High-Def Digest's Essential Picks: January 2014

Posted Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 04:00 PM 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 an adamantium laced action flick, an umbrella-flying nanny, and an emotionally charged mystery thriller. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November 2013, and December 2013.

This month, we're covering a high seas thriller, a complex character study, and a sensitive coming of age story. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there might be some spoilers for the films listed.

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

'Captain Phillips' - Marked by his trademark shaky-cam visual style and an overall penchant for building palpable tension, director Paul Greengrass' 'Captain Phillips' is a powerful and gut-wrenching viewing experience, thrusting audiences into a true tale of survival and courage. And while the film's version of the real-life events that inspired it has been met with some controversy, judged purely on its own merits as a motion picture, the movie is an undeniably masterful piece of filmmaking, bolstered by an incredible performance from Tom Hanks.

Though Phillips may get his name in the title, in many ways this is actually the story of two captains, and Greengrass and company do a decent job of characterizing the Somali pirates as more than just big screen villains. Through early cross-cutting sequences, we catch a glimpse of Phillips and Muse's (Barkhad Abdi) dual stories, shedding some light on the circumstances that lead to piracy while setting up the fateful day when their paths eventually cross. With that said, this really is Tom Hanks' show, and the actor does an absolutely phenomenal job. His character's quick thinking and calm under pressure manage to keep him and his crew alive in a dire situation, and Hanks goes through a true roller coaster of emotion. The film's final scene in particular, is truly heart-wrenching, and the actor's moving breakdown has to be seen to be believed, perfectly decompressing the immense trauma Phillips has been through in an understated and utterly affecting moment of relief and shock. Beyond the acting, the visuals and sound also help to create an unrelenting air of escalating tension, with a thunderous score that not only rises but also falls at key moments to emphasize dramatic turns (the way the rousing music almost completely cuts out when the pirates finally attach their ladder to Phillips' boat is especially effective, further reinforcing an air of defeat and impending dread). And as the characters continue to scramble, so too does Greengrass' camera, creating a chaotic, quasi-documentary aesthetic that feels raw and cinematic at the same time.

Visceral and persistently engaging, the movie manages to pull the audience headfirst into a harrowing high seas journey without over sensationalizing the events or violence. When the film's inevitable, bloody resolution finally hits the screen, there is indeed a clear sense of relief, but with it comes a pang of undiluted horror. This isn't a simple action flick or a video game, and though the antagonists have been defeated, lives are taken and it's not a pretty picture. Stirring, exciting, and complex, 'Captain Phillips' is an exceptional thriller that doesn't rely on easy tricks or simplistic morality. Coupled with demo worthy video and audio, and solid special features, this Blu-ray rises above the pack to earn January's top spot.

'Blue Jasmine' - Using Tennessee Williams' 'A Streetcar Named Desire' as a jumping off point, Woody Allen's latest foray into the increasingly blurred line between comedy and drama serves as an effectively wry, intelligent, and ultimately unsettling addition to his ever growing filmography. Through a seemingly effortless, tour-de-force performance from Cate Blanchett and great turns from all the supporting players, Allen's film shines a light on class disparities and the precarious stability of shallow affectations -- revealing the all too fragile core that rests beneath seemingly elegant facades.

The narrative is clearly influenced by current hot button issues related to wealth disparity and financial corruption, but rather than wallow in political commentary, Allen instead decides to use this fiery climate as the backdrop for a fascinating character study -- and boy does Cate Blanchett's Jasmine prove to be one hell of a character to study. In a truly remarkable performance, the actress becomes the embodiment of upper class entitlement, dressing up her entire persona under a just barely secure blanket of haughty social airs and thick pretension. But as we gradually bear witness to the downfall of her once "perfect" existence through intermittent flashbacks and present day breakdowns, it quickly becomes clear that she may not have the tools necessary to keep afloat in the real world -- financially or mentally. Watching the once proud and increasingly unstable socialite repeatedly collide with working class culture leads to some dry humor and frustrating drama, and throughout it all, Blanchett manages to create a fully realized character that avoids caricature. Unable to cope with her situation, the woman is in a constant state of desperation, just barely held together by her last, dwindling remnants of high society composure, seemingly ready to crack entirely at any minute. And when she does finally succumb to the pressures of a common life, it appears that there might be nothing left at all behind her grand facade. That is, if there was ever anything there to begin with.

But as unlikeable as Jasmine can be, Blanchett is still able to elicit sympathy for the woman, and her unhinged and at times almost possessed performance is startlingly natural and engrossing, allowing the actress to completely disappear into the complex and expertly written role. Layered with texture and nuance, the script and direction are clearly the products of a veteran filmmaker completely at home in his craft, and with 'Blue Jasmine,' Allen turns in some of his best contemporary work, easily cementing this disc as one of January's essential releases.

'The Spectacular Now' - Coming of age flicks seem to be a dime a dozen lately, especially on the festival circuit, but despite this oversaturation, there have actually been several strong efforts in the genre within the past few years. Titles like 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' and 'The Way Way Back' have all tapped into the bittersweet pain and joy of adolescence, and now director James Ponsoldt's 'The Spectacular Now' joins the pack with another sensitive and affecting look at teenage woes and young love.

Tackling many similar themes as his last effort, 'Smashed,' Ponsoldt's latest feature once again deals with alcoholism and personal growth, but this time through the prism of high school romance. And while that previous film was a very solid movie in its own right, here the director demonstrates notable improvement as an artist, offering a much more assured command of tone and style. Through long takes and gorgeous, gentle lighting designs, the movie perfectly evokes the wistful happiness and confusion of youthful passion, blending sweet comedy with delicate drama. Actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are perfect in their roles, and unlike the typical model-types who often play parts like this, they are both very believable as actual teens -- imperfect skin and all. Teller, in particular, turns in a career making performance as the happy-go-lucky Sutter who hides deeper insecurities through his constant alcoholic buzz. In fact, much like the character, the movie itself masks a heavy wealth of sadness beneath an outward veneer of humor -- but even as this level of pathos rises more and more to the forefront, the tragedy is never overwhelming. It's sensitive, honest, and real.

Though the story might be a bit predictable and familiar, to their credit, the filmmakers do actually go in slightly different directions, weaving an emotional narrative about learning not to just love others, but ourselves as well. A celebration of the ever-expanding now stretched out before us all, the film is both melancholic and full of limitless hope. This might not be the flashiest Blu-ray hitting stores this month, but the movie really is an enjoyable and heartfelt piece of cinema, and this disc from Lionsgate is very solid, helping to edge out the competition to earn the last spot on January's list.

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

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Tags: High-Def Digest Essential Picks, Essentials Picks, HDD Essential Picks (all tags)