January 4, 2009

2008: The Year in DVD's

Coming up with lists like these is always a difficult task. Well, at least it is for me. Every year, around this time, all manner of year end and recap lists appear. Some are good, some are bad, and some just don't make sense. Now, I would love to offer up a top ten DVD list for 2008, but I am, frankly, unable to do so. There are a couple of reasons that I am unable to provide such a column. One reason is that I probably have not seen enough to make any sort of definitive list. Another reason is that I am terrible at keeping track of what DVDs I watched during the year (something I will endeavor to do for 2009). Still, I feel the desire to share a DVD list with you.

The list below is comprised of DVDs that struck me as being particularly well worth my time. They all were released during the 2008 calendar year and cover a number of different genres. While it may not be a true "Best of 2008," they should still be given some attention, you may like what you find.

They are not ranked in any particular order, rather they are presented in alphabetical order (there are also a couple more than the standard ten).

13: Game of Death. This is a film,hailing from Thailand, that takes the audience to the edge and gleefully pushes it over. It combines the growing worldwide love for reality television. Combine reality television with a fantasy similar to that of the central character in Wanted, a sad guy stuck in a dead end job. In this film Chit is in need of money, fast. That is when he gets the first call, he is offered a challenge in exchange for money. All together there are 13 challenges of escalating difficulty, each one resulting in a bigger cash prize. The movie has great pacing, but it takes its time to reveal its depths to the audience, beginning as a drama, adding in touches of black comedy, veering into a bit of action, before settling into the disturbing. It is an accomplished film that will have you on the edge of your seat all the way through. This is a game that spirals out of control and ends up challenging Chit's moral code, even his very humanity. At the same time, the audience (us) is challenged; will our voyeuristic tendencies allow us to be entertained by the oncoming depravity?

Baby Blues. Here is a low-budget horror film that delivers the goods, not in blood and gore, but in atmosphere and performance. This is a harrowing tale of a mother's love for her children twisted upon itself in an ugly, disturbing way. That's right, this movie is the story of a mother whose unbalanced mental state tips too far the wrong way and she begins to exact her version of love upon her children. At its core this is essentially a slasher film, with Mom standing in for the usual masked menace and children in the place of teens and twenty-somethings. It is this change that adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the film. There is something about children in peril that really digs into one's soul. What helps set Baby Blues apart from the other low-budget indies on the shelf are the performances. In particular Colleen Porch, as Mom, delivers a chilling portrayal of pure evil. Sure, she is saddled with some bad dialogue, but with those lines out of the way, her look is just terrifying. She is not the only standout, there is also Ridge Canipe as Jimmy. He really steps up to the plate and just sucks you in as he flees his mother and tries to protect his siblings. Looking for something creepy? This will deliver.

Botched. Here is a zany, bloody, weird, head-scratching affair that will either entertain you to no end or have you reaching for the stop button faster than you can blink an eye. It centers on a thief, played by Stephen Dorff, who must go to Russia to steal an ancient cross. The plan goes wrong and Dorff and a few others wind up on the closed 13th floor, it is here where something else is discovered. I hesitate to call Botched a good movie, but it certainly is fun! There is a good dose of blood, some oddball comedy, genuine thrills, and an atmosphere of comedic dread. You will surely be left wondering just what it was that you saw once the credits roll. It is truly bizarre, and has nothing to say about society. Sometimes it is fun to watch a movie that does not have any lofty goals aside from delivering entertainment to the filmmakers chosen audience.

From Beyond - Unrated. Here is a movie that embodies what made the 1980's so great for horror films. This is a film that takes a ridiculous situation, amps up the gore factor, and provides such a high energy level that you cannot help but be drawn in. With From Beyond you have a cast that does a great job of putting all of themselves into the performance, selling the insanity under the direction of Stuart Gordon, a man who truly has a knack for this sort of film. On top of that, the effects are suitably gruesome, gooey, and bloody. This was in the midst of the grand era of practical effects prior to the rise of CG. There is nothing quite like seeing a deformed body sprout an insect head, or see a stalk protrude from a man's forehead as sucks out an eyeball on the way to eating some brain matter and knowing that it is actually happening and not an element added in later. Sure, some of it may seem a bit hokey, but tell me that you don't believe it within the context of the film. This movie is an absolute blast. It has all of the classic elements that make an '80s era gore film work. It has an intriguing tale of depravity, characters to root for, others to despise, and everything in between. This is a must see film for any self-respecting horror fan.

Heroes of the East. This is a great film. This is one of the finest examples of the Shaw style that I have come across (granted, there are a ton more films to watch). It features the great Gordon Liu and a plethora of styles. If you want to get into kung fu cinema, this is a must see, and if you already a kung fu fan, this is a must own. It is in the combination of character and martial arts that Heroes of the East soars. Gordon Liu and Yuko Mizuno both play extremely likable characters and definitely have chemistry. It is their relationship that builds a strong base on top of which the action is placed. As for that action, there is a great variety of styles on display, both hand-to-hand and involving weapons (including one of my favorites, the three-section staff). Before this DVD release, I had never heard of this film, now it stands as one of my favorite of the kung fu genre. This is one that absolutely cannot be missed.

