1. Unexpected expert commentary, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin
It may seem like a gimmick to get the primary architect of the Wu-Tang sound in on the audio commentary of the Weinstein Company’s “Dragon Dynasty” re-release of the classic Hong Kong martial-arts epic The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. But it’s really a revelation. It should come as no surprise to fans of the Wu that The RZA was interested in doing this commentary; after all, a love of classic kung-fu flicks was one of the foundations of rap’s mightiest crew. But even big fans might be shocked by the result: When he teams up with Asian film scholar Andy Klein, it’s Klein who sits back and provides the color, as The RZA takes everyone to school with his in-depth knowledge. One of the coolest heads in hip-hop turns out to have a geek’s passion for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, not only The 36th Chamber, but also a number of the other major films of the genre. He may have been smoking blunts while watching Ghostface’s “Killa tape” (the title of the movie in the U.S. for many years was Shaolin Master Killer), but he was also paying extremely close attention.
2. Fake expert commentary, Blood Simple
The Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, is a sharp, bitter noir about love and greed turning rotten in Texas. When the movie was re-released to theaters in 2000, the Coens trimmed three minutes and threw in some comedy, with a short, pompous introduction by “Mortimer Young” of “Forever Films.” Not content to let the joke die, for the 2001 DVD release, they hired actor Jim Piddock to provide a commentary track as the ponderous, idiotic “Kenneth Loring.” Loring spends the track telling flat-out lies, making deathless observations (“How very, very remarkably glum these characters are”), or describing exactly what’s happening onscreen. (“Now we have rain again, a character in a stationary car.”) It’s a dead-on parody of some of the worst offenses ever committed to DVD special features, and much like those offenses, it isn’t all that much fun to sit through.
3. Mommentary, Space Ghost: Coast To Coast, “From The Kentucky Nightmare”
Space Ghost: Coast To Coast, the first Cartoon Network show to embody the anarchic sensibilities that came to define the Adult Swim lineup, was generally categorized as a show by stoners for stoners. But while it’s more than likely that co-creator Mike Lazzo and his writer-producers Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis probably indulged in the demon weed, it’s pretty unlikely that they’d have the discipline to produce such a consistently funny show if they’d really been high all the time. What they did have was the perverse determination to actually follow through on all the ridiculous ideas people come up with when they’re stoned and promptly forget about when they’re straight, and there was never better evidence for this than the “Kentucky Nightmare” episode. It’s initially shown just like any other show, then repeated with “Mommentary” from their mothers, who display a charming mixture of maternal pride and total bafflement at what their sons have done. But that wasn’t enough for Lazzo, Maiellaro, and Willis: They then produce another iteration of the episode, this time with the three of them providing commentary on the commentary their mothers gave last time around. Then, out of sheer perversity, they do it once more, commenting on their own meta-commentary in a recursive abomination that’s as funny for its sheer audacity as its actual humorous content.
4-5. Big-budget commentary & futuristic commentary, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby
Director Adam McKay recorded two different, equally ridiculous commentaries for the Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy Talladega Nights. The unrated edition features McKay and actor Ian Roberts discussing the film (although it “transcends film,” according to Roberts) and the massive, $470 million undertaking that was its creative process: shooting interior scenes in Ecuador and Costa Rica for the lighting, creating animatronic robots to play Ferrell’s sons—robots which then set about molesting their female co-stars and rampaging through North Carolina—and paying Sean Penn $3 million to play a background extra. For the “25 Years Later” track on the standard edition, the cast gathers in the year 2031 to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary, where Ferrell joins McKay’s son “Darnell”—Adam McKay was apparently eaten by a hammerhead shark long ago—to discuss how Talladega Nights changed the course of human history. Though perhaps not for the better, as suggested by John C. Reilly, who participates via speakerphone from the “island state” of Michigan, where he is now a militia leader.
