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 an innovative coming-of-age story, a riveting mystery thriller, and a crime drama's final season. 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, and January 2015.
This month, we're covering an epic storm of swords, a life-affirming documentary, and a dark crime thriller. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are some 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...
'Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season' - As audience members, not only do we want to see the bad guys get punished and the good guys win, but we want to see these big moments happen in the right way. We want to see the villain vanquished by the hero at an appropriate time and in a manner that suits their transgressions. But 'Game of Thrones' so rarely gives us what we want. And season four is no different. Instead of taking the easy route, the show continues to subvert narrative expectations, elevating genre conventions into something much more nuanced, deep, and complex, forcing us to question our own motives and desires as loyal audience members.
The second episode is a perfect example of what makes the series and this season so daring and special. Season three had "The Red Wedding," and now season four brings us another infamous nuptial. Dubbed the "Purple Wedding" by fans, the sequence features the death of one of the show's (and all of TV's) most reviled characters, the sadistic boy king Joffrey. And while we've been dreaming of this moment for years now, the writers manage to give us what we want, without actually giving it to us how we want it. Based on our narrative expectations, Joffrey should be justly dispatched by one of the people he's wrongly tormented. And he should die in a manner that allows us to cheer. And yet, while the character is indeed assassinated, the method of his demise deliberately undercuts our natural bloodlust, robbing us of the satisfying revenge we've craved since the first season. Rather than present a death that the audience can rally behind, the show instead decides to remind us that this terrible, irredeemable villain is still, at his core, just a child. We want to applaud at his poisoning, but instead the abrupt choking is merely disturbing. Rather than milk our violent desire to see this terrible person get what he "deserves," the filmmakers instead present a helpless boy dying in his mother's arms. The character still elicits no real sympathy, mind you, but the sequence also refuses to take joy in his murder, leaving us with complicated emotions that go far deeper than most shows would ever dare. The easy and crowd pleasing route would have been to let Arya somehow stab the king in the heart with her sword Needle. That's what we all wanted to see. But 'Game of Thrones' doesn't give us what we want. It gives us what the story needs.
Of course, with the murder of Tywin Lannister, we do still get at least one fairly satisfying bit of revenge, but it's heavy cost for Tyrion lessens our sinister glee. Death, in all forms, is not something to applaud on this show. It's often gruesome, abrupt, and tragic, adding another layer to an already increasingly multifaceted approach to storytelling. Season four does have some structural issues, but this show continues to be in a class all its own. Likewise, these Blu-ray sets from HBO continue to be absolutely stellar all across the board, cementing this release as the month's absolute top must own. A claim I'm willing to risk a trial by combat to prove! I just hope things work out better for me than they did poor Oberon...
'Life Itself' - For Roger Ebert, movies weren't just frames of celluloid or pixels dancing across a screen. They weren't just entertainment and they weren't just art. For Roger Ebert, movies were a window into people, ideas, and emotions. Movies were a "powerful empathy machine" capable of connecting us and amusing us and enlightening us. And so, it's only fitting that 'Life Itself' lives up to that promise so fully and completely. By documenting the legendary film critic's life, passions, flaws, and final days, director Steve James allows Ebert's own story to do for us what the movies so often did for him. Heartfelt, sincere, and basked in the empathetic glow of a churning projector, the film is a stirring, honest, and life-affirming motion picture.
Told through straightforward talking head interviews, fly-on-the-wall footage, and archive clips, the documentary covers all the bases of Ebert's life and career, painting a multifaceted portrait of a man who loved the movies. And though James' approach doesn't ever break any new ground or stray from the conventions of the genre, his style remains artful, sensitive, and engaging. Likewise, the director doesn't shy away from his subject's flaws, resisting the urge to create an unrealistically rose-colored picture. But even with his faults accounted for, Ebert's story proves to be powerful and enriching, highlighting the man's deep love for life, even in the face of his tragically deteriorating health. As James' intimate footage reveals, while Ebert may have lost the ability to speak, he never lost his voice -- a voice he continued to share in his written reviews and blog posts right up until his death.
Roger Ebert wrote about movies. Lots of movies. Good movies, bad movies, great movies, and sometimes even mind-numbingly awful movies. But more than just movies, this is a documentary about passion, death, bickering brothers, big boobs, and raised thumbs. As its title so simply and earnestly implies, it's a movie about life itself. Through the understated power of cinema, we are allowed to empathize with Roger Ebert and his loved ones, connecting to his story in a way that only film can allow. And really, there could be no greater tribute to the man than that.
'Nightcrawler' - For all intents and purposes, this month's final spot is a tie between many of 2014's big awards-contenders and winners -- including 'Birdman,' 'The Theory of Everything,' and 'Whiplash' -- and while all of those movies are certainly worthy of this slot, I'm going to focus on a title that hasn't garnered quite as much attention. A dark and scathing examination of media bloodlust, ruthless capitalism, and moral bankruptcy, Dan Gilroy's 'Nightcrawler' offers an intense and disturbing midnight ride through the blood-soaked streets of Los Angeles as we follow a dangerous predator stalking his prey. Only his weapon of choice isn't a gun. It's a camera.
Beyond the script's escalating tension and darkly satirical observations, the movie presents a rather striking and slightly atypical character study. When we first meet Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), we really have no idea what to make of him. On the one hand, he's established as a thief who isn't afraid to get violent, but on the other, he also demonstrates an oddly earnest and ambitious desire to work hard and excel at a legitimate job. But no one will give him one, so he creates a business for himself... filming gory crimes and accidents. And he likes what he does. A lot. Maye too much. Throughout it all, Gyllenhaal's approach to the character is intricately nuanced and fully realized, right down to his unique ticks and the very way he carries himself. The man speaks in memorized bullet points culled from text books, self-help books, and various guides to success, revealing an almost unnerving goal-oriented personality. His thin appearance and wide, unblinking eyes add an unmistakably creepy vibe, but for the majority of the runtime it's never quite clear just how dangerous Lou is. As the story progresses, however, we gradually learn more about what makes him tick and, more importantly, what he's capable of, offering a slow-burn character reveal that proves to be utterly absorbing and disturbing. The empty-eyed sociopath we end up with by the time the credits roll is very much the same person we met in the opening scene, we just didn't realize it at the time, and this measured reveal is part of what makes the movie so unique and potent.
Not content to just record the news, Lou eventually manipulates his own thrilling shootout and car chase into being, practically scripting the carnage beat by beat. Essentially, he becomes a director, and capturing bloodshed is his art. And he's very passionate about his art. This development helps to elaborate on the film's complicated relationship with the very concept of violence. While we are supposed to (hopefully) condemn the characters' macabre obsession with crime and murder in real life, these sensationalized, tense events are actually part of what make the film so captivating. Hell, they're part of what we often buy movie tickets for to begin with. Ultimately, the script offers no easy answers about the ideas it examines. Instead, it weaves a thought-provoking, unsettling, and twisted look at job market struggles, dark capitalism, and humanity's chilling fascination with brutality. The subject matter won't be for everyone, but 'Nightcrawler' is easily one of 2014's most engaging thrillers, and this disc from Universal is easily one of the month's most powerful releases.
So, there you have it. While there were 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?