How I Met Your Mother - Season Two. This DVD was my first introduction to the series and I have to admit I was expecting some run of the mill, network-driven sitcom. What I found was something that is surprisingly clever, witty, and just flat out enjoyable. Seriously, it was so much better than I had expected it to be. Now, I don't want to overstate it — it is not the greatest sitcom I have ever seen, but it is well above your normal network fare and now I am sure to not miss an episode (although I still have to go back to the first season). The cast clicks, their chemistry is first rate, and the laughs are undeniable. Do yourself a favor, if you are like me and have avoided this series — rent it, buy it, borrow it, and try to prove me wrong. The central conceit is that the series is being told in flashback from the perspective of Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) telling his kids how he met their mother, who has yet to be introduced. The story tells of five friends in their twenties, living in New York, and dealing with their jobs and each other. Ted is dating Robin (Cobie Smulders), who is not the mother of the future, Marshall (Jason Segel) is dating Lilly (Alyson Hannigan), and then there is the womanizing Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). Together they are quite the ensemble. Man, this is a great series.

Inside. This is a brutal affair; it is genuinely disturbing and is completely focused on telling a tale of terror that gets under your skin. There is something about the central character that immediately draws you in. It is something in the vulnerability of a pregnant woman. She is alone and damaged by the loss of her loved one, and here she is being set upon by a woman who is pure evil. It is not an unrealistic film. Sure, some of it may be a stretch, and some of the characters may do stupid things from time to time, but it feels genuine, it feels real. That is what truly matters, tone and feel. Oh yes, the blood matters too; there is nothing like some well done arterial spray. The central character is a pregnant woman, home, alone, at night, and with a stranger inside the house attempting to take her baby from her by force. This is one that will leave you shaken following its conclusion. Good performances and beautifully shot, this is a horror film that needs to be in your collection.

Lamb of God - Walk With Me in Hell. I have Walk With Me in Hell in my hands and I have watched both disks of this expansive set. What I have witnessed is nothing short of excellence. It is not the music, it is not even the people, it is the insight which we are given into the lives of these five men, musicians, friends, and family. You see, this DVD is not a collection of on the road videos, nor is it a concert DVD, it is an actual documentary. This is no Voluminal (Slipknot) nor is it Volume 1 (Mushroomhead), this is an actual documentary. I was transfixed as I watched the disk. These five guys believe in their music, believe they can make it, but are completely unsure of how it is going. Essentially, we get to experience their coming of age as a band. Now, it is not all heavy stuff, these guys know how to have fun. I was particularly taken with a scene in which Chris and Willie Adler jam on a street corner in Japan using gear belonging to a couple of street musicians. I also loved seeing how taken they were with crowds singing their words at the shows.

Outsourced. With a name like Outsourced, it is pretty easy to tell what a big part of this story is going to be about. It's true, it does concern a severe case of outsourcing, but it is not a serious film dealing with loss and betrayal giving way to fright and ultimately violent revenge; oh no, this is a light-hearted film that deals with self-discovery through necessity and being open to moving into the next stage of life. It is actually rather sweet and touching. Essentially, this is a fish out of water story. Todd, whose misunderstood name results in Mr. Toad, is forced to figure out some way of dealing with the vast cultural differences where the ultimate result is his discovery that these people are no different from himself, making their way through life the best way they can.

Teeth. This movie takes the myth of vagina dentata and gives it an exploitive twist en route to a story that is sure to get a rise out of an audience. The myth in its original form has appeared in stories and legends from cultures all over the world. It was used to explain the dangers of sex with strange women, or under inappropriate circumstances, by feeding on the male fear of castration. It is something that survives to this day in the form of crude jokes. I am sure that there are many, like me, who have heard at least one or two of said jokes, but were unaware of its origin in the vagina dentata myth. With Teeth, first time writer/director Mitchell Lichtenstein has taken the myth and taken it a step back from the current level of crude joke, injecting it with a sense of humor, of immediacy, and of genuine fear. In other words, he is giving it some real weight. For too long the myth has languished as the butt of a joke; it is time that the real fear from which it was born so long ago be given back to it. To that end, Teeth is a very dark comedy that preys on the fears of men, empowers women, and gives it substance unlike any joke has been able to give it. It is a very well done film. Sure, it could have been bloodier and more over the top, but it is a very entertaining and cringe-inducing film. The central performance is charismatic and the story is one that has applications outside of the exploitive. Make it a double feature with Hard Candy and you are in for one heck of a night!

The Big Bang Theory - The Complete First Season. When this series was originally announced, I was rather outspoken against it. The clips I had seen did not look all that good at all. After watching the premiere my opinion was unchanged. Still, I found myself going back every so often, but never really "liking" it. Anyway, I have revisited it on DVD and have found myself enjoying it immensely. Watching the entire season in a much condensed format allowed me to get a better idea of what it was doing. It also revealed how much the writing improved over the season, how they got better ideas of who the characters were. It has proven to be a very funny show providing a slightly different tack on the sitcom formula, without straying too far from the familiar.

Watching the Detectives. Have you ever seen a movie that you really liked, despite knowing that it is not really a good film? I am sure you have. You watch a movie, and there is something about it, the characters, setting, plot, something that just draws you in, holds your attention, and makes you love it; a movie that holds you in its grasp for its entire running time, during which it can do no wrong. For me, Watching the Detectives is one of those movies. It is the story of Neil (Cillian Murphy) and Violet (Lucy Liu) and the non-traditional romance they embark on. The movie is completely engrossing, and while it is not an original tale, it is one that feels fresh and invites you in to join the experience. The performances are first rate, the writing and direction better than expected, and the package as a whole hit me from the blind side. Definitely worth looking into.


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