Good Things Come in Small, Round Discs

David Byrne of Talking Heads in the concert film "Stop Making Sense."
Palm Pictures
'Tis the season for holiday DVDs. And like a certain someone, our critic David Edelstein has been making a list, and checking it twice:


Say you want to give DVDs as gifts. You could play it safe, go for blockbusters, Pixar movies.

You could. But I wouldn't respect you.

No, I say, think outside the box office.

Choosing DVDs should be a test of imagination - and nerve. You have to be ready for the recipient to say, "What the heck is this? " Then you say, "Free your mind."

This holiday season, I'm opening eyes . . .

The Criterion box, "The Golden Age of Television," includes eight dramas from the Fifties that were broadcast live in front of millions. Some became good movies, like "Marty" and "Days of Wine and Roses," but without the kick of a young Paul Newman bursting with passion in "Bang the Drum Slowly" . . . or sweet, dopey boxer Jack Palance mixing it up with Keenan Wynn and Ed Wynn in Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight."

A lot of it is clunky and overwrought, but a half-century on you still feel the adrenaline. I can't get over the camera moves director John Frankenheimer pulled off in "The Comedian," with Mickey Rooney as a blowhard TV star. Can you guys do that?

"The Golden Age of Television" (The Criterion Collection) - Includes "Marty" (1953) starring Rod Steiger; "Patterns" (1955) starring Richard Kiley; "No Time for Sergeants" (1955) starring Andy Griffith; "A Wind from the South" (1955) starring Julie Harris; "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1956) starring Jack Palance and Keenan and Ed Wynn; "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956) starring Paul Newman; "The Comedian" (1957) starring Mickey Rooney, Edmund O'Brien and Mel Torme; and "Days of Wine and Roses" (1958) starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie.

You want to get weird? Try two DVDs from Kino and Skip Elsheimer's educational film archive, "How to Be a Man" and "How to Be a Woman": Social hygiene lessons from the Fifties and Sixties. These shorts are hoots, but also kind of touching. My cousin, the sociology professor, thinks when men came back from the war they were so shaken they tried to enforce a so-called normalcy that had never existed. They bored kids to tears - which led, of course, to youth culture and sex, drugs, and rock-'n-roll.

"How to Be a Man: Classic Educational Shorts, Volume 1" (Kino Video) - Shorts from 1949-1970, including "Fears of Children," "Am I Trustworthy?" "Act Your Age," "Your Body During Adolescence," "Planning for Success," "Car Theft" and "The Decision Is Yours"
"How to Be a Woman: Classic Educational Shorts, Volume 2" (Kino Video) - Shorts from 1948-1982, including "You're Growing Up," "The Wonders of Reproduction," "Let's Make a Sandwich," "Improve Your Personality," "Girls Are Better Than Ever," "Saying No: A Few Words to Young Women About Sex," and "Attack"

For kids, pass up "Up" - which they've seen - and go for Michel Ocelot's gorgeous "Azur and Asmar," a symphony of color in which cutouts move with the poetry of Balinese puppets. It's about estranged childhood friends - one English, one Arab - who join forces to rescue a fairy princess. Their journey rekindles the wonder of seeing your first rainbow.

"Azur & Asmar" (Official U.S. Web Site)

For older kids, especially girls, Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" is a whacked-out fable in two different visual styles, combined with a modern story of the filmmaker herself getting dumped by the love of her life. The heart is those blues - the rejected Sita delivering 1920s jazz vocals by Annette Henshaw. It's exquisite.

"Sita Sings the Blues" (DVD at Question Copyright)

On Blu-ray comes the 25th anniversary re-mastering of my favorite concert film, the Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" - maybe not the best concert, but the perfect fusion of style and sound, as director Jonathan Demme shows a band come together before your eyes. Has alienation ever made you want so badly to dance?

If you love Stop Making Sense as much as I do, you could make someone very, very happy by giving him or her that film - and Demme's other incomparable concert film, "Neil Young: Heart of Gold," which gets inside Young's music in a way that might change your life. (It changed mine!)

"Stop Making Sense" (Blu-ray)
"Neil Young; Heart of Gold" (Paramount, DVD)

"The Godfather" saga is on Blu-ray, and whenever there's a new technology I buy it again - the blacks and Brando's jowls have never been deeper.

"The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration" (Official Site)
"The Godfather" (Paramount Home Video)
"The Godfather Part II" (Paramount Home Video)
"The Godfather Part III" (Paramount Home Video)

I'm also giving Buster Keaton, and wowza Japanese Seventies shoot-'em-ups.

"The General" (Kino, Blu-ray) - Mastered in HD from a 35mm archive print, struck from the original camera negative
"Asian Actions Extreme" (Kino, 4-DVD box set) - Contains "3 Seconds Before Explosion," directed by Motuma Ida; "Cops vs. Thugs," directed by Kinji Fukasaku; "Yakuza Graveyard," directed by Kinji Fukasaku; and "Hit Man File," directed by Sananjit Bangsapan

If I had all the time in the world on TV, I might have suggested Henry Selick's exquisite stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" (Blu-ray and 3-D): You'll wear the disc out marveling at its lyricism. Also try Kino Films' essential "The Movies Begin" set, which looks at the first few decades of cinema in many countries; and Kino's Buster Keaton box set, which should make any recipient throw his or her arms around you.
Among the Criterion Collection's recent releases is Michael Ritchie's superb "Downhill Racer," featuring Robert Redford in his breakthrough starring role and Gene Hackman. In general, you cannot go wrong spending time at the Criterion Collection and Kino International Web sites.

Here are several more marvelous holiday gift ideas:
"In Search of Mozart" (Microcinema DVD) - This documentary directed by Phil Grabsky illuminates the life and, more important, the music of (arguably) our greatest composer. The narration is standard stuff, but the interviews with musicians and conductors, accompanied by excerpts of Mozart's work, are revelatory. Look out next year for Grabsky's equally fine "In Search of Beethoven."
"The Wire: The Complete Series DVD" - Many people believe this to be the summit of television drama. The complete incomparable series (all five seasons, plus generous supplements) is now available friom HBO Video (although the packaging is notably flimsy).

Finally, closer to home:

Acorn Media has released for the first time episodes of "On the Road With Charles Kuralt," the first host of CBS News' "Sunday Morning" and a brilliant motorhome tour guide of America's highways and byways. The first set offers 18 episode - 77 stories - on three generous DVDs.

For more info:
The Projectionist (David Edelstein's Movie Blog)