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 a spooky haunted house story, a golden age Hollywood classic with a 3D spin, and a big budget adolescent sci-fi fantasy come to life. 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, and October.
This month, we're covering the birth of a drug kingpin, a hilarious sci-fi pub crawl, and a masterpiece of world cinema. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there might be some big spoilers for the films listed.
If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in November, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'Breaking Bad: The Complete Series' - From Mr. Chips to Scarface. That was the core of Vince Gilligan's concept for 'Breaking Bad,' and boy did he deliver. Though the show's universal praise might seem like hyperbole, Walter White's journey toward the dark side really is one of TV's shining achievements. A true testament to what can be accomplished over long form small screen storytelling, the hit series follows one man as he gradually loses his soul to unfettered pride and escalating greed. A powerful and multifaceted examination of hubris, family, and barrels full of money, the show is everything great drama is supposed to be: Emotional, surprising, gut-wrenching, utterly absorbing, and explosive. Sometimes literally.
With his goatee, sunglasses, and fedora, the image of Heisenberg has become iconic, and Bryan Cranston's slow-build transformation is simply astonishing. Watching the man go from a feeble, meek chemistry teacher, to a powerful and deadly drug kingpin is like watching a monster grow before your eyes. Nuanced and organic, Walter White's rise (or decline, as the case may be) is full of tragedy, bloodshed, and aching pathos. At different points throughout the series, we go from feeling sympathy for Walter, to actively rooting for him, to eventually hating him. Indeed, for many viewers, the character ultimately reaches a point where he can no longer be related to or sided with, and this type of storytelling gamble rarely pays off. In fact, as far as TV goes, only 'The Shield' and its morally loose characterization of Vic Mackey comes close to equaling what Cranston and Gilligan have accomplished here. By the time the last season comes around, many fans will be actively rooting against Walter, but this doesn't hurt one's enjoyment of the show at all. It's simply a natural progression of where the story needs to go -- and the finale itself hits all the right beats, offering a fitting and possibly redemptive end for the infamous family man turned outlaw. His masquerade of selfishness under the guise of selflessness eventually run its course, and watching him finally admit his true motivations out loud is one of the most satisfying moments in television history.
A man is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to start cooking meth to provide for his family. On its own, that's a pretty fantastic premise, but it really doesn't even begin to hint at how far this show really goes. One of the most consistently good series ever produced (seriously, there is no real "bad" episode of 'Breaking Bad') , every installment feels like a larger piece of a developing puzzle, taking us further and further down the river into Walter White's "heart of darkness." And the show manages to blend a bevy of different genres into an oddly cohesive whole -- offering shades of westerns, gangster flicks, action, horror, and even a healthy helping of quirky comedy. A unique and wholly satisfying character study steeped in suspense, violence, and heartbreak, the show is nearly flawless. In fact, now that all is said and done, the only real criticism I have involves the story's timeline. Up until season five, most of the series is supposed to unravel over about a year, and when held under scrutiny the events and emotional roller coasters that the characters go through seem a bit much for such a small period. Still, that's an incredibly minute nitpick, and technically the narrative does hold up, even if it is a little hard to buy. This complete series set includes every episode of the show and all of the supplements from the previous releases, along with some incredibly cool packaging, collectables, and an exclusive new documentary. Believe the hype, this is one of the greatest shows ever made, and it deserves to be on the shelf of every self-respecting fan of quality storytelling. A must own if there ever was one.
'The World's End' - When certain creative teams get together, viewers are almost always guaranteed a good time. Such is the case with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. The fun started with their imaginative sitcom, 'Spaced,' and then continued on as the three Brits made quite a name for themselves with their zombie comedy 'Shaun of the Dead,' and its followup, their equally fantastic love letter to action movies, 'Hot Fuzz.' And now with their third feature, the trio somehow manages to go three for three, offering another hilarious, exciting, and just plain awesome flick. An irreverently unique take on the traditional sci-fi body snatcher plotline, 'The World's End' is basically everything anyone could want out of a movie, fusing a witty and surprisingly affecting story about friendship and reclaimed youth with a kick ass feature length barroom brawl against robots. Err, sorry. I mean "blanks." Apparently, they don't like being called robots.
