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Some out-of-the-boxes thinking pays dividends

The 10 best single-film DVD releases of 2008 include silent classics and Terrence Malick's latest opus.

December 21, 2008|Dennis Lim

The gift-giving season inevitably sparks a glut of elephantine DVD boxed sets, overgenerous swaths of a filmmaker's or actor's or studio's back catalog, swaddled in elaborate packaging. As a result, the year's more compact releases tend to get overlooked every December. With that -- and the new austerity -- in mind, here are the 10 best single-film DVD releases of 2008. All retail for less than $40 and can be found for less at many outlets.

Chungking Express

The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Back in 1994, this lovesick daydream established Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai as the king of cosmopolitan cool, updating the insouciant spirit of the French new wave for a new generation and a globalized world. The pixieish heroine has a theme tune ("California Dreamin' ") that she plays in a loop. Wong's best films are themselves like timeless pop songs, built to withstand repeated consumption. Also available on Blu-ray.

Daisy Kenyon

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, $14.98

Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda are the all-star members of a love triangle in Otto Preminger's thoroughly modern 1947 drama. Long written off as a women's picture, it's something of a forgotten masterpiece, as lucid and nuanced a portrait of romantic conflict as Hollywood has ever produced.

The General

Kino International, $29.95

Buster Keaton's 1927 action comedy, in which he plays a Civil War-era railroad engineer in pursuit of his abducted girlfriend and his stolen locomotive, is a crowning glory of the silent period and still one of the most inventive chase movies of all time. Kino's two-disc set includes historical supplements and, crucially, a near-pristine new transfer.

Irma Vep

Essential Edition

Zeitgeist Video, $29.99

Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung, playing herself, arrives in Paris to star in a remake of the classic French serial "Les Vampires." When it was released in 1996, this delirious comedy by French director Olivier Assayas registered as a smart, off-the-cuff appraisal of contemporary cinema and cinephilia. Thanks to the instinctive freshness of its insights and the immediacy of the filmmaking, it hasn't aged a bit.

J'accuse

Flicker Alley, $39.95

The Los Angeles-based company Flicker Alley has quickly become a major force in the preservation and presentation of old movies. Among their releases this year were two by the silent-era epic specialist Abel Gance: the sprawling melodrama "La Roue" (1923) and this 1919 World War I movie, a prototypical pacifist tract and a zombie flick of sorts, which culminates with an army of dead soldiers rising from their graves.

Lost Highway

Universal Home Video, $19.99

A critical and commercial flop in 1997, David Lynch's Mobius-strip noir -- a variation on the O.J. Simpson story, with shades of "Vertigo" -- finally made its way to DVD this year (albeit in an extras-free edition). It now seems like a breakthrough film for Lynch, moving his narratives closer to the logic of the unconscious and paving the way for the mindbenders "Mulholland Dr." and "Inland Empire."

The New World

The Extended Cut

New Line, $20.98

Befitting its hazy aura, Terrence Malick's lyric reverie on the settlement of Jamestown has been shape-shifting ever since it first appeared in late 2005. An original 150-minute cut was trimmed to 135 minutes (the version on the previous DVD) and now has been expanded to 172 minutes. More than ever, despite its drifty indulgences, it's a mystery that still refuses to give up its answers.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Warner Home Video, $19.97

Directed by Albert Lewin, a screenwriter turned producer turned director with a taste for decadent perversity, this 1945 adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel (never before issued on DVD) honors the opulent irony and gothic atmosphere of the source material.

Vampyr

The Criterion Collection, $39.95

The first sound picture by the Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer, released to general audience confusion in 1932, is at once the dreamiest and most bone-chilling of vampire movies. As the hero loses his grip on what the opening titles call "the boundary between the real and the supernatural," the film itself becomes a potent fog of disorientation (it was literally shot through gauze). The Criterion edition features a 1998 restoration based on the original German version.

Woman on the Beach

New Yorker Video, $29.95; due Dec. 30

The most widely exported South Korean films of recent years have been ultraviolent thrillers (a la Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy"), but the country's most brutal filmmaker is Hong Sang-soo. Often compared to Eric Rohmer, Hong is both wry and remorseless in depicting the self-absorption and self-deception of his characters -- emotionally stunted men and the women who love or tolerate them -- and this 2006 festival favorite is one of his funniest and most agonizing films.

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