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Lost in the Supermarket

When time runs short and you need gifts, you've got a friend in supermarket DVDs - if you know what to look for.

It’s happened to all of us, and it may well happen to you this week: Christmas Eve finally gets here, and at about three o’clock in the afternoon it occurs to you that you forgot to buy something for someone. Maybe you need an extra stuffer for that anemic stocking, or maybe your parents have just informed you that Aunt Ethel whom you always liked when you were a kid will be in town tomorrow. And the only possible shopping options left are the unthinkable: gas stations, convenience marts, or the grocery store.

It is occasions like this that keep the makers of inedible but nicely boxed chocolates in business. Don’t fall into that trap. Remember the golden rule: Gift unto others as thou wouldst have others gift unto you.

Every store that can spare three square feet of display space has a DVD section this time of year. Why not? The things are dirt cheap to produce—only popcorn has a higher markup—and once they lose their new-release cachet can be profitably sold for less than $10.

Of course, if you’ve ever thumbed through many of these displays, you’ll realize that many of them serves as dumps for the junk that cinema-goers turned their noses up at. The trick is to find good movies. Aunt Ethel does not want to see that Courtney Cox movie you’ve never heard of, or that spaghetti Western that nobody’s ever heard of.

George Clooney movies like Good Night and Good Luck are grocery store staples.

Checking out some of the places that will be open latest on December 24, I found that most of them had at least one or two worthwhile movies for less than $10. The drug store up the street had copies not only of Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility and Chicken Run, the wonderful animated feature from Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park, but a motherlode of titles that you otherwise need Turner Classic Movies to see: Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville, the early film noir classic Blues in the Night, and even The Public Enemy, the first great gangster film. (You may recall the scene where James Cagney shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face. Do not try this at home.)

But if you don’t have time to shop around, head straight to the grocery store. (I can’t say which one, editorial ethics being what they are, but hey, there’s really only two grocery stores in town.) They have a bin of $5.99 DVDs with something for everyone, or at least everyone with any taste. And for those others, there are copies of Meet the Spartans and The Happening, though I would reserve that last M. Night Shyamalan turkey for anonymous gift exchanges at offices where you hate everyone.

For less than $6, you an take your pick of a half dozen or so George Clooney movies, and who doesn’t like Clooney? Unless they sell out of everything else I would suggest against Ocean’s 12, the middle and least of that trilogy. Much better are Good Night and Good Luck, director Clooney’s Oscar-nominated drama about broadcaster Edward R. Murrow; Syriana, with Clooney leading an ensemble cast including Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, and William Hurt in a complex story about the role of oil in modern global politics; and Three Kings, David O. Russell’s underrated Persian Gulf War adventure, and the movie that first made a lot of people take Clooney seriously.

Too heavy for the season? Pick up one of those comedies that makes you laugh no matter how often you see it. Office Space, the first live action feature by Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge, is a “cult movie” whose appeal is limited to people who have ever worked with people they could not stand. (That’s a hell of cult.) People sneered when Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, but it’s a classic fish-out-of-water comedy that still works. The exchanges between Joe Pesci as an untested New York lawyer and the great Fred Gwynne as a Southern judge are reason enough to own it.

Music and Lyrics, with Hugh Grant as a washed-up but still working 1980s pop star (think Andrew Ridgeley) and Drew Barrymore as his new lyricist, has moments as good as some of the better screwball comedies of the 1930s. It’s from the same writer as Miss Congeniality, there in the same bin, with Sandra Bullock giving a textbook study of how to tickle a crowd as a slob FBI agent posing as a beauty pageant contestant.

Runaway Jury is about as good a John Grisham adaptation as Hollywood cranked out; it’s only moderately good, but with a cast that includes John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz, it can’t be that bad.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.

If you have to buy for someone who likes Westerns, there’s Appaloosa, starring Ed Harris (who also directed) and Viggo Mortensen as hired guns protecting a town from evil rancher Jeremy Irons. Adapted from a novel by Robert B. Parker, it’s not John Wayne but it rates on the level of Clint Eastwood’s better Westerns. The musically inclined on your list should like Once, a loosely fictional story featuring some gorgeous songs by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Gay friends? Jean Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer.

If you can go as high as $9.99, look for those tin boxes containing two or three DVDs and a bag of microwave popcorn. You’ll want to throw out the popcorn, but the DVDs can be a treat for genre fans. There’s a Sherlock Holmes box that features four of the classic Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films, along with some episodes of a 1954 Holmes TV series in which the great detective is played by played by Ronald Howard, son of Leslie (but no relation to Opie). There’s even a filmed interview with Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Just the thing for the purist who goes apoplectic when you tell him about the upcoming Robert Downey Jr. Holmes movie.

Aged relatives and the nostalgically obsessed will also appreciate sets of Shirley Temple, Jack Benny, and Red Skelton.

By no means, though, should you be tempted by the Jackie Chan set (yes, the old Jackie Chan movies are his best, but not this old) or the Vampire set, unless you’re shopping for a stoner. In which case, may as well keep that popcorn.

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