High-Def Digest's Holiday Gift Guide 2012: The Greatest Films of All Time on Blu-ray

Posted Mon Nov 12, 2012 at 12:00 PM PST by

This past summer, the British Film Institute (BFI), through their monthly magazine Sight & Sound, released their decennial list of the greatest films of all time. The list is compiled using a poll that asks an international group of film professionals, critics, and academics for the films they consider "the best." This year marks a historic turning point, as 'Vertigo' steals the number one spot from 'Citizen Kane' for the first time since 1962.

In celebration of this year's most respected list of the greatest films, we at High-Def Digest have decided to take a look at which of the top-twenty masterpieces of cinema are currently available on Blu-ray. With the holiday season fast approaching, this is the perfect time to buy the cinephiles in your family precisely what they want most — the twenty films considered the best of the best!

 

THE TOP TWENTY

 

Vertigo (1958)



Based on Boileau-Narcejac D'entre les morts and adapted for the screen by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' is a film as much about the central mystery and the characters as it is a love of cinema itself. Once again displaying his mastery and genius behind the camera, Hitchcock's thriller demonstrates his ability to transform pulp melodrama into a piece of eye-candy art. A constant innovator and visionary, the Master of Suspense broke from classical Hollywood standards, experimenting with unusual framing and editing while also practically pioneering the dolly zoom, which today is affectionately known as "the Vertigo effect." Working closely with cinematographer Robert Burks, one of the film's most dramatic effects is the use of bright, vivid colors to express the psychological and emotional states of characters during certain moments of the narrative. The effect also creates an atmosphere of fantasy, desire, and ambiguity, making it a clear masterpiece deserving of endless adulation and continued critical study.



Citizen Kane (1941)



Losing favor with moviegoers and coming close to being forgotten, Orson Welles's 'Citizen Kane' was rediscovered in the mid-1950s by an appreciative audience, and it has maintained the reputation of "cinematic perfection" ever since. The film à clef examining the life of an American capitalist and tycoon is a remarkable piece of art, famous for its innovation and inspiration in the cinematic and narrative arts. Defying the classic formula and structure of pure entertainment, Welles recognized the artistic potential to communicate an idea, to design through a variety of stylistic camera techniques a commentary on modernity. Look at the two juxtaposing pictures above to see how the young first-time director used imagery, especially when considering the film as a whole, to express an idea while leaving room for interpretation.



Tokyo Story (1953)



A simple, mostly unexceptional tale about an elderly couple visiting their adult children, Yasujirō Ozu's 'Tokyo Story' is an exceptional piece of simplicity and restraint. Set only a few years after WWII, the open-ended narrative, which Ozu co-wrote with long-time collaborator Kōgo Noda, is really about the relationship of parents and their children in the modern world and the generational divide that sometimes builds between them. As director, Ozu also takes a detached approach to his own creation, barely ever moving the camera, slowly revealing plot details through the dialogue and focusing our attention on the nuance of character interactions. In doing this, he makes his audience aware of the off-screen action being as equally important to what is seen, making us mindful of the empty gap Shukichi and Tomi is experiencing while only wanting to spend time with their children. With today's technology and latest gadgets further making this divide more apparent, Ozu's masterpiece becomes arguably more than ever a gripping and heartbreaking motion picture.

[NOTE: As of this writing, the film is only available on Blu-ray in the United Kingdom, courtesy of BFI Video and Region B locked. Please click here to order.]



The Rules of the Game (1939)



A spirited and animated comedy of manners, Jean Renoir's 'The Rules of the Game' is often cited and largely remembered for its naturalistic approach and marvelous use of deep focus. It's a satirical farce on the impulsive and decadent wealthy class, in many ways condemning their perfunctory attitude at the rest of society with a sense of superficiality and meaninglessness. Yet, this masterful cinematic beauty from Renoir, who was also very aware of film's artistic potential, comes with a darker, grimmer subtext. Adapted from Alfred de Musset's Les Caprices de Marianne, the well-designed film is a social critique and eerie prologue to WWII, of the cruelty and mayhem of things to come while a culture of gluttony wallows in a kind of bacchanalia. Examine the brilliantly elegant hunting scene to understand this deeper, darker tone to one of the greatest films of all time.



Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)



Making his American debut thanks to William Fox of Fox Studios, German Expressionist F.W. Murnau astounds with a lavish portrait of rekindled love in the modern city. 'Sunrise' is, in every aspect, a director's movie — one which pushed the boundaries of cinematography and filmmaking in general with ingenious photographic techniques. The story of a farmer unable to murder his innocent wife for the sake of another love is by all standards a lachrymose melodrama that follows the couple into the big city as they rediscover their affection for one another. With hardly any intertitles used, the film is a sumptuous visual delight of striking production design and stunning beauty. The brilliance of this silent masterpiece is the skill and craftsmanship with which Murnau tells an otherwise overly-sentimental tale, sucking viewers into the mawkish tragedy with little effort and leaving them as warm and fuzzy as the couple on screen.

