Unsure which DVDs to give this holiday season? You're not the only one. With more and more special editions, box sets and director's cuts flooding the marketplace, it's hard to know which are worth giving and which should stay on store shelves. This guide should help. Need even more guidance? Remember to check out the Dec. 10 issue of Weekend, which will feature a guide to holiday CDs and DVDs.
DVDS WITH HOLIDAY THEMES
Will Ferrell is a comedic giant in "Elf," one of the many DVDs arriving in time for the holidays.
(Alan Markfield -- New Line Productions)
Aside from "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" (now available), a short Disney feature starring computer-animated versions of Donald Duck and the gang, and "Surviving Christmas" (Dec. 21), which flopped in theaters a few short weeks ago, there aren't many new holiday-oriented DVDs this year. The best of the lot is undoubtedly Elf" (available now), the 2003 comedy starring Will Ferrell as a grown man who finally realizes he's not one of Santa's helpers. The two-disc set features lots of extras, though some (the behind-the-scenes short that explains how forced perspective made Ferrell appear to tower over his fellow elves) are more interesting than others (Ferrell's surprisingly lifeless commentary track). The second disc is dominated by some cute games for children, but bear in mind that some of them -- like "Elf in the City" and "Snowball Fight" -- may frustrate kids (or adults) used to PlayStation2 and Xbox action. Fortunately the movie's comedic charms, as well as the clever menu screens patterned after holiday pop-up books, should make up for its sugarplum-coated shortcomings.
Many of the year's biggest movies wait until the holiday season to hit DVD, hoping to take advantage of all that frantic last-minute shopping. Among the most worthwhile selections:
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (Nov. 23), easily the most entrancing so far of the Potter films, is accompanied by cast interviews, deleted scenes and interactive games.
"Spider-Man 2" (Nov. 30), one of 2004's most consistently entertaining blockbusters, comes in a two-disc set that includes the 12-part, two-hour-plus documentary "Making the Amazing."
"Collateral" (Dec. 14) boasts excellent performances from Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx -- who could score both lead (for his work in "Ray") and supporting (for his work in this film) Oscar nominations. It also gets the two-disc treatment, with a few featurettes, footage of Cruise and Foxx rehearsing and a commentary track from director Michael Mann.
"Napoleon Dynamite" (Dec. 21), perhaps the most surprising sleeper hit of 2004, will include the five-minute "Wedding of the Century" alternate ending, as well as deleted scenes and commentary from director-writer Jared Hess and star Jon Heder. What, there's no featurette that teaches us how to bust sweet dance movies?
Speaking of cult favorites, "Shaun of the Dead" (Dec. 21) hits DVD just in time to reach stocking-stuffer status. The romantic zombie comedy, as its creators have dubbed it, is fleshed out (so to speak) with outtakes, extended scenes, two commentary tracks and several featurettes, including one that explains some of the movie's plotholes. Finally, a DVD that puts the Halloween back in Christmas.
CLASSIC FILMS AND BOX SETS
Most self-respecting Jedis (barring the ones still furious with George Lucas for remastering their beloved films) already own a copy of The "Star Wars" Trilogy, released in September. But those who held out for the holidays will relish the opportunity to finally watch the exceptional documentary "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the 'Star Wars' Trilogy" as well as the numerous other worthwhile extras. Yes, it's a bummer that the originally released versions of the movies are not included in the set. DVD producer Van Ling tells us that could happen sometime in a future not so far, far away. But enough yadda yadda about Yoda. Here are some other classics and box sets for your consideration.
"Gone With the Wind: Four-Disc Collector's Edition" (available now) is one of the most important films (to some, the best) ever made. With this set it can be viewed in sharp, nearly crystal-clear color along with illuminating extras, including the 1989 documentary "The Making of a Legend."
"The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection" (available now) includes nine DVDs, seven of which make their debut on DVD. My favorite is the two-disc special edition of "Strangers on a Train"; but it's hard to go wrong with anything from the master of suspense.
