1. The Tarnished Angels (1958)
It should be so simple. The technology exists to distribute old movies, and there are people out there who want to see them. And yet every movie buff has had the experience of reading up on some great film or filmmaker, then hitting the video store and discovering that for one reason or another—rights issues, perhaps, or lack of broad public interest—the movies they want to see are unavailable on DVD. A few years back, when Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and François Ozon’s 8 Women were reigniting interest in ’50s ironist Douglas Sirk, those curious to learn more about the director were disappointed to discover that more than 75 percent of his films are locked away, out of general circulation. The most egregious absentee: The Tarnished Angels, a 1958 romance based on William Faulkner’s Pylon, about a barnstorming pilot, his neglected wife, and the reporter who exposes their dreary lives. Abandoning the bright colors of All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind for stark black-and-white and empty spaces, Sirk tells a story every bit as melodramatic as his earlier films, yet darker and graver. It’s arguably Sirk’s most sophisticated, powerful work—and damnably underseen.
2. The African Queen (1951)
There’s no excuse for John Huston’s classic The African Queen to still be lacking an American DVD release. Never mind the historical qualities of the film that won Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar; never mind that it’s an enduring classic. More to the point, it’s one of the most entertaining of Huston’s many crackerjack features, and it represents a winning chance to see Bogie playing against type as a bowing-and-scraping social underling to Katharine Hepburn, who herself plays directly to type as a stuffy, virginal, patrician missionary in Africa. Their obligatory romance is a little stiff, for reasons that become clear in Hepburn’s unintentionally revealing book The Making Of The African Queen, Or, How I Went To Africa With Bogart, Bacall, And Huston And Almost Lost My Mind—surely the much-needed DVD release would be an excellent reason to bring this book back into print—but it’s hard to beat the scene where Bogie finally realizes Hepburn isn’t kidding about her crazy scheme to fight a German battleship with his broken-down wreck of a steamship, and she isn’t going to back down, either.
3. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
In olden times, before Penn Jillette and his silent partner Teller were readily available all over TV, fans had a choice of catching their magic act onstage or tuning into the goofy gem Penn & Teller Get Killed, a sort of mockumentary-adventure in which the partners play increasingly elaborate gags on each other, with fatal (hey, it’s right there in the title) results. It’s maybe a little visually dated (check out Penn’s hip ’80s combination Jheri-curl/pigtail ’do!) but it’s surprisingly random and funny. And it was the last feature helmed by Bonnie And Clyde director Arthur Penn. Criterion! Get on this!
4. Los Angeles Plays Itself
Technically speaking, you can watch Los Angeles Plays Itself on DVD—if you happen to be taking a class with director Thom Andersen, or you’re a personal friend of his, or you’re lucky enough to attend one of its rare academic screenings. Otherwise, you’re out of luck, and that’s nothing short of tragic. An epic, far-reaching treatise on how the capital of moviemaking has been depicted across a century of film, Los Angeles Plays Itself is nothing short of a work of genius. Its structure is perfect, its scope is definitive, it virtually invents a new language of documentary filmmaking, and it can be counted as one of the best movies about movies ever made. But because the legal clearances for so many L.A.-based movies proved impossible to get, Andersen is restrained from any kind of commercial release, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.
5. Brewster McCloud (1970)
Pretty much the entire Robert Altman filmography has made its way to DVD by now—even much of his early TV work—but a few holes remain. No H.E.A.L.T.H. No Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean. No That Cold Day In The Park. And no Brewster McCloud—the eccentric comedy Altman made between M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and easily the best as-yet-unavailable Altman. Riffing freely on The Wizard Of Oz and ’60s cop shows—with Bud Cort starring as a boy who lives in the Houston Astrodome and wants to fly—Brewster McCloud is hopelessly shaggy, but pure Altman.
6. Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977)
Echoes of Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Robert Brooks’ adaptation of the Judith Rossner novel based on the real-life murder of a 27-year-old New York teacher, can be found in everything from Twin Peaks to Madonna’s “Bad Girl” music video—yet the movie has languished in VHS purgatory for years. Why? Either Richard Gere is personally blocking the release to prevent the world from seeing him do push-ups while wearing a jock strap in a high-quality video format (unlikely), or maybe Paramount doesn’t think there’s a market for a flawed movie that can be read as a dark, disturbing cautionary tale about the dangers of promiscuous sex (more likely). But Looking For Mr. Goodbar shouldn’t be kept off the DVD shelves because of its more sensational aspects—in fact, it should be seen in part for those aspects. As an artifact depicting the gritty, decadent days of singles bars, pickup scenes, and disco in run-down ’70s New York, the movie is invaluable. And Diane Keaton’s performance as a benign schoolteacher by day, “liberated” woman looking for no-strings sex by night, is worth the DVD treatment all on its own.
7. Island Of Lost Souls (1932)
An adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island Of Dr. Moreau, Island Of Lost Souls stars a never-creepier Charles Laughton as the mad scientist whose experiments with animal-human hybrids yield disturbing results. They also force viewers to question what makes us human in ways that have only grown more relevant since the rise of the animal-rights movement and the coming of science that mirrors the work in Moreau’s lab. The all-time-terrible sort-of remake Island Of Dr. Moreau, on the other hand, is widely available on DVD. (Bonus: It’s where Devo got the phrase “Are we not men?”)
