by Steven Cohen
Every month, dozens of Blu-rays hit shelves, littering stores with high-def temptation. New releases, catalog titles, complete TV seasons, and elaborate box-sets all vie for affection, and with so many worthy releases targeting our wallets, choosing which discs to spend our hard earned cash on can be rather tricky. To make things a little easier, we here at High-Def Digest thought it might be helpful to bring you our top three must own recommendations for the month.
From important classics to contemporary blockbusters, these are the discs that we consider to be the absolute cream of the crop. High quality releases with great video, audio, and supplements, these are the Blu-rays that are truly worth every penny.
Last month we spotlighted a high seas thriller, a complex character study, and a sensitive coming of age story. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November 2013, December 2013, and January 2014.
This month, we're covering a tense sci-fi thriller, an acclaimed HBO series, and a spirited biopic. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are MAJOR SPOILERS for the discs listed.
If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in February, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'Gravity - 3D' - In many ways, Alfonso Cuaron's 'Gravity' could be interpreted as a film about space -- but by space, I'm not simply referring to outer space. I'm referring to on-screen cinematic space as well. Not just an exceptional science fiction thriller, the movie is also a technical marvel that experiments with the spatial relationship between camera and audience, creating a 3D experience unlike anything that has come before. As the intricacies of outer space and screen space mingle before our eyes, the director and his collaborators weave a harrowing story of survival and rebirth that uses filmmaking innovation to enhance emotions in fascinating ways, gripping audiences into the narrative's own unrelenting pull.
From the moment its unbroken, highly immersive opening shot slowly forms before our eyes, we know we're in for something truly special. Cuaron has displayed a great penchant for extended reframing camera movements before, heightening the tension of key sequences in previous efforts, and all of this past work seems to have been building toward this moment. Coupled with the movie's seamless 3D effects, the frequent long takes help to create the illusion of a living, breathing world, and just like the characters, the camera continues to gently drift throughout the frame, creating an utterly enveloping sense of space. It really seems as if Cuaron's lens has complete freedom, as if it could literally go anywhere in the three dimensional plane that it wishes, creating a boundless viewpoint that's not tied to the conventional restraints of filmmaking. And while all of this technical ingenuity is impressive on its own, the director takes it all one step further by using his groundbreaking form to enhance the visceral emotions and drama of his story. To this point, Cuaron actually ends up using 3D in a way that I haven't really seen before (at least, not to this extent). He uses 3D as a means to elicit empathy, as a way to further connect the audience to Sandra Bullock's character. Through frequent POV shots from Stone's perspective, or close-up angles where we are literally inside her helmet but still focused on her face, Cuaron places us directly in her dire situation, forcing us to experience what she experiences -- and with the added depth and texture achieved from the use of 3D and the lack of cuts, the director creates an unprecedented level of intimacy and immediacy, carrying us through Stone's entire, unrelenting ordeal as if we are right there with her.
At times, 'Gravity' almost feels more like an interactive experience than a traditional film -- a high art thrill ride that evokes all of the best aspects of a great theme park attraction. To be honest, the script itself is actually rather lacking on several fronts, with very basic characterizations and obvious metaphors, but Cuaron's deeper visual and emotional achievements elevate the entire production tenfold, creating a genuinely unique and groundbreaking picture. While nothing can compare to watching the movie on an IMAX screen, this Blu-ray release comes pretty damn close. With breathtaking video and audio, this disc is reason enough to own a 3D TV, cementing itself as February's top must own title.
'Game of Thrones: The Complete Third Season' - It's not exactly uncommon for a television series to kill off major characters, but on HBO's 'Game of Thrones,' death is not just a shocking plot point or a ratings stunt. It's a fundamental fact of life, a tragic reality that even noble heroes can't escape. Traditional fantasy stories and fairy tales have taught us that knights always save their princesses, that happy endings are all but guaranteed, and even if one hero is defeated, another will surely rise to avenge his fallen brethren. Hell, this tried-and-true cycle is practically an unspoken rule at this point -- but the villains of Westeros don't follow rules, do they? And when our champions eventually fall, unceremoniously beheaded or violently impaled by treachery and deceit, their passing does not go unfelt. Instead, their loss hits us hard in the gut and reshapes the evolving narrative in devastating and irrevocable ways, helping to define a masterful season of television that fans won't soon forget.
