The best DVDs of 2009 (so far)

Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession," Patrick McGoohan in "The Quare Fellow," Rossellini takes on Louis XIV, new reissues of Audrey Hepburn's best-loved films and more.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published February 4, 2009 12:28PM (EST)

Left, Criterion Collection, right, Kino International

Left: Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in "Magnificent Obsession." Right: Patrick McGoohan in "The Quare Fellow."

Good gracious, but we're buried in fascinating new DVDs this winter here at Beyond the Multiplex Towers, from glorious Hollywood Technicolor to dour Dublin black-and-white. Now that the groundhog has shed Mike Bloomberg's blood while announcing that spring won't be with us for some time (at least in the East and Midwest), we've got plenty to do indoors. Mind you, these movies are worth staying in for if you live in Key West or Nogales too. There's no way I can see everything, but here are the best releases of the last month (roughly speaking) that I've actually been able to sample.

"Magnificent Obsession" An overripe Technicolor spectacle from 1954 that launched the A-list careers of both star Rock Hudson and legendary director Douglas Sirk, "Magnificent Obsession" gets a spectacular Criterion Collection restoration that emphasizes Sirk's gorgeous deep-focus compositions and the performances of Hudson and co-star Jane Wyman. You can call it passionate melodrama, exaggerated social satire or Freudian allegory, but this yarn about the careless playboy who A) accidentally causes the death of a beloved surgeon; B) falls for his widow and causes her to go blind; C) wins her love under false pretenses; and D) performs the operation that restores her sight is a rich and immersive viewing experience that fires on all cylinders. Arguably not the greatest Sirk film -- I might incline toward "Written on the Wind" or "Imitation of Life" -- but surely among his most beautiful and memorable. His handling of Hudson and Wyman, who play the ludicrous Lloyd C. Douglas love story (swamped in turgid mid-century Christian self-help philosophy) absolutely straight and with surprising delicacy, is masterful. From a technical point of view the entire production, from Russell Metty's camerawork to Milton Carruth's editing to the "Ode to Joy" remix of Frank Skinner's score, represents '50s Hollywood at its height of craftsmanship. The two-disc set also includes John M. Stahl's 1935 black-and-white version with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, which some aficionados prefer and has been unavailable on DVD until now.

"The Quare Fellow" With the wave of "Prisoner"-mania surrounding the recent death of Patrick McGoohan, it's a great moment to remember one of his greatest and least-heralded roles, as the naive Irish prison guard Thomas Crimmin in Arthur Dreifuss' riveting 1962 screen adaptation of Brendan Behan's mordant anti-death-penalty masterpiece. Dreifuss' script adds elements that lapse here and there into drinkin'-and-fightin' Irish caricature, but none of that masks the authenticity of the atmosphere -- the film was shot in Ireland, and partly inside Dublin's historic Kilmainham Gaol -- or McGoohan's brilliance as the country boy forced to face the inhumanity and hypocrisy of a system he thought he believed in. Tremendous supporting performance by Irish writer Walter Macken, in one of his few acting roles, as a heartbroken older guard who refuses to yield his humanity. English actress Sylvia Syms is sexy but a bit out of her depth in the vixen role. Kino International's disc transfer captures all the depth and shadows of Peter Hennessy's superb black-and-white photography.

"Days and Clouds" A middle-class marriage in trouble is one of the staples of postwar European film, so you can't call Italian director Silvio Soldini's take on it profoundly original. For many recession-plagued Americans, in fact, the scene where a real-estate broker advises unemployed executive Michele (Antonio Albanese) and overstressed academic Elsa (Margherita Buy) to lower their asking price by 100,000 euros may hit just a bit too close to home. But this movie was an international art-house hit for a reason, and that reason is the well-matched pair of sterling lead performances, a consistently intelligent and perceptive screenplay and the sympathy and warmth with which Soldini portrays this marriage, even as Michele and Elsa lie, fight, recriminate and do close-to-unforgivable things. I thought I could dip into their story for half an hour and finish it later, but that proved impossible: You'll love this couple and long for both of them to be OK, whether that means together or apart. This is the latest in Film Movement's series of subscription DVDs, which is well worth checking out.

