With Frost/Nixon opening today in select cities, Universal has found the right time to celebrate director Ron Howard by releasing The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection ($39.98; Universal) a nice boxed set of four of what they call his "most unforgettable and highly acclaimed films" along with the usual extras. The movies? A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, Cinderella Man and Backdraft. The only problem? These aren't even close to his four best movies. Howard is a purveyor of middlebrow entertainment, which is a rude way of saying "movies." He doesn't work in the personalized vein of an auteur or the seat-of-your-pants indie world and he's never quite enjoyed the prestige of the top-notch directors like Spielberg or Anthony Minghella, despite the many Oscar nominations and consistent box office success his movies enjoy. (I'm still bummed Apollo 13 -- or Babe or Sense and Sensibility -- didn't beat out Braveheart in 1995 for the Best Picture Oscar.) Still, you can't dislike a guy who narrates Arrested Development or made an Obama ad that genially spoofed his TV acting career. Howard would have flourished in the studio system -- he's clearly shown a workmanlike ability to move from comedy to period piece to drama with ease. If I were gonna choose four movies to make the case for Howard, I'd pick Apollo 13, The Missing (his Western with Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett), Parenthood, and Cocoon. I even had to debate about Splash and Night Shift, too. His misfires are fewer but painful: Willow, Far And Away, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Da Vinci Code. But for all that, I think Universal would have served Howard better -- and celebrated their unique partnership (Howard has made virtually every one of his films with that studio) -- by releasing ALL his movies in one lavish boxed set and labelling it "Volume One." It looks like "Volume Two" would begin with another Oscar nominee in Frost/Nixon, so the story continues. What four movies of Ron Howard do you think are his best?
THE COOLEST DIRECTOR IN THE WORLD -- While Ron Howard turns out one commercial hit after another but gets no respect, Wong Kar-Wai is -- by almost universal acclamation -- the coolest director in the world. (And here's hoping his recent stumbles of 2042 and My Blueberry Nights are not the sign of a permanent decline.) One big reason is his breakthrough hit Chungking Express ($39.95 and coming out at the same price on BluRay December 16; Criterion). Everything is here: the slow motion, the emotionally acute visuals via the great Christopher Doyle, the obsessive repetition of a pop song (in this case the Mamma and the Pappas "California Dreamin'") and that indefinable cool. Extras include TV interviews w Wong and Doyle, commentary by a critic and new subtitles. Also out from Criterion: Richard Burton's wonderfully contained performance in the deeply cynical Le Carre adaptation The Spy Who Came In From The Cold ($39.95; Criterion) and Sam Fuller's racism parable White Dog ($29.95; Criterion) which I've never seen and look forward to checking out.
SNL VS. SNL -- Chevy Chase was long gone, but the fourth season of SNL ($69.98; Universal) is so vital and funny and silly and smart that it could easily be ranked as the best season in the show's history. The Blues Brothers, The Loud Family (it doesn't get enjoyably dumber than that), Nick The Lounge Singer, my personal favorite the Nerds (Bill Murray and Gilda Radner), Steve Martin with Dan Ackroyd as the wild and crazy Festrunk brothers and on and on. Then there are the musical guests: Talking Heads, Grateful Dead, Rickie Lee Jones, Van Morrison, James Taylor, the Rolling Stones, Devo, the Doobie Brothers and more. What a great show and these complete season boxed sets do it justice.
STOP! DO NOT GO ON! -- Not until you've read about The Gospel At Colonus ($26.95; New Video), one of the landmark musicals of the past three decades. The idea was simple: present Oedipus at Colonus as a tale of woe presented in a church, complete with gospel numbers. "I take my text today from the Book of Oedipus," intones a young Morgan Freeman, who is electrifying and commanding as the preacher/narrator. This 1985 Philadelphia performance was captured for TV with care and discretion by Kirk Browning, who knows you don't need to cut every five seconds to create excitement. All you really need are talented performers like Jevetta Steele, Robert Earl Jones and Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama and great songs by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson."How Shall I See You Through My Tears?," "Stop! Do Not Go On!," "Lift Him Up" and the moving "A Voice Foretold" are among the nonstop highlights. This is brilliant stuff and I've always been disappointed that I never got to see it live and had to settle for listening to the cast album. No more.
