A Year of Culture 

The best discs to sum up 2008.

Play Your Own Thing: A Story of Jazz in Europe

$24.99

Purist-types love to argue about who "owns" a particular music. Take jazz — some maintain it's first and foremost an African-American form, others a purely American form. It actually took many years for European musicians to truly establish their own unique "identity" within jazz, and Play Your Own Thing illustrates the (continuing) history of European jazz and how scenes from different parts of the globe impact each other. Aside from archival footage of American icons Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, and Don Cherry, you get UK and Euro performers disparate as Jan Garbarek, Robert Wyatt, Martial Solal, and Marilyn Mazur. (EuroArts)

The Dark Knight

$28.98

Iron Man

$34.99

It took awhile, but movies based on comic book characters got to be helmed by people who really cared about the source material. (Go ahead and role your eyes, film snobs — what are James Bond, Indiana Jones, Neo, Sherlock Holmes, the Three Musketeers, and even Don Quixote, if not "superheroes"?) The Dark Knight is almost Citizen Kane-like in scope — at two-and-a-half hours it "felt long" but never tedious — and Iron Man is the classic-American-success-story-meets-the-rich-hotshot-discovers-he-has-a-soul scenario — in the latter, Robert Downey Jr. gives one of the most nuanced performances of the year. Both sets have plenty of cool extras, but they're the icing on the gravy — the main attractions are the shit. (And you needn't be a comic book fanboy/girl to appreciate either movie.) (Warner Home Video; Paramount)

Johnny Cash's America

$21.98

At Folsom Prison

$39.98

The former is a documentary on the Man in Black by Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon, the aces behind Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story; the latter is a CD/DVD set documenting Johnny Cash's complete concert at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. Both explore the world(s) of a true American icon, a popular country singer who took a stand against the Vietnam War (and earned the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan when he spoke up for Native Americans' rights), a pal of mega-evangelist Billy Graham who recorded a song by Glenn Danzig, a performer that bridged generations at a time when America was incredibly polarized (1969-1971) and beyond. Edifying and harrowing. (Sony Legacy)

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

$19.98

As Joe Strummer of the Clash — at one time "the only band that matters" — left us so early (at age fifty), this documentary is mos def bittersweet. Using a (slightly contrived) sitting-'round-the-fire motif, The Future Is Unwritten presents a vivid portrait of a man who deeply cared about music and its potential to affect peoples' lives and of a point in time when rock 'n' roll seemed to begin to really matter again. (Even if Clash songs are now used to sell automobiles.) (Sony Legacy)

Pierre Henry: The Art of Sounds

$28.98

Whether or not Pierre Henry "invented" musique concrete — essentially music made with turntables, magnetic tape, filters, a mixing board, and found sound — is beside the point. Along with fellow traveler Pierre Schaeffer, Henry was a prime mover that put it on the map, scoring films and ballets in the 1950s and '60s, influencing and inspiring everyone from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Frank Zappa, Einstürzende Neubauten, Merzbow, and countless DJs. Art of Sounds is a documetary about the man, and includes a film scored by him and performance footage from '53 and '03. As of this writing, he's still alive and working, too. (Juxtapositions)

Heaven

$14.99

The directorial debut of Diane Keaton, Heaven was released in theaters in 1987 and didn't do terribly well (domestic gross was less than $80,000). Today, it'd make a wonderful double-bill with Bill Maher's Religulous. Heaven is a surreally giddy, irreverent, virtually stream-of-consciousness documentary about a wide variety of folks' beliefs re: heaven (the post-mortality kind), using footage from lots of Hollywood classic (and unequivocally un-classic) films. Listen for how an evangelical type declaims, "Are you afraid to die?," sounding like a cross between Jello Biafra and John Lydon, while another asserts, "It's God's football." (Image Entertainment)

Jazz Icons (series: Reelin' in the Years Productions/Naxos)

$119.99

The Jazz Icons hepcats have done it again — they've released another eight-DVD box set of 1950s-1970s live performances by iconic performers Nina Simone, Cannonball Adderley, Oscar Peterson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bill Evans, Lionel Hampton, and Sonny Rollins, plus a not-available-separately bonus disc. Can't afford the whole damn thing? Get the Bill Evans volume featuring four different bass/drums teams and covers '64 through '75; the R.R. Kirk ('63 and '67), and that fairly smoking Cannonball Adderley, which features Yusef Lateef and a young Josef Zawinul (later of Weather Report). (Naxos)

Los Straitjackets in Concert

$19.98

Generally speaking, our nation doesn't know it (yet), but Los Straitjackets are America's greatest, coolest instrumental rock 'n' roll combo. Having learned their lessons from the best of their forebears — the Ventures, Dick Dale, Link Wray, the Raybeats (of which 'jacket Danny Amis was a member), and the Mexican Wrestling Federation — Los Straitjackets are as restorative as a glass of strong iced tea on a summer day. They're a scintillating live act as well, as this concert DVD will attest. Though it's not, alas, included on In Concert, try to catch their Christmas Holiday show. (Yep Roc)

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