Welcome to DVD Talk’s year-end wrap-up of the year’s best DVD releases! As we did last year, we’ve corralled our multitalented and gorgeous crew of review scribblers and asked them to submit their individual Top 10 lists. Then, in a prolonged fit of violent thrashing and inappropriate nudity, we engaged in heated debate to come up with the barely agreed-upon ultimate super-duper DVD Talk Top 20 that you see below. Hopefully, you’ll find that this list provides a fair-and-balanced look at the year’s very best DVD titles and also represents the wildly differing styles and personalities and weird proclivities of our writers.
What a year for DVD! It was a year in which the disc-dreams of Star Wars geeks everywhere were finally realized—even though the revisionist release frustrated many. It was year that saw an explosion of TV-on-DVD sets, to the everlasting joy of boob-tube addicts. In general, it was a year in which DVD continued its unprecedented saturation into our digital lifestyle, infusing our living rooms and home theaters into film-study classrooms. There were so many terrific DVD film treatments this year that we honestly had trouble coming up with our favorite 20! We feel real regret for the titles that just missed the list.
Now, without further ado, let’s start—as we did last year—in a place called Middle Earth.
1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Extended Edition
Certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 2004, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Extended Edition was well worth the wait. This final installment in Peter Jackson's film trilogy rises almost to the level of perfection of the first: It's a truly outstanding film and a fantastic way to wrap up the epic journey of The Lord of the Rings. The substantial amount of additional footage in the Extended Edition has the effect of making a good film into a great one. The pacing is better, the story and characters are more developed, and the emotional impact of the overall film is heightened. Add in a phenomenal DTS ES 6.1 track, superb image quality, and a lavish spread of special features, and the only word to say about this edition is "Wow!"
Blurb and review by Holly Ordway
2. The Star Wars Trilogy
Long the Holy Grail of still-to-be-released DVDs, the Star Wars Trilogy made quite a splash when it arrived at long last on DVD. Although many viewers were obsessed with arguing over every last alteration made by George Lucas, when it comes down to it, what really matters is how much fun the Star Wars films are—and viewers who are looking simply for a great film experience will find it, in spades. These fantastic science-fiction adventures have held up to the passage of time amazingly well: Not only were they massively influential on the development of science fiction on film, but they're above all incredibly good, imaginative films in their own rights. With knockout video and audio, not to mention a massive making-of documentary, the Star Wars Trilogy set is a guaranteed three-volume ticket to adventure.
Blurb and review by Holly Ordway
3. The Ultimate Matrix Collection: Limited Edition
Here’s the most exhaustive DVD treatment of a film series in 2004. The Ultimate Matrix Collection is daunting in its mere description—10 discs holding everything you ever wanted to know about The Matrix trilogy. Even if your reactions to the Wachowskis’ cerebral trilogy were of increasing disappointment as it approached its narrative climax, this set will give you a much deeper understanding of the astonishing intellectual scope of the project and will show you exactly what it was like to be on the sets, making these films. The Ultimate Matrix Collection truly lives up to its title. This set is a Matrix monster, plugging you in to a brand-new visual presentation of the first film and assembling a vast array of heretofore unseen special features and, for good measure, also throwing in some stuff you might already have in your collection. Can you resist the sheer coolness of this comprehensive behemoth?
Blurb by Jason Bovberg. Reviews by Jason Bovberg and Aaron Beierle.
4. Panic Room: 3-Disc Special Edition
Panic Room is a claustrophobic, tightly wound, and intricately stylish film in true Fincher fashion. And although it doesn’t exactly aspire to the A-level head games of Fincher's two classic thrillers—Seven and Fight Club—it’s a breathless, down-and-dirty B movie that keeps your ass firmly anchored to the edge of the seat. Combining nearly flawless extras with way-above-average image and sound quality, this new Panic Room set claimed its spot in this list early in the year. DVD producer David Prior and his team have come up with a very fine presentation of extras, the kind that really draw you in and challenge you, and enrich your experience of the film. Many DVDs want to provide that "film school in a box" feel to their extras, but few succeed—this one does.
Blurb by Jason Bovberg. Reviews by Jason Bovberg and Aaron Beierle.
