#1. Ford at Fox A beautiful box of 24 John Ford films provides a full, fresh view of the classic American director. Even casual movie fans of a certain age will be familiar with the official classics — Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine — but there are other gems (the assassination drama The Prisoner of Shark Island, the Will Rogers Steamboat Round the Bend, the Shirley Temple Wee Willie Winkie) that look gorgeous in new restorations. Another treat: an illuminating documentary, Becoming John Ford, on the director’s relationship with Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck.#2. Paul Robeson: Portraits of the ArtistActor, singer and activist (also football star, lawyer and State Department blacklistee) Robeson was a unique figure in ’20s, ’30s and ’40s American popular culture: a smart, gifted black man who saw nothing unusual in asserting himself — and paid the price for it. He was also the first black movie star to break free of servile stereotypes. Mostly, this was in English films, though he was also a sensation in Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul and the screen version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. They’re all here, supported by a feature-length doc on Robeson’s grand and tragic career.
#3. Stanley Kubrick: Warner Home Video Directors Series The great and powerful Oz of directors, Kubrick was both an inspiration and a warning to younger directors: Making ambitious, demanding films is hard. So most of them don’t even try to scale the heights Kubrick scaled on talent and bravado. This collection amasses five of his six last features: 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. (For reasons that remain opaque, Barry Lyndon is sold separately.) Each film has a slew of pertinent extras. One favorite: Keir Dullea, 40 years after becoming the old man at the end of 2001, walks into a re-creation of the same room, as an old man. It’s a moment as enthrallingly creepy as any in the Kubrick canon.
#4. Looney Tunes, Volume 5The latest ransacking of the 1,001 treasures in the Warner Bros. cartoon series that lasted from 1930 to 1963, this fifth official Golden Collection comprises four discs and 80 cartoons, stocked with the graphic grace and anarchic brio of the all-time great animation unit. Among the seven-minute masterpieces: Tex Avery’s lunatic Porky’s Preview, Frank Tashlin’s magnificent Scrap Happy Daffy (a wartime fantasy of scrap-saving and Hitler-bashing) and Bob Clampett’s The Old Gray Hare (a time trip in which Bugs and Elmer zip backward to infancy and forward to senility — in the year 2000). Clampett was the lunatic genius of Looney Tunes, and it’s good to see him get his overdue due.
#5. Battleship Potemkin There’s a five-minute passage in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet classic that is perhaps the most influential movie scene of all time. It’s the Odessa steps sequence, in which bayonet-brandishing soldiers march down, firing away, as the rebellious people (most of them women) stand against them in heroic protest. The sequence’s signature elements — the careering baby carriage, the woman shot in the eye, the broken spectacles — have inspired scenes in literally hundreds of films. Potemkin revolutionized moviemaking. This two-disc edition, pieced together by Enno Patalas for the German Film Archive, restores the movie’s immediacy and grandeur.
6. Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934This third collection of early shorts and features — kept in the vaults of U.S. archives and presented by the National Film Preservation Foundation — bulges with big angry issues. For starters: immigration, abortion, atheism, organized crime, Native American rights, women’s rights and the treatment of wounded veterans. If there was a debate that could start a fight, the first moviemakers were instantly ready to dramatize and exploit it. You’ll find Cecil B. De Mille spectacles, cliff-hanging serials, cartoons, documentaries and newsreels — all fascinating to anyone who cares about how Americans 80 to a 100 years ago faced the problems that still vex our society.
#7. Ingmar Bergman: Four Masterworks Bergman, who died this July at 89, was once widely considered cinema’s greatest writer-director. Today he is known mainly as that Swedish guy Woody Allen likes. Here’s the most concise chance to see what all the hubbub was about. Criterion has packaged a Bergman quartet from the ’50s: the three very different films that made his reputation — the rollicking, rueful comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, the medieval passion play The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, a poignant evocation of aging — and his first Oscar-winner, The Virgin Spring. If the ambition and acuity in these four films don’t make you a Bergman convert, the sight of beautiful actresses pouring out their hearts and souls should do the trick.
#8. HairsprayEven if you weren’t a fan of this all-singing, all-dancing, liberatingly silly musical, you should check out the two hours of making-of extras. You get background on the 1988 John Waters movie and the 2002 Broadway musical and the Baltimore dance party, The Buddy Deane Show, that inspired them both. (One teen, now a matron, says she needed a nun’s permission to dance close with boys on TV. Another girl was reputed to have died after roaches infested her beehive hairdo; Buddy had to go on the air to refute this urban legend.) And there’s plenty of rehearsal footage, with the stars and 150 dancers tapping and frugging till they drop. Busby Berkeley lives!
#9. Berlin Alexanderplatz Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15½-hour epic — a sensation and a scandal when it premiered on German TV in 1980 — is finally on DVD, in a digital restoration much cleaner than any other version, including the original broadcast. In adapting Alfred Doblin’s 1929 novel, the German wunderbrat created a fresco of Weimar Berliners ground down by their base appetites and that form of bad luck known as Fate. But the movie is no downer. Fassbinder was every bit as much entertainer as artist, and this, his masterpiece, is a tonic experience. Save it for a long winter’s night, and savor its meticulous vision of malefic glamour.
#10. Live Free or Die HardThe news and noise here were a few sensational action scenes that rely less on CGI wizardry (a.k.a. cheating) and more on old-fashioned mechanical skills. The most amazing: Bruce Willis and a computer nerd (Justin Fox, from the Apple commercials) are standing in a tunnel with cars roaring at them from both directions. Suddenly one car comes tumbling through the air straight at them, and they miss being killed because, just as the car is about to crush them, two other vehicles drive on either side of the guys and the hurtling car lands smack on top of the other two. I mean, holy stunt! The making-of extras provide the full poop on how this miracle was achieved. Fan-boys and -girls are encouraged to study it endlessly. That’s what Hollywood movies are about, and what DVDs are for.