Well gang, it’s that time of year again: holiday shopping season is upon us, and you have no earthly idea what to get the movie/book/music/etc. geek on your list. Luckily for you, Flavorwire is here to help; we’ve perused the coolest offerings in Blu-ray box sets, coffee table books, deluxe CD reissues and more, to offer up this season’s must-have pop culture items, organized by their target recipient. Or, you know, pick something out for yourself. No one’s judging.
FOR FOREIGN FILM FANS
It’s borderline impossible to overstate the magnificence of the Criterion Collection’s new box set, either in terms of aesthetics or content. Collecting 39 of the maestro’s features and television mini-series over 30 sparkling Blu-rays, the set is ingeniously organized not as a chronology but as a film festival, with key films as opening night, closing night, and centerpiece selections, and other titles organized by both rough timeframes and concurrent themes. And on top of all that, the accompanying book is a hefty, 250-page affair, full of striking photographs and astute essays by the likes of Peter Cowie, Molly Haskell, Michael Sragow, and Farran Smith Nehme. It is, quite simply, a must-have.
FOR CLASSIC FILM FANS
And here’s what’s astonishing: Criterion had already put out one of the best Blu-ray boxes of the year. Back in July, they unleashed this marvelous collection of six unforgettable, early ‘30s collaborations between visionary director Josef von Sternberg and frequent leading lady Marlene Dietrich. These hypnotic, often erotic fever dreams – Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil is A Woman – are gorgeously designed and strikingly photographed, and these six discs are tribute to one of the industry’s true icons and the director who brought out her best.
Another celebrated Hollywood partnership is appropriately commemorated in this Blu-ray set from Warner Archives, which brings together four feature co-starring efforts from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not (the film on which they met and fell in love), The Big Sleep (in both its early and final versions), Dark Passage, and Key Largo. All four are straight-up classics, but for my money, the real find of the bunch is Dark Passage, a clever experiment in cinematic sleight-of-hand that tinkers with our notions of movie-star empathy.
For those who prefer their classics a bit more scream-y, Universal’s recent round-up of their iconic monster movies is an essential buy, even if you picked up the smaller set of the key titles (Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, etc.) a few years back. The sheer scope of this one means it includes more of the entertaining oddities – like the later Abbott & Costello comedies, for example, or the all-hands-on-deck “monster rallies,” or best of all, the (superior) Spanish language version of the original Dracula. Put simply, it’s full of wonderful discoveries, and that’s what a great box set is all about.
FOR CLASSIC FILM FANS (CONT.)
We’ve never missed an opportunity to rave about “You Must Remember This,” Karina Longworth’s spellbinding podcast about “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” and part of what makes the show so great is that Longworth is such a sharp writer; I’ve often found myself listening to an episode and realizing that I’d have enjoyed it just as much as a magazine article or film journal essay – or, hey, as a book. And thus Longworth’s latest volume is an explicit continuation of the pod’s preoccupations, focusing (as the early, best passages of Scorsese’s The Aviatordid) on Howard Hughes’s years as a would-be tycoon, and of the famous actresses he romanced. But this is more than a dirt-disher; as always, Longworth’s work is impeccably researched and cracklingly well-written, with much to say not only about the industry’s past, but how it impacted its present and future.
Back in 2016, Kino Classics blessed us with Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a five-disc Blu-Ray collection shining a long-overdue spotlight on the “race films” of the early 20th century, and the overlooked filmmakers behind them. This holiday season, they’ve performed a similar service for the forgotten women of the silent era. This new six-disc Blu-ray collection (produced with the Library of Congress) devotes full discs to trailblazers Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber, and explores genre films, social commentary, and features from the likes of Ida May Park, Mabel Normand, Frances Marion, Dorothy Davenport Reid (a name familiar to “You Must Remember This” listeners), and even Zora Neale Hurston. An essential piece of film history, and engaging viewing besides.
