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2011 - Holiday Gift Guide - Part III

December 14th, 2011

Another week, another installment of our annual Holiday Gift Guide. This week we have the penultimate installment, which focuses on Indie films, imports, catalogue titles, etc. Some of these did very well at the box office, for instance, Midnight in Paris made more than $50 million domestically and $125 million worldwide, which is better than a lot of films that debuted in saturation level theater counts. Other films, like Kung Fu Joe, I had never heard about till they arrived on my desk unannounced. So what are some of the smaller titles that should make good gifts this year?

For those who want the biggest Woody Allen film in his career...
Midnight in Paris - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams play a soon to be married couple vacationing in Paris. When Owen decides to get away from Rachel's obnoxious friends, he finds himself transported to the 1920s and meets all of the artist greats, who called Paris home at the time.
Pros: Not only was the movie the biggest box office hit of Woody Allen's career, not taking into account inflation, it was also one of his best. It's a great story with great acting that also uses the city of Paris and its history to wonderful effect.
Cons: Like many Woody Allen movies, the DVD / Blu-ray is nearly featureless. I know he thinks his films should stand on their own, but that doesn't mean hearing his thoughts on the film or seeing his filmmaking process wouldn't be interesting to his fans.

For those who are hoping Paul Giamatti won't be ignored by Oscar voters, again...
Win Win - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: Paul Giamatti plays a lawyer whose practice is failing. He also coaches high school wrestling, but his team isn't very good either. The grandson of one of his clients, Alex Shaffer, comes to look for his grandfather, who is now in a home. Paul and his wife, Amy Ryans, take him in and by a stroke of luck, he's a really good wrestler.
Pros: This film is award-worthy, whether or not it actually does win any major awards is another story. (It was nearly shut out at the Independent Spirit Awards nominations, which is not a good sign.)
Cons: The DVD and Blu-ray came out in August, so there's a greater chance the person already has it. Also, despite earning $10 million at the box office, which is great for a limited release, there are not a lot of extras on DVD or Blu-ray.

For those who remember what it was like one hundred and eleven years ago...
Little Big Man - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon
Description: Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabb, whom we meet at the age of 121. He is speaking to an historian about his life and he begins one hundred and eleven years ago, when he was ten years old, and his family was killed by Indians, while they travelled the Great Plains. For the next two hours, we hear him tell stories of his life in the old west, which includes being raised by the Cheynne Indians under their Chief, Old Lodge Skins, as well as many stints trying to make it with white folks.
Pros: The film was nominated for several awards, and with good reason. Chief Dan George was singled out the most and earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. The film also looks really good for a movie made in 1970, while the audio is clear, but uncomplicated.
Cons: There are no extras on the Blu-ray.

For those who want to see one of the best examples of Brazilian cinema...
City of God - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon
Description: A look at the slums of Brazil and the young men who live there and have to deal with the drugs, murder and crime that dominate their lives.
Pros: This year, Elite Troop 2: The Enemy Within came out and was a huge it in its native Brazil and earned nearly perfect reviews. However, it's not the first Brazilian film to win over critics. In 2002, City of God opened with excellent reviews and even earned a large number of major award nominations. This includes four Oscars nominations, which ties it with Kiss of the Spider Woman for the best result for a Brazilian film. (It wasn't able to become the third Brazilian film to win.) The Blu-ray looks and sounds good, especially for a relatively low budget non-Hollywood production. There is only one extra on the Blu-ray, but it is an hour-long documentary on the real life stories in these slums.
Cons: It is a foreign language film, which does limit its target audience somewhat.

For those who want to see a coming of age story from a Middle Eastern perspective...
Circumstance - Buy from Amazon
Description: A coming of age story set in the repressive society of Iran. It focuses on three people: Atafeh, the daughter of a rich family; her best friend, Shireen, who becomes involved in sex and drugs; and her brother, Mehran, who used to be involved in drugs, but has become fundamentally religious after getting sober.
Pros: Firstly, this is an excellent movie with a great story and strong performances, especially from the two leading actresses. Secondly, it's from a part of the world where we normally don't get a lot of movies from. There are not a lot of extras on the DVD with just an audio commentary track and a making of featurette, but this is more than most imports have.
Cons: Some have called the story a little overly melodramatic, and I can see where they are coming from. Also, as a coming of age story, it is something we've seen before. However, the pros outweigh the cons by a significant margin.

