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Rafe's Top Ten DVDs of 2004

Ranking the Top DVDs of the year is not an easy task. Not only do you have to look at the movie, but you have to consider if you get your money's worth out of a DVD; it's not enough just to have a good movie if the transfer or bonus material doesn't make the cut.

What I've assembled here isn't really ranked in any particular order. These are simply the DVDs I think anyone with a decent DVD library should own. I'm glad to have all of these titles as part of my DVD collection, and they certainly are worth spending the money to buy them, both for extra material and the films themselves.

In the traditional Cinema Blend style of breaking from the norm, this is a top eleven of the DVDs released in 2004. I simply couldn't cut it down to ten. (Actually it's twelve if you consider the best television series as well, but who's counting?).

1. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Extended Edition

Directed By: Peter Jackson Written By: Peter Jackson, Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, John Noble, Miranda Otto, Liv Tyler, Karl Urban, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham

I doubt it comes as much surprise to anyone that this is on the must buy list, which is why I put it at the top. The Lord of the Rings movies made it cool to like Tolkien, so us closet Rings fans finally got to be part of the in-crowd. Return of the King was the ultimate finale for the trilogy, completing the tale with as much class, dignity, and impressive visuals as Fellowship started with.

The Extended Edition of Return of the King continues the arduous task set by the previous Extended Editions of making the movies more like the books. Peter Jackson had no easy task cutting the movies down to size for theatrical releases (Even cut, Return of the King is over three hours) and the Extended Editions allow Jackson to expand on storylines he had to cut, but still wanted to include. With rescoring and completed special effects, the previously cut material is seamlessly integrated into the movie, making it at times a completely new film.

Where the Extended Editions also excel is the “Appendices” which could be thought of as one long documentary on the making of the films, much like the three movies are one continuous story. Return of the King's appendices complete the adventure of making the movie as the cast and crew say goodbye. It's been a long journey for cast, crew, and the audience, and we're all a little sad it's over.

The Good: Precious... the complete set precious... it's ours... The gift set is an extra nice box set, with a fourth disc dedicated to Shore's compositions and some of the score performed live in concert. The Minis Tirath keepsake box looks great on my shelf as well.

The Bad: For the first time some of the expanded footage feels a little extraneous, especially as the four hour film rolls on and butts get numb.

The Ugly: Despite truly getting to shine in the film, the appendices still seem to make Sean Astin seem like a frumpy grandmother, coddling the rest of the cast and crew at times.

2. Clerks. X - Tenth Anniversary Edition

Directed by: Kevin Smith Written By: Kevin Smith Starring: Brian O'Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith

There's a reason several of the DVDs on this list are “Anniversary Editions”. People tend to get sentimental at anniversaries and are more willing to look back at a project and offer a retrospective look at what happened during the making of the film. For the tenth anniversary of Clerks. Kevin Smith looks back at his debut film and spills everything, from his short time at film school, through the making of the movie, to the almost disastrous showing of the film at Cannes. Two versions of the movie are included - the theatrical cut as well as the original edit of the film.

The really nice thing about Clerks. X is that the look behind the scenes feels very genuine and sincere. Interviews include several people who Smith left behind/stepped on to complete his first picture, and they're allowed to speak freely. It's obvious there are some hurt feelings, although it also appears Smith has made some amends. As Smith says, everything there is to know about this movie is included in this set, and in order to have more stories for future editions, they'll have to fabricate some tales.

The Good: Producer Scott Mosier has never been more vocal on any of the View Askew DVD releases. Smith has always been good about DVD releases, but this one really sets a new standard.

The Bad: Smith and company offer prolonged introductions to each film that are entertaining the first few times, but get old once you know all the jokes (do we really need a five minute conversation about Roadhouse every time we want to watch Clerks?)

The Ugly: The original edit of the film is transferred to DVD from an old SVHS tape - not a pretty picture at times.

3. The Star Wars Trilogy

Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand Written by George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Leigh Bracke Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels

Put aside your feelings of disgust and hatred for the changes George Lucas has made to the classic Star Wars movies. Yes, these are not the original films. Yes, even more changes have been made to these pictures since the 1997 “Special Edition”. However, there's just something nostalgic and almost primal about seeing a crystal clear image of the Death Star trench run or the speeder bike race on the forest moon of Endor.