ANOTHER BANNER YEAR FOR DOCUMENTARIES -- Obviously, inexpensive portable cameras have revolutionized documentaries. Add in the flood of reality shows and the result is that people are more willing to go see documentary films in the theater and on TV now more than ever. Many of my favorite films this year are documentaries and still I can't keep up with the flood of releases. Among the many companies producing them are Arts Engine, which celebrates its 10th Anniversary of making documentaries happen with an elaborate boxed set ($99.95; Arts Engine available at their website), which collects eight movies and 24 short films. Among my favorites are Election Day, which interwove the story of people voting on November 2, 2004; and Arctic Son, about a young man heading back to Old Crow (a town about 80 miles from the Arctic Circle) to reconnect with his father. Both were seen on PBS's invaluable P.O.V. series. And I'm intrigued by stories of Puerto Rican Americans trying to make it in New York City, tales of woe in the criminal justice system and Brother Born Again, about a bisexual Jewish woman trying to make sense of her brother who dropped out of college and was born again. Then there are the numerous shorts....
TODAY VS. YESTERDAY -- The original Robert Wise version of The Day The Earth Stood Still ($19.98; Fox) is a quiet, thoughtful, philosophical film -- rather appropriate for a movie about aliens urging humans to unite and embrace peace. Or else. The new Keanu Reeves film out December 12 -- at least from the trailer -- seems chockful of apocalyptic explosions. Hmmm. Have we learned our lesson?
BLURAY -- Yeah, you're gonna have to buy a BluRay player. Among the new releases on BluRay are Hancock ($39.95 or $34.95 for the regular DVD special edition; Sony), which has a great premise and an okay follow-through but Will Smith is engaging as always and the action looks amazing. If you haven't seen the film, uh, try not to look too closely at the cover art or you'll realize it contains a spoiler. Extras include a digital copy, both theatrical and unrated versions, and a BluRay exclusive of on-set visual diaries. The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian ($40.99 or $39.99 for the regular DVD special edition; Disney) has even more action and derring-do than the first in the series, which means it has strayed even farther away from the simple, gentle heart of the books by C.S. Lewis. No wonder it stumbled at the box office. When will they realize that "Narnia" is not an action franchise? Ben Barnes as Caspian poses like a runway model on the DVD cover but I'll take Peter or Edmund as heroes over Caspian any day. Loads of DVD extras and the computerized special effects do play better on BluRay. If Criterion's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold wasn't enough Richard Burton for you, dive into Becket ($34.98; MPI), his costume epic about the Chancellor with a soul, which proves awfully inconvenient. Finally, what better way to remember George Carlin than by watching It's Bad For Ya ($24.98 or $19.98 on regular DVD; MPI), which shows Carlin as irascible and often as funny as ever?
MORE MOVIES -- I wanted to believe in The X-Files: I Want To Believe Special Edition ($34.98; Fox) but it proved just a so-so episode of the series. Still, fans who skipped it in the theaters should find enough reason to check it out. An ok episode is better than no episode at all from one of the best sci-fi series in TV history. Wanted Special Edition ($34.98; Universal) is an enjoyably ludicrous action flick with James McAvoy of all people proving he can carry a gun with aplomb. Chad Lowe's directorial debut is the low-key Beautiful Ohio ($19.95; IFC) with an excellent cast including William Hurt, Julianna Margulies, Michelle Trachtenberg and newcomer Brett Davern. Lower Learning ($26.97; Anchor Bay) is a comedy about teachers starring Jason Biggs, Eva Longoria Parker and Rob Corddry that has little to recommend it. The title is the funniest thing about it, I'm afraid. Israeli film My Father My Lord ($29.95; Kino) is a critically acclaimed story about life in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. Two new indie gay releases -- Between Something & Nothing and Into It ($29.95 each; Waterbearer Films) -- both center around male prostitutes, which is like having 90% of movies about straight people center around drug dealers. No wait, that was the stereotype for blacks in the Seventies. It's like having them all be hookers. No, that's still the stereotype for women -- try to find a working actress who hasn't played a whore; it ain't easy. Ah well.
