CITY OF GOD (2003). A South American GoodFellas, City of God is a dazzling achievement that marks Fernando Meirelles as a masterful filmmaker with world-class aspirations. Based on actual events, this Brazilian import takes a hard look at a Rio De Janeiro slum and dissects the lifestyle of the youthful thugs who rule with a bloody fist. Make no mistake: As depicted here, the "City of God" (the name given to the area) is nothing less than a war zone, with blood flowing as swiftly and steadily as water over Niagara Falls. Our clean-cut protagonist in this urban epic is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), whose desire to become a professional photographer might be just the thing to lift him out of the surrounding squalor. On the opposite end, there's Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a rabid gang leader prone to killing anybody at any time -- perhaps not since Ralph Fiennes' Nazi in Schindler's List has there been such a frightening portrait of unadulterated evil onscreen. This unexpectedly (but deservedly) earned four Oscar nominations, for Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Film Editing. Besides trailers, the only extra on the DVD is News From a Personal War, an hourlong documentary about Brazil's drug trade.
THE CRUCIBLE (1996). Written in the midst of the McCarthy era as a thinly veiled attack on the Communist witch hunts that were disrupting the very fabric of the nation, Arthur Miller's play has long since broken the shackles of that period and has emerged as a timeless commentary on the evil that men (and women) do -- especially under insincere veneers of righteousness and religion. Small wonder, then, that this superb adaptation, penned by Miller himself, remains as topical as ever, with its trenchant themes -- of hypocrisy, hate-mongering and political coups d'etat -- crawling all over each other like worms in a can. Set in the Salem of 1692, the film finds venal Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) triggering a mass hysteria in which accusations of witchcraft are resulting in the execution of innocent people; among those targeted by the moral minority are farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen). The lead performances are all impeccable, with Day-Lewis' zesty rectitude contrasting smartly with Allen's quiet goodness, which in turn strikes the right balance with Ryder's unrepentant monstrousness. Yet top acting honors go to the magnificent Paul Scofield as Judge Danforth, the McCarthyesque agent of evil who presides over the trials. Extras on the DVD include audio commentary by Miller and director Nicholas Hytner, a pair of making-of shorts and the trailer.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966). An essay accompanying the DVD finds Roger Ebert admitting that he underrated the film upon its initial release, while a cover sticker trumpets Quentin Tarantino's declaration that it's his favorite movie of all time. Clearly, Sergio Leone's seminal Spaghetti Western has been elevated to a plateau far beyond its meager origins, and while it's hardly the best Western ever made -- hell, it's not even the best Western Leone made (Once Upon a Time In the West trumps it) -- it's clearly the work of a master filmmaker whose style has never grown stale. With its dazzling camerawork and editing, its integration of music score to story (Ennio Morricone's soundtrack is a beaut), and its gallery of iconic characters (Clint Eastwood as the Good, Lee Van Cleef as the Bad, Eli Wallach as the Ugly), it's obvious that Leone has proven as influential a director on subsequent generations as just about any other great moviemaker whose name is revered by professionals and fans alike. A lengthy interlude involving a Civil War skirmish may strike some viewers as inspired and others as irrelevant (this draggy sequence reminded me of the out-of-left-field "French plantation" scene that was inserted years later to Apocalypse Now), yet the rest of the picture, with 18 restored minutes upping the running time to a full three hours, is guaranteed to cause filmwatcher delirium. Extras on the two-disc DVD include audio commentary by critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, features on Leone and Morricone, and five way-cool international mini-posters.
MYSTIC RIVER (2003). Wildly overrated but still worthwhile, last year's best disappointment was largely undermined by the clumsiness of its central mystery, which was so obvious that even Inspector Clouseau would have had no trouble cracking this case. Yet Clint Eastwood's atmospheric direction counts for a lot in this drama about three childhood friends brought together years later by a tragedy. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) may have a violent past, but he fiercely loves his daughter (Emmy Rossum, currently in The Day After Tomorrow) and is shattered when she's found murdered. One of Jimmy's former pals (Kevin Bacon) is the detective assigned to the case, while the other former chum (Tim Robbins) emerges as a leading suspect, largely because of a childhood incident that has left him permanently scarred. The performances, while mostly of the showboating, "Look, Ma, I'm acting!" variety, are nevertheless potent, with Penn and Robbins earning Oscars for their work. There are no extras on the single-disc DVD, though a more expensive, three-disc edition is also available.