Ty Burr wonders how he'll pick his annual top 10 video list when so many worthy classics are newly out on disc
Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart
Credit: Rear Window: Kobal Collection

Classic movies finally arrive on DVD

It’s mid-November, and while most people are just getting their brains around the turkey thing and what they’re going to say to Uncle Philo when they’re stuck next to him and his bourbon breath at the table this year, the Entertainment Weekly writers and critics are thinking about… end of the year best/worst lists. That’s right, even if the year has a month and a half to go — and even if it’s our critical duty to keep on eye out for any late candidates for inclusion — we have to start figuring out our top 10 and bottom five.

It’s not that much of a brainbuster, really. It involves stepping back, freshening one’s memory, leafing through the year’s back issues in case you missed something, and, if so, making a point of watching/listening to/reading it. I’ve been handling the best and worst videos roundup for 10 years now, and, honestly, the requisite titles really do tend to fall into place all by themselves.

Until this year.

This is the year that, finally, enough folks out there got DVD players that a tipping point was reached as far as the studios and distributors were concerned. In short, this was the year that the classics in the cinematic canon started hitting DVD, with or without extraneous bells and whistles.

I’m talking about ”Citizen Kane” and parts one and two of ”The Godfather.” Complete boxed sets devoted to (in descending order) Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and the ”Die Hard” films. ”Spartacus” AND ”Ben-Hur.” ”Notorious” AND ”Rear Window.” ”Some Like It Hot” AND ”Sullivan’s Travels.” ”Manhunter” and ”Do the Right Thing” and ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and ”Once Upon a Time in China” (parts one and two) and ”On the Waterfront” and ”The Princess Bride.” ”Snow White” and ”The Simpsons” and ”Akira.” ”The Conversation.” ”Traffik.” ”The Prisoner.” ”Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

Will someone please explain to me how I’m supposed to pick the best 10?

In previous years, it was easy, because home video was, to a large extent, a simple aftermarket of the theatrical experience. Oh, I made sure to choose things that you wouldn’t find in a multiplex — my past top picks have included documentaries (”Brother’s Keeper”), oldies (Buster Keaton’s films), foreign films (”The Decalogue”), and anime (”Kiki’s Delivery Service”) — because there IS a difference between home video and the movies, even if we don’t tend to rent that way on a day-to-day basis.

But far more than VHS ever did, the new format’s emphasis on owning rather than renting (for now) encourages the collecting of a small library of acknowledged masterpieces. And the galleries of extras, from commentaries to deleted scenes to storyboards, further differentiate DVD from the initial experience of a film. The whole notion of a DVD, in fact, has come to stand for something larger than the particular movie that’s packaged on it. The movie may be the jewel, but the DVD experience is the setting it’s in, and who’s to say a platinum band can’t sometimes outshine the cubic zirconium at its center?

The rights holders of the major film and TV libraries just love this. On the positive side, they can release classics and be certain that the audience is getting the best sound and picture and extra stuff they’re willing to pay for. On the more mercenary side, they can resell ”Citizen Kane” to the same poor sap who bought the VHS tape, the Special Edition VHS tape, and the laserdisc, much in the manner that record labels happily poured their back catalogues onto CD a number of years ago.

The format and its market are still evolving, to be sure. Piracy’s still an issue, less so in the U.S. than overseas, and the home-video industry still has to figure out how hard they want to push DVD as a rental format (personally, I’ll be wary of renting discs until my local video store owner figures out how to clean them so they don’t stutter-skip in my player). But the confidence in DVD is clearly shown by the wealth of incredible titles that have now been released.

Not that that helps me any — I still have to pick an even 10 best DVDs. What would YOU choose, friends?

Rear Window (Movie - 1954)
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes