Entertainment by the Boxload: 2008

Register film critic Steven Greydanus recaps the year’s best DVDs.

For family audiences, 2008 was a good year at the cineplex — but an even better year for DVD releases overall. In fact, quality entertainment for families as well as older viewers came by the boxload.

Take the eight-disc box set The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection: more than 20 hours of classic entertainment for all ages with Spanky, Darla, Alfalfa, Buckwheat and the whole gang, for a little over 50 bucks. Or, for a lot more money, Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Television Series — all nine seasons of the beloved Michael Landon series in a whopping 60 discs.

Don’t overlook the seven-disc box set Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, 26 classic fairy tales for the most part honorably brought to life by a star-studded cast including the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Vincent Price, Christopher Reeve and Susan Sarandon. Then there’s the three-disc The Beatrix Potter Collection, wonderfully adapted by the BBC, with highly faithful scripting and beautifully Potteresque animation.

In other storybook boxed editions, the Scholastic Treasury of 100 Storybook Classics offers just what it promises: simple, animated interpretations with narration straight from the text of beloved children’s books.

In our house, we can never get too many high-quality nature documentaries narrated by the dignified, occasionally humorous Richard Attenborough. The 17-disc The BBC Natural History Collection offers some 33 hours of the best, combining the authoritative Planet Earth and Blue Planet with The Life of Mammals and The Life of Birds. (Those sets are also available singly.)

Among DVD holiday movie box editions, one that stands out is The Peanuts Holiday Collection, comprising It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Other holiday family fare worth picking up: the much-beloved A Christmas Story (1983), newly available in a two-disc “Ultimate Collector’s Edition,” and Laurel & Hardy’s Toyland adventure The March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), now available with a restored transfer of the original black-and-white.

Another boxed edition for families worth mentioning: The Disney Pixar Ultimate Movie Collection, a 14-disc set including every Pixar feature prior to Wall-E — both Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars and Ratatouille — for a little over 100 bucks. It’s a great deal for the money.

Also from Disney, as usual, are a few offerings from the vault, including one near-classic new to DVD: 101 Dalmatians (1961). Sleeping Beauty (1959), newly available in a two-disc Platinum edition, is also well worth picking up, and you might also consider new editions of the minor Disney efforts The Sword in the Stone (1961) and The Aristocats (1970).

In classic family adventure, The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Conrad Veight’s classic tale of Arabian Nights adventure, came to DVD from The Criterion Collection, while The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), showcasing Ray Harryhausen’s classic stop-motion effects, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a one-disc edition from Sony.

Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen’s honorable animated take on Richard Adams’ epic tale of life among rabbits, returned to DVD in a not-so-deluxe one-disc “Deluxe Edition.” Tim Burton’s cheerfully macabre The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) got a two-disc collector’s edition. And Shaun the Sheep: Off the Baa came to American DVD with eight rollicking episodes of the Wallace and Gromit spin-off series produced for British television. Finally, adventurous families may want to check out the Janus Films twofer: The Red Balloon/White Mane, a pair of family art films from French director Albert Lamorisse.

Also worthy of celebration is the much-anticipated stand-alone release of Steven Spielberg’s swashbuckling classic Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the Citizen Kane of action-adventure, elevated above its countless imitators by its Old Testament awe and mystery. Though Raiders has been available on DVD since 2003, until now, it was always part of a three-box set with its two inferior sequels.

Biblical faith also plays a role in another of Harrison Ford’s finest films, Peter Weir’s masterful adult drama Witness (1985), which returned to DVD in a not-so-special one-disc “Special Collector’s Edition.” And christological imagery and themes surface in the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which observed the 2008 remake with a fine two-disc special edition.

Other classics with new DVD editions are too many to count. Buster Keaton’s Civil War action-comedy The General (1927), among the best silent films ever made, has a new two-disc “Ultimate Edition” from Kino that’s the version to get. The tense Gary Cooper anti-Western High Noon (1952) got a two-disc ultimate collector’s edition. Sidney Lumet’s tense trial drama 12 Angry Men (1957) starring Henry Fonda celebrated 50 years with a belated anniversary release. Lavishly restored and remastered, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy comprises two classic 1970s tales of the evil that men do, followed by a not-so-classic coda marred by anti-Catholic conceits.

History buffs swooned over John Adams, the HBO miniseries based on the Pulitzer-winning biography by David McCullough — and so did mature fans of smart and sweeping entertainments. Along with the obligatory making-of featurette, the DVD offers a worthwhile documentary, David McCullough: Painting With Words.

Romance and comedy weren’t neglected. Paramount’s new Centennial Collection offered two-disc collector’s editions of the Audrey Hepburn classics Roman Holiday (1953) and Sabrina (1954). Fans of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were treated to a lavish three-disc special edition of Holiday Inn (1942), with a two-disc edition of An American in Paris for Kelly fans to boot. And the delightful, hilarious Groundhog Day (1992), in which Bill Murray relives a single day over and over until he gets it right (and becomes worthy of Andie McDowell), celebrated its 15th anniversary with a special edition.

Universal’s Legacy Series offered new editions for a number of films from the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, including Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), as well as the classic Boris Karloff thriller The Mummy (1932).

Collector’s editions from Columbia included Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Other epic films with new editions include the Charlton Heston saga El Cid (1961) and the sprawling, episodic How the West Was Won (1962).

For fans of Terrence Malick’s lyrical, poetic Pocahontas-John Smith meditation The New World, one of the year’s most exciting releases was Malick’s The New World — Extended Cut, featuring new scenes, dialogue, and even a new character, much of which serves to highlight the film’s spiritual themes.

Ignatius Press’ special edition of Bernadette (1988) is the must-have edition of Jean Delannoy’s biopic on the visionary of Lourdes, with the original French-language track and widescreen aspect ratio. Don’t miss it.

Ignatius also added two new titles to its list of Italian Lux Vide imports: Clare and Francis (2007), probably the best cinematic treatment of both of the saints of Assisi, and John XXIII: The Pope of Peace (2002), starring a believable Edward Asner as “the Good Pope.” Another noteworthy Ignatius offering is After the Truth (1999), a provocative “what if” story that imagines Nazi “Angel of Death” Joseph Mengele turning up alive and facing the trial he never had in life.

Returning to DVD, The Face: Jesus in Art is remarkable documentary that surveys the history and theology of the portrayal of Jesus Christ in Christian art from different times and places. (A sequel production, Picturing Mary, was one of 2007’s DVD highlights.)

Finally, among the year’s most exciting new releases and the most essential of must-have DVDs is Maurice Cloche’s beautiful biopic of St. Vincent de Paul, Monsieur Vincent (1947). Long available only in out-of-print English-dubbed VHS, Monsieur Vincent is finally, finally available in a bare-bones edition from Lionsgate/StudioCanal with the original French soundtrack with English and Spanish subtitles.

Between Monsieur Vincent and the 2007 Criterion release of The Burmese Harp, nearly all of the movies on the Vatican’s film list can now be purchased on DVD. (Almost the only exceptions are Buñuel’s disturbing Nazarín and Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoléon, the latter being blocked from North American distribution by Ted Turner, alas, who owns the rights.)

Steven D. Greydanus is

editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.