The Year's Best DVD Gift Boxes

The Alan Clarke Collection. File under "Best British Filmmaker You’ve Probably Never Heard Of." Alan Clarke died in 1990 just as the performers and filmmakers he helped to introduce or inspire (Tim Roth, Ray Winstone, Danny Boyle) began to really make their presence felt on the international stage. This five-disc box set presents restored versions of Clarke’s most incendiary, punk-fueled assaults on the -hypocrisies of Margaret Thatcher’s England, including Scum (1979), Made in Britain (1982), The Firm (1988) and Elephant (1988). (Blue Underground, $100)

John Cassavetes: Five Films. Cassavetes finally gets the DVD treatment he deserves with this extraordinary box set, a collection of unruly masterpieces — Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Nightthat manages to avoid the easy allure of unthinking Saint Cassavetes worship. Instead, the essay, interview and documentary extras present the artist in all his complexity, laying bare his contradictions and failings while remaining focused on his triumphs. These films have never seemed so personal. (Criterion Collection, $125)

The Radley Metzger Collection Vol. 1.
Therese and Isabelle, The Alley Cats, Camille 2000. Radley Metzger first made it big in the mid-1960s distributing scandalous European erotica like the Danish/Swedish co-production I, a Woman (1966) on America’s then-burgeoning art-house circuits. By the late ’60s he was directing his own homegrown stash of softcore scintillation, a teasing taste of which makes its DVD debut in an overripe garden of forbidden fruits that takes on all comers: lesbian love (Therese and Isabelle), Euro-pudding orgies (Camille 2000) and even garden-variety marital infidelity (The Alley Cats). A must for the modern swinger. (First Run Features, $50)

W.C. Fields Comedy Collection.

Iconoclast: Fields in It's a Gift

A blight on the family, a menace to children and a foil to Honest Johns everywhere, W.C. Fields blew like a boozy breath of fresh air across the face of a stuffy American Puritanism. This box set gathers together five of Fields’ most acerbic and witty features, including It’s a Gift (1934), You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and his anarchic masterpiece The Bank Dick (1940). Even alongside a trussed-up and sadly neutered Mae West in My Little Chickadee (1940), Fields scores enough points against social hypocrisy for the both of them. The set comes sans extras, but for the uninitiated, discovering Fields’ brand of iconoclasm will be special enough. (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, $45)

—Paul Malcolm

Director’s Label Series Boxed Set: The Works of Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry. These acclaimed and iconoclastic music-video directors have been at the helm of some of the most original films to come out of Hollywood in the last few years: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich. They’re also among the very small contingent responsible for occasionally making MTV more than a wasteland void of ideas and interesting aesthetics. The dazzling breadth of the music covered in this set (ranging from rap to alternative rock to left-field electronica) also works as a metaphor for the seemingly limitless range of their references and artistic goals. (Palm Pictures, $60)

Pee-wee’s Playhouse 1: Seasons 1 and 2 and Pee-wee’s Playhouse 2: Seasons 3 through 5. Watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse when it originally aired often made for a jaw-dropping Saturday-morning experience. The double entendres, arid humor and bad puns, the deeply dug cross-cultural references, and the sly queerness of the show’s subtextual/almost-textual sexuality made for smart television regardless of your age or predilections. Tying it all together was the drollest wit, exemplified by Pee-wee himself, a bracing mix of innocence and bitchy mischievousness, and a case study in what fascinating bastards children can be, flipping from adorable goody-goody to shameless brat in the blink of an eye. The behind-the-scenes crew – including musicians Todd Rundgren, Danny Elfman and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh – was just as dazzling. Includes six "lost" episodes never shown before. (Image Entertainment, $50)

The Wong Kar-wai Collection. Wong Kar-wai’s influence is so great that he influences people who don’t even know they’re biting his style (and those who clearly do, as with Sofia Coppola and Lost in Translation). Working in collaboration with Aussie cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong creates achingly gorgeous films — a seamless fusion of lighting, composition and an unerring eye for tawdry beauty — that are peopled with moody, introspective characters played by obscenely gorgeous actors and actresses. Beneath the tears (both those that are shed and those that are swallowed) lurk incisive questions on the natures of life and love and the struggles within them. The films are Days of Being Wild, Fallen Angels, As Tears Go By, Chungking Express and Happy Together, and there’s not a bum note among them. (Kino Video, $100)

Also recommended: The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection (Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, The Wrong Man, Stage Fright, I Confess, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), Warner Home Video, $100. Mike Leigh Collection, Vol. 3 (Kiss of Death, Home Sweet Home, Four Days in July), Waterbearer Films. $80. La Dolce Vita, Koch Lorber Films, $35.

—Ernest Hardy

Cinemaker — The Ultimate Guide to Low-Budget Production. The impressive first four discs of this six-DVD set — produced, written and narrated by Charles Band, cofounder of low-budget horror and exploitation house Full Moon Entertainment — constitute a lightning-fast but thorough introduction to the essentials of making movies on the cheap and how to sell them. Thrown in for good measure are pertinent interviews with shlockmeister producers, writers, directors and hands-on shoestring producers like Roger Corman and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (who ventures, in a brief exposition of auteur theory, to mention himself, Robert Bresson — and that’s it). And while the illustrative clips consist entirely of latex creatures, exploding heads, big hair and R-rated nudity, the material is up-to-date and relevant to any minimally funded project. Vol. 5: Supersource consists of promos from various craft-service houses and chambers of commerce, quite a large DVD-ROM library of print resources, and more. Vol. 6 contains a recent Full Moon release titled Blood Dolls, with extras including a possibly redundant blooper reel. (Available at for $100)

—Ron Stringer

Absolute Best

Timeless: Renoir's
Rules of The Game

When I’m floored by the dreaded party question "What’s your favorite movie of all time?," there’s one film I can always rely on to rescue me. Made and set in 1939, just after France and England had handed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in a misguided effort to forestall an all-out war, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is a classic comedy of bourgeois manners shot through with grief for a disintegrating Europe.Inspired by the commedia dell’arte of Musset and Beaumarchais, Renoir’s deceptively breezy tale of a lovelorn hunting party holed up in a country chateau is an anatomy of petty vanity and betrayal, above and below stairs, that builds from giddy satire to chastening tragedy, foreshadowing the carnage to come all over the continent. A total flop when it was released, the movie was subsequently cut and re-cut to ribbons in a vain attempt to make it more commercial. When the original negative was found after World War II and the movie was restored almost to its former glory, Renoir received the long-overdue adulation he deserved from critics and public alike. Now, alongside a three-disc set of Renoir’s late-career films The Golden Coach, French Can-Can and Elena and Her Men, the Criterion Collection, home to one of the finest DVD catalogs in the country, has released the reconstructed version of The Rules of the Game in a gorgeous two-disc set, complete with a revelatory shot-by-shot commentary read by Peter Bogdanovich from the work of film scholar Alexander Sesonske, along with essays and interviews with filmmakers and critics, including a mischievous introduction by Renoir himself.

Tempering a civilizing humanism ("Everyone has their reasons") with an unsettling disillusion ("Today everyone lies"), The Rules of the Game is a breathtaking masterpiece of period specificity and timeless wisdom. (Criterion Collection; The Rules of the Game, $39.95; The Golden Coach box set, $80)

—Ella Taylor


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