As fondly as I remember the VHS age, the introduction of DVDs brought home entertainment to another level (well, you could argue Laserdisc did, but they were expensive and never took off to the extent that DVDs did). Not only was the picture quality notably improved, but they brought with them something else that played into the hands of film lovers and wannabe filmmakers like myself; special features. These weren’t and still aren’t always particularly good, with the major studios often merely chucking a few back-slapping fluff-pieces onto a disc and calling it a ‘Collector’s Edition’. However, when done right, a documentary or commentary on a disc can help greater appreciate a film or provide further entertainment beyond the original source material.
With video streaming taking over the home entertainment market, special features are unfortunately becoming rare. Thankfully boutique labels such as Eureka, Arrow, The Criterion Collection, Indicator, Second Run, 88 Films, The BFI, Studiocanal, Second Sight and others are still thriving and packing discs (now the superior Blu-Ray format) with worthwhile extra material.
Whilst watching a particularly good documentary this morning I was inspired to compile a list of my favourite special features. I’m sure there’s a lot missing (please add your picks to the comments or on social media), but going through my reviews on the site as well as thinking back to some of the beloved box sets I’ve bought in the past, here are a handful of the very best special features…
* In alphabetical order
A Brighter Summer Day – The Criterion Collection – ‘Our Time, Our Story’
This is a 117-minute documentary from 2002 about the New Taiwan Cinema movement, featuring interviews with Yang and filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, among others. This is excellent and made me hungry for more Taiwanese films. It’s a fine accompaniment to the film too, helping you better appreciate where it was coming from and where it was placed in the history of Taiwanese cinema. Tony Rayns’ commentary on this disc is superb too.
Apocalypse Now – Various editions – ‘Hearts of Darkness’
I almost didn’t include this as it was made way before special features even existed and was a standalone film in its own right. However, I realised I’ve included a few pieces that weren’t originally made for a DVD or Blu-Ray release, so I caved. It’s one of the most famous behind the scenes documentaries and rightfully so, as it takes a warts-and-all approach to a shoot that was notoriously plagued with problems. It’s only included on a couple of different releases of the film, but it’s well worth making sure you get one that does.
Blade Runner – Various editions – ‘Dangerous Days’
Running at 3 and a half hours, it’s an incredibly in-depth account of the production process of this classic film. It was a tough shoot too, so there are plenty of anecdotes to enjoy, as well as enlightening accounts of the effort that went in to make such a striking and groundbreaking film.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – Arrow Video – ‘Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron’
Featuring interviews with numerous collaborators, it’s celebratory but still refreshingly warts-and-all and digs fairly deep into the director’s life, his work and his problems. Most involved had worked with him on several occasions and seemed genuinely close to him, finding good in him despite his fiery personality. It makes for a great watch and a moving one in the final minutes. Also included on Arrow’s Limited Edition release of the film is the 10-hour ‘director’s cut’ of this documentary, offering a phenomenal amount of unseen interview material.
The Complete Monterey Pop Festival – The Criterion Collection – deleted scenes and the set in general
You get another 2 hours of superb performances from the impressive roster of artists playing the groundbreaking festival. The set, in general, is superb, with hours of commentaries and interviews to provide a ludicrously in-depth account of the film and festival.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen – Second Run – ‘Film Adventurer Karel Zeman’
This is a fantastic feature-length documentary that looks over Zeman’s whole life and inter-cuts this with footage of young film school students attempting to recreate some of his most famous effects shots. This works well in showing you how things were done and helps you appreciate all the work Zeman put into his films. There are plenty of clips from all of his shorts and features too, which only fed my urge to get my hands on more of his work.
Indiana Jones Trilogy – Original DVD trilogy release – ‘Making the Trilogy’
This list wouldn’t be complete without mention of Laurent Bouzereau, who’s possibly the most famous producer of supplemental material. His contributions to the first Indiana Jones Trilogy DVD set (before it became a quadrilogy), particularly the lengthy ‘Making the Trilogy’, are the most memorable to me and were a joy to work through when I got my set back in the early 00s. He’s produced a lot of featurettes for Spielberg’s films and they’re always a pleasure to watch. The ‘Making of Jaws’ is another particularly strong one.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – Extended Editions – ‘Appendices’
Peter Jackson loves to go to town on special features when it comes to his films, so most of the releases of his work could easily be mentioned here. The ludicrously detailed documentaries included on the extended editions of his much beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy are the crown jewels though and had to make the cut. The dozens of commentaries included are worth a mention too (although I haven’t listened to all of them yet).
The Matrix – ‘The Matrix Revisited’
This feature-length documentary on the making of The Matrix was so good it was deemed worthy of a solo release back in 2001, separate from the film itself. I’ve included it here in this list as it was also packaged together with the film in a special 2-disc set. It goes further in depth than most ‘making of’s’ at the time and fans back then (including me) were desperate to see how the revolutionary special effects were achieved.
Mishima: A Life in 4 Chapters – The Criterion Collection – ‘The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima’
A particularly vital featurette which was produced for BBC’s Arena slot back in the 80s. It gives you a straight-up documentary overview of Mishima’s life to supplement the film and shows how closely Schrader stuck to the facts. The features on this Criterion disc, in general, are superb, but this is the standout.
