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‘Friday Night Lights’ has the right stuff

DVDs: Billy Bob Thornton stars in what might be the best movie you didn't see in 2004. Also, Charlize Theron deserves the accolades she received for ‘Monster.’

“Friday Night Lights”
Most people know that football is religion in Texas, but that fact had never hit home so forcefully as it did when H.G. Bissinger’s nonfiction masterpiece, “Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream,” hit the bookshelves in 1988. It told the story of one team, the 1988 Permian Panthers of Odessa, and the ups and downs of the people in its orbit.

The film had been developing as a movie project for several years, with the late Alan J. Pakula attached to direct. But Peter Berg, Bissinger’s cousin, finally stepped in and took on the helmer’s chores. Calling it one of the best sports movies ever sells it short. “Friday Night Lights” is one of the best movies of 2004.

Of course, because of the subject matter, it will be pigeonholed as a jock flick and discarded around the time Academy Award mentions are given. But it is a terrific human story, told with restraint and intelligence, and it includes some of the best performances you’re ever likely to see from an ensemble cast.

If there is a star, it’s Billy Bob Thornton, giving one of his finest understated turns as coach Gary Gaines, who has the unenviable task of trying to lead the Panthers to the state championship and a perfect record. But there are splendid performances galore, including that of country music star Tim McGraw as Charlie Billingsley, a nightmarishly demanding drunk of a father who pushes his son Don (Garrett Hedlund) to be the kind of player he once was. Other performances of note are turned in by Lucas Black, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez and Grover Coulson.

“Friday Night Lights” is out on DVD, with some highly enjoyable extras. There is a director’s commentary by Peter Berg and deleted scenes. And a featurette on McGraw, making the transition from music to acting, is interesting and funny.

The treasure on this, however, is an awesome documentary called “The Story of the 1988 Permian Panthers.” The filmmakers, led by Jim Bacon, gathered up some of the stars of the ’88 team and recorded their memories about what it was like playing for one of the most famed high school football teams in the country. The interview with the real Boobie Miles, telling the heartbreaking story of his knee injury and how it changed his life forever, is especially compelling.

“Friday Night Lights” transcends the sports genre and this DVD does justice to one of the surprise pictures of the year.

Universal Home Video, $29.98

“Monster: Special Edition”

Charlize Theron might have been an unlikely candidate for the role of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos — until you view “Monster.” Then you come away with the impression that she was the only actress who could have pulled it off. She owns this role from the first frame to the last.

Theron won an Academy Award for best actress last year for this performance, and the superlatives have since faded. But this remains one of the finest matches of perfect role and perfect actress in Hollywood history.

Yet “Monster” is not all Theron. It’s a starkly compelling tale of a homeless prostitute seeking purpose and love whose life takes a violent and tragic turn after she fights back against a john who tries to kill her. From there, she lashes back at all men.

Writer-director Patty Jenkins does an excellent job of chronicling Wuornos’ transformation into a monster. She does so with compassion, but at the same time without sentiment. Christina Ricci is superb as Selby, a young lesbian who forms a relationship with Wuornos. It is the financial strain on that relationship that keeps Wuornos working as a prostitute, and consequently triggers her killing spree.

“Monster” had been released on DVD previously. This special edition is a two-disk set with some added extras, including an enjoyable commentary on the feature by Jenkins and Theron (she was also a producer on the project) and producer Clark Peterson. This was not a big budget extravaganza, so listening to some of the filmmaking battle tales is rather enlightening. On the second disk, there are a couple of featurettes, one a standard making-of piece and another on the composition of the score, which could have done without the annoying use of odd camera angles but otherwise is fine.

“Monster” is a riveting story of a life gone wrong, and Theron and Jenkins, et al., pulled off a minor miracle in creating a superb film on a tight budget that will stand the test of time.

Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment, $24.96