The home video revolution of the 1980s may have changed the way we watch movies, but one thing stayed the same: Films still weren’t for keeping. Before video, you left the theater when the movie was over. Now you just returned the tape.
At last that’s changing, too. Video companies are finally releasing movies at prices that make it only too tempting to buy. (And people are buying — analysts predict $1.3 billion worth of prerecorded videos will go home for good this holiday season.) As well as reducing prices on films that have passed their rental peak, video marketers are debuting some theatrical hits like Pretty Woman in the affordable $20 range.
This year spiffy boxed sets of the Star Wars trilogy, all four Rockys, and the three Karate Kids are available to satisfy holiday buying binges. But even single tapes are great for stuffing in stockings and VCRs: Not only is it easy to match the folks on your list to specific movies, sports tapes, or how-to videos, it’s more personal — and it beats giving everybody fruitcake. Here are some of the season’s best video deals, on both new releases and price-reduced evergreens.
They’re always a good impulse-shopping bet (they fit the seasonal spirit better than, for instance, a boxed set of Ingmar Bergman films), and this year offers comedy hits new (The Naked Gun), and old (Bananas). Our picks:
This Is Spinal Tap 1984
Rob Reiner’s directorial debut is a rock-schlock mockumentary so straight-faced that a lot of people thought it was about a real band. The satire is loving, merciless, and, until that distant day when pompous excess no longer has a place in rock, pertinent.
A Night at the Opera 1935
A Day at the Races 1937
Marx Brothers movies have an added advantage on video: With a rewind button, you can catch every one of Groucho’s warp-speed one-liners. The boys’ first two MGM films saddle them with dippy romantic costars, but anarchy still takes the field in Night‘s stateroom scene and Day‘s examining-room madness.
A Christmas Story 1983
This adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s tales of growing up in the 1940s Midwest shows Christmas to be a hilarious rush of cranky department-store Santas, bunny pajamas given by senile aunts, and baby brothers hiding under the kitchen sink. Nostalgic Americana has never been deflated so warmly.
When the real world gets too cold, John Patrick Shanley’s eccentric wordplay, a never-never Brooklyn setting, and Cher and Nicolas Cage at their most likable make this a comedy to restore your faith in romance.
Great dramas make great collectibles. Whether they’re sentimental favorites like On Golden Pond and Rain Man or refined showstoppers such as Amadeus and A Room With a View, the care that goes into them and the emotions they evoke are worth savoring. Our picks:
The Godfather 1972
The Godfather Part II 1974
The Godfather 1902-1959: The Complete Epic 1981
Not that we’d look a dead gift horse in the mouth, but nothing less than The Complete Epic, Francis Ford Coppola’s dazzling, chronological reediting of parts I and II, will do, especially with the latest chapter about to hit theaters.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 1975
There are plenty of reasons to own this one: It made Jack Nicholson a superstar. It swept the Oscars. Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd are so convincing as loonies, we thought they were for real. But the main reason is that this movie’s achingly funny, uncompromisingly bitter message can still move you to tears.
The Year of Living Dangerously 1983
By setting this romance in the political tinderbox of mid-’60s Indonesia, director Peter Weir gave it a feverish edge that few films achieve. The secret of its emotional pull is that we watch Mel Gibson’s and Sigourney Weaver’s breathtaking glamour with the same awestruck envy that Linda Hunt’s Billy Kwan does.
If you know a Stallone freak who doesn’t mind sitting through the same story four times, The Rocky Collection I-IV should ring the bell. The Star Wars trilogy and 2001: A Space Odyssey will send sci-fi fans into outer space, and horror fiends should have a very bloody Christmas with Child’s Play, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, or Poltergeist. Our picks:
Dr. No 1962
From Russia With Love 1963
Almost all the James Bond films are available for less than $20 each, but giving all 17 would be a license to overkill. The first three are by far the best: Sean Connery is still young, brutal, and sexy, and the films have the tone of a dazzlingly cool comic strip.
Die Hard 1988
Like this summer’s sequel, the original Die Hard is a hugely satisfying Rube Goldberg toy, as enjoyable for its craft as for its thrills. It’s a great keeper, too, so complex that repeat viewings are necessary to remember all the stages on Bruce Willis’ journey from nonchalant bystander to exhausted superhero.
Where Eagles Dare 1969
Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton rescue an American general from a Nazi castle high in the Alps. With a scarifying cable-car round-trip that defines this kind of Boy’s Own Adventure, it’s the most thrilling Alistair MacLean adaptation (the author himself wrote the script) and the best early Eastwood movie that isn’t a Western.
People collect classic films the way they do wine, relishing something that seems to improve with age. Everyone from James Dean to Jimmy Cagney is the subject of a boxed set this year, and MGM/UA has almost all of Garbo’s sound films. As for musicals, they range from An American in Paris to West Side Story. Our picks:
The Clock 1945
In one of the simplest, most charming romances ever made, shop girl Judy Garland meets and marries soldier Robert Walker in 48 hours. A lovely bouquet from director Vincente Minnelli to his future bride Garland, the film treats its stars like children let loose in a fairy-tale Manhattan.
