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 attention, 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 psychological sci-fi drama, a supernatural mockumentary, and a terrifying horror flick. Be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November 2012, December 2012, January 2013, February 2013, March 2013, April 2013, May 2013, June 2013, July 2013, August 2013, September 2013, October 2013, November 2013, December 2013, January 2014, February 2014, March 2014, April 2014, May 2014, June 2014, July 2014, August 2014, September 2014, October 2014, November 2014, December 2014, January 2015, February 2015, March 2015, April 2015, May 2015, June 2015, and July 2015.
For August, we're covering a pulse-pounding medical drama, an eye-opening documentary, and a blood-curdling horror series. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are some SPOILERS for the discs listed.
If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in August, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'The Knick: The Complete First Season' - Like many film fans, I was quite disappointed when Steven Soderbergh first revealed that he was "retiring" from directing feature length movies. After all, the man's impressive filmography speaks for itself, with varied titles ranging from 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape' to 'Out of Sight' to 'Traffic' to 'Ocean's Eleven' and even 'Magic Mike,' representing the full extent of cinematic expression… and Channing Tatum's abs. But as upsetting as the director's retirement is, if 'The Knick is any indication, then his post-theatrical work will be every bit as riveting as his big-screen efforts. A dramatically gripping and stylistically absorbing medical drama, the series allows Soderbergh to experiment with long-form storytelling, offering a rather unique television experience marked by a singular artistic vision.
While I've already covered most of what makes the show so impressive in my full review, there is perhaps no better example of the series' strengths, than its seventh episode. Titled, 'Get the Rope,' the installment serves as one of the season's high points, demonstrating every facet of the production firing on all cylinders. As a race riot breaks out in the city, the Knickerbocker hospital becomes under siege by an angry mob who refuses to let them treat African American patients. Though bigotry has been rampant all season, even from our protagonist Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen), in the midst of such crisis the writers reveal what these men and women are really made of, exposing the limits that they are willing to go to in order to treat the unjustly wounded. Racial tensions and interpersonal conflicts all come to a head against an increasingly dire backdrop, while otherwise disparate characters momentarily put their differences aside in the service of a greater good. From a stylistic standpoint, the filmmakers expertly ramp up the visual and narrative momentum, leading to a powerfully visceral experience that builds and builds. Likewise, the episode marks one of the only instances in which almost all of the show's principle cast members find themselves in the same room, and this heightened dynamic is milked for all it's worth without feeling forced or unearned.
Not only one of the show's best episodes, 'Get the Rope' also ranks easily as one of last year's best hours of television... period -- perfectly demonstrating just how cinematically powerful 'The Knick' can be. While Soderbergh might be done with traditional feature length filmmaking, the director clearly hasn't lost any of his talent for visual storytelling and experimentation. And thankfully, the series hits Blu-ray with a great release, marked by a fantastic technical presentation and solid supplements. Though overlooked by most viewers, this series deserves to be seen by a larger audience and this set is the perfect way to catch up on the show before the second season premieres on Cinemax on October 16.
'Citizenfour' - Considering the complicated controversy and fevered debate surrounding the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, part of me was a little worried about Laura Poitras' 'Citizenfour.' Documentary films that cover such politically charged topics often have a tendency to veer too heavily toward manipulation, placing unbalanced emphasis on a specific agenda, and I was afraid that the filmmakers here might fall victim to this trend -- especially since the director is essentially part of the scandal itself. Thankfully, after a slightly rocky start, these qualms proved to be unfounded, and instead of the overbearing or slanted effort that I feared, the movie ends up being one of the most fascinating documentaries of the 21st century, revealing the realities behind the infamous leak as they unfolded beat by beat virtually unfiltered.
With that said, the film's initial sequences leave a lot to be desired. In fact, I kind of hate these early scenes. Everything, from the overly dramatic email readings, to the ominous music chords that play under discussions of surveillance, reek of unnecessarily manipulative filmmaking, and even though I don't disagree with the bias on display, such tactics don't really lend themselves to thoughtful expression. Once Snowden finally show up, however, the movie becomes something truly special, eschewing these artificial stylistic techniques in favor of a startlingly transparent account of the events, ultimately allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions about the abuses of power uncovered, the people who uncovered them, and the abusers themselves. Through intimate fly-on-the-wall sessions with Snowden and snippets of media coverage, we bear witness to the thought process and actions behind the leak and its escalating effects, exposing each step in the chain as it unfolds over the course of a few days. And beyond the captivating political maneuverings and distressing insights into our country's surveillance policies, Poitras manages to paint a subtle yet intriguing portrait of Snowden himself, offering a few fleeting but potent glimpses into the enigmatic man's motivations, paranoia, and shifting emotional states as he prepares to alter his life in irrevocable ways.
More than just a documentary about invasive surveillance and the need for government transparency, 'Citizenfour' actually ends up transcending politics to provide a rare and intimate examination of the whistle-blowing process itself, offering an intricate look at the cause and effects of the NSA leaks on the world, the media, the government, and the individuals who orchestrated them. A documentary in the truest sense of the word, the film acts as a literal document of this important historical event, ushering in a new high point of non-fiction real time moviemaking that belongs on every film fan's shelf.
'The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season' - When it comes to storytelling, one can never understatement the importance of finishing strong. As long as you leave the audience with a thrilling and jaw-dropping conclusion, viewers can usually forgive some occasional hiccups along the way. Over the years, AMC's 'The Walking Dead' has made quite a habit of this phenomenon, and season five proves to be no different. Though this latest batch of episodes has some definite lulls, the writers manage to end the season with some of the show's strongest material yet, overcoming a few sporadic flaws with an enticing new arc that breathes some much-needed life into this undead drama.
After the nail-biting season four cliffhanger, the show comes back in full force, leading to an action-packed, wholly satisfying conclusion to the Terminus arc. Sadly, once the series moves onto season five's first major new storyline… things get a little wobbly. Though there is some good material peppered throughout, the hospital arc ultimately proves to feel a bit forced and redundant. Likewise, a few wandering episodes that follow, take the characters' meandering a little too literally, making it feel like the show itself is a bit lost and listless. Now, I know these criticisms might make it seem like I'm not a fan of this season, but that's actually not the case. And the reason? Alexandria. Once this arc kicks in during the last six episodes, the show picks up considerably and starts to tackle entirely new territory. Getting to see our traumatized, battle-weary ensemble thrust into a seemingly safe, downright suburban environment is rather shocking, examining the tolls of their time out in the wild with the walkers in an entirely new light. While the constant threat of death is one thing, it turns out that complacency has its own dangers too. Juxtaposed against the "innocent" and oblivious citizens of Alexandria, we get to see just how much these characters have lost and just how much they have changed -- and not necessarily for the best.
As the season comes to a close, the writers once again leave us with a tantalizing conclusion, resulting in a strong finish that helps to make up for some minor stumbles along the way. Now more popular than ever -- complete with a spin-off -- 'The Walking Dead' has become a genuine franchise. Though such popularity has led to degrading quality in some shows in the past, so far each new season has only continued to expand and develop these characters and their world in fascinating and, of course, absolutely terrifying new ways.
So, there you have it. While there were many titles worth picking up this August, 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 August's must own titles?