[NOTE: As of this writing, the film is only available on Blu-ray in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Eureka! Entertainment through their "Masters of Cinema" series and Region B locked. Please click here to order.]



2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)



Whatever one's opinion of Stanley Kubrick's majestically epic masterpiece, few films have ever challenged its audience or so openly welcomed a wide range of criticism and interpretation as '2001: A Space Odyssey.' The film'simagery and its use of music is intentionally open-ended, allowing for viewers to see what they want to see — to speculate on the philosophical and allegorical meanings on their own and from their individual perspective, as Kubrick once said — while also maintaining a narrative form with a particular thought and question in mind. What is the impetus behind our advancement as a species and where is it taking us? What lies in the future and beyond? That's the mysterious black monolith which connects the four sections of the film. Ripe with inquiry on human will and imagination, technology as the end of history, enlightenment and rebirth, and the human species as God and creators of sentient life, Kubrick's film is about many things and one of the most fascinating motion picture experiences ever.



The Searchers (1956)



Widely considered one of the most influential and venerated filmmakers of all time, John Ford was a talented, visionary man who continuously pushed the power of the medium, and 'The Searchers' is his pièce de résistance in a career that spanned more than 50 years and over 140 motion pictures. The classic Western is a visual masterpiece of technique and style, of carefully deliberate framing and lush, majestic photography. It's a thing of cinematic beauty. It also remains a highly controversial film in spite of its magnificence due to its subject matter. However, that controversy is largely born out of misunderstanding what Ford is actually suggesting, a thematically complex retelling of Captain Ahab's chase for the white whale. The film questions the morals, virtues and the self-described righteousness of the Western hero archetype, the genre itself and possibly even our celebration of them. John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is viewed and portrayed in a negative light, a man driven by his selfish desires and racism not by some mythical moral code. The real brilliance of 'The Searchers' is that it has more to offer than just pretty pictures.



The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)



A stunning piece of film art, 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' is as rich with controversy and history as it is with striking beauty and lush camera-work. Instantly praised by critics but considered a box-office flop, the fight for the film started with Danish, non-Catholic director Carl Theodor Dreyer helming the historical tragedy that sees the saintly heroine suffer through a humiliating trial, gruesome torture, and her eventual death. In a strange twist of irony, the film, which subtly brings attention to the religious right's lack of compassion and tolerance, was itself persecuted much like the plot's central figure and heavily censored by the church. Decades later, when a complete negative of Dreyer's original vision was finally discovered, this remarkable work of art was recognized as one of the most harrowing and inspiring portraits of spiritualism and faith. Dreyer's successful approach — a series of close-ups and iconographic visuals constantly focusing on Joan's sorrow — is one that draws audiences into the heartache and pain of suffering for one's convictions.

[NOTE: As of this writing, the film is only available on Blu-ray in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Eureka! Entertainment through their "Masters of Cinema" series and Region B locked. Please click here to order.]



8½ (1963)



By the time '8½' was completed and releasedin theaters, Federico Fellini was already recognized as a dazzling genius of film technique and style. This comedy-drama with Marcello Mastroianni only proves it when the Italian director suddenly turns the camera at himself. The brilliance behind the film is that it is both a self-reflexive autobiography (the title refers to the number of movies made by Fellini up to that point) and a universal expression of the artist. The world is seen and experienced from the point of view of celebrated filmmaker Guido Anselmi, a man praised and admired for his dazzling genius behind the camera. No other film perfectly captures the anguish and anxious torment of the creative process, the stress placed upon an artist deemed by an invasive public eye as a maestro of the craft and the pressure of having to live up to those expectations. This is a stunning celebration and commentary on modernity's relationship to art and its creator, a masterpiece with much to admire.



Battleship Potemkin (1925)



Although Edwin S. Porter already proved the potential of narrative continuity in film editing two decades earlier, Sergei Eisenstein turned the post-production process into an art form with 'Battleship Potemkin.' His visual dramatization of social unrest during the 1905 mutiny aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin is a skillful display of generating meaning and stirring an emotional response from the audience via the montage. With exquisite framing and innovative cinematography, the 1925 silent masterpiece in intently focused on the acting — relying more on facial expressions than dialogue — creating a series of haunting images that have inspired countless filmmakers to study it endlessly. The massacre on the Odessa steps sequence is arguably the film's most famous, demonstrating that even simple staging if edited properly can serve a powerful impression on a complex epic scale.



