Cover Story

The 50 Essential DVDs [1-25]

Nothing brings out snake-oil peddlers like a home entertainment revolution. When TV caught on, washed-up vaudevillians and movie stars invaded the airwaves. The VHS boom made Jane Fonda an exercise-tape megastar, so hordes of wannabes hawked workouts. And now that DVD is so mainstream a video format that even a holiday episode of Everybody Loves Raymond centered on ol' Ray getting a new player — an estimated 15 million-plus real-life U.S. households currently have one too — the entire entertainment industry is beating a digitally remastered path to your door, hoping that if the words SPECIAL EDITION! are inscribed on absolutely anything, you'll bite. Result? There's a remarkably high DVD dross-to-gold ratio in them thar hills.

But not to worry: EW has done all the gem appraising for you. Whether you're starting a DVD stash or expanding it, we've got a top 50 checklist you simply must consult before you press ''add to shopping cart.'' We've scoured thousands of currently available disc titles, eyeballed oodles of behind-the-scenes programs, sized up scores of commentaries, and ranked the overachievers. And before you scratch your head at some of the choices, listen up: This is not a list of the greatest movies ever or the coolest vintage-TV collections. It's a celebration of unique-to-disc extravaganzas that best exploit DVD's massive storage capacity and multiple-choice, chapter-surfing flexibility to somehow radically enhance whatever the main event is. In this case, the wrapping counts as much as the gift. Oh, and if you wish there were even more comedies and romances on the list, hey, so do we — but so far, the studios' best efforts skew hugely toward sci-fi and action-adventure, which offer flashier sonic/visual treats.

To help you distinguish the omigods from the mere homina-hominas, we've devised a pair of handy-dandy grading scales. Each disc gets a rating for volume of content (''Depth Charge'') and technical picture-and-audio quality (''Sound + Vision''). Let the calls for recounts begin — and good luck becoming master of your own digital domain.

01 Fight Club

(1999, Fox, R, $34.98) — The two-disc edition of David Fincher's masculine-rage manifesto gets the No. 1 slot not because it's the best movie on the list (critics were divided and audiences were undecided). No, it's here because every facet of the Fight Club DVD aims to vivisect the film itself. From the minute you load up this movie and you catch — if you're quick — the you're-wasting-your-life Tyler Durden rant disguised as a legal disclaimer, this whole endeavor is designed to subvert the idea of movie watching as benign activity. Nothing is as it should be, including the menus, which flutter like movie-house projectors about to hit a porn splice; the secret-revealing behind-the-scenes segments; and especially the faux-Fight Club merchandise catalog, which touts items like backpacks and bandages (''Designer labels for designer wounds''). The film may be many things to many people, but the DVD is just plain genius. CHOICE CUT A pair of PSAs, which look like they were designed to be shown in theaters, encapsulate the Fight Club spirit (particularly when, after prompting folks to turn off their cell phones, Norton explains that ''no one has the right to touch you in your bathing suit area'').

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