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Wilmington on DVD: The 10 best releases of 2009


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Here are my choices for the 10 best DVDs for 2009, last year of the first decade of the 21st century.


1. Up
U.S.; Pete Docter, 2009

Up, this year's new Pixar picture, flies us right up into those realms of sky, flight and fantasy that Judy Garland's Dorothy traveled in her Kansas twister ride to Oz, and to which little Pascal Lamorisse was whisked off by his air armada of Parisian balloons, at the end of his dad Albert's The Red Balloon. Co-written and directed by Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.") and Bob Peterson, it's almost a great children's movie, and another strong argument that the Pixar cartoon cadre is the strongest creative force operating in mainstream Hollywood right now.


2. North by Northwest 50th Anniversary Edition
U.S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1959, Warner, 2 discs

Alfred Hitchcock's great romantic/comedy/thriller -- with Cary Grant, at his witty, seductive, impeccable best, as "wrong man" Roger Thornhill, an overly smug Madison Avenue adman who gets mistaken for an elusive spy named George Kaplan (a CIA plant who doesn't really exist) and embarks on a wild chase from New York to Rapid City South Dakota, along with some sinister real-life spies (James Mason and Martin Landau), an elegant, ice cool blonde who may be traitor or two-timer (Eva Marie Saint), a scholarly, watchful CIA agent (Leo G. Carroll), Roger's own skeptical, sardonic mother (Jessie Royce Landis) -- and a succession of wild escapades that include a murder at the U.N., a battle on Mount Rushmore, and, most memorably, a crop dusting plane "dustin' where there ain't no crops." This is Hitchcock at his most entertaining.


3. The Wizard of Oz
U.S.; Victor Fleming, King Vidor (Uncredited), 1939, Warner, 3 disc Blu-ray

Some movies appeal to just about everybody -- like the heart-stoppingly entertaining and wonderful musical that MGM made in 1939 out of L. Frank Baum's American fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz.

It's a movie most of us saw for the first time in childhood and then grew up with though the years. I was 10 when CBS televised it nationally for the first time (in 1956), and I still remember the shock of joy that came over me as I watched it in the living room on Parkhurst Place, in Williams Bay, Wis., with my Grampa Axel, Gramma Marie and Mother Edna, especially when Judy Garland, as Dorothy Gale, stared at the sky above her Hollywood-Kansas barnyard backdrop, let loose those incredible 16-year-old pipes and brought down the house once again with the hair-raising ballad "Over the Rainbow." What a song! What a singer! What pure, shattering emotion wrapped in rapturous show-biz kitsch!

Directors Fleming and Vidor together presided over one of the most charmed and charming movie ensembles ever, transforming Noel Langley's, Florence Ryerson's and Edgar Allan Woolf's marvelously playful and witty script and Arlen and Harburg's fantastic songs into the stuff of movie magic, a show that never loses its power to grip us and tickle us and make us laugh and cry. It's the greatest kids (plus adults) movie this side of the rainbow.


4. Gone With the Wind Ultimate Collector's Edition
U.S.; Victor Fleming/Sam Wood/George Cukor, 1939, Warner, 6 disc edition, Blu-ray and 2-disc set

Like the flawed but spectacular Margaret Mitchell novel from which it derives, the movie Gone With the Wind has never lost its power to enthrall and bewitch. Even as the world, the audience and the social and political currents around it change, and the movie's vision of a charming, gallant, if sometimes foolish Old South -- a land of ruined antebellum splendor destroyed by war and the invading North, but rising indomitably from its ashes -- recedes into popular myth, producer David O. Selznick's phenomenal film, can still, like Mitchell's saucy and unconquerable heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, seduce or bulldoze almost all before it.

So can the movie's stars: Vivien Leigh as the perfect, cynical, heart-stopping, wickedly beautiful Scarlett; Clark Gable as roguish, rakish but secretly noble Rhett Butler, with his casual heroism and impudent machismo; Olivia de Havilland as long-suffering, sweet, saintly Melanie Hamilton Wilkes; Leslie Howard as Melanie's husband and Scarlett's obsession, weak Ashley Wilkes, trapped in his ideals; and even poor lovable Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel, in all her bulky splendor, popping loose the corset of clichés that imprison her as Mammy.


5. Casablanca
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner

Play it again...and again. In a Warner brothers back lot Casablanca that hums with World War II intrigues, throbs with romance and occasionally explodes in violence, we watch one of the movies' immortal affairs: the fiercely frustrated, tormented but sublime passion of gloomy cabaret owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart, in his most popular role) for Ilse (Ingrid Bergman, in hers), the emotionally torn woman he loves, who left him in Paris, but who now belongs to the idealistic underground leader Laszlo (Paul Henreid.) Around them swirl one of the great Hollywood supporting casts: Claude Rains as the suave and lecherous Vichy police head Renault, Conrad Veidt as the reptilian Nazi commander Strasser, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Marcel Dalio, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey John Qualen, and of course that indefatigable piano man Sam (Dooley Wilson.

