Movie News & Reviews

Home-video highlights from the past year

With the passing of another year comes the realization that I — and undoubtedly many of you — have spent the past 52 weeks gorging on DVD and Blu-ray releases. Before the overindulgence begins again, let's pause to pay tribute to some of the home-video highlights from 2009.

Here's hoping this list reminds you of the great extras you missed and the releases you neglected to rent, and that the new year brings nothing but compelling commentary tracks and fantastic featurettes.

Best DVD/Blu-ray documentary of the year: This honor goes to "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button," the making-of doc that spends nearly three hours tracing the genesis of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Included on the Criterion Collection's exceptional release of the Academy Award-nominated epic, "Birth" brings the production process to vivid life in a way that's just as compelling as — perhaps even more than — the film itself.

Best classic film debut on Blu-ray: In a year in which a number of greats, including "Gone With the Wind" and "North by Northwest," received the high-definition treatment, the one that impressed me most was "The Wizard of Oz: 70th Anniversary Edition." The yellow brick road and those coveted ruby slippers have never gleamed brighter.

DVD most worth the wait: After years of delays, "The State" — the '90s MTV sketch comedy series that made a generation fall in love with pudding-stirrers Barry and LeVon and the irrationally rebellious Doug, among other characters — finally arrived on DVD. Thankfully, most of it was just as funny as we fans remembered; some lively commentary tracks only made us love it more.

Best release of a recent theatrical hit: "Star Trek" stood out as the most engaging, flat-out fun movie among last summer's big-budget, non-animated blockbusters. And the three-disc Blu-ray release that came out in November, complete with detailed, behind-the-scenes special features and a Final Frontier that looks even sharper in high-def, was simply awesome.

DVD most pleasing to students of cinema: "The Exiles," which was rescued from obscurity and granted a limited theatrical release in 2008, found a more permanent home on DVD this year courtesy of Milestone's reverent release. Now everyone can see this vivid portrait of 1950s life in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, where a group of young Native Americans attempt to build new lives off the reservation.

Most clever BD-Live feature: BD-Live, a functionality found only in the Blu-ray format, is designed to add new, interactive dimension to the way we experience our favorite films and TV shows. No BD-live feature demonstrates that more effectively (or geekily) than Lost University, a bonus on the Blu-ray version of "Lost: The Complete Fifth Season" that allows viewers to register for classes on such topics as jungle survival basics, time travel and hieroglyphics. The lessons are taught by actual college professors and come with homework assignments and final exams; students also can access their records to add or drop classes and monitor the number of credits they've amassed. And yes, there's even a Dean's List. As a Blu-ray extra, Lost U. is Phi Beta Kappa all the way.

DVD dripping with the most nostalgia: The 40th anniversary of Woodstock hardly went by unnoticed this year. But if the many hippie-worshipping tributes sometimes seemed a little excessive, the DVD and Blu-ray release of "Woodstock: The 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition," Michael Wadleigh's revered documentary about the watershed music festival, got almost everything right. From the additional footage of performances from Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead to the enclosed concert memorabilia to that fringey, suede DVD jacket, it was all groovy, man.

TV show that, amazingly, still seemed fresh and relevant: There is a tie in this category, with both winners hailing from the late '80s and issued by retro-tastic DVD distributor Shout! Factory. "It's Garry Shandling's Show," released in October, delivered comedy that still seems groundbreaking in its nonchalant attitude toward breaking the fourth wall; and "thirtysomething: The Complete First Season" proved that, surprisingly, even the problems of self-absorbed yuppies still resonate two decades later.