6. In-character commentary, Bubba Ho-Tep
In Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep, Bruce Campbell plays an aging Elvis Presley whiling away his final years in a rest home, battling against a soul-sucking mummy alongside Ossie Davis’s JFK. It’s a loopy, heartfelt cult film, and Campbell gives one of the best performances of his career as the King: washed-up, ailing, and desperate for one last chance to prove himself a hero. So a full-length in-character commentary track from Campbell isn’t an entirely ridiculous proposition, but while the actor is still enjoying himself, and does his best to work in as many references to Presley’s real-life career as he can, the result is only fitfully amusing, better described to others than experienced firsthand. Thankfully for fans, the DVD includes a more straightforward commentary track between Coscarelli and Campbell as himself.
7. Character-in-character commentary, Tropic Thunder
What could have been an average commentary with the three main actors of Tropic Thunder takes a left turn when one decides to get meta. Jack Black has some fun with the scenes, and Ben Stiller tries to take a straightforward approach, giving background on each scene and some useful information on the shoot. But Stiller and Black have a hard time keeping their composure as Robert Downey Jr. insists on staying in character. Or, rather, a character in character, commentating as Kirk Lazarus as Sergeant Lincoln Osiris. Even when Stiller calls him “Robert,” Downey maintains his character as Osiris, dropping insults on co-stars and doing his best to undermine Stiller’s seriousness. A little can go a long way with this kind of gag, but it’s easy to admire Downey’s commitment: When Lazarus drops the Osiris character late in the film, Downey follows suit in the commentary. In the credits, Downey drops all pretense and finally becomes himself. Fortunately, the chemistry among the actors that makes the film such a success carries over into the commentary, keeping Downey’s shtick from wearing too thin.
8. Mock-rockin’ in-character commentary, This Is Spinal Tap
Rather than dryly comment on their classic rockumentary, 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer—a.k.a. David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls—offer a running commentary in character about their experiences as documentary subjects on the 2000 special-edition DVD. True to form, they’re completely oblivious and occasional angry about the whole process, claiming that director Marty DiBergi (played by Rob Reiner) basically tricked them into looking stupid by telling them “I’m not here.” Regarding the classic scene in which the band gets lost on the way to the stage, they have this to say: “After all the times we found the stage with no problem, why show this one?”
9. Mythological commentary, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension
A large part of the fun in W.D. Richter’s 1984 film The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension is the constant references to the titular hero’s vast mythology. Banzai, a brilliant neurosurgeon and musician who also happens to be a super-scientist and expert crime fighter, is an homage to pulp heroes like Doc Savage, and like any respectable pulp hero, he’s been through a lot. On the commentary track for the DVD, Richter is joined by someone—most likely Earl Mac Rauch, who wrote Adventure’s screenplay and the novelization—pretending to be “Reno Nevada,” one of Banzai’s infamous Hong Kong Cavaliers. The joke is that Buckaroo is a real guy, and Richter’s film is just a dramatization of actual events. It’s a cute concept that quickly gets old, like hearing someone halfheartedly repeating the same joke for an hour or two. Even more frustrating is that Richter still provides just enough real information on the making of the movie to force fans to sit through every tedious minute.
10. Musical commentary, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
While Joss Whedon long ago made a name for himself as a master of nerd-friendly, high-concept genre entertainment, his master philosophy has only recently become clear: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth singing about. That logic gave the world the musical Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, “Once More With Feeling,” and it also helped lead to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a 40-minute story of love, betrayal, and death-whinnying. The success of Dr. Horrible, which originally appeared online, led to a DVD release that contains the current pinnacle of Whedon’s tunesmith obsessions: “Commentary! The Musical,” an additional audio track that features the show’s actors and creative talent singing about egos, the inspiration for the blog, and the pain of being a background performer. It’s the rare gimmick audio commentary that’s a pleasure to listen to all the way through.
