I’m not sure what to add to the praise to get people to see Killer of Sheep, so maybe it’s time to roll out the blurbs: if you buy one DVD this year, make it this one. Milestone pairs Charles Burnett’s 1977 Watts poem, a lock on this year’s top-ten lists, with his second film, My Brother’s Wedding, and a trio of typically distilled shorts. Watching Killer of Sheep again uncovers more layers to the black-and-white compositions and subtleties of tone in the South Central pastiche around Stan, a slaughterhouse worker with a marrow-deep ache. On a scene level, Burnett’s graceful touch with the ebb and flow of people hanging out and greeting each other, and with kids playing, is miraculous without ever intruding. (“If I just put it together out of things that happened...” Burnett muses on the commentary, about his goal of sympathetic objectivity.)
Engine blocks, plumbing, cracked cups — people in Burnett’s films spend a lot of time worrying at broken things. Something’s stuck in lanky 30-year-old Pierce in Wedding, too, torn between loyalty to an ex-con childhood friend and his family, crossing classes for his brother’s marriage. With a bit more artifice to the acting, but focused, Wedding is a vital portrait tinged with humor but edged by the young man’s pent-up, ineffectual resentment. The Friday-night-at-home short “Several Friends” could be an outtake from Killer of Sheep, while “The Horse” finds Burnett turning to a Western-like setting in an elliptical piece with the bite of a short story; “When It Rains” is pitched to the all-good rambling voice of an urban griot.