5. Clerks X: 10th Anniversary Collector's Series
Owners of the first Clerks DVD are easily encouraged to double-dip on Clerks X: 10th Anniversary Collector's Series, because, well, "It's a fucking 3-disc DVD set, yo!" Dante, Randall, and friends are better than ever, with a sharper picture, a working day's worth of special features, and an extended version of the 1994 low-budget film. You also get the original movie with classic commentary, The Lost Scene, an enhanced playback track, a Kevin Smith short film, MTV spots, original auditions, and music videos. That's just Disc 1 in this DVDTalk Collector's Series set. The unrestored first cut of the film on Disc 2 features scenes deleted from the movie, new commentary, and the original ending. A feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary and a Smith Q&A highlight a special feature-laden third disc. Excellent menus are on each disc, and even the insert booklet is insightful. This set is Miramax's royal treatment of Smith's first film, and is a comfortable fit in most anyone's collection. Clerks put convenience stores on center stage, and showed us that being a clerk "would be great if it wasn't for the fucking customers."
Blurb by Chris Tibbey. Reviews by Aaron Beierle and Randy Miller III
6. Gone with the Wind: 4-Disc Collector's Edition
It's possible that no other film can claim the kind of cultural impact that Gone with the Wind has had over the past 65 years. In an era when even the best epics populate their landscapes with digital orcs and elves, the massive vistas of Hollywood's premier historical melodrama are decidedly human. Perfecting the women's story, war epic, action spectacle, and lively social drama all in one 4-hour film, controlling producer David O. Selznick defined what it means to make a Hollywood picture for all time. Populated with memorable characters and brilliant performances (and antiquated racial content guaranteed to spark further discussion) and produced with no-cost-spared attention to detail, Gone with the Wind is like ten movies in one. And by turning the Civil War into a romance/soap opera/action movie, it might also be the most American movie ever made. But if there's one element of Gone with the Wind that leaves all its contemporaries in the dust, it's Vivien Leigh's monumental performance as culture-defining heroine Scarlett O'Hara. With the film's 2004 DVD release housed in a Lord of the Rings-worthy 4-disc set (and featuring a stunning new Technicolor transfer), it's clear that future generations will have every chance to appreciate this cinematic milestone.
Blurb and review by Gil Jawetz
7. Seinfeld Seasons 1 & 2 and Season 3
This show about "nothing"—arguably the greatest comedy television series ever—came to DVD with a bang: seasons 1, 2, and 3 all released at the same time. Seasons 1 & 2 demonstrate how funny this show was from the very start, and Season 3 jumps right to the top with an amply deserved DVDTalk Collector Series rating. What makes Seinfeld tick isn’t just the excellent writing and comic performances, but the brilliance of the premise. On the one hand, Jerry and company are always getting into the most ridiculous situations, but on the other hand, they're drawn so closely from the ordinary ups and downs of life that it's impossible not to relate. Who hasn't been stranded at a horribly dull party, struggled to find the right birthday present for a friend, or said exactly the wrong thing at a family function? Not only are all these episodes flat-out hilarious, they're extremely rewatchable. No matter how many times you watch Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer getting into all sorts of crazy situations, it's always a blast to revisit Seinfeld.
Blurb and reviews of Seasons 1 & 2 and Season 3 by Holly Ordway
8. Spider-Man 2
An imperfect hero, a perfect two-DVD set. Spider-Man 2 is simply a better movie than the original, boasting improved special effects, a wonderful story, a badder villain. And Kirsten Dunst is still hot. The widescreen special-edition DVD set does the movie justice, with excellent audio quality, two commentaries, several enjoyable behind-the-scenes featurettes, and some comic-book background for those who didn't get enough in the first Spider-Man DVD. The best features may be the "Ock-Umentary: Eight Arms to Hold You" short and the "Enter the Web" interactive look at the production of the final battle. In all, you get more than 10 hours of fantastic entertainment. Was this the best superhero movie of all time? Debatable. But there's no doubt Spider-Man 2 belongs in the DVD collection of every serious action fan.
