High-Def Digest Holiday Gift Guide 2010: The Best Blu-rays of the Year

Posted Wed Nov 24, 2010 at 10:22 AM PST by Mike Attebery

by Drew Taylor

Has another year of HD releases really flown by already? Just about! I guess now is as good a time as any to look back on the year that was and pick out the highlights. And yes, while there are still a handful of big releases headed our way before the year is out ('Inception,' 'Fantasia/Fantasia 2000,' and 'Cronos,' to name a few), I'm trying to help you with your holiday shopping, so I have to draw the line at today's day and date.

2010 was really the year Blu-ray came into its own. There are a ton of viewers who now have Blu-ray players, and subsequently, the number of discs (and the quality of those discs, for the most part) have skyrocketed. With titles like 'Avatar' and 'Toy Story 3' leading the charge, Blu-ray became a format that everyone, not just film geeks like ourselves, could lovingly embrace.

So, lets get started, shall we? I now present the top ten Blu-rays of 2010. (One more caveat: I did a list earlier this year and none of those titles are also on this one.)

1.) Roger Corman's Cult Classics (Shout Factory)

One of the reasons I'm crowning this small collection of genre favorites (among them: 'Starcrash,' 'Humanoids from the Deep,' and Joe Dante's 'Piranha') as the top Blu-ray release of the year is because they were such a surprise. Initially, 'Rock and Roll High School' and 'Death Race 2000' were released and I wasimmediately impressed: not only did the movies look and sound better than they ever had, but the voluminous extras provided wonderful context for the rule-breaking, genre-smashing films Roger Corman was cooking up in this particularly fertile creative period. But when the onslaught of summer titles started: the 'Alien'-esque 'Forbidden World,' the breasts-and-beasts ego-comedy 'Humanoids from the Deep,' and the trashy Italian sci-fi of 'Starcrash,' well, it was too much to handle. These went from being mere oddities, loaded with nostalgic extras, to genuine Blu-ray events. By the time Joe Dante's 'Piranha' was reissued around the time that Alexandre Aja's remake hit screens, we were deeply, madly, wholly in love with the work that Shout Factory was doing. Just because the movies are kitschy, doesn't mean they can't get the respect they rightfully deserve, and the amount of attention lavished on these titles boggles the mind (many include alternate or unseen versions of the original films). The only thing is that once fall hit the new releases started to dry up, and we haven't had a new ones in a good long while, with nothing on the schedule on the Shout Factory website. While it's my sincere hope that enough Blu-ray aficionados and genre fans went out and purchased these discs, it seems that the Blu-ray element of the reissues might be foregone for the near future. (If someone from Shout wants to tell us otherwise – please do!) Earlier this year I got to talk to Roger Corman on the phone and he told me that he was just as pleased as I was that these discs had turned out as well as they had. What better endorsement can you get?

2.) The Thin Red Line (Criterion Collection)

In my review, I said this disc contained the single greatest live-action Blu-ray transfer that I had ever seen. I'm going to reiterate that here and now: this really is the most striking live action transfer I've ever seen. And, you know what? That might have been enough to at least chart on my end-of-the-year list, but the disc as a whole is so beautiful – the audio is just as wonderful as the video, and the collection of extras, which sheds significant light on the film without ever demystifying it (for instance we just get a handful of deleted scenes, when we all know that hours of footage was shaved away), were indispensible. Malick's lyrical tone poem, ostensibly about the Pacific conflict during World War II, remains one of the most haunting and gorgeously rendered war films of all time; a stunning, staggering piece of work. The movie is more than 10 years old, which is plenty of time for the film to be worn and torn (this is a preemptive rebuttal to those who will undoubtedly say that it probably wasn't that hard to clean up). For Criterion to bring it to high definition in such a lavish package is worthy of praise.

3.) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Fox)

Yes, I know, as of this writing I haven't finished my review of this beauty yet, but take my word for it: it's phenomenal. First of all, the movie has never looked or (more importantly) sounded this good. Ever. But more than that, the 'Rocky Horror' Blu-ray represents the seemingly boundless potential for Blu-ray. It maximizes the viewers' experience by offering something that only Blu-ray could: a mix-and-match of audio features, including a vintage recording by the fan club and an all-new, "shadowbox" broadcast, with actors chosen by various 'Rocky Horror' weekly screenings from around the world. (This is documented in an hour-long documentary that plays like a particularly deranged episode of 'American Idol.') The fact that you can watch the film with multiple audio/video tracks while importing all of the extras from the previous special edition DVD makes this 'Horror' truly heavenly.

4.) The Twilight Zone: Seasons 1 and 2 (Image)

A funny thing happened while I was compiling this list, at almost the eleventh hour: a package arrived that contained the second season of 'The Twilight Zone' on Blu-ray. Skeptical of its high definition worthiness, I popped in the first disc, and was utterly blown away. It was eerie, in a specifically 'Twilight Zone'-y way, how good the old series looked on Blu-ray, with its black-and-white richness taking on a kind of velveteen texture. It was absolutely marvelous. And the extras? Oh the extras! Matthew Weiner, creator of AMC's 'Mad Men,' sits in for a commentary track discussing the episode in which William Shatner becomes obsessed with a fortune telling machine in a small town diner. Is there any better way to spend a Friday night? With these new sets, Image really gave it their all, and it shows. 'The Twilight Zone' not only warrants this kind of lavish high-definition attention; it demands it. As far as I'm concerned, these are the TV-on-Blu-ray releases of the year.

