12 of the Best DVD Movie Commentaries
One of the great perks for movie buffs is to buy a Blu Ray or DVD that includes bonus features about the making of a film. Learning what went on behind the scenes, how a special effects shot was implemented, or what the actors had to say about playing a certain role is important to some audience members. I am one of those people. I have watched the special features on every movie I have ever owned and many movies that I have rented, even the terrible ones. Commentaries give me a better understanding on where a bad movie was coming from and provides me with more facts about the movies I love.
Not every commentary is great. Sometimes you’ll get a director who doesn't like to reveal their movie making secrets and won't offer many behind-the-scenes tricks of the trade. Other times you’ll get crew members who go on about the technicalities of their job, and none of it makes sense to the average viewer or just isn't interesting. Some actors don't know how to talk about their craft and mostly just watch the film as it plays, offering a "that's funny" or "he's great in this scene" from time to time.
However, there are quite a few commentaries out there that I have listened to repeatedly because they are so good. Some are by lone directors who know how to tell the right stories and share the right information. Others are an ensemble of cast or crew members who are really funny or engaging together as they watch the film. Below 12 of my favorite DVD commentaries and why I like them so much.
1. The Goonies
This may be the greatest movie commentary track ever recorded. All seven Goonies are present along with director Richard Donner. They are all grown up and still have that parent-child relationship with their director after all of these years. What’s unique about this track is that the movie will occasionally switch to a thumbnail screen, and you can actually see all of them sitting at the table watching the movie together. It’s fascinating to see the Goonies as adults; yet they still tease each other like old friends.
Martha Plimpton is particularly hysterical, crying out “Screw you, Mr. Perkins!” every time the villain appears on screen. They tease Donner about the outdated 80’s special effects shots, and they all get on each other about their wardrobe. The cast leaves you in constant stitches and points out little Easter eggs and mistakes throughout the film. When the credits roll, you’re sad that the reunion is over, and your face hurts from laughing.
2. Riding in Cars With Boys
This movie wasn’t a blockbuster hit or big award winner, but it does explore interesting themes and character studies. The star, Drew Barrymore, does this commentary track solo. She is able to fill the dead air throughout the entire two hour running time with stories about preparing to play the character, what it was like on set, and what the real Beverly Donofrio is really like. She gives a lot of details about her acting methods, specifically for this role, listening to certain songs, drawing from her own strained relationships with her parents, and bonding with director Penny Marshall and the other cast members, such as Brittany Murphy and Steve Zahn. You can tell that she really gave this part her all, and it really shows on screen, being arguably one of the best performances of her career. She is very analytical, open, and good-natured throughout, making her commentary one of my favorites.
3. Spider-man 2
Director Sam Raimi and the film’s Peter Parker, Tobey Maguire, take on one of the commentary tracks for this film. I like all of the commentary tracks done for Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy, but this one is not bogged down by too many people on the track and really delves into studying the characters more so than the technical aspects of the film.
Raimi and Maguire clearly have a strong working relationship, and it comes through in the commentary. Raimi likes to pretend he’s a slave driver and Tobey is the helpless victim. They like to laugh at the goofy parts and commend the other cast and crew for their contributions to the film. Maguire appears to be in awe of the finished product while Raimi seems very pleased with how well everyone worked to make it so. For a comic book movie, they really aren’t afraid to talk about character development as much as the special effects, and those are the pieces that are interesting to hear about from two people who were front and center during the development and execution of this film which really helped to pave the way for serious and sophisticated comic book movies.
4. Big Fish
Tim Burton has done some pretty bland commentary tracks in the past. He has previously always been on his own and never quite knows what to talk about. He tends to repeat himself and lets long pauses stretch out before he thinks of something to say, and when he does, it's not very profound. Still, it's hard to believe that someone that artistic doesn't have anything interesting to say. That’s why it was a smart move to have an interviewer guide him through the commentary track for this film, and it pays off, giving viewers a clear, behind-the-scenes look at why Burton took on the project and how he pulled it off.