11. Improvised musical commentary, Step Brothers
Will Ferrell owes much of his success in movies to his improvisational skills, so it’s no surprise that when he joins co-star John C. Reilly and director Adam McKay for the Step Brothers commentary track, all three indulge in freewheeling, deadpan wise-assery. But to make it more of a challenge, Ferrell and company sing most of the commentary, accompanied by Jon Brion, who vamps while the boys free-associate about the movie-making process, their characters’ offscreen lives, and the exorbitant price they had to pay for a pair of fake testicles. Because it’s all spontaneous, the commentary ranges from the inspired to the irritatingly prolonged, but when Ferrell and Reilly really get into a good groove, they’re actually funnier than the main feature.
12. Improvised comedy commentary, Mr. Show With Bob And David
As if the material weren’t funny enough on its own, the cast of the brilliant ’90s sketch-comedy show Mr. Show With Bob And David generally went all-out in the audio commentaries to provide information and entertainment. The cast members frequently deliver portions of their commentary in character, both familiar (David Cross as white-trash superstar Ronnie Dobbs; Tom Kenny as talentless college comic Kedzie Matthews) and unfamiliar (Jeanette Dunwoody, David’s overbearing Christian neighbor from Georgia; pompous acting coach D’Urberville L’Avignon). Even better, some of them actually break into improvisational comedy; during sketches they deem weak, some of the cast—most memorably Jay Johnston and Paul F. Tompkins—lay new, frequently hilarious dialogue over what’s being said onscreen. Most comedies with a staff of clever writers and performers produce audio commentaries worth listening to; Mr. Show is in the very rarefied company of DVDs where the audio commentary is as good as the show itself.
13. Informed outsider commentary, Hot Fuzz
The “Real Fuzz” commentary on Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz features real-life police officers Nick Endland (who advised on research for the film) and Andy Leafe (who assisted on the script) revealing titillating police secrets, like the fact that the village of Sandford, the film’s setting, is a fictitious town used in police training. Another constant theme is how realistic the situations in the film are. (The beginning scenes are the most realistic, with the later scenes descending into silliness.) Some of their anecdotes are enlightening, such as how police chases do actually ensue over shoplifting candy bars, the difference between large-city policing and small-village policing, and some of the other mundane tasks therein. Overall, it’s a little dry—what else should you expect from two police veterans? Yet it’s different from most commentary tracks in that it presents the views of outsiders expressing a certain cynicism about the film, and the officers’ self-deprecation (more than once, they wonder if anyone besides their family will listen to their entire commentary) lends a certain charm.
14. Uninformed outsider commentary, Wonder Showzen
In typically vexing fashion, Wonder Showzen creators John Lee and Vernon Chatman didn’t rely on standard audio commentaries for either season of the show. Instead, without apparent reason, they tracked down literary editor Gordon Lish (the man at least partly responsible for Raymond Carver’s career) and comedian/’60s activist Dick Gregory, who each provide rambling thoughts, none of which concern the show. Neither really reference what’s happening onscreen; instead, they just talk about themselves, with glancing nods at the ostensible subject of a given episode. One of those episodes is called “Patience,” which both of these commentaries require.
15-16. Fictional outsider/soulful outsider commentary: Wake Up, Ron Burgundy and Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are all about the random wackiness when it comes to credits and commentaries. They’ve treated the audio commentary as an art form unto itself, not just a way of commenting on the film they’ve made. On the commentary for the Anchorman “spin-off movie” Wake Up, Ron Burgundy, McKay does a commentary in the character of “Aaron Zimmerman,” a Robert Evans-like figure who fancies himself a Hollywood insider by virtue of having once seen a movie. For the actual Anchorman audio commentary, the wisenheimers roped legendary soul singer Lou Rawls into the proceedings, for reasons even Rawls himself doesn’t seem to understand. True, Rawls’ heyday overlapped with the film’s 1970s setting, but really, they seem to have gotten Rawls on board because they could.
