Must-see DVDs of 2006

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

When you walk into a DVD store, “New Releases” typically dominate the displays. “New Releases,” of course, means movies that played in theaters in the last six to twenty-four months or so. Yet in fact every year many of the most exciting new DVD releases are movies that haven’t played in theaters in years, decades — or even longer.

Here, in no special order, are a few of what I consider the most exciting DVD releases of 2006 for films that didn’t play in theaters in the last year or two. Some have never before been available on DVD for Region 1 (North America); others have had earlier DVD releases, but gotten new releases this year worth mentioning.

Of the 45 films on the 1995 Vatican film list, a few remain unavailable on American DVD. This year, one of those few came to DVD in style from Criterion: Louis Mallet’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), a deeply felt coming-of-age tale set in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France.

Among the most enjoyable films Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn ever made, George Cukor’s Holiday (1938) was astonishingly available only on used VHS until this year. Thematically similar to the better-known The Philadelphia Story, from the same creative team, Holiday is less satiric, more compassionate and bittersweet — and equally memorable.

A number of excellent, inspiring productions on saints came to American DVD this year from Italian production companies. Umberto Marino’s St. Anthony of Padua (2002), the first feature film on the life of the great saint, is an illuminating depiction of the struggles and choices that led Anthony, inspired by the example of his contemporary Francis of Assisi, to join the new order.

Ignatius also distributes two Italian productions brought to Region 1 by Italian import specialist NoShame: Padre Pio: Miracle Man (2000), Carlo Carlei’s vivid portrait of the gruff, irascible stigmatist saint and mystic, and St. Francis of Assisi (2002), Michele Soavi’s flawed but intriguing depiction of the little poor man of Assisi, with a worthwhile second half depicting Francis’s ministry compensating for a flawed first half.

Few films released by Christian film companies are much good. This year, 20th Century Fox gave a DVD release to one of the best: James F. Collier’s The Hiding Place (1975), from Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures. Based on the memoir by Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place sticks closely to the inspiring true story of the ten Boom family’s work with the Dutch underground hiding Jewish refugees from the Nazis in their Amsterdam home, and their eventual imprisonment and transferral to the Ravensbrück camp, where nearly all of them died.

Two classic 1930s seafaring swashbucklers from director Victor Fleming came to Region 1 for the first time: Treasure Island (1934) and Captains Courageous (1937). Stevenson fans will be happy to discover the previously hard-to-find 1934 Treasure Island, which sticks closer to the text than the familiar 1950 Disney version, while Captains Courageous offers a better-than-average morality tale with a strikingly positive Catholic milieu.

Another oceanic DVD release, Deep Blue (2003) — not to be confused with the action thriller Deep Blue Sea — ranks high among recent nature documentaries, touching on March of the Penguins and Winged Migration territory, but most resembling Besson’s artful 1991 ocean doc Atlantis. Directed by Andy Byatt and Alastair Fothergill, Deep Blue will astonish you with things you’ve never seen or even imagined — no matter how many other nature docs you’ve seen.

A few years back, Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki made a splash on US screens with Princess Mononoke Oscar-winning Spirited Away. This past year, one of his best, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), got a wonderful new DVD edition from Disney. One of the gentlest and most enchanting family films ever made, My Neighbor Totoro is mesmerizing entertainment for even the youngest viewers.

Another Disney DVD release from Miyazaki’s studio, Whisper of the Heart (1995), offers an equally wise and wonderful though less fantastical look at the world through the eyes of adolescence rather than childhood. Meanwhile, another company gave a DVD release to an utterly different Miyazaki project, the wacky, action-packed adventure extravaganza The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a 007–esque thriller with spectacular set pieces and exotic settings (though marred for family viewing by some unnecessary profane and crude language).

A number of films celebrated anniversaries this year with special new DVD editions. Celebrating fifty years, Cecil B. DeMille’s holiday staple The Ten Commandments (1956) got a snazzy new box edition with extras including DeMille’s own very different 1923 silent film of the same name. From the same year, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) is now available in an anniversary special edition with numerous extras. There was also John Ford’s celebrated challenge to the Western mythos, The Searchers (1956).

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the quintessential Christmas classic — and Vatican list film — It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) received a rather spartan anniversary edition, with enhanced picture quality but no new extras.

Then there are films that got special new DVD editions just because they deserved them. Among these are a pair of classics from director Billy Wilder: Stalag 17 (1953), Wilder's darkly comedic film about desperation and subversion in a Nazi POW camp; and Double Indemnity (1944), with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in one of film noir’s most hard-boiled classics.

Also noteworthy is the new Criterion edition of Akira Kurosawa’s martial-art masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954), a rare war film that at once acknowledges the necessity of killing while finding even in victory the sorrow and bitterness of defeat.