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Best DVDs for Holiday Gift Giving, 2008

Film fans have thousands of DVDs to choose from, making holiday gift-giving a difficult, frustrating exercise. Here are a dozen or so of our favorite recent releases that we recommend you check out, ranging from the lowbrow to the ultra-artsy.

The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Collector’s Edition Megaset: How does one properly explain The Flying Circus? Perhaps it’s easier to just point out that Saturday Night Live, in its prime, was basically struggling to keep up with the sort of inspired lunacy that the cast members of the Circus conjured up with seeming effortlessness. This set adds a disc of personal favorites from the cast, two discs of live performances, and two documentaries on the group.

Iron Man: In a banner year for comic book adaptations, my first choice is the excellently-produced two-disc DVD of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Iron Man has the better extras, including a seven-part making-of documentary and a 47-minute look at the history of both Tony Stark and his alter-ego. As a movie, with its well-considered pacing, sharp acting, and extravagant action pieces, it’s just a few rungs below The Dark Knight.

Mr. Bean: The Ultimate Collection: Rowan Atkinson’s most beloved character, Mr. Bean, finally gets his due in this magnanimous set of DVDs. Chronicling not only Bean’s entire television run but also his two cinematic showcases, the set also includes a documentary on the show and how Atkinson cultivated Bean along with 16 animated episodes and an assortment of deleted scenes and unseen sketches.

Encounters at the End of the World: The latest cerebral nature study from German eccentric Werner Herzog finds the director wandering around the Antarctic landscape in search of wild life forms, most of which end up being human. The extras, per usual with Herzog, are exemplary, including an interview with Herzog conducted by Jonathan Demme and material on the mesmerizing under-ice shots.

The Wire: The Complete Series/The Sopranos: The Complete Series: The Sopranos remains HBO’s flagship: an unimpeachable saga of modern familial relations and the fetishizing of the modern criminal. The Wire remains the very height of television’s capabilities: journalistic curiosity played out on a grand scale of police and criminals in Baltimore’s slums as both procedural and Dickensian character canvas. They are, without a doubt, the two most ambitious television series to ever be broadcasted.

The General: Two-Disc Edition: Kino has outdone itself with this beautiful, brilliantly-produced set for Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedy The General. Film introductions by Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles, a tour of the filming locations, and a choice of musical accompaniment outline this essential two-disc collection.

Satantango: Though it will find a happier home with art-house devotees and hardcore cinephiles, Facets’ long-overdue release of Hungarian maestro Bela Terr’s towering, seven-hour, black-and-white spectacle Satantango should be on every serious film lover’s shelf. The film is an event big enough to justify the price, but Facets loads it with Tarr’s television production of Macbeth and Journey on the Plain, in which actor/composer Mihaly Vig tours the areas where the film was shot.

WALL-E: With only one real dud on their resume (Cars), Pixar went a step beyond this year with the altogether miraculous WALL-E. A rich text for both children and adults, Disney has done a great job with the three-disc collection, which includes a documentary on the history of Pixar and audio commentary by director Andrew Stanton, along with a bevy of shorts and deleted scenes.

The Dark Knight: The extras on Warner Home Videos’ two-disc edition are frivolous, including six episodes of the Gotham Tonight show that is shown in clips during the film and a look at the sequences shot with the new IMAX camera. Nevertheless, the film speaks for itself: surely the best comic book adaptation to date, this enthralling neo-noir is owned fully by the late Heath Ledger’s inventive, terrifying closing act as The Joker.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: As fantasy-based imagery goes, no one has a prayer against Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, and this wildly entertaining sequel to the 2004 original pulls out all the stops. Looking at the film is reward enough but the three-disc edition packs in some deleted scenes with commentary by del Toro as well as an exhaustive 150-minute making-of documentary.

The Budd Boetticher Box Set: November sees the release of five more lost films from the great Budd Boetticher. The prime piece of this essential collection is Decision at Sundown, a duel between a lawman (Randolph Scott) pressed with grief and a local tycoon (John Carroll) who’s about to get married. The film introductions from Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorcese, and Taylor Hackford don’t hurt.

Have You Seen…? by David Thomson: The great David Thomson’s latest collection of witty, insightful and often infuriating critical essays should be categorized as essential reading. Thomson has already written two brilliant, well-researched books on film, but Have You Seen…? is his most entertaining book to date. For other analog gift ideas, look into The Village Voice Film Guide and Born in Flames by Howard Hampton.

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