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DVDS that should be on your holiday shopping list

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Updated: May 9, 2012 10:02AM

Let’s go to the movies... and not leave our big comfy couches!

Seems like films were making it to home video in record time this year, as many titles found themselves on Netflix and those fabulous Red Boxes (and retailer shelves) often within a few months of their theatrical release.

A big surprise this year was the increase in combo pack (DVD/Blu-ray/Digital) releases, which means a LOT of bang for your buck: you can keep one copy, give one (or more) as a gift, and download yet another if you want to eliminate the physical discs from your home altogether. Not a bad way to go especially when it comes to holiday spending in tough economic times.

There were so many hits and misses along the DVD/Blu-ray highway, and we all have our favorites. Choosing ten, was nearly impossible, so here’s a look at 10 (plus a few extra) must-have DVDs of 2011 (in no particular order). Keep in mind, several Web retailers have great markdown prices on all, so don’t let the listed MSRP scare you off.

“Harry Potter — The Complete 8-Film Collection”

(Blu-ray, Warner Home Video, $139.99). Before you can wave your magic wand at me in utter disdain, let me say that this set IS worth buying (the DVD version is about $40 less). No, this is not the definitive, penultimate box set that diehard Potter fans have been salivating for (that, according to the rumor mill will most likely arrive in time for next Christmas’ shopping season). But Warner Bros. has announced it will stop shipping all DVDs and Blu-rays of the “Potter” series after Dec. 29. (Yikes!), so I found that having all 8 films in one convenient pack THIS season was a godsend. I had a ball revisiting each film in its entirety, commercial-free, in chronological order, in full home theater surround sound. And for those who have missed one or two films in the saga, it’s a great way to reconnect. The transfers are pristine and the sound equally first-rate. The serious lack of palpable bonus features will not endear serious fans, but for the rest of us, this set is a must.

“Scarface (Limited Edition, Blu-ray/Digital combo, Universal Home Video, $29.98). Yes it’s Blu-ray which means a substantial portion of the market won’t be able to enjoy this smartly packaged, nicely remastered edition of this cult classic hit (though a digital dowload copy of the film is also included). Al Pacino gave new meaning to f-bomb-dropping, sleazebag cocaine kingpins with his performance. This Blu-ray looks amazingly better (and sounds a whole lot better, too) than previous DVD releases. Extras are bountiful, including 10 art cards, a great mini-doc on the making of the film and subsequent video game, and a copy of the original 1932 “Scarface” starring Paul Muni and directed by the legendary Howard Hawks (The entire film takes place in Chicago and this time the vice is bootlegged alcohol, and the brutal violence is classic 1930s machine-gun mayhem. Look for Boris Karloff as an Irish gangster.) Watch the original first and you’ll find many similarities, almost homages, in Brian DePalma’s remake.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” (DVD/Blu-ray/Digital combo, Paramount, $42.99). Marvel Universe rolls right along in yet another big screen homage to its comic book pantheon (which already includes feature film versions of Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk and X-Men). The 3-disc set has everybody covered in terms of playback, even a 3-D Blu-ray version for those who insist on the latest techno-wizardry. I have to admit, the 2-D version is the way to go with this smart slice of Americana. Didn’t know what to expect from the film and its storyline, but the payoff is huge. Chris Evans is perfectly cast as the title character, a 1940s “man-made” superhero armed with an indestructible shield and his unparalleled love of country. The bonus features are very engaging, especially those dealing with the origins of the comic book hero and his famous costume. If you’ve got a home theater set-up, the Dolby surround sound will blow you away.

“Rio” (Fox Home Entertainment, DVD/Blu-ray/Digital Combo pack, $39.99). What’s not to love about this wonderful animated feature (voices by Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg and Jamie Foxx) about a pet Macaw who never learned to fly who heads to Rio de Janeiro to find his lady love, only to be kidnapped by poachers and befriended by street-smart city birds. The Blu-ray is the best way to go here, as the colors positively burst off the screen. The soundtrack, rich with the pulsating rhythms of Brazil (music is courtesy of, Sergio Mendes, Bebel Gilbert and Taio Cruz, among others) is a revelation. The bonus materials cover a fair amount of material from an obligatory making-of mini-doc to an extended look at the music and music videos.

“Super 8” (DVD/Blu-ray/Digital Combo pack, Paramount Home Entertainment, $39.99). One of the best surprises of the year, is this ingenious film about a group of kids in a small Ohio town in the late 1970s who witness a horrible train crash while they’re filming their Super-8 zombie movie, is fun, smart and engaging. They unwittingly uncover the truth about the accident that changes their lives when “something” escapes from the crash, and they’ve got the film footage to prove it. The bonus features on the Blu-ray, in addition to writer/director J.J. Abrams’ insightful commentary, include a making-of mini-doc, a cool look at the appeal of 8mm film, and a look behind the making of the horrific train crash scene. The Blu-ray transfer is pristine and the colors are rich and lush.

“Barney Miller: The Complete Series” (DVD, Shout! Factory, $159.99). Twenty-five discs deliver this classic TV series (1974-1982) in its entirety (170 episodes). Starring Hal Linden as the title character and a supporting cast that included Abe Vigoda, Steve Landesberg, Max Gail, Ron Glass, Jack Soo, Gregory Sierra and Ron Carey, the daily goings-on at a Greenwich Village police station’s detectives squad room were hilarious, preposterous, poignant and dramatic. The bonus materials are numerous, including updated interviews with the cast and crew, a 32-page booklet that’s an invaluable episode guide, and the original unaired pilot episode. Also included in the first full season of “Fish,” a spinoff series that starred Vigoda. The transfer is marvelous; forget about those late-night “washed out” hues on Classic TV stations.