The infamous "Red Wedding" has managed to leave such a notable impression on audience members not just because of its shocking content, but because of just how much viewers have come to actually care about the characters and their story. Thanks to the series' impressive writing, directing, and acting, the inhabitants of Westeros all feel like real people, with complicated motivations, flaws, and goals. While the show's visuals and intricate plotting consistently impress, it's these multifaceted characterizations that really keep us coming back, fully investing viewers in all of show's political intrigue, backstabbing, sex, violence, and magic. It would be easy to simply haphazardly dispose of protagonists left and right, but 'Game of Thrones' makes us truly feel for Robb and his family, making the sudden and bloody end to his quest especially powerful. Since Ned's execution, we've been building toward a classic arc of revenge and justice, with the son poised to avenge his father's death, but the writers masterfully (and rather cruelly) undercut this convention, pulling the rug from right under our feet. Some might be frustrated by this abrupt end to the storyline, but the tragedy serves a greater purpose, elaborating on the show's continual punishment of love and honor in a murky world filled with corruption.
And beyond episode nine's major developments, the season as a whole is packed with interesting character developments, furthering deeper themes tied to power, redemption, sacrifice, and the loss of innocence. To this end, Arya's slow descent into darkness proves to be one of the show's most heartbreaking, affecting, and perfectly realized arcs. A peerless example of serialized storytelling, the show continues to exhibit incredible nuance and depth, laying the groundwork for more incredible revelations yet to come. With demo worthy video and audio, and an exceptional collection of supplements, this is one of the most impressive television releases available on Blu-ray, making it a clear must own. Season four premieres on April 6, and if this new batch of episodes is anything like the last, viewers will be wise to remember one inescapable fact: "Valar morghulis… all men must die."
'Dallas Buyers Club' - What do you do when you're told by your doctors that you have just 30 days left to live? Well, if you're anything like Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), you prove them wrong. Very wrong. An emotional drama based on a true story, 'Dallas Buyers Club' manages to tell its heartfelt and inspirational story without devolving into overtly sentimental mush -- resulting in an affecting and lively film that never wallows in its inherent tragedy. Instead, like its determined main character, the film fights for its life with effortless charm.
After being trapped in romantic comedy purgatory for far too long, Matthew McConaughey has entered a career defining renaissance with his last few pictures, crafting memorable characters in acclaimed films like 'Mud' and 'Killer Joe.' In 'Dallas Buyers Club,' the actor reaches entirely new heights, turning in a simply breathtaking performance. Woodroof starts off as nothing more than a homophobic hustler, but once he is diagnosed with AIDS, his entire perception of the world is shattered. While transformative stories that see jerks become good human beings are nothing new, the gradual and subtle growth that McConaughey reveals here is nothing short of masterful. The man doesn't simply become a saint overnight when he finds out that he's dying, and even when he does realize the error of his ways it doesn't occur in some sudden epiphany. It's a slow and natural progression, and the actor carries the role (and the movie) with palpable charisma and personality. Likewise, his much talked about physical transformation is startling, making it hard to believe that the frail, sickly cowboy hat-wearing man on the screen was once the ripped, hunky cowboy hat-wearing stripper in 'Magic Mike' (I think it's a contractual obligation that he has to wear a cowboy hat in all his films). And as amazing as McConaughey is, co-star Jared Leto is equally impressive. In the role of Woodroof's transgender partner Rayon, Leto reveals remarkable depth as an actor. The part could potentially come across as flashy and over-the-top in the wrong hands, but Leto imbues Rayon with striking soul and vulnerability.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée balances the movie's heavy content with a fitting handheld shooting style and some much needed bursts of humor peppered throughout, creating an assured tone that treats the sensitive subject matter with respect without sacrificing a certain dynamic edge. Though the script takes some notable liberties with the true story that inspired it, the filmmakers use the basis of Woodroof's real life experiences to create a moving portrait of determination, survival, selflessness, and family. As days become months, and months become years, Woodroof defies the short term expectancy he was given, finding renewed purpose and meaning in his life -- and despite the weighty content, his bittersweet yet uplifting journey is always engaging. The movie's heavy subject matter does limit some its replay value, but this release is still easily one of the month's best discs, and rightfully earns a spot on this list.
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this February, those are our top three must own recommendations. We'll be back next month with three more essential picks, but for now, what do you think of our selection? What are your choices for February's must own titles?