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Top Ten Special Features of 2003
By Aaron Beierle

A couple of years ago, there were rumblings that the amount of special features included on DVDs would be dropping, due to the fees that stars and other talent were requesting to participate. This year, with the success of DVD, things seemed to have turned around: the philosophy now seems to be to pack everything with at least some supplement to try and sell even more copies. Everything these days has a commentary, it seems.

I never thought I'd say this, but I'm getting sick of it. In the laserdisc and early DVD days, there seemed to be at least some realization of what films would best be served by a discussion from the filmmakers. The participants in the commentary for the third "American Pie" film spend the first half hour discussing how the track isn't going very well and how they don't know how they're going to fill up the last hour. Then they start apologizing for the silences, which are due to the fact that they haven't seen the film yet. Not much better is the "From Justin to Kelly" commentary, which is pretty much "American Idols" Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini sitting in silence with director Robert Iscove. When Michael Moore didn't want to do a commentary for "Bowling For Columbine", he didn't get the producers or cameramen or sound people to fill in. Instead, he came up with the first "intern and receptionist" commentary. While the idea of letting the people on the lowest rung of the production speak was a noble one, it didn't work well, and the rest of the disc would have been fine enough without it.

Featurettes haven't gotten much better either, as many still wade in the shallow end, keeping with the usual mixture of promotional push and the usual "happy talk", where the participants discuss how great it was to work with one another. The best documentaries continue to be the ones where the camera simply follows around the cast and crew during a normal production day (even "Jeepers Creepers 2" got this right on the film's DVD). If that can't be done, then there should be documentaries that feature and/or recreate specific problems that happened on set and how they were solved, down to how they were solved and whose role it was to come up with a solution.

Yet, this year certainly didn't completely suffer from "Special Features Overkill". Some DVD producers out there actually took time to bring us insightful interviews, thoughtful commentaries and extras that actually took the format forward.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Extended Edition). Once again, New Line has taken steps to provide one of the most comprehensive looks at the making of one particular film that the format has ever seen. The four commentary tracks, superbly edited and filled to the brim with participants, manage to capture the attention the remarkable length of the extended edition of the film, included here. The documentaries, as with the ones on the first "extended edition" set, get right to the point, allowing us to tag along with the cast and crew to learn more about the massive obstacles and minor problems that were encountered and solved. The documentaries are entertaining and educational, allowing the viewer to learn more about the roles of people we don't see on screen, and how important they are to the film.

2. The Alien Quadrilogy. Docked a couple points for director David Fincher's unfortunate, yet inevitable lack of participation (he's apparently said he wants nothing to do with "Alien 3") and a couple of features missing that were on the prior "Alien" release, the Quadrilogy is still a remarkable feat, pulling together most of the major players from the films to discuss their work and take a look back at the series as a whole. The featurettes are compelling and informative (I especially liked the analysis of how "Alien 3" ran into trouble), a couple of the commentaries (such as the outstanding one by James Cameron and the other participants on "Aliens") are highlights and the ability to see new cuts of all four films should make this an easy choice for any "Alien" fan.

3. Finding Nemo. No surprise that Pixar, the studio that has graced audiences with magnificent versions of their prior work (the wonderful "Ultimate Toy Box", anyone?) has done so again here. The "Pixar Studio Tour", which reveals animators playing video games and rationalizing that "nap time" is the best time for story ideas, proves once again that there's a sitcom to be made out this office. The visual commentary, which allows us to see everything from deleted scenes to recording sessions to outtakes, is a great way to experience the film once again.

4. The Three Colors Trilogy. Thankfully, Miramax took their time releasing Krzysztof Kieslowski's magnificent exploration of life, love and chance. Available in most stores for the ridiculously low price of $30, the trilogy box offers all three films - which are extraordinary - along with behind-the-scenes footage, insightful commentary from author Annette Insdorf and other members of the cast and crew, interviews and much more. The three films are available on their own, but they're all classics and I'd recommend the complete box.

5. Black Hawk Down: 3-DVD Deluxe Edition: Ridley Scott's long-awaited Special Edition version of his acclaimed drama certainly met expectations from fans of the film, delivering not only the director's usual intelligent, in-depth commentary (paired with director Jerry Bruckheimer), but a wealth of documentaries (including one massive "making of") and other commentaries that offer the viewer not only a complete look at the preparations involved in the making of the film, but an understanding of the real history behind the tragic situation that was the film's focus. While the Scott and Bruckheimer commentary is very enjoyable, the second commentary, which features writer Mark Bowden (if you haven't read the book "Black Hawk Down", do.) and screenwriter Ken Nolan, provides further understanding of the writing process from both the original writer and the screenwriter, but also further insights into the production and the history. Last, but certainly not least, we get a fascinating commentary from members of the Task Force Ranger team, who offer their memories of the event and thoughts on the final film.

6. FeaŜTJ=d Loathing in Las Vegas: Criterion Collection & Lost in La Mancha: Special Edition: "Fear and Loathing", despite not exactly getting the warmest reception theatrically, does get a fine Criterion treatment with this 2-DVD edition. Gilliam provides a typically delightful commentary, but it's also great to hear from Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro and even the gonzo journalist himself, Hunter S. Thompson on the DVD's three commentaries. On the other hand, Gilliam's tragic attempt at making another "Don Quixote" (starring Depp) falls apart in the middle of nowhere as the cameras watch in "Lost in La Mancha", a documentary that was originally going to be a DVD extra, but became a feature when the film it was following was never completed due to...well, about a hundred different problems. Although the "La Mancha" DVD doesn't include a commentary, it offers a couple of hours of documentaries and interviews.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean. The potential clear highlight of the set, a commentary from Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski, turned out to be a disappointment, as the two seemed to spend most of the time talking about how wonderful members of the cast and crew were. However, a deeply silly and delightfully witty (not to mention very British) commentary from actor Jack Davenport and actress Keira Knightley certainly was a great time, while the second disc offered some interesting documentary features on the production and even the featured ship.

8. The Lion King: Special Edition: Disney's release of this classic isn't the most extensive release from the studio of an animated feature, but there's plenty to see and hear, including a very good commentary and a lot of supplemental featurettes. The new "Enhanced" 5.1 presentation is also a delight. Not so delightful, however, is the navigation on the second disc, which leaves a lot to be desired.

9. X2: X-Men United & X-Men 1.5. The re-release of the first film and the packed 2-DVD section of the second feature took audiences further into the comic book universe that director Bryan Singer and the cast and crew have translated so well to the big screen. Excellent commentaries, documentaries, multi-angle presentations and other supplements can be found on both discs, which use the format to its fullest potential.

10. Winged Migration: A documentary that employed as many as 500 crew members across the globe to try and capture the migration of several species of birds, "Winged Migration" on DVD takes us behind the scenes, with a commentary and lengthy documentary that capture both the preparation and struggles required to complete the film.

Honorable Mention: Steven Soderberg's three commentary year, which included an excellent track with James Cameron on "Solaris", an interesting one with Gary Ross on "Seabiscuit" and, most terrific of all, a very funny one where he's interviewing himself on Criterion's edition of Soderberg's "Schizopolis".

Runners-Up: "The Bourne Identity", "Spirited Away", "Frida", "The Hours", "Hiroshima Mon Amour: Criterion", "Whale Rider".
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