Typically, when you walk into a video-rental store, the signs saying “New Releases” are the first things to catch your eye. They’re designed to dominate the displays.

“New Releases,” of course, means movies that played in theaters in the last six to 24 months or so. Yet every year many of the most exciting new DVD releases are movies that haven’t played in theaters in years, decades — or even longer.

The DVD revolution has changed the way we watch movies. Unlike videotapes, the digital information on DVDs doesn’t degrade over time. The discs have no moving parts to break or get stuck in players. Plus, the lightweight discs can be sent cheaply through the mail, allowing services like Netflix and others to offer access to a far larger library of selections than your local brick-and-mortar store or library.

All of this means more access to more movies than ever before.

Here, in no special order, are a few of what I consider the most exciting DVD releases of 2006 for films that didn’t play in theaters in the last year or two. Some have never before been available on DVD for Region 1 (North America); others have had earlier DVD releases, but gotten new releases this year worth mentioning.

Of the 45 films on the 1995 Vatican film list, a few remain unavailable on American DVD. This year, one of those few came to DVD in style from Criterion: Louis Mallet’s Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), a deeply felt coming-of-age tale set in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France.

Among the most enjoyable films Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn ever made, George Cukor’s Holiday (1938) was astonishingly available only on used VHS until this year. Thematically similar to the better-known The Philadelphia Story, from the same creative team, Holiday is less satiric, more compassionate and bittersweet — and equally memorable.

A number of excellent, inspiring productions on saints came to American DVD this year from Italian production companies. Umberto Marino’s St. Anthony of Padua (2002), the first feature film on the life of the great saint, is available on DVD only from Ignatius Press.

Ignatius also distributes Padre Pio: Miracle Man (2000), Carlo Carlei’s vivid portrait of the gruff, irascible stigmatist saint and mystic, and St. Francis of Assisi (2002), Michele Soavi’s flawed but intriguing depiction of the little poor man of Assisi, with a worthwhile second half depicting Francis’ ministry compensating for a flawed first half.

Few films released by Christian film companies are much good. This year, 20th Century Fox gave a DVD release to one of the best: James F. Collier’s The Hiding Place (1975), from Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures. Based on the memoir by Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place sticks closely to the inspiring true story of the ten Boom family’s work with the Dutch underground hiding Jewish refugees from the Nazis in their Amsterdam home, and their eventual imprisonment and transferal to the Ravensbrück camp, where nearly all of them died.

Two classic 1930s seafaring swashbucklers from director Victor Fleming came to Region 1 for the first time: Treasure Island (1934) and Captains Courageous (1937). Stevenson fans will be happy to discover the previously hard-to-find 1934 Treasure Island, which sticks closer to the text than the familiar 1950 Disney version, while Captains Courageous offers a better-than-average morality tale with a strikingly positive Catholic milieu.

In other oceanic DVD news, Deep Blue (2003) — not to be confused with the action thriller Deep Blue Sea — ranks high among recent nature documentaries, touching on March of the Penguins and Winged Migration territory, but most resembling Besson’s artful 1991 ocean doc Atlantis. Directed by Andy Byatt and Alastair Fothergill, Deep Blue will astonish you with things you’ve never seen or even imagined — no matter how many other nature docs you’ve seen.

Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki made a splash in the United States with his Oscar-winning Spirited Away. This year, one of his best, My Neighbor Totoro (1988), got a wonderful new DVD edition from Disney. One of the gentlest and most enchanting family films ever made, My Neighbor Totoro is mesmerizing entertainment for even the youngest viewers, though parents should be aware that, as elsewhere, Miyazaki’s reverence for nature is expressed imaginatively — in terms evoking the animist tradition of Japan’s Shinto heritage.

Another Disney DVD release from Miyazaki’s studio, Whisper of the Heart (1995), is equally wise and wonderful — without the overt fantasy. It’s a coming-of-age story of adolescence rather than childhood.

Meanwhile, another company gave a DVD release to an utterly different Miyazaki project, the wacky, action-packed adventure extravaganza The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a 007-esque thriller with spectacular set pieces and exotic settings, though marred by some unnecessary profane and crude language.

A number of films celebrated anniversaries this year with special new DVD editions. Cecil B. DeMille’s holiday staple The Ten Commandments (1956) got a snazzy 50th anniversary box edition with extras, including DeMille’s own very different 1923 silent film of the same name. Suffused with all of DeMille’s considerable talent for archaic staginess, melodramatic pageantry and opulent spectacle, The Ten Commandments is like an artifact of an earlier era. Charlton Heston’s statuesque presence and rumbling line readings in perhaps his best role complete the effect; he’s like Michelangelo’s Moses come to life.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the quintessential Christmas classic — and Vatican list film — It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) received a rather spartan anniversary edition, with enhanced picture quality but no new extras. A Christmas Carol in reverse, Frank Capra’s classic is not about the redemption of its Scrooge figure, but the vindication of its heroic Bob Cratchitt figure, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart).

A staple of 1950s sci-fi, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) is now available in an anniversary special edition with numerous extras.

At once intelligent and campy, Forbidden Planet is an intriguing, perhaps overrated sci-fi classic that borrows plot points from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and strongly anticipates “Star Trek” in its sci-fi milieu — but its driving fears are the “monsters from the id,” the wayward, concupiscent passions of our own hearts.

There was also John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a rare classic Western that invites viewers to ponder ambiguities rather than to cheer good guys against bad guys — and even to question its hero and the Western mythos itself.

Then there are films that got special new DVD editions just because they deserved them. Among these are a pair of classics from director Billy Wilder: Stalag 17 (1953), grimly hilarious, subversive and defiant, rough around the edges, and more than a little sad; and Double Indemnity (1944), starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in one of the most riveting film noirs ever made.

Finally, Akira Kurosawa’s martial arts masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954), a rare war film that at once acknowledges the necessity of killing while finding even in victory the sorrow and bitterness of defeat.

All in all, a pretty good year for those who can’t find anything appealing under the “New Releases” signage — and those who look right past the flashy cues from the get-go.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and

chief critic of DecentFilms.com.


Generally fine family viewing (may not be appropriate for all children): Treasure Island, Captains Courageous, Deep Blue, My Neighbor Totoro, Whisper of the Heart, The Ten Commandments, Holiday, It’s a Wonderful Life. Teens and up: Au Revoir Les Enfants, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio: Miracle Man, The Hiding Place, Forbidden Planet, Stalag 17, Double Indemnity. Mature viewing: Seven Samurai, The Searchers.