Top 25 DVDs
Peter Travers from Rolling Stone magazine picks the year’s best
It’s official. Thanks to DVDs, the wow factor has passed from the multiplex to the home. Movie attendance in 2005 is down eight percent. Why? Because fans want to show off their home-theater systems with DVDs, especially the ones packed with bonus features. Here’s the pick of the crop.
1. Star Wars III Revenge of the Sith
Even a Jedi mind meld couldn’t convince me that Revenge of the Sith — the sixth and last entry in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga — is anything but a corporate product with the warmth of stainless steel. That is, until the last half-hour, when Lucas remembers what he started in 1977 with A New Hope and lets messy human emotions invade his cold digital universe. It’s enough to make Sith one of the best DVDs of the year. What makes it the very best, besides a resplendent DVD transfer, is its standing as the last in a landmark series: Finally, we can watch all six Star Wars films in chronological order. If that means we must begin with the juvenilia of The Phantom Menace and end with those damn cuddly Ewoks from Return of the Jedi, so be it. If that means we have to endure hearing Hayden Christensen’s wooden Anakin Skywalker discuss his dull marriage to Padme (a Stepford-ized Natalie Portman), it’s still worth the price. As Anakin loses his limbs and his conscience and takes on the evil mantle of Darth Vader, Sith takes hold. Suddenly we’re connected to a saga that began when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) joined with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to defeat the Death Star. Lucas’ grand dream transformed pop culture into pop art. With apologies to Rob Zombie, who insists Lucas peaked with his first volley, I think 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the bunch. This is the one with Darth Vader telling Luke (in the powerful tones of James Earl Jones), “I am your father” — the line that sends a slam-bam space adventure into Freudian hyperspace. The moment is doubly shattering after you watch the Emperor (the great Ian McDiarmid) work over Luke’s daddy in Sith. Watch all thirteen hours of the Star Wars sextet, and the light dawns: This is what Lucas had in mind all the time.
Hot Bonus: A unique documentary, “Within a Minute,” details every element it took to produce a mere forty-nine seconds from the light-saber duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) on the lava planet Mustafar.
Killer Scene: As Anakin nearly melts in lava, only to be put back together, Frankenstein style, by the Emperor, Lucas intercuts Padme giving birth to the twins Luke and Leia. It’s a link to genuine feeling at last.
2. War of the Worlds
Any complaints you had with Steven Spielberg’s update of H.G. Wells’ 1898 alien-invasion novel at the multiplex — no bonking, too much Dakota Fanning, the sap-happy ending — disappear when you take it home in this double-disc Limited Edition. Unlike the campy 1953 film rendition with its primitive Martians, Spielberg’s War is set in a real world seized by a terrorist attack. Tom Cruise aces the role of divorced dad Ray Ferrier, a New Jersey dock worker and all-around screw-up with his daughter (Fanning) and his teen son (Justin Chatwin). So when huge, hostile alien Tripods rise out of the ground during an electrical storm and start laying waste, Ray grabs the kids and runs. That road trip, by car and foot, inspires Spielberg to create extraordinary images of a frayed family in a frayed civilization. The 9/11 parallels are unmistakable as the next threat comes without reason or mercy. Spielberg’s technical mastery, especially with the Tripods — aliens as nasty as E.T. was sweet — is evident in every frame of this superior transfer.
Hot Bonus: The inside dish about the creation of the Tripods is film-geek nirvana. Cruise keeps jawing about how he and Spielberg are buddies, but one off-camera moment shows the director looking clearly annoyed as his playful brat of a star punches him in the arm while he’s trying to set up a shot.
Killer Scene: For state-of-the-art FX and digital rumble, you can’t beat the Tripods busting out from the ground, not from the air, where the cliche would put them.
3. King Kong
The king of creature features took forever to find its way to DVD as Warner worked on the black-and-white restoration (it could still use improvement) and Kong freak Peter Jackson, whose 2005 remake reflects a fan’s passion, prepared his “Production Diaries.” You can buy the two-disc edition of King Kong with a great collection of lobby cards, or a two-disc set including The Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young — all done by the same special-effects team. But the joy is seeing the 1933 original, complete with Max Steiner’s classic score and once-censored scenes, such as the love-besotted Kong daintily pulling off Fay Wray’s clothing with his hairy paw.
