2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Movies

These days, if you don’t own a Blu-ray player, you’re missing out, especially with a variety of classic movies being offered in high definition for the first time ever. But while we could easily fill several pages with suggestions of great films and cool box sets that deserve a spot on any holiday wish list, we’ve picked some of our favorites released over the past 12 months. If you can’t find anything worth buying here, then chances are that the person you’re shopping for doesn’t like movies.

Click the links to purchase each product online, and for more gift ideas, check out the other categories in our Holiday Gift Guide.

Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection

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It may come as a surprise that Steven Spielberg has only won the Oscar for Best Director twice over the course of his illustrious career, because he’s made some of the most popular and critically-acclaimed films of the past 40 years. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Spielberg spent a majority of his time working under the Universal Pictures banner, and all of those movies have been collected in this fantastic box set, four of which (“Duel,” “Sugarland Express,” “1941” and “Always”) are making their Blu-ray debuts. The other films include perennial favorites like “Jaws,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World,” though for some strange reason, 1993’s “Schindler’s List” (his last Universal picture to date) is nowhere to be found. All of the movies have received gorgeous high-def video transfers, while the included booklet provides background info like fun facts, concept art and storyboards. Though the lesser known films will undoubtedly receive individual releases in the future, this is the only way to own them on Blu-ray at the moment, and that makes the “Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection” a must-have for any self-respecting cinephile.

Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection

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There are many stories about the difficulties of working with Stanley Kubrick. He was a perfectionist and an introvert, but he was also a cinematic genius responsible for directing some of most innovative and influential films of the past 60 years. Though it doesn’t include any of his earlier work (specifically “Paths of Glory” and “The Killing,” which you can pick up from Criterion), this new Blu-ray set is the closest thing to a definitive collection that you’re likely to find, featuring all eight movies that Kubrick directed between 1960 to 1999: “Spartacus,” “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atom Bomb,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” The 10-disc set also boasts a pair of discs dedicated to bonus material, including the previously released documentaries “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” and “O’ Lucky Malcolm” (about actor Malcolm McDowell), as well as a trio of new featurettes, “Kubrick Remembered,” “Stanley Kubrick in Focus” and “Once Upon a Time… A Clockwork Orange.” If you don’t already own these films on Blu-ray, now is the time to rectify that.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Hands-down the best Marvel sequel to date, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major improvement upon the character’s first solo adventure, thanks in large part to a more interesting arc for its titular hero. The whole conspiracy plot not only creates a sense of foreboding and suspense, but in addressing real-world issues like national security, it lends itself to the moral battle that’s been waging inside Rogers since joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in “The Avengers.” That distrust allows Evans to play the character with a lot more complexity than the typical goody two-shoes Boy Scout, though he receives great support from Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson/Falcon, who all play an important part in the story. The action in the movie is also top-notch, which is somewhat surprising considering Anthony and Joe Russo have virtually no experience in the genre. The sibling duo is just the latest in Marvel’s line of left-field director choices, and they acquit themselves remarkably well, so much so that they’ve already been invited back for another installment. That’s certainly a just reward for the Russos, because “The Winter Soldier” is a superb continuation of its hero’s cinematic evolution that also serves as a natural bridge to next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Guardians of the Galaxy

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Marvel Studios has a history of taking some big risks, from the men behind the camera to those in front of it, and “Guardians of the Galaxy” is perhaps their biggest one yet. Not only is the comic book on which it’s based an unknown quantity to most filmgoers, but James Gunn isn’t exactly the first person you’d think of to direct a big-budget comic book movie. Despite his lack of experience, Gunn repaid the faith that Kevin Feige placed in him by producing one of the most purely fun Marvel films to date, absolutely nailing the offbeat tone of the source material like some kind of punk rock “Star Wars.” Chris Pratt oozes charisma as the Han Solo-like ruffian, and Michael Rooker gets some of the best moments as mohawked space pirate Yondu, but it’s the rambunctious Rocket (as voiced by Bradley Cooper) who steals the show in hilarious fashion. Finding that balance where all five characters are represented equally isn’t an easy feat, but Gunn does a good job of giving each one the attention they deserve, both in the action and the more low-key dialogue scenes. The movie isn’t perfect by any means, but if the objective was to make a funny, action-packed and slightly off-kilter space opera that introduced audiences to the Guardians and left them wanting more when it ended, well… mission accomplished.

