High-Def Digest's Essential Picks: December 2014

Posted Fri Jan 2, 2015 at 10:02 AM PST by
Essentials December

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 comedy about two best friends who go undercover, a detective series about two best friends who solve crimes, and a campy comic book classic about two best friends who dress up in spandex. 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, and November 2014.

For December, we're covering a rag-tag group of space outlaws, monkeys who ride horses, and a golden age Hollywood classic.  Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are some SPOILERS for the discs listed.

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...

'Guardians of the Galaxy' - First things first, I have a confession to make. Despite growing up on a healthy assortment of Marvel comics and cartoons, before watching this flick… I had absolutely no idea who the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' were. I know, shameful, right? But then again, I think I'm hardly alone in this fact. You see, unlike those lining up to see Captain American and Hulk battle aliens in 'The Avengers,' I'm sure the vast majority of moviegoers who bought tickets for the big-screen debut of Star Lord and company had zero familiarity with the characters beforehand. But relative obscurity is but a minor obstacle for Marvel, and the lack of franchise recognition did nothing to stop the movie from becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year. And just how did the studio manage such an incredible feat? Three words: "I am Groot."

While it might not seem like it now, in many ways this was an extremely risky project. We've got an unknown group of intergalactic heroes, an inspired but decidedly idiosyncratic choice for director, and very little real star power in the cast -- but somehow James Gunn manages to blend his quirky sensibilities with Marvel's mainstream appeal, coming away with one of the best sci-fi space operas this side of 'Star Wars.' Thanks to his charming performance as Star Lord, Chris Pratt is now a genuine A-list movie star, and his charismatic personality really helps to ground the film's emotional core. Despite growing up in space, Peter Quill is one of Marvel's most down-to-earth heroes, and this snarky everyman quality immediately endears him to the audience, injecting the proceedings with an infectiously playful sense of humor, creating a flick that knows exactly when to take things seriously and when to make Kevin Bacon jokes. The rest of the rag-tag cast of space outlaws are equally appealing, and by the time the credits roll, Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot become an amusingly dysfunctional family, offering an effortlessly entertaining introduction to the cosmic side of Marvel's cinematic universe.

It's one thing to produce hit movies featuring well-known comic book heroes, but it's another to turn a genuinely obscure property into a mainstream success -- and with 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Marvel and James Gunn do just that. Funny, action-packed, and full of memorable characters, the film is among the studio's very best, and there's nary a star-spangled shield or goateed Robert Downey Jr. anywhere in sight. Thankfully, this Blu-ray comes complete with a demo worthy technical presentation and some great supplements. One of the year's most enjoyable flicks is now one of the year's best discs, making this release an absolute must own. Hell, even ignoring the exciting space battles, clever one-liners, and kick ass effects, the movie is worth a purchase for its music soundtrack alone… and I can't wait to hear what's on Star Lord's Awesome Mix Vol. 2 in 2017. 


'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - 3D' - There are two fathers. Both are struggling to survive in a hostile world. Both desperately attempt to maintain peace. Both are compassionate and righteous. Both care deeply for their loved ones. Both would sacrifice everything to ensure their family's safety. There are two fathers… but only one is a man. The other is a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee who can ride a horse. On paper it sounds rather ridiculous, but following in the original 1968 film's footsteps, director Matt Reeves is able to inject the idea with rich allegory and truly affecting drama, creating a cast of ape characters that feel real and fully developed. Through man and ape's parallel stories, who bear witness to the seeds of inevitable war, casting a tragic reflection of cyclical misunderstanding, fear, and violence between both species, proving that the line between human and animal, and animal and human is far thinner than either party would like to believe.

In the past, motion capture performances have resulted in some very convincing creatures and even several engaging supporting characters, but with 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,' the Weta animators, Andy Serkis, and the rest of the mocap actors take the process to an entirely new level, creating an ensemble of fully believable and absorbing ape leads that end up carrying the emotional drama of the story.  Don't get me wrong, Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman all do good work as the human stars, but this is undeniably Serkis' show. Expanding upon the role he developed in the previous film, the actor creates a layered protagonist who becomes conflicted by his duty to his species and his desire for peace. With facial gestures, body language, posture, and key lines of dialogue, the motion capture performers are able to convey all the nuances of their characters' complicated emotions and the unexpected intricacies of ape politics. And beyond the surprisingly deep narrative, the movie also doesn't skimp out on big budget Hollywood thrills, offering some great action set-pieces, including a climactic battle bathed in the moody red and orange glaze of an escalating fire… with apes on horses… firing machine guns. Even Charlton Heston never had to deal with that.

Expanding upon the groundwork laid out in its predecessor, this sequel evolves the story and characters exponentially, taking us several steps closer to the inevitable Planet of the Apes that we all know and love. Filled with genuinely interesting themes related to spiraling conflict and tragic misunderstandings, the movie offers a perfect mixture of thoughtful drama and big screen thrills. With a great 3D presentation, immersive audio, and worthwhile extras, this Blu-ray from Fox does the film justice, easily earning Caesar a much deserved spot on this month's list.


'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' - Hollywood is full of stories featuring heroic leads standing up against mounting injustice and seemingly impossible odds, but very few stars can sell an underdog victory quite like the great Jimmy Stewart. Similarly, very few directors can weave such a tale better than the legendary Frank Capra. And when they both get together? Well, cynics better steer clear! Full of wide-eyed idealism, that special "Capra-corn" charm, and even a little extra bite, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is a true golden age classic -- one that remains surprisingly relevant today. A career-defining film for both its star and director, the movie presents a perfect coupling of silver screen talents banded together to fight the good fight against the perils of corruption and cinematic mediocrity!

Like a modern day Don Quixote, Jeff Smith (James Stewart) is a true idealist ready to do whatever it takes to expose the rotten apples that threaten our democracy. All he wants to do is represent his people fairly and help establish a national camp for young boys. Sounds like a pretty noble endeavor, right? Sadly, his plan clashes with the corrupt machinations of Washington, and just as his crooked adversaries are about to chew him up and spit him out, Jeff jumps to his feet and suddenly we have ourselves a good old fashioned… filibuster! Never has standing in one place and talking endlessly to prove a point ever been so stimulating or inspiring, and I truly do mean that sincerely. The film's climactic congressional stand-off easily ranks among Hollywood's greatest moments, and Stewart and Capra rally us all toward Smith's side with rousing gusto. While our modern day political strife hinges heavily on the disparities between party lines, here the filmmakers reveal that our true political enemy has little to do with disagreements on the issues themselves. Instead, the real problems are the rampant lies, immoral dealings, and greedy maneuvers that happen on both sides of the aisle. In fact, the words democrat and republican are never even uttered in the movie. Those distinctions simply don't matter. On one side, there's the corrupt, and on the other, there's Jeff… and with Capra calling the shots, my money is definitely on Jeff.
Truly inspiring without ever being simplistic, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is an esteemed classic and a genuinely important film. Through Capra's expose on political corruption, the director reminds us how democracy is supposed to be run, and while the filmmaker's trademark idealism is present in full swing, the movie also packs a pretty healthy bite and pulls no punches. Seriously, just ask the lying reporters that get in Mr. Smith's way. For its 75th Anniversary, Sony has put together an exceptional Blu-ray, complete with a beautifully restored transfer taken from a 4K remaster and a fantastic collection of special features -- offering fans a release that is definitely worth standing up for.


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?

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Tags: High-Def Digest Essential Picks, Essential Picks, Fun Stuff, Steven Cohen (all tags)