For those who want to see Obi-Wan before he became a Jedi...
Trainspotting - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon
Velvet Goldmine - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Description: Two films featuring pre-Obi-Wan Ewan McGregor. In Trainspotting, he stars as a heroin addict looking for a way out. Velvet Goldmine focuses on a journalist, Christian Bale, looking into a rock star, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who faded from public view after a publicity stunt ruined his career. Ewan McGregor is one of the former bandmates.
Pros: Trainspotting is an excellent, if difficult film to watch. The Blu-ray is loaded with extras and looks and sounds as good as one could expect for a low budget film. Velvet Goldmine is not quite as good, but does have appeal, especially if you are interested in the world of Glam Rock. The Blu-ray for this film is not quite as good looking and only has an audio commentary track as an extra.
Cons: Trainspotting is difficult to watch, enough so that it limits its target audience.

For those who think of war when they think of Christmas...
Tora! Tora! Tora! - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon
Description: An historical account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Blu-ray contains both the American cut and the slightly longer Japanese cut. It looks at the political events that led up to the attack, the blunders (America underestimated the Japanese aggression, for instance), and of course the deadly battle.
Pros: The film is better than its Tomatometer Score would indicate. I think it did poorly in the United States when it was first released, because it was such a balanced look at the war. Additionally, the Blu-ray is amazing. You can't tell it was made 40 years ago, as the video and audio are impeccable, while there are plenty of extras that add a lot of replay value.
Cons: If spending Christmas with your family makes you think, "a date which will live in infamy", perhaps its time to rethink your holiday plans.

For those who want to see a martial arts battle between bodyguards and assassins...
Bodyguards and Assassins - Buy from Amazon
Description: Set in 1901 at the beginning of the Chinese revolution, the film follows a group of martial arts experts trying to protect an important politician against the emperor's assassins sent to kill him.
Pros: It's a great martial arts film with a strong epic feel to it. As I said in my review, it feels like it is part of a larger story. Also, the DVD has better than expected extras for a foreign language import.
Cons: It never came out on Blu-ray, which is a shame. Also, it takes a while for the action to really kick into high gear, so if you are looking for wall-to-wall fights, that could be a concern.

For those who don't care about bodyguards and just want more assassins...
13 Assassins - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: The film takes place in feudal Japan. The current Shogun is getting old and is without an heir, which means his younger brother will soon succeed him. However, his brother is a violent man who delights in inflicting cruelty, so political forces rise up to stop him from ascending to the throne.
Pros: One the best movies of the year. There are not a lot of extras on the DVD or the Blu-ray, but that's common for foreign language imports.
Cons: It came out on the home market during the summer, so there's a chance the person you would give it to already has it.

For those who want mystery with their martial arts...
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: After a couple government officiasl burst into flames, a previously imprisoned detective is released by the Empress to get to the bottom of the case. She is about to become the first woman ruler of China and she had a lot of enemies and a lot of secrets.
Pros: A stellar mix of mystery and martial arts, which are two genres you normally don't see combined. The Blu-ray looked and sounded better than expected.
Cons: There were not a lot of extras on the DVD or Blu-ray.

For those who are looking for a tale of young love...
Submarine - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: The film is the coming of age story of Oliver Tate, a high school student with a grossly inflated idea of his own self worth. His parents' marriage is falling apart, but he might have found true love with Jordana Bevan, a schoolmate.
Pros: Great writing and stellar acting make this a fantastic movie. It didn't live up to expectations at the box office, which is bad for the studio, but makes it less likely that your recipient has already seen the movie.
Cons: It didn't live up to expectations at the box office, which explains why there are not a lot of extras on the DVD or Blu-ray.

For those who are looking for a tale of older love...
Beginners - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: The third Ewan McGregor film on this list. Strange. Here he plays a man whose father comes out of the closet shortly after his mother dies. Meanwhile, he starts to fall in love with Anna, but, with what happened with his parents,it has made him a little skittish about entering a relationship.
Pros: This film earned excellent reviews, and four Independent Spirit Award nominations, thanks to its amazing cast, as well as its writer / director, Mike Mills, who previously wrote and directed Thumbsucker. Plus, the DVD and Blu-ray have a good amount of extras for a limited release.
Cons: Some have called the film overly sentimental.

For those who don't mind waiting a long time between Terrence Malick films...
Tree of Life - Blu-ray Combo Pack - Buy from Amazon
Description: ... There's not a lot you could describe in this movie as a conventional plot. It's about a middle-aged man looking back at his childhood, plus there's a part about the history of life on Earth. If that doesn't make sense, it's because you really have to see the film to really understand it.
Pros: It's worth seeing, especially if you are a fan of Terrence Malick. It's arguably his best film and some think it could earn him his third and maybe fourth Oscar nomination. There are not a lot of extras on the Blu-ray Combo Pack, but the film looks and sounds amazing.
Cons: It's not the most accessible film at times, which is why it is so hard to describe its plot.

