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Missing in Action

In the 21st century, we're so spoiled by our multitude of entertainment options - movies, music, and TV shows jump at us from every direction, begging to be downloaded or DVRed or even just glanced at - that when we actually go to the trouble of seeking out a specific film for some specific reason, it's a genuine shock if we find that it's not available to us. It seems almost an injustice.

It does happen, though, even in the year 2011: there are great movies that still have yet to be released on DVD. Sometimes the reason is a perceived (or real) lack of interest; sometimes complicated legal issues are involved. If you have Netflix, you're used to having access to whatever you want to watch, but Netflix can't help you here. Occasionally you'll catch these films on TV or, if you're in a big city, at moviehouse revivals, but you have to be more vigilant than you'd probably like. Here are ten of my favorite hard-to-find films, in alphabetical order:

1. "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1940) - A modest, intelligent biopic covering Lincoln's early years, this is one of several good 1940s movies penned by the playwright and Algonquin Round Table member Robert E. Sherwood (his "Rebecca" adaptation came out in the same year), who won a Pulitzer for the stage version. It marked the first of several times that Raymond Massey would portray our 16th president on camera.

2. "Airborne" (1993) - Transparently designed to capitalize on early-'90s enthusiasm for extreme/alternative sports, "Airborne" tells the story of a teenage California surfer transplanted to Cincinatti, where he joins a pack of local hockey goons in a rollerblading race down the most fearsome hill in southern Ohio. I'm pretty sure this movie isn't any good, but it used to appear on TV all the time when I was a kid, and the thought that I may never be able to see it again frightens me. Seth Green and Jack Black have early-career roles.

3. "The Blue Dahlia" (1946) - A sort of hard-boiled version of "The Best Years of Our Lives," Raymond Chandler's only original screenplay made for a compelling film noir and a memorable picture of Los Angeles in the 1940s. Veronica Lake was born for this genre. The title served as inspiration for the real-life murder victim Elizabeth Short's nickname "The Black Dahlia," which in turn became the name of a James Ellroy novel and its ensuing film.

4. "Dragons Forever" (1987) - My favorite from Jackie Chan, this was the final film in which he appeared alongside both Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, his old classmates from the China Drama Academy. Chan's Hong Kong movies had silly, disposable plots that existed only to string together masterful sequences of comic action (more entertaining, for me, than anything by Buster Keaton), and the kung-fu set pieces in this one are among his very best. Acrobatic co-star Yuen is as much fun here as Chan is. It used to air constantly on TBS.

5. "The Gunfighter" (1950) - This complex, character-based Western stars Gregory Peck as a notorious gunslinger haunted by his own legend. A cowboy movie for adults, Henry King's slightly didactic, slow-moving tragedy has a rare resonance.

6. "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) - RKO infamously tampered with Orson Welles's follow-up to "Citizen Kane," and you can sense the gaps where the studio excised portions of his film. (The characters don't fully take shape, and it ends too abruptly.) Because producer George Schaefer petulantly destroyed the scenes that he, working with editor Robert Wise, had deleted, we'll never see what Welles wanted us to, but the existing product still features remarkable set design, a literate script, an elegant performance by Joseph Cotton, and a charming voiceover by Welles himself. Intended to be an epic chronicle of the birth of the 20th century, it remains a showcase for Welles's technical brilliance; his fluid camerawork and complex sound design bring the Amberson mansion vividly to life. Supposedly it will at last be coming to DVD this year.

7. "Period of Adjustment" (1962) - This Tennessee Williams adaptation is a curiosity for the simple fact that it's a comedy. A weird mixture of light-hearted, 1960s-ish marital humor and deep sexual neuroses, it has great moments, as most of Williams's creations do. Taking place at Christmastime, it would make for a nice (if rather eccentric) alternative to standard holiday programming.

8. "Rad" - Predecessor to "Airborne," "Rad" is another cheesy extreme-sports flick, this time with BMX as the focus. It's a better movie, though, and for all its corniness, it's a real '80s classic, as much for its earnest John Farnham soundtrack as for its bicycle stunts. It's one of those accidental gems that, somehow, serves as a perfect time capsule - not because it represents anything close to the reality of its decade but because it's so wonderfully emblematic of the particular lame moment in American pop culture that produced it. Watch for Lori Loughlin's very obviously male stunt double in her riding scenes.

9. "Wheels on Meals" (1984) - Another of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong classics, this one is famous for Chan's showdown with Benny "The Jet" Urquidez and for taking place, surprisingly, in Barcelona. Because the protagonist works in a food truck, the title was supposed to be "Meals on Wheels," but the studio believed that titles starting with the letter "M" were bad luck and changed it to the version we know today, which makes absolutely no sense.

10. "Wuthering Heights" (1939) - William Wyler's adaptation is a tried-and-true classic, and it comes as a shock to me to find that it's still not on DVD. It leaves out huge chunks of the novel, including the entire second half, and it tries harder than Brontë's novel did to make Heathcliff sympathetic, diminishing the character in the process, but Olivier's performance and Gregg Toland's photography assure its place in cinematic history. Amazingly, it gets the author's name wrong (she's Brontë, not Bronté) in the opening credits. You can probably find it on TCM.

At this point, they may as well skip DVD and go straight to Blu-Ray.

Tagged: movies