Ace In The Hole (Criterion)
Billy Wilder's pitch-black 1951 comic noir is perhaps the least-seen of Wilder's masterpieces, which makes Criterion's characteristically deluxe double-disc release an invaluable public service to cinephiles everywhere. Today Wilder's film about a shameless journalist (Kirk Douglas, in fine, fire-breathing form) who milks the tragedy of an amiable dope trapped in a cave for big paydays and national fame stands as a trenchant, bone-deep evisceration not just of tabloid sensationalism but also of greed, opportunism, free enterprise, and the soul-corrupting power of the dollar. Hole is perhaps the purest, darkest manifestation of what the legendary filmmaker's friend and collaborator William Holden famously described as "a mind full of razorblades."
The Best Of The Johnny Cash TV Show 1969-1971 (Sony BMG Legacy)
Between 1969 and 1971, Cash used his weekly variety show to showcase folk, country, and rock legends—old and new—and to express his love for every aspect of Americana, from fireside chats to steam-powered locomotives. This double-disc set compiles 60-odd performances from the series, interspersed with new interviews, and shows the full range of Cash and his program: the historical, the intimate, the reverential, and the frank. Cash always made his moral weaknesses part of his act, because he wanted to show that he was no better than anyone else, and in a TV world where arrogance or faux-humility is the norm, Cash's honest sentiment remains refreshing.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition (Sony)
The advent of director's cuts, unrated cuts, and expensive special effect clean-up jobs has made moviegoing pretty confusing, especially when there are significant differences between each version. Many filmmakers make the mistake of releasing their preferred cut and burying the original one, but on this excellent three-disc box, Steven Spielberg has made all three versions—the theatrical cut, the extended "Special Edition," and the director's cut—of his "science speculation" classic available for viewers to decide for themselves which is the best one. It even comes with a handy mini-poster-sized road map detailing which scenes are on which version. Add to that an unusually strong making-of documentary—parsed out annoyingly over all three discs—and this is the definitive Close Encounters package.
The Films Of Alejandro Jodorowsky (ABKCO/Anchor Bay)
The three feature films (and one short) on this well-assembled box set represent touchstones in underground cinema and psychedelia in general. The raw savagery and therapeutic catharsis in La Cravate, Fando Y Lis, El Topo, and The Holy Mountain sometimes comes off as goofily allegorical and sometimes transcendently shocking, but the films' significance to the development of independent movies can't be overstated. This set adds a feature-length documentary about Jodorowsky and scholarly commentary tracks, though its real highlight is the entirety of Jodorowsky's big-budget 1973 folly The Holy Mountain, a scabrous satire of organized religion that follows a Christ figure, his disciples, and their bloody quest for the home of the gods, whom they plan to depose. It's witty, disgusting, eye-popping, and gloriously incomprehensible.
Killer Of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection (Milestone)
Long appreciated more in retrospect and rumor than in fact, Charles Burnett's 1977 indie film classic Killer Of Sheep received its first official theatrical release this year, allowing urban arthouse patrons the chance to appreciate Burnett's flavorful dialogue and poetic depiction of day-to-day living in the black neighborhoods of working-class Los Angeles. The film's triumphant bow was capped off by Milestone's generous DVD set, which adds a handful of stunning short films—the elliptical western The Horse being particularly beautiful—and Burnett's even-more-rarely seen second feature My Brother's Wedding, which the filmmaker re-cut after its disastrous festival debut in 1983. The whole package makes the case for Burnett as one of the best American filmmakers to fall in the thin cracks between the New Hollywood years and the Miramax era.
The Sergio Leone Anthology (MGM)
Though fans will still have to pick up Once Upon A Time In The West separately to get the full experience, this four-film set compiles the bulk of Leone's spaghetti westerns, filling them out nicely with appreciations from fans. Leone moves here from the simple demythologizing of 1964's A Fistful Of Dollars, which made the American West a place of dust and ugly people with uglier motives, to the fully restored version of 1971's underappreciated Duck, You Sucker, which transported the bloody revolutionary madness of the 1960s to the waning days of the frontier. Even after decades of imitators and parodies, these movies confirm Leone as a touchstone of modern filmmaking.
Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection (Warner Bros.)
Tex Avery's cartoons in general—and in particular the Droopy series he helmed for MGM—are rocket-paced and gleefully surreal, made for wisenheimers already hip to animation's conventions. The 18 Tex Avery-directed Droopy shorts—plus five by Michael Lah—on this two-disc DVD set follow a rote Droopy-vs.-predator format, but with each cartoon, the diminutive, saggy-voiced Droopy becomes more familiar, and his minimal movements and unbelievable prowess increasingly hilarious. Droopy is an awesome force of nature. Fear his wrath.
30 Rock: Season One (Universal)
Is there a more perfect way to watch television than on DVD? That goes double for the first season of 30 Rock, Tina Fey's beyond-brilliant comedy about the zany goings-on behind the scenes at a sketch comedy show. It's a smooth-running chuckle machine where constant fits of explosive laughter are guaranteed to drown out plenty of hilarious lines, many courtesy of SNL also-ran-turned-comic-supergenius Tracy Morgan, whose dialogue (like his advice to "Live each week like it's shark week") should be collected out of context and put in a coffee table book of cracked aphorisms. So repeat viewing isn't just rewarded, it's pretty much mandatory. Best of all, the 30 Rock DVD won't break fans' hearts by stopping production halfway into a season that's shaping up to be one of the all-time greats.
The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (Dragon Dynasty)
It was a strong year for the Weinstein brothers' Asian-cult-cinema boutique DVD label, and the imprint's high point came with the release of this legendary 1978 kung fu epic, about a scholar who trains at the Shaolin temple to learn their sacred martial-arts methods and exact revenge for the death of his family. Following the hero's grueling series of tests is as fun and suspenseful now as it was 30 years ago, but the DVD's additional selling points are its crisp transfer and copious bonus features, including a priceless commentary track by the Wu-Tang Clan's The RZA, who enthusiastically explains the appeal of oriental exoticism for urban latchkey kids.
Two-Lane Blacktop (Criterion)
Monte Hellman's existential 1971 road movie was rescued from obscurity by DVD in the late-'90s, but this new set burnishes the legend. Supplements find Hellman revisiting old locations and finding them much-changed and awkwardly reuniting with Blacktop's only surviving star, James Taylor. Best of all: Rudy Wurlitzer's screenplay, reprinted here with many deleted scenes intact. But even though it clarifies the moments that flesh out some of the film's subtext, Blacktop's mysteries remain its own.