It’s getting increasingly rarer to find movies released on home video that don’t receive some sort of “Extended Cut” or “Unrated” version. Every film leaves scenes on the cutting room floor and if there’s an opportunity to reinsert those scenes and make some more money off people, you’d better believe studios are going to jump at the chance. Still, like any artistic medium, there are many films that benefit from a creative reworking, to the point where some “Director’s Cuts” are now considered the definitive versions of said film. The following 12 movies all saw director’s cuts that made improvements across the board and topped the theatrical releases by a mile.
12. Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe’s semi-biographical tale of a teenage journalist writing for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s ran just over two hours in its theatrical release and while this version was positively received by critics, it left the story of William Miller’s (Patrick Fugit) life on the road with the fictional rock band Stillwater feel rushed and somewhat unsatisfying. Fortunately, Crowe was able to add 40 minutes of additional footage for the DVD release, helping flesh out William’s relationship with the band and his unrequited love for super-groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, turning in what is arguably her best performance). It also helps that the characters in Almost Famous are so likable, that the simple act of getting to spend more time with them make’s Crowe’s extended cut the superior version.
11. Payback: Straight Up (1999)
Typically, a director’s cut adds additional scenes but Brian Helgeland’s Payback is the rare film that is made better by cutting things out. The main problem with the theatrical cut of Payback, which follows an ex-marine-turned-criminal played by Mel Gibson as he seeks revenge against his estranged partner and junkie wife after they rob him and leave him for dead, is that it’s loaded with ancillary characters and subplots that distract from what should be a straightforward action-revenge story.
Indeed, that’s the structure employed by Richard Stark’s crime novel The Hunter, which Payback is based off, and Helgeland seemingly recognized this when it came time to release his home-video director’s cut. This cut strips out a number of things that didn’t work in the theatrical version, including an unnecessary kidnapping subplot and even whole characters, as Kris Kristofferson’s mob chief is given the ax. Whether or not Payback is a good movie is a matter of debate, but the “Straight Up” version undeniably takes it up a notch in terms of quality.
10. Apocalypse Now Redux (2001)
In its original theatrical form, Apocalypse Now was already considered a masterpiece, making the 2001 re-release Apocalypse Now Redux seem almost redundant. And really, once could make a case that the theatrical release is the superior version, as the 147 minute cut already covers a lot of ground in its nightmarish depiction of the Vietnam War by way of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
That being said, the episodic structure of Francis Ford Coppola’s film makes it well-suited to additional scenes, the most prominent of which is an extended chapter involving the de Marais family’s rubber plantation, which explores the fallout of the colonization of French Indochina in the 19th century. Basically, the 49 minutes of extra footage makes an already unsettling, hallucinatory war epic even better and it’s easy to imagine this still would have been the case had Coppola gone all out and released the complete uncut version, which reportedly had a running time of around five hours.
9. Watchmen (2009)
Ever since he made his feature-length directorial debut with his 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead — a film that, coincidentally, also benefited from a director’s cut — Zack Snyder has consistently been one of the most divisive filmmakers in Hollywood. The same is true of Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel, Watchmen, as the film split critics between those who considered it a faithful, sophisticated interpretation, or a soulless slog.
While the additional 24 minutes of footage contained in the director’s cut probably isn’t enough to sway anyone who despised the film when they saw it in theaters, it does make it a better movie and includes scenes that help flesh out both the main heroes and the heroes of old, most notably the original Night Owl, whose tragic death is reinstated. Watchmen was made even more complete in late 2009 when Snyder released the “Ultimate Cut,” which contains the Tales of the Black Freighter animated film, but the director’s cut has become the definitive version for many and is arguably Snyder’s best film to date.
8. Waterworld (1995)
By now, you know the story: Waterworld was pretty much a disaster in every sense of the word. Kevin Costner’s ambitious post-apocalyptic action movie was plagued by numerous production delays, costs that ran nearly $75 million over budget, and was both a critical and commercial flop. However, for all its problems, there is definitely the core of a good movie hiding within Waterworld’s story of a future Earth ravaged by rising sea levels, and part of the problem was that director Kevin Reynolds had to trip down his film from over 3 hours of footage to a 2 hour runtime.
Fortunately, Reynolds was able to release his longer version of the film, which adds in necessary world-building scenes and more humor to offset Costner’s overly serious lead performance, resulting in a film that is still not a post-apocalyptic masterpiece, but a serious step up from the film that crashed into theaters back in 1995.
7. Daredevil (2004)
Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck as the titular blind superhero of Hell’s Kitchen, has become shorthand for everything wrong with comic book movies in the early 2000s. While Affleck turns in a pretty decent performance, the theatrical cut of Daredevil is all over the place in terms of tone, shifting from dark and brooding to cartoonish from one scene to the next. The film was also clearly trimmed down by the studio, with a rushed feel that does a disservice to a pretty great cast, featuring standout performances from Jennifer Gardner as femme fatale Elektra and the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the imposing villain Kingpin.
The R-rated director’s cut adds approximately a half-hour of new footage, which fleshes out Matt Murdock as a character, as well as improved action scenes. Unsurprisingly, the director’s cut is now considered the definitive version of the film and while it still can’t live up to the highs of Netflix’s TV series, Daredevil is actually one of the better early 2000s superhero films when you take the R-rated version into account.
