There’s still time! Blu-rays are relatively cheap and they ship quickly – so what to get the cinephile on your list? Having reviewed quite a few possible contenders, here are the selections I most wholeheartedly recommend:
The Warner Archive Collection – $16.49 and up
Yams for Christmas
Warner Archive Collection
Don’t sleep on these on-demand Blu-ray titles direct from the studio, many of which are on sale as of this writing. From the White House coup classic Seven Days in May, to the panned but recently re-assessed Tom Hanks cult classic Joe vs. the Volcano, plenty of hidden gems can be found here, usually sans extras but with solid HD remasters.
I’m personally quite partial to The Witches, in which thriller maestro Nicholas Roeg turned his considerable talents toward terrifying tots with a Roald Dahl tale of evil hags scheming to turn children into mice. Classic 1940s Popeye cartoons also hit the spot, including some painstaking recreations of vintage color processes, and an animated Aladdin with a comedic and blue Genie that seems like an important precursor to the Disney version.
Cobra Kai Season 1 and 2 – $40 and up.
Who’s the real hero?
Basic DVD may be an almost obsolete format, but it’s the only way to own a physical media version of Cobra Kai, one of the greatest and most creative franchise revivals of the modern era. In two seasons, it feels like we’re at a natural second-act break, and if the third season holds up, I’d be inclined to rate this, Twin Peaks: The Return style, as a single movie and one of the year’s best. Bouncing off of the fan theory that protagonist Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) was the real villain of The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai follows up on ostensible antagonist Johnny (William Zabka), now down and out and drawn back into karate when a neighborhood kid gets in trouble. When he reopens the old Cobra Kai dojo, Daniel gets triggered and renews their rivalry, and their kids get caught in between, occasionally on opposite sides. Sometimes common sense prevails, but generally whenever Daniel and Johnny come close to making peace, a new development leads one or other to jump to a bad conclusion. And at least one individual — Johnny’s brutal mentor John Kreese — has a vested interest in keeping the grudge going.
An Alan Moore-esque deconstruction of a relatively formulaic film series, Cobra Kai has a lot to say about the toxicity of grudges, the importance of recognizing change and dealing with regrets, and the way the powerless can quickly become the victimizing powerful. It’s seriously better than anything else in the Karate Kid franchise, though it depends upon its good will to work. Plus it comes with a bonus reversible headband for either Cobra Kai or Daniel’s Miyagi-Do.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Mystery Mansion – $53.99 and up.
Plenty for the kids to meddle with.
Warner Home Video
If you think about it, anyone trying to pitch Scooby-Doo today would sound insane. In a world where ghosts and monsters are apparently a recurring problem all around the world, only one unsupervised group of teenagers and their talking dog, using the same basic detective formula every single time can prove that all these monsters are just cranky thieves in big costumes. In fact, the show came together as the result of multiple different pressures. The original pitch was to have the heroes be a traveling rock band, which explains the van. And Hanna Barbera was taking some heat from parents groups over the violence in superhero cartoons, so they had to come up with a concept that allows the heroes to run away from trouble and outwit it, rather than using fists or weapons.
In the Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? box set, shaped like a haunted house, you get the very first two seasons, along with a third that aired years later and sees the gang traveling to other countries. Extras focus on voice actors like Frank Welker, and you get to see the formula evolve — surprisingly few foes actually say “meddling kids” specifically, and the first few episodes saw a more dog-like Scooby occasionally barking at ghosts, and frequently getting into scrapes with small, angry critters like gophers. The artwork on all the spooky backgrounds remains as brilliantly, simply evocative as it ever was, even when it famously repeats itself during running sequences.
The set also includes a detailed trivia book on all the main characters, and a mini Funko Pop keychain. Hang around for Scooby-Doo!
Batman Beyond – $60.99 and up.
Warner Home Video
Most superhero stories stay in a kind of stasis, even as the world around them gets up to date, which is why Batman Beyond is fairly revolutionary. A direct sequel to Batman: The Animated Series, it travels forward in the timeline to Bruce Wayne being a cranky old man who trains the next-generation pointy-eared Gotham Knight, Terry McGinnis. To emphasize the connections between past and present, there’s even a full movie, Return of the Joker, which fills in some gaps.
It would be nigh-impossible for Warner Bros. to top their outstanding Batman animated set from last year, but they go all-out here too, with lenticular trading cards, limited Funko Pop, and of course every episode remastered along with the movie. If you haven’t yet fully explored this corner of the Batman mythos, it’s the best time.
Twin Peaks From Z to A – $113.33
Damn fine Blu-rays. And hot!
There have been Twin Peaks collections before. But not one with the original pilot and Episode 3.8 in 4K, unedited Roadhouse Bar performances, seven new hours of behind-the-scenes footage, new interviews, a box that folds out into the Red Room scene, and much more. Unless and until David Lynch and Mark Frost ever tell new stories in this world, it’s about as comprehensive as it gets. from beginning to end, watch as a small-town murder mystery descends into madness, indulges soap opera tropes, loses its way, goes back and retcons, and finally becomes a bugged-out abstract art film. A master class in many styles of film and TV making, Twin Peaks is a show (and at least one movie, depending how you define that term) that sticks in a viewer’s mind, whether because of wacky characters like Dale Cooper and Deputy Andy, or bizarre visuals like the little dancing man who becomes a brain-topped Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Gotta light?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Collectors Edition – $75.99 and up.