Casablanca expertly melds several key '40s Hollywood modes and genres of the era (drama, comedy, noir, spy thriller, love story). A big hit in its day and also a multiple Oscar winner, the movie has never stopped pleasing and rousing audiences -- who always cheer when Rains' Renault snaps "Round up the usual suspects!"


6. The Seventh Seal
Sweden; Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Criterion

Antonius Block, a blond and handsome, idealistic and death-haunted knight (played by Max Von Sydow) and Jons, his cynical, tough, life-embracing squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) are back from the 14th-century Crusades -- returning after 10 bloody, battle-torn years, only to discover their homeland, Sweden, in the throes of the Black Plague, social disintegration and religious hysteria.

This quintessential Ingmar Bergman film, which -- along with his other major 1956-7 festival prize winners, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries -- made his huge initial international reputation while also creating a new audience in the U.S. for art house cinema, "The Seventh Seal" has sometimes been derided for alleged pretensions and ever-dolorous Scandinavian gloom. That's hardly fair. Bergman, as he proved over and over again, was no Nordic flash in the pan. Indeed, his long string of triumphs as Sweden's preeminent theatre director and as a prolific movie writer-director of often extraordinary ambition and achievement, puts him easily on any sensible short list of the great 20th-century dramatic/cinematic masters.


7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
U.S.; John Ford, 1962, Paramount, 2 discs

John Ford's last great Western is a visually spare masterpiece about the new and old frontiers, a classic mostly unappreciated in its day. And it boasts the Casablanca of movie Western ensemble casts, a remarkable gallery topped by friendly movie legends James Stewart and John Wayne.

Stewart is Ranse Stoddard, an idealistic eastern attorney at law, who listens to Horace Greeley, and "goes west" to the wide-open town of Shinbone, where he discovers danger and destiny -- and then returns years later for the funeral of an old friend. Wayne plays that departed friend: Tom Doniphon, a boisterous but fair-minded horse rancher, ace fast-draw gunman and Ranse's sometimes unwilling guardian angel. Lee Marvin is Liberty Valance, the cattlemen's demonic enforcer, gunslinger and murderer.

Although much of Liberty Valance is a boisterous, rollicking Wild West tale, done in a rambunctious, unbuttoned, and often highly theatrical performance style, it turns into one of the saddest Westerns ever made, as elegiac as Ford's How Green Was My Valley. I cried the first time I saw it, right at the moment when Willis Bouchey's effusive train conductor proclaims "Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!" and passenger Jimmy Stewart, giving a last dark look at his lost past, shakes out the flaming match in his hand. I still do.


8. Woodstock
U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, Criterion
Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music -- The Director's Cut U.S.; Michael Wadleigh, 1970-1994, Warner

Both a great rock concert movie, and a superb documentary on youth culture in the Vietnam War Years, Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock brings back the era and all its pot-fumed tenderness, horror, humor, beauty, ugliness, and glorious absurdities, as few other movies can.

Caught by the virtuoso wide-angle cameraman Wadleigh (along with many others) in amazing handheld widescreen images full of scope and seething with energy, and cut by editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese (and others) in vividly atmospheric sequences and evocative, witty split-screen juxtapositions, the movie literally overwhelms you.

The original three-day concert -- which wound up being one of rock history's great freebies, when the crowds, measuring a half million plus, overflowed the ability to count or charge them ticket money -- is rendered with shocking, lyrical immediacy.


9. Wings of Desire
Germany; Wim Wenders, 1987, Criterion, 2 discs

In Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders' lyrical film masterpiece of urban fantasy and longing, two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) wander around Berlin and, like documentary filmmakers, keep their eye on humanity. Silent, sympathetic, both wearing well-worn overcoats and sporting ponytails, but invisible to the Berliners, they stroll through the streets and into public and private places, observing the people of the city in their everyday routines, their private melancholy or happiness, or their extremes of emotion and crisis.

It is Berlin before the destruction of the Wall and its brightly colored wall paintings, a black-and-white Berlin, almost empty of hubbub or noise, but linked to the city of past cinema, from Walter Ruttmann's 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a City to Wenders' own 1970 Summer in the City to this movie, which was originally called Der Himmel uber Berlin ("Heaven Over Berlin").


10. Z
France; Costa-Gavras, 1970, Criterion

Back in 1969 and 1970, Costa-Gavras' Z looked like the hippest, fastest, gutsiest political thriller you could possibly make. This explosive movie, which present's Gavras and Semprun's view of the Lambrakis assassination, and the ascension to power of the tyrannical Greek Colonels, was both an impudent, in-their-faces docudrama and a blistering thriller -- and it was exhilarating on both levels. I happen to love Gavras' earlier forgotten comic film noir The Sleeping Car Murders and his later Missing, but he never made a better movie than Z. And he probably never will.

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