Anyone who read Mark Harris’s crackerjack book Five Came Back (or watched its excellent Netflix documentary adaptation) knows the story of how five popular directors put their careers on hold to make films for their country in WWII. This new Blu-ray from Olive Films focuses on the work of one of those filmmakers: Frank Capra, who made educational films (in the form of his Why We Fight series), instructional shorts (Your Job in Germany), recruiting films (The Negro Soldier), and documentaries (Tunisian Victory). These aren’t exactly light entertainment, and some of the messaging is crude. But they’re essential to understanding Capra’s journey as an artist, and the mindset he was in when he returned from service and made his first new film as a civilian: It’s A Wonderful Life.
FOR MOVIE GEEKS
Little White Lies is one of our favorite movie magazine/websites, so it’s not surprising that their holiday gift offerings are winkingly clever yet deeply knowledgeable. “Movie Misquote” is exactly what it sounds like: an Apples to Apples-style card game in which lines of beloved movie dialogues are fused, with hilarious and often ribald results. And speaking of which, their Movie Kama Sutra book is a delightfully filthy mash-up of sex guide and movie moments compendium, with positions inspired by everything from Mission: Impossible (“find a length of rope strong enough to support your weight”) to Die Hard (“discreetly find an air vent that’s just big enough for you and your partner to squeeze into”).
Werner Herzog writes many of his films, but he doesn’t write conventional “screenplays”; his scenarios are less dialogue and stage direction, and more flowing prose descriptions of scenes, ideas, and themes, closer to novellas than traditional scripts. Scenarios, out last year, includes Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Every Man for Himself and God Against All; Land of Silence and Darkness; and Fitzcarraldo (his descriptions of the ship-moving are stunning); this fall’s Scenarios II includes Signs of Live; Even Dwarfs Started Small; Fata Morgana; and Heart of Glass. All provide a scintillating window into the creative process of one of our most distinctive film artists.
The three films a ridiculously boyish Robert De Niro made for an equally youthful Brian De Palma in the mid-to-late 1960s make for a fascinating “what if?” game for film lovers; long before they’d carved out their respective niches as hard-edged tough guy actor and stylish thriller-maker, they made micro-budget New York underground comedies. The first, The Wedding Party, is a pretty clumsy effort, noteworthy as the film debut of De Niro (and Jill Clayburgh) and little else. But Greetings and Hi, Mom! are delightfully subversive efforts, finding De Palma working in an absurdist, blackout-sketch mode, while serving as a reminder that De Niro displayed ample comic gifts well before Meet the Parents. The trilogy’s home video presentations to date have been shabby at best, but this new box set from the good folks at Arrow Video cleans them all up quite nicely, and throws in some A+ bonus features too.
Once upon a time, the film-to-TV adaptation was an all-but-doomed prospect, with scores of Uncle Bucks and Stir Crazys for every M*A*S*H or Buffy. But lately, that success ratio has sharply increased, and one of the most successful was Starz’s three-season continuation of the Evil Dead movies. The key to that success was, in part, a matter of personnel: the films’ star, the unflappable Bruce Campbell, was back to reprise the character and executive-produce, a credit he shared with the original trilogy’s director Sam Raimi (who helmed the series’ pilot). And somehow, over the course of thirty episodes, the series maintained the wild, wooly spirit of the films; it never found a huge audience, but hey, cult items shouldn’t. The show’s reasonably priced new Blu-ray set should satisfy its fans, and serve as an overdue introduction for those who never got around to that Starz subscription.
FOR COEN BROTHERS GEEKS
Adam Nayman’s first-rate new Coens study – which we excerpted back in September– is a marvelous mixture of well-designed coffee table book and thoughtful analysis of a filmmaking team that often resists close-reading in interviews, but invite it in film after film. Nayman complements his thoughtful essays and interviews with the pair’s collaborators with knockout production stills and charming original illustrations, as well as essays on their recurring themes, amounting to the definitive inventory of their career to date.
And, of course, he devotes a fair amount of space to The Big Lebowski, met with meager box office and critical indifference upon its release, yet blossoming into the object of a giant cult in the years that followed. It’s now been two decades since that original release, so there are (unsurprisingly) anniversary products for the Little Lebowski Urban Achiever on your list; chief among them is Universal’s bulky new gift set, which not only includes a new 4K UltraHD edition of the movie (with Blu-ray and digital code), but miniature replicas of the movie’s bowling bag, bowling ball (it’s a pencil holder!), sweater, and rug. You could say those items really tie the – well, you get the picture.
