Last week, we published our first Gift Guide of the year, with 80 gift ideas for the people on your list, be they aspiring Julia Childs, or mythical hominoids, geeks, Greeks, revolutionaries or the 1 Percent
This week, our focus is on media — on all of the books, DVDs, CD box sets, videogames and board games that the cook, kook, jetsetter or nester on your list is slavering to devour.
Doctor Who: The David Tennant Years
The suit-and-Converse combo is an appropriate summation of the new doctor in this British series. He’s an authoritative, confident figure who also indulges in childlike whimsy on a regular basis. The 10th incarnation of the time-traveling alien is a favorite among fans of the long-running science-fiction show Doctor Who, thanks to David Tennant’s energetic and emotionally dynamic performance.
Now, the BBC offers a complete DVD set of Tennant’s time as the Doctor. The 26 discs include more than just the episodes of series two, three and four. All special episodes (including the animated ones), audio commentary, outtakes, deleted scenes, video diaries and Doctor Who Confidential documentaries are also included to keep fans occupied for a while. So what are you waiting for, Whovians? (Lydia Zuraw)
Ken Burns: The Civil War (Commemorative Edition)
(b) This year marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Now available in a commemorative edition is Ken Burns’ masterful documentary of the destructive and defining conflict. The history buff must have is digitally enhanced and includes never-before-seen interviews, commentary from Ken Burns, and a 16-page collector booklet.
The 11-hour documentary has won numerous awards, including two Emmy Awards, and, since it first aired on PBS over 20 years ago, it remains a powerful narrative that targets the heart as well as the head. With The Civil War, Burns created a new film language and altered our expectations of what a documentary can and should do. (LZ)
ADELE LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (DVD/CD)
Apart from the throat surgery to remove a benign polyp from her vocal cords, Adele Atkins has had a pretty good year. The singer’s sophomore album, 21, spent 18 weeks at the top of U.K. album charts and 13 weeks atop the U.S. Billboard 200. It has also broken numerous records and been nominated for six Grammys.
To keep the momentum going and satisfy fans who missed out on her live gigs, Adele has released a DVD of her Sept. 22 concert in London. The 90-minute concert includes favorites from 21 and her debut album, 19, as well as covers of Bonnie Raitt’s “If I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” by the Steeldrivers. The package also includes a CD of the live show for you to enjoy away from the television. (LZ)
THE HANGOVER, PART II
(d) It was a quandary that divided the critical community and the common man alike: What movie was better, The Hangover or The Hangover Part II?
Part II takes us to Thailand, where the familiar crew of binge-drinking dudes is this time in the midst of celebrating Stu’s upcoming wedding. But a cautious (after what happened last time) bachelor brunch takes a turn for the predictably ridiculous, spinning them into a world of cocaine-addicted monkeys, dick jokes and face tattoos. It’s some pretty wacky stuff.
So is it better than the first? The world may never know for sure. But the holidays are a good time to gift the films. This way, the Hangover fan in your life can study them and build a philosophically sound argument either way. (Tiffany Harms)
HARRY POTTER: THE COMPLETE EIGHT-FILM COLLECTION
The wait is over. For those of you who haven’t been purchasing or bootlegging the Harry Potter movies as you go, the box set containing all eight films has arrived. Huzzah.
Now, it should be noted that this isn’t the official superplatinum-ultimate-extreme-collector’s edition that comes in a holographic case and has trading cards and 20 hours of bonus features and maybe even a pack or two of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans crammed in there, too. That hasn’t been released yet. But it does include all of the movies. And it doesn’t cost an extra $100 due to the potential holo-case/ cards/footage/beans.
Plus, since filming took place over 10 years, you get to experience the actors’ transformations from eccentric little cherubs to full-blown sexpots in just 1,182 minutes, or 19.7 hours, roughly (we did math). Even Neville got kind of hot. And that’s the most magical thing of all, isn’t it? (TH)
ESPN FILMS 30 FOR 30 GIFT SET COLLECTION, VOLUME 1
There is a middle ground for your loved one — the avid sports fan who owns and operates a deep fryer and drinks domestic lager beers and does things like name game-watching days “Sunday Fun Day” — and you, the disinterested.
In celebration of their 30th anniversary as a sports news source, ESPN has released the first 15 of 30 sports documentaries that are, believe it or not, interesting for fans and not-such-fans alike.
These docs are all about finding deeper meaning and exploring the minutiae of various subjects in the wide world of sports. In this case, sports fans gain extensive geek knowledge, which can be used to one-up other fans in social situations, and you get reasons to be interested in sports. Win. It’s always great when a gift for another is secretly also kind of a gift for yourself. (TH)
STUDIO GHIBLI SAMPLER
Studio Ghibli is kind of like the Disney of Japan — Cinderella-era Disney, though, not like Emperor’s-New-Groove-era.
And, really, since Disney’s last animated film Oscar was for Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, it has kinda become the Disney of America as well.
