It's been an eventful year for Blu-ray releases, with each of the studios tackling the reigning High-Def format with varied levels of commitment and success.
As he did with last month's Mid-Tear Blu-ray Report Card, Drew Taylor has looked back at the titles released so far this year, as well as the titles about to hit shelves, and picked out the discs he feels have really hit it out of the park.
As always, there's bound to be disagreement and conversation about this one, so read what he has to say, then join the discussion in the forums.
The Top 10 Blu-ray Releases So Far This Year*
*'Until Drag Me to Hell' Comes Out
by Drew Taylor
1. Repulsion (Criterion, Roman Polanksi, 1965)
Criterion's commitment to Blu-ray in 2009 was staggering (they really jumped right in!), but towering above all other releases is this, the delightfully creepy little shocker by Roman Polanksi.
For dozens of years, you could only find 'Repulsion' in grey market or public domain formats. An earlier DVD looked almost completely washed out, like someone was filming it on a camcorder while the movie played on some junky late night public access horror show. All the nuance of the cinematography, the elegantly choreographed thriller beats, and the beauty of the central performance by Catherine Deneuve (seemingly the most gorgeous human being on the planet), was lost. And it looked like it might remain that way forever.
Thankfully, Criterion stepped up to the plate, licensing the film from Sony (which now controlled the rights), and delivering the special edition we'd always hoped for but never really thought we'd get.
For those who have never seen it, let be briefly recount the plot. 'Repulsion' is the tale of a young Belgian manicurist Carole (Deneuve) who works in a London salon and lives with her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). When the sister leaves for vacation with her lover, Carole is forced to fend for herself, and finds her mind begin to unravel. To say any more would give away the "did I just see what I thought I saw" fun of 'Repulsion.' It is fair to say that 'Repulsion' is one of the more shocking, surreal, and compelling horror films ever.
And thanks to Criterion it's never, ever looked this good. The high definition format has been kind to black-and-white releases, but this goes above and beyond. This is a marvel. The amount of detail is insane, the lusciousness of the blacks and grays is beyond belief, and its depths add even more to the film's overall nightmarish feeling. (It's affecting sound design is heightened as well.)
While the supplements are a little light, especially for a Criterion release (a commentary held over from an old Criterion laserdisc, a documentary from a Blue Underground UK release, some hammy trailers), there is a gem of a feature in the brief black-and-white documentary "Grand Ecran," which features footage of the director and stars on set (it's the kind of historical oddity that only Criterion would think to dig up).
This really is the most essential "must buy" release for any serious film fan, thus far this year. It's a killer movie, and Criterion has put together a killer disc to accompany it. Anytime a doubting friend says, "Well, is Blu-ray really THAT much better?" Just pop this baby in and wait for the "oohs" and "aahs."
2. TV Shows on Blu-ray (Various)
Blu-ray is still a relatively new format. And as a new format, it's still finding its legs - what it can do, what it can't do, and where exactly it'll go. One of the big question marks, for critics as well as consumers, is how television will fit into this new format. With television shows on DVD still incredibly popular (and now being built into the marketing of shows) and with more and more shows being broadcast in HD, we're at an interesting crossroads when it comes to TV shows on Blu-ray.
Thankfully, a handful of titles have risen to the challenge and delivered truly outstanding collections. (TV shows on Blu-ray will have to be uniformly excellent to justify the price increase for most customers.) I'm thinking specifically of the recent 'True Blood,' 'Venture Brothers,' 'Dollhouse,' and 'Mad Men' sets, each of which bring new levels of depth, ambition, and elegance.
This diverse group of shows (a ribald animated adventure, a sex-and-violence horror series, an ambitious sci-fi fable, and a period drama) are similar in their presentation (both audio and video are wonderful), and they come loaded healthy collections of extras. They've also helped refine the way that the TV-series-on-Blu-ray interfaces work, with commentary and trivia tracks for episodes seamlessly branching from a central or pop-up hub. All in all, they're so good they make you want to skip the initial viewing, just to wait for the Blu-ray to hit stores.
Blu-ray has largely been heralded as being the movie lover's home video format, but with the care and attention that studios have begun to show television series, it's looking more like a one-stop shop for pop culture junkies everywhere.
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Criterion and Paramount, David Fincher, 2008)
David Fincher's one-two punch of digitally shot historical dramas (see below) will go down as one of our most impressive directorial feats (trust me, one day geeks will be boggled by it in the same way they'll scratch their heads raw thinking about how Francis Ford Coppola directed 'The Conversation' and 'The Godfather, Part II' back-to-back).
