The Year’s Best DVDs
Rolling Stone Magazine’s Peter Travers picks the top 25 of 2004.
Check out my list of this year’s best DVDs. Then we can argue. It’s part of the fun. Are the best DVDs all about the quality of the movie itself? Or is it more about the wow factor in image and sound that lets your home-theater system rock the house? Or is it those rare bonus features that go beyond hype to actually reveal something about how movies are made? You hardly ever get all three in one package, but here are the twenty-five DVDs that come the closest.
1. Star Wars Trilogy
George Lucas’ sci-fi trilogy (1977’s Star Wars, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi) arrived on DVD at last, with an incredibly crisp picture and a spectacular sound mix to become the DVD event of the year. One caveat: Lucas tweaked each movie, spruced up the special effects, modified lines of dialogue to better fit with his prequels and even replaced actor Sebastian Shaw with prequel star Hayden Christensen to portray the ghost of Anakin (Darth Vader) Skywalker at the end of Jedi. Heresy or artistry? You decide.
Extras: A fourth disc has more than three hours of documentaries, plus photos. Lucas explains how hyperspace works, what Darth Vader really wants from Luke and why the bad guys are dressed in black and white.
Killer Scene: The forest chase in Return of the Jedi is one of the greatest-ever DVD demo sequences. Trees whiz by, speeder bikes explode and you hold your breath and duck.
2. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The extended edition (accept no substitutes) adds fifty minutes to the Oscar-winning third part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it’s the movie itself, presented here with state-of-the-art attention to sound and image, that bowls you over. And so what if the ending goes on forever? Peter Jackson makes screen history.
Extras: The bonus features are so copious they’d take you nearly a day to watch. Among the deleted scenes, the big thrill is watching Gandalf (Ian McKellen) face off with Saruman (Christopher Lee). Why was it ever cut?
Killer Scene: The battle of Minas Tirith is one for the DVD time capsule. But when Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) leads the final attack with a cry — “For Frodo!” — he becomes the king we’ve all been waiting for and charges the movie right at the heart.
3. Shrek 2
This computer-animated sequel, the top box-office hit of 2004 to date, comes to DVD brimming with perverse pleasures that show no respect for the rules of kiddie-cartoon form, which is all to the good. Not only is Shrek 2 double the fun of the original, it’s more technically assured — a fact intensified by repeated DVD viewings. And the voices, led by Mike Myers as the ogre hero, are all on the comedy money. But new character Puss in Boots, voiced by Antonio Banderas as a feline Zorro, steals the show.
Extras:The Tech of Shrek 2 is a deep-dish look at the film’s innovations in animation. And a parody of American Idol, in which the cast mixes it up with a cartoon Simon Cowell, is a hoot.
Killer Scene: Anything with Puss in Boots — he’s pure catnip.
4. Fahrenheit 9/11
5. Super Size Me
It’s not pushing it to call 2004 the Year of the Partisan Documentary. Muckraking is back in style, and, boy, do we need it now. These done-on-the-run provocations don’t have Lord of the Rings production values, but they’re alive with passion. Here are two of the finest:
Fahrenheit 9/11 Michael Moore’s emotionally rich and ferociously funny film is more than Dubya drubbing; it’s a shocking look at the human toll that U.S. foreign policy — since 9/11 and the war in Iraq — is taking on the disenfranchised.
Extras: More than an hour of deleted scenes. Pay special attention to footage of a storm-trooper-like roundup of suspected insurgents in an Iraqi suburb.
Killer Scene: Moore’s interview with Lila Lipscomb, the mother of a son killed in Iraq, puts a human face on a global tragedy.
Super Size Me Morgan Spurlock’s indisputably hilarious experiment — to consume Big Macs, fries and sugary soft drinks for thirty days — is a subversive indictment of fast-food propaganda and the willingness of adults and kids to swallow it.
Extras: An interview with Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, stings smartly and cuts deep.
Killer Scene: Spurlock administering a test to schoolchildren, who can’t identity Jesus or American presidents but know instantly who Ronald McDonald is.
6. The Passion of the Christ
Drenched in gore, Mel Gibson’s violent depiction of Christ’s final hours is unrelentingly intense and, for many, also spiritually cathartic. With an exquisite picture transfer and a vivid soundtrack, the DVD accentuates the film’s most powerful moments.
