With DVD players priced like toasters, and with most PCs now able to play those same discs, the holiday season is the perfect time to help build a friend's video libraryor your own. Here are my picks among the past year's releases.
1. For film classicists, it's hard to top the Criterion Collection's digitally restored Trouble in Paradise ($39.95). Ernst Lubitsch's splendid 1932 comedy concerns a pair of sophisticated thieves and lovers (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) who conspire to separate a sympathetic widow (Kay Francis) from her fortune. Lubitsch's comic precision is so imperative and his continental grace so gorgeous that the film makes almost any other comedy seem comparatively commonplace. The extras, including Lubitsch's 1917 short The Merry Jail, are fantastic.
2. Fans of British television should thoroughly enjoy all eight hours of Monarch of the GlenSeries 1 (BBC, $39.98), a winning comedy about a London restaurateur tricked by his cantankerous father and radiant mother into assuming his birthright as Laird of Glenbogle, a 40,000-acre estate in the Scottish Highlands. Along with the job, of course, come endearing, eccentric characters and a combative land reformer who may or may not become the reluctant squire's love interest. Once you start watching this, you don't want to stop.
3. Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People (MGM/UA, $14.95), one of the liveliest films of 2002, is a very funny and candid mockumentary-style look at the 1980s rise of the Manchester, England, music scene. Steve Coogan is inspired as the quixotic yet self-absorbed Tony Wilson, a talk-show host who founded Factory Records, home of Joy Division and Happy Mondays. Winterbottom is at his most relentlessly inventive and wicked: An early scene re-creating a culture clash at the Sex Pistols' Manchester debut will make one cringe and howl at once.
4. You don't have to be an extreme snow-sports fanatic to appreciate the more staggering sequences in Warren Miller's half-century of action documentaries. Warren Miller's Power of Snow Collection (Sony, $59.98), a boxed set of four dazzling and witty films, takes you to some of the most exotic and haunting places on Earth. Why not ski Iran? Or cross a war zone in the former Soviet Union to reach the top of Europe? Or re-create Shackleton's ill-fated voyage (without the ill-fated part) to South Georgia Island? Lots to explore here.
5. Most of Fellini's films exist in elaborate worlds of their own, but his 1954 La Strada (Criterion, $39.95) has the edge of a simple, powerful parable about love and hope trampled by cruelty. Actress-treasure Guilietta Masina (Fellini's wife) stars as the waif sold as an assistant and de facto wife to an itinerant circus strongman (Anthony Quinn). The brute treats her like a beast of burden, punishing her for his own deepening feelings. It's a film about profound loneliness, a pellucid masterpiece.
6. Let's talk live English rock and roll. Ed Sullivan Presents the Beatles (SOFA, $29.95) is not just a showcase for the Fab Four's four appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, but a time capsule of TV culture. The disc features each Sullivan episode in its entirety, including original commercials and supporting acts (among them future Monkee Davy Jones in a scene from Oliver!).
7. For a lot of people, watching Sergio Leone's 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West (Paramount, $19.99) is like going to church with Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards Jr., and Claudia Cardinale sitting in the pews next to you. This two-disc set preserves its original widescreen ratio and true colors. John Carpenter, John Milius, Alex Cox, and others contribute to the commentary track for one of the great, visionary works of the '60s.
8. The very satisfying series Foyle's WarSet 1 (Acorn, $59.95) does more than drop a fictional sleuth in the middle of a decorative period piece. The year is 1940, and Detective Foyle (Michael Kitchen) is a frustrated London investigator pining to fight Hitler via overseas intelligence. But with most of his colleagues already at that job, someone needs to keep a light on in the home officewhere plenty of murders conveniently need solving. The cases are superbly researched, with lots of unusual historical detail, and written by Anthony Horowitz (TV's Poirot).
9. Kids who loved Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away will probably also enjoy the legendary animator's 1989 Kiki's Delivery Service (Disney, $29.99). Kirsten Dunst provides the voice for the titular, 13-year-old apprentice witch in a story that is not so much a fantasia as a gentle tale about a headstrong girl trying to cope with ordinary growing pains in the everyday world.
10. Forget the boxed set's goofy title: Wrong Men and Notorious Women (Criterion, $124.95) is an opportunity to own five sumptuous Hitchcock discs at a considerable discount. The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are among the cream of Hitch's late-'30s titles; Rebecca and Notorious are early masterpieces from the Selznick period; and Spellbound remains one of the artist's most engaging experiments. Oh, and there are scores of mind-blowing extra features.