Despite his best efforts, Lucas has not managed to kill the story of the classic Star Wars trilogy, a story and three films that have inspired other directors ranging from Ridley Scott to John Singleton and changed the movie industry forever with the introduction of the Blockbuster movie.

The Good: If the films aren't enough to make you buy this set, check out the fourth disc's documentary “The Empire of Dreams”. With Harrison Ford's critical voice added in, it captures the good and bad side of making the classic Star Wars films.

The Bad: The commentary is puzzle-pieced together from multiple commentary tracks. The few that are interesting aren't used enough, and the ones that aren't interesting should be reduced. Oh, and of course these aren't the original Star Wars films that we all know and love.

The Ugly: Why is Haden Christensen playing Anakin Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi? Bring back Sebastian Shaw and get rid of the gungans!

4. The Shawshank Redemption - Tenth Anniversary Edition

Directed by Frank Darabont Written by Frank Darabont (based on a story by Stephen King Starring: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, James Whitmore

Although it's been available on DVD for a while, The Shawshank Redemption is one of those films truly deserving more than the bare bones treatment it had. For the tenth anniversary Frank Darabont finally provides a commentary on his first film and we get several good featurettes exposing behind the scenes of the film and the impact the movie's message has had on both cast and audience.

Of course that message of hope and the story told through the movie remain the highlight of the disc. The story is masterfully told, from acting to direction, and it's hard to believe the movie has been around for ten years already. I suggest splurging and picking up the gift set on this one, which contains a critical essay on the movie as well as the film's soundtrack.

The Good: “I hope...”

The Bad: No deleted scenes, although you can't pass too harsh a judgment on that. Darabont's personal belief is that the scenes were deleted for a reason, and showing them would be like airing his dirty underwear.

The Ugly: It's still hard to believe William Sadler played Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.

5. Spider-Man 2 - Special Edition

Directed by Sam Raimi Written by Alvin Sargent Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

Sam Raimi accomplishes the rare and difficult task of surpassing the original with this sequel to 2001's Spider-Man. As the wall-crawler's adventures continue, we start to see the real downside to being a super-hero, as Peter Parker's life comes to a halt so that Spider-Man might do his good. Raimi and Tobey Maguire give a real soul to Parker, the underdog that can't catch a break. Even more impressive though is Alfred Molina's Dr. Otto Octavious and the decision to portray the villain in a tragic and sympathetic light.

The disc offers a ton of extras, including an extremely impressive twelve-part documentary that covers all aspects of the film, from special effects to sound editing and score composition. Through the documentary, Raimi exposes his own lack of confidence as a director, and how perhaps Spider-Man's tale (or more appropriately, Peter Parker's) is so easily understandable by the previous cult-film director.

The Good: The awkward and clunky CGI that sometimes hindered Spider-Man is virtually gone, and the web-slinging is better than ever.

The Bad: Raimi and Danny Elfman lose a bit of their mystery as both of the typically elusive figures step in front of the camera for parts of the documentary.

The Ugly: Doc Ock performing tunes from “Fiddler on the Roof” (complete with tentacles clapping along). Don't believe me? Find the Easter Egg.

6. Aladdin - Platinum Edition

Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman Starring: Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, Douglas Seale, Gilbert Godfried

Disney continues its “Platinum” series of the more popular and profitable animated films with Aladdin, the Disney adaptation of the Arabian Night's story about Aladdin and his magic lamp. Despite having a killer story with strong moral fiber, and a soundtrack that virtually replaced “When You Wish Upon A Star” as Disney's flagsong, the true draw of Aladdin is the Genie, wildly portrayed by Robin Williams, who was allowed to improvise massive quantities of dialog.

As usual, Disney goes all out for their “Platinum” films, with a deleted song, a behind the scenes look, and a tribute to Howard Ashman, the man responsible (as his epitaph reads) for giving “a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul”. Truly Disney has come a long way from their initial bare-bones releases on the DVD format.

