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Top Ten Overlooked DVDs of 2004
2004 saw the release of a handful of highly-anticipated releases, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Many outstanding films and television series appeared on DVD this year, garnering less attention than they merited. It was tough to compile this list, since there were many excellent contenders for the ten spots here, but here's the final cut: ten great DVDs that you may have overlooked... but should definitely appear on your "to buy" list now!

1. The Magdalene Sisters
The Magdalene Sisters was, without a doubt, my biggest surprise for 2004. Though it picked up a generous number of awards at independent movie festivals, this astonishing film seemed to fly under the radar for a mainstream audience. It's a film that gets everything right: impressive cinematography, skillful editing, a great script and story, and incredible performances from its entire cast, both principal and supporting. With its story of the lives of three young women who, in 1960s Ireland, are sent off for various reasons to live under Catholic rule in the "Magdalene Asylum," The Magdalene Sisters packs a powerful emotional punch. It's a movie you won't soon forget and if you haven't heard of it or seen it yet, you should.


2. Without a Trace: The Complete First Season
With so many police-related television dramas of late, viewers might be excused for not having stumbled across Without a Trace, which chronicles the efforts of the FBI Missing Persons unit to solve a variety of cases. But ignorance is no longer an excuse: this is one fantastic television series. To begin with, compared to something "ordinary" like, say, murder, there are many more ways that a missing-persons case can turn out... which gives Without a Trace a lot of cards to play when it comes to developing interesting episodes. The series isn't afraid to play hardball, either: not every story has a happy ending, or turns out the way you'd expect, or hope. Add in consistently excellent writing across the entire season and an extremely solid cast, and Without a Trace: Season 1 is a must-buy.


3. 2003 World Series of Poker
If someone had told me last year that my 2004 top-ten list would have a poker DVD on it, I'd have laughed him out of town. But then I happened to review the 2003 World Series of Poker, and, well, I'd have had to eat my words. If you are already a poker enthusiast, this DVD has your name written all over it in 10-foot-tall neon letters. What's even more amazing is that even if you aren't a poker player already, the World Series of Poker DVD is a whole lot of fun. The five-hour, eight episode program expertly tells the tale of the 2004 World Series event in such a way that it's amazingly addictive and enthralling.


4. 1989 Tour de France: Incredible Comeback
The first great U.S. pro cycling champion was Greg LeMond... and 1989, the year of LeMond's second Tour victory, gave us a fantastic Tour, one that is universally acclaimed as the most exciting Tour de France in history. It was a head-to-head battle between LeMond and his rival Laurent Fignon, resulting in a victory by a razor-thin eight seconds. With the race footage deftly edited into a fast-paced 90 minutes, this is the perfect DVD for both cycle racing fans and newcomers to the sport.


5. The Forsyte Saga: Series 2
The Forsyte Saga: Series 2 is a straight continuation of Series 1, and it's every bit as good as the first miniseries... and that's saying a lot. Telling the stories of the Forsyte family, with their interconnecting lives, loves, feuds, and fortunes, The Forsyte Saga is a richly developed, involving story that dazzles with its outstanding performances and its rich production values. Series 2, which focuses on the younger generation of Forsytes, can be watched on its own, but to truly appreciate it, you'll want to enjoy the outstanding Series 1 as well.


6. The Office: The Complete Second Series and the Special
Trust the British to push the envelope when it comes to comedy, with excellent results. As viewers found out last year with the release of its first season on DVD, The Office is not quite your typical comedy series. Filmed in a unique mock-documentary manner, with no laugh track and no jokes, The Office is a painfully funny dissection of life on the job. What's really exceptional about The Office is how well the filmmakers were able to develop the original concept: Series 2 and the Special take the already brilliant series in new directions, wrapping up on just the right note.


7. Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts
If you love music, you won't want to miss the nine-DVD compilation of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. With a total of 25 episodes taken from Bernstein's program over the course of twelve years, the program offers an in-depth look at music that deftly helps viewers to both understand it and appreciate it more. Bernstein shines in his role as educator as well as conductor, explaining even the most complex ideas in a clear and interesting way. This is a set that will bear much watching and re-watching to fully appreciate its riches.


8. Foyle's War - Set 2
2004 was a great year for releases of British television shows on DVD, with the second season of the excellent mystery series Foyle's War arriving to delight viewers. Set in England during World War II, Foyle's War interweaves interesting and well-thought-out mystery stories with a complex treatment of the ethical issues of the war and a realistic portrayal of British life during that time. Michael Kitchen continues to shine as Detective Chief Inspector Foyle, and all four feature-length episodes in this set are very well done. Set 2 can be watched on its own, but it's well worth checking out the equally enjoyable Set 1 beforehand.


9. Hamlet (1990)
Mel Gibson doing Shakespeare? Hamlet, no less? It may not sound like a good match, but in fact the 1990 film adaptation of the famous play does justice to the Bard's work, with solid performances and a good sense of what elements of the original play to focus on and which to trim out. This Hamlet is a visually interesting one, with excellent editing, cinematography, and sets all adding up to make for a very satisfying rendition of the play. Especially when the excellent transfer is added into the mix, this is a DVD that's worth a second look.


10.Invader Zim, Volume 1 and Volume 2
Wacky. Bizarre. Creative. Memorable. These are all great words to describe Jhonen Vasquez's lamentably short-lived animated television series, Invader Zim, but they don't quite capture the experience. I'm not sure anything can, except for watching it for yourself. The stories range from delightfully surreal adventures to hilarious parodies of ordinary life in the U.S., all revolving around Zim's attempts to enslave the Earth with help from his robotic sidekick Gir, and his human neighbor Dib's efforts to foil Zim's plans and expose him as an alien. Want to get a sense of the offbeat creative style of this show? Consider episode titles like "Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy," "Hamstergeddon," or "FBI Warning of Doom." Sound intriguing? Check out both Volume 1: Doom Doom Doom and Volume 2: Progressive Stupidity.

- Holly E. Ordway

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