'Tis the season for taking part in that long, time-honored tradition of sharing an unsolicited "Best of List." And while these lists were relatively easy to create back in the HD Blu-ray days, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray is an entirely new beast. For starters, 4K resolution is important and all, but when we start adding source material and sitting distance into that equation, the resolution conversation is pretty moot and trivial. Ultimately, the real benefit of the Ultra HD format is the improved high dynamic range (HDR), which is the difference between how bright and dark an image can display, and the expanded array of colors (WCG – wider color gamut) available in that same image.
In other words, while not always "sharper", 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays offer the promise of improved contrast and more vivid colors. As such, here are our picks for the best 2017 4K Blu-rays that make the most of the HDR/WCG format and should be among your go-to demo discs.
Expanding on the mythology of the wizarding universe, Fantastic Beasts introduces a new brand of hero in the reluctantly timid and neurotically insecure Newt Scamander. And on Ultra HD, J.K. Rowling's whimsically fantastical world truly comes alive, oozing with rich, velvety midnight blacks and a magical array of sumptuous colors. Inside Newt's suitcase, we are treated to a starry-eyed picturesque vision straight from a dream, but the film's last third when Porpentina and our hero stand on a rooftop is the best demo-worthy moment. The brightly-lit sign standing behind them is the perfect example for demonstrating what HDR is actually all about, as the incandescent bulbs radiate with crisp, tight specular highlights without sacrificing the minute details within the most intensely brilliant areas.
Ten years after their award-winning nature documentary series, BBC returned with another awe-inspiring six-episode sequel, Planet Earth II. Produced intentionally for 4K Ultra HD using the latest camera technology, the doc delivers the most jaw-droppingly razor-sharp details ever seen on home video, taking audiences to some of the harshest environs on Earth. Pick any random scene in its 360-minute runtime and gasp at the distinct minuscule veins of leaves, the microscopic edges of insects' exoskeletons, the ultra-fine filaments in individual feathers, the rugged, jagged bumps in every reptile's scaly body and the rough textured fur coat of each animal with remarkable lifelike realism. From beginning to end, the 2160p video is an endlessly dazzling, hypnotizing feast for the eyes, washing the screen in a smorgasbord of vibrant colors.
Honestly, Ang Lee's war drama is arguably the weakest film on the list, thanks to a clichéd, derivative plot about a young soldier returning home to a hero's welcome. However, as Shannon Nutt pointed out, it will not likely be remembered outside its experimental filming style. Shot exclusively on the Sony CineAlta F65 digital camera system, Lee and cinematographer John Toll decided on taking advantage of the camera's full potential and filmed the whole thing in 4K resolution at 120 frames-per-second (fps). On Ultra HD disc, producers, once again, took full advantage of the format by releasing it at 60fps in 12-bit color depth and 4:2:2 chroma sampling. If one can overlook the strange digital video effect, the result is one of the most fascinating hyper-realistic 4K presentation available and the best disc for testing a display's true capabilities.
After his career hit an embarrassing snag in the early part of the century, controversial filmmaker Mel Gibson makes a surprising comeback with this impressively stirring war drama. Based on the life of Army medic Desmond T. Doss, the plot follows a young pacifist struggling to remain true to his religious convictions while at the height of WWII. The poignantly powerful film is brought to life on Ultra HD thanks to a stunningly beautiful 4K presentation that reveals the tiniest piece of debris, fragment, and rubble with remarkable detail. But what earns this disc a spot on the list is the superbly brilliant contrast and dazzling specular highlights, which maintain exceptional clarity and visibility within the brightest, hottest areas of explosions. Needless to say, the chaotic scenes of battle are pure demo material.
