TERRY GROSS, host:
Our critic-at-large, John Powers, has some recommendations for your holiday gift giving, movies and TV series on DVD.
JOHN POWERS: When you watch as many movies and DVDs as I do - I'd be terrified to know exactly how many - it's only natural that people ask if I know of any good gift DVDs for the holidays. I always say that the best ones are seldom recent hits, which tend to have the life expectancy of mayflies. A good gift DVD should transport you into a different world that you can immerse yourself in over and over.
That's why I begin by recommending Zeitgeist Films' DVD of "Tulpan," perhaps my favorite movie this year, which is set on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Now don't groan. This isn't some joyless documentary. It's the hilarious, vibrantly alive story of a young man, returned from the sea, who wants to marry a local girl, move into a yurt, and set up his own sheep farm on some of the most forbidding real estate on earth. Brilliantly made by Sergey Dvortsevoy, "Tulpan" isn't just a beautiful, life-affirming tale but a breathtaking portrait of human beings - and their amazingly choreographed animals - with one foot in the present, the other in 2000 B.C.
You enter a very different world in my next recommendation, the boxed set of "Foyle's War: Series 1-5, from Dunkirk to VE-Day." It's a British TV series about a police detective superintendent in the English town of Hastings during World War II. When I got it, I feared it would be corny old stuff, but these mystery stories instantly sucked me into their embaffled(ph) mood.
"Foyle's War" reveals things about wartime England I'd never seen before - the luxurious country hotels where rich Londoners went to escape the bombs that the poor could not, or the secret military factories where they built all the coffins. What makes the whole thing irresistible is Michael Kitchen's enthralling performance as Foyle, who, in his reticence, sly humor and triumphant decency, is our fantasy of the ideal Englishman.
In contrast, my next choice is the purest Americana. It's the 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's edition of "The Wizard of Oz," our greatest homegrown fairy tale, a fable about dreams and humbug that insists that there's no place like home - except that home is black and white and Oz is Technicolor. Now, I know you've seen the movie, but this is a package worth owning. It's got a gorgeous transfer of the film in DVD and Blu-Ray; fantastic extras - including the fun earlier screen versions of Frank Baum's story. And even a commemorative green "Wizard of Oz," watch, so nifty that I'm wearing it right now. It's telling me to speed things up but not before we enjoy a few strains of our unofficial national anthem.
(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow")
Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Singer): (Singing) Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high. There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. Somewhere...
POWERS: At the end of the rainbow is this year's pot of gold, "AK 100," Criterion's 25-disc collection of films by Akira Kurosawa, in honor of the centenary of the great Japanese director's birth early next year. It's simply a marvel. Not only does it offer four rare films never before on DVD, it contains disc after disc of classics by one of those filmmakers whose work isn't just great, which can often mean boring. It's as entertaining as the best of Hollywood.
The world that Kurosawa transports us to is Japan, and I'm not sure any director has ever covered more aspects of any country's history. Kurosawa gives us rollicking samurai stories like "Yojimbo," and "The Seven Samurai," and ravishing historical pageants like "Kagemusha." He does action adventures like "The Hidden Fortress," one of the inspirations for Star Wars; and a heartbreaking political drama like "No Regrets for Our Youth," a masterpiece about the wife of an anti-fascist dissident.
He does a Japanese version of "Macbeth," but also puts a Tokyo spin on an Ed McBain crime novel in the riveting "High and Low." He makes movies about women factory workers in World War II, about daily life in the slums in the �50s, and in one of his greatest films, "Ikiru," he tells the tale of a dying bureaucrat who doesn't want to have lived meaninglessly. It ends with a shot in the snow that's one of the most haunting in movie history.
"AK 100," is an expensive gift. It's nearly $300 online. But it offers more than 50 hours of pleasure if you watch each film only once. And I'm betting you'll watch your favorites far more often than that. This isn't just a collection of discs - it's a box full of treasure.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. And he writes the blog Absolute Powers for vogue.com. Here's some other DVDs from this year that he recommends: Season one of TV Series "Breaking Bad," about a dying chemistry teacher in the crystal-meth business; the 1969 film, "Downhill Racer," starring Robert Redford; the silent film, "The General," starring Buster Keaton; the college football documentary, "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29;" the Swedish vampire film, "Let the Right One In," and the 30th anniversary edition of the Australian film, "My Brilliant Career."
You'll find his complete list on our Web site freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show.
I'm Terry Gross.