FOR BOOK GEEKS
If you’re looking for a quick pick-up item, a gift to give early in the season, we recommend Hingston and Olsen’s ingenious combination of short story collection and advent calendar – in which the reader on your list can open up a new evening’s reading for each day between now and Christmas. And if you’re looking to make the Yuletide a little spookier, they also have a new edition of their “Ghost Box” collection, melding a spooky, all-black design with a selection of first-rate, individually-packaged stories picked by Patton Oswalt, who also penned the volume’s introduction.
FOR BEATLES PEOPLE
For fans of the Fab Four, this season’s must-have is the 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles, aka the White Album, the two-record 1968 release that captures the band at perhaps its most fractured; several songs feature only one, maybe two members. Yet those diverging interests led them to create their most esoteric album. Because it’s so all over the place, the deep vault dive of the six-CD “Super Deluxe Edition” is especially valuable; in addition to a newly remastered reissue of the original release, it includes a full disc of the “Esher demos,” stripped-down play-throughs of the songs by their composers (and including several tracks that wound up on subsequent Beatle and solo records), plus three full discs of session recordings, including alternate versions, early takes, and elemental tracks. Throw in a crisp Blu-ray audio version of the final album and a hefty companion book of essays, photos, and other goodies, and you’ve got the best Beatles reissue to date.
Lennon aficionados can also take the opportunity this season to get their fill of his most beloved solo album, in several different forms. The Ultimate Collection, similar to the White Album set, combines remasters, outtakes, alternates, and more on four CDs and two Blu-rays (and, advantage Imagine, this one features most of the CD content on Blu-ray as well). Its accompanying book features plenty of information about the album and the sessions, but those looking for more will find it in Imagine John Yoko, a new coffee-table celebration of this album and period, full of previously unseen photographs and contributions from their collaborators. And finally, Imagine / Gimme Some Truth combines John and Yoko’s official companion film – a sometimes goofy, sometimes powerful effort that veers from experimental film to music video to goof-off home movie – and the fascinating making-of documentary Gimme Some Truth.
One of the key achievements of the Beatles and Lennon sets is conveying the backbreaking labor of making an album work; the latest installment in Columbia’s long-running and invaluable “Bootleg Series” does the same, and then some. 1975’s Blood on the Tracks remains one of Dylan’s seminal works, but its birth was a real ordeal; originally recorded in a four-day burst in New York City in September 1974, it was mastered and slated for release until Dylan had second thoughts about those sessions, and much of the final version was re-recorded later that year. The New York sessions have long circulated in Dylan bootleg circles, through rarely in this complete a form; this six-CD set includes multiple takes and approaches of each song, allowing the listener to hear each recording take shape. Considering the project’s convoluted history, the companion book is especially helpful, with journalist Jeff Slate filling in the background and eloquently breaking the recordings down, track by track.
1968 was, as we all know, one of the more turbulent years in recent American life, and this new collection from Stax examines the events of that period from both a historical and musical perspective. The former is provided by its companion book, a collection of photographs, essays, and contemporaneous reporting; the latter is spread across five glorious CDs, collecting (in A- and B-sides), every Stax single from that year. It’s a staggering assembly of talent and passion, and the real takeaway from the set is exactly how deep their bench was. Yes, it includes smash hits from the likes of Otis Redding, Booker T and the M.G.’s, Isaac Hayes, and Sam and Dave, but it’s also full of acts you might not have heard of, Mable John and the Mad Lads and their ilk, serving as a stark reminder that even Stax’s deep cuts were astonishing – fresh, funky, and exuberant.