6. Troy (2007)
Even though Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad ran 2 hours and 43 minutes long in theaters, this was hardly an adequate runtime for a film that follows that decade-long Trojan War from beginning to end. Petersen’s extended cut, which cost an additional $3 million to produce (much of which was funded by Petersen himself), adds over a half-hour of new footage which helps fill in plot holes and fleshes out certain characters in the process. As such, the film’s epic action scenes — easily the best part of the theatrical release — become even more affecting as a result, especially in the case of Hector’s (Eric Bana) fateful fight to the death with Achilles (Brad Pitt).
Sure, a runtime well in excess of the 3 hour mark is asking a lot of viewers, but the director’s cut arguably secures Troy a spot among the best sword-and-sandal epics out there, which is pretty impressive for a film that never seemed to get the recognition it deserved in its original form to begin with.
5. Superman II (2006)
Even though it’s still one of the best Superman movies ever made, it’s hard not to imagine Superman II having turned out even better had original director Richard Donner not been fired halfway through production and replaced by Richard Lester. Donner, of course, was responsible for the incredible Superman in 1978, which is widely considered the first truly great superhero movie, so even though Superman II turned out much better than its sequels under Lester’s guidance, fans were still left disappointed by Donner’s unceremonious exit.
Fortunately, though it would take decades to see the light of day, The Richard Donner Cut was released in 2006. Restored by Michael Thua, with assistance from Donner and writer Tom Mankiewicz, the Donner Cut not adds in some great footage — including some with the late Marlon Brando — but also gives Superman II a more mature tone throughout. While Lester still remains the credited director of Superman II, the Donner Cut takes a step toward setting things right and is now the preferred version of the film.
4. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
In a cruel twist of irony, Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon A Time in America was dramatically cut down for its US theatrical release. Clocking in at 139 minutes, the theatrical cut was noticeably inferior to the cut that had premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a month earlier, but which also had a massive running time nearly four and a half hours in length. Unsurprisingly, cutting Leon’s film in half robbed it of its entire structure and coherence, as Leone’s version cuts back and forth between three separate time periods as it tells the story of a former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster played by Robert De Niro.
While that version of the film was a critical failure, it wouldn’t take long for Leone’s final film to be reconsidered as a masterpiece, as the Europen theatrical release – which only cut 40 minutes from the Cannes version was played at the New York Film Festival later that year as the director’s cut. Leone passed away in 1989, but efforts continue to this day to recreate the original four-and-a-half-hour version. Leone’s children and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation came together in 2012 to release this new version at Cannes, but the restoration was pulled from circulation to further restoration work needing to be done. As such, we still don’t have the “definitive” director’s cut of Once Upon a Time in America, but at least the superior European theatrical version is readily available, meaning that no one need ever watch the massively abridged US release.
3. Kingdom of Heaven (2006)
Ridley Scott is a filmmaker with a surprising number of disappointing theatrical cuts under his belt that were later improved by directors’ cuts (case in point: this isn’t the only Scott film to make this list!). Kingdom of Heaven is an interesting footnote in the veteran director’s career, as it fell far short of Scott’s previous historical epic – the 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator – both critically and commercially thanks to a noticeably chopped-up theatrical edition filled with plot holes and a poorly-written lead protagonist played by Orlando Bloom. The film was quickly forgotten about and failed to jump-start Bloom’s career as a leading man, which is a shame given just how much better the director’s cut is.
With nearly an hour of additional footage that fills in much-needed details in Bloom’s character’s backstory, as well as fleshing out a romantic subplot with Eva Green’s Sibylla that seemed to come out of nowhere in the theatrical cut, Kingdom of Heaven’s director’s cut turns Scott film into a legitimately good – possibly even great – war epic that proves that some films really need at least 3 hours to get their point across.
2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
While pessimists may look at Peter Jackson’s extended cuts of his Lord of the Rings trilogy as a way to increase home video sales, the truth is that it’s highly doubtful that epic fantasy movies with runtimes at-or-exceeding four hours were going to fly in theaters. As such, it’s hardly surprising that The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King were released with two hours of additional footage sitting on the cutting room floor between them.
This footage was later restored in the DVD releases’ extended cuts and while some of it is definitely extraneous and unnecessary, there are some scenes that are absolutely essential, such as Faramir’s flashback in The Two Towers, which provides context to his relationship with his brother and father, as well as Saruman’s death in Return of the King. This has had the effect of making the theatrical releases inferior and nigh-unwatchable if you’re a fan of Jackson’s films and J.R.R. Tolkien’s book series … and making trilogy rewatches an even more overwhelming time investment.
1. Blade Runner (2007)
It’s hard to think of a film that’s received more official cuts than Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the story behind why there are so many is almost as fascinating as the film itself. The original theatrical cut (or US theatrical version) released in 1982 was far from Scott’s ideal version, as the studio’s financiers rewrote and reinserted voiceover narration from Harrison Ford, as well as a “happy ending,” after test audiences indicated Scott’s workprint cut was difficult to understand (Scott had no say in the matter as he did not have final cut privilege. There was also an international theatrical release released the same year that included three more violent action scenes, while the workprint version would later be re-released as a “director’s cut” in 1991 without Scott’s approval.
Scott went on to release his own director’s cut the following year and the Final Cut in 2007 as part of Blade Runner’s 25th anniversary. The Final Cut is now widely regarded as the definitive (and best) version of Blade Runner, as it not only includes numerous visual and audio improvements, but strips out Ford’s narration, creating a moodier, subtler viewing experience. Some have objected to the Final Cut’s ending, which makes it more explicitly clear that Ford’s Rick Deckard is an android (sorry, replicant), but the confirmation of a longtime debate is a small price to pay for finally getting to experience Ridley Scott’s true vision of Blade Runner.