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Whether they came out to huge hype or hardly any, these releases exceeded expectation

Maybe it's that we're becoming more discerning as our DVD collections expand, but in 2003 home entertainment seems to have mirrored what was transpiring at the box office: A handful of high-profile releases lived up to their hype, but just as many of our favorites seemed to hit with comparatively little fanfare at all. Submitted for your approval from both the "who could have known?" department and the adjoining office of "we knew it all along":


For all the months of prerelease buildup, this package actually ended up being pretty straightforward -- befitting the franchise's '30s aesthetic, there's no ADD-inducing assault of flashy, quick-cut extras. As per usual, director Steven Spielberg even eschews a commentary. Instead, a feature-length making-of documentary is allowed to do the talking -- and does it ever. (Our favorite element: finally getting a look, at long last, at original Indy candidate Tom Selleck's screen test.) And the three movies themselves, of course, look great, polished with all the remastering technology at producer George Lucas's disposal. If only he'd give the original "Star Wars" the full discapalooza treatment.

The adventures of Sigourney Weaver's extraterrestrially tormented Ripley might not quite have Indy's feel-good vibe, but wow, does this nine-disc set ever beat all comers for its exhaustive coverage. Having the widely differing styles of directors Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher ("Fight Club"), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie") contrasted side by side makes for compelling viewing. And how can you not be amused by Scott's frank admission in the materials for his installment that the included "director's cut" is actually a misnomer; he released the movie he wanted to make in the first place, he asserts, but he fully recognized that in a package such as this, the geeky faithful want and deserve a little more.

You knew Disney was going all out with this decade-in-the-making release when you saw that they were hitting the shelves with tie-in toys. (For a DVD release?) And as it turned out, 10 years was shrewdly just long enough for us to have forgotten what a terrifically redemptive archetypal story this is. Lots of extras for kids and adults alike here, a rough version of the musical number dropped in favor of "Hakuna Matata," a glimpse of the Broadway show for those who haven't been able to get there. . . . We hesitate to say any DVD is worth this kind of protracted wait, but "King" comes close.

And now for something completely different on the animation front . . . or not. Yes, this "Matrix" spinoff differs from the way we typically tend to view animated features in that it's decidedly not kid-friendly. But just as the Wachowski brothers' live-action main event borrows freely from a variety of cult sources, so too does this made-for-DVD collection of shorts tap Japanese anime for style and inspiration. And go figure, the disc's various riffs on "Matrix" mythology, from prequel tales to tangentially related errata, are actually much more involving than "Reloaded" or "Revolutions."

Professional muckraker Michael Moore makes a pretty compelling case that media fearmongering does much to fuel America's predilection for violence. But he's also got enough to say that a feature-length documentary and a truncated Oscars speech aren't sufficient to cover it -- hence the various extensions and continuations of his argument (rant?) on this DVD. He may overdo it at times, and his wacky brand of liberalism is awfully well worn by now, but he does know how to make righteousness entertaining.

This French import is strictly no frills, but then it's worth owning just to study the terrifically warped performance by Audrey Tautou ("Amelie"). Is she really carrying on an affair with a hunky cardiologist, or is it all in her head? Tautou trades on her cutie-pie persona to brilliant effect in delivering the answer. The film's puzzle box structure, at once smart and thoroughly accessible, also rewards repeat viewings.

We hesitate to oversell this British workplace comedy, because its humor is so wonderfully sly, it's not at all an in-your-face laughfest, particularly at first viewing. But just try to watch the inane interaction of writer-star Ricky Gervais and his staff of industrial park wonks without smirking -- a lot. Gervais's mockumentary approach is so pitch perfect, the DVD's behind-the-scenes material is more welcome than usual, just for the purpose of gleaning some idea of how much actual acting we're seeing.

As we said about "The Fellowship of the Ring" last year in this space, it's impossible to fault trilogy director Peter Jackson's passion for this material; if only it were a bit more contagious for the unconverted. Still, the packaging of the DVD is again first-rate: a four-disc set veritably bursting with extended scenes, featurettes, and assorted arcana. Then, of course, there's the commentary, with its 40 participants -- or, tabulated another way, just a few shy of the number of digital extras in those epic battle scenes.

These '70s epics could have aged better; Oliver Reed looks like he's kicking butt, but we can't watch Michael York in this two-disc set without thinking of Basil Exposition. Even so, the simultaneously shot films are still a lot of fun. And in this year of other unconventional back-to-back screen ventures, from "Lord of the Rings" to "Matrix" to "Kill Bill," featurette material on how "Musketeers" was split into two installments is particularly timely. With the experience a full three decades behind them, the actors aren't afraid to say they felt like they got stiffed on a second payday.

This fascinating, low-profile documentary takes viewers inside a Texas Fundamentalist church that works to save souls and win converts by staging an annual Halloween fright show -- complete with scenes of abortions, AIDS deaths, date rapes, and teen suicides. Yes, there's a heavy freaks-on-parade element, but the filmmakers actually exercise a surprisingly objective eye. After all, how much need is there for snarky slants when the Hell House crew holds its own little version of the Oscars?


"The Good Girl," where Jennifer Aniston squirms watching herself in a sex scene; "24 Hour Party People," where '80s music impresario Tony Wilson does the same watching his occasionally hedonistic life story.

"Pirates of the Caribbean," which allows viewers to turn themselves, via photo cut and paste, into skeletal pirate ghouls. Good, creepy fun.

"Terminator 3," which briefly casts Ah-nold as a redneck human prototype for the killer cyborg of the future. Or was his middle-America shtick meant to showcase his populist side come election time?

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