The holiday season is the time to ask for those big items you've been wanting all year, those toys or gadgets or appliances or DVDs that were just too expensive to splurge on with your own money. And now, with the holidays being so associated with the expectation of gifts, Christmas lists (and Hanukkah lists and Kwanzaa lists, etc.) are made by kids and adults alike. Nobody wants to receive a gift they don't desire, and nobody wants to buy a present that the recipient will not like, so it is now common to go ahead and tell Santa, your parents, your spouse and/or your friends exactly what you want from them. And depending on the gift-giver, you probably will
When it comes to movies, single-title DVDs just aren't going to cut it. Criterion editions are almost there, but not quite. No, for your present demands, you need something bigger, like a box set. The same can be said for DVDs as it can be for CDs, that box sets are the greatest gifts for the holidays because few people purchase them at regular times of the year. Nowadays there are DVD sets for just about every movie fan. For the documentary lover, however, there are some titles that must be purchased in a box set (due to them being series), and many of them are essentials.
Be sure to be specific on your list, because there are a lot of cheap doc sets out there that might be interesting to watch, but which are not well made and which were definitely bought at the nearby drugstore rather than the video shop. Don't let your gift-giver be confused and/or frugal. And if you are the gift-giver, this list may be a good source for ideas for what to buy your gift-receiver, but keep in mind that documentaries can be an acquired taste for some. Sure, a baseball fan may be into Ken Burns' Baseball and a jazz fan should enjoy Burns' Jazz, but you really never know for sure unless they tell you so directly. And at doc box prices, you don't want to go wasting your money.
- The Civil War - As long as I'm on the subject of Ken Burns, let me first point out the necessity that is his series on the American Civil War. It might not seem as appealing now that we have the History Channel, but these 11-plus hours aren't going to be beat by anything on cable. PBS is where it's at for the most entertaining, informative and innovative documentary programs. The Civil War broke away many conventions and expectations when it premiered in 1990, proving that documentaries could present a time before cinema. Without the advantage of archival film footage, Burns simply combined still photographs and narration that should have been un-cinematic and boring, but which is instead one of the most compelling history lessons you'll ever see. Other in-depth series, besides those of Burns, that may also be appealing to the everyday historian include Ken's brother Ric Burns' New York, Adrian Malone's Cosmos, which features Carl Sagan presenting the history of the universe in 13 easy-to-understand episodes, and Vietnam: A Television History, which gives an 11-hour overview of a war that, in contrast to the Civil War, was thoroughly captured and accessed thanks to film and video.
- Eyes on the Prize - This is another lengthy PBS series, but I felt that it deserved its own separate mention, because it just recently became available to viewers for the first time in nearly 20 years. Thanks to some generous donations, producers finally worked out the programs' issues with music rights and other copyrights, and now nobody should have an excuse for not knowing everything there is to know about the American civil rights movement. The series is only available through PBS, and it is pretty costly even for a box set, but your gift-giver should be happy to know that he or she is not only purchasing one documentary as a gift, but is also contributing to public television and its ability to produce and/or spotlight other great docs in the future.
- The Up Series - Every film fan, not to mention every documentary fan, should see this long-in-the-making series from director Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough). Beginning in 1964, the first part profiles a number of children throughout England, all from different backgrounds. Each subsequent part presents these children as they grow seven years older. This box set includes the first program, Seven Up!, and the five that came afterward, 7 Plus Seven, 21, 28 Up, 35 Up and 42 Up. Now that the sixth part, 49 Up, has just been released on DVD, there's a possibility that the set will be expanded to include it, but there's no sense in waiting to find out. Before you know it, there will be a 56 Up anyway.
- The Robert Greenwald Documentary Collection - If you already own all of Michael Moore's films and are looking for some other liberal-minded docs, you might want to check out a starter collection of the films of Robert Greenwald. Greenwald doesn't offer himself up as a personality and a buffoon in the same way that Moore does, but he also isn't as entertaining or humorous as Moore. Still, this box set's inclusion of Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War and Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties, which was produced but not directed by Greenwald, should satisfy a hunger of left-wingers. If not, there's also the new set called The Brave New Films Boxset, which includes Greenwald's latest, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, and his Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price plus another film he produced but did not direct called The Big Guy: Tom DeLay's Stolen Congress. Personally, I'm waiting for a more complete collection of Greenwald's films, including my favorite of his, Xanadu, but if you're more into politics than Olivia Newton-John, then add one or both of these sets to your list.
- The Harvey Milk 3-Pack Box Set - I'm not sure why they titled the set this way (makes it seem like Harvey Milk made films), rather than the Rob Epstein 3-Pack Box Set, but regardless of what it is called, it is a good gift idea. The Times of Harvey Milk is a wonderful, important film, as is Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt. As for Where Are We? Our Trip Through America, it is supposedly not on the level of the other two, but it is probably still worth seeing. According to Amazon, this box set seems to have been originally planned as a 4-disc collection with Paragraph 175 included. I'm not sure why it didn't happen that way, but after getting the set as is, you might want to check out that fourth film next (if you haven't seen The Celluloid Closet, that is).
- The Errol Morris DVD Collection - Errol Morris is one of the most interesting documentary filmmakers alive, and there's no better way to introduce yourself to his work than at the beginning. Unless, of course, you want to see his better-known third film, The Thin Blue Line, first. Either way, get this set, which includes his first three pictures (Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are the first two).
- Frank Capra's WWII: Why We Fight - American Propaganda Films of WWII - I figured I'd include one cheap box set on the list, because honestly I'm just kidding about needing to spend a lot of money to have a good holiday. This 8 part series of documentaries was made by Frank Capra to provide American troops with background info on the war they'd be fighting. It isn't the best thing to watch on Christmas (that would be Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, of course), as it is somewhat racist and antiquated, but it is pretty interesting to look at, nonetheless.