Extras: There aren’t any. Maybe Gibson thought having us read subtitles while the actors speak Aramaic and Latin was enough.
Killer Scene: Ironically, a glimpse of Jesus (Jim Caviezel) quietly praying in the garden of Gethsemane is the most stirring image of him as human and as divine.
7. Spider-Man 2
A real looker among the year’s DVDs, this sequel keeps springing surprises as Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) reveals his secret Spider-Man identity to Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). The movie’s distinction is its heart, but you can’t blame the fan boys for preferring the action. There’s plenty, and director Sam Raimi dishes it out with a surer hand than he did in the first film. From the opening scene of Peter delivering pizza to Spidey foiling a bank robbery, the effects are top-notch and gorgeously rendered on DVD.
Extras: There are two discs stuffed with commentaries, behind-the-scenes peeks and blooper reels. Best is the “Ock-umentary” on Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), the tentacled villain.
Killer Scene: The fight between Spidey and Doc Ock on a runaway train has all the bells and whistles. It’s a kick just to watch the doc’s smart arms as they move like sinuous belly dancers and seduce the doc to the dark side.
8. Kill Bill
Each of the two Kill Bill volumes — both released this year — pulsates with action. But put them together, which director-writer Quentin Tarantino promises to do at a later date, and get ready to be knocked for a loop. In Vol. 1, the Bride (a never-better Uma Thurman) sets up her revenge on Bill (a superb David Carradine) and his squad of assassins. In Vol. 2, she completes her mission of death.
Extras: Not that much to speak of, just clips from a premiere, promotional puffery and Tarantino talking about his B-movie inspirations. Perhaps QT is waiting for the ultimate Kill Bill collection to unspring the real goodies. There is one great deleted scene — a miniature masterpiece — on Vol. 2: a fully executed kung-fu duel featuring Carradine and five attackers.
Killer Scene: In Vol. 1, it’s the opening battle in a suburban home, as Thurman and Vivica A. Fox trash the living room but stop and pretend to be friends when Fox’s young daughter comes home from school. You hear every broken shard of glass hit the floor, and you hear Thurman and Fox breathing, no matter how loud the crashing becomes.
In Vol. 2, it’s the fight in the trailer between Thurman and Daryl Hannah. Watch out for the snake and the sound you hear when Thurman squishes Hannah’s eye between her long, lethal toes.
9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The best of the three Potter films to date — thanks to the dark magic of director Alfonso Cuaron — is also the best DVD. The first two films were slogs due to the candy-bright view of director Chris Columbus. Cuaron works in the shadows, where mystery, sex and trauma do their mischief. The crisp transfer catches what goes bump in the night.
Extras: There are interactive challenges for the kids. But the interview with author J.K. Rowling is the no-bull surprise.
Killer Scene: It won’t be just kids who get nightmares from the attack of the killer tree. And poor Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), who thinks a prisoner (Gary Oldman) is the key to his parents’ murder, is in for a shock from soul-sucking creatures called Dementors.
Most Comprehensive DVD Package
10. The Matrix Trilogy
The metaphorical and innovative 1999 action film and its two disappointing but challenging sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both released in 2003) make for a mind-bending ten-disc DVD experience. Watching Keanu Reeves as Neo negotiate his love for Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and his loyalty to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) for three movies, you might think you’re living in someone else’s reality, which may be just what visionary filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski want you to think.
Extras: Each film comes with two commentary tracks, one by a pair of philosophers who admire the films, and one by a trio of movie critics who don’t. The made-for-DVD anthology, The Animatrix, which explains the trilogy’s back story, is included, as are two potent supplements: One examines the trilogy’s underpinnings in Western and Eastern philosophy, and one asks whether we are all wired to a virtual world.
Killer Scene: The docking-bay battle in the final film is spectacular, but the most thrilling blend of action and character involves Neo and Trinity in the first Matrix, running up a wall to dodge bullets and rescue Morpheus from a fate worse than bad dreams: machines.
11. The Day After Tomorrow
As drama, this end-of-the-world fable is dribbling drool. It’s the weather-on-acid special effects that give your audiovisual system a wild ride as a $125 million budget and an army of computers show the horrors of global warming: A tidal wave drowns Manhattan. Multiple tornadoes destroy Los Angeles. Hailstorms pound Tokyo. Hurricanes whack Hawaii. The only thing scarier is the monumental ineptitude of the acting, writing and directing.