It almost doesn't feel like the holidays without a "Lord of the Rings." At least there's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Platinum Series Special Extended Edition" (Dec. 14), which, if the previous "Rings" DVDs are any indication, should be outstanding. Expect 50 more minutes of film footage and four discs filled with documentaries and no less than four commentary tracks. It will take until next December just to watch it all.
Any Release From the Criterion Collection: This series consistently yields beautifully packaged DVDs enhanced by insightful extras. Recent releases include "The Battle of Algiers," Richard Linklater's "Slacker," "Fanny and Alexander," Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and the upcoming "The King of Kings" and "M" (both to be released Dec. 7). If you have money to burn (and a heck of a lot of storage space), amazon.com offers the Criterion Collection Holiday 2004 Gift Set, which includes all of its 241 in-print titles for a mere $4,999.
It may not be "Gone With the Wind," but there are plenty of people who love Lt. Maverick as much as Rhett Butler. For them, Paramount presents "Top Gun: Special Collector's Edition" (Dec. 14), which includes the 1986 film and a six-part making-of documentary.
"Shrek 2" made more than $185 million in its first three days of release. By now, almost every home in America must have at least one copy nestled inside its entertainment center. But there are still other fine family-oriented DVD options, some of which are listed below.
"Aladdin: Special Edition" (available now) should please fans of this 1992 Disney feature, one of the last box office blockbusters before digital animation began dominating the family-movie field. Clay Aiken fans also will appreciate his recording of a song deleted from the film, even though a documentary about the making of the video for that song is little more than a throwaway.
"The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 2" (available now) is a follow-up to last year's delightful Looney Tunes box set. This one also features numerous cartoons (including the classic "What's Opera, Doc?") as well as featurettes and 30 commentary tracks.
Take a spoonful of sugar. Or get a copy of "Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition" (Dec. 14), which boasts a making-of documentary, a deleted song and commentary from Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke.
You know you're a child of the '80s if you loved "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" (available now), which recently debuted on DVD in two volumes. In addition to star Paul Reubens, you'll also spot Phil Hartman and Laurence Fishburne among the cast. And here's one more reason to say "Mecca lecca hi, mecca heinie ho": "Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special" is also available on a separate DVD.
There's no question what's the master of its TV show DVD domain this season. That's "Seinfeld" (available now), one of the most popular sitcoms ever, making its DVD debut on two volumes filled with three seasons worth of episodes. The extras -- which include numerous documentary featurettes, bloopers and much more -- make this a worthwhile, if not mandatory, holiday gift. Of course there are other series to snag besides the show about nothing.
If you're still mourning the loss of Rodney Dangerfield, check out "Rodney Dangerfield: The Ultimate No Respect Collection" (available now)." It's a three-disc set that includes several of the late comedian's ABC and HBO specials as well as a rarely seen stand-up act from 1988.
Looking for a gift with a girlie theme? Then give "The Golden Girls: Season One" (available Nov. 23) with "The Gilmore Girls: The Second Season" (Dec. 7). And if you're giving a belated present, throw in "Sex and the City: Season Six, Part Two" (Dec. 28), which includes three alterate endings to the much-hyped final episode of the Carrie Bradshow comedy.
It's been a while since we've seen Jack Bauer. Before the fourth season of "24" gets underway in January, refresh your memory with "24: Season Three" (Dec. 7), loaded -- like the season two DVD -- with plenty of extras.
Mmm ... DVDs. "The Simpsons: The Complete Fifth Season" (Dec. 21) arrives just in time to make it into Santa's sack, in a four-disc set with commentaries on all 22 hilarious episodes (including such classics as "Cape Feare" and "Homer and Apu"). The only thing as good as season five on DVD is "The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season" (available now), released earlier this year.
Jen Chaney reviews DVD each week in washingtonpost.com's "Bonus Points" column.