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The best of 2005 - the year in arts and entertainment - Boston Globe -

Movies with benefits: the best of the behind-the-scenes bonuses

It's silly, really, but when it comes to DVD goodies, we've always preferred the term ''bonus materials" to ''extras" or ''special features." The former just so aptly encapsulates the Keanu-like little burst of joy you're tempted to let out -- ''boh-nus!" -- over some particularly satisfying bit of added value. If there's a common theme to 2005's best discs, it's that they all offered precisely this sort of happy surprise, delivering everything we might have expected, and then some. Topping our year-end ''bonus" list:


What could easily have been just a phoned-in reissue of the 1933 original capitalizing on director Peter Jackson's big-budget remake instead was a bona fide event in its own right. Warner's restoration looks spectacular; legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen provides apt commentary on the pioneering work of ''Kong" effects guru Willis O'Brien; and best of all, the package includes a feature-length production retrospective that is essential viewing. Heck, you could even pick up the movie boxed together with ''Son of Kong" and ''Mighty Joe Young," if so desired. Jackson, happily, is a prominent voice in the retrospective, despite having made his version for a rival studio. He and his effects team even found time to tackle the original's scripted but never-produced ''spider pit sequence," staging and shooting the material in utterly convincing 1930s style. (Their re-creation is actually -- go figure -- a lot more fun than the too-creepy parallel scene in the remake.) Indeed, Kong '05 wasn't the only 8,000-pound gorilla on the entertainment landscape this holiday.


Filmmaker Alexander Payne has proven the uniqueness of his voice time and again with tricky-to-peg comedies like ''Election," ''About Schmidt," and this, his foray into buddy movie territory by way of California wine country. The genius of the DVD, though, is that Payne lets us hear the voices of others -- specifically, costars Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, who supply the year's best commentary. Much of it is just two pals yammering: Church humorously pointing out, say, Giamatti's likeness to an ''Underwood deviled-ham guy of incredulity" in one scene, or in another, the impressiveness of polo-shirted Giamatti's ''man-cans." Their track might not do much to add to our wine culture edification -- or our cultural education, period -- but it sure is contagious fun.


The Warner vaults produced some terrific box sets this year -- a comedy collection anchored by ''Bringing Up Baby" and a gangster set that included ''White Heat," to name just two -- but the three-films-and-done Dean box went over biggest with us. ''East of Eden" made its DVD debut here, complete with late director Elia Kazan's behind-the-scenes memories of taking a ride on Dean's motorcycle, as well as wardrobe test footage of the star, who amusingly smolders through an obviously mundane task. Meanwhile, a new edition of ''Rebel Without a Cause" offers a look at a canned on-set tour with guide Gig Young struggling to wrangle Dean, who throughout exudes the kind of cool that, well, snares you your own box set someday.


Sure, we've had ''Troy" and ''Alexander" to remind us of the neat trick director Ridley Scott managed in delivering a contemporary sword-and-sandal epic that was genuinely transporting, not simply taxing. But the highlight here, as prominently advertised, is Russell Crowe's first-ever commentary, as he and Scott sat down to provide an audio track. The DVD arrived on the heels of the Aussie Oscar winner's infamous hotel phone-chucking incident, which, rightly or no, led to some vague expectation that ''extended edition" would mean extended surliness. As it turned out, Crowe was downright chatty, at times bouncing Scott right out of the conversational driver's seat and making him ride shotgun. Oliver Reed's drinking, Joaquin Phoenix's performance anxiety -- whatever the subject, Crowe was surprisingly game to dial it up, as it were.


Oh, one note about Crowe and commentaries: Don't expect him to make a regular thing of it. Crowe and Ron Howard followed up their collaboration on ''A Beautiful Mind" with this crowd-pleasing (yet somehow underappreciated) biopic of Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. The filmmakers' enthusiasm for the sweet science comes across in bonus segments such as a history lesson from legendary trainer Angelo Dundee, who has a cameo in the feature. Elsewhere, Howard sits down with boxing enthusiast Norman Mailer to analyze old footage of Braddock's title bout with heavyweight champ Max Baer. Crowe, meanwhile, does supply a ''Cinderella" training diary, but alas, only on a more expensive collector's edition of the film.


With its mesmerizing, deliberately artificial digital backdrop, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's comic-book noir collaboration was the most visually compelling movie of the year -- with some pretty dead-on hardboiled writing and performances to boot. The look and texture of the thing screamed for DVD dissection, and this month, the cry was finally answered with a two-disc edition that includes, first and foremost, commentary from the codirectors and Quentin Tarantino, who lent an assist. The package also includes a high-speed, all green-screen look at the film and an uninterrupted 14-minute take of Tarantino's material. But where was this stuff in August, when a no-frills edition went on sale? We'd rank this package higher if we didn't still feel like a dame done dirt.


We're suckers for animated features, but enough already with classics whose extras are so baldly geared toward plugging a new sequel. (And don't get us started on the de rigueur ''critter dance party" toss-in on the DVD of every contemporary 'toon.) This pristine set boasts reconstructed ''deleted" scenes and voice-actor readings of Walt Disney's production-chronicling story notes, as well as a segment interviewing the 60-somethings who voiced Bambi, Thumper, and Faline as kids. Yes, this one does cast an eye toward 2006's ''Bambi II," but there's sufficient emphasis on legitimately appreciating the past, so we can live with that.


''Amelie" collaborators Audrey Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet reunited for such a smorgasbord of disparate storytelling elements, repeat viewings on DVD were needed to fully appreciate it all. Set in World War I-era France, the film follows the quest of Tautou's character to prove that her lost soldier-boy fiance is still alive -- and along the way, we're treated to magic, romance, war drama, light comedy, a zeppelin explosion, and French-speaking Jodie Foster holding her own in a tangential love story. Hurdling language barriers, the package includes a well-done hour-plus production featurette that even shows Jeunet good-humoredly dispensing motivations to street-scene extras -- a minor epic being made in hugely intimate fashion.


We'll admit, we shrugged upon hearing that Francis Coppola was going back to tinker with his uneven adaptation of S.E. Hinton's young-adult book about high school class wars in the early '60s Midwest. But there is a lot going on in this two-disc set, beginning with a new cut of the film that added more than 20 minutes of footage and continuing on with commentary from the now-adult cast, headliners and C-listers alike. And the materials aren't afraid to tell it like it is, as Coppola explains why he dumped his composer dad's work for Elvis numbers, while casting tapes show virtually all of young Hollywood circa 1983 trying out for the film.


What bumps this documentary above more prominent headbanger aesthetic exercises like ''Murderball" and ''Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" is that there's no narrative massaging going on here. The film makes clear why the Ramones mattered -- and in an utterly unforced way, traces the conflicts that kept these punk pioneers from mattering more. The prickliness spills into the extras, with band members dissing detractors and fellow musicians alike, hardly sedate.

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