In the old days of yore, back when the videocassette was king, the most one could expect after popping the tape into the VCR was the feature attraction and, on that rare occasion, a short making-of piece or a couple of brief interviews with the star and director. But thanks to the technology behind the DVD revolution, viewers can find all manner of supplemental material on those shiny discs -- everything from audio commentaries to screen tests to children's activities.
For many couch potatoes, these extras are nothing more than cinematic sound and fury, signifying nothing: Give them a frill-free DVD and they're happy just watching the movie itself. Can't argue with that approach. Still, for those film fans who look to the DVD to enhance their viewing pleasure either through top-notch production values or all those added bells and whistles, here are some suggestions of titles whose discs (all suitable for placing under the Christmas tree) go beyond the call of digital duty.
AUDIO EXCELLENCE: Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks). The audio-video expert who hooked up my home theater components four years ago tested out the sound system by turning to The Matrix; I've since heard that, as one of the all-time top-selling DVDs, that film gets quite the workout in showing off the format's ear-shattering capabilities. But on those occasions when I'm forced to play industry cheerleader for the sake of inquisitive houseguests, the only way to go is with the DTS version of Steven Spielberg's WWII masterpiece. You'd swear there were tanks plowing through your backyard, given the manner in which the floorboards tremble and the walls rumble whenever this movie's in the mixer.
Also Noteworthy: Speed: Five Star Collection (Fox); Standing In the Shadows of Motown (Artisan).
VISUAL EXCELLENCE: Beauty and the Beast (Disney). Honestly, you can plug just about any Disney animated feature in this slot, from The Lion King to Toy Story. The color-splashed graphics that look so dazzling on the big screen arguably look even more impressive on the small one, making toon tales a natural for this pixel-perfect format.
Also Noteworthy: The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner); Terminator 2: Judgment Day: The Ultimate Edition (Artisan).
DELETED SCENES: Erin Brockovich (Universal). The deleted scenes featured on far too many DVDs are a joke, nothing more than five seconds of the protagonist walking across a parking lot or 10 seconds of the villain repeating his climactic monologue from a slightly different camera angle. Several titles, however, include snipped footage that, when viewed after the main feature (or during it, if the director had time to shape a Director's Cut), add immeasurably to our understanding of the movie. One of the best is Julia Roberts' Oscar vehicle, in which a full half-hour of extra footage helps to deepen the relationships between the characters and even fills in some plot jumps (that cold that Erin catches and loses in the blink of an eye in the theatrical version runs its full course here).
Also Noteworthy: The Accidental Tourist (Warner); Aliens: Special Edition (Fox).
AUDIO COMMENTARY: Roger Ebert on Casablanca and Citizen Kane (both Warner). With Humphrey Bogart, Orson Welles and the rest of the usual suspects no longer around to provide the accompanying soundtrack, Warner decided to tap the nation's most famous film critic to provide running commentary for these immortal classics. Ebert doesn't let us down: His knowledge regarding both these titles is invaluable, and his unabashed enthusiasm lets all cineastes know they're in good hands.
Also Noteworthy: Various film historians on Classic Monster Collection (Universal); Spike Lee and crew members on Do the Right Thing (Criterion).
PACKAGING: The Evil Dead: The Book of the Dead Limited Edition (Anchor Bay). OK, so it's not exactly pretty as a picture, but the coolest packaging I've ever seen for a DVD release is the fleshy container for this splatter mainstay, which was created to look exactly like the Book of the Dead that prominently figures in the film's plot.
Also Noteworthy: Lawrence of Arabia (Columbia); Memento: Limited Edition Two Disc Set (Columbia TriStar).
SUPPLEMENTAL ITEM: The CD included with Almost Famous (DreamWorks). As if it wasn't enough that this Special Edition includes both the theatrical take of the rock & roll yarn and a longer version called Untitled: The Bootleg Cut, the makers of this groovy set also had the good sense to include a music CD featuring six songs performed by the movie's fictional band, Stillwater.
Also Noteworthy: The international theatrical mini-posters included with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (MGM); the Raymond Carver book of short stories included with Short Cuts (Criterion).
BOX SET: The Chaplin Collection (Warner / MK2). Volume One or Volume Two? How about investing in both? The first includes four Charlie Chaplin flicks, including two immortals: Modern Times and The Gold Rush. The second features six movies (among them City Lights), a disc of shorts, and another platter holding a full-length documentary. Both sets include deleted scenes, home movie footage, poster galleries and just about everything else short of buttered popcorn.
Also Noteworthy: Alien Quadrilogy (Fox); John Cassavetes: Five Films (Criterion).