Gathering inspiration from the current trend of reality TV talent shows, Illumination Entertainment takes to the stage with this anthropomorphic tale of discovering talent in the most unusually normal of places, the unconventionally ordinary and the most uncommonly mundane. Filling the screen with familiar stock characters living clichéd, formulaic lives, the animated musical offers little surprises but nonetheless makes for easy entertainment. The contest's glitz and glamor steal the 4K spotlight with a squeaky-clean, highly-detailed encode, exposing the minute and meticulous features of every scene. The screen is awash in a wide array of colors, from richly saturated primaries to sumptuous pastels that light up the lives of the characters. With crisp, radiant whites and silky, inky-rich blacks, the video makes this title worth the purchase.
Although it doesn't quite capture the same level of heart-warming enthusiasm as its predecessor, directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud still manage to deliver plenty of unexpected goody laughs and silly charm in this sequel. While introducing a new character into the mix, Gru's new adventure is about balancing parenthood and a career as a spy working for the good guys, but a major source of merriment comes from those yellow, pill-shaped Minions. Gru and the girls battle villains, boys and mutant minions in gorgeous, eye-catching Dolby Vision, showcasing a lavish display of pastels and resplendent primaries. Pick any random scene and the screen lights up with significantly brighter contrast, outstanding highlights that provide a realistic sparkle and luxurious blacks, making this a superb, reference-quality 4K presentation.
Arguably, the most surprising film on the list. A reboot of the martial arts superheroes based on the widely popular 90s television series, the plot brings together five unruly, misunderstood outcasts to discover their disruptive, defiant feelings of angst are actually a deep-rooted energy source for fighting a scene-chewing Elizabeth Banks. On Ultra HD Blu-ray, the mighty morphing power rangers battle to save Earth equipped with a striking, reference-quality Dolby Vision encode, and like the title above, this gorgeously vibrant 4K presentation radiates with a lush array of colors, especially when the kids don their costumes. Contrast is crisper and tighter with better detailing within the brightest areas while silky blacks provide a three-dimensional, cinematic appeal, delivering several looking-out-the-window sequences that make this a must-own.
Christopher Nolan rapidly grew to prominence after a pair of impressive psychological thrillers, making one box-office hit after another. Now, fans can own a collection of his greatest hits on Ultra HD in this convenient 21-disc box set. Granted, Inception and Batman Begins are the weakest in the bunch, but they are still a nice improvement over their Blu-ray counterparts. The other five discs, on the other hand, offer beautiful 4K presentations with The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises being the stand out discs to own, delivering exceptional black levels and specular highlights that make certain sequences as if watching the action erupt on actual film. Dunkirk and Interstellar are close behind with razor-sharp images, and The Prestige benefits nicely from the HDR and wider color gamut, making any or the whole set highly recommended.
What else could possibly be said about Ridley Scott's flawed but massively influential sci-fi work of art? With themes exploring what it means to be human and our innate fear of death, Scott plunges his audience into a dystopic vision of Los Angeles cluttered with haunting, somber visuals that are as lovely to gaze upon as they are melancholic. With all the other titles being recent releases that translate well to the 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray, it's nice to see a 35-year-old film benefit from high-dynamic range and a wider color gamut. Amazingly, Blade Runner is a stunner to behold, serving as the perfect demo disc of what can be accomplished when the still relatively new format is utilized with care. With improved colors, brightly crisp highlights and more dynamic contrast, no 4K library is complete without this cult neo-noir sci-fi classic.
This timeless tale of friendship almost immediately grew to become the hallmark film of the 1980s, a pop-culture phenomenon that defined the decade. Celebrating its 35th Anniversary this past year, Steven Spielberg's masterpiece remains the heartwarming tearjerker families watch together, ranking as one of the greatest films ever made. Now available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, the classic sci-fi family drama has gained a new lease on life, sure to expand its shelf life for another thirty-five years. And like the other sci-fi classic above, the beauty of seeing E.T. in 4K is not only the marked improvement in definition and resolution but also enjoying the brighter true-to-life whites, the exceptional specular highlights, and the richer black levels. Proving once again what can be done when HDR is applied with care to older films, this UHD BLu-ray is another must-own.
Despicable Me 3 (Dolby Vision)