Holiday Shopping Suggestions: DVD & Blu-ray Boxed Sets

Holiday shopping searches often end up in the DVD aisles. Finding the right gift is always difficult, especially when you haven't a clue what your brother-in-law does for a hobby. But you probably can remember something about his movie tastes. In a selfless and concerted effort to fulfill our gifting needs, DVD companies have made a fine art of the packaging of fancy boxed sets and boxed Special Editions. Taking a look online, there's a huge selection to pick through, from $30 special editions to monster sets priced into the lower stratosphere.

So I've taken this opportunity to line up a brief list of gift-set choices from the ones being offered this holiday season. A couple are sure winners for family viewing, and others I know will please their respective "niche" audiences. With one exception, I haven't included TV series simply because there are so many to choose from; fans eager to score highly touted blockbusters like The Sopranos don't need additional guidance. On the other hand, an avid film fan might really welcome one of the more obscure items below. If you haven't been on the videodisc warpath recently, here's what's hot:

Planet of the Apes 40th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (Amazon)

'Planet of the Apes 40th Anniversary Collection'

Nothing mysterious about our first choice -- the Sci-Fi series that started with Chuck Heston cussing out Damn Dirty Apes has legions of fans. The fancy Blu-ray box isn't exactly cheap, but besides presenting all five of the theatrical films in pristine Hi-Def -- Planet of,


Escape from,

Battle for and

Conquest of -- Fox Home Entertainment has provided a surfeit of simian surprises.

Warner Home Video's Casablanca Ultimate Collector's EditionCasablanca Ultimate Collector's Edition (both DVD and Blu-ray) (Amazon)

Yes, we've all seen Casablanca but I'm still anxious to check out this dee-luxe holiday package. A sample scene viewed in the moribund HD-DVD format was simply incredible -- Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman look too good to be real. Hopefully the quality of the Blu-ray will be just as jaw dropping. Besides the usual suspects -- featurettes and documentaries -- Warner Home Video's elegant white box contains a photo book, posters, key vintage memos, and a replica of the famous letters of transit! Here's our coverage of the August press release.

The Films of Budd Boetticher (Amazon)

Anybody in your house love classic westerns? Ten years into the DVD format, the cream of the western genre is finally out on disc. These five heralded Randolph Scott dramas have never been widely available; they range from revenge tales to light comedy and are directed with a moral clarity sorely lacking in modern shoot 'em-ups: The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station. Randolph Scott is the best ridin', most upright western hero of them all: "Yes Ma'am." "No Ma'am." And nothing helps digest a holiday meal better than watching horses move across beautiful scenery.

Ultimate Matrix Collection (Amazon)

This hefty Blu-ray box should do the trick for fans seeking something more recent ... and the Wachowski brothers' virtual-world trilogy makes for good group viewing, if only to hear the kids try to explain what's going on to their parents. The collection contains the three films -- The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. There's barely enough space on the back of the box to list the extras, which Warners claims tops 35 hours of content -- starting with 83 separate featurettes.

Saturday Night Live -- Complete Fourth Season (Amazon)

Yes, I guess this choice is directed at a certain generation of viewers, but I have to say that my grown children were drawn to the SNL collections, to see the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time players and to see what musicians like Carly Simon, Elvis Costello and The Bangles looked like in the day. Universal is adding a Fourth Season boxed set to the series, which contains all my favorite Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Blues Brothers skits. Looking back now, it's difficult to believe that these folks were ever so young looking.

Ray Harryhausen Collection (Blu-ray) (Amazon)

Earlier this fall, the internal radar of monster fans perked up with the news that Ray Harryhausen's first four Columbia films would be released on Blu-ray. The pricey set includes colorized and original B&W encodings of It Came from Beneath the Sea,

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth and a striking new restoration of the peerless The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the classic with the Cyclops who licks his lips while roasting tasty sailors. All complete with commentaries, interviews and documentaries made with the participation of animator extraordinaire Harryhausen himself.

Ten Years of Rialto Pictures (Amazon)

If you want to get a reaction from a committed fan of foreign films, Rialto has packaged a highly desirable box of ten Criterion releases. Many are titles that art-film lovers want to see but haven't caught up with, and the list of directors is as impressive as the titles themselves: The Third Man (Carol Reed), Touchez pas au Grisbi (Jacques Becker), Rififi (Jules Dassin), Mafioso (Alberto Lattuada), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger), Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard), au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson), Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel), and Murderous Maids (Jean-Pierre Denis). The mix includes crime thrillers, comedies, and a couple of black comedies. Considering the number of classics offered, the price isn't actually very reasonable.

Popeye the Sailor Vol. 2 1938-1940 (Amazon)

I highly recommended it in my full review back in June, and it's still true that this unpretentious stack of original Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons is one of the most entertaining disc sets of the year. The squinting, patience-challenged sailor deals with villains, small children, the unpredictably amorous Olive Oyl and even a lost island of Goons. Carefully crafted disc documentaries tell the mostly unknown story of Max & Dave Fleischer, Walt Disney's only serious competition in the animation field. The modestly priced set has several hours of concentrated fun. If you don't want TV to dominate the holiday evening, just set a three-cartoon viewing limit. Good luck enforcing that rule!

A Christmas Story Ultimate Collector's Edition (DVD and Blu-ray) (Amazon)

This choice isn't as obvious as it might sound, as Warner Home Video has put a remastered modern holiday classic into an irresistible package. Amusing featurettes and interviews allow us to see what the child actors look like, thirty years later. It all comes in an old-fashioned, oversized Christmas-themed cookie tin. The DVD tin comes with cookie cutters and a holiday baking recipe book; the Blu-ray package contains a set of functioning Christmas lights in the shape of the film's unforgettably tacky Leg Lamp! The lampshades even have little fringes! I'm still deciding where to hang them, and wondering who will notice them. And when you're all finished with the goodies there's still the Bob Clark's A Christmas Story, a movie that seems never to wear out its welcome. My full review of this set is here.

Glenn Erickson

reviews online at DVD Savant