In a year that saw a bewildering array of releases, re-releases, special editions that weren’t so special and titles that were never released but simply escaped, only a handful stand out as the very best and very worst. Here, in order, are the 10 best and a few worst.
The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson, is a soundie education.
1 THE JAZZ SINGER: THREE-DISC DELUXE EDITION (WB, 1927)
The package includes a full disc of early soundies with dynamite Roaring 20s acts, a full-length doc on the silent-to-sound transition and good memorabilia and information on Al Jolson. One flaw: no one discusses blackface, a controversial element of Jolson’s work. This slot could just as easily have gone to Breathless, The Threepenny Opera, Battleship Potemkin or the Josephine Baker Collection; it’s been a good year for classics. This is the best cultural history of the year.
2 HAIRSPRAY: TWO-DISC EDITION (Alliance, 2007)
The movie offers two hours of non-stop energy. Everyone and everything, even the camera, bops to the beat. The lavish extras match the movie’s energy, from the giddy director and star commentary to the dance lessons. The most exuberant set of the year.
3 AL PACINO: AN ACTOR’S VISION (Fox, 1990-2005)
Al Pacino stars in two filmed plays and Looking For Richard, a mix of backstage doc and bits from Shakespeare’s Richard III. He and Jerry Orbach are great in Chinese Coffee, but his ill-advised Cockney accent kills Local Stigmata. Never mind. Between Pacino’s commentaries and his two-hour guided tour of the Actors Studio, you’ve got all you could want about his view of film, theatre and his own work.
4 PAN’S LABYRINTH (Alliance, 2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth gets my nod for most meaningful visual design. It blends fairy tale and real worlds to powerful effect. Among the extras, Guillermo del Toro explains his sources, his approach to visual storytelling, his sense of the value of fairy tales and more. He’s talking about the meaning of his choices, not the mechanics, and that makes all the difference.
5 THE HOST (Alliance, 2006)
Korean director Bong Joon-ho gets an Anglo friend to interview him for the commentary. The result is detailed remarks on every conceivable aspect of the filmmaking process, the director’s thoughts and, best of all, specifics of Korean life that we’d never catch on our own. It adds immensely to what is already the best monster movie to come along in years.
6 THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (MGM, 1994)
On the surface, it seems to have sprung fully formed from writer/director Stephan Elliott’s dreams. But Elliott discusses the financing and selling of his drag queen road trip movie, something most directors don’t do, and covers Sydney’s bizarre drag scene, which inspired its look. This package provides one of the year’s best peeks behind the scenes.
7 UNDER THE VOLCANO (Criterion, 1984)
John Huston’s film is a masterpiece, and Albert Finney as the ex-consul rotting away in a small Mexican town paints a brilliant portrait of alcoholism. Lavish extras include Donald Brittain’s acclaimed documentary on the alcoholic life of Malcolm Lowry, author of the highly autobiographical source novel.
8 THE MYTH (Sony, 2005)
Most stars mouth the clichés or avoid the commentary and making-of doc entirely. Jackie Chan, this year’s most generous movie star, is all over both with his likes, dislikes, production stories and philosophy of filmmaking. He’s not sophisticated, but he is honest and spontaneous, which shows how a commercial action comedy with a bittersweet tinge can also be a personal film.
Planet Terror commentary is way cool.
9 PLANET TERROR: TWO-DISC SPECIAL EDITION (Alliance, 2007)
Nobody thinks of Robert Rodriguez as a serious artist, and he’s not. He’s a playful artist. Check out the commentary on this ultra-gorey, blow-up-everything zombie flick to hear a man in control of his medium, bursting with all kinds of ideas and happy in his work. Best art masquerading as trash.
10 APOCALYPTO (Touchstone/Disney 2006); EXTERMINATING ANGELS (Mongrel, 2006)
A tie for best trash masquerading as art. Mel Gibson’s big-budget Tarzan movie strains for significance, but check the extras and learn just how much historical weight he expected his spectacle to bear. Jean-Claude Brisseau’s movie about watching women masturbate is really a tragedy. He says so in his interview. It’s got the trappings, but it’s hard to feel for a hero whose tragic flaw is stupidity.