When giving the gift of DVD (or Blu-ray, if you're there yet), the easy rule of thumb is to always get something you'd want to watch with the person you're giving it to. Or if you can't stand the person you're giving it to, get something you'd want to borrow from that person and never return. Below, some recent, brand spankin' new, or unhelpfully not-even-out yet releases worth considering.
9 @ Night Box Set (self-released)
Filmmaker Rob Nilsson, this year's winner of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Marlon Riggs Award, has released the complete set of his interlocking series of dramatic DIY feature films about life among the hobos, hookers, strippers, addicts, thieves and everybody else who's ever bottomed out in the inner city. It is an event. Sort of like Kieslowski's Decalogue, except with nine films instead of ten, and in the Tenderloin. Seriously. "Cinema of the forgotten," Nilsson calls it, and taken together, the rough-hewn, enduringly soulful 9 @ Night films make a vital contribution to the cinema of the Bay Area or anywhere. (Read Michael Fox's full review.
Wall-E (Walt Disney Video)
The best animated feature ever, according to six gazillion critics, Pixar's latest embodies all that cinema has been (its nearly wordless first half plays like the perfect, universally communicable silent film) and all that it might be (just look at it, for crying out loud) in the romantic adventure of an anthropomorphized trash compactor. Precious! Assuming you and your giftee don't have a full-size movie screen between you, the DVD release is necessarily a downgrade. But what it lacks in magnitude, it makes up for in study-ability, or, to use an official technical term, the "Whoa, cool, rewind that!" factor.
The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration Giftset (Paramount)
You really can't go wrong with The Godfather. Well, you can if you never invite him to your house for a cup of coffee, even though his wife is godmother to your only child, and now you come to him and you say, "Don Corleone, give me justice," but you don't ask with respect or offer friendship or even think to call him Godfather; instead you come into his home on the day his daughter is to be married and you ask him to do murder for money. That would be a way to go wrong with him. But you knew that. Go right with this handsomely restored, remastered, special-feature-laden set of all three Godfather films. Sure, Coppola's just out to make another buck. But he's earned it. Does he have your loyalty?
Youth Without Youth (Sony)
Or, wait, how about Coppola's most recent film, a noteworthy, kind of adorably head-scratching return to the director's chair after 10 years away. Bewitching title, isn't it? Yes, in the grand tradition of things without other things -- "Games Without Frontiers," say, or "Doctors Without Borders" -- this film, adapted by Coppola from the novella by Romanian religious historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade, goes you one further, by being about a thing without itself. Whoa. It rummages among the filmmaker's self-proclaimed pet subjects: "time, consciousness and the dream-like basis of reality." On the eve of World War II, an elderly linguistics professor (Tim Roth) gets struck by lightning and then finds himself becoming younger, smarter, and more interesting to cruel Nazis. Let's just say things get weirder from there. Looks like somebody left the gun and took the cannoli! (Read another Michael Fox review.)
The Lawrence Jordan Album (Facets)
This four-disc collection of cut-out collage animations, surreal narratives, seasonally sensitive nature scenes and other exquisite ephemera is a must for fans of Bay Area mainstay experimentalist Larry Jordan -- or for any cinematic aspirant who's never even heard of him. What Jordan does with the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the music of Erik Satie, and especially with the spindling tendrils of his own imagination is, well, a sight to behold. After soaking up this compendium, if they don't already, your dreams will start to seem like Jordan's astonishingly lyrical films.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Magnolia)
Sure, Thompson is to journalism now pretty much what Charles Bukowski is to poetry: a magnet for reverential, ill-advised imitation, a phase to be grown out of. But of course, as the man himself once wrote (of the Hell's Angels), "In a nation of frightened dullards, there's always a sorry shortage of outlaws. And those few who make the grade are always welcome." In Gonzo, writer-producer-director Alex Gibney gamely reconstructs Thompson's cult of personality, reminding us that hyperbolic subjectivity was the writer's great contribution to his field, and also his undoing.