Blurb by Chris Tibbey. Review by Aaron Beierle
9. Freaks and Geeks: Fan Yearbook Edition
Plenty of DVD releases have been motivated by fan interest, but there's never been a love letter to a cult fanbase like Shout! Factory's limited-edition yearbook Freaks and Geeks collection. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, the creative forces behind the critically acclaimed coming-of-age TV series, pushed for a proper release, with the show's original music intact and extras that went beyond the pale, and Shout! Factory responded by setting the standard for television DVD releases. Packaged in an in-depth, gold-embossed 80-page high-school yearbook, this set came with two discs of extras not available in the standard retail release, and was sold only to fans who kept in touch with the show's creators years after the series was cancelled. A bit pricey at $120, thanks to the music rights, the set includes 29 commentaries for 18 episodes and every bit of existing footage an F&G fan could ask for, making it possibly the most complete TV-on-DVD release ever. This release is the perfect example of what can happen when a DVD set is motivated by love for the subject instead of by profits.
Blurb by Francis Rizzo III. Review by Randy Miller III
10. Ed Wood: Special Edition
Ed Wood is remembered in film circles for his incredibly inept and downright horrible films. His most famous (perhaps infamous) movie is the abysmally bad Plan 9 from Outer Space, which stars Bela Lugosi, even though production didn’t start until long after Lugosi’s death. This slightly fictionalized account of the low-budget director’s life is an immensely entertaining film, both comic and endearing. Director Tim Burton masterfully portrays Wood in a humorous light, while not being demeaning or insulting. The strong acting, writing, and directing make this unique movie a film worth seeing. Watch for above-average image and audio, an array of informative featurettes, and a great commentary.
Review by John Sinnott
11. Reno 911: The Complete First Season
In not so many words, Reno 911 is a delight. The Comedy Central series offers plenty of slapstick moments and fun characters as it follows the Reno Police Department in mock-reality-TV style. The series offers wonderfully talented cast and excellent writing, resulting in a diverse and odd set of characters, including a former-showgirl-turned cop and an in-the-closet gay cop who insists on wearing ridiculously short shorts. These characters’ interactions with each other make each episode more special than the last. The first season DVD release comes with all 14 episodes and some enticing extras.
Blurb by Jeffrey Robinson. Reviews by Aaron Beierle and
12. The Wire: The Complete First Season
Most people might be put off by The Wire's high price, or the fact that its first season has only 13 episodes, but there’s still enough intense drama here to make it worth every penny. The Wire is a crime drama about a special narcotics unit of the Baltimore Police Department. The show takes a unique approach to the genre, focusing on a crime through the perspectives of the police and drug dealers. You'll find that watching the first season leaves you connecting with both the good and bad guys, as no one is purely good or evil. This DVD set is light on extras, containing three decent audio commentaries. However, the technical aspects of the release are stunning, with a dynamic 5.1 track, as well as stereo tracks in three languages.
Blurb by Jeffrey Robinson. Review by John Sinnott
13. M: Criterion Collection
Straddling the silent and sound portions of film master Fritz Lang's legendary career, 1931's M broke ground in a lot of ways. Pulling silent techniques into the era of the spoken word, using voices and street noise like musical instruments, and toying with unusual and prescient narrative structures, M is the rare film that looks to the future as much as it draws on the past. Lang's torn-from-the-headlines tale of a twisted serial child murderer and the attempts of society—both law-abiding and criminal underworld—in bringing him down has cast a long, sinister shadow over 73 years of filmmaking. Forged with the visual genius of Lang's eye and the brilliantly rodent-like performance of Peter Lorre, M is a perfect example of a film that will stand the test of time. And in an era of miraculous film restorations, it's hard to imagine any other release rivaling the shock of seeing Criterion's razor-sharp rendering of this long-damaged film.
Blurb by Gil Jawetz. Reviews by DVD Savant and Gil Jawetz
14. Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection
The 10-disc Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection brings seven classic Hitchcock films—Dial M For Murder, Foreign Correspondent, I Confess, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Stage Fright, Suspicion, and The Wrong Man—to DVD for the first time, and includes an excellent new 2-disc special edition of the marvelous Strangers on a Train, not to mention the previously released North by Northwest. This set leaves no doubt that Hitchcock is one of the most elemental auteurs in the history of the medium. Lovingly packaged with insightful commentaries and documentaries, the set marks one of the final surges toward the realization of a completist’s Hitch DVD library. Now, where’s Lifeboat?
Blurb by Jason Bovberg.
