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The best DVDs of 2003

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Just when you thought it was safe to open a newspaper, here's one more column on the Best Stuff of the Year.

In order to simplify things, we've restricted this Best Of to titles released in this country. That said, anyone with a love of cinema and an all-region player owes it to himself to check out the Italian import of Warhol's Chelsea Girls, the UK edition of Satyajit Ray's magnificent Apu Trilogy, those newly re-mastered Shaw Brothers DVDs from Hong Kong, or that UK import of Fritz Lang's legendary M.

America still rules the DVD world, though, and the 20 titles on this list are only the tip of the gleaming digital iceberg that appeared in 2003. There were far too many runners-up to mention them all, but we'd be completely remiss if we didn't at least acknowledge Criterion's sublime Hiroshima Mon Amour, All Day Entertainment's Christ in Concrete and TCM's Lon Chaney Collection. MGM's lovingly produced line of restored horror classics such as The Ghoul and The Vampire Lovers also provided hours of pure pleasure, as did Buena Vista's Pirates of the Caribbean, Anchor Bay's Dead of Night, and so many others.

1. Alien Quadrilogy Nine discs, four films, dozens of special features and nearly 50 hours of incredible material, all jammed into an elegantly designed package that, when unfolded, stands taller than the average full-grown adult in some third world countries. All this plus a newly restored cut of David Fincher's Alien 3 that proves once and for all that the movie doesn't even begin to deserve its bad rep.

2. Three Colors Trilogy With Blue, White and Red, director Krystof Kieslowski conjured a profound and provocative meditation on human love, as insightful as it was intensely moving. These are the definitive editions of Kieslowski's masterpieces, featuring a full complement of background information, interviews, commentaries, short films and much more.

3. Looney Tunes Golden Collection American pop culture at its best, as seen through 56 classic cartoons starring Bugs, Daffy, Porky and a host of others you may have thought you'd forgotten. The extra features are cool too, and the animation is, of course, glorious. That's all, folks.

4. Sunrise One of the very greatest films ever made, and the crowning jewel in 20th Century Fox's Studio Classics series. F. W. Murnau's romantic fable (and 1929 Oscar winner) looks simply stunning on DVD, complete with rare outtakes, excerpts from lost Murnau films, and no less than two musical scores.

5. By Brakhage The late Stan Brakhage was always reluctant to allow his meticulously crafted films to be seen on home video, but that was before DVD changed all the rules. The high-def digital transfers of the 26 Brakhage shorts on Criterion's 2-disc set are every bit as vibrant and exquisitely textured as a projected 16mm print, and do full justice to this visionary artist.

6. Once Upon a Time in the West The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America have their supporters, but for my money, Once Upon a Time in the West is Sergio Leone's masterpiece. This is the uncut, 165-minute version of Leone's epic in all its anamorphic widescreen glory, complete with all the extras we deserve.

7. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers New Line's 4-disc Extended Edition of the middle section of Peter Jackson's landmark trilogy features a 223-minute director's cut that allows the film to breathe and soar in ways the shorter, theatrical cut could only hint at. Interactive maps, galleries crammed with thousands of archival images and over a dozen fascinating documentaries make this edition a must-have.

8. Tokyo Story Last year would have been the 100th birthday of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and how better to mark the occasion than with Criterion's exquisite double-disc set of the filmmaker's heartrending 1953 masterpiece? A newly restored high-definition transfer, commentary by scholar David Desser and two major Ozu documentaries add up to one of the most important releases of this or any other year.

9. Treasure of the Sierra Madre One of the best American movies of all time, John Huston's savagely witty film noir comes to DVD in a beautifully restored transfer and a wealth of supplemental materials.

10. Finding Nemo A gorgeous-looking 2-DVD set of Disney's fabulous fish story, with one disc devoted to the kiddies, and one with grown-up viewers in mind. Something for everyone, and then some.

11. Love Me Tonight/The Man Who Laughs Two amazing discs from Kino-on-Video, each representing early Hollywood at its best. The first is the marvelously inventive Maurice Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musical from 1932; the other is Paul Leni's darkly expressionistic masterpiece from a few years earlier. Grand old stuff, and looking better than ever.

12. The Living Corpse 2003 was a very good year for the cult label Mondo Macabro, and this 1967 Pakistani vampire flick (!) might just be its most intriguing effort yet. A bare-bones edition would have been manna from heaven, but Mondo Macabro sweetens the deal with fascinating extras covering everything you ever wanted to know about South Asian horror cinema.

13. In a Glass Cage Spanish director Agustin Villarango casts an unblinking eye on the terrible co-mingling of disgust and desire in the relationship of a former concentration camp doctor and his young male nurse. Alternately shocking and poetic, this is one of the most profoundly disturbing films of the last half-century.

14. Wings of Desire Everybody's favorite art film finally arrives on DVD, looking lovelier than ever and with deleted scenes, director's commentary, and other odds and ends that make entering the film's world more enticing than ever.

15. The Adventures of Indiana Jones State-of-the-art popcorn movies given a state-of-the-art presentation. Over three hours of extras round out this collection of Spielberg's immensely popular trilogy.

16. X2: X-Men United Bryan Singer's thinking person's action flick gets the deluxe treatment in a kick-ass 2-disc set crammed with enough special features to keep the geeks busy for weeks.

17. Russian Ark A cinematic tour-de-force, in which 300 years of Russian history unfold in a single, uninterrupted shot. Wellspring's DVD edition treats us to a pristine transfer of this sumptuous exercise, as well as a wealth of extras nearly as engaging as the film itself.

18. Fassbinder BDR Trilogy Anyone really wanting the goods on director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is practically obliged to pick up this beautiful box set. Included are sparkling transfers of the three, thematically linked films that made Fassbinder famous (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronica Voss), as well as a bonus disc detailing exactly why Fassbinder is the 20th Century's consummate tortured artist.

19. Man of Aran/Louisiana Story Criterion's sister company, Home Vision, also produced some great discs in 2003, and this double dose of groundbreaking documentarian Robert Flaherty was its finest hour. Nanook of the North is Flaherty's most famous film, but the two movies on these discs are his best, bolstered by hours of intriguing extras.

20. Mondo Cane Collection Blue Underground's lavish, lovingly produced box set raises exploitation to the level of fine art. Not for every taste, to be sure, but definitive editions of some of the most controversial and misunderstood movies ever made. The ultra-groovy packaging alone is almost worth the hefty asking price.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at 813-248-8888, ext. 157, or at [email protected].

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