Miyazaki’s films (Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky) are well-known in America, but his partner, Isao Takahata, has released some underrated gems, like Pom Poko, about shape-shifting raccoons, and Grave of the Fireflies, about two orphans who starve after WWII. (Roger Ebert considers it one of the greatest war films of all time.)
Studio Ghibli films are — almost without exception — wonderful, magical, socially aware and edgy without being graphic. They are the perfect introduction to Japanese animation. They’re also all pretty cheap to buy at this point, so snag a handful, package them together, and make someone’s year. (Luke Baumgarten)
NETWORK AND BROADCAST NEWS
People are always saying that the world is going to hell, and that our increasingly vapid cultural values are steering the tour bus. They’re like, “There’s nothing of substance any more. What ever happened to the good old days?” We have news for those people. America has always been vapid. It’s what we do. We’re world leaders in low-attention-span infotainment, and we always have been.
Our proof: two cinematic masterpieces — one from 35 years ago, the other from 25 — that both lament (as though for the first time) what an insipid hole America’s popular culture has become.
Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-conquering Network burns the newslessness of television news in effigy and then, a decade later, James L. Brooks (directing Holly Hunter) did it again in Broadcast News. This holiday season, give the gift of historical context. (LB)
CITIZEN KANE 70th ANNIVERSARY EDITION
With apologies to the $1,000 Scarface Deluxe Humidor Edition (which is a real thing, and not something we just made up, despite how unbelievable such a thing sounds), the coolest Blu-Ray remastering of the year is the 70th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ classic, Citizen Kane.
Revered as one of the great films of American cinema (the best ever, in the mind of the American Film Institute), Kane is the story of a newspaper magnate who was orphaned as a boy and adopted by a wealthy industrialist. Money has not brought happiness, though, and the film spends 119 bracing minutes unraveling how the man who has everything only really wants to be a child again — the one thing he can’t have.
This edition is such an embarrassment of film-geek riches — featuring a new film transfer, better audio, commentary by Roger Ebert, and even audio recordings of Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast — that simply buying it earns you Film History credits at the University of Wisconsin. Look it up. (LB)
VIDEOGAMES by Marty Demarest
Need an escape? Did 2011 ever deliver the games for you…
Videogames offer a quick escape during the stressful holiday season. I like to find a quiet corner and pull a DS out of my pocket. Or I sneak downstairs on a sleepless night and turn on the PlayStation. Within minutes, I’ve abandoned this artificially heated, oversold and crowded holiday season, and taken up residence in another world.
This season, no game creates as magical and detailed a world as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Rated Mature; PS3, 360, Windows PC).
It’s not the size of Skyrim’s world that makes it feel so big — although I’m sure it would take me hours to walk from one end of it to another. What makes Skyrim so vast is that players can do almost anything they want within that world. Of course, swinging swords and casting spells — one with each hand — is expected in a fantasy roleplaying game. But players can also break into strangers’ homes and steal their wine collections. Want to live life as a werewolf? No problem.
Unlike other roleplaying games, Skyrim allows players to find their own way through the game’s tangled web of stories. And each player’s character becomes unique. They gain their skills and statistics based on how they actually play the game, instead of being assigned points and an identity.
But for players looking for a little more guidance, there’s no more familiar character in videogaming adventures than Link, the star of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Rated Everyone 10 ; Wii). Finally, after decades of classic games to his credit, the story of how Link was captured by the Zelda franchise is told, allowing players insight into the inner life of one of videogaming’s icons.
Even though it’s for the aging Wii — which never really delivered as much fun as its motion-sensitive controller promised — Skyward Sword is a polished, extravagant production. The Wii Remote pilots Link as he flies through the clouds. It steers bombs as they roll into place. And, of course, it swings my sword for me, but with more finesse than previous Wii games have shown. Random swinging won’t cut it in Skyward Sword’s world, where precise control and patience are necessary to survive.
Another icon finds himself in a world that could only exist in videogames. Batman: Arkham City (Rated Teen; PS3, 360, PC) drops the dark knight into a city-sized Arkham Asylum, which means that classic villains like Penguin, the Riddler and Joker are loose on the streets. And, of course, the prison setting gives them hundreds of nameless thugs to use as backups. The variety keeps Arkham City moving from large battles to small skirmishes, from the big story to tiny sub-plots.
Batman is a crime fighter, so his brawling skills are pretty remarkable. It’s intuitive and fun to fight as Batman, ducking punches and dodging enemies with a swirl of black cape. But the game also rewards stealth and cunning, putting Batman’s full arsenal of gadgets to use as he zips around the streets. He may be in prison, but in a videogame this nicely designed, it feels as though he has access to an entire world.
Adventure doesn’t only happen in sprawling, epic worlds. Sometimes the greatest challenges can be found in simple, straightforward landscapes. Super Mario 3D Land (Rated Everyone; Nintendo 3DS) proves that a few building blocks can create a world just as challenging as any detailed kingdom or decaying metropolis.