8. The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
Over the course of three Decline Of Western Civilization documentaries—none of which are on DVD—Penelope Spheeris captured illuminating snapshots of the Los Angeles music scene at crucial, wildly divergent moments. While the first and third films centered on hardcore punk bands, the infamous second installment documented the city’s fame-hungry glam-metal groups. Twenty years later, The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years remains the definitive film about one of the most excessive (and unintentionally hilarious) scenes in rock history. Which makes it doubly frustrating that the movie is so hard to actually see. VHS copies still pop up in thrift stores, bootleg DVDs are available online, and the movie occasionally plays on TV. But a film with so many memorable scenes—the most famous being Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P. pouring vodka over himself in a swimming pool while his mother looks on—deserves a legitimate release.
9. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Warner Brothers owns the RKO catalog, thus owns the DVD rights to The Magnificent Ambersons, which is good news for Orson Welles fans, since Warner Home Video has consistently been among the best in the business at assembling archival material and other special features on their DVD releases of old movies. When Warner finally does release The Magnificent Ambersons—it’s only a matter of time, surely—expect Welles’ version of Booth Tarkington’s decade-spanning family tragicomedy to include all kinds of treats, like Welles’ Mercury Theater radio version, and perhaps the 1925 silent-movie version. But unless Warner can come through with the big get—Welles’ original 40-minute third act, which has long been missing since his studio bosses snipped it—no DVD release will feel completely satisfactory. If anything, the fact that Warner has dragged its feet so long on putting Ambersons out has raised hopes that they’re waiting for what would be the ultimate bonus feature.
10. Urgh! A Music War (1981)
Some movies not currently available on DVD never made it to VHS either, but there are a large number of cult films—many from the early ‘80s—that were home-video staples not so long ago, yet have gone largely unseen for the better part of a decade. Urgh! is a classic example: It’s a punk/new-wave concert film featuring dynamic performances by the likes of Wall Of Voodoo, The Go-Go’s, Dead Kennedys, The Police, The Fleshtones, Gang Of Four, X, and XTC, and it was a popular rental for music buffs two decades ago, as well as a staple of USA’s Night Flight and the early days of VH1. But disputes over music rights have kept the film—and its reported hours of outtakes—off DVD for now.
11. Drowning By Numbers (1988)
It isn’t just Drowning By Numbers—the work of controversial English formalist Peter Greenaway is only spottily available on DVD. His early experimental shorts and his first major feature, The Falls, came out recently, but a number of his later, better-known films, including Prospero’s Books; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife And Her Lover; and the notorious Baby Of Mâcon are either out of print or simply unavailable in the United States. But this 1988 film may be the greatest loss: It’s a formalist masterpiece, exploring Greenaway’s obsessions with mathematics, game-playing, and painting with incredible skill and subtlety. It’s also one of his most relatable films, with a delightfully nasty plot (three women all attempt to murder their husbands by drowning), clever dialogue, and tremendous performances, especially by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Bernard Hill.
12. Grindhouse (2007)
Yes, Planet Terror and Death Proof are available separately on DVD, in extended versions that frankly aren’t as good as the shortened versions that screened theatrically in the U.S. Also missing on the DVDs: the fake trailers that linked the two films, and the overall spirit of collaboration and experimentation that yokes Planet Terror and Death Proof together. In its original form, Grindhouse is both riotous and generous—one of the best movies of 2007. How is it that one of the best movies of 2007 is not yet available on DVD?
13. Mickey One (1965)
Two years before Bonnie And Clyde (and well before Penn & Teller Get Killed) director Arthur Penn teamed up with Warren Beatty for this absurdist noir exercise, which stars Beatty as a traveling stand-up comic who inadvertently pisses off the mafia and constantly worries that his success on stage will draw the mob’s attention. Nonsensical, existential, highly stylish, and frequently funny, Mickey One is one of the first and best American responses to the French New Wave. The film was revived in the mid-’90s for a few festival and repertory screenings, but no home-video release has followed.
14. Greed (1924)
Regularly, and deservedly, included on lists of the greatest films of all time, Eric Von Stroheim’s adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague began as a 10-hour epic, then got clipped to two and a half hours before dying at the box office. An incinerator took the cut footage decades ago, but at any length, Greed retains its power. Von Stroheim brings a painter’s eye for composition to the then-still-new language of movies, and he takes a devastating route toward an old conclusion about humanity’s willingness to be corrupted. In 1999, Turner Classic Movies aired a sort-of restoration that used stills to reconstruct about 90 minutes of the cut footage. What the approach lacked in grace, it compensated for with clarity. Of course, on DVD, viewers could choose to watch either version. And yet…
15. Bigger Than Life (1955)
Nicholas Ray’s melodrama Bigger Than Life has been hailed as a penetrating exploration of the American psyche and the calamitous ramifications of the winner-takes-all mindset. Alas, contemporary film buffs mostly have to take the reviews’ word for it, since Ray’s searing drama about a family man (James Mason) whose life steadily unravels once he begins taking personality-warping cortisone shots has inexplicably never been released on DVD. And speaking of Ray…
16. Johnny Guitar (1954)
How Nicholas Ray’s florid Western never made it onto DVD remains baffling for several reasons: Ray (Rebel Without A Cause) is beloved among auteurists, and this film specifically has both a cult and a camp following; the basic premise was lifted whole for Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West; and it offers the strange spectacle of Joan Crawford, in all her grotesque splendor, teaming up with Sterling Hayden. Crawford stars as a saloon owner who wants to expand her empire once a railroad is built through town, but she gets resistance from the citizenry, particularly a moral scold (Mercedes McCambridge) consumed by jealousy. Their rivalry gives the film a uniquely feminist twist, because the men look weak by comparison; even the towering Hayden becomes a pussycat in Crawford’s arms. Freud scholars will have a ball.