The Good: Robin Williams zaniness without the ferocious back hair.

The Bad: Other than The Lion King, Disney really never has captured this level of success with an animated movie, and has now abandoned typical 2-D animation in favor of more glitzy CGI.

The Ugly: Clay Aiken performing the lost song, “Proud of your Boy”. When will someone remind Aiken that he lost American Idol?

7. Schindler's List

Directed by Stephen Spielberg Written by Stephen Zaillian Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Embeth Davidtz

Steven Spielberg's dramatic tale of Oskar Schindler finally comes to DVD. One of my “Important Films”, I couldn't possibly leave this off a best-of list. Sure it doesn't have tons of features, but a film like this doesn't need them. The film itself is important enough, and anything covering behind-the-scenes could easily detract from the message of the movie.

Still, what extras are here are absolutely tear-jerking. Using Survivor testimony from the Spielburg-founded Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the viewer hears accounts and sees images from the real people involved in the Holocaust and saved by Oskar Schindler. The moments in the film that might seem to use dramatic license to build the film are made very clear to be factual, most painfully the stories of the liquidation of the ghetto. The film and the select extras on this disc should be viewed by anyone and everyone who wants to see what humanity is truly capable of, on either side.

The Good: The cast carries the weight of history and fact, adding extra depth and emotion to the characters they portray.

The Bad: Not sure how I feel about the solicitation for donations towards the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, which turns the movie into a bit of a fundraiser.

The Ugly: That the whole thing really happened.

8. Mary Poppins - 40th Anniversary Edition

Directed by Robert Stevenson Written by Bill Walsh, Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman (based on the book by P.L. Travers Starring: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber, Elsa Lanchester, Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Ed Winn

For the third Anniversary film on our list, and the second Disney picture, we go back to the days when Walt was alive and showing people how to make quality family entertainment. Mary Poppins is proof that the concepts Walt held dear to worked, and the film is still entertaining forty years later. Not only is it entertaining, but it's amazing how well the integration of people and animation holds up, even in today's CGI-background heavy industry.

The added features are great, as Richard Sherman offers a look at alternate music, reminisces with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke about the making of the movie and Uncle Walt, and Karen Dotrice (now all grown up) passes a few tears for Matthew Garber, who died in 1977. The commentary track utilizes a smart technique, keeping things interesting by editing together three or four different recording sessions with the different cast and crew, and even going so far as to use soundbytes by Walt himself (among others) to ensure the commentary never has a significant lull.

The Good: It's unbelievable how well the movie holds up over time, and with remastered audio and sound, it's never been better than this.

The Bad: One can't help but feel a bit depressed that Walt didn't get to do more. At least his films are still around to entertain future generations.

The Ugly: I don't care much for the package, which sports one of the ugliest pieces of cover art I've seen this year.

9. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Directed by Peter Weir Written by Peter Weir, John Collee, Patrick O'Brian (novel) Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Edward Woodall, Max Pirkis, Max Benitz, Billy Boyd

While I'm not much of a Russell Crowe fan, and I still say Gladiator was overrated, he really proves his mettle in this adaptation of several of Patrick O'Brian's novels. Master and Commander has a very visceral feel to it, as it attempts to paint a realistic picture of what life at sea was like in a vastly unexplored world. Timbers shake and splinter as cannonballs crash and shatter (rather than the often used explosion) and we see what people at sea ate, drank, and how they spent their downtime when surfing movie critic webpages weren't an option. Even more amazing is that director Peter Weir accomplishes this without speaking down to the audience. You may not know what every nautical term means, but you'll know whether or not it's important.

While the film is offered as a single disc, bare bones issue, the two-disc set is a must have for any fan of this film or O'Brian's novels. The second disc expands on the making of the film, from adapting the book to decisions made filming difficult scenes.

The Good: Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany are 2-0 now. Could they be a modern day Crosby and Hope?

The Bad: Nowhere near enough screen time for former hobbit Billy Boyd.

The Ugly: Yikes... that visceral feel applies to the medicine they practiced in this era as well.

