Look past the “New Releases” shelves at the corner video store and you’ll find that many of the year’s most worthwhile DVD releases weren’t at your local cineplex any time recently — if ever. Classics, collections, cartoons and other curiosities come to DVD in droves every year and, while a great many are worthless (or worse), there’s quite a bit of gold to be found amid the rubble.
2007 was a remarkable DVD year for fans of the Vatican film list.
One of the few remaining Vatican-list films never before released on U.S. DVD, Kon Ichikawa’s WWII classic The Burmese Harp (1955) got prestige treatment from Criterion, along with the director’s Fires on the Plain (1959). Like Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, both films depict the horrors of the Pacific war from a Japanese perspective.
Criterion also released an authoritative special edition of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Look for better audio-video quality than previous editions and lots of extras.
Two other Vatican-list films received special-edition releases from Sony — although the better film got far less “special” treatment. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), a well-made if not inspired film highlighted by Ben Kingsley’s astonishing performance as the spiritual leader of India’s independence movement, received an all-new introduction and commentary by the director and new featurettes on the background and making of the film.
By contrast, Fred Zinneman’s classic A Man for All Seasons (1966), featuring an incomparable performance by Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More, received a one-disc release with only a single extra, a featurette on the life of Thomas More.
Warner Bros was responsible for two new Vatican list film editions. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey received a two-disc special edition with a commentary track, documentary and other extras. And John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), which last year got a lavish two-disc treatment, this year came out in a one-disc bargain edition.
Finally, Kino released the best-yet DVD version of the silent German expressionist classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), with a high-definition transfer of a new restoration and an orchestral performance of the original 1922 score by Hans Erdmann.
Oh yes, and a year after a not-so-special 60th-anniversary DVD release of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), there’s a new two-disc edition that offers a new high-tech colorized version — but who wants to see It’s a Wonderful Life in color, no matter how “good” the color looks? Still, it’s got the original B&W too, so it doesn’t really matter which edition you get.
Never before available on DVD, the Richard Burton-Peter O’Toole classic Becket (1964), laboriously restored in 2003, made a modest DVD debut in 2007 with a one-disc edition including a few extras, none of which holds any interest with respect to the film’s historical and religious themes. (O’Toole’s flawed commentary notes the film’s many historical inaccuracies while adding some historical and theological inaccuracies of his own.) Overall, the film’s the reason to get the disc. Wanna bet there’ll be a special edition in two or three years?
Three and a half years ago, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) came to DVD in a bare-bones edition featuring only the film itself. This year, it received a new two-disc “Definitive Edition” packed with extras, from the Passion Recut (which trims about six minutes of some of the most intense violence) to four separate commentaries, including a theological commentary featuring Legionary Father John Bartunek and Gibson consultant Father William Fulco but also radical Traditionalist convert Gerry Matatics.
Another masterful Jesus movie — and a family-friendly one — also received a special-edition DVD release this year. Created for the big screen by the BBC working with a brilliant team of Russian puppeteer-animators, The Miracle Maker (2000) now comes with a director-producer commentary track mostly dealing with making-of issues such as the techniques of the Russian puppeteers.
Previously available in a two-pack with Holiday Inn, Going My Way (1944) got a low-key solo release from Universal with a couple of small extras. Once the definitive Catholic Hollywood classic, Going My Way hasn’t aged very well, but Crosby’s charm and crooning haven’t lost their appeal.
A pair of black-and-white French biopics of French women saints, long found only on out-of-print VHS, made their U.S. DVD debuts in quickie editions offering only the English-language dubs. Miracle of Saint Thérèse (1952), the best film on Thérèse of Lisieux, got a bare-bones release from Ignatius Press, while Bernadette of Lourdes (1960), the most complete retelling of the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous, was released in a one-disc edition from VCI with a few text extras. Both DVDs essentially replace the hard-to-find videotapes and are worth getting for that reason, but proper releases for both films are likely a long way off.
Ignatius also added to their growing collection of imported Italian biopics on the lives of the saints with Maria Goretti (2003), Saint Rita (2004) and Saint John Bosco (2004). Unlike the two films mentioned above, these DVDs include the original Italian tracks and optional English subtitles.
