Here's my best take on the best DVDs for the gift giving season. Lots of the choices below are Blu-Ray editions, so the number one gift for the movie hoarder is, if they don’t already have one, a Blu-Ray player. What remains is a list of (mostly) 2009 releases that are (mostly) available on Blu-Ray and hopefully covers just about any niche and budget you might have on your Christmas list. (For those keeping track, or dying to give me a Christmas gift, I've listed these how they appear on my priority list.)
AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa [Criterion]
If there is one set that is likely to be on every cinephile’s Christmas list this season, it is Criterion’s “AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa.” In celebration of the centenary of Kurosawa-san’s birth, Criterion has released a comprehensive a stylish set spanning 50 years of his career. Housed in an orange linen box, the set includes twenty-five films and a 96-page book with essays from Stephen Prince and Donald Richie. As one might expect, the bulk of the films are the Kurosawa Criterion classics that we all know and love, but it also includes four rare gems previously unreleased in the US: Sanshiro Sugata (1943), Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (1945), The Most Beautiful (1944) and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945). All four were made in the very tender time at the end of the War and the beginning of Kurosawa work as a director. All of the films share Criterion’s high standard of quality, but contain no extras. (So hang on to all those Kurosawa two-disc sets.) The set may cost more than your average holiday gift—around $280—but it is sure to make that special someone very very happy.
Ray Harryhausen Collection [Sony]
The godfather of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen brought the impossible to life with his intricate models and keen sense of motion. The tactility of his creatures simply has no match. I grew up watching these films on TV, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there nostalgic about seeing Cyclopes, skeletons and dinosaurs come to life on the big screen. This four-disc Blu-Ray set includes four of Harryhausen’s most iconic films from the 1950s: It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucer (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). Because shooting in black and white was always a budgetary constraint that Harryhausen regretted, Sony has taken the time, under Harryhausen’s supervision, to colorize the first three films and offering them in their original black and white or in vibrant color. Care has also gone into compiling almost 12 hours of extra material spread out over the four discs, including new commentaries for each film with Harryhausen and a special effects artist working in the industry today. This set came out late last year, but on the eve of the Clash of the Titans remake, its time to show the kids what special effects are all about.
Walden (1970) Directed by Jonas Mekas [Microcinema]
For the cineaste with more eccentric taste, there is Jonas Mekas’ film diary Walden, an invaluable attribute to American avant-garde filmmaking. Released last month and available for the first time, Walden is a lyrical three-hour portrait of the New York underground film scene. Mekas was at the very heart of a vital film scene that has now become as iconic as Andy Warhol’s Factory. Shot between 1964-68, Walden is nothing less than a visual poem documenting the time, place and people in contemporary art’s fragile history. The two DVD set is accompanied by a foldout poster and a 150-page book with annotations on every scene by Mekas and a host of other people involved with the film. The price tag may seem a bit steep, but for the right person on your list, this set is a treasure.
Murnau, Borzage and Fox Box Set [Fox]
Yet another set from 2008, but this massively important set of previously unavailable F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage films bears mentioning again and again. The box includes six silent films (two from Murnau and four from Borzage) and six early talkies from Borzage in the very early years of William Fox’s film studio. Murnau may seem under-represented in the set, but his influence looms large, especially on Borzage. Watching these films today, even the talkies, highlights the lost art of visual storytelling. The main extra feature is the 90-minute documentary from which the set gets its name that tells the financial and artistic story of these three men. (Note: Murnau’s Sunrise, probably the highlight of this set, is available in a region free 2-disc Blu-Ray set from the UK, well worth those expensive British pounds.)
