Never listen to a director yapping? You really should! Here’s ten commentary greats.
Most people don’t care about DVD or Blu-ray supplements. Admittedly, most of the time they’re just full of useless pap not even sufficient for promotional material, but occasionally they can be more entertaining than the films in question. The most overlooked of these extras is the director/star/producer/whoever’s commentary. Many people don’t understand the appeal of listening to someone yack all over a motion picture when they can simply watch it, and even the mighty Steven Spielberg is dead-against recording them himself. That’s fine… but there’s just as many cinema-goers who want to know more about their favourites and actually discover the process of making movies.
Now, don’t get me wrong, not all commentaries are works of divine inspiration, and Christ knows I’ve sat through some real clunkers (Schwarzenegger on Total Recall, I’m looking at you). But there are genuine classics that enrich your enjoyment of the chosen flick, and allow you to see the product through another pair of eyes. Therefore, I’ve chosen ten of the best from my many years of collecting DVDs and the like. If there are any greats I’ve missed, feel free to strike back below…
10. Hot Fuzz (2007) – Director Edgar Wright and guest Quentin Tarantino
Put two lauded geek directors in a room and what do you get? A virtual non-stop checklist of films you absolutely, positively have to watch. Edgar Wright is always game for a commentary (and his track with Simon Pegg on Hot Fuzz is just as good), but his pairing with Tarantino provides one of the most entertaining motion picture discussions ever recorded. This is less about Wright’s cop comedy classic and more about their inspirations, nods and outright steals from across history. Just have a pen and paper handy…
This commentary is exclusive to the Blu-ray releases.
9. Citizen Kane (1941) – Roger Ebert
The world’s most famous (and sorely-missed) film critic Roger Ebert is our guide for what many call The Greatest Film Ever Made. Whatever you might think of Orson Welles’ classic, it is a highly influential work with a treasure trove of fascinating trivia and history. Ebert is the natural spokesman for cinematic craft as he dissects the legacy of the picture, how it was made, and what it means to American filmmaking… all without losing your interest. If you’re covering Citizen Kane on your university course, just save yourself some time and listen to this…
You can find it on the American Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray which is region free.
8. The Third Man (1949) – Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy
Modern-day filmmaking masters Soderbergh and Gilroy (the Ocean’s series) discuss Carol Reed’s masterpiece through an ultimate fan’s perspective. But don’t dismiss this as mere geek prattle, as the pair really go into the nuts and bolts of how the film came to the screen, and the history of those attached to the production (apparently Reed had three units going at once and only slept three hours a day). Informative and entertaining, this is one low-key chat that really boosts your love for one of the finest movies ever made.
Sync up your copy and hear the whole thing on YouTube:
7. Mean Streets (1973) – Director Martin Scorsese
The world-famous Scorsese discussing his breakthrough movie. What more do you need to know about this one?
You can find the whole thing in parts on YouTube:
6. The Thing (1982) – Director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell
When I think of great director and star partnerships, it always comes down to Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro and John Carpenter/Kurt Russell. The latter two collaborated several times on some true cult classics, and they have indeed also recorded tracks for Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. But The Thing has always been Carpenter’s true masterpiece, and we get the sense that Russell can barely contain his excitement as they revisit their beloved horror remake. From the film’s initial critical drubbing to its acceptance as a milestone of the genre, they discuss it all with palpable glee. Fans should really check this one out – see a sample below.
You can find it on the current UK Blu-ray and Collector’s Edition DVD.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979) – Director Francis Ford Coppola
To say Apocalypse Now was a troubled production is to put it lightly. From Martin Sheen having a heart attack to the spiralling production costs and schedule overruns, it was a nightmare only an independent film about the Vietnam War could muster. It was all documented in the must-see documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, but you should still make time for Coppola’s full-length commentary. Flush after directing The Godfather and its legendary sequel, the director largely self-funded this trailblazing film, almost leading him to ruin only to come out on the other side with a new masterpiece. The many, many hardships he and the crew faced are addressed candidly by Coppola, who is a cordial and engrossing host that maintains your interest for the entire running time. Essential.
You can hear it on the current UK three-disc Special Edition Blu-ray or DVD.