The LEGO Movie

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When “The LEGO Movie” was first announced, there were obvious concerns about whether it would just play like one long commercial for the popular toy brand. But while the folks at LEGO have undoubtedly seen a nice bump in business since its release, the film is so much more than that – smart, funny and surprisingly heartfelt. A lot of that credit goes to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who bring the LEGO universe to life with the sort of boundless imagination that the movie preaches to its audience. Though the script borrows heavily from “The Matrix” (from its main story, to the three leads, to its anti-conformist message), that’s merely the setup for a much more sophisticated payoff that is equally daring and brilliant. For as great as the film’s ending may be, however, it wouldn’t feel earned if the first two-thirds weren’t so enjoyable. And thanks to some incredible visuals, great voice work and hilarious gags, “The LEGO Movie” is one of the best and most creative animated films in years.

Snowpiercer

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For the science fiction addict in your life, this movie that took the art house circuit by storm this summer will be fine addition to their collection. Cut from the same satirical cloth as Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” “Snowpiercer” takes place in the future aboard a train housing the remnants of humanity. See, mankind tried to do something about climate change, only they did the wrong thing, which resulted in Earth turning into a giant ice cube. And so Snowpiercer, the beast of a train, circles the planet year in and out, while its denizens are broken up into classes, with the lowest living in poverty at the back of the locomotive. A bloody revolt, which intends to make its way to the front of the train, is led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), who has distant memories of a time when the Earth was as we know it now. But Curtis has other memories, too – memories dating back to first boarding the train 17 years ago, and they’re considerably less pleasant. “Snowpiercer” is as unsettlingly dark as it is poignantly funny, and anyone comfortable with those two extremes will find plenty to appreciate in this allegory reminiscent of the sci-fi fare of the early ‘70s.

Star Trek: The Compendium

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Before he went off to go play in a galaxy far, far away, J.J. Abrams rebooted another beloved sci-fi series with “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Though his “Star Wars” commitments will prevent the director from tackling the upcoming third installment in the revitalized franchise, Paramount has re-released the first two movies in a four-disc collection called “Star Trek: The Compendium.” Silly as it may seem to buy a compilation like this with the knowledge that more films are on the way, “The Compendium” has a few tricks up its sleeves. While the “Star Trek” discs are exactly the same as the original Blu-ray release, “Star Trek Into Darkness” comes with all of the previous bonus material, as well as the exclusive extras spread amongst different retailers during its initial release. This includes the awesome Enhanced Commentary track, deleted scenes, a gag reel and 16 short featurettes ranging from make-up effects and costumes, to editing and on-set pranks. For those that don’t already own these movies on Blu-ray, or diehard fans that must have every single special feature produced, “The Compendium” was made just for you.

A Hard Day’s Night

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The first of many feature-length films starring the iconic rock group, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a bit of a mixed bag, but it’s one that fans of the Beatles will undoubtedly enjoy. Though the movie drags a little in the second half as the band prepares for their concert (the Ringo subplot is especially sluggish), there’s so much great material in the scenes leading up to it that it’s easy to forgive. The opening 30 minutes in particular are chockfull of laughs, fully embracing the zany humor of the band members with such manic energy that it’s almost impossible to keep up at times. (The infamous Lennon/Coke bit is practically treated like a throwaway gag.) And as you’d expect from a film starring the Beatles, “A Hard Day’s Night” also features some excellent musical performances, with director Richard Lester wisely shooting each one in a different style so that they don’t become stale by the time the big finale rolls around. But while it’s always a joy to see the Beatles perform, the movie works first and foremost as a comedy with musical bits in between. And running. Lots and lots of running.

Audrey Hepburn Collection

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Audrey Hepburn is one of the most beloved film actresses of her generation, so it only seems fitting that she receives a Blu-ray set worthy of that legacy. Unfortunately, this new collection from Warner Bros. doesn’t quite fit the bill, but that’s because it only contains three movies: “Sabrina,” “Funny Face” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Granted, those are some of the actress’ best films, though the lack of other favorites like “My Fair Lady,” “Charade” and “Roman Holiday” (mostly due to rights issues with other studios) prevents this from being the truly definitive collection that fans deserve. With that said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better 1-2-3 punch than the movies compiled in this box set – each with a healthy dose of bonus material from their recent individual releases – and it’s a great representation of Hepburn’s remarkable career. This is the perfect gift for any classic film enthusiast, or conversely, as a starter course for those not yet versed in Audrey Hepburn’s cinematic catalog.