“West Side Story: Special Edition Collector’s Set” (Blu-ray, MGM Home Entertainment, $29.99). It’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in the slums of 1950s New York City, filled with the glorious music score of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and the incomparable choreography of Jerome Robbins. This set is the definitive homage to the 10-time Academy Award-winning film, its stars, filmmakers, behind-the-scenes crew, and even the fans who have made it one of the most popular movies of all time. The bonus materials include an hourlong doc with some of the stars and filmmakers (pretty much every subject is covered, including Rita Moreno’s dubbed singing for one song and Natalie Wood’s original vocals that were ultimately dubbed over) and an engrossing documentary on the film’s legacy. Home movies from the film set are priceless. I loved the engaging look at several scenes that are “broken down” so that you can see how the choreography (yes, even the famous knife scene is breathtaking choreography) and the dancers’ movements were set up and executed down to the last, most subtle gesture. A gorgeous book, storyboards, and a set of international poster/postcards are also included. The transfer is stunning and the score has never sounded so wondrous.

“Tangled” (Walt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D/DVD/Digital Combo, $49.99). The 50th animated film in the Disney kingdom is as beautiful to watch as it is to listen to. Having grossed nearly $100 million to date in theaters alone, it’s safe to say a lot of children’s Christmas stockings will be stuffed with the home video version this holiday season. The story of Rapunzel, with her seemingly unending silken mane with magical powers simply enchants. The 2-D version (Blu-ray and HD DVD) is definitely the way to go. The kaleidoscope of colors are entrancing and I can’t believe that home 3D (still in its infancy) will add anything to that wondrous viewing experience. My only quibble with the set is the lack of any engaging bonus materials (2 extended songs and endless movie trailers just don’t cut it).

“Midnight in Paris” (DVD, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $30.99; due Dec. 20). What a sweet, sweet surprise this film turned out to be. Woody Allen directs Owen Wilson in this nostalgic fantasy about a writer vacationing in Paris who travels back and forth between his present day world and the wildly bohemian world of 1920s Paris. There he meets some of the greatest writers, music makers and artists of the 20th century including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, Toulouse-Lautrec among others. Own it.

“Rango” (DVD/Blu-ray/Digital combo, Paramount Home Entertainment, $44.99) Johnny Depp is just irresistible as the voice of the title character in this animated tale of a pet chameleon who falls off the back of a car into the desert and into the Old West town of Dirt. This is classic Spaghetti Western fare complete with plenty of action, wacky characters, old time saloons, gunfights, crude humor, a great score, and a cigarette puffing protagonist. This one’s geared toward adults and mature kiddies, but when I saw it originally in the theaters, even the youngest of the young in attendance were having a ball. The Blu-ray transfer is simply perfect; the colors are almost beyond brilliant. The bonus features are a blast, including an interactive journey to Dirt, deleted scenes an engaging picture-in-picture storyboard, and a nice mini-doc all about the real creatures of the desert (snakes, scorpions, spiders and such).

“Waiting for Superman” (DVD, Paramount Vantage, $31.99) The doc follows five students struggling with an American education system that is a miserable mess. Nearly every aspect of the system is explored (good and bad), from “No Child Left Behind,” to poorly performing schools in the poorest of neighborhoods, to inequities in standardized tests, to teachers who care and those who don’t, to overcrowding in schools, the success of charter and private schools, and the education funding disaster that has become insurmountable. Central to the storyline is Geoffrey Canada (“The Lottery”), the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. This was one of the most riveting docs I’ve watched in a long time; the lottery drawing for a spot in one of five charter schools near the film’s end was just heartbreaking. No bonus materials to speak of, but then how much more can we take?

“True Grit” (Blu-ray/DVD/Digital, Paramount Home Entertainment, $39.99). The remake of the John Wayne (who finally won an Oscar for his starring role) 1969 classic is in a league by itself. Jeff Bridges stars in his Oscar-nominated turn as Rooster Cogburn, a washed-up, one-eyed federal marshal hired by a 14-year-old precocious girl who wants to bring her father’s killer to justice. Based on Charles Portis’ novel and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, this is one time a remake is as good or even better than the original. The Blu-ray transfer is spot-on; the colors are rich and lush and true to life. Bonus materials are engaging, especially the featurette on Portis, an American author and long-ago journalist with a penchant for western fiction.

HONORABLE MENTION: “Yes Virginia” (New Video Group, $9.95). Okay, so technically this one came out in 2010, but it’s one of the most lovely CGI/animated short films (only 24 minutes of your viewing time will be required) I’ve come across for the holiday season outside of the Christmas classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” et al). Based on the famous (and true) “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” newspaper editorial published in 1897 in the New York Sun, this one’s a gem. With the voices of Neil Patrick Harris, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alfred Molina and especially Beatrice Miller as Virginia, children (of all ages) will be captivated. This is smart, tug-at-your-heartstrings entertainment, and if you missed it last holiday season (it was a made-for-TV special), make sure you nab your own copy this year so you won’t miss it again (or in seasons to come). The bonus materials are minimal, but the making-of doc is fascinating (it was originally set as a three-minute Web film; the film’s sophisticated score by Nicholas Hooper was recorded at Abbey Road). That pretty much the film’s entire and quite young creative team never heard of the story prior to their researching the Web film is priceless. Or maybe some of us are too old to forget?

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