For any film buff, one of the highlights of buying a DVD is the commentary track. At its best, it is a well of on-set gossip, film school tips, and old-fashioned storytelling. It could be argued that good commentaries turn you into a better or smarter movie fan.
Alas, it’s not all wine and roses. The bad commentaries (and they are legion) make you feel like you’re stuck in an elevator with a variety of unpleasant people — the boring, the annoying, the clueless, or the pretentious. It’s a Russian Roulette of awfulness. Regardless of selection, you’re going to suffer unless you turn off the DVD player.
Five intrepid Filmcritic.com staffers offer five recommendations for our favorite commentary tracks, as well as five ‘un-recommendations’ to be avoided at all costs. Do you have any suggestions or warnings? Let us know.
Big Trouble in Little China: Kurt Russell and John Carpenter lay it on the line — ‘People either love [the film] or they never saw it,’ Russell says. ‘They love it or they never saw it and they wouldn’t get it if they did,’ Carpenter jokes. If you do get it, you may also know that the director/star team made some of the best American films in the ’80s, including The Thing and Escape from New York. Among the laughter between the old friends over Russell’s hair or Carpenter’s somersault attack move, the two do a great job setting up the film’s context — it’s a comedy, folks. They share their troubles with the studio (which didn’t get why Russell’s character is a bumbling buffoon) and the grief they got from the Asian community, who claimed that Carpenter was perpetuating stereotypes, never mind that the sidekick, Dennis Dun, was actually the leading man. Russell and Carpenter’s candor makes you feel like you’re sitting around listening to old war stories — focusing more on humor and background than technical mumbo jumbo — making for one of the best DVD commentaries this side of Chinatown. Jason Morgan
Citizen Kane: Before you roll your eyes at what sounds like an easy choice, pop in Kane and skip to Roger Ebert’s feature-length commentary track. The renowned film critic has become a self-taught master of all things Kane, and his wit and wisdom come through on this incredibly informative audio track. Can’t get enough? Famed director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), an Orson Welles biographer, contributes a second track on the same disc that covers completely different ground. You’ll even learn the significance of ‘Rosebud.’ Spoiler alert! Sean O’Connell
Fight Club: David Fincher’s Club paints a bare-knuckle portrait of the male id. It has been discussed ad nauseam by pseudo-Durden disciples who are missing the film’s superior punch line: that by worshipping Tyler, they are in fact empowering all their ‘hero’ would hate. But the last word belongs to Fincher and his visceral cast. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and combustible plaything Helena Bonham Carter join their director for a revealing combo commentary track on the two-disc Fight Club DVD that analyzes the process of making this cinematic gut punch and avoids the film’s reactionary feedback. Sean O’Connell
Jerry Maguire: Writer/director Cameron Crowe coined the catchphrase ‘Show me the money’ with this salvation-of-a-sports-agent dramedy, so it’s only appropriate that Crowe and company have invented ‘Show me the commentary!’ On the two-disc special edition DVD, we watch Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, and Cuba Gooding Jr. watching Jerry. I prefer seeing their reactions — to the film, to each other — than just listening to random comments on a faceless audio track. Cameron, your video commentary completes me. Sean O’Connell
Zero Effect: You may have forgotten about Jake Kasdan’s debut feature, Zero Effect, but if you happen to rent it, check out the commentary. He obviously loves the movie, but the real draw is that the commentary offers perhaps the greatest Easter egg in the history of DVDs. Up front Kasdan says that he doesn’t believe anyone listens to commentary tracks, so if you can prove you listened to the entirety of his (the proof involves stringing together a sentence from words he drops throughout the course of the movie), he’ll not only donate five bucks to your favorite charity, he’ll also give you a hug. Christopher Null
Cliffhanger: Sylvester Stallone’s rock-climbing adventure is a guilty pleasure best seen with edited-for-TV dialogue on late night cable while passing out in a drunken haze. If that’s not your style, consider drinking copious amounts of alcohol to make it through the DVD commentary from Stallone and director Renny Harlin. Recorded separately, Harlin’s commentary clearly shows that he thinks his work is phenomenal (it’s not). He’s a bore and Stallone seems reserved in his comments. That is, until the end when he talks about ‘psychic crossroads’ and career choices he’s made in the past. The worthwhile minute of apologetic Stallone is too little too late — showing up during the end credits after you’ve wasted two hours listening to Harlin. Had the track opened with Stallone’s woeful reflection, the commentary might have had a chance. Instead, it’s as mundane as the film itself. Jason Morgan
The Bellboy: This ‘visual diary of a few weeks in the life of a real nut,’ was Jerry Lewis’ first film as director-writer-star and the first in a series of five classic Lewis-directed films from Paramount in the early ’60s. Unfortunately, the classic status doesn’t carry over into its commentary track for the DVD, where Lewis shares commentary duties with, for some inexplicable reason, unctuous Las Vegas lounge crooner Steve Lawrence. I suppose every one at some point in their lives needs to have an ass-kissing stooge around and Lawrence more than fills the role. A premier toady, Lawrence laughs and agrees with everything Lewis says and relentlessly comments on Lewis’ genius. But Lewis, supreme egoist that he is, still tops Lawrence to be a master toady to himself in a self-stroking ode to a patch of musical score, stating ‘I love the music here where it makes for friendship.’ Paul Brenner
Charlie Bartlett: Not a great movie — in fact, it’s unlikable and condescending — but it could have been partially redeemed if stars Anton Yelchin (born 1989) and Kat Dennings (born 1986) had shared how this 2008 high school comedy tied into their recent/current teenage experiences. No such luck, even with director Jon Poll involved. The two stars giggle like stoners and gush over their co-stars (if you take a shot every time Dennings raves about Hope Davis, you’ll die) and provide nutty ‘oh, please, God no’ voiceovers. It’s a tortuous experience, keeping in line with the movie’s overall quality. Pete Croatto
Masters of the Universe: Poor Gary Goddard. Fifteen minutes into his director’s commentary, it’s apparent that he has got himself into believing that the movie, based on a cartoon that was based on a toy line, is a phenomenal cinematic work while the rest of us might find some en
tertainment steeped in its childhood matinee nostalgia. Although it’s somewhat entertaining hearing him glow about his ‘perfect’ cast as they appear, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting that excited about this Dolph Lundgren-starring adventure. His blind, biased enthusiasm quickly becomes sad and hard to stomach. Though he does supply some insight, such as the forgotten Mattel contest to win a role in Masters of the Universe, the rest of the time is spent talking about the sub-par matte paintings and He-Man flying around on a hover board as if they were amazing film effects feats. Jason Morgan
When Harry Met Sally : In the beginning of his commentary to one of the 1980s’ best movies, director Rob Reiner says the film was a collaborative effort between him, producer Andrew Scheinman, writer Nora Ephron, and (occasionally) star Billy Crystal. About fifteen minutes in, you’ll wish that any one of them was helping old Meathead to speak. Reiner says the movie was borne out of his dating experiences, but offers barely an anecdote or remembrance. He says that watching the movie brings back certain memories, but offers none worth sharing (hey, my dad showed up that day!). In fact, scenes go on for minutes, without Reiner saying a word, which is for the best since he has nothing relevant to say anyway. Pete CroattoRead More