As much fun as I had giving my home theater system a work-out with Batman Begins and The Incredibles, you won't find either of those state-of-the-art discs on this list of the year's best DVDs.
Good as those discs were, there were just too many others that were even better.
This was the year that the industry brought out the really big cinematic guns, presenting us with sparkling DVD editions of masterpieces gleaned from a century-plus of cinema. It was almost as if the powers that be, all-too aware of the next big thing (Blu-Ray or HD-DVD) waiting impatiently in the wings, were trying to cram as much of cinema's glorious past onto DVD before the format becomes — forgive me for uttering the unutterable — obsolete.
This was such a classic-heavy year for DVD that there was scant room on our list for modern sound-and-fury extravaganzas like Revenge of the Sith, and even many of our favorite guilty pleasures fell by the wayside. Much as it pains me to tell you this, you won't find the vintage sci-fi mind-melter Matango (Attack of the Mushroom People) on this list, nor that ultra-groovy Pinky Violence Collection box set of Japanese girl-gang flicks from the '70s. That doesn't mean you shouldn't drop everything you're doing, and run out to grab copies of both.
In any event, we all know by now what DVD can do, so it's no longer enough for a disc to simply look and sound fabulous. We expect to be dazzled by sound and image and all sorts of great extras — but the bottom line, as always, is the film itself. And that's where the 20 DVDs on this year's list succeed in spades.
1. Ugetsu One of the greatest of all films finally gets the DVD it deserves. Cinephiles have been waiting forever for legendary director Kenji Mizoguchi's output to hit DVD — and although this is only one of the maestro's many astonishing films, it may very well be his best. A disarmingly poetic ghost story that succeeds on the level of the highest art, Ugetsu is as sublime an observation of human nature as you'll find, and Criterion's beautiful DVD does it full justice. Among its many revelations, this handsomely packaged 2-disc set includes a fascinating feature-length documentary on Mizoguchi, a commentary track by Japanese film expert Tony Rayns, and an indispensable 72-page book.
2. The Val Lewton Horror Collection A stunning collection of what might just be the best B-movies ever made. This affordable 5-disc set includes the nine films produced by Lewton (and directed, most notably, by Jacques Tourneur) for RKO during the early to mid-1940s — and each movie is a small but nearly perfect gem. From the original Cat People to I Walked with a Zombie to The Seventh Victim (devil worshipers in Manhattan, yeah!), each of these minimalist masterpieces makes the most of its limited budget, eschewing special effects and shock tactics for a brooding and infinitely subtle atmosphere that gets under your skin and into your dreams. An excellent documentary and some thoughtful commentaries (including one by Exorcist director William Friedkin) are the icing on the cake.
3. King Kong In a year when Peter Jackson's larger-than-life remake is making history, the original 1933 Kong — the one single movie that fans have clamored for above all others since the advent of the DVD format — finally appeared on disc. And whether you spring for the stand-alone 2-disc set or the full box set (including Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young), King Kong was worth the wait. The digital restoration here is a labor of love, with a full disc of extras highlighted by a two-and-a-half hour documentary, a history-making commentary track with Ray Harryhausen and Fay Wray, and Peter Jackson's reconstruction of the lost spider pit sequence.
4. Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Cinema 1894—1941 Proof positive that history doesn't have to be boring. Curator Bruce Posner (who previewed some of this material in Tampa a few years back) has put together a monumental collection (155 films spread across seven discs) of bizarre and beautiful experiments that sheds new light on the nature of so-called outsider filmmaking and its relationship to the Hollywood mainstream. The films presented here are abstract but rarely obtuse, with offerings arranged both thematically (surrealism, dance, etc) and chronologically. The directors range from heavy hitters like Orson Welles, Man Ray and D.W. Griffith to complete unknowns, and the results are 19 hours of intriguing images you'll want to return to again and again.
5. Pickpocket/Au Hazard Balthazar These two masterpieces by French auteur Robert Bresson, long considered a holy grail for cinephiles, both finally arrived on DVD this year in the form of typically magnificent special editions from the Criterion Collection. The most meticulous and austere of filmmakers, Bresson was working at the height of his powers in these carefully crafted tales of characters brushing up against the possibility of grace in an amoral world. The black and white photography is positively luminous in the new transfers presented here, and each disc is complemented by introductions by filmmaker Paul Schrader (on Pickpocket) and critic Donald Ritchie (on Balthazar), as well as extensive interviews with Bresson and others.