Extras: Forget the commentary tracks. The best extra? A chance to break apart the seven different audio components that make up the soundtrack for the helicopter-crash sequence.
Killer Scene: A Russian freighter floating down Fifth Avenue has a haunting stillness.
12. The Bourne Supremacy
Globe-trotting spy thrillers rarely come as satisfying as this sequel to 2002’s Bourne Identity. Starting with a knockout performance from Matt Damon as an amnesiac CIA assassin, the film delivers whiplash action without compromising its realistic atmosphere and emotional precision.
Extras: There are about forty-five minutes of documentaries, the best of which reveals the secrets of the car chase.
Killer Scene: The most innovative movie car chase in the last three decades. Jack up the sound and it will bring to life every nightmare auto accident you’ve ever been in or witnessed.
13. The Battle of Algiers
Gillo Pontecorvo’s systematic rendering of a terrorist revolt against the colonial French government in Algeria is as relevant and gripping as it was in 1965.
Extras: Two additional discs are loaded with bonus material. The most vital extra features two former intelligence officers, Richard A. Clarke and Michael A. Sheehan, talking about the parallels between the film and the latest war on terrorism, and how history is repeating itself.
Killer Scene: In a crowded cafe, a terrorist leaves a bomb that explodes on cue. The film is so documentarylike that you can’t believe it’s only movie stunt people being buried in the rubble.
14. Dawn of the Dead
Director Zach Snyder’s remake of George Romero’s 1978 zombie classic is a gore freak’s delight and much better than we had any right to expect. And it’s the unrated director’s cut you want to get your hands on, not the wimp version that played multiplexes.
Extras: More than twelve minutes of pukeworthy deleted scenes. But the special feature on how to explode a head is alone worth the DVD price.
Killer Scene: They’re all killer scenes, baby. Chow down.
15. Garden State
Scrubs star Zach Braff debuts as a screenwriter and director in a hilarious and heartfelt love story, bolstered by his sweet chemistry with co-star Natalie Portman.
Extras: The actor comments are tart and funny. Portman praises Braff for not being the kind of male who would write her role as “hot, naked a lot and crazy about sports.”
Killer Scene: Braff in a shirt that matches his bathroom wallpaper. Watch. You’ll see.
16. Hellboy: Director’s Cut
Guillermo del Toro’s faithful, enthusiastic rendering of Mike Mignola’s comic-book tale about a big red demon (Ron Perlman) who works for the U.S. government is best seen in this recut version, which adds thirteen minutes of material, including one action scene and a lot of eccentric character development.
Extras: Two additional discs hold three hours of documentaries and behind-the-scenes footage. The most rewarding segment is hearing Del Toro talk about his love for comics since childhood.
Killer Scene: In Dolby 5.1 sound, the all-stops-out fight in the subway seems to come crashing down on top of you.
17. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Jim Carrey races through a dreamscape to hold on to his memories of Kate Winslet (in peak form), memories that Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst zap electronically.
Extras: Deleted scenes reveal a compelling but excised subplot; what stands out is a fifteen-minute segment on Carrey, who gives his most effective dramatic performance to date. Carrey talks reflectively and cogently on the gravity of his role, and yet there he is between takes keeping the cast and crew in stitches.
Killer Scene: A car falls from nowhere, and store signs begin to get fuzzy the first time you realize that not all of the film is taking place in the real world. This scene and many like it are tributes to the visual wizardry of director Michel Gondry.
18. Mean Girls
Tina Fey wrote and co-stars in this witty take on fem rivalries in high school. And Lindsay Lohan scores as the the innocent who gradually turns bitchy-mean.
Extras: Fey offers delicious commentary, and there are very funny bloopers, but the best segment is Rosalind Wiseman, author of the novel on which the film is based, talking about social pressures on teen girls.
Killer Scene: When Fey, in the role of a teacher, tells the girls, “Stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it all right for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
19. John Cassavetes: Five Films
Essential movies from the pioneer of American indies, starting with his first film, 1959’s Shadows, and including his 1974 landmark, A Woman Under the Influence, in which his wife (the sublime Gena Rowlands) gives the performance of her career.