'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is an absolutely wonderful film - the sprawling (yes, sometimes rambling) historical drama about a man born, curiously, as an old man and forced to age backwards. As the titular character, Brad Pitt confirms his place as one of our generation's greatest (and strangest) leading men. His Benjamin Button is less an ordinary man afflicted and more a sort of unstuck time traveler, passing through the ages without ever really connecting with anyone. As the woman that grabs him as he slips through the stream, Cate Blanchett has never been so radiant.
This being a David Fincher movie, it's more about death than it is about life, but his mastery of cinema - his command of visual effects, of lighting, of camera movement and placement - is unparalleled, and no matter how emotionally distant it might seem, remains a profound and affecting work of utter genius.
Since Fincher shot this digitally, the image is literally perfect. It's reference quality. Ditto the sound. And given that this is a Criterion release (and that the supplements were overseen by Fincher mainstay David Prior), there is an epic-length documentary (in HD!), over three hours long, as well as extra little treasures (including a dry but rewarding commentary by Fincher himself) and an elegant menu design.
Rarely does a film's power increase with repeated viewings, but hey, this is a curious case indeed.
4. Zodiac (Paramount, David Fincher, 2007)
The second half (though technically the first) of David Fincher's digitally-shot double feature, this one a detail-rich period procedural centered around the Bay-area Zodiac murders, is just as amazingly well done as 'Benjamin Button,' if not more so. It's lower on the list if only because it's special features, while still involving, don't go into the insane level of detail as 'Benjamin Button's.'
'Zodiac' is about obsession. The obsessive tendancies of the killer, for sure, but also of those investigating the crimes - first investigative journalist Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), and then later cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). It's an epic, intricate movie (it's more 'All the President's Men' than 'Silence of the Lambs') but it's also David Fincher's most autobiographical. This is a filmmaker obsessed, after all, with detail, camera movement, and editing. It consumes him. And just as many of the characters feel they lack closure at the conclusion of 'Zodiac,' so must Fincher feel when his films are finally released into the world.
This director's cut restores a couple of key moments, including a brief "intermission" sequence, where the passage of time is indicated by a black screen while the soundtrack runs through popular pop songs of that era to symbolize the passage of time. This is brilliant, heady stuff, and although it was criminally overlooked theatrically, it seems to be gaining some steam on home video. This wonderful disc will aid in that cause.
Again, since this was a digital production, the picture is perfect (an establishing fly-over of a completely digital San Francisco literally takes your breath away), and ditto the sound. The special features are almost as haunting as the movie (including interviews with real life people involved in the investigation), and a pair of commentary tracks (one with Fincher solo, the other including the "mad dog of crime fiction" James Ellroy) ensure that you watch the movie a couple more times (at least).
For a movie about obsession, it's also hard to not get obsessed with 'Zodiac.' It's a movie that offers endless pleasures on repeated viewings. The only downside to this disc is that they didn't include the original theatrical cut, a mere 9 minutes shorter, which would have been nice.
5. Pinocchio (Walt Disney Pictures, Ben Sharpsteen, et al., 1940)
Animation always does right by Blu-ray, and no film did better than this Walt Disney animated classic, gorgeously remastered in high definition.
It's a film we've all seen a dozen times, first appreciating its kinetic and at times nightmarish kick as children, then, as we've grown, marveled at its complexity and wit (while still being spooked by the same stuff). But we've never seen it look (or sound) quite as amazing as it does on Blu-ray.
The immortal, kaleidoscopic tale of a young wooden doll who longs to be a real, human boy, is just as powerful as it was when the character first appeared in 1888. Through Walt Disney's deft imaginative touch, the story truly comes to life and his fearlessness in exploring the dark psychological corners of the story is still totally ballsy.
The animation is some of the best the studio has ever produced, and the digitally cleaned-up version presented here is nothing short of breathtaking. The sound is wonderful, too. And the extras, which do a fine job of presenting historical context, what went into making the film, and its continued impact on animation (many animators today are inspired by the film and largely herald it as the greatest animated film of all time), are nothing short of spectacular.
While computer-animated and stop motion animated movies really do look amazing on Blu-ray, there's a simple power to watching a traditionally animated film on the format that is almost unparalleled.
6. The Bourne Trilogy (Universal, Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, 2002, 2004, 2007)
At the beginning of the year, Universal gave us this kick-ass box set of Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass' era-defining action trilogy. And you know what? We couldn't be happier.
As Liman's slicker original film gave way to the herky-jerky action realism of Greengrass' later two installments, the films became less about a spy (Matt Damon) whose amnesia leaves him in a morally spotty position of figuring how who's to blame while simultaneously taking exacting revenge on those that tried to kill him, and more about the pure, kinetic power of action cinema. (In the process, the filmmakers did nothing short of change the film language for action films - without 'Bourne,' James Bond would never have been reborn in 'Casino Royale.')