For those who want a timely drama...
Margin Call - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: A look at the behind-the-scenes of an investment bank as it is on the verge of collapse during the economic meltdown of 2007.
Pros: One of the major players for the Independent Spirit Awards nominations earning three of them, including the Robert Altman Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Its excellent reviews and substantial extras (audio commentary tracks, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes, making of featurette, etc.) add up to high replay value.
Cons: It's depressing as hell, because more than three years later we are still dealing with the fallout, and it seems almost no one in power has learned a damn thing. I can nearly guarantee there will be another crash, because we haven't fixed the underlying problems.

For those who need a bit of humor after watching a movie about the imminent collapse of the world economy...
The Trip - Buy from Amazon
Description: Two very funny actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, play fictionalized versions of themselves. They go on a road trip together going to various restaurants to write about the food. And along the way do plenty of imitations.
Pros: While there's not much of a plot, this mostly improvised film has many, many laugh out loud moments. I'm not alone in giving it excellent reviews. The DVD is loaded with extras, including nearly two hours of deleted scenes.
Cons: It was originally a six-part mini-series and, while there are a huge number of deleted scenes, it would have been nice to be able to buy the full TV release and not just the edited down movie version.

For those who like their comedy with a Sci-Fi twist...
Attack the Block - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: Aliens invade... a housing project in London. The only ones who can stop them are a group of youths, who are usually referred to as juvenile delinquents. Oh, and Nick Frost plays a pot farmer.
Pros: This film had huge buzz, earned excellent reviews and then went nowhere at the box office. Despite that, the DVD and Blu-ray are loaded with extras, including three audio commentary tracks.
Cons: It is a bit of a niche market film.

For those who like their comedy with a horror twist...
Tucker & Dale vs Evil - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray
Description: A group of college kids go into the woods on a camping trip and run into two hillbillies, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, who are completely harmless. In fact, they save one of the kids from drowning, Allison. However, the rest of her friends think they kidnapped her and are willing to do anything to get her back.
Pros: A highly inventive premise and two hilarious actors equals a top notch film. The audio commentary track easily doubles the replay value of the movie. (Plus there are other extras.)
Cons: Uhhhh.... I'm coming up blank. Buy a copy for each of the friends and family. Buy several.

For those who like their comedy with a horror twist, but a different type of horror...
The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu - Buy from Amazon
Description: A Lovecraftian horror / comedy. The last living relative of H.P. Lovecraft learns the horrors the author wrote about were real and he's the only one who can stop them, along with the help of his friends and an overenthusiastic Lovecraft fan.
Pros:It's a low budget movie, but one that earnt high praise from fans of the genre.
Cons: It's a bit of a niche market film.

For those who want to support ultra low-budget filmmakers...
The Ridges: Special Edition - Buy from Amazon
Description: A group of college kids go off to an abandoned mental hospital, which has a reputation for being haunted. They plan to debunk these silly rumors and will film their experiment. Their footage is later found and this movie is the result.
Pros: Made for less than $20,000, this film has earned several nominations at a number of film festivals, including three wins at the Chicago Horror Film Festival. The Special Edtion is the extended edition, and for a small film, there's plenty of extras.
Cons: I'm still waiting for the screener to arrive. Also, I wish the skeptics would win more films. Scooby Doo had it right.

For those who want even more low budget films...
Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula - Buy from Amazon
Kung Fu Joe - Buy from Amazon
The Weathered Underground - Buy from Amazon
Description: Indican Pictures specializes in low-budget films of a wide range of genres.
Pros: I received a few screeners recently, including Kung Fu Joe, a parody of 1970s, low budget, martial arts movies, and The Weathered Underground, a strange choose your own adventure film. They certainly have cult appeal to them.
Cons: The film I was most looking forward to seeing was Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula, but it still hasn't arrived.

For those who looking for a little Canadian Content...
Small Town Murder Songs - Buy from Amazon
Description: Peter Stormare plays a small town cop who has worked hard to escape his violent past. But when the town suffers its first murder, the investigation gets to him in ways that might cause him to relapse.
Pros: This was only writer / director Ed Gass-Donnelly's second feature-length film, but it earned amazing reviews, especially for Peter Stormare's performance. The DVD includes an audio commentary track with both men, plus some deleted scenes, which is better than a lot of limited releases have.
Cons: Some complained of pacing problems, but they are in the minority.

Wow. There's even more releases this time than last week, and I thought I went overboard then. And I just know I forgot some releases I meant to include. There's One more week to go, so I'll have to include them then, if I remember.