DVDs: Hidden Treasures

It's easy to take DVDs for granted. They're small, inexpensive, often loaded with extras and offer great picture and sound far superior to VHS and a lot easier to use than those bulky old laser discs. We just assume that a few months after a movie hits theaters that we'll be able to buy the DVD for about $20. And before the next season of a TV show begins, we know the previous season will pop up in a boxed set as well.

This week's major releases are no exception to the rule: Ken Burns' engrossing The War ($129.99; PBS) is just winding up on public television but is already out in a lavish set; Disney's The Jungle Book ($29.99; Disney) -- one of their most under-appreciated animated films and Walt's last -- celebrates its 40th anniversary; the family friendly Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($34.98; Fox) is filled with commentary tracks and making-of videos; Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn are charming if way too far apart in age for the romantic musical Funny Face ($14.99; Paramount); John Cusack's exceptional work in the word of mouth horror hit 1408 ($29.95; Dimension) can be appreciated along with an alternate ending; and TV shows like Entourage ($39.98; HBO), Shark ($59.98; Fox), the almost-cancelled Jericho ($49.99; Paramount) and even the cable hit The Sarah Silverman Program ($19.99; Paramount) are all on DVD as a matter of course.

All of those releases are expected -- even demanded -- by fans. But look at all the titles in the last two weeks that even ardent DVD fans can only shake their heads in happiness over. Leading the pack is surely Cinema 16: European Short Films ($29.98; Warp Films). Shorts barely existed in the world of VHS, but they're ideal for DVDs where people can skip to their favorites with ease. This compilation contains 16 shorts from rising stars and top filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Nanni Moretti, Ridley Scott, Mathieu Kassovitz, Lynne Ramsay, Lars Von Trier and my personal favorite Roy Andersson. (Even Andersson's feature films are hard to find on DVD.) Outside of film festivals, these shorts would simply be unavailable to almost anyone anywhere in the world. Imagine if people could buy novels but never read a short story and you'll realize how absurd that is. Cinema 16 is simply filled with treasures.

Another DVD delight is the documentary "film festival" arranged by Docurama, which releases a series of DVDs close to each other, making an event out of small films lacking a high profile. Their recent batch includes an ode to a New York chef at Shopsin's called "I Like Killing Flies," a celebration of Alvin Ailey called Beyond The Steps (with a short film extra containing an entire piece of theirs), and my personal favorite Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea, the story of a failed utopia in Southern California that's narrated with relish by John Waters (all $26.95; Docurama).

Robert Klein is famous enough that his eight HBO comedy specials -- which haven't aged a bit thanks to his timeless concerns - would be expected to come out on DVD ($39.99; SRO). But could we really expect to get them for $5 each? And no one could expect to find The Catherine Tate Show Series One ($29.99; SRO). This relatively obscure UK sketch show (to Americans) showcases Tate's chameleon-like ability to play tons of different characters a la Tracey Ullman and come up with absurd but hard to forget catch phrases like "Am I bovvered?" that will get you far in any conversation with a Brit.

Waterbearer Films just released three foreign gay films from the 80s and 90s: Lakki: The Boy Who Could Fly, Friends Forever and the sweet-natured Sebastian (all $29.95). You can depend on the Swedes, the Norwegians and the Danish to treat coming out with maturity, but is it really reasonable to expect little-known gay films like this to be readily available?

One set that isn't a surprise is The Up Series ($99.95; First Run Features), Michael Apted's landmark documentary series that revisits the same group of people every seven years. The new boxed set includes all seven editions so far, from Seven Up to "49 Up," and DVD is the ideal way to experience this unique and brilliant work.

You might also expect to find Ten Canoes ($24.99; Palm Pictures), an Australian film that delves into aboriginal culture with charm. But you might not expect it to look so beautiful, thanks to DVD's inherent high quality and the care taken in transferring this acclaimed art house movie onto the format.

And everyone knows that sex sells: pornography and erotica are always the first genres to test new formats like DVD-ROM, laser disc, DVD and downloadable films. So no one should blush at seeing Vintage Erotica Anno 1960 ($24.95; Cult Epics), the latest in a series rescuing erotica shorts from obscurity.

But no one - not even the most sincere optimist - can do anything but smile with surprised delight at finding something like On and Off The Rails: The British Transport Film Collection ($29.95; Kino). Fourteen British railroading shorts, including gems like "John Betjeman Goes By Train," "Blue Pullman" and what the liner notes describe with a straight face as "lesser known gems" like This Is York? If anything does, surely this counts as a hidden treasure. And guess what? They're delightful.

What hidden treasures are you still waiting to pop up on DVD? Me, I'm waiting for a boxed set of the Oscar nominated shorts from years past and a serious compilation of Laurel & Hardy shorts from their heyday.