There's nothing special about most DVD "special editions," which just slap on a commentary track, a couple of fluffy featurettes, and a deleted scene or two, then call it a day. The few great ones are like well-curated art exhibits: They put worthy films or TV shows in perfect context and enhance the viewing experience. With that in mind, The A.V. Club presents our favorite DVDs of 2005.
Aeon Flux: The Complete Animated Collection
Even during the series' heyday, fans had to endure a lot of reruns and a lot of waiting to catch Aeon Flux on MTV; Peter Chung's initial shorts and the half-hour episodes that followed aired erratically at best. This terrific box set makes it easy by putting everything in order: The initial 12-minute pilot, the five brief follow-up shorts, and the series' 10 full-length episodes, which flesh out the story of anarchistic, improbably endowed saboteur Aeon Flux and give her a regular nemesis, pontificating tyrant Trevor Goodchild. Chung's highly stylized animation has aged remarkably well over the last decade; these cartoons are still disturbingly disjointed and full of odd surprises. Commentaries on the shorts and many of the episodes, plus bonus looks at Chung's other animated work and some selections from MTV's hit-and-miss animated-shorts anthology Liquid Television are just icing on a set that's already essential viewing for animation fans.
Astaire & Rogers Collection: Volume 1
According to the popular equation, Fred Astaire gave Ginger Rogers class, and Rogers gave Astaire sex. Together, they came to epitomize class and sophistication for escapism-hungry Depression-era audiences, via a series of lushly produced musical comedies set in a sublime fantasy world of wealth and privilege. Sure, the plotting is often inane and the pacing slack, but the banter is witty, the sets sumptuously designed, the production values decadent, the supporting players tart and vivacious, and the chemistry effortless. The first four films in the Astaire-Rogers collection—Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, and Follow The Fleet—are dizzy, featherweight farces turned out in rapid succession for RKO, while the last, 1949's The Barkleys Of Broadway, followed a 10-year hiatus and found Astaire and Rogers fitting happily into the perfectionist aesthetic of MGM's vaunted Freed Unit.
This Walt Disney perennial is plenty strong on its own, with its elegant painted backgrounds, cartoony characters, dazzling animated nature effects, and dreamily primal story about life's cycle of death and rebirth. But what makes this one of the best DVDs of the year is its innovative visual commentary track, which has the movie playing in one part of the TV screen while images from storyboards, concept paintings, and pencil tests drift across the rest. Meanwhile, a troupe of voice actors reads from transcripts of the movie's original story meetings, recreating what it was like to sit in a room with Mr. Disney as he hashed out "the difference between the poetic and the bizarre."
The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons
The first volume of Shout! Factory's Dick Cavett Show collections—like the John Lennon and Ray Charles-focused volumes that quickly followed—present one of television's all-time-greatest talk shows in full episodes, revealing both the cultural context of Cavett's dry jokes and the deep, humane quality of his conversations. These discs would be essential viewing just for the musical performances by the likes of David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon, but the musicians are just as electrifying sitting across from Cavett, answering his frank but friendly questions about politics, drugs, and the elusiveness of their respective muses.
The Complete Thin Man Collection
The six-film series beginning with 1934's sparky Dashiell Hammett adaptation The Thin Man was long overdue on DVD, but this set was worth the wait: it includes all the Thin Man movies, plus documentaries on stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, a sample of the dreadful Thin Man spin-off TV show, and a collection of contemporaneous Warner shorts and cartoons that could almost merit a separate release. It's a terrific package, though the centerpiece is the films; the franchise gets formulaic and worn by the time of 1945's The Thin Man Goes Home, but the early installments are a bubbly-but-grim comedy/mystery blend, with Powell and Loy continuing their longtime screen partnership as a hard-drinking aristocratic couple who trade banter while offhandedly solving ridiculously twisty crimes. Reportedly thousands of dollars went into the insouciance budget alone.
