High-Def Digest Holiday Gift Guide 2011: The Best Blu-rays of the Year

Posted Wed Nov 23, 2011 at 10:38 AM PST by

by Luke Hickman

Is it me or has this year flown by? For me, this was an exceptionally amazing year in high definition. First, I was brought on as a contributor to this fantastic site, then I finally upgraded my ancient entertainment system, making my home theater worthy of reviewing Blu-rays. I quit adding worthless DVDs to my collection over three years ago, but it wasn't until recently that I was able to fully enjoy everything I'd purchased since summer 2008 in all of its full 1080p glory with astonishing 7.1-channel audio. Now that I've gone full HD, I can never go back. I can't even watch DVDs anymore, they bother my eyes so much - and the same goes for the sound. Foolishly, I never knew that sound could make so much of a difference.

Revisiting older titles in my collection for the first time in true high-def has been amazing, but what really gets me excited is seeing how great the new titles look. The bar has been raised extremely high, causing collectors to demand the best possible quality from current releases as well as new catalog titles.

It's been an interesting year for Blu-ray. Especially in the last two months as we've seen a huge wave of 3D titles hit the shelves. As studios prepare the world for the DVD-free shift to Blu-ray, more new titles seem to include DVD versions of the films, even to the point that many titles are receiving a double dip with the only new addition being the DVD copy. Along with these combo packs, digital copies are almost unavoidable in new releases.

Keep in mind as you read through this list that I had to narrow the hundreds of candidates down to just ten (16 if you consider my format "cheating"). To avoid repetition, I've intentionally omitted titles that I've already expressed my love for in other recent posts ('Tangled,' 'Eternal Sunshine,' 'Source Code,' 'Hanna,' 'The Social Network,' ''Let Me In'). I can already hear the certain backlash for not including classics like 'Citizen Kane,' but these are my picks and I'm sticking with them.

Many more titles will hit the shelves over the next month a half, but the following are releases that have been reviewed that we can vouch for. 'Kung Fu Panda 2,' 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' 'Fright Night' and 'Midnight in Paris' are just a few of the late November/December releases that have yet to be reviewed. I present to you "The Best Blu-rays of the Year," a list of movies that you should be asking Santa for if you do not already own them.

'Super 8'

J.J. Abrams, the filmmaker deemed "the new Steven Spielberg," teamed up with Spielberg to make this nostalgia-filled tribute to adventure films of the late '70s and early '80s. A group of kids whose banter resembles that of 'Stand By Me' and 'The Goonies' sneaks out late one night to film their zombie movie at the small town's empty old trainstation. As a speeding air force train passes, a local conspiracy theorist drives his truck onto the track and plays chicken. The resulting wreck is easily one of the loudest and most intense action sequences ever. The military soon takes over the town (a la 'E.T.') and the kids set off to rescue a friend taken by the monstrous secret that was let loose during the crash.

If you're a lover of Spielberg, Abrams, and the classic style of film they reincarnate with 'Super 8,' then you'll absolutely love every minute of this movie. Whisking you off to the long gone days of your youth is made possible through its use of a fun group of characters, a crew that will possess a familiar quality to those of you who grew up with it.

As we've come to expect from Abrams' film and series, 'Super 8' is shrouded in mystery, offering little clues here and there and only a few fleeting glimpses of the beast behind the mayhem. Abrams knows that less is more and creates an intense tone that never lets up. At the center of the film is a deeply emotional character story that's not only moving, but integral to story at hand. Much like 'Lost,' there's quite a bit going on, and it all serves a purpose.

The 'Super 8' Blu-ray is stuffed with fantastic special features, but could offer a little more insight into how they achieved the film's iconic train wreck. Even then, it's no disappointment.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'

You could take this recommendation a few different ways, as there have been several new 'Harry Potter' Blu-ray releases this year. Both parts one and two of 'The Deathly Hallows' made it to shelves, as well as a collection including including all eight films in one box set. The conclusion of the 'Harry Potter' series has been one for the books, rivaling the success of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. Splitting the last book into two films initially seemed like a lame way for Warner Bros. to milk the 'Harry Potter' teat for all it was worth, but it proved to be the best way to wrap everything up. Sure, 'Part 1' feels like the set-up to a climax that's cut-off by closing credits and 'Part 2' feels like the climax to a movie you didn't just watch, but combined they make a perfect finale for one of the world's most popular book and movie series of all time.

'Part 1' begins by setting our central characters in the most grim setting. People - friends - are dying. Danger is finally 100 percent upon them, something most of the earlier films failed to convey. The darkness of 'Part 1' is bleak, offering no resolution and never letting up. Thankfully, now you can own 'Part 2' and watch them back-to-back, the way they're meant to be seen. When watched together, they fluidly form a single motion picture with a beginning, a middle, and an end, the ending of which is a spectacular climax that pits our hero against the ultimate evil.

David Yates directed the final few films in a way that only one other 'Potter' director was able to - he perfectly balanced the adolescent behavior with that of the magical teens and the ill-fated plot working against them. The heavy, dark moments were balanced by light, up-beat ones and the gravity of their dire situation became real.

With both 'Part 1' and 'Part 2' containing Warners' Maximum Movie Mode special feature, even the single-disc edition is worth owning. And as if that one lengthy feature wasn't enough, the two-disc set comes with more quality features than any 'Potter' fan could want.

'The Tree of Life'

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that 'The Tree of Life' is a beautiful film. Sure, it's pretentious and the double-digit length of The Creation sequence is so over-endulgent that it's nauseating, but the tale is tells is so intimate and universal that every parent needs to experience it. 'The Tree of Life' completely falls apart in the final sequence, but you can't un-learn the lessons that come before it.

Terrance Malick has an unmatched eye for cinematography. The quality of his shots rival the best photographs ever taken. The way that they're compiled works harmoniously with the tone of the story being told. Many times, the pictures on screen tell the story stronger than the dialog, which is exactly why very little dialog is needed to carry this film.

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain will earn many awards nominations for their performances. Both have already made their acting chops known to the world, but it's in 'The Tree of Life' that they one-up any job prior and I'll go as far as to say that neither will ever give a stronger performance.


All hail the best animated film of the year! Usually, Pixar dominates this category, but with the lame sauce that is 'Cars 2,' they don't even deserve the usual Best Animated Film nomination. 'Rango' stepped up, filling the vacant spot with an animated film made more for grown-ups than children.

'Rango' tells the story of a chameleon who is simply just trying to fit in. After a car accident ejects him from his comfortable aquarium life as a pet, Rango is forced into survival mode as he's stranded in the desert. All of the other desert critters that he comes in contact with are tough and tried, but despite being able to change colors, Rango just can't seem to fit in.

Through the course of the story, our animated reptilian hero has to find out just who he is and how he can save himself and his new friends while serving up justice to the antagonists. 'Rango' is a western, through and through. While kids (including my own) may find it boring and uninteresting, 'Rango' appeals to the long lost kid within the adults who take their kids to see it.

Finally, another studio brings to the big screen the same quality expected from Pixar's films - in both animation and content. Being filmed, animated, and voiced in a unique manner, 'Rango' features a few heart extras worthy of the film's Blu-ray.

'Tron: Legacy'

Disney's release of 'Tron: Legacy' is arguably one of the most demo-worthy titles of the year. The digital locations clearly and sharply transfer over to the small screen and the brilliant 7.1 audio track transports you to The Grid.

'Tron: Legacy' equally plays out just as much as a remake as it does a sequel. It initially establishes the world they live in, then our central character gets sucked into The Grid (the computer world) where he must participate in disc battles and light cycle games. After he escapes, he has to ride a ship down a beam of light to the transport home. The formula is the same, but the effects of 'Legacy' are top notch and super stylized.

One need not be a 'Tron' enthusiast in order to follow and enjoy 'Legacy' - but if you grew up watching the original, you'll enjoy 'Legacy' even more. They've slapped a couple million dollars more into the production budget and made an honest spectacle out of it. The original score by Daft Punk is amazing, above par for most contemporary films. The soundtrack is certain to be featured in movie trailers for years to come.

