With the advent of streaming and on-demand, I'm not even certain people give DVDs as gifts any more. But at least DVDs are still for sale, and so--technological dinosaur that I am--I still give them. Whether my friends and family just smile at me and then put my gifts in the attic with Great-Grandpa's 78s of Guy Lombardo is up to them.
This column was going to be a list of favorite and unfairly neglected films that would make great Christmas gifts or at least great Christmas viewing, but it is going to begin with a burst of outrage at the extreme variation in DVD prices, at least as listed on Amazon. (Given the closure of stores such as Borders and Circuit City, with dwindling DVD stocks at other stores, Amazon, B&N.com and other online dealers are becoming the DVD purveyors of choice.) With the average price of a DVD in the $15-20 range today, it is a travesty that many cinematic masterpieces are being priced out of the market. William Wyler's two greatest films, "Dodsworth" and "The Best Years of Our Lives," are priced in the $40 range, as is Gary Sinise's superb 1992 version of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." All three of these films belong in any good home video library--particularly "Of Mice and Men," which has never received its just due as one of the truly great screen adaptations of a literary classic. (Go on Amazon and see just how many reviewers of the Sinise film say they are teachers who show this film in their classes. This alone is emblematic of the film's high quality and fidelity to its source.) By contrast, the old 1940 version, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., is available at a bargain price; you get what you pay for. Even with a score by Aaron Copland, the Milestone "Of Mice and Men" is comparatively crude and tarted-up, making obvious what Steinbeck and Sinise preferred to imply. If you're in a position to see both films, compare the way Milestone films the fatal meeting between Lennie and Curley's wife, with Lon Chaney Jr. and Betty Field, with Sinise's version featuring John Malkovich and Sherilyn Fenn. You'll see exactly what I mean.
If the Sinise "Of Mice and Men" were a Criterion Collection release, I wouldn't be writing this animadversion. Criterion Collection DVDs regularly run in the $30-$40 range, but for that you get lovingly restored prints of hard-to-find foreign films, indie films and major studio releases that somehow fell into obscurity, complete with fascinating documentaries, interviews and critical essays about the making of those films. The Criterion Collection offers luxury DVDs, and again you get what you pay for. Thanks to Criterion, I have "My Dinner with Andre," "Black Narcissus," "The Third Man" and "Au Hasard Balthasar" in my DVD collection.
In some cases the Criterion Collection offers DVDs of certain films in competition with other companies. If you care enough about Herk Harvey's one-of-a-kind "Carnival of Souls" to buy it, then surely it's worth forking out the $35 or so to have the pristine Criterion Collection version, rather than the gapped, scratched, execrable versions released for much less by Rhino Video and others. On the other hand, I have never seen the Criterion release of Ang Lee's much underrated Civil War drama, "Ride with the Devil," which is billed as the "Director's Cut." I would like to see it someday, but meanwhile I don't see anything wrong with the studio DVD, which is available for less than $10.
In any case, there are plenty of excellent DVDs readily availalble at reasonable prices. Some of my favorites include "Laura," "Double Indemnity," "Out of the Past," "L.A. Confidential" and most of the Hitchcock canon (ah, the siren call of the thriller). However, I want to make a pitch for a couple of flims that I think are unfairly obscure.
Billy Bob Thornton's "The Gift" was roasted by critics on its first release--they mocked its Southern Gothic milieu as cliched--and mostly ignored by the public. This is sad, because the film offered a superb cast in an absorbing, supernatural-tinged murder mystery. Cate Blanchett, playing a recently widowed psychic hired by her local Georgia police department to help solve the murder of socialite Katie Holmes, is deeply moving as a young woman who has a gift she never wanted, didn't ask for, but must use simply to make ends meet. The cast includes such stalwarts as Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear and J.K. Simmons, but besides Blanchett the standouts are Keanu Reeves, surprisingly effective as a mean, violent redneck, and Giovanni Ribisi, who is simply astounding as a mentally and emotionally damaged young man. Ribisi ends up playing the pivotal role in "The Gift:" to say anything more would be sabotage.
I hesitate to recommend "Used Cars," Robert Zemeckis' corrosive 1981 comedy, because it is so raucous, vulgar and altogether un-Christmasy. The raunchiness of "Used Cars" has been mightily eclipsed in the last three decades, but the film still gives off an acidulous odor of raunchiness as it tells the story of two warring bands of used car salesmen who will literally stop at nothing--larceny, graft, FCC violations, even murder--to best each other and flim-flam the public. There's a love story, too--Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy and Girl Cheat Little Old Ladies. It's as if the Ben Jonson of "Volpone" collaborated with the John Waters of "Pink Flamingos." Nevertheless, "Used Cars" is replete with hilarious sight gags, and Kurt Russell, playing the plaid-polyester-clad leader of one of the salesman factions, gives unequivocally one of the greatest comedy performances of the 1980s. It's a vital corrective to those who think there is nothing in the Russell filmography except "The Barefoot Executive" and "Tango and Cash."
Finally, for a film that IS Christmasy: the 1948 English version of "A Christmas Carol," starring Alastair Sim, has the reputation of being the classic screen version, and indeed it is very fine. But for my money the best version is the 1984 TV-movie starring George C. Scott. Sim gives the best version of the traditional, crabbed-old-miser Scrooge, but Scott rethinks the role in compelling fashion, portraying Scrooge as a smug, high-powered fat cat--someone you could see in a Wall Street corner office today. Scott's transformation over the course of the spirits' visitation is genuinely moving, and the cast surrounding him is splendid. It includes David Warner and Susannah York as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Frank Finlay as the absolute, guaranteed scariest Marley's Ghost ever. With the ancient Midlands town of Shrewsbury standing in for Victorian London, this moving and colorful "Christmas Carol" should become a seasonal favorite in every home.