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. If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in November, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'Lawrence of Arabia' - David Lean, Peter O'Toole, and a really, really big desert -- all shot on 70mm, beautifully restored, and presented in nearly pristine 1080p. What more needs to be said? While motion picture epics already existed before its release, this is the film that defined the genre. This is the film that set the standard. This is the film that went on to influence countless imitators. And this is the film that still stands high above them all.
Grand, sweeping, and utterly captivating, 'Lawrence of Arabia' is a flawless exercise in cinematic splendor. Lean's images are so wide and breathtaking that they seem to extend forever, infinitely cascading beyond the edge of the frame, evoking an almost limitless scope. O'Toole's iconic performance blends pride and mortality, capturing the larger-than-life grandeur of myth, and the fragile sting of flawed humanity. Maurice Jarre's famous music soars so high, that if one listens to the score with their eyes closed, they can still see the film's boundless vistas. Filled with rich thematic texture, the movie offers a stirring character study on par with the greats of literature, and somehow manages to simultaneously push the visual boundaries of the medium. A mesmerizing fusion of tantalizing sight, rousing sound, and powerful storytelling, the film's nearly impossible ambitions are only rivaled by those of its central character -- but while Lawrence might falter at the hands of his own hubris, Lean somehow succeeds completely, revealing an almost inhuman command over epic moviemaking.
Coupled with exceptional video, audio, and extras, this is the month's truly indisputable MUST OWN release, and big fans should seriously consider picking up the beautiful 4-Disc 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition that contains even more goodies. While the high-definition medium is home to many standout demo worthy discs, in many respects, this is the film that Blu-ray was made for.
'Sunset Boulevard' - During his acceptance speech for Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards, 'The Artist' director Michel Hazanavicius made special note to thank three very important people: "I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder, and I want to thank Billy Wilder." While it might seem like overkill, there really is no exaggerating Wilder's immense influence on cinema, and Hazanavicius' gracious sentiments mirror those of countless filmmakers across the globe. Why is Wilder such a revered figure in the world of motion pictures? Well, to answer that question, one needs to look no further than 'Sunset Boulevard.' A scathing satire, grotesque tragedy, and suspenseful film noir all skillfully bound together, the movie is among the celebrated director's very best work -- putting it among the best the industry has to offer.
After already covering the movie at length in my own review, I was initially worried that there might not be much left to talk about here. As it turns out, that isn't the case at all. You see, with films like 'Sunset Boulevard' there is an almost infinite amount of material to discuss. Why, after perusing my original critique, I now realize that I didn't even mention Eric von Stroheim's masterful turn as Norma Desmond's loyal servant, or Nancy Olson's spirited portrayal of the plucky and innocent Betty Schaefer. I also didn't address how the film's script mirrors the actual lives of several of its actors, paralleling some of Swanson and Stroheim's own experiences in rather incredible ways. And then there's Franz Waxman's powerful score which perfectly complements the escalating drama, and all of the little details that Wilder places in the background of his scenes, and the sweet but doomed love story, and the scene where Gillis and Betty take a romantic stroll through the Paramount lot, and the various, biting jabs at Hollywood, and that shot where Gillis stands behind the mansion's gate with Desmond perched up behind him, invading the frame like an ominous specter, and the… well, I could go on and on. Suffice to say, this really is a timeless classic worthy of all the praise it receives, and thankfully, this disc does the movie justice.
To understand the immeasurable gratitude expressed by contemporary filmmakers toward Billy Wilder, one could really watch any number of his movies ('Some Like it Hot,' 'The Apartment'), but 'Sunset Boulevard' ranks up there with the best. As I said in my review, this is perhaps the greatest film from one of Hollywood's greatest directors, and it's presented on Blu-ray in a fantastic release, easily cementing it as one of November's essential picks.
'The Amazing Spider-Man' - To be honest, I really wasn't sure what to expect from this comic book reboot. While there are aspects of Sam Raimi's trilogy that never really clicked with me (especially in the troubling third installment), I mostly enjoyed the 'Evil Dead' director's take on the character. This left me wondering if the franchise really needed a brand new start, and unfortunately the film's initial trailers did nothing to mitigate my concerns. Though noticeably grittier, Marc Webb's effort looked like more of the same, and the strange emphasis on Peter Parker's parents and their mysterious past seemed like a very misguided attempt to set this origin story apart. Thankfully, despite a few minor missteps, the movie succeeds wonderfully, and even manages to improve upon some elements that Raimi and company never really figured out.
Sure, some major beats from the 2002 film remain (this is still 'Spider-Man' after all), but the filmmakers offer a fresh enough take on the material to make it all worthwhile. Most notably, Andrew Garfield presents a more well-rounded version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. While Maguire did a solid job with the character's nerdy, goofy, and heroic qualities, Garfield not only nails the lonely outcast aspect of the webslinger, but he also elaborates on his sarcastic side as well. You see, Peter Parker might be a shy introvert when he's not in costume, but as soon as he puts that mask on he becomes… well, kind of a jackass. In a good way, of course. Don't get me wrong, he grows into a selfless hero through and through, but he also likes to trash talk with his enemies while spitting out various quips at their expense. This was something Raimi's film's never really got right, but here the filmmakers play up the character's sarcasm gleefully. Going along with Spider-Man's more limber personality, Garfield and his stunt doubles (both living and CG) seem more agile in the costume. This makes the fight scenes and webslinging feel a little more dynamic than some of the comparatively stiff sequences from the previous trilogy. There are still some stumbles here and there (the villain's splintered psyche is a little too similar to the Green Goblin's, and a few scenes are pretty cheesy) but the casting is mostly spot on and the action is great. Despite being a retread of the character's origin story, the movie differentiates itself just enough and shows some very promising potential for future installments.
The Blu-ray disc comes packed with demo worthy video and audio, as well as an extensive collection of supplements, making it one of the month's most impressive releases. Really, the only downside to the flick is that it now desperately makes me wish that this version of Spider-Man could go hang out with 'The Avengers.' Though the properties are owned by different studios, some of the producers have expressed interest in making this happen. I'm not exactly holding my breath, but anything is possible (especially when there's money to be made). Come on, Sony, look at how much fun the characters in Marvel's cinematic universe are having together. Spider-Man wants to play too! Nerdy wishful thinking aside, even all by his lonesome, the character shines, and this great disc is easily one of the month's essential picks.
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this November, 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 November's must own titles?