by Drew Taylor
Where has the year gone? Oh right, watching movies. Well, as 'Ferris Bueller' said, "Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." That roughly translates to, "Take a look at the best Blu-rays a few times a year." And guess what – it's that time!
1.) Che (Criterion)
In 2008 Steven Soderbergh delivered 'Che,' an uncompromising, two-part portrait of the insurrectionist, revolutionary, and guerrilla warrior Che Guevara. Like the man himself, the film (its two parts labeled 'The Argentine' and 'Guerrilla') was squabbled over, with critics finding it alternately exhilarating and frustrating (particularly polarizing was the film's the second half – the cinematic equivalent of a long slog through the South American jungle). Some critics were gunning for it before its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, calling into question the director's hubris at making such a long historical film. When it was finally released, it was sometimes presented as a "roadshow" attraction, with both halves being linked by the now-famous 'map' intermission. Elsewhere, it played as two separate movies (as well as being available from IFC's On Demand pay cable channel). In all the hubbub about how it was shown and where you could see it, a real discussion of the work itself (a towering, brazen, unforgettable accomplishment) faded away. Thankfully, Criterion (through their partnership with IFC which has brought about some of the year's best Blu-rays – and will continue to throughout this year) set things right with their gorgeous, two-disc set which is the closest thing we'll ever get to that original roadshow presentation (complete with the map intermission). With a host of special features that investigate the history of the real-life Che (John Lee Anderson, whose indispensible biography, 'Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life' was the movie's foundation, provides an invaluable commentary track) and the film's own revolutionary moments, like being the first film shot on the RED Camera (which has since shot everything from 'District 9' to David Fincher's forthcoming Facebook movie, 'The Social Network'). On the same tip, the transfer is absolutely breathtaking. And you won't find a more open and honest portrait of a filmmaker letdown and frustrated by his own efforts than on the disc's voluminous extras, where he candidly suggests that maybe all the hard work and heartache of 'Che' wasn't worth it. I'm here to say that yes, it was. People will be looking at this movie for years to come. Or, at the very least, I will.
2.) Avatar (Fox)
Let the haters hate (that's what haters do, after all), but 'Avatar' continues its juggernaut-like reign on everyone's favorite high definition home video format. Here's why, even if you don't think that James Cameron's emotionally resonant sci-fi spectacle is the bee's knees (because, well, it is), you should be happy with 'Avatar' and its beautiful presentation on home video: It's selling a ton of Blu-rays and, so with it, Blu-ray players. As much as we'd like to think that everyone feels inclined to go pick up a new piece of home entertainment hardware that will set them back hundreds of dollars - that just isn't the case. But when people get a look at 'Avatar,' with its peerless audio and video (aspect ratio debate aside), the true power of the Blu-ray format becomes illuminated. To say nothing of the re-playability of the film, which seems to get better (or at least more fun) with every passing viewing. On Blu-ray the world of Pandora looks brighter and more alive and you're able to take in all the aspects of subtle storytelling work that went into this monolithic achievement. Even after its stellar theatrical 3-D run it continues to be an envelope-pushing technological game changer by selling a reluctant audience on an entirely new home video format (one that we already love, obviously). And that's just swell.
3.) Foreign Films on Blu-ray (Various)
There was always a fear, in my mind at least, that there would be some niche avenues of film that would get forgotten or glossed over in the high definition world. One of these, I surmised, would be foreign language films, many of which do not contain the fast moving action and elaborate special effects that are marked by some as the hallmarks of the new format. It seems I was an idiot. (The sound you just heard was the forums erupting in wild applause.) In these past four months we have seen a handful of stellar releases (mostly from the fine folks at Criterion and Sony's art house arm Sony Picture Classics), including but not limited to 'Revanche,' 'Broken Embraces,' 'Red Cliff,' 'Summer Hours' and 'The Baader Meinhof Complex.' What's even more promising is that some wonderful older titles have also seen the high definition light of day, including 'Vivre Sa Vie,' '8 ½' and 'Fallen Angels.' Throw in that Chan-wook Park 'Vengeance' trilogy (currently a Best Buy exclusive but out next month for everybody) and you've got a pretty impressive line-up of both contemporary and classic world cinema. The cynics among you will claim that this is mostly because Sony, who created the Blu-ray format and remain its biggest cheerleader/pusher/supporter/whatever, wants to reach its slimy corporate tentacles into the fans of art house and foreign films and sell them on the promise of Blu-ray. This may be true. But whatever the reason, I'm just glad to have these films on Blu-ray. They're enough to enhance any library (and may even forgive that copy of 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' sitting on your shelf).
