DVD and Blu-ray Box Sets to Buy, Give, and Binge-Watch This Black Friday

'The Handmaid's Tale'
'The Handmaid's Tale' | © Hulu
Photo of Graham Fuller
Film Editor20 November 2017

It’s that time of year when we turn our minds to stocking-stuffers for our loved ones. Everyone you know—not excluding that special someone in the mirror—is bound to covet one or more of the DVDS and Blu-ray sets on this holiday gift guide. One or two of them will require an outsize stocking.

Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series

(DVD and Blu-ray) When David Lynch and Mark Frost launched the original Twin Peaks in 1990, it was clear that, in terms of contemporary television drama, it was a game-changer. No less subversive was this year’s 18-parter, which in terms of narrative inventiveness threw more curveballs, pushed more envelopes, and introduced more dimensions than all the new-fangled shows streamed on Netflix and Amazon put together. It was as beautiful as it was uncanny. It took Lynch four and a half years to bring it to the screen, however, and he’s said we shouldn’t hold our breaths waiting for series 4. Just pray.

Laura Dern in Twin Peaks: The Return | © Showtime

The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 1

(DVD and Blu-ray) Hulu’s chilling 10-parter about institutionalized rape and breeding in an America struggling to survive an environmental crisis struck a massive chord in the first spring of Donald Trump’s presidency; it augured, too, the Harvey Weinstein revelations. If ever a television series argued for the eradication of sexual “authoritarianism,” it was this Emmy-winning adaptation of the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel. Season 2 is in the works. Until it arrives, get the Season 1 discs and watch Netflix’s Alias Grace, from the 1996 Atwood novel.

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale | © Hulu

The Crown, Season 1

(DVD and Blu-ray) Melodramatically tracing the early reign of Elizabeth II, The Crown is a proficient middlebrow soap rescued from silliness by Peter Morgan’s writing, sincere acting—especially by Claire Foy as HRH—and handsome televisual direction. Olivia Colman’s casting as Elizabeth in Season 3, which will span the post-Profumo Crisis 1960s and the mid-1980s, should inject the show with a bit more edge. It would be lovely to see Colman’s Liz reacting to the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” in ’77.

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

(DVD and Blu-ray) A decade in the making, The Vietnam War goes much further than 1983’s Vietnam: A Television History. Going back to France’s imperialistic Conchinchina campaign in 1858–1862, the 10-part, 17-and-a-quarter hour series delivers a chronological, comprehensive account of the fight for dominance in Indochina in a style that recalls ITV’s 1973–74 The World at War rather than Burns’s The Civil War. The focus, of course, is the United States’ 15-year undeclared war in Vietnam, which left 58,220 Americans dead. “Why?” asks the narrator Peter Coyote in the first episode. To preserve balance, Burns and Novick conducted interviews with participants from both sides, including former members of the Vietcong. A masterly achievement.

The Vietnam War | © PBS | © PBS

Westworld: The Complete First Season

(DVD and Blu-ray) Inspired by the 1973 Michael Crichton film and 1976’s Futureworld, this spectacular saga of a Western theme park hosted by androids gave HBO its most-watched first season of an original series. The conceit of a thrillingly rendered futuristic Deadwood was hard to resist, so too the specter of Evan Rachel Wood fulfilling her “Western” destiny as the teen rebel who gets involved with a modern-day would be gunslinger-cum-nutjob in 2005’s Down in the Valley. Westworld got too convoluted in the end, but Season 2 should iron out the wrinkles.

Evan Rachel Wood in Westworld | © Netflix

Fritz Lang: The Silent Films

(Blu-ray) Lang directed key film noirs in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, but his reputation rests primarily on his silent period, when he invested his explorations of evil with a uniquely Germanic quality forged from romanticism and expressionism.

Kino Lorber’s 12-disc set brings together for the first time on Blu-ray the early Lang masterworks The Spiders (1919–20), Harakiri (1919); The Wandering Shadow (1920); Four Around a Woman (1921); Destiny (1921); Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922); Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924–25); Metropolis (1927); Spies (1928); and Woman in the Moon (1929). A bonus disc features The Plague of Florence (1919), Lang’s version of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. There’s a wealth of amazing extras on this seminal collection.

Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen | © Kino Video

Game of Thrones: The Complete Seventh Season

(DVD and Blu-ray) I’ll take some convincing that Game of Thrones is anything other than a souped-up, sexed-up, mythologically vapid rip-off of The Lord of the Rings portentously filmed and performed in (mostly) flat English accents by actors (Peter Dinklage apart) far too modern-looking for the medieval fantasy world they occupy. Against that, George R.R. Martin’s storytelling is robust, one reason why the discs of the seventh series will sell in droves.

Emilia Clarke and Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, season 7 | © HBO

Universal Classic Monsters Collection

(DVD and Blu-ray) This box set isn’t a new release, but it’s an essential one for fans of Universal Pictures’ remarkable run of original gothic horror classics: Tod Browning’s Dracula (1930), with Bela Lugosi; James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), with Boris Karloff; Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), with Karloff; Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), with Claude Rains; Whale’s masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), with Karloff and Elsa Lanchester; George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), with Lon Chaney Jr. and Rains; Arthur Lubin’s The Phantom of the Opera (1943), with Rains; and—moving into Cold War-era sci-fi—Jack Arnold’s The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954).