10. Garden State

Directed by Zach Braff Written by Zach Braff Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Method Man

Zach Braff writes, acts, and directs in this excellent drama that makes Natalie Portman absolutely shine. I've never seen a better performance from Portman, and that's high praise given that Braff and Peter Sarsgaard are quite excellent in this very human, somewhat surreal tale. I'm still not sure how this movie didn't make its way onto Josh's best of 2004 list.

Truth be told, this movie is on this list because it's my favorite dramatic film from 2004, and since I don't do a best theatrical list I had to get it in somewhere, but its DVD release is far from bad. Of particular note are the decent amount of deleted scenes that, while understandably cut, expand on the surrealism or strangeness and the film's central theme. The commentary tracks both show Braff's true passion for this film and his work in general, as he gives both a layman's look at the film and a more in-depth take on making the movie (and gets a couple plugs in for “Scrubs” along the way).

The Good: Natalie Portman finally gets a chance to show why she deserves an acting career. Her character in this is so different from anything and everything else she's done up to this point. If she gets more roles like this, she could be the next Meryl Streep or Glen Close - a female star with lasting power.

The Bad: The making-of featurette isn't all that fascinating. This just isn't the type of film that needs to go behind the scenes and other than getting some of the crew's faces on camera, it doesn't accomplish much.

The Ugly: The first half hour may actually have more harsh language than a Kevin Smith movie, making the film a bit hard to introduce to parents or coworkers.

Runner Up: The Last Samurai

I had absolutely no interest in seeing The Last Samurai in theaters, and yet the film made my Top Ten of 2003. Since it had a DVD release in early 2004 it would be easy to overlook, but it's still a deep movie worthy of its place on this list. The film tackles much of the same philosophy as The Matrix films, without all the snazzy special effects. Of particular greatness is Ken Wantanabe, who manages to steal the spotlight from Tom Cruise anytime he's on screen. It just goes to show, a cool temperance and wisdom beats good looks any day.

The DVD has a tendency to cater to the film's big star, with Cruise featured heavily in the behind the scenes material. It's still a good look at an excellently done film, with the most interesting extra being a History Channel special that covers some of the events of the era the film takes place in.

The Good: Samurai vs. Ninja!

The Bad: Tom Cruise endures the slaughter of the century, takes multiple hits, and lives to tell the tale (no, he's not the titular Last Samurai though).

The Ugly: With Tom Cruise in the front, and New Zealand posing as Japan in the background, there's really no ugliness to be found.

Best TV On DVD!

24 - Season 3 (Best Television Series DVD)

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Carlos Bernard, Elisha Cuthbert, Dennis Haysbert, Reiko Aylesworth, James Badge Dale, D.B. Woodside

“24” is one of those shows I instantly knew I'd like if they managed to pull it off well. The story of one day, told in “real time” over the course of 24 single hour episodes was just too cool a concept for network television. Luckily my doubts were wrong and the series has exploded in popularity, proving to be one of the best hour-long television shows around. Watching the series on DVD is like watching the movie serials of old. Each hour has a climax, leading... no - pulling you into watching the next hour. It's a hard show to stop watching once you've started, and watching many episodes in a row really is the best way to see the show.

Sure Season 3 starts to show fatigue for the series' gimmick, as characters heal from injuries in miraculous time, but it's better than the mountain lion storyline of Season 2. The DVD kicks the series up a notch by offering a five minute prequel of sorts to Season 4, showing what's happened to Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) since the end of Season 3, and setting the stage for the season's bad guy. As long as the material remains exclusive to the DVD (which only makes sense since events months or hours before the start of Day 4 wouldn't fit into an episode) this is an extremely impressive way to sell viewers on the next season, and a notable new way to use the DVD format.

The Good: The show uses the strength of multiple characters, while still managing to focus on Jack Bauer. That's a trick truly showcasing some strong writing.

The Bad: Two major characters get injuries and are fine a couple hours later. Even the producers say it's a stretch on the show's commentary tracks though.

The Ugly: Season Four pretty much starts new, leaving most of this season's strong characters (some who started being developed in Season One) behind. Is this a smart move?

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