5.) Alien Anthology (Fox)

The 'Alien' box set is something you could quite literally get lost in for hours on end. The number of supplements and alternate versions of the films (each entry has two iterations) seems almost limitless. The franchise itself is a fabled and fascinating rollercoaster ride: from the haunted house thrills of Ridley Scott's original 'Alien' to the hellzapoppin' James Cameron-helmed sequel 'Aliens,' to David Fincher's atmospherically gloomy 'Alien 3,' to the bizarre horror-comedy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 'Alien: Resurrection.' Each film has a lot going for it, and seeing them all so pristinely presented, with optimized picture and sound, is a joy. But it's the small pleasures that stick out: the uncut version of the 'Alien 3' documentary that was left out of the DVD box set from a few years ago. Hearing stories of how David Fincher more or less left the film shortly before its completion is the kind of kicky, insider stuff that geeks absolutely eat up. (It's also nice that they cleaned up the audio on the vastly superior work print cut of 'Alien 3.') I'd also like to thank this anthology for truly opening my eyes to the hideousness of 'Alien Resurrection,' a film I had previously had a weird sense of affection for. Somehow, in high definition, it showed me that the emperor really wasn't wearing any clothes.

6.) Grindhouse (Vivendi)

Yes, there was some minor kvetching about the disappointing lack of a true HD sound mix on this disc, but really, it shouldn't be that a big deal since the movie is supposed to sound like a grungy drive-in double-feature. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino dual movie showcase, an expert bit of sleazy homage, bombed spectacularly in 2007, only to be released on DVD and Blu-ray as separate, elongated films later that year. It had never been released on home video intact. And now it has! As a Blu-ray-exclusive, no less! Woo! It was a big kick to watch the whole 'Grindhouse' experience as it was intended, but what really makes this two-disc set so special are the extras, particularly the complete, hour-long New York Times Talk with the two directors, plus all the attention lavished on the phony trailers that bridge the two films. You have to love the perpetually impish Eli Roth, director of the 'Thanksgiving' trailer, saying "I've got a naked girl jumping on a trampoline and I'm only going to do one take?"

7.) Scott Pilgrim vs the World (Universal)

Potentially the greatest non-animated new movie-on-Blu-ray release of the year, 'Scott Pilgrim' combined peerless audio and video quality with a wealth of informative extras that, instead of removing the mystery, enriched the film and made you appreciate it even more. (A lot of people worked really, really hard on this thing.) The fact that the movie was mostly passed over by critics and audiences makes you even more thankful: they could have dumped this on Blu-ray without a single commentary (this disc has four!) Mercifully, that didn't happen. And 'Scott Pilgrim' remains one of the most re-watchable movies of the year.

8.) Psycho (Universal)

This Halloween-timed treat was a true delight: 'Psycho' had never looked or sounded so beautiful. The sound, for which they went back and optimized the mono track for multiple channels, is a true triumph; it doesn't seem the least bit tinny or phony (think back to that DVD release of 'Jaws' that had people up in arms). This includes all the goodies from the previous 'Psycho' DVD releases, plus a bit more, and while there was some consternation in relation to the aspect ratio, it seems that this presentation closes that book forever: Hitchcock shot the movie so it could be seen in a widescreen format and for television.

9.) The 'Back to the Future' (Universal) and 'Toy Story' Trilogies (Disney)

Two of cinema's greatest trilogies finally made it to high definition, and they did so spectacularly: 'Back to the Future' featured a wonderful host of bonus features that followed the evolution of the franchise, providing wonderful context for the Michael J. Fox-starring series. (The movies looked and sounded brilliant, too.) For 'Toy Story,' Disney and Pixar brought their usual sense of perfection to these discs, which are unparalleled visually or aurally, and arrived with a whole bunch of great features. In particular, seeing 'Toy Story 3' "flat," as it were, makes you realize what an unnecessary gimmick the current 3-D trend really is. After all, we didn't need a three-dimensional DeLorean headed towards us to really wow, right?

10.) House (Criterion)

Yes, I have gone on record about the bonkers-brilliance of this 1977 Japanese gem, but I truly believe 'House' deserves to be on the list for containing the single most heart-tugging moment ever captured on a supplemental feature for a movie in which a young schoolgirl gets eaten by mattresses. In the accompanying documentary, Nobuhiko Obayashi says, tearfully, that the movie was an ode to his own childhood friends, all of whom were killed in the nuclear attacks that ended World War II. It makes you look at this very silly movie in a very serious new way.

So what'd I forget? What'd I get wrong? Sound off in the message boards (I know you will, you cheeky monkeys!) Last time around, somebody erroneously posted me as a kind of 'Monopoly'-esque tycoon, surrounded by studio money, implying that my choices had been paid off (little did they know that I bought almost all of the titles on the last list). Let's see what else you have this time! Extra points for creative Photoshop skills!

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Tags: High-Def Retailing, Industry Trends, Drew Taylor, Holiday Guide 2010, HDD Holiday Gift Guide (all tags)