By Peter M. Bracke
Thursday, December 21, 2006 at 1:45PM EST

Ho ho ho! It's that time of year, kiddies! Santa's little helper elves here at High-Def Digest have been keeping track of who's been naughty and who's been nice in the next-gen format war, and now it's time to honor the big winners (and losers) of 2006. Who's going to get the best present under the holiday tree, and who's going to get nothing but a big lump of coal? Read on...

Less than a year into the launch of Blu-ray and HD DVD, both formats have already amassed a relatively impressive body of titles. Spanning multiple genres and offering a little something for everyone, we've seen a mix of both new and catalog releases make their high-def debuts. Sure, there were those pesky hardware glitches, and some very bad eggs among the initial releases on both formats, but compare where high-def is six months after launch versus standard DVD in the same time frame, and there is no question we're much farther along. All of the major studios are supporting one or both of the next-gen formats, and with every major consumer electronics manufacturer planning to introduce a Blu-ray or HD DVD player over the next year, things are rosy indeed for high-def.

So now it's time for our picks of what was hot and what was not in high-def software this year. Both the winners and losers were chosen for their all-around value for money -- video/audio quality, breadth of supplemental content, cutting-edge HD features and replay-ability of the main feature. Yes, such lists are always a subjective thing, but then no one ever said playing Santa was easy. So without further ado, here are High-Def Digest's picks for the Best Overall, the Worst Overall, and our Individual Category Winners of 2006...

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  THE BEST OVERALL (listed alphabetically)


The Dark Knight made a triumphant big-screen return with 'Batman Begins,' and his winning streak continues on high-def. One of Warner's most highly-anticipated HD DVD releases of the year delivered on all expectations, with a fantastic transfer, an awesome Dolby TrueHD track and tons of extras, including an HD-exclusive "In-Movie Experience" video commentary. With 'Begins,' Warner really threw down the gauntlet, proving themselves a studio leader in next-gen technology.

• Read the Review: HD DVD only


One of the earliest HD DVD releases of the year is still one of the best. 'The Bourne Supremacy' delivered everything an early adopter could want -- top-notch video and sound, and plenty of quality extras. And as the first next-gen title to feature an "In-Movie Experience" interactive video track, it will always hold a entry in the high-def history books. Plus, the spy flick is just so damn much fun to watch that it may burn a hole right through your HD DVD player.

• Read the Review: HD DVD only


We could watch 'Casablanca' a thousand times even on the crappiest old Betamax, but luckily we don't have to anymore. Warner crafted perhaps their greatest restoration ever with the standard-def release of the Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman classic, and that restoration is even more phenomenal on HD DVD. A glorious transfer and so many extras that the special features pop-up menu covers the whole screen, this is the new standard by which all other next-gen classic releases must be judged.

• Read the Review: HD DVD only


For pure entertainment value and replay-ability, we'll risk your snickering and admit that 'The Devil Wears Prada' got more spins in our Blu-ray player than any other disc this year. Was it the overall fine transfer, or the fun extras including an exclusive pop-up trivia track, that kept us coming back for more? Or was it was just Meryl Streep as the ultimate uber-bitch? Whatever the reason, here's hoping Fox will keep delivering the occasional non-action chick flick fare like this, 'cause we early adopters can't live on testosterone alone.

• Read the Review: Blu-ray only


The big green guy may have been a box office bust (if a $250 million worldwide gross could ever be called paltry), but 'Hulk' is our favorite high-def superhero this year. A monster of a transfer steamrollered over all competition, earning a rare High-Def Digest five-star video rating. And the soundtrack and extras ain't too shabby, either. With a planned theatrical sequel due in 2008, maybe now is the time to give ol' Hulky a second look?

• Read the Review: HD DVD only


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to forget the whole TomKat debacle and just sit back, crank up the volume and enjoy one of the most kick-ass audio-visual presentations ever to hit high-def. Paramount pulled out all the stops for 'M:i:III,' packaged both the Blu-ray and HD DVD releases with a whole second disc filled with extras, all produced in full 1080p video. Sure, the Blu-ray version loses the "In-Movie Experience" video dossier with Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams, but it's still hard to complain when you get so much in such a small package.

