2001: A DVD Odyssey

Each summer we hop in the car, line up in droves at the local multiplex, slap down our cash, settle into our seats, and hope for one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This year promises to be more interesting than most, but isn't that always the case? In the real world, what we finally see on the screen often turns out to be less than we'd hoped for.

But if that anticipated blockbuster turns out to be the lion that squeaked, home-theater fans have more to fall back on than the average moviegoer—to salvage the summer, we can choose from hundreds of movies on DVD. But which DVDs to choose . . . ?

SGHT to the rescue. Here is our take on some of the titles released in the last year, plus a few earlier titles that somehow escaped our attention in past surveys.

What makes for a great DVD? We claim nothing more here than one writer's opinion, and, as in the past, this survey emphasizes technical quality. A pristine transfer alone does not guarantee a great movie experience, but it can certainly make an otherwise so-so film enjoyable. You'll also find here my assessment of a film's dramatic value, but that is by far the most subjective rating. Critics often agree on which are the greatest films and which the real dogs, but in the vast middle ground, all bets are off. I also hasten to add the obvious: I've hardly seen every DVD out there. The absence of one or more of your favorites doesn't necessarily mean anything more than that I haven't seen it yet.

Rating picture quality is tricky. Sometimes a film that looks "bad" was intentionally shot that way. The grainy, blotchy, documentary-style look of Saving Private Ryan is a classic case. But in general, it's impossible for us to know exactly what the filmmakers intended. What the film looked like in the theater can help, but bad projection and bad prints, not to mention the limitations of visual memory, can make such comparisons iffy at best. So if we've downgraded your favorite DVD for image quality, it's likely that you made assumptions about the director or cinematographer's intentions that we did not.

One aspect of DVD picture quality that continues to be a problem is edge enhancement. In a misguided effort to make the filmed images look sharper, various types of manipulations are sometimes performed. The most objectionable of these results in white edges surrounding objects, resulting in a "halo" effect. But less aggressive enhancement can give the picture an oddly crisp yet unnaturally etched appearance. It's also not uncommon for edges to look both soft and edge-enhanced at the same time. The visibility of these artifacts depends on both the size and resolution of the display. Sometimes the display itself, or other parts of the playback system, can contribute to the problem.

Two people watching a film might have different priorities about sound. I like a vigorous multichannel mix as much as anyone, with interesting things going on in the surrounds and a robust bottom end—these days, there's no excuse for a tepid-sounding action film. But I weigh overall balance and a creative, interesting mix more heavily than noise for its own sake—a soundtrack that is merely bright and bloated will take a hit in these ratings. And since I've long been a big fan of film music and consider it just as important to a film as the quality of the cinematography (in some films, it's even as important as the dialogue!), a good, well-recorded score will pile up sound-quality points very quickly with this reviewer.

The ratings in no way reflect the quality or quantity of the extras on a DVD. I have nothing against such added features, but here I rate only the sound, picture, and quality of the main feature itself. Whether or not such things as commentary tracks, "making of" featurettes, or DVD-ROM goodies push your Buy button is up to you.

Most of the video transfers are anamorphic (enhanced for widescreen). The ratings are based on viewing the DVDs on a large screen (78-84 inches wide). Our experience suggests that those titles rated lower than A- for picture will often rise a step or two in subjective quality, from B to B+ or even to A-, on a direct-view or small rear-projection television.

So throw the popcorn in the microwave, warm up the system, and enjoy. Even if you've seen enough about Pearl Harbor on the History Channel, have had it with hungry dinosaurs, and wish Atlantis would remain undiscovered, you're bound to find more than a few films here worth getting acquainted with.