There are some things in life that you absolutely need to survive; food, shelter, and fire could be counted among them. There are also things that seem to mock the very idea of survivalist necessity, and Special Edition DVDs fall squarely into that category. As Christmas comes but once a year (and a few select, rare people even have birthdays), there’s only so much time that can really be devoted to even thinking about laying down the money to buy one of these things, but this is one of them. In alphabetical order, the following things should probably be considered if you’re buying something for anyone who is of the opinion that a movie is definitely not over once the final credits finish.
We’ve pontificated at length as to how this is probably the most complete Blu-ray set yet packaged, and there’s been nothing in the past two months to compete with this for that title. Bringing together all four Alien films (in both theatrical and edition form), Anthology collects so much information on each film (as well as each non-film, going into surprising detail on ideas and concepts that never made it to screen, particularly Vincent Ward’s odd vision for the third film) that you’re in serious danger of overexposure if you’re not into that kind of thing. But as much as anything, Anthology is a set genuinely interested in making you understand why the filmmakers made the decisions that they did, even if they later proved to be unpopular. It’s a strange philosophy for a promotional tool, but Anthology adheres to it so obsessively that it’s impossible not to respect it.
Unlike stingy misers like George Lucas and Peter Jackson, James Cameron at least has the good sense to let you know ahead of time when the version of his films that you will actually want to buy is going to be released, rather than waiting just long enough to get you to buy both. For that reason alone, Avatar merits attention, but the additional eight minutes here (added onto both the special theatrical edition and then again onto a later, home video release edition) is actually rather well-integrated into the film, resulting in something that isn’t remarkably different but still nicely augments the finished product (particularly the infamous tendril sex scene and the prologue on Earth) without throwing its pace out of balance like so many home video re-edits do. Whether or not you actually liked Avatar (the public seems pretty split), you probably know someone who does, and this special edition will probably help to advance your argument that it’s as stunning an action film as Hollywood has produced this decade or as self-important as film-making gets.
Nothing says film geek quite like nitpicking, which is what the five disc Blade Runner set allows the viewer to do as perhaps no other film set has quite, containing not three, not four, but five different versions of the film. The most famous is obviously the 1992 Director’s cut, but the other versions are given the same loving treatment, with high definition bringing on whole new qualities to the filth and rot of the future Los Angeles (now only seven years away!). The great advent of home video is that it allows films that could probably not support full theatrical releases to be seen, which accounts for the resurrection of Blade Runner from the “might-have-been great” graveyard to the upper echelons of critical esteem. But now that the story of the film is pretty much complete (for the time being), every bit of indecision, rethinking, and creative feuding is on view not in a commentary track but in a completed film. You can say what you want about the film itself (though if it’s negative, well, I don’t know if we’ll understand each other), but no home video set has ever worked so hard to meet you where you want it.
Like a number of other sets on here, Close Encounters of the Third Kind contains a number of different versions of the same film. But unlike those, the two versions of Encounters were produced under the direction of Steven Spielberg within only three years of each other, with the latter ‘special edition’ (as opposed to the theatrical version) actually being the one more widely available until now. Both are solid, but there are enough differences between the two of them that an argument could easily erupt as to which is better (though any sane person can see that it’s easily the 1980 cut). It’s also a handsomely produced set that gives fitting tribute to a film that, despite its many accolades, seems like it never really got its proper due, sandwiched as it is between Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s probably as pure a distillation of Spielbergian themes as anything he ever did, as well as the most visually impressive film of the 1970s from a special effects standpoint (looking back, it handily tops the first Star Wars).
Have the fun of any big set is the packaging, which is part of what makes this Gone With The Wind set so much fun. Sealed in a red velvet box that one might expect out of a New Orleans brothel, Wind boasts more in the way of frills than it does special features (though those aren’t exactly skimpy, as there are two discs supplementing the film, one containing a documentary on MGM entitled When The Lion Roars). But for something that frequently touts itself as the biggest film ever made (with nothing else in the sound era to really challenge that claim), it sure knows how to lay on the decorum, containing not merely original and rerelease art but reproductions of telegrams, production notes and other artifacts from the production of the film.
Occupying roughly the same dimensions as the Harry Potter Ultimate Editions that they’ve been releasing lately, the Warner Brothers release of The Goonies is one of the more curious films to get a special edition, and one of the more welcome ones. Starting out by releasing it with a more iconic piece of cover art (with all of the silhouetted main characters looking out to sea at a pirate ship) to more accurately reflect the way that the film’s fans remember it (great adventure, rather than goofy kids movie). There are plenty of extras included (such as a reprint of a 1985 souvenir magazine, a 2009 Empire magazine issue concerning the film, and a commentary with the director and cast), but all you really need to know is that the music video for Cyndi Lauper’s “The Goonies ‘R Good Enough” is here. That’s really enough.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that all three Matrix films were conceived, written and directed by the same two people, as differing as they are in their approach to the material (Matrix so breezy, Reloaded so ponderous, and Revolutions so nonsensical). But that’s part of what makes a collection like this worthwhile, as nothing ever feels like it’s really a series until they’re all sold in the same box. But this also gives you the opportunity to smooth over wounds that might still be open from the last two, and it will certainly give you your fresh breath of early-00s franchise nostalgia until the Lord of the Rings special editions are released.
Seven Samurai was the among the first DVD releases back when the Criterion Collection first started, and it is their inaugural Blu-ray release. Accordingly, they have lost nothing of what has made the Criterion Collection such an important contribution to the home video landscape: extensive (but not exhaustive) special features, titles that otherwise never would have seen the fluorescent light of a Borders, and ornately designed cover art that lets your friends know what shallow philistines they really are. This would be an ideal set to give to someone looking to develop an interest in foreign film, or simply curious to see what a samurai film that doesn’t star Tom Cruise looks like.
Just in case you know someone who isn’t an adolescent boy, the new The Sound of Music set might make nice headway into the life of anyone who hasn’t already been convinced to buy a Blu-ray player by either the promise of sporting events or the recent release of The Pacific. The set is loaded with extras, a lot of it carried over from prior rereleases of the film and retrospectives on Rodgers and Hammerstein (meaning it’s comprehensive without being unfamiliar, just in case you feel like making a safe bet on someone). But more importantly, this is perhaps the ideal film to give to someone looking to show off their home video equipment without resorting to something too offbeat for the whole family. Bar none, this is probably the best looking film I’ve ever seen on my player, and will demonstrate to anyone still wondering just what the big deal about HD is.
Since they clearly aren’t done making movies any time soon (they crossed the billion dollar mark for the first time this summer with Toy Story 3), any Pixar title on this list is subject to replacement by the newer, shinier rerelease of the same film. But by the time a more comprehensive Toy Story set is released, Blu-ray itself will probably have been replaced by another format, and the purchase of a new set will be required anyway. For the time being, this ten-disc set contains all three films in both Blu-ray and DVD (meaning you could scrap this for parts and give the discs to two entirely different people).
Just as porn has determined the dominant format of each new home video medium, The Wizard of Oz has set the gold standard for special editions in each new format from Laserdisc on down, and with good reason. Back when the studio system had a locked door similar to the one guarding the Emerald City, major releases were documented with a hooplah that makes even something like Avatar look barely worthy of coverage in a school newspaper, and this set is certainly about to outdone by any young up and comers. Packaged less as a collectible item and more as a piece of furniture for your home, this set features a watch, a replica campaign booklet, a singalong feature, a replica of the film’s budget, and many hours of features on everything from L. Frank Baum to the Munchkins getting their own star on the Hollywood walk of fame.