In the digital streaming era of home video releases, commentary tracks are becoming a relic of the past. The average streaming service has unfortunately disregarded the various forms of insightfulness, film education, and pure comedy that DVD/Blu-ray commentaries have to offer. As of late, Rian Johnson was finally able to break through and record a commentary for Glass Onion, released on Netflix. Other streamers should take note of this and put an effort into including these supplemental commentaries, ones that feature filmmakers, actors, crew, and critics. Seen here are a few of the most essential commentary tracks to engage with.
The Godfather (1972)
It is fitting that the often regarded greatest film of all time has a killer commentary track. Francis Ford Coppola goes in-depth on the mafia-like palace intrigue that existed while shooting The Godfather. He talks about how he was constantly under the threat of being fired as director and convinced himself that there were studio plants who were purposefully sabotaging the set to compromise his control. The maneuvers he pulled to realize his vision for what became the most iconic film in modern history are admirable and an inspiration for aspiring filmmakers. As great as The Godfather is, Coppola does not shy away from critiques of the film, ones that he would consider embarrassing, such as the second unit establishing shots that he disparaged as “cheap.” Overall, Coppola’s voice has a soothing comfort that perfectly meshes with the tone of a good commentary. He sounds the proudest whenever he is in awe of all the set pieces of 1940s New York City.
Raging Bull (1980)
There is no more passionate cinephile than the great Martin Scorsese, and that passion is on full display in the commentary for one of his many masterpieces. The most notable feature of this commentary is the inclusion of Scorsese’s most vital collaborator, his long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Raging Bull is a masterclass in editing, and the commentary is an engrossing look behind the curtains that explains the fundamental mechanics that make Scorsese’s movies to be so captivating. The flow and impact of editing serve as story beats on their own, and they create the vibrant environment of his films. The mesmerizing boxing matches scattered throughout the film are given profound insight into Scorsese and Schoonmaker on their thematic style, proving that their direction of them is not just for show. Ambitious visual languages, such as expanding the room and the switch between wide and narrow angles, and sound design, from using cacophonous sounds of animal roars and the cutting of watermelons, are all detailed in the commentary. Learning that many of the shots in the film are inspired by still photographs exhibits the brilliance of Scorsese’s mind.
Boogie Nights (1997)
If there was ever a perfect encapsulation of what a 90s indie director sounded like, Paul Thomas Anderson opening up on the Boogie Nights commentary would be in contention. The director carries himself with a blend of self-assurance and insecurity. He admits that he gets a kick out of watching his own film, but is also willing to cop that maybe the film is too long, or acknowledge that some performances may be lacking from another perspective. It is quite endearing to hear Anderson express initial feelings of regret when casting Burt Reynolds, as he feared that the casting of an old relic of the ’70s would appear too on the nose and as a cheap novelty. The commentary displays Anderson’s sharp sense of humor, with lines like “I could stare at that fucking face (of John C. Reilly) all day” precisely in tune with his persona. On the track, he shares his admiration for Jonathan Demme, experimental films from the likes of Robert Downey Sr., and pornographic films of the ’70s, and confesses to sampling various shots from his idols.
Less of an insightful piece of behind-the-scenes filmmaking and more of a comedy roast, the pinnacle of the freewheeling nature of physical media commentaries lies in the special features of Armageddon. The star of this track is unquestionably Ben Affleck, whose one-man show is a hilarious heat-check performance. Throughout the film, he is mocking the ridiculousness of the plot and Michael Bay‘s broad characterization of the heroic working class and the button-pushers working for NASA. According to Affleck, when the actor asked Bay the logic behind training oil drillers to be astronauts rather than vice-versa, he responded, “shut the fuck up.” When remarking upon Bruce Willis‘ character, Affleck sarcastically states, “He’s a salt of the earth guy, and the NASA ‘nerdonauts’ don’t understand his salt of the earth ways, his rough and tumble ways.” The mockery of Armageddon from Affleck is the full platter of all the traits (or weaknesses) of Michael Bay, and his identification of essential Bay-isms makes him feel relatable and an everyday film viewer.
The hilarious banter that dominates this commentary track between stars Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church evokes the same feeling that drives Sideways: The sense that you are on a pleasant vacation. While on the lighter side compared to the underbelly of sadness and remorse that lies within the heart of the film, the track perfectly complements the vibe on rewatch. The jocular rapport between the two actors is endearing, and there is a palpable bond between them as a result of working together. The tone of the commentary is so loose that it is worth examining if Giamatti and Church were a few drinks in while recording. There is no hesitation in self-deprecation from the two regarding their physical appearance. Church refers to his body as “billowing flesh,” his nose being a “vesuvian tent on the plane of my face,” and his rear being “dueling pillowcases full of milk.” With their observation of the intricate details of their facial expressions and body language in a given scene, Giamatti and Church understand what makes their characters so indelible and highlights their performances.
Gone Girl (2014)
“Being from Boston, and not being very professional as an actor, Ben refused to wear a Yankees cap… We had to shut down productions for four days,” recalled David Fincher on this incredible commentary track for Gone Girl. Even under the assumption that this is coming from a point of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, hearing a director disparage his star in this manner is priceless, especially at the expense of someone like Ben Affleck. This kind of tone permeates throughout the commentary. Fincher’s typical bluntness is heard when discussing every minor detail that came together to form this great film. Digital photography gets a bad rap among film academia, but the care with which Fincher utilizes its capabilities shows that the craft is more about the artist rather than the art itself. The director sharing how digital film can be used to touch up Rosamund Pike‘s hair or alter the lighting with preciseness in post-production is a fascinating insight into the minute tasks that transpire toward big changes to the final product. Fincher is often cited as the true descendant of Stanley Kubrick as the ultimate perfectionist filmmaker, and that can be sensed on this track when talking about the subtle power of an insert shot.