4.) In the Loop (MPI)
If the merit to be a part of this list is based solely on how many times I've re-watched a certain Blu-ray, than Armando Iannucci's hilarious, Academy Award-nominated 'In the Loop' deserves to be on this list, maybe at the top. The gleefully profane comedy, a kind of Bush-era 'Dr. Strangelove' (which makes it both timely and somewhat dated) about the lead up to the Iraq War, milks the faux documentary style, recently made popular by filmmakers like Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais, for every awkward possibility. And it probably ends up being closer to reality than most documentaries about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the invasion. Peter Capaldi, as the Prime Minister's chief wag Malcolm Tucker, has gone a long way in creating a timeless comedy icon, and every F-bomb he drops resonates like a nuclear device. Or some other theoretical WMD. I recommend this movie for countless and different reasons: because you're tired of neat-and-tidy Hollywood comedies, because you want to see something with teeth, and because you want to laugh til you have some sort of bodily function accident. Just talking about it makes me want to watch it again. Be back in 90 minutes.
5.) The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox)
When I saw Wes Anderson's 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' at a press screening last fall, I wasn't exactly sure what to think of it. After all, Anderson is, for better or sometimes worse, the maestro of quirk. The fact that he was applying his singular style to a children's film seemed like something of an odd fit. It was cute, to be sure, but would it really stand up on repeated viewings, like 'Rushmore' or 'Bottle Rocket' or 'The Royal Tenenbaums?' Well, the answer is yes. In fact, I'm now of the opinion that 'Fantastic Mr. Fox,' a gorgeously realized work of stop motion wizardry, is among the director's finest accomplishments. Stop motion benefits greatly from the intricacy of the high definition image (as 'Nightmare Before Christmas' and 'Coraline' have proven) and revisiting 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' is a visual delight, a contraption that keeps revealing new secrets and hidden detail. But the unexpected joy comes from the film's screenplay, which is deceptively dry and oh-so-hilarious. Who knew that George Clooney's finest performance of last year would come not as a travel-addicted axe man but as a rakish animated animal?
As dazzling as the stop motion of 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' looks and as the computer generated films continue to impress on Blu-ray ('How to Train Your Dragon' is on my shortlist for most anticipated high definition home video releases for the rest of the year and the two 'Toy Story' films, released this year on Blu-ray, are highlights to be sure), there's something to be said about how fantastic old school traditional animation looks on the format. These two films, both adaptations of classic fairy tales told in wildly different ways (one a traditionally Japanese translation, the other a Cajun-fried take), looked beyond phenomenal in high definition. And they're also truly astonishing cinematic accomplishments, too. 'Ponyo' is easily Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's best, most touching film since 'Spirited Away,' and 'Princess and the Frog,' Disney's long-awaited return to hand drawn animation is a rip roaring princess story for a new generation, with killer songs and an all-time great Disney villain in the form of Keith David's lithe Dr. Facilier, The Shadow Man. Both films are true testaments to the singular cinematic magic of traditional animation.
8.) Gangs of New York (Remastered) (Disney)
There were two Martin Scorsese reissues put out on Blu-ray. One was a shameful cash-in that did nothing to improve the previous release, besides tack on a handful of forgettable extras. Then there was another one that improved in every way on its previous iteration, upping the visual and audio quotient in exponential ways and, granted, some new special features would have been nice (maybe a retrospective documentary on there), the overall feel of the release is one of real reverence and respect for a future classic. 'Gangs of New York' is the latter release. When it was released, Martin Scorsese's period epic, about warring urban tribes in turn-of-the-century Manhattan (his first film with Leo), was met with quizzical stares. Was this the movie he had really been working on for 20 years? Well, yes. And while it isn't the flawless masterpiece it maybe could have been, it is a challenging, whip-smart, bloody violent film that can now, finally, be appreciated in glorious high definition form. (The 2008 release has rightfully been discontinued.) With 'There Will Be Blood,' Daniel Day-Lewis took everybody's breath away, but I'd argue that his performance here as Bill the Butcher is just as breathtaking, if not as nuanced or layered. As they say in hoary advertisements, watch it again, for the first time.
9.) Michael Jackson: This Is It (Sony)
There were a lot of great music Blu-ray releases put out in this quarter ('Soul Power' among them), but the grandiose and occasionally ghoulish Michael Jackson release, chronicling his planned but never executed comeback tour, is still my favorite. The songs are as good as ever, giving any pro-level surround sound system a proper workout, and the movie (a minor masterpiece of editorial craftsmanship) is just as strong and just as weird as it was in the theaters. Oh, and that special feature on the making of his costumes remains one of my favorite documentaries of the year. Now if only we could get 'Captain Eo' in high definition…
10.) The House of the Devil (Dark Sky Films)
Ti West's teeny tiny horror treat 'The House of the Devil,' a nifty throwback to both the babysitter-alone-in-the-house and devil-cult-worship sub-genres of the late 70s and early 80s, is one of the strongest Blu-ray releases of the year thus far for a couple of reasons, but first and foremost is the fact that the high definition format does nothing to betray the feeling that you really are watching a battered old horror movie from that time period, one you've probably rescued from bottom shelf obscurity from your local video store. (Some promotional copies of the movie came with a VHS copy, complete with the oversized box favored by cheapie horror fare of yesteryear.) The other big reason to recommend 'House of the Devil' is that it really is the rare scary movie that gets better the more times you watch it. And it's a perfect flick to pull out when your movie illiterate buddies say, "They don't make really scary movies anymore!" This ought to shut them up.
And thats the list for now. Stay tuned for further updates later on this year!