15. Ikiru: Criterion Collection
As lovers of film and DVD know, director Akira Kurosawa and The Criterion Collection are masters of their craft. Ikiru is a simple story about a man in the final stages of life, and it’s a film that has long stood in the shadows of Kurosawa's more well-known films, such as The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Yojimbo). This stunning two-disc set from Criterion gives the film the respect it deserves, including a terrific restoration job and a host of invaluable bonus features. Although this DVD Talk Collector's Series disc was released early in January, it's enough to make any film lover feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Blurb by Randy Miller III. Reviews by Randy Miller III and DVD Savant
16. The Iron Giant: Special Edition
This DVD edition of The Iron Giant would certainly have made 2003's list, but a series of delays kept fans from getting their hands on the definitive version of this animated classic. It's still not quite the jam-packed edition we were all hoping for, but this one manages to cover all the bases nicely with a stellar anamorphic transfer, an excellent sound mix, and a handful of informative bonus features. While it's true that The Iron Giant might never garner as much attention as director Brad Bird's follow-up, The Incredibles, anyone who's seen this tale of a boy and his fifty-foot robot knows it's one of animation's most underrated treasures.
Blurb and review by Randy Miller III
17. Dawn of the Dead: Ultimate Edition
CineSchlockers, rejoice. If you were patient and passed on Anchor Bay's previous editions of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, you were finally rewarded in 2004 with a four-DVD Ultimate Edition. This set truly is the ultimate experience of a seminal horror film, with three versions of the 1978 flick: the U.S. theatrical version, an extended version, and the European version. The matted 1.66:1 widescreen images of the first DVD offerings are gone, replaced by gorgeous 1.85:1 widescreen presentations for each new version. Each version boasts a different commentary track, and each disc offers a slew of special features. But it's the fourth disc that really wakes the dead, with every cast and crew member interviewed in a 75-minute tribute documentary, The Dead Will Walk.
Blurb by Chris Tribbey. Reviews by DVD Savant and G. Noel Gross
18. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Extended Version Collector's Set
You're not going to buy The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Special Edition for the cool international mini-posters. You're going to buy this wonderful two-DVD western because of the fully restored movie (with about 20 minutes of added footage), the remixed 5.1 audio, and the plethora of documentaries. Both Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach recorded new lines for scenes, which were previously dubbed only in Italian, and the documentaries are inside looks at the film, the director, and the era in which the movie is set. MGM spent a lot of time putting this set together, and the collector is rewarded with an excellent package that's worth a fistful of dollars.
Blurb by Chris Tribbey. Review by DVD Savant
19. Touching The Void
The most nail-biting, knuckle-clenching adventure movie released this year, Touching the Void offers tension accentuated by the fact that it’s telling a true story. Two young, experienced mountain climbers travel to Peru to attempt to scale a mountain that hasn’t been climbed before. On the way down, one of the pair falls and shatters his leg. They’re still 20,000 feet up, out of food and fuel, with no hope of rescue. Then, things get really bad. This is one of those stories about which audiences would complain of implausibility, had it happened in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. But it really happened, which makes it all the more astonishing. The DVD offers excellent image and sound quality, and some enticing extras, including a fascinating documentary about the making of the film and a featurette that answers some unanswered questions.
Blurb and review by John Sinnott
20. The West Wing: Season 2 and Season 3
It should be no surprise that the multiple-award-winning television series The West Wing makes our list. This highly addictive and powerful drama about the president of the United States and several of his most important aides is truly amazing. In 2004, the complete second and third seasons were released on DVD, and with each passing season the drama gets more intense and more entertaining. In a single episode, you'll bear witness to excellent acting and exceptional writing that promotes characters whom you can easily love and stories in which you can get easily lost. Each season box set comes with 22 thrilling episodes over three three dual-sided DVDs. They each include a few audio commentaries, a small number of deleted scenes, and several featurettes.
Blurb by Jeffrey Robinson. Season 2 review by John Sinnott, and season 3 review by Jeffrey Robinson
So that's 20 DVDs this year you should have added to your collection. But that's not all, every year we go crazy with our Top 10 lists and this year is no different! So be sure to read all of these Top Ten DVD lists on almost every topic under the sun. We promise you'll discover some amazing DVDs you might never have found otherwise!