TV ON DVD -- The Best Of Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist ($19.99; Paramount) is a good introduction to the squiggly series about the best therapist since Bob Newhart. If they'd been a little more generous with the running time, this would be all you need. Daniel Boone Season 6 ($49.95; Liberation) is the last season of the Western starring Fess Parker, who forever kept me confused as to the difference between Boone and Davy Crockett since he played both of them. The show was never a huge hit, but it peaked at #21 in its fifth season until the smash hit Family Affair sent it packing. You get all 26 episodes and some modest extras and the chance to have that theme song lodged in your brain all over again. 24: Redemption ($26.98; Fox) wasn't a smash in the ratings but it was lean and tough (I loved the ad that said "Hope has a fighting chance" and showed Bauer packing some serious heat) and is a good sign for the new season in January. Law & Order Sixth Year ($59.98; Universal) is the latest release in the venerable crime season They better speed them up or they'll never catch up to the show itself. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. The Final Season ($39.98; Paramount) was the fifth and last season for the worst Army recruit since Beetle Bailey. But he did have a lovely singing voice. Mister Peepers Season 2 ($39.95; S'more) is the fifties sitcom about a shy, unassuming science teacher (Wally Cox). I think he would have got along swimmingly with the blithe schoolteacher at the heart of Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, one of the better films of the year. This is the season where Peepers marries his sweetheart, Nurse Remington. William Conrad was an unlikely TV star, so unlikely that one show called him simply Fatman. But Cannon Season One Volume Two and Jake and the Fatman Season One Volume Two ($37.99 each; Paramount) both show him commanding the screen with authority. And viewers followed him everywhere: I can remember Fatman bouncing all over the TV schedule and viewers tracking it down and keeping it a hit wherever it was placed. Now that's a star.
FAMILY AFFAIR -- One of the best DVDs of the week just happens to be perfect for family viewing -- but don't let that stop you if your family's not around. Sounder ($14.98; Koch) is a tear-jerker with Cicely Tyson in top form as a woman holding her family together during the Depression. Misty ($14.98; Koch) isn't up to those high standards but it's fine, especially for animal lovers who can't get enough of children-and-their-horse movies. The Longshots ($28.95; Dimension/Genius) is the modern equivalent of those flicks, with teddy bear Ice Cube discovering his neice sure knows how to throw a football. The Nutty Professor ($19.98; Weinstein/Genius) is an animated spin on the Jerry Lewis classic. It's done on the cheap but Drake Bell is an appealing lead and Lewis was born to do voice work; quick, someone call Pixar. Two so-so movies prove animated cartoons shouldn't always make the leap to the big screen: Hey There, It's Yogi Bear and The Man Called Flintstone ($19.98 each; Warner Bros.). Don't feel bad, guys. It didn't work for the Peanuts gang, either.
ETC. -- Paul Simon: Live From Philadelphia ($9.98; Eagle Rock) is a bare bones concert just 53 minutes long with Simon at a crossroads: his movie One Trick Pony would flop and he'd record a reunion album with Art only to erase Art's vocals and release Hearts & Bones to relative indifference before finally being reborn with Graceland. But you can't have any doubt he'd endure when Simon can reel off songs like "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard," "Something So Right" and "Late In The Evening." Rush: Snakes & Arrows Live ($24.98; Zoe) with the prog rock institution finally getting some respect from Rolling Stone and proving why in this October 2007 concert in the Netherlands. Nickelback: Live At Sturgis 2006 ($19.98; Koch) captures a band that hopes they won't have to wait that long for their respect, but a 12 song set (even in high def) and only available at Wal-Mart (I hate exclusives) is no way to earn it. Orthodox Stance ($24.95; C3) is an acclaimed documentary about a Russian immigrant who wants to both box and remain an observant Jew. Other new documentaries include A Man Named Pearl ($26.95; Docurama) about a man who fights prejudice with a weed whacker; The World Within ($29.95; Kino) about the ideas of Jung; and In The Gutter ($19.97; Anchor Bay) an unremarkable look at gross-out comedies. Animal lovers will enjoy the boxed set Growing Up ($39.95; Genius), which includes five DVDs covering baby animals as in Growing Up Primates, Growing Up Wildcats, Growing Up Arctic and so on. If you're not cold enough, Arctic Exposure ($24.95; Genius) is a five part series following zoologist Nigel Marven as he travels all over the Canadian Arctic. And folks who hate choke chains will love The Loved Dog by Tamar Geller ($19.95; New Video), a warm and fuzzy approach to working with your dog. Finally, two over-stuffed wrestling DVD sets: The History of the Intercontinental Championship and Viva La Raza: The Legacy Of Eddie Guerrero ($34.95 each; WWE) and both filled with more than 25 matches and loads of extras.
So tell me, what do you think are Ron Howard's four best movies?