Extras: Each movie is accompanied by retrospective interviews with cast and crew members. And a three-hour documentary about Cassavetes appears on a separate disc. Significantly, the original cut of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie makes its first appearance since its 1976 debut.
Killer Scene: In Faces, Seymour Cassel really jams his fingers down Lynn Carlin’s throat after her character nearly ODs on pills. It’s the sort of raw, gripping filmmaking that comes from a more daring age.
20. I, Robot
This sci-fi thriller is constructed around a murder mystery that keeps Will Smith hurtling forward and us caring what happens next. Grand special effects heighten the rousing fights and chases.
Extras: On the commentary track, director Alex Proyas and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman skillfully deconstruct the detective genre.
Killer Scene: Driving a hot-looking car of the future, Smith is trapped in a tunnel between two trucks that suddenly spill open from the sides to let robots leap out and crawl over his car like giant insects.
This head-spinning ride through one hellish Los Angeles night gave Tom Cruise, as a hit man, and Jamie Foxx, as the cabbie he forces to drive him on a murder spree, a chance to break type and fire up the screen. That they do. But the movie belongs to director Michael Mann, who orchestrates action and mood with a poet’s eye for urban darkness.
Extras: A superb making-of documentary shows how Mann risked shooting eighty percent of the film on high-definition digital video to penetrate the murky night. It’s a risk that paid off with groundbreaking results.
Killer Scene: Three coyotes cross in front of the cab in mockery of the city’s thin hold on civilization. It’s Mann’s peek into hell.
22. Napoleon Dynamite
Here’s the little comedy that came out of nowhere to gross $40 million and build an avid cult of repeat viewers. Newcomer Jon Heder is geek perfection as the white boy in a tight red Afro who helps his Mexican friend Pedro (the hilariously deadpan Efren Ramirez) run for class president.
Extras: Since to watch this bizarro movie is to need to know where it came from, you’ll enjoy the commentary from Heder and first-time director Jared Hess, who wrote the script with his wife, Jerusha. The sweetest extra is the five-minute “Wedding of the Century” epilogue that Hess added to the movie when it went into wide release.
Killer Scene: It has to be Napoleon’s dance near the end when he amazes his high school with his slick moves. Where did the nerd find rhythm? The same place where Hess picked up the the talent to make silly soar.
23. School of Rock
Jack Black, in a star-making comic turn, plays Dewey Finn, a phony substitute teacher who enlightens a group of fifth-graders on the art of rock & roll. Combo Black with a deft script from Mike White (The Good Girl) and pitch-perfect direction from Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused), and you have a movie that hits all the right notes. “I serve society by rocking,” Dewey tells his class. Who’s going to argue with that?
Extras: Black is on one commentary track, and the kids are on another. It makes for chaotic fun. There is a clip of Black begging Led Zeppelin to let their songs be used in the film. He also cuts loose in a lengthy Comedy Central piece. In the funniest instructional segment (stupidly relegated to DVD-ROM), Black names his favorite bands and offers his very personal interpretation of the history of rock & roll.
Killer Scene: Black shows the kids how to turn anger, about anything, into a decent rock song.
“Breathtaking” does not begin to describe the action in this Oscar-nominated film from director Zhang Yimou. Martial-arts legend Jet Li stars as the nameless hero who claims to have killed three assassins to protect Qin, a conqueror out to unite the warring states of China in the third century B.C.
Extras: The storyboards fascinate, but so does a conversation between Jet Li and Quentin Tarantino on what makes a hero.
Killer Scenes: For poetry, it’s the fight set against falling leaves. For spectacle, it’s the spray of arrows that fall like a hailstorm. For every scene, it’s the talent of cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love) that makes this movie look lit from within.
For sheer stupid, raunchy fun, you can’t beat this parody of sadistic sports movies. DodgeBall pits Vince Vaughn and his Average Joes against Ben Stiller and his Purple Cobras. No crotch joke is missed. The surprise? Most of them are funny.
Extras: Bloopers, deleted scenes and an alternate ending can’t compete with the hilarious segment on dodgeball training.
Killer Scene: Rip Torn, as coach Patches O’Houlihan, throws wrenches at players’ heads to toughen them up for the game.
For the record, some of these aren’t even available on DVD yet!
The Year’s Best DVDs