Dirty Harry: The Ultimate Collector's Edition (Warner Home Video)
For a while there, back when bad polyester pants weren't worn ironically, Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry seemed like the hero San Francisco deserved. This, uh, rather potent anti-establishment advocate for victim's rights and against bureaucratic law-enforcement corruption had two basic modes of expression -- silent seething and jocular intolerance -- and punctuated the transitions between them with the occasional well-aimed blast of a .44 Magnum. But it's not all about Clint. Dig, for instance, the evolution of charismatic series-regular supporting actor Albert Popwell, who played the punk famously asked to assess his own luck in Dirty Harry (1971); a murderous, psychopathic pimp in Magnum Force (1973); a Blank Pantheresque militant in The Enforcer (1976); Harry's partner and almost-pal in Sudden Impact (1983) and nobody in The Dead Pool (1988), perhaps because he recognized that perfunctory last installment as a way of putting the franchise out to pasture. Fans surely will revel in this well-appointed set, complete with good-faith special-features efforts to assay the series's endlessly debatable political and cultural legacy.
Soldiers of Conscience
This latest documentary from the Berkeley-based producing-directing (and wife-husband) team of Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg has a deceptively straightforward premise: "This film is about killing in war," we learn early on from Peter Coyote's narration. "And about some U.S. soldiers who have chosen not to." As its title suggests, Soldiers of Conscience grapples with an apparent moral contradiction. It asks the questions we have presumed that decency forbids, and tests a counter-intuitive hypothesis that the call of military duty need not be dehumanizing by default. This involves chillingly intimate recollections from a handful of conscientious objectors, each rather astonishingly articulate, and from veterans who've taken lives without hesitation and will again if so required. It's a modest, unpretentious film, and probably more affecting for it. Conveying not just the grimly harrowing circumstances of modern combat but also a real sense of the bright, mature and morally serious minds that terrible crucible has forged, Soldiers of Conscience amounts to a timely cross-examination of the human killer instinct.
OK, the DVD won't be out until late January, but pre-order that sucker and stuff the stocking with an I.O.U. Directors Arne Johnson and Shane King visit the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, a week-long boyless Oregon garrison at which trade secrets of "do-it-yourself girl power" are bequeathed to young ladies aged 8 to 18, and deliver exactly the documentary you'd expect from its title. Forgetting for a moment that there is perhaps no better conservator of stunted adolescence than rock 'n' roll, the camp -- and the movie -- ambitiously intend to seed a whole generation of empowered women. Sure, it curries feminist favor and makes you watch an hour and a half of really amateur band practice. But watch, too, how naturally those bands discover the sort of openness, creative potential and charisma that women (and men) three times their age try so hard to affect. A backgrounder on the camp's history and relentless statistical evidence of girls' cultural disadvantages are made palatable by snappy animation, wry stock-footage mash-ups and collage captions resembling what Sex Pistols record sleeves would look like if they'd been designed by Barbara Kruger instead of Jamie Reid. (Dude, yet one more Michael Fox review.)
Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Knopf)
Yes, it's a book. But it's a book about movies, and an essential one at that. Just how many list-based books of delectable movie commentary can David Thomson compile? Well, how many movies are worth seeing? At least this thousand according to Thomson, an English-born San Franciscan and most famously also the author of the New Biographical Dictionary of Film. This companion piece, self-consciously a "gesture toward history," offers yet more of his profoundly learned, personal ruminations on what movies mean to us and why -- without illustrations or a rating system because, no, seriously, he doesn't need them. That's the beauty of it: Thomson proves how far beyond synopsis-and-verdict the literature of cinema can and should go. His detractors in the field would call him stifling but should just be glad for their own sakes that real fluency has fallen out of fashion in movie criticism. It is fair to go in to this book feeling overwhelmed by its scope, and to want to refute some of its pronouncements, but that's how you know it's working; before long you'll wonder what you ever did without it.