FOR CRATE DIGGERS
I’m not breaking any news when I recommend Vinyl Me, Please, the record club that offers up one monthly “Essential” record (recent picks have included titles by Feist, Fiona Apple, St. Vincent, and Townes Van Zadt) and access to their well-curated catalog. But for my money, the real appeal these days is in their two add-on subscription options. I’ve been a subscriber to the “Classics” add-on since it began, and they have yet to send me a bad record; its selection, which focuses on old-school R&B and classic jazz, has included several titles (including Lafayette Afro-Rock Band’s Soul Makossa and William Bell’s The Soul of a Bell) that are still in my heavy rotation. And lately I’ve been checking out the “Rap & Hip-Hop” add-on as well, with releases that give overdue respect to records like De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate, spotlight bold new titles like Denzel Curry’s TA1300,and allow us to listen to old favorites like Doggystyle with fresh ears. (Nothing like hearing that inexplicably vivid bathroom break on full, rich vinyl, eh?)
FOR COMEDY NERDS
It’s been a full decade since the passing of George Carlin, and it’s a cliché to say, but boy would his voice have been welcome in this age of mainlined B.S. But we have the next best thing: his catalog of brilliant, filthy, thoughtful, and (as he grew older) angry HBO stand-up specials, collected in this terrific DVD set – alongside a whole host of long-lost (or previously unseen) goodies, including network television appearances, workshop videos, and more.
And if you thought the Carlin box was exhaustive, wait until you get a load of this: a new 22-DVD collection in tribute to the recently departed manic mastermind, which assembles damn near every television appearance he ever made: HBO specials, Tonight Show spots, SNL guest hosting slots, HBO guest shots, rare videos, Mork & Mindy episodes, the recent HBO documentary Come Inside My Mind, and more, more, more. It’s truly an opportunity to marvel at his evolution as a comic artist, from the wild flights of improvisation in his earliest television appearances – and they’re all here – to his later works of political, social, and even personal commentary. The price tag is steep (roughly two benjamins), but for Williams fans, this is the be all, end all.
FOR HOLIDAY COMEDY NERDS
Somebody at Paramount in the mid-to-late-‘80s had their head on straight, well aware that if you can make a funny and at least mildly heart-warming comedy set during the holidays, you’ve got a source of new income every single year. So in 1987, we got John Hughes’ outrageously funny and surprisingly moving Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, with John Candy and Steve Martin doing career-best work as an odd-couple pair of travelers trying to get home for Thanksgiving; the next year, Bill Murray teamed with director Richard Donner and SNL alums Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue for Scrooged, a manic, bizarre, top-volume riff on A Christmas Carol, which supplements Dickens’ gentle holiday tale with a gun-toting Bob Goldthwait, a toaster-smacking Carol Kane, and the Solid Gold Dancers. (It shouldn’t work, but it does). Both have been reissued in holiday-friendly Blu-ray format; both are worth the yearly spin.
YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS!
Of course, if you’d like to go with something a little more traditional, there’s this A+ collection of those wonderful old Rankin-Bass animated holiday treats: the beloved Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and The Little Drummer Boy alongside the slightly less beloved (i.e., I don’t remember it at all) Cricket on the Hearth. The stop-motion animated titles are particularly fun, and hey, what a great way to then segue effortlessly into introducing your child to Community!
Folio Society is one of our favorite publishers, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re offering up such beautiful choices this holiday season, including two terrific selections for young readers. Their Children’s Poetry collection, illustrated by Lesley Barnes and introduced by Penelope Lively, includes works by Roald Dahl, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Charles Dickens, Louis Carroll, Emily Brontë, and many more; their sumptuous edition of Black Beauty features evocative illustrations by Annette Hamley-Jenkins, a new introduction by Michael Morpurgo, and (of course), Anna Sewell’s timeless text.
If you’re an ‘80s kid (guilty), your fondest memories of Jim Henson characters may not be related to the Muppets or even Sesame Street, but this clever, toe-tapping family comedy series, which ran five season on HBO in the middle of that decade. It featured three interconnected worlds of creatures: the Fraggles, fun-loving Muppets who have adventures and sing songs and all that; the Doozers, the tiny creatures who are constantly building and working; and the Gogs, the giant creatures who see Fraggles as pests. Fraggle Rock never really penetrated popular culture the way the Muppets and the Street-ers did – HBO was still something of a specialized audience – but it full of sweet lessons, memorable songs, and an infectious sense of fun, and Sony’s new box set gives the full 98-episode run a great-looking HD upgrade.