Hooray for Hollywood.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The third in an unofficial Quentin Tarantino trilogy of alternate history is a fairy-tale set in the version of the movie industry that Tarantino imagined it to be as a child. Contemplating career ends and obsolescence, his characters get a happy ending because he is the director and has the power to do that, giving the past happier closure than the reality. Like much of the director’s recent output, the narrative plot is less the point then the ability to meander in the open world environment and sense the deeper themes at play.
And the 4K set comes loaded with artifacts from the history that never was: a 45 record, a miniature issue of Mad Magazine containing a parody of the fake TV show in the movie, and a poster for one of actor Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio’s) previous films. In a sad irony, Mad Magazine itself went under between the start of production and the release of the home version, making this set even more of an elegy.
Transformers 4K Set – $41.99 and up.
More than meets your eyeballs.
Now that the Michael Bay Transformers film series is over a decade old, the ranks of those of us who like it are bolstered by former kids nostalgic for the things they grew up with. It’s okay to like them, and even better to like them in 4K upgrades, all of which appear to preserve the original grain rather than going the digital facelift route. What’s most interesting to note is that at least the first film, derided as slam-bang incomprehensible at the time, doesn’t feel hyper-edited by today’s standards, and once you know what all the robots look like, they’re actually quite easy to tell apart. Revenge of the Fallen got a little more choppy, and it’s unfortunate that the Imax cut hasn’t been preserved in this format (it exists on a Walmart exclusive Blu-ray now out of print).
But the series really hit its stride when Shia LaBeouf got replaced with Mark Wahlberg, whose earnestly preposterous turn as a Texas inventor sets the tone for the kind of absurd escapades a five year-old dreams up while playing with robot toys. It’s low-key infuriating that the Unicron cliffhanger at the end of The Last Knight will never be resolved, but at least we got Bumblebee out of the deal, and all the Generation 1 designs onscreen for a few minutes. The 4k box set is available with or without that most recent installment, for the sake of people who bought the Travis Knight “preboot” on 4K already.
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut 4K – $12.99 and up.
I love the smell of bonus discs in the morning.
For most Francis Ford Coppola fans I know, here’s the bad news: he still thinks that French plantation sequence is so important to his cinematic masterpiece of Vietnam War-as-nightmare that he’s willing to stop the narrative momentum dead in at least two versions of the film so the characters can start talking politics and history. This takes the entire movie briefly out of the surreal nightmare realm it’s been slowly dropping into, and back to the real world It’s fascinating to watch, but it doesn’t fit. The good news is that Coppola is not George Lucas, and the original theatrical cut AND longer “redux” cut are here too, plus the documentary Hearts of Darkness. All in 4K, at least on the physical copy — as often happens with Lionsgate, the digital code only unlocks a regular HD version of the Final Cut, which removes the Playmates scene but keeps the plantation.
There’s also some never-before-seen B-roll, footage, a new Q&A, a history of home video adaptations, and a still gallery of John Milius’ script with Coppola notes. This set is the definitive take on a definitive masterpiece, and you get to choose which version fits that definition best. As of this writing it is an absurdly low $12.99 on Amazon, so grab it! Unless the recipient of the gift is reading this, they’ll think you spent $50 or more.
Game of Thrones Complete Series – $169.99 and up.
Hodor. Ho-calls. We’re gonna be busy a while.
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Okay, fine. You’re mad at the whole show because of the ending. That’s a mistake. Admittedly a common one (Hello, Lost!), but one that shouldn’t blind you to how great and groundbreaking this epic fantasy show was for at least seven years. Yes, the final season was rushed, but no, Daenerys’ turn was not some sudden twist. She’s a white savior to grateful slaves for a whole couple seasons, and you’re shocked she becomes a Targaryen supremacist at the end? Sure, the handling could have been more elegant, but you’re allowed to mentally fill in gaps between episodes yourself. From Hodor to Jon Snow’s resurrection, Tyrion’s drinking and knowing things, Jason Momoa’s bare physique, Pedro Pascal’s head crushing, Joffrey’s poisoning, and so much more…thank you for the memories, Game of Thrones. Glad to have you all in one helping.
And hey, you can look forward to all the commentaries on Season 8 that explain what everyone was thinking. It might help.
Criterion’s Godzilla Showa Era Box Set – $112.49 and up.
We’re inclined to think of older Godzilla movies as cheesy, man-in-suit WWE rumbles over plastic model cities, a perception not unfounded since so many of us first saw them on network TV with terrible dubs. Criterion is helping to restore honor to the big G with this 15-film set that restores the Japanese dialogue and original cuts. The special effects don’t magically get better, but the context can change appreciably. The 1954 original was altered by reshoots into a Raymond Burr vehicle where the original was a post-nuclear nightmare parable; every Godzilla movie through 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla gets a high-definition transfer, finally ready to be seen as intended by modern audiences. A fancy hardcover book and loads of extras help add cultural/period context and seal the deal.