The Devil's Rejects
Even those turned off by the take-no-prisoners aesthetic of Rob Zombie's '70s-style drive-in horror movies have to admit, the man is detail-oriented. Zombie's first feature, House Of 1000 Corpses, became a phenomenon on DVD after flopping in theaters, so it makes sense that he would pour a lot of effort into its superior follow-up, which rewards its cult-in-waiting with two discs packed with enough commentaries and special features to exhaust all but the most obsessive fans. Of particular interest is 30 Days In Hell, an expansive making-of documentary that's like watching an entire season of Project Greenlight compressed into 144 minutes. After witnessing Zombie labor over every minute aspect of the production, making the thousands of little choices a director has to make, it'll be hard to go back to those five-minute "behind the scenes" featurettes again.
Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert's superb documentary about William Gates and Arthur Agee, two young Chicago basketball talents with NBA ambitions, ended with a postscript about their placement in college and junior college, respectively, but that was far from the end of the story. The Hoop Dreams DVD brings their stories up to date with some positive developments about their growth outside the game, plus tragic news about the murders of Gates' brother Curtis and Agee's father Bo in 2001 and 2004, respectively. The DVD packs much of this information into a 40-page booklet, but its best feature remains a commentary track by Gates and Agee, who account for their feelings directly and warmly reminisce about the past as if they were watching a home movie together.
Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Three
Each of the four discs of volume three of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection series opens with a leaden, clumsily worded introduction from Whoopi Goldberg, who apologizes for the crude ethnic stereotyping the studio sometimes indulged in during World War II. Goldberg's dryly sanctimonious tone couldn't be more at odds with the irreverent, unapologetic spirit of classic Looney Tunes, and the offending shorts are few and far between. But skip past the intro, and Volume Three offers an embarrassment of riches, nicely counteracting the first volume's strong Chuck Jones/Friz Freleng bias with an emphasis on the marvelously madcap work of in-house rebels Tex Avery, Robert Clampett, and Frank Tashlin, as well as a rich cornucopia of bonus features.
Scarlet Street/House By The River
The former is a pitch-black Fritz Lang noir classic that for years has cluttered up video-store bargain bins in wretched-looking public-domain editions, but now exists on DVD in a crisp transfer taken straight from the Library Of Congress negative. The latter is minor but highly entertaining later Lang that had been tied up in rights disputes for decades, but now can be enjoyed on DVD in all its suspenseful, twisty glory. Throw in Warner Brothers' stellar DVD editions of Lang's Fury and Clash By Night, and this has been a heck of a year for fans of one of cinema's most innovative and complex directors.
Undeclared: The Complete Series
In 2004, a box set lovingly collected all the episodes of the cultishly adored, Paul Feig-created, Judd Apatow-produced series Freaks And Geeks; this year, Apatow followed up with another super-deluxe treatment of his series Undeclared, a smart, mischievous campus comedy that lasted a mere 17 episodes before getting the hook. The special features are nice—commentary and unaired footage on every episode, a "lost" episode on religion, and live performance footage from folk great Loudon Wainwright—but the real pleasure of the set is that Fox can no longer pre-empt the show for football post-game reports or When Animals Attack! Considered in continuity, Apatow's affectionate look at the camaraderie and monkey business at a co-ed dorm seems like a natural extension of Freaks And Geeks and a good warm-up for his sweetly raunchy The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It also gives Will Ferrell what may be his funniest role to date, as a speed-addled townie who writes term papers for students.
The Val Lewton Horror Collection
Here's what producer Val Lewton had to work with when he was put in charge of RKO's new horror division in the early '40s: lurid-sounding titles like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, and some pocket change. Here's what he made with it: disturbing art films that looked like low-budget thrillers. Making the most of what viewers couldn't see, Lewton and his stable of directors used suggestion, suspense, and a feel for the uncanny to tap into everyday anxieties. The Val Lewton Horror Collection brings together his 10 horror films, thoroughly annotating each one with commentaries and documentaries that afford Lewton the critical respect he never enjoyed in his lifetime.