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 stop-motion fairy tale, a slippery lawyer, and the approaching winds of winter. 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, July 2015, August 2015, September 2015, October 2015, November 2015, December 2015, January 2016, February 2016, March 2016, April 2016, May 2016, June 2016, July 2016, August 2016, September 2016, October 2016, and November 2016.
For December, we're covering a classic Hollywood heist flick, a miracle on the Hudson, and a bittersweet comedy. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are some SPOILERS for the discs listed.
If you only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in December, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'The Asphalt Jungle' - I've never attempted to pull off a complicated jewel robbery, but if I ever did, I'd probably give 'The Asphalt Jungle' a few more viewings beforehand. One of Hollywood's quintessential heist flicks, the film has helped to lay the groundwork for an entire subset of crime cinema, offering a veritable checklist of classic caper conventions. But more than just an enduring blueprint for silver screen burglary, the film remains one of the genre's very best efforts … even if its characters prove to be a little less successful in their getaway.
Directed by the great John Huston, the movie is marked by an appropriately noir-influenced narrative and shooting style mixed in with a few more naturalistic flourishes, adding a surprisingly human element to the runtime's carefully escalating caper thrills. To this end, the film offers a healthy dose of shadowy imagery and hardboiled slang along with more restrained images and nuanced character moments, allowing us to get to know the gang a bit more beyond their standard heist flick archetypes. For instance, Huston often lingers on smaller, fleeting details to add a little personality to the proceedings, including a moment where one character flips through a bikini calendar and another wipes her fake eyelashes off as she cries. These personal, comparatively raw elements and interactions all help to flesh out the ensemble's quirks as we follow them through the crime's careful planning, gripping theft, and suspenseful aftermath -- complete with plenty of double-crosses and bullet holes.
A truly pioneering crime flick, 'The Asphalt Jungle' cements many of the heist genre's defining elements (several of which were later expanded upon and arguably perfected in Jules Dassin's very similar 1955 classic, 'Rififi') while still retaining powerful characterizations and thoughtful themes. And thankfully, this Blu-ray release from Criterion gives the movie the special treatment it deserves with a stellar technical presentation and an extensive collection of supplements. A clear must own, this is required viewing for any film buff… or burgeoning jewel thief.
'Sully' - When adapting true life tales to the big screen, there's always a fine line between respecting the source material and creating an engaging experience. On the one hand, you want to make sure that the runtime is cinematically potent, but on the other, you don't want to run the risk of overly sensationalizing real events. Skirting this line with effortless poise, Clint Eastwood's 'Sully' offers a refreshingly modest and sobering account of the "Miracle on the Hudson," fully paying tribute to the film's subjects without sacrificing affecting drama.
Played with quiet dignity and low-key depth, Tom Hanks anchors the movie beautifully as the title character, imbuing the role with a kind of everyman grandeur. But as powerful as Sully's steadfast competency and calmness under pressure prove to be, the film does not shy away from his pangs of self-doubt and stress, illuminating the personal strains caused by the media storm and investigation following the crash. On this note, the runtime mixes subtle character study with courtroom drama, brief flashbacks to Sully's youth and, of course, the harrowing water landing itself. But rather than show us the crash in just one chunk, Eastwood actually chooses to piece it together in extended fragments from different perspectives, offering a powerfully understated approach to the action that feels real and visceral without becoming overly bombastic for the cameras, letting the incredible reality of the event speak for itself.
Avoiding unnecessary flash in its performances, narrative, and aesthetic approach, 'Sully' offers an atypically subdued and delicate look at a truly extraordinary event, creating a gently affecting and inspiring tale about understated heroism and working together. Coupled with a great video transfer and Dolby Atmos soundtrack, this disc easily lands a spot on December's essentials.
'Don't Think Twice' - Fully playing up the bitter and sweet in bittersweet, Mike Birbiglia's 'Don't Think Twice' is one of the most biting and insightful dramedies I've seen in quite some time. Through the story of a New York improv group, the director examines the precarious effects of success on friendship while probing deeply into general concepts related to jealousy, self-worth, adulthood, growth, happiness, and failure.
When one member of an improvisational comedy troupe, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), books a gig on a Saturday Night Live-esque show, the once happy gang is suddenly overwrought with turmoil. As the group gradually turns on itself, Birbiglia blends a generous helping of cringe-worthy laughs with poignant bursts of heartbreaking pathos, revealing the deep flaws and insecurities that rest at the heart of his characters. In Jack's success, all his friends can see are their own failures, causing each member to question their life trajectory. Increasingly engaging as the runtime goes on, the evolving (or devolving) friendships create a striking portrait of artistic struggle, delusion, self-absorption, and envy, without ever making any of the characters unlikeable or one dimensional. Instead, Birbiglia and the stellar cast allow us to understand their choices and motivations. And going along with the improv premise, the filmmakers employ a complementary visual style, using free flowing camera movements that constantly sway about the stage during the group's performances, keeping the framing just as unpredictable and fluid as the comedy.
A raw, honest, and heartfelt look at mounting resentment, dwindling dreams, strained relationships, and persistent passion, 'Don't Think Twice' reveals the hardships of comedy. Funny and poignant, the film runs the full emotional gamut, all while maintaining a consistent and unique voice. In other words, for comedy aficionados this is one release that you don't have to "think twice" about purchasing… yeah, there's a reason I don't do improv.
So, there you have it. While there were many titles worth picking up this December, 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 December's must own titles?