North by Northwest (50th Anniversary) (1959) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock [Warner]
Who wouldn’t want this pristine 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition of North by Northwest? Warner reportedly spent $1 million on a digital restoration meant to convince everyone, even the most resolute digital curmudgeon, that classics can look awesome on Blu-Ray. Arguably one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, North by Northwest has it all: action, romance, mystery and unmatched style with the aid of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. The Blu-Ray comes packed in the Digibook case with 43-pages of photos, factoids and analysis. Warner has carried over some of the special features from the 2000 DVD including an audio commentary by late screenwriter Ernest Lehman and a behind-the-scenes documentary, but they also pony up with some brand new features: an hour-long documentary titled The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style and a half-hour featurette North by Northwest: One for the Ages.
Essential Art House, Vol. 1-4 [Criterion]
Criterion continues to release portions of its behemoth 50 Years of Janus Films set for those of us with more modest means. (The original, still available, is a whopping 50 DVD set for $650.) Starting late last year, the films have been portioned out singly and in eclectic groups of six—the sets playfully juxtapose Kurosawa with Truffaut, Wajda with Fellini and Polanski with Cocteau, just to name a few. Billed as the “must-own fundamentals” of film, the Essential Art House offers a perfect introduction or a faithful memento to some of the greatest films ever made.
The Samuel Fuller Collection [Sony]
Sam Fuller was above all an accomplished director, but Sony’s seven–disc collection sets out to celebrate Fuller the writer, who had a knack for capturing characters filled with American idealism and bravado. The box set, released in October, includes two films that Fuller directed—The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld USA (1961)—two that he scripted—It Happened in Hollywood (1937) and Shockproof (1949)—and three based on his stories—Adventure in Sahara (1938), The Power of the Press (1943), and Scandal Sheet (1952). Although most have heard of those first two films, the other five fall well below the radar. Like a brilliantly curated series juxtaposing the familiar with the obscure, the set is bound to contain some discoveries regarding one of the most iconoclastic American directors. Put this under the tree with Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller and you are on your way to turning someone into a Fuller film scholar.
Inglourious Basterds (2009) Directed by Quentin Tarantino [Universal]
Sure to top year-end lists around the globe, the 2-disc release of this revisionist, cinematic magnum opus is a no-brainer gift. Released this month, the set is chock full of odd and interesting extras, but nothing nearly as meaty as the film itself. Quentin Tarantino has proved me wrong and outdone himself by perfectly balancing his bloated ego with indelible scripting, perceptive casting and encyclopedic knowledge of film. A pastiche masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds, with or without the Academy, is the film of 2009.
Watchmen: Director’s Cut and The Ultimate Cut (2009) Directed by Zack Snyder [Warner]
If there is a Watchmen fan on your list, there are two Blu-Ray versions of this niche film to choose from: the 2 disc “Director’s Cut” released earlier this year and the 5 disc “Ultimate Cut” released last month. Although the two sets have some overlap in special features, they each contain enough unique material to justify both. The Director’s Cut package includes Zack Snyder’s 186-minute version of the film and a behind-the-scenes tour and commentary of the film called "Maximum Movie Mode." Snyder enthusiastically leads you through scenes and gives a fascinating glimpse into the world big-budget special effects. The Ultimate Cut is a 215-minute version of the film that incorporates portions of the animated story The Black Freighter with the director’s cut making it a very long-winded for-fans-only epic. New extra features to be found on the Ultimate Cut include separate commentaries from Snyder and Dave Gibbons and a two disc animated version of the graphic novel. For the geek we know and love.
Up (4 Disc Combo Pack) (2009) Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson [Disney]
Speaking of films of the year, Up is likely to be the animated film of the year both in the hearts of the masses and the academy. Disney understands that most kids will have a Blu-Ray player, a laptop or DVD player in the car and a PSP, and they package this set with every possible format that they would need. To make the deal even more sweet, there is also a disc packed with extras that will keep kids and adults alike busy for hours.
Other sets perfect for gift-giving that have been covered in previous columns: The Wizard of Oz and The Human Condition (September), Icons of Screwball Comedy and Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection (August), Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura (May) and damn near anything you can find on the Criterion Collection website.
(Originally published on In Review Online.)