High-Def Digest's Essential Picks: June 2016

Posted Thu Jun 30, 2016 at 08:00 AM PDT by
june 2016 essential picks

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 "merc with a mouth," a classic film noir, and an explosive blockbuster. Be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November 2012December 2012January 2013,February 2013, March 2013, April 2013May 2013June 2013July 2013August 2013September 2013October 2013November 2013, December 2013, January 2014February 2014March 2014April 2014May 2014June 2014July 2014August 2014September 2014October 2014November 2014,December 2014January 2015February 2015March 2015April 2015May 2015June 2015July 2015August 2015, September 2015, October 2015, November 2015, December 2015, January 2016, February 2016, March 2016, April 2016, and May 2016.

For June, we're covering a classic political satire, a genre-bending suspense film, and a stop-motion anomaly.  Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are some MAJOR SPOILERS for the discs listed.  

If you only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in June, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...

'Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Criterion)' - With the right tone, even the most serious and potentially terrifying subject matter can be funny. In fact, it can be downright hilarious. Using dark humor to brilliantly lampoon and dissect Cold War fears, Stanley Kubrick's 'Dr. Strangelove' remains one of the quintessential examples of this paradoxical cinematic phenomenon, resulting in one of the silver screen's most enduring and enlightening political satires.

Using the threat of nuclear annihilation as its backdrop, the film points out the inherent absurdities related to "mutual assured destruction," creating a seemingly ridiculous doomsday scenario that is distressingly plausible within its matter-of-fact insanity. To this end, for much of the runtime, Kubrick mostly plays it straight, both with his aesthetic and even with his tone, implying just the right intonation of sardonic humor to tip the scales into comedy. Visually, the movie employs many stylistic techniques usually more closely associated with dramas, including dramatic low angle shots and extended takes with frequently static shots. In fact, with just a few narrative and performance tweaks, the film could have come across as a genuine thriller -- but instead of playing up the drama, Kubrick highlights the innate contradictions and irrationality of the situation through pitch black comedy. Longer takes, specific cuts, and careful reaction shots help to draw out this subversive humor, perfectly guiding the movie's rhythm as the script gradually escalates once deadly serious conversations into childish lunacy. Peter Seller's emergency phone call with the Soviet premier, Dimitri Kissov, is a perfect example, as the President is forced to assure the sensitive premier that he would indeed call "just to say hello" -- that is, if the world wasn't under the threat of complete destruction.     

Through subtle juxtapositions that pit serious dangers against mundane problems (one character doesn't have enough change to call the Pentagon to stop the attack) and increasingly absurd behavior, Kubrick crafts a deadpan satire that eventually embraces more overt jabs at farcical comedy -- including a notable appearance from the film's infamous title character. A disturbingly hilarious examination of just how close we could have been to nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, 'Dr. Strangelove' continues to be one of the sharpest satires ever made. With an improved video transfer and a great collection of supplements, this new release from Criterion is now the best version of the movie on Blu-ray, easily earning a spot atop June's essential list. But please, if you're going to drink while watching the film, make sure you have a glass of fresh, distilled water. We still need to protect our precious bodily fluids!



'10 Cloverfield Lane' - What's more dangerous? A potentially crazy man holding you captive… or a full-scale alien invasion? With its genre-bending script and carefully crafted suspense, '10 Cloverfield Lane' presents a film where both men and monsters pose equal threats, creating a nail-biting chamber piece thriller that expands into sci-fi spectacle.

As Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself trapped in an underground bunker with the seemingly polite yet uncomfortably stern Howard (John Goodman), we are at first unsure what to think of the situation. Has the country really been attacked? Or is this would-be savior really just a nut-job abductor? This level of deliberate uncertainty helps to amplify the film's growing tension, casting numerous scenes and interactions under an ambiguous cloud of doubt. To this end, the brunt of the runtime becomes a tense examination of human interaction, control, and abuse, and director Dan Trachtenberg maintains a palpably gripping and moody sense of isolation and mystery. And when more secrets are gradually revealed, we're left wondering whether it's really worse inside with Howard or outside with a potentially deadly airborne gas. Of course, the situation outside turns out to be a bit more "complicated," and just when the movie satisfies its initial ambitions as a powerful yet relatively straight-forward thriller, the third act offers one last jolt to the system. Extending the genre into overt science fiction while loosely tying the narrative into the world of 2008's 'Cloverfield,' the potentially out-of-place (or not so potentially for some viewers) climax somehow feels perfectly at home with what came before, offering an exciting and thematically interesting finale.     

A psychological thriller about manipulation, preparation, regrets, and second chances, '10 Cloverfield Lane' is a genre flick done right. Tense, well-crafted, and filled with carefully constructed characters, the film plays out like a lost feature length 'Twilight Zone' episode, complete with deep insights into the human condition and a sci-fi twist ending (even if the title's implications do kind of spoil it). This is a perfect watch for any movie night with your friends… or casual evening trapped inside an underground bunker. But if you watch this disc with Howard, just make sure to put it back in its sleeve when you're done.      


'Anomalisa' - Though most Hollywood filmmakers appear content to rehash the same ideas, genres, visual styles, and general types of storytelling modes over and over again, Charlie Kaufman almost seems to go out of his way to avoid the norm. Responsible for helping to craft some of contemporary cinema's most unique films ('Being John Malkovich,' 'Adaptation,' 'Synecdoche, New York'), the writer/director continues to push the medium in new and exciting (and often very bizarre) directions. And with 'Anomalisa,' Kaufman may have come up with his most singular creation yet, turning to a world of miniature puppets to shed light on some very human flaws.

Along with co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman creates a meticulously constructed 1:6 scale world focused on a man, Michael, who can't see or hear other people as unique individuals. But instead of playing toward the inherent strengths of animation or the typical stylistic trappings of stop-motion, the filmmakers deliberately subvert visual expectations by crafting a strikingly realistic aesthetic. Despite the use of puppets and the miniature nature of the sets, Kaufman and Johnson shoot the picture like a live-action feature, employing diffuse lighting, intimate camera angles, close-up cuts, and slow push-ins to engender a paradoxically lifelike image. And helping to breathe life into these once inanimate objects, are the vocal cast's deceptively powerful performances. The trio actually recorded their scenes together in the booth, leading to an atypically naturalistic (for an animated film) cadence to their interactions which fits perfectly with the visuals. David Thewlis brings just the right amount of frustrated boredom, faint arrogance, and deep sadness to Michael, and while some of the character's behavior causes him to become deeply unlikeable in the end, Thewlis' honest and intimate performance manages to maintain some semblance of sympathy for the man. Meanwhile, Jennifer Jason Leigh is understated perfection as Lisa, highlighting the ordinary beauty of her character through spirited vocal work. 

Of course, Leigh's voice can't help but comes across as extraordinarily special when its juxtaposed against an endless chorus filled with Tom Noonans. And though Noonan's comparatively monotonous voice works great to enhance the movie's examination of identity and ego, the actor also displays surprising versatility -- bringing subtle differences, intonations, and vocal quirks to each and every character he plays. In fact, there were times when I even forgot that he was voicing most of the people on screen. While not the most mainstream effort, this is a truly singular work of art, earning the Blu-ray a well deserved slot on this month's list. Wholly unique, deeply moving, and genuinely thought-provoking, 'Anomalisa' uses an artificial world to probe deep into the human condition, finding a greater level of emotional truth through puppets than most Hollywood movies can find with actual flesh-and-blood actors.     


So, there you have it. While there were many titles worth picking up this June, 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 June's must own titles?

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