"The Taking of Power by Louis XIV" How does the guy who launched the neorealist movement with ground-level dramas about ruined postwar Europe -- most famously, "Rome, Open City" and "Germany Year Zero" -- move on to a movie about the Sun King's total consolidation of power in himself, circa 1640? Somehow Roberto Rossellini got there. This 1966 production, made ultra-cheap for French TV, was the great Italian director's first feature after his road-to-Damascus moment in the early '60s, when he pronounced that cinema was dead and that its true mission was to educate the public about history rather than entertain. Quite a strange business this movie is too, more focused on the intimate physical details of Louis' reign -- the servants and dogs sleeping on the king's bedroom floor; the learned doctors sniffing a dying man's chamber pot -- than on the court drama involving nobles, ministers and cardinals (oh, and a musketeer named d'Artagnan, who appears briefly). Minor characters sometimes interrupt the action to explain what's going on in expositional asides, and Louis himself is played by Jean-Marie Patte, an unprepossessing mailman (or sales clerk; reports vary) who is always staring offscreen because he doesn't know his lines and must read them off a blackboard. Shot largely in and around the actual palace at Versailles, "Louis XIV" displays Rossellini's ingenious shot construction, remarkable gift for group choreography and focus on the emotional center of each scene. You'd have to say the film fulfills its mission: It's handsome to watch -- the Criterion transfer is, of course, meticulous -- and you'll learn a whole lot about 17th-century French life. And it ardently refuses to abandon its rather dry and distant demeanor and become anything like conventional drama. There is considerable fascination to the arguably misguided spectacle of a great artist making elegant didactics, and if you wish to go deeper still, Criterion's Eclipse label has a new box set offering three of Rossellini's later history films, including the four-hour "Age of the Medici" from 1972.

"Workers for the Good Lord" Before Jean-Claude Brisseau became infamous as the French director convicted of sexually harassing two of the actresses in his erotic film "Secret Things" -- and then went on to make his next erotic film, "Exterminating Angels," as a sort of meta-meditation about that experience -- well, before all that he was actually known in France for having made a damn good movie. "Workers for the Good Lord" is that movie, made in 1999, and while it does have semi-nude women aplenty, it's also a gleeful, anarchistic Robin Hood romp in the spirit of the New Wave, with handsome Stanislas Merhar as a jilted, jaded would-be race driver and full-time narcissist who goes on a crime spree together with a gamine postal worker who loves him and a renegade African prince who is also a rebellious school bureaucrat. In the great French tradition, an homage to earlier filmmaking styles (from Capra to Godard and the avant-garde) and also very much its own eccentric creation. Indispensable for lovers of Gallic film.

"Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Funny Face" Paramount Pictures' Centennial Collection continues with these two well-loved Audrey Hepburn staples and, yes, there are few films more often issued and reissued in every possible home-video format over the years. Still, here they are again, on double-disc sets featuring new high-definition transfers (for both DVD and Blu-ray) and a bunch of special features never seen before. The gorgeous and only slightly silly "Funny Face," with its magical Gershwin numbers (and the highly age-inappropriate coupling of Hepburn with Fred Astaire) has mini-features on co-star Kay Thompson, fashion photography, the VistaVision process used to make the film and Paris in the '50s. "Tiffany's" is even richer, with a making-of featurette, mini-docs on Hepburn and composer Henry Mancini and a convoluted attempt to apologize for Mickey Rooney's offensive Asian character. If you don't own these movies, these are terrific packages; on the other hand, there'll be another reason to reissue them in three or four years.

The Films of Michael Powell Well, two of the great British director's films, anyway -- essentially a miscellaneous double bill of Powell films to which Sony happens to hold the rights. Powell's best-known work, including "The Red Shoes," "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "The Small Back Room" and "Peeping Tom," is available from the Criterion Collection. What you get here is one undoubted classic -- the supernatural wartime drama "A Matter of Life and Death" (also known as "Stairway to Heaven"), with David Niven as a British flyer forced to argue his way from heaven back to earth -- and one late-career oddity. That would be "Age of Consent," made by Powell (without longtime co-director Emeric Pressburger) in the relatively hedonistic climate of late-'60s Australia. It stars James Mason as a burned-out painter (based loosely on Aussie artist Norman Lindsay) who finds his muse near the Great Barrier Reef in the form of a comely and uninhibited lass, played by a then-unknown 24-year-old named -- wait for it -- Helen Mirren. The movie's fascinating and a little creepy, tinged with that unmistakable Powell dyspepsia, and there's a terrific interview with Mirren among the extras.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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