Posted Wed Jun 22, 2011 at 12:30 PM PDT by Aaron Peck
by The HDD Reviewers
Can you believe we're already halfway through the year?!
Where have the months gone? It's easy to lose track of time when there are so many good Blu-rays coming out. Month after month we've been greeted with demo-worthy releases that have caused our wallets to hurt, but our home theaters to rejoice.
We asked our team of writers what their favorite releases have been so far this year. Some of their answers may surprise you, others may get you thinking about some movies or sets that you never previously considered. Check out the individual writer lists below and see how their answers stack up against yours.
Let's kick this off with the best release that no one knows exists. The '30 for 30' series is a group of sports documentaries on some pretty damn interesting topics and odd stories, that were released on DVD in two volumes, only to see a Best Buy exclusive Blu-ray release (for less money than the DVDs!) go under the radar. This six disc set puts four to six films per disc, but retains extras, and quality is quite good for what the content is! This exemplifies Blu-ray due to showing off its storage capacity while still maintaining a high quality standard.
The newest release on my list. With five discs, each holding one to three episodes, this set has some of the best, realistic, and gorgeous video put to disc, let alone solid, constantly full room engaging audio that is almost as stunning. Extras? More than you can shake a severed limb at. Priced just right, with neat, velvety packaging and tons of replay value, there's a reason this show has been the top selling TV on DVD/Blu-ray release for the last two years.
Sure, we could take almost every single Disney animated title released any year and put them on this list, but the combo pack for 'Tangled' takes the cake. Great 3D and 2D discs, with awesome audio, there really isn't much to say here. It's a must own, no matter which viewing format you prefer.
Robbed of numerous Academy Awards earlier this year as it may have been, 'The Social Network' will surely be much like 'Raging Bull' down the line, a borderline consensus pick for best film of the decade, even if it didn't win best film in its year of release. The Blu-ray release has great video and mind numbingly awesome audio, featuring the brilliant Trent Reznor score, on top of two discs loaded with extras. The packaging leaves much to be desired, but the disc sure as shit doesn't!
I didn't want to put two Disney titles on this list, as it felt like such a cop out, but my final pick was between this and 'Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance,' and the fact that the anime release featured inferior audio to its import only clinched 'Tron Legacy' getting the nod. I've read negative criticism about the film, and, honestly, I couldn't care less, because I love this film. It's beyond smart, possibly the smartest sequel ever made, and it's a visual masterpiece, especially on Blu-ray. The audio, all you have to say is Daft Punk. That sells it right there.
Nothing makes me happier than to see one of the best films of all time receive a worthy Blu-ray release. Taking into account the dark look of the film, the details that emerge are fine and sharp - similar to the look of the anarchistic night life 'Fight Club.' Matching the film's dark palate is the perfectly mixed and fitting score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The 93-minute making-of titled "How Did They Ever Make A Movie of Facebook" is comparable to an in-depth special feature you would find on a Criterion Collection disc. The unique all-black smooth-textured slipcase only added another awesome element to the perfect 'The Social Network' Blu-ray.
While purists view 'Let Me In' as a moderately decent remake of the original ('Let the Right One In'), I see it as a polished, buffed version of the original. I do not knock 'Let the Right One In' because without it we wouldn't have 'Let Me In'. The three different looks of 'Let Me In' work perfectly on Blu-ray - there's the cold hue of the day, the ghostly dark look of the night and the extra dark look of the nightly killings. Although not chock full of special features, the film is a jewel in itself that makes up for the lack of addition content. Let's be honest, the only making-of feature that anybody is truly dying to see is how director Matt Reeves pulled off the amazing single-take car accident - and there's a nearly 6-minute special feature dedicated to that.
Admittedly, I never purchased the original Blu-ray release of 'Memento' because of sketchy reviews. But everything that those reviews complained about is absent in the Christopher Nolan-approved re-release. The amount of detail in every single frame is astonishing. The contrast of the black and white scenes is perfect. Fans of traditional film stock will love the high use of grain. Although it does not feature the "linear cut" found on the two-disc limited edition DVD, there are still more than enough special features to please all the Nolan fans out there.
