This isn't quite a gift guide, although you'll find some excellent secret-Santa possibilities herein for art-house devotees, wine lovers, science-fiction geeks, hard-boiled mugs, tattoo enthusiasts, fashionistas and Greeks. Who the hell else is on your list?
This also isn't exactly a list of the year's best DVDs -- although it includes a whole bunch of them. As veteran readers know already, here's what it is: A grab bag of possibly overlooked delights from among the fall and winter releases, each of which made me want to hug the UPS guy, rip the package open and skip work for the rest of the day when it arrived at my door. In actual fact, I only did some of those things. (Need to keep my UPS relationship on the straight-up.)
"A Christmas Tale" Arnaud Desplechin's Proust-via-Bergman-via-American noir dysfunctional family fable was No. 1 on my top-10 list for 2008, and if that's not a selling point, then what the hell is? Catherine Deneuve, her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni, Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos are all members of the warring Vuillard clan who gather in the northern French city of Roubaix -- described by Desplechin as "the Scranton of France" -- for a conflict-ridden Christmas reunion, beset by ghosts, pharmaceuticals, lost loves and so on. Here's what I wrote last year: "After seeing 'A Christmas Tale' a second time, I'm more convinced than ever that it's a masterpiece, a great work of cinematic, intellectual and emotional synthesis. It's a spinier, less forgiving and less immediately lovable film than Desplechin's 'Kings and Queen,' but despite all the pain, violence and insanity of the Vuillard family, this is a Christmas movie in the end. No other living filmmaker can do what Desplechin does, which is to put Bergman, Woody Allen and Shakespeare, along with Emerson, Nietzsche, house music, avant-garde jazz and a host of other eclectic influences and ingredients, into something that is distinctly his own creation." This Criterion double-disc set includes Desplechin's doc about his own family house in Roubaix (I think that's a clue) and a 35-minute making-of featuring interviews with Desplechin, Amalric and Deneuve.
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I There are lots of film-noir boxed sets on the market -- way too many, in fact. But here's a case where you actually can't go wrong: five genuine 1950s Columbia classics, released with the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, and intros or commentaries by Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann and Scorsese himself. The biggest-name film here is Fritz Lang's cop thriller "The Big Heat," and justifiably so, but the others aren't slouches. Edward Dmytryk's "The Sniper" is an early exploration of a murderer's psychology that makes great use of early-'50s San Francisco; Phil Karlson's "5 Against the House" virtually invented the casino-heist genre; Don Siegel's "The Lineup" (also shot in San Francisco) stars Eli Wallach as a coldblooded hit man; and Irving Lerner's "Murder by Contract" is a lean psychological thriller about another hit man with an unfortunate luxury: time to think about his career and what he's about to do. Digital mastering looks sensational; this is a set of classic American hard-boiled cinema to savor and revisit.
"Wings of Desire" Shot about two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wim Wenders' greatest film captures the wistful, desolate beauty of that then-divided city at an especially vulnerable moment in its history. I suppose this dreamlike fable about a guardian angel who falls in love with an earthbound human can never again have the immense, almost revelatory emotional power it had in 1987, but its open-hearted lead performances from Bruno Ganz and Peter Falk, and its amazing black-and-white cinematography by the legendary Henri Alekan, remain accomplishments for the ages. Calling something the greatest art film of the late '80s sounds like faint praise, but for those of us who were there, this movie will always have an irreplaceable place in our hearts. Let's just all avoid talking about what's become of Wenders' career in the subsequent 22 years, OK? This Criterion double-disc set includes a retrospective doc made in 2003, a French TV episode shot on the set, a handful of deleted scenes and excerpts from docs about Alekan and costar Curt Bois.