Super Mario 3D Land was designed to show off Nintendo’s handheld 3D gaming system, the 3DS, and while it can still be played with the machine’s 3D setting turned off, players would be missing out on some of Nintendo’s most ingenious innovations. Many of the jumping puzzles that Mario has mastered through the years are entirely different experiences when played in 3D. As he bounces off a springy mushroom, or falls through a shower of coins, Mario in 3D feels as fresh and frantic as the first time he ran across TV screens.
This holiday season also offers some familiar settings and storylines. Perhaps the most classic of all the shooters is Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (Rated Mature, Xbox 360). This remastered version of the 2001 classic game allows players to experience the classic Halo game that launched the franchise (and thousands of deathmatch careers). Players can select between vintage graphics or the new renditions with the touch of a button, and changing between the two option reveals that graphics don’t make a game good or bad.
Even with its decade-old graphics, the combat in Halo is more imaginative and intense than any shooter released this year. Part of the game’s success comes from the pitiless programming of the enemies. But the real triumph is the airy, open spaces that Halo’s designers carved into the virtual landscape. These big levels allow for players to fight each other across wide chasms, or to pursue each other up and down towering structures. It might be a decade old, but it’s still hard to find a game that has evolved beyond Halo.
Perhaps the newest contender to Halo’s shooter throne is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Rated Mature; PS3, 360, PC). There’s nothing too glitzy about this shooter, which makes it perfect for multiplayer shootouts. While games like Halo offer players dazzling arrays of weapons and battlegrounds with which to distinguish themselves, the more mundane Modern Warfare 3 puts everyone on pretty much the same level: boots on the ground, gun in the hand.
From there, Modern Warfare 3 plays out like any war — that is to say, it gets brutal, ugly and frenzied pretty fast. The simple, clean gameplay of Modern Warfare 3 allows players to stalk each other with a minimum of fuss. It’s classic multiplayer, and it doesn’t get much smoother than this.
However, veteran gamers might want to have their notions of multiplayer action challenged by the awesomely difficult Dark Souls (Rated Mature, PlayStation 3). While it has the sword-and-sorcery setting and the character-development mechanics of a roleplaying game, Dark Souls is also a combat game that takes the hacking and slashing seriously. Players will die in this game, and in the process they will discover one of the most interesting ideas in multiplayer gaming.
When a player dies in Dark Souls, and they want help coming back to life, they need to summon a stranger from another game. There’s no telling if this person will be very helpful, or if they will be difficult and mysterious. Dark Souls asks players to open their private virtual worlds to strangers, and to see what kinds of things happen. It’s awkward. It’s difficult. It’s a little creepy. And it’s perfect for gamers who are tired of making predictable progress through every action game they play.
And what about players looking for adventure with the latest gadgets and special effects? Aside from the superb use of 3D in Super Mario 3D Land, and the tight motion-sensitive swordplay in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, there are still some innovations to be found outside of a dance/karaoke game.
The underdeveloped Kinect shows some programming finesse in Kinect Sports: Season Two (Rated Everyone; Xbox 360 Kinect). These aren’t long, complex sports games like Madden. These are quick sports-style games based around actions like swinging a golf club or throwing darts. For families who want to goof around with their Kinect, or players who want to engage friends in a casual competition, Season Two has everything necessary. And videogame enthusiasts will be happy to notice how the Kinect has been made more accurate, tracking subtle movements and changes of speed. Motion-sensitive gameplay may still be in development, but Kinect Sports: Season Two takes it further than any other game this season.
But the game with the most movement this season may be Mario Kart 7 (Rated Everyone; Nintendo 3DS). Designed for the 3DS, Mario Kart 7 makes every bomb and obstacle on the racetrack appear with solid realism, not just flat pixelation. Passing opponents actually feels like a victory as they slide from view and the racetrack opens up ahead.
A simple racetrack doesn’t seem like a particularly big or even interesting world in which to play. But once that racetrack is full of Mario and the other Nintendo stars, their oddball racing carts, and the bombs, turtle shells and banana peels that they throw at each other, the landscape becomes much more interesting and unpredictable.
And like the best videogame worlds, it’s waiting and available to be visited whenever it’s time to escape.
The Beach Boys The line between brilliance and total insanity has never been breached quite like Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson did during the infamous SMiLE sessions. Hot off of Pet Sounds, Wilson took to the studio and attempted to outdo himself by basically recording every crazy idea he had. And then he tried to fit them all together into one big pop adventure. Grueling recording sessions with perfectionist Wilson were tearing the band apart, and somewhere along the line, the album was lost in Wilson’s mind. Though famously re-recorded by Brian Wilson and the Wallflowers in 2004, no one had a chance to hear the real sessions in an official, re-mastered order until now. Casual fans stick to the two-disc set, but Beach Boys enthusiasts could lose hours sifting through the five-disc mess of these frustrating, often hilarious, but ultimately brilliant sessions. (Jordan Satterfield)