Top 10 Film Restorations / Reissues Of The Aughts

November 29, 2009

It’s that time of decade again! All lists themselves start off with a list (of criteria). I’ve expanded the sense of a restoration / reissue to included films that were restored whether major or minor, re-released to theatres with a restored or new print, or reissued on home video after being inaccessible or accessible only in poorer versions for an extended period. The dates refer to the year of re-release. Almost all should be available on DVD (or will be soon)… unless, of course, they’ve gone out of print again. Check them out and enjoy them while you can!

10. Metropolis (2009)
I suppose this has to be included because of the cultural importance of the discovery of new footage (and the corresponding obsession about finding the “complete” film), but I have to rank it last because Metropolis has just had too many most-complete-restorations. This position also represents many of the honorable mentions below which, for the most part, while important films or impressive restorations that were a long time coming, are ones that have not lacked critical acclaim/demand or previous restorations/reissues over the years.

9. The Monster Squad (2009)
It’s about time. My 20 year old VHS copy ain’t doing too good.

8. The Leopard (2004)
First, a display of the powerful toolset that home video can embody. The DVD release includes the original Italian version of the film and the dubbed, edited American version for comparison’s sake, as well as a whole bevy of information/education materials. Second, a fascinating quiet reworking of the idea of an epic film in the story of a man who participates in great historical events but ultimately shrugs at his role while acknowledging that history is much larger than one person. For all the films that pretend to a bottom up view of events by telling the story of an individual within an epic event, The Leopard does it more truly by avoidance of raising the individual’s importance to a level on par with that of those events.

7. King Kong (2005) / Baby Face (2006)
Mark these under Know Your Film History, Know Your Cultural History. The restored pre-censor versions of these films help defray the myth that the past was a more innocent, less savvy time. Conversely, they are also a lesson in the use of restraint and suggestion in story-telling that very well could have created a more engaged, better “reading” audience even at the level of B movies. On top of this are all the pretty faces: Barbara Stanwyck, Fay Wray, and a beautifully expressive King Kong. Outside of what Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis have done together, I really haven’t seen any digital f/x that create the same emotion and attachment as Willis O’Brien was able to instill in his stop motion work. What was a surprise revelation in the 16mm print I first saw this as captured the emotional core of my monkey brain in the restoration.

6. 36th Chamber of Shaolin (2007)
Not the first kung fu movie, but could be considered the ultimate expression of the genre that has spawned so many more and influenced countless other genres… and one of the ur texts for the Wu Tang Clan to boot! There’s something to the social connection made through the collective memory of poorly dubbed/translated kung fu movies – something that can run through Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker to RZA-ODB-GZA is pretty powerful – but being able to see a clean print in the original language takes the film out of the realm of grindhouse sensibility and easy parody and into its proper place as a well made studio film that engages a long cultural history in new ways.

5. The Girl Can’t Help It (2006)
Frank Tashlin has had a long delayed, well deserved renaissance of late with the restoration or reissue of much of his oeuvre. He has always been one of those people who created images that everyone knows, but no one knows where they came from or who made them. Like a Gene Krupa album, a Raymond Chandler novel, or EC Comics, Tashlin belies the belief that the 50s was a boring, culturally monolithic period without anything odd or dark or inventive being produced in the mainstream. Despite the comedy and the early rock music, I watched it with a tinge of sadness, knowing that the quality/style of color captured on film then will probably never be reached again.

4. Yakuza Papers (2004 American release)
I could have chosen any number of Japanese genre crime flicks that have finally been released stateside the past few years, but there’s something about the extent and cultural signifiers in this series that struck a chord in me. The way the crime syndicates were born out of the postwar upheaval. The old world meets new world (in the same world) with the mix of gangster cool and more traditional tattooing and Japanese garb. The way guns are used or thought of in a very different way than in American movies, re-imbuing them with the dangerous power that they hold, but also the reality that a single bullet (or even more poorly placed ones) will not kill someone immediately. And finally unmasking the engrained conception that the Japanese are all unfailingly polite businesspeople who don’t have any violence or upheaval in their society. It maybe doesn’t match up to The Godfather in our minds because it doesn’t feed our love of high melodrama, but the series certainly equally creates a full world of events and characters that reflect the wider aspects of society.

3. I Am Cuba (2005 restoration)
I still feel my jaw drop open in awe when I think about the stunning tracking shot through a rooftop cigar rolling workshop, out a window, floating several stories above the street and then gliding down amidst a crowd at street level. More so in the pre-digital days, there is a daring confrontation to keeping the camera rolling through a long take. Someone like Cassavetes uses these shots to expose a dramatic/emotional realism, forcing the viewer to watch as conversations play out through tension and mundanity. Kalatozov uses it to capture a social/temporal realism – this is happening here while this other thing is happening here – while also displaying a technical virtuosity/inventiveness that amazes.

2. WR: Mysteries of the Organism (2007)
Wow. I dragged a friend along to this in the theatre without giving much explanation of the film, just that it was some odd Yugoslavian movie from the 70s that was partly a documentary about a new agey / cultish doctor. That was pretty much all I knew about it too because I tend to only skim reviews so I keep a film a little fresh for first viewing. We arrived a little late to the theatre and walked in during the opening minutes… to the image of three naked people cracking open eggs and letting the raw egg run through their hands in an orgyish fashion. It just keeps going from there. An audacious mix of genres peppered with a dry black humor, it’s like an Eastern Bloc version of a Russ Myer movie. Also captures a cultural moment and ideology that is quickly succumbing to nostalgia and lingering mis-perceptions.

1. Killer of Sheep (2007)
Far and away the best of this decade and would have been stiff competition for many others. Simply one of the all-time greats. Precious is a pale derivative of Burnett’s unpacking of the ups and downs of everyday life that accompany the numbing pressures and failures of poverty. Even the heavy-handed flights of fancy in Precious are bettered by the almost surreal set pieces (the road trip that goes nowhere) and images (just try to get the image of the dog-masked girl or of the slaughterhouse out of your head) that are both original but also fit into the long history of film. I was so shaken after seeing the restored print that I had to walk home from Manhattan to Brooklyn just to soothe my emotions.

Honorable Mention: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss SongThe Red ShoesThe ExilesA Woman Under the InfluenceThe King and IOnce Upon a Time in AmericaThe Sorrow and The Pity

— Joshua Ranger