Five DVD labels who consistently push good films

When you walk into a videostore or check up on your Netflix queue, it’s generally a crapshoot finding new movies you haven’t heard much about. Here at The Filmsmith, we’ve made a habit of letting you in on some of the underground releases every week, movies you might not have heard of otherwise. But we typically can only get to one a week, and there are dozens of others making their way to home video, some for the first time. Here’s a list of a few DVD companies who have consistently put out good films – to such a degree that if you see something released by them, you can bet it’s probably top notch stuff.

1. The Criterion Collection
Self described as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films,” Criterion is a veritable leviathan in the DVD world. They have released over 550 titles, almost all of which are definitive editions, and each one is jam packed with special features, commentary tracks, and insightful essays that allow the film to be put in the proper context. Their releases include the very best examples of world cinema, and include the works of Chaplin, Godard, Kurosawa, Renoir, Bergman, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Truffaut, Fellini, Bunuel, Cassavetes, and the list goes on and on.

2. Oscilloscope Laborotories
Oscilloscope is a relative newcomer to the field, having only started a few years back as the brainchild of Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch. Their packaging is famously plastic-free, and their selection typically reflects a similar social conscience. They began by releasing a lot of underground or indie fare, many of which were documentaries (No Impact Man, The Garden, Dear Zachary, FLOW). They have since expanded into major releases that tend towards the other side of the shelf. For example, they released last year’s Howl and Exit Through the Gift Shop and will be releasing this year’s Meek’s Cutoff.

3. Raro Video USA
Raro Video set up a reputation for itself as a great foreign DVD company, putting out hard-to-find and cult movies from overseas. Typically they were the only place to find those movies, and many Raro followers purchased region-free DVD players to accommodate their vast selection. Earlier this year the label broke into the U.S. market with a release of the lesser known Fellini film Clowns (which they have announced will also be their first Blu-ray title) and followed it up with the box set of Fernando di Leo films. Since then, they have put out only a few titles, apparently attempting to build up to more than one release a quarter, but they have all been fascinating underground Italian films, masterfully directed and pretty much unheard of. Keep an eye on these guys, as they intend to release the pulpy Euro-crime awesomeness alongside the more tasteful unavailable art-house titles, making for a damn good selection in years to come.

4. Magnet Releasing
Magnet is also relatively new on the scene, forming the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures. Their first major release came in 2008 with the acclaimed Let the Right One In, a perfect example of their blend of horror, pathos, and filmmaking finesse. Since then they put out Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson and John Woo’s Red Cliff, as well as House of the Devil and the latter two Ong Bak movies. Fortunately, in the last few months they have picked up enormous momentum and begun dropping titles left and right, such as 13 Assassins, The Vanishing on 7th Street, Rubber, Hobo with a Shotgun, Black Death, Monsters, and I Saw the Devil. Their next release is the just-reviewed Troll Hunter. This is another company to keep an eye on, because they have a commitment to releasing only the very best of this off-kilter genre.

5. Kino Lorber
I hesitate to include this company on the list, not because of the quality of their recent releases, but because of the care (or lack thereof) they put into their first few years of DVD production. Kino owns the rights to just about every major silent film, as well as hundreds upon hundreds of great movies released since that era. Kino put all of these out shoddily to make a quick buck, since the company held sole distribution rights. They had no competition, and unlike Criterion, they didn’t load their discs with tons of features or brand new transfers. However, since Kino was bought out by Fox Lorber a few years back, releases have come up in quality so much that my entire opinion has changed from loathing to loving. Especially if you have a Blu-ray player, check out Kino releases, as their versions of The General, The Sacrifice, Battleship Potemkin, and Metropolis are the best these films have ever looked. Even aside from those goodies but oldies, they manage to release some of the cooler films coming out today, including Dogtooth, Winnebago Man, and Funny Games (alongside the rest of Michael Haneke’s films).

So if you find yourself unsure of what to get at the store, but notice one of those companies on the box, it might as well be a seal of approval, at least most of the time.

Are there any other companies that seem to put out top-notch DVD releases that I’ve forgotten?

-Ben Creech

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