• Read the Reviews: HD DVD and Blu-ray


Sometimes high-def doesn't need explosions and special effects to impress. Case in point is 'Ray,' a sterling example of the exemplary video and audio HD DVD can deliver regardless of a movie's subject matter. Only sweetening the deal is a wealth of great extras, including a suite of featurettes exclusive to the next-gen release. Watch 'Ray' for the beautiful video. Watch it for the killer Ray Charles tunes. Watch it for Jamie Foxx's Oscar-winning performance. But just watch it.

• Read the Review: HD DVD only


Okay, so the flick was a little slow. And lacked action. And Kate Bosworth is no Margot Kidder. But for pure, giddy, high-flying thrills, 'Superman Returns' on HD DVD soared to the skies and beyond. Groovy transfer, smokin' Dolby TrueHD track and a fabulous, nearly three-hour documentary left few wanting more. The only caveat? Warner continues to deny Blu-ray users the joys of Dolby TrueHD -- why, Warner, why?.

• Read the Reviews: HD DVD and Blu-ray


'V for Vendetta's rallying cry for revolution may have been a bit too heady for the mainstream, but its message comes through loud and clear in high-def. Warner continued to churn out its cutting-edge HD DVD releases with 'V,' a disc loaded with first-rate video, audio and supplements. The excellent "Director's Notebook" HD exclusive video commentary is just one more excuse not to miss one of 2006's most overlooked and underrated gems.

• Read the Review: HD DVD only


Paramount continued its unilateral support of Blu-ray and HD DVD with 'World Trade Center,' and it may be their best effort yet on a new release. This two-disc set of Oliver Stone's controversial 9/11 drama packed in a flawless transfer, immersive soundtrack and a whole extra platter of documentaries, all presented in fantastic 1080p video. Classy, respectful and elegant, 'World Trade Center' proved that both next-gen formats can deliver more than just mindless action spectacle.

• Read the Reviews: HD DVD and Blu-ray


Honorable Mention: 'The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift' (HD DVD), 'Seabiscuit' (HD DVD), 'The Descent' (Blu-ray), 'Constantine' (HD DVD), 'Casino' (HD DVD), and 'Superman: The Movie' (HD DVD and Blu-ray).

  THE WORST OVERALL (listed alphabetically)


Blu-ray may have delivered more than its fair share of rotten apples at launch (see below), but that doesn't mean HD DVD hasn't dropped a few stinkers, too. Sam Raimi's 'Army of Darkness' may be a low-budget cult flick, but that doesn't mean it has to look this bad in high-def. The soundtrack is no great shakes, either, and with nary an extra to be found, this was by far Universal's worst HD DVD of the year.

• Read the Review: HD DVD only


Easily the most reviled next-gen release ever, Sony was greeted with a chorus of very loud boos for its Blu-ray launch title 'The Fifth Element.' Lack of features aside, the real killer was a poor print laced with dirt and other artifacts you wouldn't even expect to see on a VHS tape. Rumor has it Sony will be remastering and reissuing this one soon. Wise move.

• Read the Review: Blu-ray only


A loser on both formats, 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation' is the kind of colorful family classic that should look sparkling in high-def. Alas, Warner left a big piece of coal in our stocking with this one. A dated transfer, dull-as-dishwater soundtrack and one measly commentary does not a next-gen release make. Note to the studios: if you want to impress us with your HD titles, you gotta spend some money remastering the source material.

• Read the Reviews: HD DVD and Blu-ray


Our vote for the biggest Blu-ray disappointment of the year, 'Talladega Nights' had all the makings of a high-def home run. So why does the video look like it was transferred through a pair of sunglasses? Never have we seen a next-gen title look this flat. One of the biggest comedy hits of the year, 'Talladega Nights' is no laughing matter on Blu-ray.

• Read the Review: Blu-ray only


Another early Blu-ray turkey, 'xXx' is easy to make fun of on so many levels. Lame movie, no extras, and an incredibly weak transfer filled with dirt, grain and raging inconsistencies in softness and depth. For a flick that promised the ultimate in brain-dead, guilty-pleasure high-def eye candy, X certainly didn't mark the spot. But at least it ain't as bad as 'The Fifth Element'...