4. The Lord of the Rings trilogy Extended Editions (2001-2003) – Director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
What is there to say about The Lord of the Rings trilogy that hasn’t already be said? Well, quite a lot actually! These absolutely mammoth movies – three of the most intricate ever, shot simultaneously – are the perfect backdrop for discussions ranging far and wide across the filmmaking spectrum. Director Peter Jackson was one of the key supporters of DVD material (and now Blu-ray), and the four-disc-a-piece Extended Editions of his Tolkien adaptations were legendary releases in their day. Each film was furnished with multiple audio commentaries with many members of the cast and crew, but it is Jackson’s tracks with his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens that I’d like to single out.
From building Hobbiton to scaling an epic battle in Helm’s Deep, Jackson and his cohorts go over everything you could possibly want to know about assembling a large-scale fantasy series. And they do it very humbly, with a great deal of self-effacing humour and discussions about the perceived “faults” of their work. So much ground is covered that hardcore LOTR fanboys should definitely give these a listen.
You can find these tracks in the current UK Blu-ray release of the Extended Editions.
3. Mallrats (1995) – Director Kevin Smith, Producer Scott Mosier, Actors Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, Jason Mewes and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira
No-one will ever call Kevin Smith’s second film a magnum opus, and I said as much in my (ultimately) favourable review. Yet it has gained a cult appreciation for its memorable dialogue, zany characters, and now-hip comic book references. Smith and his View Askewniverse flicks were cult monoliths in the 90s, and it was a truly golden time for independent film. That has always been reflected in the man’s audio commentaries because, if anything, the ironically-nicknamed Silent Bob loves a good old chinwag about his work and entertainment in general. These audio milestones were pretty much trial runs for his podcast dynasty.
Though many of Smith’s commentaries are worth the price of their discs, Mallrats absolutely takes the cake for me. It has enabled me to forgive the film’s faults and admire it more; the sign of a classic yakker. It is also, dare I say it, funnier than the film itself. This is a great bunch of people, all warm friends by this point, and its a fitting snapshot of this moment in their lives. Before Smith (mostly) lost his indie cool, before Affleck got sucked into the vortex that was Bennifer, and before Jason Mewes succumbed to his (now-kicked) heroin addiction. You’ll laugh at the crazy facts brought on by low-budget kids making a big-budget movie and, most importantly, the banter between them. This one’s comedic brilliance.
You can find it on the current UK DVD release, and, if you have the ORIGINAL Region 1 copy, it comes with an optional video component.
2. This is Spinal Tap (1984) – Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls
This gets my vote as the best in-character commentary of all time (Robert Downey Jr.’s effort on Tropic Thunder runs a close second). It’s therefore one of the most unique out there, because just like Rob Reiner’s classic music mockumentary, it maintains the illusion and acts as an extension to the film. Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Harry Shearer), and Derek Smalls (Michael McKean) return to revisit their “hair metal” expose and quarrel amongst themselves. It’s a hilariously “bittersweet” romp that is often funnier than what’s on the screen.
The only downside to this is that we learn nothing about the film’s construction, and it can be considered a warm “time-waster” like the commentary above, but you’ll be too busy laughing uncontrollably to care. Just make sure you turn it up to eleven (sorry, had to do it).
You can catch it on the 25th Anniversary Blu-ray and two-disc Special Edition DVD.
1. True Romance (1993) – Writer Quentin Tarantino
Just like Spielberg, the man who gave us Pulp Fiction hates doing commentaries for his own films (supposedly because he’s seen them hundreds of times on the festival circuit), but he does appear on flicks he has either written or produced (or, as with Hot Fuzz, unabashedly loves). His track with Robert Rodriguez on From Dusk Till Dawn is marvellous, but his commentary for Tony Scott’s True Romance is the real deal. It’s just Q.T. on his own but we all know the man could talk forever on the topic of film. This is a yacker from a man who may have seen everything ever released in a cinema… twice.
True Romance was truly personal for him; it was the first script he sold before going on to direct his debut, Reservoir Dogs, and perhaps more so than other film he has written, it was full of his life experiences (at least from the perspective of Christian Slater’s cinema-loving protagonist). Therefore, this is a nostalgic trip down memory lane from one of the most verbose and literate filmmakers out there, but Tarantino doesn’t waste our time by merely patting himself and the late Scott on the back. We also get a fascinating breakdown on the scripting process through Quentin’s eyes, making this one of those rare commentaries that be considered a mini film school. Via Tarantino’s boundless enthusiasm, you’ll laugh, reflect on the current state of Hollywood, and ultimately want to pen a tale of your own You can check out a clip below…
It can be found on the current Blu-ray release and two-disc Special Edition DVD.