Not only is the main feature on 'Tron: Legacy' worth owning, it also comes with more than 45 minutes special features that will please all fans. Since I added 'Tron: Legacy' to my collection, it's become my number one demo disc. There's no reason why it won't be one of yours too.

'Memento: 10th Anniversary Edition'

Christopher Nolan's breakthrough psychological thriller deserves the Blu-ray remastering it got this year. I don't know of many other directors who hit the ground running as well as Nolan did with 'Memento.' There are few things cooler and more reassuring than seeing the "director approved" sticker on a new Blu-ray transfer of a catalog title - and the 10th Anniversary Edition of 'Memento' dons it.

Guy Pierce stars in 'Memento' as Leonard, the husband of a murdered woman who hit his head in the altercation and now has no short term memory. About every five minutes, his mind resets and he cannot remember anything after the grizzly home invasion. Nolan's unique storytelling style is odd at first, but he makes it work better than anyone else could. Because of Leonard's condition, the movie plays out to the audience the exact same way it does for him - we only see things five (or so) minutes at a time. First, we see the last five minutes of the film, then the five minutes leading up to that, and so on, and so on. Between each chapter of memory, we see a few minutes of black & white footage that occurs in the beginning of this non-linear jumbled narrative. Trust me, it sounds more complicated than it is. Just go with it and you'll be sure to love it.

With a transfer far superior to the original Blu-ray release, the 10th Anniversary Edition is even more worthy of a double-dip considering the extras. A director's commentary is included, along with several interviews with Nolan, a fantastic 'Anatomy of a Scene' episode and the original short story 'Memento Mori' from Nolan's brother Jonathan. If you don't own it already, put this near the top of your Christmas list. If you've mistakenly purchased the original Blu-ray release, put it near the top anyway.

'Pulp Fiction' - 'Jackie Brown'

For those Tarantino fanatics, like myself, who have been dying to own his cannon on Blu-ray, the final two (minus 'Four Rooms,' which he directed one segment of) to round out the set are here. And just like Nolan's 'Memento' reissue, they're "director approved."

I was 14 years old when 'Pulp Fiction' came out, meaning I shouldn't have been watching it. While my naive untrained mind wasn't able to pick up on all of the pulpy awesomeness from it, 'Pulp Fiction' still stood out as something unique. With age and education I learned just exactly what it was - it's a Quentin Tarantino flick! It's smart, gritty and - well - cool. Not a single character is safe, making it one unpredictable film. With a near-perfect video and audio transfer and a slew of special features, 'Pulp Fiction' is definitely wish list worthy.

'Jackie Brown' doesn't match the success of 'Pulp Fiction' in both film and Blu-ray quality, but it's still worth owning. Definitely my least favorite of Tarantino's flicks, 'Jackie Brown' is still a solid, well-made movie that's better than most of what's out there.

The titular character is a flight attendant who smuggles money into the country for an arms dealer. When she's busted by A.T.F., she must devise a plan that will distract all parties involved so that she can steal some of the cash and head off to paradise. The funny thing about 'Jackie Brown' is that it gets better with each viewing. It may be a title that you keep on the back burner, but once you throw it in again you'll be pleasantly surprised by home much better it keeps getting.

'Captain America' - 'Thor' - 'X-Men: First Class'

Not only did this summer contain some of the very best comic book movies to date (excluding 'Green Lantern,' of course), but each of the big three received fantastic Blu-rays. Because the 'X-Men' property is still owned by Fox, not Marvel, they couldn't tie 'First Class' into S.H.I.E.L.D. nor the Avengers Initiative - like it's supposed to be. 'Thor' and 'Captain America,' on the other hand, are highly integrated, mixing themselves with 'Iron Man' and 'The Incredible Hulk' in preparation for next summer's 'The Avengers.'

'Thor' should have been the weakest movie leading up to 'The Avengers,' dealing with Nordic Gods and all, but it's actually one of the strongest. Via strong direction and an amazing screenplay, 'Thor' was made digestible for all audiences. We get to see the Nordic god of thunder kick ass on other worlds, get banished from his own and learn what it's like to live as a mortal human on Earth. Coming from Shakespearean expert Kenneth Branagh, 'Thor' is like the Shakespearean branch of the Marvel Universe. It's fun, funny, well-written, and contains plenty of the action expected from comic book movies these days.

