High-Def Digest's Essential Picks: December 2012

Posted Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 10:00 AM PST by

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.

Last month we spotlighted a 70mm epic, a classic Hollywood noir, and an amazing comic book reboot. If you haven't already, be sure to check out November's Essential Picks. This month, we're covering an underwater animated adventure, a blockbuster trilogy's grand conclusion, and an eccentric sci-fi satire. If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in December, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...

'Finding Nemo' - I have a confession to make. Before its Blu-ray release earlier this month, I somehow made it through the past decade without ever seeing 'Finding Nemo.' This wasn't a conscious decision, mind you, as I've always heard nothing but good things about the flick, but the film just somehow continually slipped under my radar. Thankfully, I've now remedied this oversight, and after recently watching the movie for the first time, I've been left with a big old smile on my face (and a lingering bittersweet tear in my eye). Nobody understands family entertainment quite like Pixar, and their heartfelt and hilarious underwater tale about fathers, sons, and neurotic fish shows us exactly why.

The movie opens with one of the most devastating sequences I've ever seen in a Disney film. In fact, it's so heartbreaking that I was almost sure the writers would eventually find a way to undo it, to take it back, to somehow reveal that what we thought we saw was merely a trick. They don't. In fact, not only does the tragedy stick, but its ramifications go on to inform the thematic core of the entire story. You see, unwilling to talk down to their audience, Pixar doesn't shy away from potentially sad or painful emotions. Instead, they delicately use them to fuel the narrative, giving the characters believable motivations while simultaneously infusing the script with universal, relatable struggles. Tackling the hardships of parenthood and the necessities of letting go, the writers weave a perfectly structured journey for our protagonists to embark on, placing an overprotective clownfish on a journey to find his lost son.

While some of my preceding comments might make the film sound a bit gloomy, that couldn't be further from the truth. This is a joyous, hysterical, and genuinely heartwarming effort through and through. Filled with striking creativity, the filmmakers put a fun spin on the underwater world, layering each location with bright detail. From surfer sea turtles, to memory deficient fish, each character is absolutely bursting with personality. Clever jokes and exciting chases pervade the running time, and every thrilling set piece is carefully designed to further the protagonists' developing arcs. The colorful atmosphere of the sea is rendered through gorgeous animation, and thankfully the Blu-ray features demo worthy video and audio. With its all-ages appeal, thoroughly entertaining adventure, touching conclusion, and impressive technical presentation, 'Finding Nemo' is easily December's top title. Simply put, this is the type of release that should only engender one thought as you lock eyes with it on a shelf... "Mine? Mine! Mine! Mine!"

'The Dark Knight Rises' - While it might not be the flawless conclusion that some fans were hoping for, there's no denying that Christopher Nolan ends his 'Dark Knight' trilogy with reasonable style, class, and an appropriate sense of grandeur. Taking Bruce Wayne's story full circle, the director offers a unified and surprisingly finite take on the iconic character, closing the book on his very successful interpretation of the Caped Crusader. Yes, there are some notable issues throughout the runtime, including lapses in logic, pacing concerns, clunky plotting, muddled themes, unnecessary spectral cameos, and an eye-rolling shout-out to a certain boy wonder, but I found most of these faults to be forgivable -- especially whenever Anne Hathaway is on-screen.

In one form or another, Batman has been around for over seventy years. Throughout that span, countless creative teams have left their mark on the character, continually elaborating on, re-imagining, and re-inventing his world. While we all might have our favorites, there can be no real definitive version of Bruce Wayne and his crime fighting alter ego. After all, the comic book exploits of legendary superheroes are fated to continue indefinitely, and it's unlikely that DC's Dark Knight will ever get a true final issue -- but with the conclusion of his three film trilogy, Christopher Nolan is given a rather unprecedented opportunity. He actually gets to give Batman an ending. It's not perfect, and it might not be what some expected, but taken as a whole, the 'Dark Knight' series offers a satisfying, thrilling, and intelligent example of pop entertainment done right. The future of the franchise is pretty much up in the air at the moment (and further complicated by Warner's seemingly ill-conceived 'Justice League' plans) but the film serves as a fitting swan song for Nolan's striking vision... incoherent Bane mumblings aside.

How the 'The Dark Knight Rises' stacks up against the series' previous entries is debatable, but this is certainly one of the month's most hotly anticipated releases. Coupled with a strong soundtrack and an impressive video transfer (those IMAX scenes look spectacular!) the film earns a clear spot in December's essential picks. Also, as a side note, fans of Nolan's blockbuster efforts should definitely check out Criterion's recent release of 'Following,' the director's independent debut. It might not have the home theater allure of his final 'Batman' outing, but in many ways, I actually think it's the better movie.

'Brazil' - Few Terry Gilliam productions make their way to screens without some form of backstage controversy -- and his satirical science fiction masterpiece, 'Brazil,' is certainly no different. Subject to infamous studio tweaking (including a wisely abandoned "love conquers all" version), the film's release has quite a divisive history. Thankfully, in the end, Gilliam's vision prevailed, mercifully sparing the world from having to witness a butchered edit of his maddening opus. A dark, witty, disturbing, and at times even whimsical descent into Orwellian dreams and nightmares, the movie is funny, haunting, and utterly bizarre all at once. Also, it gets bonus points for featuring Robert De Niro as some kind of heroic air conditioning repairman. Yes, you read that correctly. This film is weird. Oh so wonderfully weird.

Presenting a dystopian satire on the inherent insanities of never-ending bureaucracy, incompetent totalitarian government, and soul-crushing industrial society, the script offers a biting, comedic take on many of the concepts found in George Orwell's classic novel, '1984.' Mixing absurdist humor with occasionally goofy, slapstick sensibilities, Gilliam creates a darkly farcical tone that often blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Captured in dizzying wide angle images, the visuals are frequently exaggerated and distorted, perfectly reinforcing the story's own manic and erratic beats. By the time the film's dizzying climax comes around, it becomes clear that we've entered a surreal fever dream gleefully hatched by a trio of insanely brilliant Brits. Masked by its deceptively jaunty theme music, the movie maintains a pitch-black underbelly throughout its sardonic runtime, and as funny as the whole affair can be, there really is an unsettling edge to the experience. Concluding with a bittersweet retreat into escapist fantasy, the film leaves us with the sorrowful sound of blissful madness tragically aching for romance -- all modestly captured in seemingly harmless verse...

"Brazil, when stars were entertaining June, we stood beneath an amber moon. And softly murmured someday soon..."

Previously released by Universal, this new Criterion disc offers a solid upgrade with improved video and a plethora of great special features. While it might not have the mass appeal of the previous two picks in this list, the movie is a definite must own for fans of more off-the-wall, out-of-the-box filmmaking. For those still in need of a bit more convincing, however, be sure to check out the clip below for three more reasons to pick this title up, straight from the horse's mouth.

So, there you have it. While there are 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 selections? What are your choices for December's must own titles?

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Tags: Fun Stuff, High-Def Retailing, Steven Cohen , High-Def Digest Essentials (all tags)