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The Contenders DVD Reviews: 'Midnight in Paris,' 'Harry Potter,' 'Margin Call' and 'Warrior'

New releases highlight four films in the running for Oscar noms.

2011: 'Midnight in Paris
Roger Arpajou/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

December is not only a time to catch the newest Oscar contenders at the multiplex, but to catch up on the best performances from earlier in the year on DVD. The Hollywood Reporter looks at four recent releases that showcase films that are strong contenders to snag an Oscar nomination and would make great stocking stuffers for a film aficionado in anyone’s life.

Midnight In Paris (Sony Pictures Classics, $30.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray).

Woody Allen’s dreamy, exquisite film about Paris in the ‘20s (and the Belle Époque, and today, and forever) couldn’t come out on disk at a better time. A can’t-miss stocking stuffer, it’s the big release of Christmas week (and worth paying the extra five bucks to see on Blu-ray, given its photogenic subject and warm cinematography). And the film needed the Oscar boost. With the possible exception of the frontrunner The Artist, Midnight in Paris has more romantic, old-fashioned wish-fulfillment bliss than any movie in the Oscar race. But it was the earliest release among the frontrunners, and despite its amazing $144 million worldwide gross, the best in the 75-year-old director’s career, it had fallen off Oscar’s radar in the rush of newer contenders.

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That’s a shame, since Owen Wilson was never better than as Woody’s screenwriter hero, who gets whisked into the past each night, away from his nightmare fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and into the excellent company of people like Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, brilliantly improvising in the film’s most talked-about performance).

Coming out now, right after the Screen Actors Guild, Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations nudged it into the probable best picture nominee’s circle, the disks should give its odds a boost (and Woody a better shot at best director). Alas, Wilson and Stoll are less likely to share the Oscar honors, but it’s fun to re-watch their work and wish they could.

The extras are minimal, the way Woody likes it. On both DVD and Blu-ray, you get a flavorful but exceedingly brief excerpt from the Cannes Film Festival panel with Woody, Wilson, McAdams, and other cast members, who cast light on his non-dictatorial, change-my-script-if-you-like directing style. “When I first met Woody in Paris,” says Wilson, “he asked how my flight was and he said, ‘Well, this could be the last you hear from me.’” The Blu-ray adds a good cast and crew photo gallery.

The Harry Potter Complete 8-Film Collection (Warner Bros., $139.99).

You’ll get a lot more marketing-friendly extras in other contender DVDs this season – the Harry Potter Complete 8-Film Collection boasts deleted scenes, interviews with author J.K. Rowling and the films’ directors, and fascinating bits of Hogwarts and Hollywood magic unveiled. Wouldn’t it be great if Woody would do stuff like this? Fat chance. When he won the Oscar for Annie Hall, he forbade the use of the word Oscar in the film’s advertising within 100 miles of New York. “How about 50 miles?” his agent asked. This Midnight in Paris release is as close as Woody gets to marketing, or Oscar campaigning. It may be good enough for the Oscars. It’s definitely good enough for a holiday present.

PHOTOS: Growing Up 'Harry Potter': Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

Margin Call (Lionsgate, $19.98 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray).

Written and directed by first-timer J.C. Chandor, the son of a stockbroker, Margin Call is a taut and engrossing look at the unraveling of a Lehman Brothers-like financial firm over twenty-four hours. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek, Heroes), who helped develop and producethe film, plays the analyst who pieces together how the firm’s disastrously overleveraged investments in bad mortgages could sink. His discovery sets off an all-night scramble to figure out a plan to dump the mortgages before the rest of Wall Street figures out the firm’s problem. Quinto is fine but the standout performances are given by a trio of Hollywood veterans: Kevin Spacey, as a conflicted manager; Paul Bettany, as his cynical-beyond-his-years deputy; and in an absolutely masterful performance, Jeremy Irons, as the chief executive willing to sacrifice anybody (his employees) and anything (his own firm) to save his own skin. All three make the most of Chandor’s wonderful script that manages at once to make the financial crisis understandable to laymen and to infuse a measure of empathy for the bankers who are about to become victims of their own creation.

An all-star cast rounds out the film’s secondary roles, including Stanley Tucci as the fired risk manager who first senses a problem, Demi Moore as the hard-bitten corporate survivor, and The Mentalist’s Simon Baker as the slick rising star who finds himself over his head in the midst of a real crisis. Amid all these veterans, Penn Badgley (Gossip Girl) makes the most of  a slender role as a young analyst who sees his career crumbling before it even starts, more than holding his own on the screen.

A best original screenplay nod for Chandor remains Margin Call’s best shot at an Oscar nomination. But Spacey and Irons are still in the mix for supporting actor nominations, despite being overlooked by SAG and the Golden Globes.

The extras are spare but illuminating. Chandor and producer Neal Dodson recorded a commentary track that is particularly good on describing the mechanics of filmmaking—shot selection, location details, and the like. The actor interviews in the making of featurette offer interesting insight from masters of the acting craft like Spacey on the artistic process of turning scripted lines into three-dimensional characters. The disc also includes a few deleted scenes that don’t add much and a standard gag reel.

Warrior (Roadside/Lionsgate, $19.98 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray).

This 21st century sports movie set in the brutal world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting is also a compelling family drama about the fractured relationship between two brothers and their abusive drunken father.

The film opens with Tommy (Tom Hardy), a former marine, returning home to Pittsburg after fourteen years to reconcile with his abusive father Paddy (Nick Nolte),  who has been sober for the last three years. A video of Tommy beating a professional MMA fighter goes viral on the internet and he decides to enter Sparta, the big MMA tournament, with his dad as his trainer. At the same time, Tommy’s older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton),  a struggling high school teacher, also decides to enter the tournament to raise the money to save his house from foreclosure. The film takes us through the two brothers training for the tournament as we learn more about the back-story of their relationship, particularly the rift that occurred when Brendan chose a new life with his wife (Jennifer Morrison) over helping Tommy care for their mother as she lay dying from cancer. Warrior climaxes at the tournament with Tommy and Brendan meeting in the final.

Nolte, in a fabulous performance that earned him a SAG nomination for best supporting actor, holds the film together. His Paddy—a flawed man struggling to stay sober and fix the mistakes of his past—is one of the great screen characters of 2011 and Nolte once again reminds us of his skill as an actor.

Batman fans who see Hardy’s performance as Tommy—simultaneously a hero and a deserter and a man reconnecting and rejecting his family—will understand why Christopher Nolan chose him to play Bane in next summer’s The Dark Night Rises.

Director Gavin O’Connor, who previously helmed the more saccharine sports movie Miracle (about the 1984 Olympic hockey team), comes into his own with the electrifyingly brutal MMA fights scenes, which justify the extra $10 for the Blu-ray version.

The DVD adds a number of extras that are really interesting in addition to the usual commentary track and deleted scenes. Particularly good is the “Brother vs. Brother” featurette dissecting the climatic fight scene and “Philosophy in Combat,” which is an excellent primer on MMA for those unfamiliar with the sport. An audio commentary track featuring O’Connor, co-writer Anthony Tambakis, and Edgerton is okay and a deleted scene with Nolte and Hardy doesn’t add much to our understanding of the characters or the film.