Call it what you will — Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, and whatever today is (I dunno, Wallet’s-Empty Wednesday?) — the holiday shopping season is well underway. And if you’ve got a movie lover on your list, I’ve got good news for you: we are not an underserved demographic. Every fall and early winter, there’s flurry of fan-friendly books, Blu-ray and DVD sets, and other miscellanea, so like we always do around this time, here are Flavorwire’s recommendations for this year’s movie nerd gifts of note.
When Francis Ford Coppola went about adapting Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, he sat down and made something akin to a stage manager’s “prompt book”: a scene by scene breakdown of his film, with synopses; detailed notes on tone, core, texture, and time; and the related passages in Puzo’s novel. He then filled that notebook with notes and thoughts, scrawled in the margin like a hyper-thoughtful grad student. That book was his Bible on the set of the film. Now those type- and hand-written pages have been painstakingly reproduced, complemented with set photos and stills from the film, and the result is the must-have film book of the fall: nothing less than the working blueprint for what many (including this writer) consider the finest film ever made.
In 2006, after rotating between art-house horror and studio projects, Guillermo del Toro finally painted his masterpiece – Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale at heart, but with copious goo, gore, and death. It’s an impeccably designed picture, worked out to the last detail, and it’s a little surprising it’s taken this long for it to get the deluxe hardbound treatment. Mark Cotta Vaz and Nick Nunziata’s book (with a forward by del Toro himself) is, like The Godfather Notebook, a tactile experience; the dense text and plentiful photos are supplemented by sketches, storyboards, and notes, attached to the pages and allowed to spring from the book as they jump from the frame.
If the book puts you in a mind of checking out the movie again, you’re in luck; Criterion just gave it the Blu-ray special edition treatment, with audio commentary, featurettes, director’s notebook, short films, and more. Even better, they’ve bundled it with their previous releases of del Toro’s Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone to create a portrait of a true, one-of-a-kind visionary.
It’s not that Star Wars fans aren’t taken care of – we could frankly fill every page of this list with Star Wars merch, with plenty to spare. But these are the two must-haves, depending on your budget. If you’ve got a few bucks to spend, you can’t go wrong with Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie, a back-breaking hardbound two-volume set collecting all (seriously, all) of the sketches, drawings, and illustrations the concept artist drafted for the original trilogy (plus interviews and testimonials), spotlighting the full force of his considerable contributions to the films’ look and style. All are fascinating, but the early stuff is particularly good; perusing his early sketches for C3PO, R2D2, Darth Vader (excuse me, Deak Starkiller) and the rest, watching him fumble his way towards iconography, is a thrilling snapshot into the creative process (and, through it, movie history).
If you’re not dropping that many ducats this holiday season, the recent Blu-ray re-release of The Force Awakens – the long-awaited seventh episode that gave the series a jump-start – should do the trick. It preserves the better-than-average 3D presentation of the original release, includes the goodies from the earlier spring Blu release, and throws in an unsurprisingly chatty and informative J.J. Abrams audio commentary. And the movie holds up, its gee-whiz enthusiasm and swashbuckling spirit reminding us of what made the first one sing.
The great thing about Matt Zoller Seitz’s books about filmmakers is how they mirror the experience of watching the work. His Wes Anderson Collection was a meticulous, detail-oriented exploration of one of the current cinema’s most distinctive stylists; he’s now added to that volume twice, first with a supplementary text on The Grand Budapest Hotel, and now with this handsome collection of gorgeous art inspired by Anderson’s films and characters, curated by the fine folks at Spoke Art Gallery. Spoke’s Ken Harmon provides the preface, Seitz does the introduction, and hey, look at that, Anderson himself provides the foreward.
Appropriately, Seitz’s The Oliver Stone Experience is an entirely different ball of wax – like its subject, it’s wild, unruly, busy, combative, occasionally exhausting, and never less than fascinating. As with the Anderson book, Seitz walks through the Stone oeuvre film by film, rotating essays on the work with lengthy, thoughtful, and provocative interviews with the filmmaker. And, again, there are production materials galore – but this time, they don’t have the symmetry and cleanliness of Anderson’s dollhouses, often laying out more like the note cards, photos, and connecting string of a madman’s corkboard.
Classic rock and classic movie fans alike love Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, his 1964 snapshot of Beatlemania – meant to be a quickie jukebox picture, but assured a place in music and film history by its wit, pace, and style. This new volume is comprised mostly of previously unseen materials archived by that film’s producer, Walter Shenson: scores of photos, production materials, posters, newspaper clippings, the works. Textures and colors of those materials are painstakingly preserved, which gives the reader an approximation of looking through a scrapbook rather than a pricey coffee table book. But it comes with the best tour guides you could ask for, with esteemed Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn (The Beatles: All These Years) providing the informative text, and Lester himself penning a brief and utterly charming forward.
