PIECES OF APRIL (2003). A hit at last year's Sundance fest, this pulls off a nice balancing act between humor and heartbreak as it makes its way toward its deeply satisfying finale. Set on that most American of holidays, the movie sits back and observes as estranged April Burns (Katie Holmes) does her best to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for her family -- a family that's quite reluctant to show up at all. The clan's car trip provides Oscar-nominated Patricia Clarkson plenty of opportunities to strut her stuff as April's bitter mom, a woman who's dying of cancer, while the interludes between April and her assorted neighbors are the ones that best convey the spirit of the holiday. With its cathartic ending, Pieces of April clearly earns its tears. DVD extras include audio commentary by writer-director Peter Hedges, a short making-of featurette, and theatrical trailers.
RAIN MAN (1988). In what proved to be a great year for movies, the Best Picture Oscar went to this box office smash that earned additional awards for its director (Barry Levinson), star (Dustin Hoffman) and screenwriters (Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow). Now as then, it's clear that this was hardly the crowning achievement of its year, yet that's not meant to take away from the film's crowd-pleasing appeal. Working from a finely honed script, Levinson created a first-rate drama in which a self-centered hot shot (Tom Cruise) looks after the autistic brother (Hoffman) he never knew he had. Never resorting to easy pathos, the film is unusually unsentimental in its approach to potentially mawkish material; for that, credit both Hoffman and Cruise, who never smooth away their respective characters' rough edges. DVD features include audio commentaries by Levinson, Bass and Morrow, a deleted scene, and a making-of feature.
SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003). Indie favorites Richard Linklater (director of Waking Life) and Mike White (writer of The Good Girl) pooled their talents to produce this accessible hit about a failed rock star (Jack Black) who, under false pretenses, lands a job as a substitute teacher at a posh private school, whereupon he immediately begins teaching his buttoned-down fifth grade charges about the glories of rock & roll. It sounds like the sort of sanitized product that might star Eddie Murphy (Dokken Day Care?), yet what gives the movie its edge is Black, whose relentless manic energy gets us to believe that here's a slovenly yet soulful character who practices what he preaches. And the kids are alright, too -- not overly precocious or sentimentalized, these young performers help Black sell the message that our learning institutions would benefit from teaching classic rock right alongside classic lit. DVD extras include audio commentary by Linklater and Black, the "School of Rock" music video, and several behind-the-scenes features in which Black is ceaselessly front-and-center.
-- Matt Brunson