I love Danny Boyle. I love how he never sticks with one genre, as if he is constantly challenging himself. Who in their right mind would think to adapt a non-fiction book about a guy (Aron Ralston) being pinned in a slot canyon into a 95-minute movie? Boyle would. Because it's a challenge. What Boyle did to keep you invested was bring you into the canyon with Ralston. The only times he let you out of the canyon were when Ralston also got out - only his temporary relief was achieved through dehydration hallucinations. The camera perfectly captures the claustrophobic feel of the being trapped. While I worried that this panic-inducing feeling would only be present during theatrical viewing, I was pleasantly surprised when the high quality Blu-ray release was still able to convey it during home theater viewings. Combining the inspiring tale and brilliant picture quality with a rich sound mix and interesting special features makes for a great based-on-a-true-story home viewing experience.
The first time I saw 'Tangled' was at a 3D press screening. When the film ended, I left scratching my head wondering how in the world 'Tangled' cost more to make than 'Toy Story 3.' The detail in the animation of 'Tangled' seemed comparable to that of the terrible 'Barbie' direct-to-DVD movies my daughter loves. When I took my daughter to a 2D showing a few weeks later, I realized that the tinted 3D glasses removed the high detail that 'Tangled' was truly made with. My jaw was gaping as I noticed every single hair on Rapunzel's head, every chin hair on Flynn Ryder's face, every blade of grass on the ground, every leaf on every tree and the textured paper of the floating lanters. Disney did a marvelous job releasing the film on Blu-ray. Every single one of those fine details is equally noticeable thanks to their loving release.
I'm going to try to go a little off the beaten path with this. I figure that people don't need to be sold on the merits of the latest 'Harry Potter' or an Oscar winner like 'The King's Speech'.
This charming period piece starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray built a decent amount of buzz on the festival circuit in 2009, but didn't see theatrical release for over a year and then vanished in a blink. That's an injustice. The film is a well-observed character drama about interesting people. It's touching, a little sad, and full of human warmth. It's nice to have movies like this around. The Blu-ray also happens to look and sound stunning.
It took me a couple of viewings to warm up to this movie. The source novel by author Kazuo Ishiguro withholds the true nature of the story for almost half its length, and would seem virtually unadaptable as a result. Nonetheless, director Mark Romanek gave it a shot. At first, the major structural changes he imposed (such as giving away the mystery right up front) really rubbed me the wrong way. However, upon second viewing, I came to appreciate the film more for the way that Romanek really nails the tone of the piece, which was by far the most difficult aspect to capture. Despite the studio's unfortunate attempt to promote it as a science fiction film, the sci-fi elements are superficial at best. This is really a story about missed opportunities, misguided beliefs, and unrequited love. The Blu-ray is gorgeous.
Rumor has it that, despite the fim's reputation as a masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation of the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov is perpetually one of the poorest-selling of Kubrick's titles in the Warner Bros. catalog. How is that possible? Is it just the idea of the subject matter? I'm not sure what people assume it to be, but 'Lolita' is not even remotely a sexually explicit film. In fact, it's a wicked black comedy about the complete unraveling of a fairly reprehensible man. It's a great film, really. The Blu-ray looks pretty good for the movie's age.
We need more Fellini on Blu-ray. The director's movies cry out for the best visual fidelity possible. Although 'Amarcord' stems from the period where Fellini started blatantly repeating himself and losing interest in narrative structure, it's a very warm and nostalgic film full of his famously surreal flights of fancy. As expected, the Criterion Collection has done a bang-up job of restoring this classic.
Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is another filmmaker whose visually stunning works beg for high definition clarity. While his early environmental fable 'Nausicaa' isn't necessarily one of my favorites, the film lays the groundwork for the director's style and themes that would recur throughout his career. The Blu-ray does a good job of faithfully presenting this an important step in the development of an artist.
