Today's DVD releases feature three major Academy Award contenders. Don't make any bets or stupid guesses about who'll win this Sunday before checking them out:
PICK OF THE WEEK: AMERICAN GANGSTER
The scene in which Ruby Dee (see photo) gives holy hell to her murdering, Machiavellian, drug-smuggling movie son (Denzel Washington) may just win the eighty-three-year-old actress her first Oscar. Who wants to argue with that, even if Dee — the widow of her longtime acting partner Ossie Davis — is in the movie for less than ten minutes? She hits sonny boy with a slap — director Ridley Scott did three takes and Dee hauled off and whooped him every time — that invests the movie with genuine moral force.
Except for Dee and a nomination for Art Direction, American Gangster got the Oscar shaft (the mighty box-office gross of $130 million eased the pain). No nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography (Harris Savides is a master of lighting) and most egregiously, Denzel Washington as Best Actor. Washington is at his best as notorious drug lord Frank Lucas, and in the still, watchful center of his volcanic performance you'll find a conscience eating away at this hardened hood. And Russell Crowe channels Serpico as Richie Roberts, the honest New Jersey cop who takes Frank down. Crowe is still paying for throwing that phone, ignored by Oscar here and for his kickass work as a charming devil of a cowboy in 3:10 to Yuma.
Did American Gangster veer too far from the truth or fall too short of crime classics from The Godfather to The Departed to win much Oscar love. Watch the film again or for first time on DVD, either in its Two-Disc Collector's Edition or its Three-Disc Deluxe Edition (both with nearly twenty minutes of deleted scenes) and make your own call. I think AG got an unfair rap, and this DVD proves it.
ALSO OSCAR HOT: MICHAEL CLAYTON
Oscar tossed seven nominations, including the Best Picture biggie, at this engrossing legal thriller with Best Actor nominee George Clooney at the top of his dramatic game as the morally compromised title character. But compared with American Gangster, the DVD is stingy with bonus features. The three deleted scenes don't add up to much, and the commentary by Tony Gilroy — nominated for Best Director (can't beat the Coen brothers) and Best Original Screenplay (probably can't beat Juno's Diablo Cody) — is a surprisingly weak brew. The box office gross isn't so hot either: $48 million. Still, the movie is a sleek throwback to the 1970's cinema of Sidney Lumet. It won't offend older Academy voters and may just be a surprise winner if No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood split the violence vote.
OSCAR FIND OF THE WEEK: IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH
Don't pretend you hit the multiplex to see this thoughtful examination of Iraq-war fallout from Crash director Paul Haggis. The shockingly weak $6 million box-office take proves otherwise. But in one of those rare instances of Academy insight, Oscar voted a nomination for Tommy Lee Jones as Best Actor. Amen to that brother. As a retired Vietnam vet, Jones takes on the whole Army to find out why his soldier son is dead, not in Iraq but at home, near his base in New Mexico. The spare, ingrained purity of Jones' work, here and in No Country for Old Men, is astonishing. Haggis' script, loosely based on the true story of murdered U.S. soldier Richard Davis, isn't about the war. It's about the humanity being sucked out of the soldiers we send there, and how that process reflects on us as a nation. The DVD is short on extras, but the "making of" feature involving interviews with cast and craw, plus the parents of Davis, is incisive. Better yet, it lets you see Jones at the peak of his powers and catch up with a movie you shouldn't have missed in the first place.