"Mystery Science Theater 3000" XVI Who'da thunk it? A full decade after this pioneering meta-bad-movie, stoner-jokester show signed off the air for the last time, the MST3K phenomenon -- and its legions of heirs, successors and imitators -- is arguably bigger than ever. Now, have I seen all 15 previous volumes of Rhino and/or Shout! Factory DVD releases? Indeed not. But the great thing about this show -- well, one of the 274 great things about this show -- is that newbies can start anywhere. This four-disc set includes two exceptionally ridiculous personal favorites (they're both from the later, Mike Nelson era aboard the Satellite of Love), "Warrior of the Lost World" (1993) and "Night of the Blood Beast" (1996), along with a Mexican movie where the devil takes on "Santa Claus" and a classic from the very first MST3K season, "The Corpse Vanishes." Act now and you can own a "limited-edition Tom Servo figurine" along with loads of extras. Looking for other MST-related gifts? Volumes XIV and XV were released earlier in '09, and are also packed with delights.
"Nightwatching": 2-Disc Special Edition Let's admit right up top that British director and artist Peter Greenaway is an acquired taste with a small and rarefied audience. But if you've got the stomach for Greenaway's layered, opulent, art-history-infused and often sexual and/or grotesque picture-making, then this double-disc edition of his 2007 drama about the painting of Rembrandt's masterpiece (never released theatrically in the United States) is big news. The set also includes Greenaway's feature-length documentary "Rembrandt's J'Accuse," in which he digs still further into the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the Dutch master's "Night Watch."
"Rembetiko" This passionate, sweet-sad 1983 classic from Greek director Costas Ferris, infused with the spirit of "rembetika," the soulful folk-music form known as the "Greek blues," comes to us as a labor-of-love reconstruction from Facets Video. Stitched together from a smattering of available prints -- no master negative has been found -- this "Rembetiko" disc looks a long way from perfect, but it's wonderful to have it at all. Ferris' heroine, rembetika singer Marika (Sotiria Leonardou, who co-wrote the script), goes from Greek-Turkish Smyrna to the back streets of Piraeus to mid-century Chicago, embodying the voyages taken by so many of her countrymen. This is an almost-lost treasure of European cinema, available at last.
"Valentino: The Last Emperor" One of the great indie success stories of the last year, Matt Tyrnauer's irresistible documentary follows the last great high-fashion couturier -- the dogs! The dresses! The exhausting jet-set lifestyle! -- through the closing act of his storied career. You don't have to know anything about fashion, still less care, to appreciate Valentino as a self-made and willfully eccentric visionary, or Tyrnauer's film as a hilariously observed but finally sympathetic portrait.
"Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry" Sure, everybody and their stockbroker uncle has a tattoo these days, but in the era of ultra-macho American tattoo pioneer Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins, things were different. Sure, you could decide that the title of Erich Weiss' film-fest hit documentary is offensive, but then you'd be missing a highly entertaining portrait of a salty outlaw whose Honolulu tattoo shop became a stylistic fusion of East and West and the birthplace of a major American folk art.
"Loren Cass" This bleak, adventurous indie from young Florida filmmaker Chris Fuller is one of the year's true discoveries (and just missed my '09 10-best list). Shot on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., with a cast of unknowns, "Loren Cass" mixes punk-minimalist narrative, daring camerawork and an approach to sound design and storytelling that mixes noir-inflected realism with Godardian experimental film. Any number of movies claim to capture downscale American suburban anomie; "Loren Cass" is one of the few that makes you feel like you've lived it, and about the only one that's an artistic breakthrough on its own terms. The unheralded American debut of the last several years.
"Mondovino: The Series" Let's make this simple: If you're interested in wine at all, anywhere from liking to drink it once in a while on up to high-level wine snobbery, then Jonathan Nossiter's 10-hour miniseries (a much-expanded version of his 2004 feature) will be a delight to sample, little by little, over weeks or months. Intended at first to be a quickie documentary, "Mondovino" eventually became a years-long passion project that devoured Nossiter's filmmaking career -- a fascinating social, historical and environmental portrait of the winemaking world from France to California to New York to Argentina. This is no neutral, "60 Minutes"-style portrait of the wine industry; throughout its expanse, "Mondovino" is a crusade for individuality, for the quirks of history and family and for what the French call terroir, set against an increasingly corporate wine business that's increasingly about creating and defining mass taste and matching it to mass production.