One of the year’s best movies (yep, I said it) gets the deluxe “art of the movie” treatment, and deserves it; director Mark Osborn’s adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic children’s book is a gorgeous, striking picture, intermingling modern, computer-generated animation in its main narrative with a rich, stop-motion look for the scenes most directly inspired by Saint-Exupéry. Again, it’s a book about process: how they designed the characters, the settings, the color schemes, and (eventually) the entire, remarkable world of this very special film.
Stephen Whitty, the reliably wise film critic for the Newark Star-Ledger, pens this exhaustively comprehensive guide to all things Hitch – and when I say comprehensive, I mean comprehensive. He’s not just doing entries on Cary Grant and Macguffins; he’s writing about Psycho cinematographer John L. Russell and writer Angus MacPhail, who some say coined the term Macguffin. It’s a terrific reference book, but also much more than that; Whitty’s elegant, intelligent writing burns with affection and fascination for the subject matter, tackling the filmmaker with a historian’s attentiveness and a critic’s insight.
Disclaimers are necessary: Happy Place is published by The Critical Press, who put out my last book and are putting out my next one, and I’ve chatted, both on and off-line, with author Scott Renshaw. But I wouldn’t recommend his book if it wasn’t good; I’d have just quietly left it off, and you’d have never known. His subject is a charming one: his lifelong affection for the Disney Parks, and fascination with the super-fans of those parks, many of whom either devise elaborate excuses to visit them, or simply live nearby and drop in casually, like it’s the mall or something. But Renshaw is too good (and too personable) a writer to leave it at that, and he ends up crafting a rather lovely valentine to the dedication and spirit of fandom itself.
Maybe more of a pre-Christmas gift, since no holiday season is complete without revisiting Frank Capra’s 1947 classic – albeit one that doesn’t even mention the holiday until somewhere near the 100-minute mark. And maybe that’s part of its appeal; it’s not just a feature-length sleigh-bell ring, but an emotionally complicated chronicle of life, family, and sacrifice. And thus, it manages to grow with the passing years, as the viewer’s own experiences render those of its protagonists even more resonant. Paramount’s new Blu-ray transfer sparkles, though you might wanna break it open and discard the colorized version on disc two.
The headliner here is the new restoration of the Marx boys’ second feature, 1930’s Animal Crackers, drawn from a recently rediscovered original “pre-Code” print, and thus returning a handful of jokes and lyrics sliced out of its subsequent rereleases (and the source materials for its previous home video releases). But that’s just the icing on this tasty comedy cake. The Silver Screen Collection presents the team’s first five features, banged out at a one-per-year rate for Paramount between 1929 and 1933 – arguably their funniest films, certainly their wildest. Their new Blu-ray transfers are on point, and they’ve been augmented by bonus features largely absent from the earlier, DVD version: a terrific documentary about the team (and these films in particular), as well as new feature commentaries from film critics and historians (as well as Harpo’s son Bill). A must-have for fans, or anyone with love for classic comedy.
One can argue with the semantics of dubbing a two-movie set a “collection,” but there’s no denying the quality of these two Peck classics, and their Blu-ray treatment. Both find him playing an honorable attorney bravely facing forces of evil: in Cape Fear he’s a family man stalked by the psychopath (Robert Mitchum, never better) he put away, and in To Kill A Mockingbird he’s the small-town attorney battling racism and injustice. Mockingbird has the better reputation, of course, and for good reason, though Fear is a pretty tight potboiler. Taken together, they serve as a reminder of the intelligence, gravitas, and warmth of this one-of-a-kind performer.
George Miller’s Mad Max series had, it seemed, ended with an unexpected whimper with 1985’s mediocre Beyond Thunderdome – until it came (quite literally) roaring back to life with last year’s stunning Mad Max: Fury Road. Warner Brothers’ new Blu-ray box collects all four of the Max pictures to date, along with some excellent goodies: a new featurette, the Madness of Max documentary, a new 4K Ultra version of Fury Road, and director Miller’s preferred version of that film, the de-saturated “Black and Chrome Edition.” (That one’s also available separately, if the price tag for the full set is a bit too dear.)
The 1964 T.A.M.I. Show is one of the great concert movies of all time; its 1966 follow-up The Big T.N.T. Show is similarly energetic and historic. Both were M.I.A. from home video (officially, anyway) for decades, until Shout Factory went to work clearing up the complicated rights and licenses for T.A.M.I.’s DVD release a few years back, and now a Blu-ray set of both films, just in time to hand off to both movie geeks and rock fans. The combined line-up is staggering – James Brown, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner, Joan Baez, The Supremes, The Byrds, The Ronettes, and many more – and the crude photography gives the performances a you-are-there immediacy. But there’s also something wonderful about the cross-cultural nature of these shows; there’s a wonderful moment in T.N.T. Show, during the Ronettes’ performance, when the camera catches not only a row of black girls dancing, but two white girls in the row in front of them, watching and trying to emulate their moves. Everybody was just there for the music – these movies capture that, and so much more.
