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The Best DVDs of 2003

by j.d. lafrance

The Adventures of Indiana Jones (Paramount)

One of the holy grails for DVD fans finally become available this year. The folks at Lucasfilms went over the prints of each movie and cleaned them up digitally. The transfers of each film look flawless and the audio has also been overhauled onto aggressive, THX-approved 5.1 surround soundtracks. In lieu of audio commentaries an extensive two-hour documentary was assembled that covered all three films in great detail. Even the usually unattainable Harrison Ford and Sean Connery were interviewed for the DVD. This is a classy box set. An essential purchase.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (The Criterion Collection)

The Criterion edition of Terry Gilliam's misunderstood masterpiece is an amazing achievement. Not only is there a staggering amount of background material on the movie (three audio commentaries: one with Gilliam, another with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro and a third with the man himself, author Hunter S. Thompson) and the book (a fascinating BBC documentary on Thompson and Ralph Steadman), but the film has also been remastered with a stunning anamorphic transfer and an aggressively atmospheric DTS soundtrack. Gilliam's film has never looked or sounded so good. Love or hate this movie, Criterion has provided its fans with hours of enjoyment and entertainment.

The Killers (The Criterion Collection)

The folks at Criterion have collected all three cinematic versions of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers" and presented them in a comprehensive two-DVD set. The first DVD, with the 1946 and 1956 versions, features an impressive introduction into the film noir genre. Hemingway's short story was also included and read by none other than Mike Hammer himself, Stacy Keach. The second disc, with the 1964 version, didn't feature as many extras but presented a fascinating look at how Siegel's film evolved from a made-for-TV movie to a theatrical release. For fans of film noir this is an essential purchase as these two films are given the deluxe Criterion treatment. The wealth of extras entertain and educate, making this set an excellent primer for anyone interested in learning more about film noir.

Looney Tunes: Golden Collection (Warner Brothers)

This collection of 54 classic, animated shorts, digitally remastered and restored in their original, uncut form was one of the most sought after and anticipated DVDs in recent years. Spread out over four discs, with an impressive collection of audio commentaries (by animation historians), featurettes, documentaries and still galleries, Bugs, Daffy and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang have never looked or sounded better.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Extended Version (New Line)

Fans of this entertaining series were rewarded for the patience with this comprehensive four DVD set that not only featured a significantly longer version of the film (over 40 minutes of added footage) but two DVDs dedicated to exploring every conceivable aspect of the movie. There are also four separate audio commentaries which equals tons of hours to keep fans busy pouring over everything that this set has to offer. Like the four DVD set for Fellowship of the Ring, this one will be the standard that all other special editions will be judged by.

Once Upon A Time in the West (Paramount)

This disc gets the best print restoration of the year award. Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti western has never looked or sounded better. After suffering with pan and scanned VHS copies for years, it is great to finally enjoy this film in its original widescreen aspect ratio. Paramount has also gone the extra mile and loaded this 2-DVD set with some impressive extras. The multi-participant audio commentary features the likes of Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling and filmmakers John Carpenter, Alex Cox and John Milius. They all show up again on the three informative and detailed Making-Of documentaries that appear on the second disc. This is a really classy effort that belongs in any film aficionado's DVD collection.

Pirates of the Caribbean (Disney)

Disney pulled out all the stops with an extras-laden two-DVD set that covered every possible aspect of this highly entertaining movie. Fans were treated to three audio commentaries, one of which featured entertaining banter from the film's director, Gore Verbinski and one of the film's stars, Johnny Depp. The second DVD contained a treasure trove of supplemental material. What they lacked in depth the extras more than made up for in quantity. While a bit on the fluffy side, the extras conveyed the huge scope of the production and the challenges inherit in making this kind of movie. The DVD set does a great job of balancing style and substance, complete with a system of menus that maintain the look and mood of the movie.

Scarface (Universal)

After an inferior, bare bones DVD release, Universal finally did this landmark film justice with an impressive two-disc set that presented a pristine copy of the movie, complete with a crystal clear DTS soundtrack and a perfect mix of quality and quantity supplemental material. The featurettes included brand new interviews with the film's director Brian De Palma, the film's screenwriter Oliver Stone, and, in a real coup, the film's star, Al Pacino (who rarely participates in DVD extras) where the told all sorts of fascinating and entertaining anecdotes about the movie. Universal has taken some flak as of late on some of their special edition DVD sets (see Animal House) but this one is top notch.

To Live and Die in L.A. (MGM)

William Friedkin's film has long been out of print on VHS and so this new special edition DVD is exactly what fans of this influential crime thriller have been waiting for. The director provides an informative audio commentary that pulls no punches. Also included is a fascinating retrospective featurette that examines how the movie was made with some excellent archival, behind-the-scenes footage of Friedkin and his cast in action. MGM has produced an excellent DVD with a stunning transfer (including a new 5.1 surround soundtrack) and a solid collection of extras that should please fans of this underrated crime thriller masterpiece.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Disney)

For years, this flm had only been available on VHS with a restrictive pan and scanning that butchered the film's glorious CinemaScope cinematography. The folks at Disney have released this movie in its original aspect ratio and with an exhaustive wealth of supplemental materials. The highlight of the material, drawn from the vaults of Disney studios, was "The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," an impressive 90-minute documentary that covers every aspect of the film. In addition to this solid extra, this set also includes numerous featurettes and extensive still galleries. This two-DVD set, with its stunning transfer, a THX-approved soundtrack and extensive supply of extras, is the perfect tribute to this groundbreaking film.

Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.

Issue 19, January 2004

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