• Read the Review: Blu-ray only


Dishonorable Mention: ''Field of Dreams' (HD DVD), 'Crash' (Blu-ray), 'A Christmas Story' (HD DVD and Blu-ray), and 'RoboCop' (Blu-ray), which would have easily made this list had its release not been cancelled at the list minute.





A very tough category, but Peter Jackson's King Kong on HD DVD smashed all challengers, with an absolutely breathless transfer that gives new meaning to the term "three-dimensional." Sure, the majority of the film is computer-generated, but who cares when it looks this spectacular?

Honorable Mention: 'Batman Begins' (HD DVD), 'Hulk' (HD DVD), 'Kingdom of Heaven' (Blu-ray), 'Tears of the Sun' (Blu-ray), 'ATL' (Blu-ray), and 'Ray' (HD DVD).

BEST TRANSFER -- CATALOG (Ten years or older)

Not to be overly laudatory, but it is hard to imagine a film of any vintage film looking as terrific as Casablanca on HD DVD. This first-class restoration is so clear you can see every wrinkle on Humphrey Bogart's white suit, and Ingrid Bergman's complexion never looked so milky-smooth. Flawless, impeccable and breathtaking.

Honorable Mention: 'Grand Prix' (HD DVD), 'Reds' (HD DVD and Blu-ray), 'Blazing Saddles' (HD DVD and Blu-ray), 'Superman: the Movie' (HD DVD and Blu-ray), and 'Casino' (HD DVD).


Another very tough category, and our first tie. Since it's always Halloween around the offices of High-Def Digest, our votes go to both Monster House (on Blu-ray) and Corpse Bride (on both HD DVD and Blu-ray). Both of these films are a ton of fun, refreshingly free of gushy sentimentality, and gorgeous to look at. As these two flicks prove, even the most hardened home theater geek is never too old for tricks and treats.

Honorable Mention: 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' (Blu-ray), 'The Polar Express' (HD DVD), and 'The Wild' (Blu-ray).


Something of a case of slim pickings when it comes to music on high-def, but there were still enough strong candidates to stack up the nominations. And though it might raise an eyebrow or two, we're actually going to name The Phantom of the Opera (HD DVD and Blu-ray) as our top music pick. The Dolby TrueHD track on the HD DVD version delivers perhaps the purest musical bliss currently attainable on high-def, so laugh at the cheesy tunes all you want, but when that deep bass during the title song kicks in, it's goosebumps time.

Honorable Mention: 'Legends of Jazz Showcase' (Blu-ray), 'The Last Waltz' (Blu-ray), and 'Manilow Live!' (HD DVD).


Everyone loves a sleeper, and there were plenty of underrated gems that hit high-def this year. But if there is one you absolutely must not miss, it's The Matador on HD DVD. One of the Weinstein Co.'s launch titles, this hilarious black comedy features a terrific performance from Pierce Brosnan and plenty of surprises. And it's a mighty fine disc, too.

Honorable Mention: 'The Descent' (Blu-ray), 'Sky High' (Blu-ray), and 'The Devil's Rejects' (Blu-ray).


Less than a year into the next-gen format war, we've already seen both Blu-ray and HD DVD make great strides in exclusive features and pioneering interactivity. But if any title announced, "This is the future," it was Universal's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift on HD DVD. The first title to feature "U-Control," powered by the cutting-edge HDi authoring environment, which affords unprecedented customization and access to unique features. Even if the technology was just beginning to rev up with 'Tokyo Drift,' we can't wait to see more.

Honorable Mention: 'Batman Begins' (HD DVD), 'Accepted' (HD DVD), 'Black Hawk Down' (Blu-ray), 'Bourne Supremacy' (HD DVD), and 'Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines' (HD DVD).

Well, there you have it. Our best (and worst) in high-def for 2006. Until next time, here's to non-stop holiday viewing, an even Happier New Year, and seeing you all right back here in 2007!

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