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection

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For fans of Universal’s classic monster movies, it’s hard to imagine a better collection than this 30-film set, which contains “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Wolf Man,” “The Invisible Man” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” as well their many sequels and spin-offs, including a trio of movies starring Abbott and Costello. Though it’s only available on DVD (the 2012 Essential Collection featuring the aforementioned debuts is the best you’ll find on Blu-ray), the films look and sound surprisingly good for not being in high definition. The box set also comes with a 48-page collectible book, the 1931 Spanish version of “Dracula,” and hours of special features and audio commentaries. However, while casual horror fans will find plenty to enjoy about this collection, it should be stressed that it’s the truly diehard ones – the kind that love obscure titles like “Revenge of the Creature” and “She-Wolf of London” just as much as the originals – who will appreciate it the most. And best of all, you can pick it up on Amazon for only $75, which works out to less than $1.50 per movie.

Herzog: The Collection

For the foreign or art film lover that you know, there can surely be no sounder purchase than this jaw-dropping limited edition collection of films from German auteur Werner Herzog, all making their Blu-ray debut here, remastered and spotless. Starting with one of his earliest pictures, 1970’s “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” a film that literally chronicles what happens when the inmates run the asylum, the set goes all the way to 1999’s “My Best Fiend,” in which Herzog himself details his frequently insane working relationship with the late Klaus Kinski. In between those two, there are 14 other films presented here (both fiction and documentary), including all five pictures Herzog and Kinski collaborated on: “Aguirre, The Wrath of God,” “Woyzeck,” “Nosferatu: The Vampyre,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Cobra Verde.” All the films are housed in a lavish, sturdy book, which includes over 40 pages of essay material covering each film in the set. Also included are audio commentaries on nearly every film with the man himself, several documentaries, audio conversations with Herzog and theatrical trailers. It’s a feast; a veritable Herzog feast!

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Eraserhead

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One never quite knows exactly where to begin discussing David Lynch’s feature film debut “Eraserhead.” Weird is the most obvious jumping off point. Frightening is another. Darkly comic might be yet another angle, though few would be likely to laugh on a first viewing. Set against a bleak, industrial landscape, and featuring a couple and their horribly deformed baby, it’s anyone’s guess what the nebulous, meandering storyline Lynch concocted is really about. Part of the beauty of the film – and make no mistake, it is a thing of sick, twisted beauty – is what each individual viewer brings to the experience, and what they take away from it. It’s a movie that practically defies conventional film criticism, yet begs for groups of people to sit around trading ideas and discussing it after a viewing party. Criterion has put together a fine celebration of a disc: A new 4K digital restoration of the film; the 2001 making-of, “Eraserhead Stories,” that’s nearly as engrossing as the movie itself; six classic Lynch short films that predate the feature presentation; new interviews with cast and crew; and a gorgeous 64-page booklet loaded with pictures and a lengthy archival interview with Lynch himself.

White Christmas: Diamond Anniversary Edition

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This 1954 holiday perennial built around the music of Irving Berlin is widely beloved and so deeply nonchalant that holiday stress magically evaporates as the credits roll. A trifling blend of musical-comedy romance and low-key patriotism about two showbiz stars and ex-servicemen (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) and two attractive newcomers (Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney) trying to help Dean Jagger’s kindly retired general get his Vermont ski lodge off the ground, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a cup of eggnog, with an extra-large dose of sweetness and schmaltz. Indeed, “White Christmas” avoids significance at every turn, though film buffs will note that it was directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) and is the first production made in the high-resolution VistaVision format. Anyone who grew up loving this film via horribly mangled TV prints will enjoy seeing it in something more like its original big screen glory, as well as the many extras included with on this four-disc set, including an audio commentary by Rosemary Clooney and a holiday music CD featuring songs from the movie’s stars.

  

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