Michael Mann’s 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon remains a fascinating outlier in the Hannibal Lecter-verse – a different beast altogether from the Anthony Hopkins-fronted subsequent films, or Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series, thanks to the icier and cooler style of director Michael Mann. Being a Mann movie, it of course has a subsequent, revised director’s cut; Shout Factory’s recent special edition includes both that and the original theatrical release, along with a generous helping of featurettes, interviews, and audio commentary. So if the Mann-iac in your life somehow hasn’t picked it up yet, your shopping is done.
Most martial arts fans know the early-‘70s Lone Wolf and Cub movies via Shogun Assassin, the dubbed, bastardized mash-up of its first two entries released to American audiences in 1980, just in time for eager consumption by the video store generation. The Criterion Collection throws that one in to this new Blu-ray/DVD set, but their main purpose is to restore and re-introduce the original six-film series, in which a samurai assassin and his infant son roam the Japanese countryside, seeking to avenge the murders of the rest of their family. It’s like a good, gory serial, a binge-friendly series of bloody battles, knockout images, and unrelenting intensity. But it’s not entirely what you might expect – its action seats often play out without music and with only select sound effects, giving them an eerie quiet, a sense of carnage as meditation. Such experimentation makes them stand out from the pack, and warrant their deluxe treatment here.
More good stuff from Criterion, who’ve collected and restored the entirety of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s peerless 1989 mini-series for Polish television. It’s a remarkable piece of work, ten hour-long short stories, each inspired by one of the ten commandments, though often in oblique and unexpected ways. For his part, the Three Colors filmmaker uses the anthology style to hop genres, creating morality plays, familial dramas, tragedies, and even an erotic thriller and a dark comedy. Unsurprisingly, his images are staggering and his juxtapositions are powerful, giving each episode moments of blunt force and astonishing beauty. But more than anything, it’s an emotionally wrecking series, each film capturing people in the more private and harrowing moments, yet dramatizing them with grace and sensitivity – and trusting the viewer enough to fill in the blanks.
Funny home video story: two years ago, CBS and Paramount released Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, which combined the full two-season run of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s influential series, plus Lynch’s prequel film, and an assortment of deleted scenes and other goodies. And then Lynch and Frost announced the Twin Peaks revival on Showtime, and suddenly this wasn’t “the entire mystery” anymore, so ta-da, repackaging and re-release. If you bought the 2014 set, no need to re-up – there are no new materials – but if you or the Lynch-head on your list never got around to it, you’re in luck, as this one keeps showing up way cheaper than the original set. And the show still packs a punch, moody and darkly funny and weird as hell (and right away too – I mean, they’re talking backwards in that red room by episode three), so utterly bizarre that it’s still impossible to believe it made it to network television in 1990.
I know, I know, more TV, but what can I tell you – film fans love The Twilight Zone, each episode a wonderful little mini-movie, masterpieces of direct storytelling, hidden-in-plain-sight twists, and tightly controlled mood. Rod Serling’s anthology series has had a bit of a history on home media, with multiple “complete series” releases, but this year’s new DVD and Blu-ray editions are reportedly the definitive ones, and at a far more affordable price point to boot. And should your recipient need some suggestions for where to start, well, we can help with that too.
MST3K is usually a safe bet for movie geek gift-giving – most film fans love its mix of bad flicks and wry commentary, and they’re still putting out quality sets from its ten-season run (I mean, as you can see, this is the 37th). And this one’s got some really great garbage: the clunky sci-fi flick The Human Duplicators (presumably the only movie in history to co-star Leave It to Beaver’s Hugh Beaumont and Bond villain Richard Kiel), the baffling Japanese superhero film Invasion of the Neptune Men, the cheeseball beach/monster movie The Horror of Party Beach, and the highlight of the set (for this fan, anyway), the lawsuit-worthy Italian Escape from New York rip-off Escape 2000. Plus the usual assortment of A+ special features, and hey look at that – buy it direct from Shout Factory and you’ll get an exclusive bonus disc, featuring two of the show’s Oscar specials from the mid-‘90s.
Of course, if you want to give the gift that keeps on giving, you can pick up a subscription to one of the many new (and newish) streaming movie services. The Cadillac is FilmStruck, the new platform from TCM and the Criterion collection, which lets you buy a full year of their curated classics collection for just $99.00 – an average of $8.25 a month. (More here on that service, and its advantages.) While putting together our recent rundown of who’s got the good scary movies online, we were struck by the depth and breadth of choices offered by Shudder, a horror-only platform with everything from slasher sleaze to foreign flicks to modern indies; it’s a no-brainer for the horror fan on your list, available for just $49.99 per year (or $4.99 per month). And if you wanna go super-niche (but super-fly), there’s the brand-new Brown Sugar, which focuses exclusively on African-American genre movies, primarily from the so-called “blaxpoitation” period of the 1970s. But there were plenty of variations in there, from comedy to horror to action to biopic, and they’ve got all of them (along with sidebars spotlighting stars like Pam Grier, Jim Brown, and Fred Williamson.) And it’s the bargain of the bunch – just $3.99 per month, a price that even Scrooge could love.