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The Best and Worst Video:: 1999

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1 The Wizard of Oz DVD
Video of the Year

(Warner, G) As the calendar flips over into a new millennium — and the clock on your VCR still blinks ”12:00” — it is no longer possible to ignore the DVD revolution. Simply put, this is how we should be watching movies at home. Two 1999 discs make it a case-closed situation, and since naming one of them the best would require the services of a Solomon, I’ll just choose the movie with which I have the more personal relationship. Which is to say that seeing The Wizard of Oz on DVD made me feel 7 years old again.

That was the year my father bought a color TV set, and Dorothy’s opening of the door onto a riot of Technicolor hit my tiny brain like a Froot Loops high, only better. I felt the same sensation — compounded by nostalgia — when I beheld the same scene this year on DVD and marveled at the details that smeary old VHS tapes had hidden, up to and including every brick in the Yellow Brick Road. It was as if my memory itself had been squeegeed clean.

Here’s some of what else you get on the Wizard disc: a making-of documentary; trailers, posters, sketches, and storyboards; makeup and costume tests; studio publicity stills and memos; home-movie footage of the deleted ”Jitterbug” dance sequence; clips from a 1914 version of Oz written and directed by L. Frank Baum; 1979 interviews with Margaret Hamilton, Jack Haley, and Ray Bolger; and hours of audio-only musical takes, including Judy Garland’s first public performance of ”Over the Rainbow.”

Yes, the movie is what matters. But the fact that you can play film historian for days on end while seeing the movie the way it was meant to be seen is weirdly subversive. Let the joyous news at last be spread: Ding-dong, VHS is dead.

2 A Bug’s Life Collector’s Edition DVD (Walt Disney/Pixar, G) Or, as codirector Andrew Stanton calls this two-platter set, the ”soo-pah genius version.” And, by God, the man’s not wrong. On one disc, you get the movie both in wide-screen and digitally altered to fill your TV. On the other disc, you get a bustling anthill of behind-the-scenes material that is — surprise! — as entertaining as the film. From the intentionally cheesy in-house presentation short Fleabie to testing sequences in which the characters’ personalities evolve to revealed secrets of sound design, it’s all here — linked by hilariously deadpan intros from Stanton, director John Lasseter, and others. For proof that making Pixar movies is as fun as watching them, skip to editor Lee Unkrich’s discussion of the ”progression demonstration” — while Lasseter and Stanton mime death-by-boredom behind him.

3 The Celebration (PolyGram, R) Even the directors who have signed on to Dogma 95 know that this Danish-bred statement of filmmaking principles is kind of a gimmick. It’s all the more startling, then, that Thomas Vinterberg’s blistering take on a family reunion soars beyond gimmickry, starting with the scene in which a son (Ulrich Thomsen) calmly toasts his father’s birthday by telling the assembled guests of his childhood abuse at the hands of the old man. At first, no one is willing to believe him, but as familial complacency and complicity get peeled back, Celebration grows in power. And, no, it wouldn’t have been half as good if shot un-Dogmatically.

4 Buffalo ’66 (Universal, R) The indie success story of 1998 (not released on tape until this year), it’s still a too-little-seen gem. What sets Vincent Gallo apart from such bad-boy provocateurs as, say, Quentin Tarantino? Well, if you can get beyond the look-at-me-Ma camera moves and the grimly hip scenario of a grumpy jailbird returning to his monstrous parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara), you’ll find a hero whose relationship with his kidnapped dream girl (Christina Ricci) becomes shockingly…tender. And how can you hate a guy who loves early Yes so much?

5 The Dreamlife of Angels (Columbia TriStar, R) Most filmgoers weren’t able to get to the few art houses playing this quietly devastating French movie; video, as usual, rides to the rescue by bringing the art house to them. At first, Erick Zonca’s film seems a prosaic look at two young, working-class gal pals and their search for idle thrills. Slowly, though, the openhearted Isabelle (Elodie Bouchez) ascends toward grace as surely as cynical Marie (Natacha Regnier) tailspins into a ruinous relationship. Unexpectedly haunting, Angels is both a biography of a friendship and a map that charts the intersecting rise and fall of two casual seraphs.

