2009 Gift Guide
Monitor picks for TV, movies, music, and games.
With festivities cranking up, a good movie or evocative CD can instantly shift you into the holiday mood. So whether you're looking for presents or something to share with family and guests, we have winnowed the avalanche of choices to a trim 22 that we think will delight, fascinate, and maybe even make you laugh. As Eliza Doolittle would say, "Wouldn't it be loverly" (from the "delight" category's "My Fair Lady" with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn).
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Up ($45.99) Buy on Amazon.com
This animated film won so many critics' "thumbs ups" earlier this year that some see a "best picture" Academy Award nomination ahead. Calling it the adventures of an elderly widower and an 8-year-old wilderness explorer flying in a house transported by balloons, who must save Kevin, the flightless bird, doesn't begin to describe how it touches the hearts of both children and adults. Disney Pixar's Blu-ray video pack offers many extras, including the charming short feature "Partly Cloudy" (shown in theaters) and an amazing documentary in which the filmmakers visit the actual remote, bizarre, flat-topped mountains in Venezuela that are the site of much of the film's action. To make sure you're never without "Up," the pack also includes a disc for downloading "Up" onto a computer or mobile device.
This two-disc commemorative set celebrates the most memorable, silliest, funniest, and downright lovable moments from the groundbreaking children's television show. It's hard to know how the team chose from the years of celebrities, artists, and common folk alike who graced the set of what has been dubbed the most important TV show created for youngsters, as well as the young at heart. The sets from James Taylor, Patti LaBelle, and other boomer favorites are reason enough for parents to own this, but all the extras, including interviews with puppet masters and show creators, not to mention a hardback book, make this a tidy stocking stuffer.
Marvel Animation: 6 Film Set ($49.98) Buy on Amazon.com
These animated films put a fresh spin on Marvel comics classics such as Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, and Captain America. Hours of special features honoring specific details of the original comics as well as seamless animation in the pictures prove that this is not only for the comic-book newcomer, but the aficionado as well. It is refreshing to see the level of dedication to bring an update to these characters that are so consistently beleaguered by corruption, whether in the form of big business or nasty politicians. This should be a treasure for any comic-book lover, worthy of placement next to first-edition copies of the comics they depict.
DisneyNature Earth ($29.99) Buy on Amazon.com
In the spirit of "March of the Penguins," "Earth" takes viewers on a year-long journey around the world to see animals in their struggle for survival. The 90-minute documentary, shot on all seven continents, is built around three journeys – polar bears in the Arctic, elephants in the Kalahari Desert, and humpback whales' migration to the Antarctic. Narrated by James Earl Jones, it includes unforgettable scenes from the first "flight" of Mandarin ducks to a nighttime standoff between lions and elephants. The package includes a bonus film on the making of the five-year project.
The Swell Season: Strict Joy ($17.98) Buy on Amazon.com
Ireland's Glen Hansard and Czechoslovakia's Markéta Irglová fell in love while recording their debut album. In turn, the world fell for the songwriters when they starred in the movie musical "Once." Then, unexpectedly, they broke up. But the duo's musical partnership continues and their vocal harmonies still share a tight clinch. "Strict Joy" is, however, a breakup record. On "I Have Loved You Wrong," a double bass quivers alongside Irglová's voice as she admits, "This estranged organ in my chest still beats for you." The music isn't nearly as morose. With an exuberant sound reminiscent of Van Morrison, songs such as "The Rain," "The Verb," and "High Horses" seem designed to jump-start a broken heart.
Unlikely pop star Leonard Cohen and his crack nine-piece band were two months into their first world tour in 15 years when they hit the stage in London. Fortunately, a film crew was on hand to capture every nuance of the spellbinding concert. The songwriter/poet, looking delighted to be there, kicked the night off by sashaying onto the stage in a jaunty fedora, talk-singing "Dance Me to the End of Love." Cohen's whispery vocals, supported by a fine trio of backup singers, has you hanging on every word from the infectious first song to the last – a dramatic recitation of his romantic poem "A Thousand Kisses Deep." Never before has poetry sounded so musical.
They say that one of life's most difficult challenges is hitting a major league curveball. How about jazz singing? In the whole history of the genre, have there been more than a handful who have possessed the instrument, the timing, the subtleties of tone, and the emotional range to truly inhabit familiar standards and make each seem like a revelation? Chicago's Ann Hampton Callaway is a singer with those attributes in spades, and never have they been more evident than on her latest release, "At Last." Over the years her expressive singing has grown more subtle and convincing. Callaway's talented trio backs her supple vocals with tasteful economy and a light, swinging touch on a mix of familiar chestnuts and contemporary songs. Standouts include a joyful take on "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and a hushed and heartfelt trip through Michel Legrand's lovely "On My Way to You."
