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The Year in Arts: DVDs

DVDs

It was the year of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ at the Oscars, and the year of ‘Transformers’ at the box office. But when they hit DVD? Fairly standard stuff. Here are the discs that grabbed us most in 2009, both for the main attraction and the sidelights.

By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2009

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DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG

Finally, a chance to view “Buffy’’ creator Joss Whedon’s cult Internet supervillain musical on a decent-size screen. Neil Patrick Harris really does sort of make you want to sing along as the lovelorn, disrespected title baddie, and Nathan Fillion’s muscle-headed hero/foil is just as amusing. But wait, there’s more: “Commentary! The Musical,’’ in which Whedon and the cast sing (really) about how the project started as a lark during the Hollywood writers’ strike.

DOUBT

Plumb your own memory, or ask your folks: John Patrick Shanley’s drama really does capture the feeling of life in bygone days in the classrooms and teachers’ rooms of a parochial school. The big surprise is how skillfully Shanley, Meryl Streep, and Philip Seymour Hoffman keep the conflict between an imperious nun and a possibly abusive priest from playing like, well, a sermon. Shanley’s commentary entertainingly discusses not only the performances, but his own years at the school seen onscreen.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

“Being John Malkovich’’ writer Charlie Kaufman makes a fascinating, characteristically abstruse directorial debut with the chronicle of a tortured theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman again) who spends decades on a production featuring a full-scale replica of Manhattan. You need to have the film on DVD to have sufficient opportunity to sort through it all. Kaufman is a fidgety, intriguing presence in extras that discuss the movie’s externalization of dream logic, and his illogical past gigs as a TV writer.

THE NORMAN LEAR COLLECTION

TV vault-minders made emphatic amends for various pedestrian Lear reissues with a showy 19-disc set boxing up the first seasons of all his signature series, from “All in the Family’’ to “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.’’ There’s eloquent new interview material with the sitcom giant in the two hours of “All in the Family’’ retrospectives, and we also get to see a pair of unaired pilot tapings - pre-Rob Reiner. Turns out he wasn’t such a meathead after all.

ANDY RICHTER CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE

Richter’s Walter Mitty-esque office-wonk sitcom is a whole lot funnier than its one-season-and-done network fate would indicate. (No, that “Tonight Show’’ gig isn’t just a case of having been professionally humbled.) Richter’s audio tracks are as self-effacing as ever, but the real bonus is five episodes that, criminally, never aired.

TYSON

James Toback’s documentary portrait of Mike Tyson is captivating largely because it doesn’t play much like a documentary at all, but rather as a unique exercise in cinematic stream-of-consciousness featuring a figure who can contradict himself ad infinitum. Toback frankly addresses the narrative approach - and his challenging subject - in commentary and a Q&A: “You make up your own mind . . . you’re moved, you’re not moved, you feel he’s heroic, you feel he’s pathetic.’’

WORLD’S GREATEST DAD

Robin Williams teams with writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait for the uncomfortable, poignant, darkly humorous story of a high school poetry teacher whose family tragedy is his ticket to literary celebrity. Utterly unexpected, and just as memorable. Goldthwait does a witty, revealing job with commentary - particularly for a guy who notes that he was in for back surgery two days earlier, and is still loopy on painkillers.

REPULSION

Oh, the way that Criterion’s Blu-ray and DVD amps up the cacophonic elements signifying frigid young Catherine Deneuve’s descent into madness. All the buzzing flies, clanging bells, orgiastic moans, and shrieking soundtrack bursts are even more unsettling, arguably, than Roman Polanski’s house-of-horrors visuals. Thanks to a vintage French TV documentary, we also get to see Polanski and Deneuve on the set. (Another hugely notable Criterion offering not reviewed in this space: the 25-film Akira Kurosawa centenary celebration “AK 100.’’)

LIFE ON MARS

For all the forced ways that entertainment has thrown retro ’70s culture at us, the BBC sure came up with a brilliant one in this cop drama, in which modern-day detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is knocked comatose - and back to 1973. Released in two sets covering the series’ full 16-episode run, “Mars’’ offers standard featurettes, but they train a much deserved spotlight on Simm and costar Philip Glenister. The DVD of ABC’s Americanized version was also a welcome release, partly for tapping ’70s icon Lee Majors as a featurette guest.

TIMECRIMES

A murder witness turns quarry, inadvertent time traveler, and metaphysical head case in Nacho Vigalondo’s mind-bending Spanish import. A bonus Vigalondo short, “7:35 de la mañana,’’ is as nutty as the feature, as a cafe plays host to a comically eerie musical number.

Honorable mention: WATCHMEN / TERMINATOR SALVATION / HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE

All three Warner releases were more about capably executed entertainment than anything truly mind-blowing. Still, the pop-up audio-visual commentaries on the DVDs are pretty dazzling - the future of supplements beamed to you right now.

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