17. Let It Be (1970)
The 1970 documentary Let It Be,about the troubled sessions for the eponymous Beatles album, includes one of the most iconic sequences in the band’s history—the rooftop concert at the Apple Building where the Fab Four played together in public for the last time. If Let It Be consisted only of this performance, it would be essential viewing for Beatles fans. But the movie also shows, in often-painful detail, just how much John, Paul, George, and Ringo did not like being in the same room together by the end of the band’s career. Nearly 40 years have passed since, but the bitter acrimony depicted in Let It Be apparently still cuts close to the bone for the surviving principals; late Apple Corps. head Neil Aspinall said last year that the film is still “too controversial” to be released on DVD.
18. The Landlord (1970)
Few directors have enjoyed the kind of run that director Hal Ashby had in the ’70s. For many film fans, Ashby’s winning streak begins with 1971’s Harold And Maude, and continues through The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. But Ashby’s 1970 directorial debut, The Landlord,is just as great as the other movies he made during the decade, and it’s the only one not available on DVD. The movie stars Beau Bridges as a rich kid who takes over an inner-city building to turn it into a splashy bachelor pad, and ends up romantically involved with two black tenants. Like Ashby’s other work, The Landlord concerns issues of class and transcending rigid authority, and it exhibits the massively influential indie-quirk style made famous by Harold And Maude. It’s time the movie was released on DVD so cinephiles can finally get a complete picture of Ashby’s golden era.
19. Park Row (1952)
There’s been a welcome tide of Samuel Fuller films arriving on DVD over the past several years—including the scandalous White Dog, newly available from the Criterion Collection—but the movie Fuller considered his personal favorite isn’t currently on the market. Set during the New York newspaper wars of the mid-1880s—and informed by Fuller’s own experiences as a teenage copyboy and cub reporter—Park Row gives the seat-of-the-pants world of yellow journalism the two-fisted action of a gangster film. It’s both enormously entertaining and informative; Park Row may be the only action-packed, tough-talking period picture that also explains how to sort type.
20. Homicide (1991)
David Mamet’s films have often fallen through the cracks for one reason or another—too stylized for the mainstream, too unironically pulpy for the arthouse crowd—but the lack of attention paid to the twisty crime drama Homicide is especially unfortunate, since it’s the kind of masterfully plotted, carefully controlled think-piece that Mamet has largely abandoned over the past decade, in favor of mild sensationalism. Joe Mantegna stars as a sweet-talking cop whose investigation of a low-profile murder leads him to confront his Jewish identity. Deliberately paced and frequently surprising, Homicide promises to plunge the audience into a typically Mamet-esque underworld, but instead it sticks us into Mantegna’s shut-out, insecure point of view.
21. The Phenix City Story (1955)
Sure, Phil Karlson’s indie crime saga The Phenix City Story was daring stuff for 1955, with its indictment of the real-life corruption in a small Alabama town. And the movie’s fairly unflinching depictions of racism, prostitution, and authoritarian power grabs are still provocative today. But not so daring and provocative that Phenix City Story shouldn’t be on DVD.
22. Housekeeping (1987)
Always making a great foil to the commercial comedies of the ’80s, Glaswegian director Bill Forsyth put out a series of gentle, magical romantic comedies like Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero. But his reputation didn’t survive the VHS era, and even if it had, his 1987 gem Housekeeping was always just a minor critic’s favorite, appearing as part of the National Society Of Film Critics’ great book, Produced And Abandoned. Roger Ebert revived the film for his Ebertfest 2008 in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, so perhaps Housekeeping will finally get another chance to disarm audiences with its daffy humor and gorgeous evocation of the Pacific Northwest in the late ’50s. Based on the Marilynne Robinson novel, the film stars a superb Christine Lahti as an eccentric spinster who takes in two sisters after their mother goes for a “Sunday drive” and never comes back. Housekeeping was promoted as a comedy—and granted, Lahti’s habits are definitely funny—but it’s also a bittersweet look at how a family reconstitutes itself out of tragedy.
23. Phantasm II (1988)
Available on DVD in the U.S.: Phantasm, Phantasm III: Lord Of The Dead, Phantasm IV: Oblivion. Not available: Phantasm II. No, it doesn't make any sense to us either.