6 The Matrix DVD (Warner, R) Welcome to the future. I’m not talking about the movie, which folds two decades of cyberpunk influences into a visually amazing whole that still doesn’t transcend pulp. No, I’m talking about the Matrix DVD, which, when placed in the DVD-ROM drive of your computer, patches into the film’s website for a freakily networked multimedia experience. This past Nov. 6, for instance, you could have watched the film on your PC while simultaneously partaking in a live chat with writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski. The implications are unnerving — imagine the movie-geek hive minds that could coalesce — and, in their own way, a hell of a lot more profound than anything Keanu Reeves is up to on screen.

7 Kurt & Courtney (BMG, R) Nick Broomfield’s documentary is about the John and Yoko of alterna-rock. Actually, it’s about the difficulty of making that documentary when Courtney Love is allegedly scaring off your financial backers. No, really, it’s about the novel theory that Courtney had Kurt Cobain murdered. Then again, maybe it’s just sour-grapes interviews with the losers scattered in Love’s wake. Honestly, it’s about Broomfield’s search for the truth—any truth. Finally, it’s about the impossibility of knowing.

8 Taxi Driver Collector’s Edition DVD (Columbia TriStar, R) Twenty-three years on, Taxi Driver is a diorama of a brutal, bygone New York City—yet few museum pieces bite or bleed this ferociously (for proof, proceed to this year’s Bringing Out the Dead, in which director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader revisit the old nabe to diminishing returns). The DVD offers a splendidly deep, 70-minute behind-the-scenes documentary with contributions from parties expected (Scorsese, Schrader, Robert De Niro) and unexpected (Cybill Shepherd), yet the disc version is most compelling for the way it visually scrubs the old-movie patina off the murderous despair of Travis Bickle (De Niro), making it far easier to connect the dots to, say, schoolyard psychos of our here and now.

9 Henry Fool (Columbia TriStar, R) The classic that writer-director Hal Hartley was put on earth for, or merely the movie that makes his bohemians-in-suburbia posturing finally bearable? Depends on who you ask — but, since you’re asking a guy who’s been a follower since 1990’s The Unbelievable Truth (and who has held on through the dark mid-’90s days of Simple Men and Amateur), of course it demands renting. You even get two stories for the price of one: the saga of a downtrodden garbageman (James Urbaniak) who finds sudden notoriety as a poet, and the complementary comedy of his blowhard artistic muse (Thomas Jay Ryan) who is revealed to be bereft of talent and must learn to live among mortals. Most films celebrate creativity—this one, remarkably, investigates what grows in its absence.

10 Yellow Submarine DVD (MGM, G) Since they spent all that money spiffing up the soundtrack and refurbishing the negative, doesn’t revisiting Pepperland via VHS seem the height of perversity? DVD is the way you want to experience this flashback: The visuals are crystalline, the sound is a revelation, and extras include interviews with key personnel, storyboards for two never-filmed sequences, and alternate-track commentary by line producer John Coates. About the only voices missing from this project are those of Paul, George, and Ringo—but Submarine was always more about Beatles myth than reality.

The Worst

1 Baby Geniuses (Columbia TriStar, PG) Whenever an Iron Giant or a Toy Story 2 gets you thinking that a golden age of family films is upon us, along comes a Baby Geniuses to remind you that the genre is primarily built on exploitative, soul-sucking crap. Here, babies talk through the magic of computer animation, and it couldn’t be more grotesque if the filmmakers had attached actual wires to their lips.

2 Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (Dimension, R) Has it really been 15 years since the first Children of the Corn? My, how time flies when you’re a midget prophet trying to rouse a community of evil children into killing their elders. There’s something appealing in the kudzu-like tenacity of such direct-to-video sequels, but wouldn’t it be nice if the movies themselves were watchable?

3 The Mod Squad (MGM, R) It’s the height of Hollywood arrogance: Take a ’60s TV show that has relevance only to aging baby boomers — and that was, admit it, mindless dreck to begin with — then try to cram it down the throats of today’s happenin’ kids. 1999 gave us Wild Wild West, My Favorite Martian, and, worst of the bunch, this hippie cop-show retread. Is it possible to cancel an entire genre?

4 Kook’s Tour (Anchor Bay, unrated) Proof that not everything from the vaults of so-called classic comedy should find its way to video. If you really want to see the last known performance of the Three Stooges, you’re welcome to this 1970 pilot in which Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe dodder around the world. If you want laughs, ferret out the Columbia TriStar DVD Curly Classics.

5 Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (New Line, PG-13) The marketing campaign was genius. In theaters, the movie was a helluva party. At home, in the deadly silence of a living room, it plays like a Saturday Night Live skit that has no idea how deeply unfunny it is.

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