Libeled Lady 1936
Tabloid editor Spencer Tracy enlists fiancée Jean Harlow and pal William Powell in a scam to get the dirt on society playgirl Myrna Loy. The stars have the time of their lives in this great screwball comedy. Best moment: An unenthusiastic Powell woos Loy by comparing her eyes to ”angry marbles.”
Ingrid Bergman is a fragile Victorian newlywed whose husband, silky Charles Boyer, may be trying to drive her around the bend. This lush George Cukor film is all shadows and creepy noises, with a tarty debut by a young Angela Lansbury.
Fans of foreign films are a self-selecting bunch: They know what they like, and, if they’re collectors, they know where to find it. Still, if there are any surrealists on your list, the Luis Buñuel four-title set should melt their pocket watches. Our picks:
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie 1972
Ghostly policemen, drug-running ambassadors, gardening bishops, and dinner parties where no one ever gets around to eating are among the pleasures of Bunuel’s wonderful shaggy-gentry story.
La Dolce Vita 1960
Even with its wide-screen compositions cropped almost in half, Federico Fellini’s three-hour debauch through jet-set Italy remains hypnotic on video. What’s eerie is how little change there has been in the celebrity-mad style of tabloid journalism this movie lampooned so definitively.
If there’s one genre the video boom has saved, it’s the reliable oater: Everything from top-of-the-line sagebrush sagas to cheapie B-Westerns is available. What’s surprising is how consistently entertaining most of them are, a marriage between familiar story conventions and big-sky vistas. Among the best:
A Fistful of Dollars 1964
For a Few Dollars More 1965
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 1967
Three glorious goofs that everyone — star Clint Eastwood, director Sergio Leone, composer Ennio Morricone — was in on. Though their wide-screen beauty is stunted on TV, the films have an operatic intensity coupled with a sly pop-art grin.
Rio Grande 1950
The final film in John Ford’s ”cavalry trilogy” is the least sentimental, with John Wayne daringly unsympathetic as a colonel torn between duty and family. Maureen O’Hara (the only actress with whom Wayne ever seemed comfortable) is touching as his estranged wife.
There are kid-vid tapes to immobilize a roomful of youngsters while Mom or Dad attend to other business. Then there are family movies that grown-ups can’t resist watching along with the kids. Our picks among the latter:
The story of the little elephant with the very big ears has a way of addressing childhood anxieties that’s both remarkable and subtle. If that’s too heavy for you, just enjoy the gorgeous animation that stands as the apex of the Disney studio’s artistry.
The Three Caballeros 1945
One of Disney’s most overlooked animated features, Caballeros takes Donald Duck South of the Border. The first half is particularly fun for kids, while the second half dives into a campy Latin dreamworld that makes Fantasia seem poker-faced.
The Black Stallion 1979
This tale of a shipwrecked boy taming a fiery steed is not only one of the few unpatronizing G-rated films, it’s also among the most stunningly photographed movies ever. A first-rate new video edition preserves each brilliant hue.
No matter what the person on your list is into — or would like to be — there’s probably a videotape out there about it. From documentaries to travelogues to how-to tapes, specialty videos allow you to tailor the gift to the recipient. Our picks:
The Civil War 1990
As millions of viewers already know, Ken Burns’ massively thorough documentary does more than just deliver the facts — it makes you emotionally relive the most hellish, crucial chapter in U.S. history. Like a great book that rewards rereading, The Civil War will endure.
Trucs of the Trade 1990
This novel approach to cooking has 48 superstar chefs providing 93 trucs — French for tricks or shortcuts. It includes the simple (pouring wine) and the intricate (making chocolate ribbon decorations), the ordinary (hamburger) and the rarefied (quail eggs).
Giving the armchair jock in your life a sports video may mean losing him or her for the rest of the day, but hey, it’s Christmas. Dorf’s Golf Bible is available for putters who aren’t hopelessly Dorf-ed out, and Worldwide’s Baseball Classics, Vols. 1 & 2 will mollify those yearning for spring. Our picks:
NFL’s Official Super Bowl I-XXIV Collection 1967-1990 1990
Powerful and poetic footage of every historic matchup, starting with the first game, which pitted the Green Bay Packers against the Kansas City Chiefs — a nice reminder of when Super Bowls were actually exciting.
Wayne Gretzky — Above and Beyond 1990
Follow the Great One from the time he filled stadiums as a 10-year-old wunderkind to 1989, when he broke Gordie Howe’s all-time scoring record. Gretzky’s modesty overcomes the absurdly portentous narration to make this involving even for non-hockey fans.
(Additional writing and reporting by Steve Daly, Terry Catchpole, and Ned Geeslin.)