Tinariwen don't employ roadies to cart around their guitars. They use camels. The rockers from the southern Sahara recorded their fourth and best album, "Imidiwan," in the desert. On the churning "Tamodjerazt Assis" (Regret Is a Storm), you can practically hear the swirl of sand in the amplifiers. Tinariwen's signature sound is a ramshackle jangle of four or five bluesy guitars that interlock, overlap, and jostle for a solo. But there's a greater diversity than before. "Kel Tamashek" is a pleasing acoustic stomp. The trance blues of "Assuf Ag Assuf" has slide guitar that could hypnotize a cobra. Vocal chants are more prominent than before, and several female voices add joyful zest to the galloping "Lulla" and reflective "Chabiba." This stuff is hotter than a Saharan noon.
Butterfly Boucher isn't a household name yet (and, yes, that is her real name) due to the whims of her former record label. The Australian songwriter sold 20,000 copies of her 2003 debut, "Flutterby," at the merch stand during a tour with Sarah McLachlan. But the record company deemed Boucher too pop for the indie market and too indie for the pop market, and refused to release the follow-up, "Scary Fragile." Their loss. Boucher eventually won back the rights to this showcase for her talent. The multi-instrumentalist pairs bells and guitars in "Just One Tear" and makes a piano weep for "A Bitter Song." No matter how many times you uncork the choruses of "Gun for a Tongue" and "To Be Loved," they never lose their fizz. File under: Pop Art.
Agatha Christie: Poirot and Marple ($134.95) Buy on Amazon.com
For those who like their tea warm and their murder cold, there really is nothing quite like Agatha Christie for peering deep inside the dark corners of human nature, with her legendary sleuths Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. It is quite a feat to watch how the indomitable pair continue to hold their sunny, sly natures intact while watching others behave so badly – and so deviously – which, of course, is what somehow makes cold-blooded murder, well, fun. The 17 discs and 21 mysteries star Joan Hickson (Dame Agatha Christie's personal choice) and David Suchet.
My Fair Lady ($19.99) Buy on Amazon.com
An old friend is back in town and she's looking lovely as ever – or should we say "loverly"? The 1964 movie version of the classic Lerner & Loewe musical "My Fair Lady" is now available in wide-screen format (perfect for that new flat-screen TV). To watch the film is to be reminded of exactly why it won eight Academy Awards. Even 40-plus years later the performances sparkle, the lyrics sound sharp and witty, and the costumes and staging inspire awe. Some of the special features tacked on (footage from the film's star-studded Hollywood opening, Oscar acceptance speeches) seem sweetly nostalgic, while others (Audrey Hepburn's original vocals, information about the elaborate costume production) have a nifty inside-Hollywood feel. All in all, George Bernard Shaw would be proud.
Kennedy Films Collection ($29.95) Buy on Amazon.com
To those who are only familiar with the Michael Moore approach to documentary filmmaking or Dog the Bounty Hunter-like reality TV series, this three-film collection looking at the 35th president of the United States will probably be a shock to the system. Hyperbole? There is none. Ultra-scripted, in-your-face content? Nope. Riveting and compelling drama. Absolutely. They don't do it this way anymore. Although "Primary" and "Faces of November" offer powerful and dramatic glimpses of JFK before and after he became president, the real gem is "Crisis." Never before – or since – has a sitting president given so much access to a filmmaker during a pivotal moment in history. You'll find yourself captivated from the beginning.
The blurb on the packaging says the box set contains "13 of Paul Newman's best films." Well, not exactly. The set includes the Robert Altman stinker "Quintet" and 1958's forgettable "Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!" (a romantic comedy costarring Joanne Woodward, who married Newman that year). Missing are classics like "Cat on Hot Tin Roof" and "Cool Hand Luke." But it also contains some greats: 1960's pool hall drama "The Hustler"; 1969's Wild West romp "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"; and 1982's "The Verdict," a courtroom drama with Newman as an astonishingly convincing alcoholic lawyer. 1974's "The Towering Inferno," a lightweight piece of disaster porn with an all-star cast (Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and even O.J. Simpson) is still a lot of fun. Almost all of the films were produced by 20th Century Fox, which released this box set along with a 132-page booklet that is filled with both gushing promotional prose and fantastic stills of the late actor.
Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series ($279.98) Buy on Amazon.com
Battlestar Galactica sneaked onto what was the Sci Fi Channel in 2003 as a remake of the cheesy 1978 series of the same name. But this showcase for the unsettling and first-rate performances from the likes of Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos immediately lifted the series about a struggling remnant of humanity adrift in a hostile universe to the rarefied realms of instant cult hit and an award-winning critical favorite. The complete four seasons arrive with a whopping price tag. But trust us when we say the folks who love this show will love to see it all wrapped up just for them.
Whether it was the dancing-baby sequence or the co-ed bathroom at the Boston law firm where TV's Ally McBeal worked, this dramedy about an eccentric, off-balance law school grad desperately seeking love and fulfillment redefined television drama while at the same time introducing many elements – and performers – that have become staples of contemporary TV drama and comedy. The show used voice-overs and often-hilarious fantasy sequences, liberally sprinkled with pop music from across the decades. This 32-disc set comes with a soundtrack of music favorites and a retrospective that taps alumni Calista Flockhart, Robert Downey Jr., Portia de Rossi, Jane Krakowski, Lucy Liu, and creator David E. Kelly.
The National Parks: America's Best Idea ($99) Buy on Amazon.com
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns continues his love affair with the American spirit in this six-part series that aired on PBS this year. Narrated by Peter Coyote, this journey through 53 of the nation's stunningly panoramic preserves, including Yosemite, Denali, and Yellowstone, may well constitute some of the most dramatic public spaces ever captured on tape or film. Supported by his trademark banjo and violin soundtrack, Burns takes a fascinating two-century trip through old letters, archival materials, and personal stories.
Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 ($26.95) Buy on Amazon.com
When it comes to iconic brand names, few match the mystique of a Steinway piano, the instrument of choice for most of the world's top performers. This 80-minute documentary, which aired on PBS, traces the year-long creation of a single instrument, a process that involves 12,000 parts and 450 craftsmen. While the journey from forest to concert hall is rich and engaging, the extras are equally compelling – portraits and performances of a handful of today's top pianists, including Lang Lang, Hélène Grimaud, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
Just because you can't name George Harrison's high school (think of the city from whence the lads hailed, plus "Institute"), don't get discouraged. Surely you will know he wrote and sang the lead on "Here Comes the Sun." No? Not to worry. In this edition of Trivial Pursuit, with more than 2,500 questions in six categories, there will be puff questions for the diehard fan and impossible ones for the casual fan, but sharing and thinking about a time of life that most baby boomers remember fondly is certainly most of the fun.
The Beatles Remastered Box Set ($259.98) Buy on Amazon.com
Unless you've been hiding under the bed for the past four months, you've probably heard that all the Fab Four's albums have been remastered and repackaged – available in either mono or stereo versions. The cleaned-up sound is clear and bright and the bass and drums sound beefier than before. There's more separation between the various Beatles' voices, which makes it great fun to listen and sing along. And each repackaged CD contains a DVD chronicling the making of that particular album, with photos, interviews, and film clips of the original sessions.
The Fab Four finally steps into the video-game age with Beatles: Rock Band (available on all major platforms). Since the game is aimed at boomer nostalgia, the game play is pretty simple – "strum" the guitar, hit the drums, or sing along, following the color guides on the screen. The more correct notes you hit, the more points you get. The guitars and drums are wireless, which allows for stage theatrics, so this is a fun way to share some of the greatest pop songs of all time – and even work up a sweat.
Wildtones.com: Peterson Bird ID Ringtones Buy on Amazon.com
So when your cellphone rings, your mom's a loon and your dad's a duck, but what if you want your brother to be a screech owl or a sharp-shinned hawk? Wildtones.com and Peterson Field Guide have come together to solve your avian cellphone issues with seven collections of more than 80 bird calls. Let your cellphone sing out as you choose from one of these bird categories: extreme (wacky), favorite forest (haunting), prairie and marsh (medley), water's edge (honking), Canadian (wild), popular backyard (familiar), and songbirds (pretty). For iPhones, it's 99 cents for a call. For other phones it is $2.99 each.
Rhythm kung fu, skateboard, tight-rope walking, hula hoop, yoga, and a special new feature, "Weigh Your Cats and Dogs" – these are just a few of the enhanced activities in the new iteration of the popular Nintendo Fit franchise for the Wii Fit Plus. With 15 new activities and a new ability to mix, match, and customize every level of activity, this in-home training game provides all the motivation of an occasionally rude but always energetic coach.