The Walt Disney Company celebrated the diamond anniversary of their 'Alice in Wonderland' with a spectacular Blu-ray disc, which is becoming a standard description for high definition releases of the studio's animated classics. The image is clean and wildly colorful throughout, a perfect venue to showcase the animators' imaginations. Viewers can either listen to the original 2.0 Theatrical or immerse themselves in the 5.1 DTS HD-MA mix. The wealth of bonus features from the previous DVD release is matched with new material including a documentary about Lewis Carroll and Walt Disney that works as a commentary track.
Pixar holds the same high standards as Disney, which probably isn't a coincidence as Pixar is under the Disney corporate umbrella. Pixar even has a slight advantage with their movies being digital creations and 'The Incredibles' is no exception to the studio's already impressive high def collection. Colors are bold and details are so thorough the foliage on the island looks real. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is an immersive experience that is demo quality. A second Blu-ray disc was required to house all the bonus material.
Martin Scorsese's masterpiece is treated with the reverence it deserves. The richness of Michael Chapman's exquisite black and white cinematography is wonderful to see. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track demonstrates the great work done by the sound team. The use of animal noises and other effects are more distinct and evocative as they augment the viewing. A few new extras are paired with the ones that accompanied earlier releases. Scorsese and DeNiro talking about movies is the most engaging.
Like Rooster Cogburn, the Coen Brothers demonstrated they too had true grit by ignoring the naysayers and remaking a well-known film to create a classic of their own. Roger Deakins' cinematography looks glorious in its use of light, shadow, and framing, and the beauty of Deakins' artistry is preserved in this transfer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio delivers a more impressive experience than expected, considering there's more talking than action. The extras focus on different cast and crewmembers, except for the Coen Brothers whose work speaks for itself.
Fellini's Oscar-winning 'Amarcord' gets a very nice upgrade thanks to the folks at the Criterion Collection. While not a disc that people will be using to show off their systems, the preservation work done on both the video and audio elements of this film and many others Criterion has released this year is extremely important for those who care about the history of cinema and it deserves to be acknowledged. The colors and details are improved, especially as seen in the comparison to the first DVD release that Criterion released. The Italian mono track has been remastered and sounds free of defect. The extras offer insight into Fellini and the film.
As a big fan of Tron, this was pretty much a perfect release for me. Not only did the set include both films, it also has the superb 3D Blu-ray version of 'Tron: Legacy' which is my current standard for live-action 3D (not to mention the wake the neighbors lossless soundtrack). Special features may have been a bit thin on 'Tron: Legacy' but overall both films combined bring more than enough to the table.
This is easily one of the best releases of the year. I really enjoyed the DTS-HD Master Audio track with this release. I am a huge fan of the musical composition of this film and this lively track really brought it to life for me. The video quality is also nearly perfect and combined, these elements make 'The Social Network' Blu-ray transfer live up to the excellence of the film itself.
Disney has set a very high standard with their early 3D Blu-ray releases and 'Tangled' easily comes in near the top. On Blu-ray 3D, 'Tangled' is simply stunningly beautiful just bursting off the screen in vivid colors. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track also does a great job delivering this great musical alive.
As a big fan of the Harry Potter book series, I was pleasantly surprised with this film. 'Half Blood Prince' was letdown for me because I thought it strayed too from the book, but I found 'Hallows Part 1' to actually be a very faithful adaptation. The Blu-ray release for the film was spectacular from an audio/visual standpoint; I really enjoyed the darker transfer, really enforced the mood of the story. The audio was also demo material. Finally, the maximum movie mode is a delight for fans of the books and films, I learned a great deal about the production process and how they adapted the story for the film.
As a bit of an underdog pick, I have to go with 'Piranha 3D' as one of my favorite releases of 2011. As far as the movie goes, it's basically a 90 minute blood bath not intended for weak stomached individuals. I really loved everything about this movie, it was corny in the perfect way and simply provided a fun laugh out loud experience for me at times. As far as the 3D Blu-ray release goes, the video transfer was very strong providing excellent depth and a few cheesy 3D effects that add to the blood bath taking place on screen. The DTS-HD Master Audio was also very immersive, pulling me into the Piranha goodness!