Fans of G. K. Chesterton’s pudding-faced, sharp-witted clerical sleuth were treated to a two-volume release of all 13 episodes of the British television series Father Brown (1974), starring Kenneth More and produced in the UK by Lew Grade’s ATV Network.
Two newer productions, also created for the small screen, warrant mention. Based on the true story of Catholic convert Lord Longford and “Moors murderess” Myra Hendley, HBO’s award-winning Longford (2006), with a thought-provoking screenplay by The Queen scribe Peter Morton, is a nuanced and spiritually aware exploration of the Christian precepts of forgiveness, corporal works of mercy and the beatitude of persecution for righteousness’ sake.
Finally, following The Face (2001), a two-hour documentary on the history of representations of Jesus Christ in sacred art, PBS and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops again joined forces to produce Picturing Mary (2007), a 60-minute exploration of representations of the Blessed Virgin. Although only half as long as The Face and without the same level of in-depth commentary, Picturing Mary is a valuable travelogue of Marian art.
Every year Disney hauls a few classic titles out of its vault while relegating a number of others to temporary retirement. This year saw special anniversary releases for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and The Jungle Book (1967) as well as an extra-laden “Platinum Edition” of Peter Pan (1953). Meanwhile, fans of Looney Tunes were treated to another annual installment of classic cartoon shorts with Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5.
Although the Disney Peter Pan is the definitive Peter Pan for countless children and adults, another retelling of Barrie’s nursery tale which also returned to DVD this year is my favorite: the A&E stage production of Peter Pan (2000) starring Cathy Rigby.
Amid a seemingly shoreless sea of nature documentaries, two companion series, produced by the BBC and released this year in a spectacular 10-disc collectors’ edition, stand out from the crowd. Planet Earth (2006), a sprawling 11-hour series as authoritative and comprehensive as its name suggests, and its companion series Blue Planet (2001), a 400-minute series devoted to Earth’s oceans, together comprise over 17 hours of some of the most engrossing, awesome and unique nature documentary footage ever captured.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969) topped many critics’ best-of-2006 lists, despite being nearly 40 years old. Based on Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name, Army of Shadows is a bleak journey into the lonely and desperate world of the French underground resistance.
Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man (1949), based on the Graham Greene novel and adapted for the screen by Greene himself, is a thriller mired in the muddle and uncertainty of post-war Europe. This new two-disc set, the second Criterion edition of the film, features an all-new restoration and numerous extras.
Then there’s Sidney Gilliat’s Green for Danger (1946), a little-known gem that transplants the trappings of a droll British murder mystery in an unexpected WWII context. Alistair Sim, forever remembered as the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge, plays an unnervingly mischievous Scotland Yard investigator. Extras include an in-depth commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and an interview with cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien.
Three special-edition releases from Sony are worth checking out. The Guns of Navarone (1961), J. Lee Thompson’s loose adaptation of the 1957 novel by Alistair MacLean, features a star-studded cast led by Gregory Peck in a WWII tale of derring-do set in the Greek islands of the Aegean. The two-disc special edition offers documentaries, commentaries and a passel of featurettes.
A digitally resorted version of The Caine Mutiny (1954) boasts one of Humphrey Bogart’s last and greatest performances as Captain Queeg, whose iron fist and by-the-book demeanor masks gradually cracking nerves, obsessive myopia and paranoid delusions.
Then there’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), one of the cinema’s grandest spectacles. Exhilarating, devastating and puzzling, it ponders the mystery of a man who was a mystery to himself.
Kenneth Branagh’s two most notable Shakespearean adaptations both got new DVD releases this year. Branagh’s directorial debut, Henry V (1989), and his acclaimed adaptation of Hamlet, at just over four hours the only unabridged version of Shakespeare’s greatest play ever filmed.
2007 saw no fewer than three competing DVD releases of Fiddler on the Roof (1971) — a two-disc special edition, a bargain one-disc edition, and a “Decades Collection” version, including a CD of the soundtrack.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and
chief critic of DecentFilms.com.