The Music Room – The Criterion Collection – ‘Satyajit Ray’
This is a feature documentary from 1984 by Shyam Benegal that chronicles Ray’s career through interviews with the filmmaker, family photographs, and extensive clips from his films. It’s one of the most in-depth portraits of a director I’ve seen. On top of insightful interviews with Ray, there’s a lengthy sequence at the beginning showing him at work and tonnes of clips from his films which make me more eager to dig deeper into his filmography. The sound quality is terrible though – there’s some heavy background interference through much of the running time which is quite annoying. It was likely hard to track down a decent print of it though for Criterion’s fine disc, so I shouldn’t complain, particularly when the content is so strong.
Ran – Studiocanal – ‘AK’
This is a feature-length documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Chris Marker. It’s possibly one of the greatest ‘making of’ films ever made. Shot beautifully, it takes a refreshingly observational approach rather than relying on talking heads. To give the film structure and further depth, Marker narrates and there are some audio interview excerpts from Kurosawa here and there too. Interspersed between the footage are occasional clips from Kurosawa’s previous films to examine his style and approach and a brief glimpse of the devastating earthquake in Tokyo in the 20’s to highlight the importance that had on Kurosawa as a child. The on-set footage is fantastic, allowing an honest glimpse of the great director’s working practises and even offering some nicely comic moments in between takes. It’s a must-see.
Return of the Living Dead – Second Sight – ‘More Brains! A Return To The Living Dead’
This is an incredibly comprehensive 2-hour look back at the making of the 80s zombie comedy-horror classic. With contributions from a huge number of those involved, despite it being completed almost 30 years prior, it leaves no stone unturned. Plus the disc itself includes a huge number of further interviews presumably taken from the same sessions. What makes the documentary all the more interesting is that the shoot was far from a smooth one and the contributors don’t hold back in telling us all the gory, bitchy details. It’s almost as fun as the movie itself, and that’s saying something.
Sam Fuller at Columbia 1937-1961 – Indicator – ‘The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera Rushes Tapes 01-12’
This consists of almost seven hours’ worth of unedited interview footage of Sam Fuller in conversation with actor Tim Robbins, recorded for Adam Simon’s classic documentary. Due to its length (close to seven hours!) and raw nature, it can be rambling and maybe won’t hold your full attention in the same way a standard doc would, but there’s a veritable wealth of great material here as Fuller waxes lyrical about his life, work and worldviews.
The Shining – Various editions – ‘The Making of the Shining’
Vivian Kubrick’s making-of documentary has been included in most releases of the film on disc, and rightfully so as it provides a brilliantly candid look at the production. Vivian was only a teenager so wasn’t imposing on set and due to her dad being the director she could come and go as she pleased. So she caught some wonderful moments, such as Nicholson goofing around in his dressing room as well as a brutally frank interview with Duvall. It’s absolutely required viewing, even if you’re not usually bothered about special features.
The Sinbad Trilogy – Indicator and some other earlier Ray Harryhausen releases – ‘The Harryhausen Chronicles’
At almost an hour in length, this gives a fairly detailed look into Harryhausen’s life and work and is packed with clips – from early shorts to his later films and even test footage from films never made. It’s a wonderful celebration of the special effects legend’s work, although you could argue the feature-length documentary ‘Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan’ is a stronger film. That’s only available as a stand-alone release though so I couldn’t feature it here.
Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) – Initial DVD trilogy release – ‘Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy’
The Star Wars films all come with features-packed DVD/Blu-Ray sets, but it’s the lengthy documentary included in the first DVD release of the holy trilogy that still impresses the most. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, so can’t make too many comments on its content, but I can still remember the excitement of working through it when my box set arrived in the post and I’d made my way through the films.
This is Spinal Tap – Various editions – Deleted scenes and ‘in character’ commentary
I’m not usually a fan of deleted scenes, but the collection of off-cuts from This is Spinal Tap (which is one of my favourite films of all time) are long and funny enough to act as a hilarious comedy feature film of its own. The commentary is equally as funny, with the actors staying in character and bickering about their portrayal on screen. It’s the only commentary I’ve listened to multiple times.
Twelve Monkeys – Various Editions – ‘The Hamster Factor’
Directed by Fulton and Pepe, who would later document Gilliam’s disastrous first attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The Hamster Factor one of the best making-of documentaries out there. It’s brutally frank, showing how the shoot was far from smooth sailing, despite it seeming like a rare trouble-free process for Gilliam, in comparison with some of his other films. It’s feature-length so covers most aspects of the production in great detail. The film is largely fly-on-the-wall, with interviews taken throughout the process, rather than after the fact, which makes for more tense and open contributions, particularly from Gilliam.
Zodiac – Director’s Cut – ‘This is the Zodiac Speaking’ and other featurettes and commentaries
The Zodiac – Director’s Cut release (available on numerous formats) is one of the finest single film sets I’ve seen. With numerous featurettes and commentaries, every nook and cranny of the film is analysed, but it’s the feature-length documentary ‘This is the Zodiac Speaking’ which looks into the real life case that steals the crown. It’s further fodder for the obsession with the murders you’re bound to develop after watching the incredible film. David Fincher’s earlier Fight Club also deserves a mention here as the original 2-disc DVD release of that was mind-blowing when it first came out.