This is simply one of the greatest films of all time finally available on Blu-ray. Through lonely sociopath Travis Bickle, Scorsese and Schrader personified a city in decay and helped cultivate a brave new era in filmmaking. The disc looks and sounds great and is packed with interesting supplements, making it a perfect example of how to correctly treat a classic catologue title release.
This makes the list for "The Suitcase" alone, which stands tall as one of the best episodes of... well anything, ever. Thankfully the rest of the season is pretty stellar as well and as usual comes to Blu-ray with strong video, audio and supplements from Lionsgate. This is TV on Blu-ray at its best.
One of my top picks for best picture of 2010, Danny Boyle did an amazing job of adapting Aron Ralston's inspirational story of survial in a cinematically exciting and emotionally powerful way. James Franco's performance is pitch perfect and gripping. The disc features great video and audio as well as some nice extras, making for a fantastic high definition package.
One of Pixar's best brought to Blu-ray in a stunning set. The picture quality is essentially flawless and the film is an amazingly fun take on the superhero genre with plenty of the studio's trademark imagination and wit. Filled with a strong array of supplements, Disney/Pixar once again exemplifies how to put out a great disc.
While it may not be as impressive from a video or audio standpoint as the rest of the discs on this list, this brilliant documentary about the power of imagination is one of the best little known titles released this year. A truly fascinating look into one man's struggle to reinvent himself through art, Marwencol is everything a great documentary should be. One of the wonderful things about the Blu-ray format is the fact that it gives films like this the chance to find a larger audience, and this disc deserves so much more attention.
BBC Earth came through once again with another stunning Blu-ray release. This time we dive into the various lives of humans that live on this planet. We all may be the same species, but we have some incredible talents that we've adapted to be able to survive. 'Human Planet' is an awe-inspiring tale of the human condition and comes complete with another fantastic looking and sound Blu-ray release from the BBC fellows.
What a wonderful little movie. I would feel remiss if I didn't include this on my best of 2011 list. It's charming drama about family life, relationships, and friendship. It comes complete with some great performances. I was surprised at how good the movie looked and sounded on Blu-ray. No, it's not an in-your-face action film from start to finish, but its presentation guides you through the movie and its seasons tremendously. I can't say enough good things about this movie.
The more I think about it, the more I'm liable to put 'Treme' atop my best television of all-time list. Yes, it's that good. With all the 'True Blood's and 'Boardwalk Empire's out there it seems like 'Treme' gets overshadowed. It isn't flashy or overly sexed, but it is a heart-wrenching tale of the people of New Orleans. It's a finely tuned television series with some of the deepest most endearing characters I've ever encountered. Its last two episodes will bring tears to your eyes. You'll find out how much you really care for these people and how much they've done for you throughout the season. Couple that with the demo-quality audio and beautiful video presentations and you have another fantastic high-def release from HBO.
I've got to mention 'Tron: Legacy' just because of its demo-quality Daft Punk audio. Sheesh, does this soundtrack rock in lossless audio. It seriously rumbles the house. I can't think of another release from 2011 that has so much sonic oomph when it comes to the audio presentation. The movie is so-so, and the visuals – while stunning – get a tad bit redundant with all the neon angular lines, but the audio on this is just astounding.
Image Entertainment has done a stellar job remastering the 'Twilight Zone' seasons for Blu-ray. These are absolutely fantastic sets, and have a breath-taking black and white picture that rivals the likes of 'Casablanca' on Blu-ray. Then you have to factor in the gargantuan number of special features that are included, along with the numerous brand new commentaries that were minted just for these releases, and you've got yourself a must own TV show in high-def.
You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination — Next stop, the Twilight Zone.