Hot Bonus: The “lost” spider-pit sequence is restored and serves as another tribute to the stop-motion animation genius of Willis O’Brien.
Killer Scene Kong atop the Empire State Building, putting down Wray after one last romantic sniff and swinging at fighter planes that shoot him down. Or did they? As the last line insists, “It was beauty killed the beast.”
4. Batman Begins
A two-disc Deluxe Edition of the prequel that grounds the Batman legend in reality. Memento director Christopher Nolan shows us what rich kid Bruce Wayne (a terrific Christian Bale) was doing before he put on Bat drag, accessorized with lethal toys and learned to kill like a vigilante. Gotham looks lived in, not art-directed, and Bale creates a hero of haunted fire.
Hot Bonus: The ninety minutes of bonus materials on the Deluxe Edition is heaven for comic-book geeks, even if you have to suffer through a lame Jimmy Fallon parody from the MTV Movie Awards.
Killer Scene: The birth of the Batmobile. Bruce asks if it comes in black, and whoosh, we’re off.
5. Sin City: Recut and Extended
Don’t bother with the earlier DVD. This two-disc, unrated, balls-out Deluxe Edition is the keeper. It makes your eyes go boing. Shot by director Robert Rodriguez in black and white with the occasional splash of color, the film captures the dazzling monochrome of Frank Miller’s graphic novels. There are three overlapping stories, and Bruce Willis and Clive Owen do fine by theirs. But Mickey Rourke is flat-out sensational as an ex-con with a Frankenstein jaw line.
Hot Bonus: I loved being able to access the three tales separately.
Killer Scene: Rourke waking up next to a dead hooker and vowing to send a soul “screaming into hell.”
6. Cinderella Man
If there’s any justice, DVD will rescue this rousing drama from shocking box-office indifference. Director Ron Howard does justice to the true story of James J. Braddock (a brilliant Russell Crowe), the washed-up Irish boxer from New Jersey whose comeback gave hope to Depression-era America.
Hot Bonus: Fascinating material on the real Braddock.
Killer Scene: Braddock going a punishing fifteen rounds against the brain-crushing heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko).
7. The Big Lebowski
This Achiever’s Edition, complete with a bowling towel, is a hoot. But the prize in this Coen brothers 1998 goodie is still Jeff Bridges as the potbellied, ponytailed, pot-smoking Dude. He bowls with his buddies until kidnapping, erotic art and German nihilists intervene.
Hot Bonus: The Coens speak. As usual, the info they offer is useless. As usual, it’s hilarious.
Killer Scene: A hood pees on the Dude’s rug, forcing its removal and saddening the Dude: “That rug really tied the room together.”
8. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp take Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka for a twisted ride. The colors on the two-disc DVD are tempting and toxic. Dahl would approve.
Hot Bonus: A segment on how Burton turned actor Deep Roy into dozens of Oompa-Loompas.
Killer Scene: The nut-sorting.
9. Saw: Uncut Edition
Maybe it takes seeing the scare-free sequel to appreciate the original. So grab the new two-disc DVD and watch a pair of strangers (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) get trapped in a dungeon by a killer who wants to see them saw off their body parts to escape. First-time director James Wan and screenwriter Whannell have a way with splatter. Better duck.
Hot Bonus: There’s an Easter Egg hidden in the “Dissection” bonus feature starring the evil puppet.
Killer Scene: The surprise ending holds up to repeat viewings.
Korean movies rarely get wide distribution in the U.S., so the DVD is a great chance to catch this explosively exciting revenge drama from Park Chanwook. Choi Min-sik is a hell-raising wonder as Oh Dae-su, a skirt-chasing “oldboy” who is locked in a hotel room for fifteen years. His release sets off a series of rampages that spray the screen with blood and shocking secrets.
Hot Bonus: Director’s commentary that is fierce and funny. It seems all the suspects on Oh Dae-su’s list are the names of the director’s filmmaking colleagues.
Killer Scene: At a sushi bar, Oh Dae-su chomps down on some live, wiggling squid. Yuck.
