a watch for old fans, but it is the DVD that makes my list.
Though Clerks II doesn't have the sheer amount of extra material some of the larger sets this year had, it makes up for this in quality. Pretty much every one of the two disc set's features (save a redundant commentary track or two) is pretty close to a gold standard. At the very least these extras entertain, and reveal a very personal director and crew willing to admit they've made mistakes.
See my full review here for more.
The Better Luck Next Time Award: Cemetery Man (R1)
One of my personal favourites, Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man was finally released on R1 by genre do-righters Anchor Bay Entertainment. The disc wasn't barebones, and there wasn't any overt issue with the transfer or sound, but all in all, the disc was lacking. Why Anchor Bay had taken so very long to release this disc, especially after a press release stating 'loads of extras' is a mystery when one is presented with the DVD.
The behind the scenes featurette offered a smidgen of insight, mostly into director Soavi's career, but the Cemetery Man himself, Rupert Everet is nowhere to be found. The guy can't be that busy, can he? A quick trip to any Internet fan site is honestly just as insightful. Considering the fact that Anchor Bay studios has released something like three different versions of The Evil Dead, five versions of Dawn of the Dead, and God only knows how many versions of Army of Darkness, I find the general lack of extras pretty suspect. Stay tuned, as I'm sure within a year or two I'll be singing a different tune.
Fortunately for all of us, the disc is very affordably priced (only $6.99 during Halloween this year in some places), so double-dipping won't be a complete tragedy. See my full write-up right here.
Honourable Mention: Lady Vengeance (R1)
Like Anchor Bay, Tartan USA can't be trusted to not double-dip a possible money maker. Why, just this year they re-released Old Boy in a deluxe 3-disc set. Being the thematic sequel to Old Boy, and a rather sought after release at that, one might want to assume that a better edition isn't too far off. The current release has a nice A/V presentation (though I unfortunately did not catch the fact that it was an interlaced transfer rather than a progressive one when I reviewed the disc), but basically no meaty extras, save a commentary track or two. Considering the monster amount of behind the scenes material made available for Old Boy, I for one find it hard to believe that director Park Chan-Wook doesn't have a similar amount of footage hanging around somewhere for the follow up.
See the whole story here.
Royal Screwed Award: The Woods (All Regions)
There are pah-lenty of films released every year that so sadly end up in this category. This year's choice is a particularly sad little tale.
Lucky McKee, writer/director of the critically acclaimed sophomore horror effort May announced the production of his follow up, The Woods, way back in 2003. The title and timing even forced heavyweight director M. Night Shyamalayn to change the title of his latest release (at the time), The Village. The Village came and went, as did another two years before it finally looked like eager fans would get a look at McKee's film.
In the mean time Sony acquires MGM, who was producing the film, and the little horror flick is lost in the shuffle. It finally sees a limited release three years after filming. And what happens next? Nobody seems to like it, not even the horror fans that get an early glimpse at a genre film festival. Sony dumps the film on DVD for the Halloween holiday, and the disc is entirely barebones.
The saddest part of this story is that it's not a bad film. I have no idea what anyone was expecting out of it, but it was exactly the film I wanted it to be, only with better performances. Basically the story boils down to Dario Argento's Suspiria with a plot. The only real difference is that this time it's a boarding school rather than a dance school, and the outside threat is a little less tangible. Suspiria is an acquired taste itself, but the beauty of The Woods is that McKee has actually crafted a fantasy with believable dialogue, and allows the drama and comedy overplay the terror. It's a pretty scary movie, but it really comes down to the look and the performances, which include Bruce Campbell at his most reserved. Give it a chance.
Best DVD Nobody Got to See: Munich: Collector's Edition (R1)
My pick for best film of 2005 was released in two versions in 2006 – a standard, movie only edition, and a two-disc collector's edition. I was lucky enough to get the collector's edition in the mail for my review, but apparently no one else in the entire world got their hands on this superior version. Apparently the "Limited Edition" tag wasn't just a marketing ploy. For my thoughts on the film I direct you to my review, and warn you that it's about a trillion words long.
The second disc of features isn't exactly to die for, but it still has some grand insight into master Steven Spielberg and company's process. Basically the whole disc is one long documentary cut into several smaller pieces, much like the DVD releases of Spielberg’s Minority Report, A.I., and War of the Worlds (all available in barebones and 2 disc editions). Unfortunately for me, my special features disc came separate from my DVD, so I missed out on the classy box art, not to mention the fact that I have to see 'Property of Universal' burned into every frame of the doc. I do recall some kind of life lesson about not complaining about the teeth of free livestock though.
DVD of the Year: Seven Samurai: Criterion Collection (R1)
Seven Samurai could easily be considered one of the top ten films of all time. Some might even quite fairly place it as number one. I'm not sure if I think it's the best film ever made, but it's very, very high on my personal list. If you haven't seen it, you're missing out. It's probably the only 3 and 3/4 hour long, 50 year old motion picture even the most uncultured cineaste will ever sit through without squirming. Without Seven Samurai, modern epics and action films would be nothing. It's great, and that's that.
But here in the U.S. we've never had any juicy special features with our Seven Samurai DVDs. Special editions never seemed to have subtitles, and the available Criterion version was bare as fish-less sushi. After years and years of waiting, fans have finally received the integral English language DVD of this integral film. Criterion has pulled out all the stops by not only remastering the aged film to a previously unseen glory, but by spreading hours of extra features, documentaries, and a commentary across the set's three discs. It's like a mini film school in a box. There's even a pretty little booklet for light bedside reading. The price is rather steep, but worth the expenditure.