17. WTF outsider commentary, The Rules Of Attraction
In the annals of bad ideas, hiring Carrot Top to record a commentary track for The Rules Of Attraction, Roger Avary’s uncompromising adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, has to rank pretty high. Granted, no one is being forced to listen to Carrot Top—in fact, there are five other commentary tracks included on the DVD, including one featuring porn legend Ron Jeremy—but it’s somehow worse than it sounds. Hearing Mr. Top’s labored, propless shtick would be bad enough, but he hadn’t actually seen The Rules Of Attraction before heading into the sound studio to record the commentary, so he improvises for 110 minutes. Mostly, this amounts to pointing out narrative developments that anyone who’s seen the movie already knows, commenting on the hotness of various starlets, and telling lewd jokes that sound as if he dusted them off from past stand-up routines. It is a hellish torment.
18. IBS commentary, Wet Hot American Summer
Blessings be upon Michael Showalter and David Wain. Not only did they write (and in Wain’s case, direct) Wet Hot American Summer, one of the funniest cult classics in recent years, they were fucking thorough about that funny. The jokes even trickle down to the commentary, namely the “soundtrack with extra farts” track. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of farts are sprinkled throughout the movie, and man, is it funny. Of course, it’s also totally base and sophomoric, but somehow, by pushing past that “Let’s do two minutes of fart jokes” point to a full 97 minutes of fart jokes, they made a vaguely postmodern commentary masterpiece.
19. Invisible friend commentary, Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life
Listening to audio commentaries is a solitary pursuit; watching a movie with the regular sound muted while the cast trades aimless anecdotes and the director goes into excruciating detail about each shot isn’t exactly a fun social activity. (Unless the director is Paul Verhoeven, whose “Digital Johnny, real Johnny” track for Starship Troopers is a surefire hit at parties.) Ever considerate of their hardcore fans—who, let’s face it, are a pretty cloistered bunch—the members of Monty Python thoughtfully added a “Soundtrack For The Lonely” to the DVD of The Meaning Of Life. It mostly consists of Michael Palin muttering aimless reactions to the onscreen action, and later ordering a pizza topped with human tissue. While it may not make listeners feel less alone, the experience of having a dimwit muttering in your ear nonstop may remind you why you’re watching at home, and not with those riffraff at the local theater.
20. Shadowy commentary, Ghostbusters
Befitting its status as a big-budget B movie, Ghostbusters’ first DVD release comes equipped with a “live” video commentary, which casts the silhouettes of star Harold Ramis, director Ivan Reitman, and associate producer Joe Medjuck over the film as if it’s a Mystery Science Theater 3000 creature feature. Unfortunately, a few illustrative hand gestures aside, staring at the trio’s backs doesn’t add much to Ramis’ anecdotes about Ghostbusters’ lengthy gestation, or Reitman bemoaning the film’s clunkier special effects. It’s a neat little gimmick, but unless you need to see Medjuck literally pointing out the film’s recurring use of gothic statues, you’re better off simply listening to the commentary track—or spending 90 minutes with Mike Nelson, Joel Robinson, and their robot friends.
21. Self-referential commentary, Schizopolis
Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis is an exercise in aggressive cinematic pretension, playing around with narrative structure and image-manipulation mainly just for the fun of it. Soderbergh cast himself as his two leads: a lovelorn dentist, and a frustrated desk jockey for a self-help empire. So for the Criterion DVD commentary track, he interviews himself, dryly spoofing his own arrogance by making claims for Schizopolis’ genius. The gimmick gets old, but it does add to the movie’s kitchen-sink spirit. For meaning, head to the disc’s second commentary track—also gimmicky—on which Soderbergh’s old college buddies point out that Schizopolis is an inspired argument for goofing off.
22. Bearmentary, The Country Bears
During Disney’s turn-of-the-century run of adapting its theme-park attractions into movies, the studio turned The Country Bears into a bizarre mix of The Blues Brothers, The Muppet Movie, and This Is Spinal Tap, complete with bickering live-action bears and a wildly over-the-top turn by Christopher Walken as the villain. The film is a mess, but the DVD commentary track is endearingly whimsical, with director Peter Hastings joined by bears Ted and Zeb, voiced by Diedrich Bader and Stephen Root. The bears grumble over who deserves the proper credit for their music, and talk smack about their human co-stars. (Zeb, on Walken: “I tried to meet him once, but he looked at me and I got frightened.”) When asked to sum up their feelings about the project, Ted says, “I was sorry there weren’t more bears in the movie.” Zeb: “A good third of our audience is bears, Peter.”