The original anthology series of bizarre and thought-provoking tales from master storyteller Rod Serling is perhaps the most intelligent and imaginative television show ever created. 'The Twilight Zone' not only instantly teleports its viewers to parallel universes where all may not be as it seems, it often plants us right into the minds of certain individuals as they are forced to confront their inner demons or engage in a struggle for survival. While the third and fourth years aren't quite as strong as the previous two seasons (I don't want to steal Aaron's thunder so if you want to know why then I recommend checking out his terrific reviews), these particular volumes still contain plenty of timeless classics. What's more, Image Entertainment has even spent the time and money for a proper restoration of the entire collection, and to top it all off they've assembled one of the most comprehensive supplemental packages on the format to date. Sure, these classy Blu-ray sets don't come cheap, but they're worth every penny.
If Aurora thought her bed-head was nasty, it's nothing compared to the crazy hair day of the latest inductee to the Disney Princesses™ sisterhood and star of my next choice. Inspired by the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Rapunzel," Disney's 50th full-length animated movie may not be their greatest masterpiece, but 'Tangled' still dazzles with a charming story, fun characters, and gorgeous animation that is fresh and familiar at the same time. Those looking to be awestruck by the visuals here need to look no further than the wonderful lantern sequence. It's truly a sight to behold and has to be one of Disney's finest achievements. But of course, most CGI animated films shine brightest in high-def, and this current record holder for the most expensive animated film ever made is certainly no exception. The vivid colors, rich textures, and deep picture (made infinitely deeper on Blu-ray 3D) are all simply stunning, and the soundtrack has been given a confident lossless 7.1 mix, too. Disney has always put quality above all else, and they've proven it yet again with this terrific release.
I'm sure to some this will sound like heresy, but I've never been much of a "fan" of the original 'Tron.' I remember the first time I saw it was at a friend's birthday party in the early 1980s and all I had filed away in my memory banks were the grid cycles and me getting in trouble for doing things other than paying attention to the movie. I just found it incredibly boring, though in all fairness I was only about six years old so it probably would have been an uphill battle for my attention span anyway. Watching 'Tron' again after all these years still hasn't exactly swayed me to the diehard camp (it's far from a perfect film even with the revolutionary CGI effects), but at least now I'm able to see why many consider it to be a cult classic. Three decades later, the part sequel/part homage 'Tron Legacy' managed to take the unique concept from the original film and give it a slick overhaul -- complete with new state-of-the-art visuals (in 3D!) and let's not forget that wicked soundtrack by Daft Punk. Disney's Blu-ray releases of 'Tron' and 'Tron Legacy' look and sound spectacular ('Legacy' isn't anything less than demo material), and each has a fair amount of bonus features to boot. But whichever film you prefer -- modern or classic -- this set gives you the best of both worlds.
You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talking... you talking to me? Well I'm the only one here...
Ask any dedicated cinephile to make a list of ten influential filmmakers, and it would be a good bet that Martin Scorsese would be on that list. Most directors only dream of creating their masterpiece, but Marty has so many he really should be featured on an episode of 'Hoarders.' Joining the ranks of 'Mean Streets,' 'Raging Bull,' 'Goodfellas,' 'Casino,' and 'The Departed,' is his gritty character study of an obsessed and lonely Vietnam War vet living in the urban jungle of New York City. While 'Taxi Driver' didn't win any Academy Awards, it was nominated for four (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Music - Original Score, and Best Picture) and won the prestigious Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Robert De Niro's unforgettable portrayal of a man descending into madness is mesmerizing to say the least, but it's the synergy between his performance and Scorsese's masterful direction that has made the film one of cinema's quintessential works. Sony has also rolled out the red carpet for this release on Blu-ray. The classic film has been given a 4k digital restoration as well as a remastered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, there's an absorbing array of supplements, and the disc comes housed inside a handsome deluxe trifold digipack. Add the fact that Sony is practically giving this gem away with their ridiculously low SRP of $24.95 and 'Taxi Driver' easily clinches the top spot as the best of 2011.
