As we continue to shed physical media in favor of the cloud, the advantages seem obvious: We’ll free up shelf space, access our favorite movies with ease and never again lose an hour trying to figure out who the hell we loaned our copy of The Godfather to. But what we’ll lose in the process is the pleasure of actual DVDs, with their extras and special features. Often, buying a DVD was as much about savoring the prize leftovers it offered as the film itself. You remember: the behind-the-scenes documentaries, the cast interviews, the booklet essays, the smart commentary tracks, the deleted scenes. It was like getting more of a film you already knew and loved.
With that in mind, here’s a salute to 10 great DVDs worth holding onto. We decided not to include any fancy box sets that celebrate a series of movies — sorry, Tolkien fanatics — because they’re often very expensive and weighed down with superfluous nonsense like trading cards and other worthless tchotchkes. Instead, we focused on collections that either offer definitive editions of classic movies or include a truly bizarre or unique special feature that has to be seen to be believed.
Like Thanksgiving leftovers, DVD extras might not be as tasty as the meal itself—but hey, if you’re gorging already, why not finish every last bite, even if it is a few days later?
Some movies receive the director’s-cut treatment on home video, but Criterion’s massive Brazil collection goes one step further. You get Terry Gilliam’s director-approved 142-minute version of his sardonic dystopian tale, as well as the 94-minute so-called “Love Conquers All” version of the film that the studio preferred because it forced a bogus happy ending onto his bleak 1984-like drama. As evidenced by those two cuts, Brazil was ground zero for one of the great battles between a filmmaker and his distributor — for a while, it seemed possible Universal would never even release the movie — and this three-disc collection relives all the creative turmoil with behind-the-scenes documentaries and expert commentary. Ironically, Brazil did get a happy ending, in that Gilliam’s original vision has gone on to be recognized for the satiric masterpiece it is.
Presumably, movie lovers listen to audio commentaries because they want insights into how their favorite films were made by the people who were on-set. However, no one mentioned this to Arnold Schwarzenegger. For the DVD of Total Recall, he and director Paul Verhoeven recorded a commentary track, but only Verhoeven is actually explaining his creative intentions. What’s Arnold doing? Why, he’s busy describing what you are seeing. For instance, early on in the movie when we learn that the never-Oscar-nominated actor plays an ordinary construction worker, Schwarzenegger reveals, “I am a construction worker.” When his character is kicked in the balls, he notes, “Ow, that hurt.” When he encounters an alien with three breasts, he tells us, “She has three breasts, huh? That’s the one with three breasts.” No reason to go to theater school, kids: Just buy the Total Recall DVD, which is a rich pageant of actor insights.
This Is Spinal Tap is the endlessly quotable mockumentary about a birdbrained metal band (played by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) slowly discovering that their glory days are far behind them. Since much of the movie was improvised, you’d expect a DVD release would feature plenty of outtakes, but Tap has such an embarrassment of riches that there are actually two different versions of the disc worth owning. Criterion’s includes commentary from the stars about the film’s creation, but MGM’s features a commentary from the stars playing their characters, shocked by how badly they’re portrayed in the movie. Deleted scenes can be found on both discs — although, perversely, some of them are only on one of the two editions. Thankfully, this comedy is so endlessly fresh you won’t mind diving into both DVDs.
Fight Club (10th Anniversary Edition)
One of the fun aspects of DVDs comes from designers who personalized the special features to mirror the attitude of the actual movie. Fight Club’s anti-authoritarian, prankster tone is immediately felt when you popped in the DVD and discovered a menu for Never Been Kissed, the dopey Drew Barrymore comedy. Just as you were about to throw the disc into the trash, though, the fake menu faded away to reveal the proper Fight Club menu options. It’s a great trick that shakes the viewer out of his passivity — just like David Fincher’s film punches you in the face.
Plenty of movies are so great that they reward multiple viewings. But in the case of Christopher Nolan’s second film, the DVD allowed fans to see the same movie in a completely different way. Now out of print, a limited-edition DVD of Memento featured a way to watch the time-bending thriller in chronological order. By selecting a specific menu item and then punching in a secret code on your remote control, you could unlock this never-before-seen edit. The effect is that, this time, poor amnesiac Leonard (Guy Pearce) isn’t so much a victim of his condition but someone who actively uses it as an excuse to dismiss his own bad behavior. The brilliant Memento works just as well in both versions, but our feelings about his character and his motivations definitely get shifted.
For years, The Larry Sanders Show wasn’t available on DVD. Then, in 2007, the show’s creator and star, Garry Shandling, unveiled Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show, in which he handpicked his favorite episodes from the Emmy-winning series. But the set’s real treat were the intimate, off-the-cuff interviews he did with his famous friends — some of who appeared on Larry Sanders as themselves — as well as castmates Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn. The best of these may be with Jerry Seinfeld: Their casual conversation about acting, comedy and the challenges of running a beloved sitcom very much feels like the impetus for Seinfeld’s later web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
There’s no earthly reason to see this godawful spoof from filmmakers Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, the duo behind the equally witless Epic Movie and Disaster Movie. But give the guys this: In the annals of gimmicky DVD commentaries, they actually came up with a clever idea. The writers-directors invited two critics who disliked their movie, Scott Foundas and Bob Strauss, to watch the film and supply their own running critique. Less Mystery Science Theater 3000 evisceration and more just an agonized expression of stupefied horror, their commentary is a great way to experience the pain of watching bad movies in real time. “Why is that funny?” Foundas asks again and again during Date Movie. We’ll never know.
When a director and a screenwriter get together to record a DVD commentary, it tends to be a pretty cordial affair: They talk about how talented the actors were, how great everybody got along, blah blah blah. But in the case of the DVD version of The Limey, Steven Soderbergh’s cult classic about an aging enforcer (Terence Stamp) out for revenge, politeness gave way to candor. On the commentary track, Soderbergh sits down with the film’s writer, Lem Dobbs, who offers this blunt take on the finished product: “People ask me, ‘Do you like this movie?’ And as a disinterested, objective filmgoer who had nothing to do with it, I’d say it’s a good movie. I’d recommend it to my friends. But as a screenwriter, I think it’s crippled.” From there, the two men thrust and parry about The Limey; the result is an exciting, rare glimpse into the creative tension that’s central to so many movies.
We’ve all sat through a bad movie and thought, “Why, did they do that? It would’ve been so much better if the characters had done this.” Escape From Guantanamo Bay actually puts that power into the viewers’ hands — sort of. One of its DVD extras is called Dude, Change the Movie!, which is an interactive feature that allows you to make different decisions for the characters than what they end up doing in the movie. Apparently, the filmmakers shot a ton of extra footage to allow for different outcomes during certain scenes. Escape From Guantanamo Bay is easily the worst of the three Harold and Kumar films, but this Choose Your Own Adventure-like feature at least lets you improve upon the final film by mixing things up a little.
The best movie from Hollywood’s most consistently excellent production company — Pixar — deserves a spot on this list because its extras really feel like film school on a disc. The commentary track from director Andrew Stanton is insightful, but also check out The Pixar Story, a documentary about the studio’s earliest days. Sure, it’s a bit on the feel-good, promotional side, but The Pixar Story makes a convincing case for the company’s brain trust, which came up with A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc. and Wall-E all during one infamous lunch meeting. This set is entertaining, educational and inspiring: Like the best Pixar films, it does everything well.