Armchair Cinephile 

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The year on disc

Now that the DVD era is well underway, there are fewer Casablancas waiting in studio vaults for their time in the sun. So DVD producers are looking less to the blockbusters in their catalog and more to the underexposed titles - many of which ought to be household names among cinephiles. With that in mind:

The Top Ten DVDs of 2004

1 John Cassavetes: Five Films
(Criterion, $124.95)

Some of these films (the highlights of the pioneer's career) were already released on DVD, but in shoddy editions. Criterion gathered them like sacred texts, added a mammoth documentary, and invited newcomers to see the work that changed independent filmmaking forever.

2 Slacker
(Criterion, $39.95)

It isn't just Texas pride that earns Richard Linklater's debut a place on this list. The film is a wonder, and Criterion's marvelous edition - as obsessive with extras as the film's characters are with their concerns - does it justice.

3 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Extended Edition
(New Line, $39.99)

No surprise here. As with the previous two films, Peter Jackson has added material that is no less enjoyable for violating the time constraints placed on a mainstream theatrical release. It could only be better if, hiding somewhere in these four discs, there were the promise that Jackson would return soon to make The Hobbit.

4 The Up Series
(First Run Features, $99.95)

It's a fantastic idea that Michael Apted realized first: Take a group of 7-year-olds, make a documentary about them, and then come back for a sequel every seven years. Over the course of six films to date, their joys and tragedies have unfolded in real time. This set collects them all (the early films were almost impossible to find until now) and adds Apted's commentary to the most recent installment.

5 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
(MGM, $29.98)

The final installment in Sergio Leone's so-called "Man With No Name" trilogy received the royal treatment this year. MGM used the restored version of the film, 19 minutes longer than the U.S. theatrical cut, adorned it with appropriate bonus features, and went the extra mile with beautiful, postcard-size reproductions of a few vintage international posters.

6 Freaks and Geeks
(Shout Factory, $69.98)

Plenty of TV releases were worth shouting about this year, but Freaks was the most delightful because its existence was a surprise to so many of us. What were we doing when this hilarious, tender recreation of high school angst was on the airwaves? Why didn't NBC execs shove this down our throats, instead of letting the series die after one season?

7 The Marx Brothers Collection
(Warner, $59.92) and
The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection
(Universal, $59.98)

Many Marxists will tell you that the best films are on the Universal set, but the Warner collection is by far the better product, with a trunk-load of wonderful features and a lower per-film price than the skimpy Universal box. Together, the two releases represent almost everything the brothers committed to screen.

8 The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection
(Warner, $99.98)

An odds-and-ends batch, featuring Hitch's single pure comedy (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), his one 3-D experiment (Dial M for Murder, shown here in 2-D), the delightful Foreign Correspondent, and at least one undeniable masterpiece (Strangers on a Train).

9 Ed Wood
(Buena Vista, $29.99)

It took a long time and more than one delayed release date, but Tim Burton's black-and-white gem finally arrived. Its subject may be known as the worst filmmaker of all time, but this loving biopic treats him like a hero.

10 Simple Men
(Image, $14.99)

A purely personal choice, Simple Men wasn't festooned with bonus features or greeted with much publicity. It's not even the best indie film of the '90s in which characters sit around a table debating Madonna's career. But for devotees of love him/hate him filmmaker Hal Hartley, it's as good a distillation of male romantic frustration as you can get.

Honorable Mention - five cult-worthy 2004 titles:

1 Rejected
(Don Hertzfeldt's Oscar-nominated cartoon, available from www.bitterfilms.com, $13)

2 Forbidden Zone
(Fantoma, $24.95)

3 Da Ali G Show
(HBO, $29.95)

4 SCTV, Vol. 1 & 2
(Shout Factory, $89.98 each)

5 Strongbad_email.exe
(a collection of the popular web cartoons, available from www.homestarrunner.com, $29.95)

By John DeFore


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