7 Men From Now (Paramount)
The taut, existential Westerns that Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott remain conspicuously absent from DVD, but Paramount has made a good start at reintroducing Boetticher to cineastes with a stellar edition of this tough, fleet 1956 offering. Scott plays an ex-sheriff looking to avenge his murdered wife and track down the spoils of a Wells Fargo robbery. Screenwriter Burt Kennedy parcels out Scott's story—most grippingly in a long, steely monologue delivered by outlaw Lee Marvin—and Scott builds a character so driven that he's become jittery and anxious, responding to his fleeting whims and impulses. The movie zips along to a climactic gunfight in an empty, boxy canyon, but most of its action is internal, defining manhood by the way heroes sometimes succeed through inaction. The DVD adds a fine commentary track and an extensive documentary appreciation of Boetticher, which should be enough to whet movie buffs' appetites for more by the man who's arguably the Western genre's most underappreciated auteur.
Runner-up: The Spirit Of The Beehive (Criterion)
For an essential corollary to Guillermo Del Toro's upcoming Pan's Labyrinth, watch his favorite movie, Víctor Erice's The Spirit Of The Beehive, which tells another allusive story about childhood, fantasy, and the Spanish Civil War. The Criterion DVD doesn't initially seem to have many extras, but a set of short interviews actually provides an essential entry point for understanding a tricky, beautiful film about what monsters are, and what death means.
John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection (Warner Bros.)
The collaborations between director John Ford and frequent leading man John Wayne have been long underserved by DVD, appearing in fairly unsatisfying packages, if at all. This eight-film box set corrects that problem in a big way. The landmark Westerns Stagecoach and The Searchers bookend the set, and there's a bittersweet story of dimmed optimism between the two, as played out in the cavalry Westerns She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache, and the spiritual-redemption parable 3 Godfathers. Loaded with extras—from commentaries to a reprint of a '50s comic-book adaptation of The Searchers—the set also shines a light on lesser-known efforts like The Long Voyage Home and They Were Expendable, a clear-eyed film about warfare made in the midst of World War II. Rights issues kept crucial films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Rio Grande out of the mix, but this is as essential as they get.
Runner-up: Petulia (Warner Bros.)
It's simultaneously heartening and a little troubling that a decade after DVDs came into existence, masterpieces like Richard Lester's Petulia are still waiting to be released. At least Petulia itself finally saw the light of day this year. A time-capsule shot in San Francisco at the height of the counterculture, it offers a melancholy snapshot of how freedom can get snatched away even amid a revolution. George C. Scott and Julie Christie make an unlikely pair, but their heartbreaking kook-and-square chemistry syncs perfectly with Lester's elliptical, affecting storytelling.
Wonder Showzen: Season Two (Paramount)
In its jaw-dropping, brain-melting second season, Wonder Showzen seemed less interested in providing entertainment than in engendering nervous breakdowns and simulating what the world looks like to paranoid schizophrenics. The first season pushed the show's format into nightmarish, avant-garde places; later, the show seemed to suffer a complete psychotic break. An incest- and racism-obsessed Hee Haw parody called "Horse Apples" spewed vitriol all over the red states and the blue-collar comics who pander to them. "Cooperation" gets lost inside a sanity-challenging hall of mirrors, while the series-ending "Clarence Special Report" radically usurps conventional ideas of what constitutes compelling television. If Wonder Showzen: Season Two didn't exist on DVD, fans could be forgiven for imagining they'd hallucinated the entire season after ingesting tainted brown acid.
Runner-up: Saturday Night Live: The Best of Saturday TV Funhouse
Lorne Michaels gets a hard time for producing the lazy, complacent warhorse Saturday Night Live, but he was one of the forces behind two of the year's best DVDs: Saturday Night Live: The Best Of Saturday TV Funhouse, and the long-awaited release of SNL's first season. TV Funhouse compiles Robert Smigel's wickedly subversive "TV Funhouse" cartoons in one essential package, and also houses nifty, star-studded commentaries with everyone from Stephen Colbert to James Carville.
The Best Of The Electric Company: Volume 1 (Shout Factory)
This set had a mighty wave of nostalgia on its side when it came out in February: The same generation that's still mentally singing Schoolhouse Rock songs learned a lot from this catchy, flashy, hip '70s edutainment series back in the day, and the long-awaited DVDs bring back a lot of memories. The set's selective range makes sure to hit a lot of high notes from throughout the show's seven-year run, and the extras—cast and crew interviews, outtakes, trivia, new intros from cast member Rita Moreno—are aimed squarely and smartly at adult viewers who want to peek behind the scenes of the series that let Morgan Freeman teach them phonics when they were kids. (The second-volume set, which came out in November, addressed the diminishing novelty returns by adding even more features, including a "Play All Songs" option that should be de rigeur for any further series installments.)
Runner-up: The Aristocrats (Thinkfilm)
This DVD came out back in January, so by now, the average viewer should almost have finished working through all the extras: the commentary by director Paul Provenza and producer Penn Jillette, the many extended versions of the "Aristocrats" joke that gives this documentary its title and subject, the footage of the film's hundred comedians goofing around and being themselves. The film was one of 2006's liveliest, but the DVD package makes it into a far more expansive, intimate, relaxed tour of life among America's most famous comedians.
Four Films By Michael Haneke (Kino)
Until this year, Michael Haneke's first three films (The Seventh Continent, Benny's Video, and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance), which comprise the so-called "glaciation trilogy," had never been available on video, but the surprise success of Haneke's Cache renewed interest in one of the world's most accomplished, uncompromising directors. The Seventh Continent surely ranks among the most assured debuts in film history; it's a bone-chilling account of an average middle-class family that methodically plots its own demise. The other two entries in the trilogy are solid primers for better movies to come—the seeds of Benny's Video flower in Cache, while 71 Fragments yielded the superior Code Unknown—but Funny Games stands alone as a damning treatise on film violence that doesn't spare the audience for its participation. Each disc includes a new 15 to 20-minute interview with Haneke, who articulates his works with great depth.
Runner-up: Dazed And Confused (Criterion)
At every stage of the film's existence, Universal abused Richard Linklater's rich '70s coming-of-age picture: Producers harangued the unseasoned director during shooting, the studio halfheartedly marketed the film as a stoner comedy, and even when it found a massive cult audience, the special-edition DVDs were pitiful. Fortunately, Dazed And Confused finally found a home at Criterion, whose two-disc DVD covers the painful process of bringing it to life, among other behind-the-scenes ephemera.