The trio of discs that Universal provided (in a nifty metal tin) are exemplary - the audio and video are outstanding, and the wealth of special features is mind boggling. By the time you get through enjoying all three films, the series' place in cinema history is cemented. These movies started out as good junky fun and turned into something that redefined action movies as we experience them. And the experience on Blu-ray is even more amazing. These are discs you won't soon forget.
7. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned How to Love the Bomb (Sony, Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
People quipping about the amount of grain present on this presentation of Stanley Kubrick's unforgettable Cold War comedy are severely misguided. First of all, the grain really shouldn't be an issue. Kubrick sought out the most grainy film stock he could find, on all his films, and if you're going to do a high definition transfer, then the grain will be more pronounced. Also - it's an old movie. There's going to be grain regardless. If you scrub the image too clean it makes everyone look like creepy plastic doll-people. And nobody wants that.
So, now that we've moved on from that - how does the rest of the disc stack up? Really, really well. Not only are all the special features from previous home video editions of 'Dr. Strangelove' included, but there's an additional trivia track, containing text and video, that ranks amongst the best of its kind.
But really, does anyone need a reason to re-watch this movie?
8. Sin City (Dimension, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, 2005)
Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's hugely influential black-and-white comic book series is first and foremost a visual feast. It's stuffed with crooked, super-noir-y stylistic flourishes (constant rain, copious amounts of hardboiled voice over, and tons of gunplay and gangsters) that, when rendered in high definition, absolutely stun. (It was shot digitally, so the image is peerless.)
Watching big-time movie stars like Benicio del Toro, a pre-comeback Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, and Brittany Murphy sulk around completely computer-generated, German expressionist-by-way-of-pulpy-paperback-novel-backgrounds is a singular, simplistic treat. And with the added value of being able to watch each of 'Sin City's' compartmentalized segments as its own piece makes it that much more fun.
Combine the flawless video quality with an aggressive and well-prioritized sound mix, and a genuinely ridiculous amount of extra features (some in glorious HD) and you've got a totally great package. It may not be a perfect movie (it is a bit overlong and all that violence gets a bit, well, dull), but that doesn't mean it can't look and sound perfect.
9. Synecdoche, New York (Sony, Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
I'm still sorting out my feelings about this film, the debut directorial feature by 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' screenwriter Charlie Kaufman about a dumpy, oddball theatrical director (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who stages a mind-bogglingly meta-play within a giant warehouse, but that's okay.
'Synecdoche' is on this list because I'm eternally grateful to have a high-definition copy of this movie to watch and rewatch and attempt to figure out. It's a gorgeous, complicated, challenging, prickly piece of artwork. It looks and sounds dynamite and it's got a great selection of special features, which can aid in your assessment of the final film.
Sorting 'Synecdoche, New York' out in gorgeous Blu-ray is a wonderful experience - and something definitely worth praising loudly.
10. Watchmen (Warner Bros., Zack Snyder, 2009)
Sure, 'Watchmen' is a big-time mess - sloppily plotted (which just doesn't make sense given its intricate comic book origins), often emotionally and dramatically rudderless and the drastic changes from the source to the screen seem even stupider - but that doesn't stop this disc from being 100% must own.
Part of this is due to the unparalleled visual majesty that director Zack Snyder wrangles from this tale of superheroes being bumped off, thermo-nuclear war, and the frailty of the human condition, which, in HD, simply boggles the mind. (The sound is none too shabby, either.) Marvel at the rich blue hues of atomic god Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)! Be amazed by the glassy Martian timepiece; Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and his hovering Owl Ship; and the morphing mask of psychologically unstable Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley)!
Sure, the lack of the theatrical cut is a sore spot (and, where, exactly, is that teaser trailer that got everybody excited about the movie in the first place?), but its "Maximum Movie Mode" option, which really is just a glorified version of Universal's U-Control feature, seems somewhat groundbreaking. A combination of visual commentary (with Snyder stepping into picture, sometimes stopping and rewinding the scene he's talking about), alternate timeline (showing where the "real world" and "Watchmen world" differ in key historical events), and pop-up commentaries and photo galleries, it feels a little bit too overstuffed but at the same time feels completely new. While watching it you get the sensation that this, THIS, is what Blu-ray is really capable.
And that's a great, hopeful feeling to be left with during a movie in which the doomsday clock ticks closer to Armageddon.
So that's the list. Now join in the conversation and tell us what your top ten list for 2009 looks like so far.