'Captain America' takes superheros back to their roots in World War II. When a Nazi organization called Hydra splinters off and creates their own world-ending agenda, America mixes a genius doctor's formula for creating super soldiers with the technology of scientist Howard Stark (Iron Man Tony Stark's father). Only one super soldier was produced, but this one-man-army is more than enough to put a dent in Hydra's evil plans. Perhaps the most well-rounded of all the pre-'Avengers' Marvel movies, 'Captain America' not only contains all of the action you could possibly handle, but it has a great big heart and a timeless morals as well.

Far superior to the previous two 'X-Men' films, 'First Class' revived the dying franchise by focusing more in genuine characters than lame, pointless action. Its witty and smart script blends the 'X-Men' storyline with that of the historical events of the 1960s in Cuba. More than anything, the purpose of this prequel is to show how the superhero team came to be and how Magneto and Professor X became the men we know them as from previous films. As Erik/Magneto, Michael Fassbender delivers a phenomenal performance that grips you and makes you root for the guy that you know will soon be the "bad guy." Hats off to the cast, crew and director Matthew Vaughn for breathing life back into the X-Men.

'Jurassic Park' - 'Star Wars' - 'The Lord of the Rings: Extended Editions'

There are certain sets that deserve to be in your collection, even if some of the titles are hit and miss. With the exception of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, this sets contain a few not-so-great movies, but they're balanced by phenomenal and/or iconic titles that must be part of your collection.

'The Jurassic Park' series is definitely the least of the three, containing only one perfectly solid film - the first. The original 'Jurassic Park' was the first film to create fully CG animals - dinosaurs, to be specific - that interact with physical actors. Compared to the effects of today, it's average. But when the film was released in 1993, it was unprecedented. 'The Lost World' is a sore thumb on Spielberg's credits, but revisiting it now reveals a bunch of fun action sequences wrapped in ham and corn. But the worst of them all is the third, a mostly unwatchable lazy attempt at making even more money off the franchise. 'Jurassic Park III' is the final nail in a dinosaur-sized coffin.

For me, the 'Star Wars' saga bats .500. Two of the movies are fantastic, two are just okay and two are absolutely terrible. The original trilogy is an iconic classic. I'm not old enough to have seen them in theaters (if I did see them in theaters, I don't remember it), so I'm of the second generation era that grew up watching them on VHS and on television. Nonetheless, they are timeless films. The second trilogy, however, is mostly lame. The last film of the prequel trilogy is decent, mostly because it delves into the dark territory necessary to set up the original trilogy. The kids will love them despite being rubbish, so they're not the worst films you could have in your collection.

The biggest of these three is the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. Not a single of the three movies is bad. The theatrical Blu-ray trilogy had plenty of transfer flaws, but most have been corrected with the extended edition trilogy. If you're going to own this 17-time Academy Award winning series, it's the extended editions you want - not only for the better, elongated and expanded cuts, but for the much-improved Blu-ray quality also.

'The Walking Dead' - 'Breaking Bad'

Even with a cloudy current season and an unknown future, the first season of the record-breaking 'The Walking Dead' series is a must-own for all zombie fans. Survival is the name of the game and true to form with Frank Darabont's last production, 'The Mist,' it's unclear who poses a bigger threat - the survivors with their back against the wall or the zombies themselves. The second season may end up failing miserably, but at least we'll always have season one.

'Breaking Bad' is an already hyped series, but it needs to be bigger. It's a classic anti-hero tale, telling the story of a good, honest man who has never been on top despite being a phenomenal chemist. Working as a high school chemistry teacher, he can hardly provide for his family. When he's diagnosed with stage three lung cancer, he falls off the deep end like Michael Douglas in 'Falling Down,' cooking and selling the most chemically sound meth with a drug-dealing former student. Imagine what it would be like if Tarantino wrote a series; that's what you get with 'Breaking Bad.' Season one and two were awesome, but three really delivers the goods.

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Tags: Best of 2011, Luke Hickman, High-Def Retailing, Holiday Gift Guide 2011, HDD Holiday Gift Guide (all tags)