I remember this movie being praised by critics as “Tim Burton’s masterpiece”. They seemed to feel like Burton had finally made a movie for grown ups that still benefitted from his signature style. So, it is only fitting that he do the commentary track for this highly personal movie. The interviewer, Mark Salisbury, stays on topic, keeping Burton talking about his role as director and the challenges that he faced in telling this complex story. Burton is more open to talking about his own strained relationship with his father and what kind of relationship he portrays between the main characters on the screen when he has someone coming out and asking him these personal questions directly.
Burton and Salisbury discuss what it was like to adapt the movie from the book and the importance of casting actors who not only physically looked alike to play the same character in different generations but to also have them act alike and fit into both Edward Bloom’s real world and the fantasy world that he constructs. Burton explains how he was trying to get away from mirroring other cancer movies or father-son stories by not shooting the typical, teary-eyed dramatic scenes but instead have their understanding of each other come about more organically. One interesting revelation that provides is about how Will was the most interesting character to him because he has to be the anchor in a world where so many over-the-top characters exist. It’s the kind of interview you always hope to hear while watching promotions for a movie, and it is the kind that you typically don’t get. Luckily, DVD commentaries give interviewers the time and the setting in order to talk about craft rather than the business itself.
There are a few commentary tracks recorded for James Cameron’s blockbuster hit, but my favorite is the one that the director does solo. Cameron is very technical without losing you in any jargon. He can tell a verbal story as well as he can tell a visual one. You can hear how passionate he is on the subject and how knowledgeable he is from knowing every real life character on the ship to every fabricated character that appeared in the script. He also knows a lot about the time period itself and fills you in on the etiquette, technology, and social structures of the day. His cocky nature shows through at times, but that honesty is refreshing, and Cameron is so knowledgeable and hard-working that the pride that he shows in his work makes him deserving of his inflated ego.
Director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson provide the commentary for this groundbreaking 90’s slasher movie. Throughout the commentary, you get the sense that they were really trying to make a good movie, not just a good horror movie, and they pulled it off. By drawing from their predecessors and building on Craven’s already iconic status in the genre, they worked to construct a simple but sophisticated plot that really gave that generation of teens a horror franchise that they could relate to.
Craven and Williamson are also not afraid to talk about the ugly side of film making, including disagreements with the studio and backlash with the townspeople who didn’t want their school depicted in a film where teenagers are stabbing each other to death. They also talk about where the actors improvised and brought laughs and richness to the script as well as where Williamson drew from inspiration for certain elements, such as the genius way that Sydney’s closet door can hold her bedroom door closed like a lock. They also remind the audience of how groundbreaking and risky the film was and how hard they had to fight for their R rating to make sure that it could be seen by their target audience without supervision. When you have smart people behind a project, it shows, and getting to hear about the trials and inspiration behind the project straight from the horse's mouth is an added bonus.
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
This film too has many commentary tracks to choose from. My favorite, besides the one where Keira Knightley and Jack Davenport discuss only the scenes that they were in together, is the one recorded by director Gore Verbinski and Captain Jack Sparrow himself, Johnny Depp. Depp really comes out of his shell to aid Verbinski in talking about what it was like to make this surprise hit. They really give you a sense of what it’s like to film out on open water in the Caribbean and how they came up with the character development, particularly for Depp’s. He even talks about some features that didn’t make it in, such as his desire to have Sparrow’s nose having been cut off and reattached at one point and what a controversy his gold teeth were with the studio, among his other mannerisms. The two are relaxed and easygoing and are able to fill their airtime, despite being soft spoken and new to the whole commentary process. It makes you nostalgic for the days when Depp was at the top of his game and this surprise hit came out of nowhere before being sequeled to death.