Alien Anthology – various behind the scenes documentaries
Back to the Future Trilogy – various editions – various behind the scenes documentaries
Fat City – Indicator – ‘Making of’
Fight Club – original 2-disc DVD release – various behind the scenes documentaries
Flight of the Phoenix (2004) – original DVD release – ‘The Phoenix Diaries’
Fright Night – Eureka – ‘You’re So Cool, Brewster!’
Jaws – Various editions – ‘The Making of Jaws’
Memento – various editions – chronological order option
Phenomena – Arrow Video – ‘Of Flies and Maggots’ and commentary
Salvador – various editions – Into the Valley of Death
* A few excellent commentary tracks worthy of this list are mentioned in the list of features above, but here are some other greats.
Aguirre, Wrath of God
Norman Hill, Werner Herzog
The occasionally bonkers Herzog is always worth listening to and here he lets us peek into the difficulties of the shoot and how they often had to just go with the flow (almost literally when it came to the river causing them problems). The best part, is when he describes how he ‘borrowed’ the camera from a German university to shoot the film.
Edgar Wright and Director of Photography Bill Pope
There are two commentaries on this disc, one with just Wright and the other with him and Pope. Both are excellent. Wright is an engaging and enthusiastic speaker and provides plenty of background information about the filmmaking process. There’s little overlap between the tracks too, with his solo commentary focusing largely on pre-production and the writing and the other focusing on the production and technical aspects. Wright’s commentaries on all of his films are great to be honest, so any of them could make this list.
Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley
I was meaning to just listen to a sample of this when I was reviewing the DVD, but ended up getting hooked and listening to the whole thing. The two filmmakers have a great chemistry together, due to years of making films & TV as a pair and it’s a pleasure to listen to their banter. It’s also fascinating to hear just how low budget and ‘kept in the family’ the film actually is. Pretty much everyone in the film is either related to the two guys or is a friend from a previous project. It’s a great listen.
Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Dave Lawson and others
There are various commentaries included in Arrow’s superb Limited Edition Blu-Ray release of The Endless and Resolution and they’re all highly recommended (apart from perhaps the bizarre Carmel the Dog track on Resolution). All tracks are light-hearted and full of wisecracks, but equally dig deep into the production process (including pre and post) so make the package a must buy for aspiring filmmakers or anyone interested in the behind the scenes workings of independent film.
Evil Dead II
Sam Raimi, Robert Tapell, Bruce Campbell and Greg Nicotero
All of the Evil Dead commentaries are definitely worth a listen, but I remember this one standing out. It’s a low budget movie so it’s fascinating to hear how things were scrambled together. Plus, the cast and crew have a really great rapport so it’s an enjoyable listen.
James Bond Ultimate Editions
I haven’t listened to all of these, but they all come highly recommended and the ones I’ve listened to were truly great. Rather than giving a dry breakdown of the film’s production, Moore waxes lyrical about his life and career, providing endless amusing anecdotes and worldly advice about living the showbiz lifestyle. He’s a great speaker and never takes things too seriously. The discs also offer straighter chat tracks from the cast and crew if you prefer something a bit more technical.
Alex Cox, Michael Nesmith, Victoria Thomas, Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss and Del Zamora
This is a fantastic commentary. The group clearly get on very well and there’s a friendly, honest vibe to it all that is fun to listen to. They crack themselves up half the time as they reminisce, but the track remains informative too.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper, Daniel Pearl and Gunnar Hansen
This is packed with interesting behind the scenes information and anecdotes. Low budget indies often have really interesting commentaries because they frequently have to cobble together to make something out of nothing. This is one of the best.
The Thing (1982) & Big Trouble in Little China
John Carpenter, Kurt Russell
I love listening to these guys. Again they have a great rapport, so their commentaries are loads of fun and a joy to listen to. Alongside this, they still find time to fill you in on the production process and give you a feel of what making the film was like. I imagine their other commentaries together are great too, but these are the only two I’ve listened to.
Touch of Evil
James Naremore, Jonathan Rosenbaum
This was voted ‘commentary of the year’ by DVD Beaver back in 2008 and it’s easy to see why. The two scholars obviously both have an extensive knowledge and passion for the film which comes across well, but they also have an energy and friendly interplay that keeps their chatter engaging throughout, setting it apart from most critic/expert commentaries.
An Actor’s Revenge – Tony Rayns
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – Roger Ebert
Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji – Jasper Sharp
Black Peter – Michael Brooke
Don’t Torture a Duckling – Troy Howarth
Double Indemnity – Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman
The Duke of Burgundy – Peter Strickland
Fat City – Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman
Fear Eats the Soul – Mark Freeman
Fight Club – various
Grey Gardens – Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer, Susan Froemke
L’Avventura – Gene Youngblood
Paths of Glory – Adrian Martin
Seconds – John Frankenheimer
Yi Yi – Edward Yang and Tony Rayns