By now you've probably noticed that half my picks hail from the wonderful world of Disney, so I'd look pretty silly if my list didn't have an inclusion from their reigning king of CGI animation. Only one film from Pixar Studios has hit Blu-ray so far this year, but on the upside it's a big one. 'The Incredibles' has the visuals, character, and heart Pixar's films have become famous for, and since everyone loves superheroes it's no wonder that this Oscar winner just couldn't lose. And as usual with any Pixar release, the presentation of this Blu-ray is nothing short of incredible. The picture comes fully loaded with super-crisp detail, eye-popping depth, and some of the most sensational colors you'll ever see. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also pure grade-A reference material, delivering an absolutely flawless sonic experience that will have audiophiles grinning from ear to ear. Toss in a heroic pile of bonus materials (including a few new exclusives like the retrospective roundtable featurette), and 'The Incredibles' doesn't have to try very hard to be ranked among the year's finest.
M. Enois Duarte
Granted, Blue Underground mainly serves a niche market, but they have a great track record for providing the best possible quality. Bill Lustig's company actually takes the time to remaster their extensive collection by visiting the original camera negatives whenever feasible. 'Deep Red' is a great example of how they deliver worthwhile packages for cult enthusiasts, offering two cuts of the same film. The original, uncensored Italian cut is far superior to the English-dubbed version, and the company was gracious enough to give fans the opportunity to enjoy both on the same disc, taking advantage of what the Blu-ray format can do.
You don't have to be a fan to appreciate the elegant simplicity of this 'Superman' release. It's an eight-disc set with all five movies starring the Man of Steel, along with two alternate cuts of the first two films. They were all remastered for this Blu-ray box set, except for Richard Donner's cut of the sequel and Bryan Singer's 2006 reboot, and they look great in HD! The real highlights, making it a worthwhile purchase for fans, is a compilation of classic 1940s cartoons from Fleischer Studios and a BD50 bonus disc that features the excellent documentary Look, Up in the Sky! Part III and IV are honestly unmemorable fantasy flicks, but this is a strong anthology nonetheless and a must-own for Superman collectors.
There's no denying Martin Scorsese has produced some truly remarkable films in his career, and 'Taxi Driver' with Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster is one his most beloved features. Although the Blu-ray release doesn't offer much of anything new in the bonus collection, it deserves to be mentioned as one of the most attractive packages around. Simple but elegant, the sturdy tri-fold comes plastered with stills from the movie and a nice assortment of postcard-size photographs. And Scorsese's masterwork of alienation and urban violence also comes with an excellent video transfer to boot!
The Blu-ray of 'The Ten Commandments' has to be one of the wildest and most extravagant releases yet, following the likes of 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'The Goonies,' and 'Gone With the Wind.' Offered in two high-def editions, the limited box gift set gives owners the joy of opening the package as if parting the Red Sea. Inside a plastic replica of Moses's stone tablets, six discs give fans hours and hours of enjoyment while the rest of the box offers a collection of pictures, two books and several reproduction notes from various aspects of the production. To top it all off, Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic is joined by a Blu-ray of the original 1923 silent film.
Can't think of too many releases which come in such variety of purchasing options. Fans can pick up the original 1982 sci-fi fantasy classic in a separate package or as part of a five-disc set that includes a 3D Blu-ray of 'Tron Legacy.' And for the more hardcore collectors, there's also the limited edition with Identity Disc packaging, which looks cool but quite pricy. The first movie, starring a young Jeff Bridges, looks terrific in high-definition video. And the sequel nearly thirty-years later, also starring a (digitized) young Jeff Bridges, comes with a spectacular, mouth-watering A/V presentation in either 2D or 3D.
Whew! Now that's a list of great titles. There's certainly no way you can go wrong if you add even half these titles to your collection. We've already seen quite a few great releases this year, and we still have another six months of releaseson the way, including titles like 'Star Wars', 'Lord of the Rings: Extended Editions', 'Lion King', and 'Citizen Kane'. Here's to another great six months of Blu-ray releases!
Please let us know what your favorite releases have been by commenting in the forums.
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