8. Sense and Sensibility
Producer Lindsay Doran and Writer/Actress Emma Thompson sit down together and record the commentary track for this Jane Austen adaptation. The two women are very engaging and joke a lot about the making of the film. They reminisce about their intense hatred of sheep brought about from the filming of the pastoral scenes, of Thompson’s adaptation from the book the screen, and Lee’s directorial style, pointing out his use of squares and circles to represent the literal sense and sensibility of the characters. Historical facts are also given, but mostly, they delve deep into the characterization of the family and their relationships with one another. They are all very different women/girls, yet they get along so well and have a distinct place within their family. The film may be very girly and tame, but the commentary is beneficial to anyone who is interested in writing or directing films, if not just simply entertaining for the behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
9. You've Got Mail
Two powerhouse women in Hollywood, director Nora Ephron and producer Lauren Shuler Donner provide the commentary track for this film. What on the surface seems like a typical 90’s rom-com is really a very complex character study of two people who are feuding and falling in love at the same time.
Ephron is her notoriously energetic and even bossy self while Donner takes a back seat and chimes in whenever Ephron takes a breath. Ephron goes on about her love of essay writing and her ability to incorporate little essays into the emails that the two characters send each other throughout the course of the movie. They talk about the part that New York plays in the movie along with the children’s book references throughout the film along with the nods to the original film, The Shop Around the Corner, on which this film is based. It’s nice to be reminded of an era when female comedies were well-written and sophisticated but still funny, charming, and classic in the way that Ephron and Donner were able to pull off in this film.
10. Good Will Hunting
Stars and screenwriters, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are joined by director Gus Van Sant on the commentary for this movie. It’s not as funny as you would imagine it to be considering that you have two young best friends in the same room together talking about a movie that they not only wrote and starred in but for which they won Academy Awards. Instead, you get to see how intelligent these two men really are, how much thought they put into the characters and plot development, and how Van Sant’s style was worked in to pull the film together. Despite their professional tone, they are not totally serious throughout the track. For instance, Damon is infinitely amused by Casey Affleck’s performance, and they both crack up at Robin Williams in what is probably his greatest performance and deserving of his own Oscar. They are quiet in some moments but have a lot to say without repeating themselves. They are so impressed by the different departments and how collaborative they were with Van Sant and the rest of the cast and crew who worked together to pull off this award-winning film that has survived the test of time.
11. Young Frankenstein
You know that when Mel Brooks starts talking, something funny is going to come out of his mouth, and there are plenty of funny moments in this film’s commentary track. He flies solo and has a lot of funny things to say while also having a lot of interesting things to say about making movies, particularly this one.
Listening to someone watch a movie that stars his hilarious friends is just a really good time. Brooks chuckles at the film’s classic jokes, and he tells stories about what it was like on set and about his career in general. When he does pause, he makes the excuse that he’s trying to watch the movie since he hasn’t seen it in awhile. He jokingly badmouths himself and talks about what interests him as a writer, director, and actor. He’s not afraid to talk about arguments with the cast or crew, but at the same time, he gushes about how the shoot was so enjoyable that no one wanted the production to end. He is also loyal to the Frankenstein films’ legacy while incorporating the Mel Brooks brand of humor that we all know and love. If you want to spend 90 minutes laughing at a comedic genius, switch over to the commentary track on this film before pressing “play”.
Ivan Reitman and the late Harold Ramis sit down to talk about the first Ghostbusters film on the DVD, and it is unsurprisingly hilarious. Reitman has a dry, witty humor that shows why he was a great fit to direct this film and its sequel. He mockingly takes credit for the best gags and scenes while Ramis talks about what it was like to write the script and work with the comedy giants that are in the film with him.
They discuss the challenge about how to approach the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and how to pull off the special effects scenes in a realistic way while keeping them funny. They share many funny stories from the set, especially those revolving around Bill Murray, and they comment on the cultural phenomenon that the movie became and how intrigued they were with the audience’s response to it. It helps to have funny people on a commentary track, and what better way to do this than by having two people involved in one of the greatest comedies of all time? It’s a really great way to view the film from another angle and get some new laughs out of an old classic.
How often do you listen to DVD commentaries?
What are your favorite film commentaries? Leave your responses in the comments below!