Racism collides with its targets during one thirty-six-hour period in Los Angeles. Director Paul Haggis and co-writer Bobby Moresco weave many stories (too many) into the narrative. But the rage sticks, as do the emotions underlying it. Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton and Sandra Bullock head a standout cast.
Hot Bonus: Potent commentary from Haggis and Cheadle.
Killer Scene: Newton and Howard being shaken down by cops Dillon and Ryan Phillippe.
12. The Val Lewton Horror Collection
What a bonanza. Five discs that cover nine movies from the criminally underrated Val Lewton, a producer of scare flicks (Cat People, The Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People, Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, Bedlam) from the Forties, which can hold their own against the best of today’s imitations.
Hot Bonus: A doc on Lewton’s legacy, Shadows in the Dark.
Killer Scene: The deserted indoor pool in Cat People.
13. Astaire and Rogers: The Collection Vol. 1
Watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in five musical gems (Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance and The Barkleys of Broadway) if you want a definition of poetry in motion.
Hot Bonus: Commentary by Astaire’s daughter, Ava, adds just the right personal touch.
Killer Scene: “Never Gonna Dance,” from Swing Time, is the most erotic dance number in which the team ever participated.
Since 1997, fans of the Oscar-winning Best Picture, which grossed $600 million to become the biggest box-office success of all time, had to be content with a single-disc DVD with no extras. Now director James Cameron — the self-proclaimed “King of the World” — has opened the floodgates with a three-disc Special Collector’s Edition that looks and sounds as perfect as digital technology will allow. Titanic junkies will be able to utilize a branching feature that allows you to access “making of” features at the exact moment the scenes occur on-screen. Cameron offers audio commentary, and so does a much welcome and much sassier Kate Winslet. Leonardo DiCaprio has once again distanced himself from the epic that made him both a star and a victim of teen idolatry. (Can you blame him?)
As for the movie itself, you know the story: DiCaprio and Winslet fall in love. The ship sinks. He dies. She lives. And Celine Dion sings about a heart that will go on and on. No one cares anymore that Cameron’s poet’s eye for spectacle is almost blinded by his tin ear for dialogue. Titanic is simply the greatest romantic epic since Gone With the Wind, and everyone with a DVD player is going to own this Special Edition.
Hot Bonus: They are all hot — especially if seeing a deleted scene of Leo and Kate playing tonsil hockey under a shooting star turns you on — but I could have done without the nine-minute alternate ending.
Killer Scene: The ship goes down. Rank out the love story all you want, but the film’s technical achievement is monumental. And the sequence with the drowned bodies floating like ghosts in the night is truly haunting.
The “Don’t Call Me Shirley!” Edition supersedes the old DVD and reminds you why this 1980 parody of disaster flicks is timelessly wacky. On a flight from L.A. to Chicago, nearly everyone is poisoned by their fish dinners. PASSENGERS CERTAIN TO DIE! reads one remarkably timely newspaper headline. You are certain to laugh.
Hot Bonus: Deleted scenes crack up the film’s three directors.
Killer Scene: Peter Graves is a riot as a pederast pilot. (“Joey, do you like gladiator movies?”)
16. The Wizard of Oz
Long available on DVD, but never like this dazzling digital reproduction of the original Technicolor. Many claim this classic looks better than it did in 1939 — the new clarity reveals a never-before-seen pimple on Judy Garland’s lip and maybe a few drunken Munchkins.
Hot Bonus: A newly restored transfer of the 1925 silent version of Oz starring Oliver Hardy.
Killer Scene: The simplest. Garland by a haystack — in glorious black-and-white — singing “Over the Rainbow” to Toto.
17. Office Space
They’re calling this DVD a “Special Edition With Flair!” Whatever you call Mike Judge’s 1999 cult comedy hit about office politics and too-long-suppressed rage at the boss, the new disc has eight deleted scenes to up the fun quotient, which was already high.
Hot Bonus: Judge leads the cast down memory lane in a documentary retrospective.
Killer Scene: Can anyone forget Milton and the Swingline stapler or the way the boss (Gary Cole at his smarmiest) asks his employees, “So, what happening?”
