High-Def Digest's Essential Picks: December 2013

Posted Mon Dec 30, 2013 at 02:45 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 the birth of a drug kingpin, a hilarious sci-fi pub crawl, and a masterpiece of world cinema. 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, and November 2013.

This month, we're covering an adamantium laced action flick, an umbrella-flying nanny, and an emotionally charged mystery thriller. 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 December, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...

'The Wolverine' - After the travesty that was 'X-men Origins: Wolverine,' I can't say that I had particularly high expectations going into the mutant hero's latest big-screen outing. Thankfully, however, with a little help from director James Mangold ('Copland' '3:10 to Yuma'), 'The Wolverine' manages to heal the still festering wound left by its predecessor -- a superhuman feat that even Logan would be impressed by. With a (mostly) self-contained story, slick action, and a solid focus on character, the flick offers audiences a thrilling adventure that does the comic book icon justice.

Very loosely inspired by the 1982 comic book series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, the story sees Logan head to Japan to deal with dangerous Yakuza while trying to escape his deadly past -- which isn't exactly a productive combination. With Hugh Jackman once again back in the role that made him famous, we're treated to another grizzly, brooding performance filled with animalistic rage and badass charisma. Comic fans have been waiting to really see the character let loose on-screen, and while he never quite goes "berserker," it's pretty cool to watch him slash his way through an army of ninjas and thugs. And as an added twist, we even get to see the nearly invincible man get a taste of mortality (a plotline that almost every godly superhero seems to endure at one point or another), leading to some decent character bits that delve a bit deeper into his psychology. Director James Mangold keeps things stylistically interesting throughout, offering a few cool set pieces with kinetic action and engaging choreography. I was dreading the bullet train sequence when I first saw it in the trailers, but the finished scene was actually very exciting, and though things can get a little too cartoony with the CG, the film manages to retain a welcome grittiness that suits the character very well.

As a life-long 'X-Men' fan, (the 90s cartoon was a huge part of my childhood) I can't help but still geek out every time I hear "Snikt!" blare from my speakers, and thankfully with this release there's now finally a solo Wolverine flick that I can get excited about. It's not exactly perfect, but it's a huge step in the right direction, and Jackman continues to kick ass in the role. This Blu-ray disc comes packed with demo worthy video and audio, and a great assortment of special features, making it the perfect flick to show off all that fancy new equipment you just got for Christmas. And be sure to stick around during the credits for a tantalizing little tease for this summer's 'Days of Future Past.' Here's to hoping that director Bryan Singer can somehow use the time travel plot to completely erase the events of 'X-Men: The Last Stand.' That's not too much to ask for, is it?

'Mary Poppins: 50th Anniversary Edition' - "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Young or old, if you were lucky enough to grow up with movies in your life, then you must have surely heard that word. An immortal bit of magical nonsense, it's simply "something to say when you have nothing to say," and it's just one of the ageless pieces of wonder that makes 'Mary Poppins' so special. A treasured family classic that continues to stand the test of time, the film is full of fantastic images, infectious songs, heartwarming emotion, and an iconic performance from Julie Andrews. In other words, it's "practically perfect in every way."

As a mysterious and seemingly magical nanny enters the lives of two troublesome children and their stern father, the movie places audiences on a fantastical journey. From the minute she first descends into view, floating down to the ground with her flying umbrella, Andrews effortlessly embodies the title role, creating a firm but loving character full of whimsical insights and clever life lessons. And then there's Dick Van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep, who manages to delight audiences with one of the worst Cockney accents to every grace the silver screen. Or is it one of the best cockney accents to ever grace the silver screen? After all, there's a very fine line between the two. Either way, his rendition of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" is as hummable as they come, and the rest of the movie's songs also prove to be irresistibly enjoyable as well. From "A Spoonful of Sugar" to "Jolly Holiday," the film's melodies are destined to put a smile on the faces of all who hear them. Likewise, the special effects are also marvelous, blending live action, animation, and practical wizardry to concoct all sorts of fun imagery like a tea party on a ceiling. It's enough to melt the heart of any adult, even good old stuffy Mr. Banks.

This 50th Anniversary disc from Disney is packed with supplements and features beautifully restored video and audio presentations, preserving this timeless classic for generations to come. Like 'The Wizard of Oz' before it, this is one of the greatest family films ever produced, and it will likely always remain so, no matter which way the wind blows.

'Prisoners' - I know what you're thinking, "Really? More Hugh Jackman?!" Well, you're damn right more Hugh Jackman! But this time I promise he keeps his shirt on. Sorry, Beatrice. A far cry from the sci-fi thrills of 'The Wolverine,' 'Prisoners' instead sees the Aussie action star take on the weighty role of a determined father desperately trying to find his missing daughter. Intricately plotted and tightly woven, this is an admirably crafted mystery thriller steeped in unsettling brutality and harrowing drama.

Tackling a tragic case of abducted children, the film's plot plays out like a carefully designed maze of tension, misfortune, vengeance, and justice. As we follow detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) slowly track down the elusive kidnappers, we are also bear witness to one of the Father's misguided attempts to seek retribution himself. Through Keller Dover (Jackman) we see a man pushed to the brink, blinded by his obligations as a parent and consumed with a lone mission. Overrun with frustration and grief, Dover takes matters into his own hands, but his rage clouds his judgment, and as we see him continually push beyond the point of no return, we know that even vindication won't save him from the inescapable moral consequences of his actions. The script's treatment of this material is surprisingly complex, weaving a morally gray story where relatable motivations are twisted into disturbing horrors. And beyond the multifaceted characterizations and deep themes, the film's central mystery is well executed, resulting in an engaging and winding thriller that offers a few solid twists and a mostly satisfying conclusion. Sure, it's not quite up to par with the very best of the genre, and as David Krauss relates in his full review, the pace does drag a bit, but the film's flaws are minor compared to its strengths, and the movie ultimately packs a powerful emotional punch.

A distressing but fully gripping examination of tragedy, revenge, sacrifice, rage, obsession, and paternal instinct, 'Prisoners' reveals just how far some are willing to go when their family is placed in danger, illuminating the all too murky line between men and monsters. Though light on extras, Warner's Blu-ray release features an exceptional technical presentation, fully evoking the film's dreary and somber mood. The movie's disturbing subject matter does limit its mass appeal, but this finely crafted drama certainly deserves a spot among this month's top titles.

So, there you have it. While there are 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: Steven Cohen , Fun Stuff, High-Def Digest's Essential Picks, HDD Essential Picks, Essential Picks (all tags)