L'Atalante (1934)



Decades ahead of his time, Jean Vigo in many ways anticipated the Le nouvelle vague movement of 1960s French filmmaking with a stylistic approach towards realism and of self-awareness. The French drama is an extraordinary, poetic portrait of life and the innate urge to live it with passion and curiosity. Despite the film's title taking its name from the canal barge on which a newlywed couple, Jean and Juliette, spends their improvised honeymoon, the title has more to do with the character of Greek mythology, Atalanta. A confident, independent-minded woman that defies gender norms, her character is best captured in one telling where she challenges potential husbands to footrace, meaning that men must learn to be her equal rather than the other way around. In the only full-length motion picture ever made by Vigo, this spirit for life and equality is beautifully expressed in the tension that rises between the newlyweds and the introduction of a third character, Jules, that is more accepting of Juliette exactly as she is.



Breathless (1960)



Remembered by many almost exclusively as the motion picture that ushered in the French New Wave, a cinematic revolution that intentionally and brazenly called attention to itself as a filmmaking process, Jean-Luc Godard's 'Breathless' is a challenging experiment with the medium's structure and arrangement. When thought of as a linear, coherent whole, the film is a simplistic, straightforward tale of a young, careless criminal on the run from police with his American girlfriend in tow. What makes this such a wonderful piece of art is the way in which Godard forces his audience to experience it with fresh eyes and with an awareness to the stylistic techniques used by the director as author and creator for manipulating that experience. Much like the petty criminal Michel wanting to fashion himself after his movie heroes, especially Humphrey Bogart, Godard, too, wishes to live within cinema, be a part of it and even exhale it as part of his being.



Apocalypse Now (1979)



One of the most troubled productions in the history of cinema, Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' is also considered one of the greatest war films ever made. It's a poignant portrait of the negative effects and chaotic lunacy of a misunderstood but generally unwanted conflict upon the human psyche. And while that could probably be said of almost any war, this staggering epic is an intensely brilliant portrayal of the instinctive, animalistic darkness writhing deep within humanity's soul, an aspect of our core we've worked hard to suppress and deny and call it civilization. With dazzling cinematography, jaw-dropping stage design and exhilarating directing, Coppola and co-writer John Milius take inspiration from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness to explore how war only serves to awaken this inner horror, transforming good, kind-hearted people into cynical, unsympathetic killers.



Late Spring (1949)



Honored as the only director to have two of his films featured in this top twenty list, Yasujirō Ozu's 'Late Spring' in the first in a loose trilogy known as the "Noriko Trilogy," which ends with the aforementioned 'Tokyo Story.' It's another brilliant display of simplicity and carefully designed framing about middle-class working families adjusting to modernity in post-war Japan. This last bit is never outright spoken or discussed, but audiences can gather a sense of an unresolved issue concerning recent events. As is the usual case in Ozu cinema, what characters don't say and what we don't see has as much to do with what is said and seen. The uncomplicated, largely unadorned tale about a father and daughter deals with Japanese customs and traditions in the new world as the two sacrifice a great deal for the happiness of the other. It's a splendidly moving motion picture experience about the loss of freedom — self-inflicted due to poor decisions and bad judgments.



Seven Samurai (1954)



After the global success of 'Rashomon,' Akira Kurosawa set his sights on a tale of a samurai defending a village of farmers, making this is his first in the genre. Mixing Eastern history and legend with Western mythology and archetypes, the film is an array of photographic splendor and exciting thrills which introduces the concept of the ambiguous, reluctant hero. It's a 270-minute philosophical treatise on the role of the individual in relation to the social collective of humanity, how one person's actions and deeds can affect those around him or her, sometimes leaving a profound impact. In also telling it as the story of a rōnin being paid for his protective services by a poverty-ridden community, the plot becomes a challenge to our concepts of the hero figure, an individual that does good for its own sake versus an incentive promise in order to accomplish what is expected of such an archetype. 'Seven Samurai' is a phenomenal masterpiece of introspection told as a universally-appealing action-adventure drama.



Singin' in the Rain (1951)



An infectious and marvelous "Technicolor Musical Treasure," the classic film was one of the last produced during the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system. Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, who also stars, the lavish, breathtaking spectacle is a celebration and fervent eulogy to American cinema and entertainment, its progress and its future. Set in 1927, it's a witty satire that parodies the transition from the silent film era to the talkies. With a keen awareness of what makes silent films great, the story, which breaks out into song and dance as the perfect expression of a character's emotional state at that moment, forges ahead to rejoice in what can be achieved in film when using sound and color as a complementary element to the medium. As technology pushes and challenges cinematic techniques, such as the uses of 3D, 'Singin' in the Rain' reminds audiences that the transition can be awkward, but it can also be a fruitful endeavor that will provoke and expand the imaginative potential of cinema.

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