Buñuel: The Essential Collection

(Blu-ray; UK import) Luis Buñuel and Andrei Tarkovsky are the only legendary directors to end their careers on strings of masterpieces. Seven of Buñuel’s last eight films are included here and they represent the apogee of of surrealistically inflected anti-bourgeois sentiment in film: Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Belle de Jour (1967). The Milky Way (1968), Tristana (1970), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). No self-respecting cineaste can be without them.

Catherine Deneuve in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour | © Allied Artists

Jean-Pierre Melville

(Blu-ray; UK import) A major influence on the French New Wave and later, Quentin Tarantino, former Resistance fighter Jean-Pierre Melville was the master of spare, fatalistic, reportorial French crime noirs featuring laconic, trench-coated, fedora-wearing hoodlums making existential choices on real locations. The six films appearing on this seven-disc collection, packed with extras, are Bob le Flambeur (1956); Léon Morin, Priest (1961); Le Doulos (1962); Army of Shadows (1969); The Red Circle (1970); and Un Flic (1972).

Jean-Pierre Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos | © Pathé Contemporary Films

100 Years of Olympic Films, 1912–2012

(DVD and Blu-ray) This event release sounds like a record-breaker in its own right: 53 newly restored films from 41 editions of the Olympic Games are presented by the Criterion Collection on 32 Blu-ray discs (or 43 DVDs). The running time is 6,253 minutes and the lavishly illustrated accompanying book is 216 pages along. The films include Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, as well as lesser known works shot by Claude Lelouch, Carlos Saura, and Miloš Forman.

Charles Dickens Classics Collection

(DVD; UK imports) More Dickensian in spirit than most of the lavish adaptations produced since 1970 were the cluster made by the BBC between 1958 and 1969. Usually shown on Friday nights, they have been released individually: Our Mutual Friend (1958–59), Bleak House (1959), Barnaby Rudge (1960), Oliver Twist (1962), Great Expectations (1967), and Dombey and Son (1969). Whereas British TV’s early Jane Austen serials were mannered in the extreme, the BBC did “Boz” proud, especially as it gradually broke away from studio-based theatrical formalism. Follow the Amazon link from Our Mutual Friend to the other discs.

Captain Cuttle (William Moore) in Dombey and Son from Charles Dickens at the BBC | © BBC

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

(DVD and Blu-ray) D.A. Pennebaker supervised the digital transfers of this three-disc Criterion set dedicated to his film of the 1967 pop festival in Monterey, California. The original movie—on which he was assisted by fellow documentarists Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock—takes up disc one. Disc two is dedicated to the sets by Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. Disc three comprises song performances, excluded from the released film, by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Country Joe and the Fish, The Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, and more. It was the summer of love—what could possibly go wrong?

Jimi Hendrix performs at Monterey | © The Criterion Collection

Decoy: The Complete 39-Episode Series

(DVD) Inspired by Dragnet, Decoy (1957–58) was the first American television series to follow the investigations of a female policewoman. Casey Jones, an officer who frequently worked undercover for the New York Police Department, was played in 39 black and white half-hour episodes by Beverly Garland. A stickler for the rules, Jones was a tough, fair cop with no known private life—an important consideration at a time when most female protagonists on American TV were defined by their marriages or love lives. That many of Jones’s criminal cases involved female victims suggests it was a genuinely pioneering feminist work. Most scenes were shot in interiors, but there are occasional glimpses of Times Square and other New York City locations.

Beverly Garland in 'Decoy' (1957) | © Official Films

Three Films by Ken Loach: Riff Raff, Raining Stones, Ladybird Ladybird

(DVD and Blu-ray; UK import) Loach’s re-emergence with Hidden Agenda in 1987 spawned one of the most fruitful periods in the career of Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Preceding his ambitious Spanish Civil War drama Land and Freedom (1995), these three smaller-scale movies examine the stresses of socially neglected people in the post-Thatcher era: unprotected construction workers in Riff Raff (1991); an unemployed man (Bruce Jones) desperate to buy his daughter a communion dress in Raining Stones (1993); a victim of domestic abuse (Crissy Rock) whom the authorities judge unfit for motherhood in Ladybird Ladybird (1995). Each is remarkable.

Vladimir Vega and Crissy Rock in Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird | © Samuel Goldwyn Company

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, No. 2

(Blu-ray) Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, launched in 2007, is a preservationist organization dedicated to the restoration and distribution of important international films. This second compilation of six titles—issued by Criterion in the US and Masters of the Cinema in the UK—features Edward Yang’s Taipei Story (1985), written by and starring Hou Hsiao-hsien before he was acknowledged as a world-class auteur; Kazakh director Ermek Shinarbaev’s Revenge (1989); the Filipino Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976); Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s experimental documentary Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), from Thailand; and Ömer Lütfi Akad’s Law of the Border (1966), from Turkey.

The set’s jewel in the crown has to be Limite (1931),the silent experimental film (and the only one completed) by the Brazilian poet Mário Peixoto. In 2015, it topped the list of the 100 greatest Brazilian films of all time.

Check region codes before buying imported DVDs and Blu-rays.

The Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien stars in his compatriot Edward Yang’s Taipei Story | © The Criterion Collection

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