Runner Up: Tie, OldBoy: Collector’s Edition (R1) and King Kong: Extended Edition (All Regions)
Tartan went all out for their Collector’s Edition release of Oldboy. The new set contains almost every ounce of information, behind the scenes footage, and commentaries, not to mention a sturdy tin box that also houses the first issue of the original Oldboy comic and a film still. The film is a classic, I've said it time and again, but not every viewers taste. I don't recommend this massive collection to passing fans and the merely curious. Heck, I adore the film, and even I was overwhelmed. At times I'd even say I was bored.
Check out my full review here.
Peter Jackson's King Kong, released last Christmas, was a bloated, self-indulgent mess, but it still had several moments of genuine beauty, terror, and awe. If I had the scissors I'd have cut out about 30 minutes, especially that sub plot featuring Billy Elliot and Token Black Guy. Overall I loved the film, but recognized that it had its problems, especially in the runtime. So who'd have thought an extended version would be a good idea? Well, when the majority of the extended scenes feature computer generated prehistoric monsters, you really can't go wrong. Best of all the film now spans two discs, and we can skip the over-long boat trip all together without even going to the chapter selection menu.
As far as extras, I never got around to seeing the production diary releases, or the extras on the original release, but the all new stuff included here is up to Wingnut Film's usual standards. It's not quite LOTR level stuff, but I really enjoyed myself, and ended up watching everything in only two sittings. There's something about the way these people talk about their work that makes me love listening to them, a gift shared by only a few other film makers, like John Carpenter and Terry Gilliam. The deleted scenes that weren't reincorporated back into the film are pretty skipable, but the behind the scenes documentary, and Easter Egg production diary featurette are fabulous.
Check out Peter Martin's R2 review right here.
Other Honourable Mentions:
Slither (R1): A great little B-Movie throwback that didn't quite live up to my astronomical expectations, Slither is very rewatchable, and the disc makes up for its lack of time consuming extra features with some high quality short subjects. Also a great menu design.
Superman Returns: Special Edition (R1): It wasn't the movie fans wanted, but Bryan Singer's melancholy take on the Man of Steel was still a heartfelt and pretty motion picture. The slightly lacking extras, and sequel in the works points to a better release in the near future. My review.
Matador (R1): An utter surprise to me, Matador is a touching and colourful character study, featuring what may be a career best performance from Pierce Brosnan. It has a solid sense of quirk without ever coming off as trying too hard. My review.
The Long Good Friday (R1): Anchor Bay's release of The Long Good Friday has solid on the A/V, and features a great hour long documentary. This was the first time I was able to see the classic film, and am happy to have it in my collection. My review
Wolf Creek (R1): Horror films will always rub a lot of people the wrong way, but I thought this was one of the best throwbacks to the '70s era survival thrillers we've had during the recent resurgence. The R2 disc had some solid extras, and the filmed-in-HD video was amazing. My review.
Night Watch (R1): The R2 disc apparently has the better extras, but I'm happy enough just having the international release of the film, with its cool subtitles and extra bits. My Russian DVD was severely lacking. My R5 review.
A History of Violence (R1): David Cronenberg's latest masterwork is not a winner in the rewatchable category, but was one of the best theatrical releases of last year. Viggo Morteson was absolutely robbed of a deserving Oscar nomination. Featuring another grand commentary track from the always insightful Canadian director, and a decent behind the scenes doc, I can overlook the slight censorship between this and the international versions. Casimir Harlow's R2 review.
Uno Bianca (R1): What? You never heard of this one? Well neither had I until an impromptu trip to the store. Directed by Cemetery Man mastermind Michelle Soavi, Uno Bianca is a taught, two part cop thriller originally made for Italian TV that overcomes its tired plotline with sheer energy and visual style.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: Extended Edition (R1): I'm still not very fond of the film, even in its extended version, but the fourth disc of this half double-dip set is great. It features the film set to visual commentary, behind the scenes footage, interviews, original art, and special effects comparison shots. Worth at least a rent to even non-fans. My full review here.
Dog Day Afternoon: Special Edition (R1): One of my top five favourite films finally got a special edition release. Unfortunately, the A/V quality really wasn't that much better, and the documentary wasn't quite as in depth as I may've liked, but it was still worth my double dip.
In 2007 I'll be looking forward to the DVD and theatrical release of Children of Men, The Fountain, Pan's Labyrinth, Venture Bros. and Justice League Unlimited Season Two, The Uncut release of From Beyond, 300, Grindhouse, a Special Edition release of Bladerunner, I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, and of course, Spider-Man 3 (which will hopefully usher in that extended edition of Spider-Man 2). My hopes and wishes lie with an official Western World release of Night Watch's superior sequel Day Watch, my Russian DVD is very much lacking in extras. It would also be nice to get an official release of Dario Argento's third feature film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and the MTV animated series The Head and The Maxx. I wish for those every year, and still haven't given up.
I've still got a lot of catching up to do this year. There are plenty of solid releases I haven't had a chance to see, including United 93, Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut, Match Point, Thank You For Smoking, The Road To Guantanamo, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, This Film is Not Yet Rated, An Inconvenient Truth, and I still haven't finished Deadwood Season Two or The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.. The list goes on and on. We'll talk more next year.
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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