Here’s a documentary from photographer David LaChapelle that explodes with color and vitality on DVD. The subject is krumping, a hip-hop dance phenom so kinetic that the frames of the film seem speeded up (they’re not). Started in South Central Los Angeles in 1992, the year of the Rodney King riots, krumping became an expression of sex, anger, need, competition and cultural identity. It’s all eye-popping.
Hot Bonus: Extended dance numbers that really kick in.
Killer Scene: The Battlezone krump competition.
19. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
How do you resist a DVD that allows you repeated access to a virginal office drone (a big shout-out here to Steve Carell) as he wakes up with morning wood and pees in his own face, talks to his collectible action figures and fakes macho with his co-workers (Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Romany Malco)? You don’t.
Hot Bonus: Know how I know the deleted scenes on this disc are funny? I can’t stop watching them. Proof positive that Carell and director Judd Apatow are top writers. It’s one joke stretched hard, but it doesn’t break.
Killer Scene: Carell getting the hair yanked off his chest with hot wax. He did it for real. Yikes.
20. The Devil’s Rejects
Scuz has never looked this defiantly appealing on DVD. Thank director Rob Zombie for getting us to wallow in the fun and fright of psycho clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and his satanic serial-killing family on their torture/killing spree through the back roads of Alabama.
Hot Bonus: Zombie gives good audio commentary, but the second disc on this set is a two-and-a-half-hour documentary, 30 Days in Hell, that could serve as a course in indie filmmaking.
Killer Scene: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” playing over the blood-soaked finale.
21. 7 Men From Now
You’ve probably never heard of Budd Boetticher, a great director who is ripe for rediscovery after the DVD release of this lean, mean 1956 film starring Randolph Scott as an ex-sheriff out to avenge his wife’s murder.
Hot Bonus: The Special Collector’s Edition is the first Boetticher Western ever on DVD.
Killer Scene: Scott’s first kill is as chilling as any in Unforgiven.
22. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Director Martin Scorsese catches the young Bob Dylan in the act of inventing himself. The result is a two-disc DVD documentary — made up of home movies, concert clips and fresh interviews — that is worthy of a time capsule.
Hot Bonus: A feature that allows you to go directly to the musical moments in the film.
Killer Scene: With 1965’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan goes electric and shocks his fans.
Nobody restores classic films to DVD glory like Criterion, which outdoes itself with Robert Bresson’s hugely influential 1959 film about a Parisian thief (Martin LaSalle, superb) who lives through his obsession with the art and sin of crime.
Hot Bonus: The cast and crew are interviewed about Bresson, whose comment (“I’d rather that people felt a film before understanding it”) cuts to the heart of his unsparing directing style.
Killer Scene: It’s impossible not to think of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver as LaSalle practices putting on the faces he will wear when attempting to commit a crime.
On this bonus-crammed three-disc package you get the Best Picture Oscar winner in an extended version with about twenty minutes of deleted scenes. Let critics whine about the digitalized battle scenes. It works, and Russell Crowe in the title role has never been better.
Hot Bonus: Ridley Scott remains a model for how to do director’s commentary. And this time he’s joined by Crowe. Plus, the “making of” doc is a lulu.
Killer Scene: Crowe in the ring with the tigers is the kind of moment that makes your home-theater system sit up and roar.
25. March of the Penguins
Why argue with the multitudes who have turned this small, magnificently photographed documentary about the emperor penguins of Antarctica into a giant hit (it grossed an astounding $77 million)? They never saw the early version of the film, presented at the Sundance Film Festival, in which the penguins talked about falling in love — in French, yet. Before the film’s commercial release, director Luc Jacquet wisely replaced the mushy stuff — more like Disney wish fulfillment than nature’s plan — with sturdy narration from Morgan Freeman. The result is the popular favorite for the year’s best documentary. The smart money is betting that Academy voters can’t resist a cute waddle.
Hot Bonus: A look at how they got all those amazing shots. Cinematographers Jerome Maison and Laurent Chalet really earned their pay.
Killer Scene: After the penguins hatch their eggs, they watch their chicks confront the perils of starvation and attack birds, and then face death from leopard seals. That’s what I call uplifting family entertainment.
Top 25 DVDs