23. Super-fans commentary, Home Movies
The final collection of Brendon Small’s cult cartoon series opens the commentary tracks up to its fans, including James Mercer and Marty Crandall of The Shins, Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer and Isaac Brock (who’s such a Home Movies super-fan, he offered to finance more episodes of the show when it was canceled), and three writers from the satirical sweatshop The Onion. None of these guests offer much beyond the experience of hanging out and watching the show with them: For their “Camp” track, Brock and Plummer mostly offer tangential riffs on going to summer camp and other, less relevant topics, while offering non-insights such as “Dwayne looks like Johnny Ramone,” and occasionally pausing to pop open another beer. (Typical exchange: “Hey, isn’t there another Batman movie coming out?” “I have no idea.”) Mercer and Crandall admit they’ve never seen “Temporary Blindness” before, then completely miss out on it again while they get sidetracked talking about laser eye surgery. On the episodes “Psycho-Delicate” and “Everyone’s Entitled To My Opinion,” The Onion’s Joe Garden, Chris Karwowski, and John Krewson drop by to help a former Soup2Nuts intern find a job, pick on Philip Glass for no reason, try out their Todd Barry impressions, plug the Onion website, and stump for Garden’s failed bid to become the host of Late Night in 2009.
24. Out-for-blood film critic commentary, Date Movie
With the Scary Movie franchise and their genre spin-offs—Disaster Movie, Epic Movie, Meet The Spartans, et al.—spoofmeisters Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have created a cottage industry out of lame parodies of mainstream hits. While they can usually count on suckering in enough moviegoers to turn a quick profit, Friedberg and Seltzer can never count on good—or even less-than-apocalyptic—reviews. For the unrated DVD of Date Movie, their typically excruciating take on the rom-com, Friedberg and Seltzer ingeniously co-opt their adversaries by including a commentary track with two critics who didn’t like the movie. Though L.A. Daily News critic Bob Strauss is more forgiving than L.A. Weekly’s Scott Foundas, their lively commentary nonetheless draws some blood. Foundas, in particular, is given to asking incredulous questions like “Why is that funny?” and “Who thought this was a good idea?” The best he can do is concede that “a couple of moments are less than insufferable.” Foundas also speculates on what genre the comedy duo might tackle next: Holocaust films.
25. Diagnostic commentary, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Dr. Drew Pinsky has yet to find a pop-culture train wreck he can’t diagnose and treat in front of an audience of millions—even if those train wrecks are fictional. On the season-five DVD of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Dr. Drew steps in for commentary on a couple of episodes, diagnosing Mac and Dennis as latent homosexuals, Dee as a borderline personality (with, inexplicably, a Second Life addiction), and the whole gang as a bunch of alcoholic drug addicts. (Mac’s on meth, Dee “has heroin in her future,” and so on.) It’s all in good fun, of course, and the fact that Pinsky shares the commentaries with the actors who play the characters he’s diagnosing gives a little extra insight into what makes up our favorite Philly sociopaths.
25 1/2. Wish-fulfillment commentary, The Simpsons Movie
What could’ve turned out to be the greatest series of commentary tracks ever turned out to be an elaborate joke from a website that seems to have a love/hate relationship with The Simpsons. (Which in the Simpsons universe, means the site’s writers used to love it, and now hate it.) The imaginary “ultimate collector’s DVD” of The Simpsons Movie contains no fewer than eight commentary tracks, ranging from the expected cast track to commentaries from Rupert Murdoch, “Internet Nerds,” and “Disgruntled Ex-Staffers Who Were Not Asked To Participate.” There’s even an idea so dumb it might work: an “Illustrated Commentary” in which Matt Groening and his team sketch over the movie as it’s happening. Alas, the set and its many commentaries were just fanfic; in spite of the many Internet references from people passing this information around as gospel, it doesn’t actually exist.