Led by a wonderfully manic, intense, and downright unhinged performance from Simon Pegg, the film is full of energy and personality. Determined to reclaim the vigor of his youth, Pegg's Gary King is a classic stunted adult living in the past and his dream to drink a pint at all twelve pubs in his hometown with his three best childhood mates offers a great setup for laughs and even some genuine emotion. And if that wasn't enough, the filmmakers then decide to add in an alien invasion for good measure. Good times ensue. Director Edgar Wright films all the mayhem with his trademark penchant for kinetic thrills and comedic timing, creating a movie that is not only funny, but legitimately thrilling. Though there are plenty of quick cuts, Wright mostly opts to film his numerous fight scenes and action sequences with fast moving extended takes and whip pans, letting the audience see all of the cast's dizzying choreography and crazy stunts as they rip off robot heads and inexplicably continue to drink. That's right, despite finding themselves right in the middle of a sci-fi conspiracy, the ensemble actually decides to continue with their pub crawl. As the situation gets increasingly dangerous, they get increasingly drunk, and this turns out to be a comedic stroke of genius. The group's continuously numbed reactions to pain are especially amusing, and watching Pegg as he desperately tries to get a casual drink amidst severed alien appendages and gushing blue blood is hilarious. Add in an amusing debate on the definition of the word robot, my favorite mention of a crazy straw in any movie, a former Bond, and a former Bond Girl, and you've got a real recipe for success.
With 'The World's Ends,' Pegg, Wright, and Frost cap off their 'Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy' in style. Hilarious, action-packed, bursting with creativity and brimming with genuine emotion, this might actually be my favorite flick in the series. Thankfully, the Blu-ray itself comes with demo worthy video and audio that are sure to give your home theater a workout, and an arsenal of entertaining and informative supplements. As far as pure entertainment goes, this is easily one of November's top titles. Well done, Wright, now bring on 'Ant-Man!'
'Tokyo Story' - When it comes to classic films and art house cinema, I'd like to think that I'm fairly well versed -- but there is one very notable movie that has always alluded me. Though it's widely regarded as one of the greatest films every made, and is consistently featured on most top ten lists, up until recently, I had never actually seen 'Tokyo Story.' This wasn't on purpose, mind you. At least, not at first. But as I somehow made it out of film school without watching Ozu's masterpiece, and my committal to all things HD grew, I eventually decided to simply wait. I was saving it, you see. Holding out for an eventual Blu-ray release from Criterion so that I could experience the film for the first time as it was meant to be seen. Well, after years of waiting, that opportunity has finally presented itself, and after watching this disc in all its glory, I'm happy that I held off. A simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting meditation on family, aging, and the constant winds of change, the film is a gentle and deceptively unassuming milestone of cinema.
While I already covered what makes Ozu's approach to filmmaking so special in my full review, I failed to discuss the cast's incredible performances. After playing father and daughter in one of Ozu's previous and equally powerful efforts, 'Late Spring,' Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara are reunited here under similar circumstances. Once again, Ryu is cast in the aging father role, but this time Hara plays his widowed daughter in law. Hara's sweet and selfless Noriko is the movie's most likeable character, offering a sharp contrast to her other selfish and preoccupied brothers and sister-in-law. As always, the actress brings along her disarming smile, and her almost perpetual expression of happiness comes to carry subtle hints of deeper emotions. During key instances her smile eventually fades, revealing the greater sorrow that lurks just under the surface. It's a masterfully balanced performance, and Hara makes it all look so easy. Likewise, Ozu mainstay Chishu Ryu is fantastic as the elderly Shukishi Hirayama, and Chieko Higashiyama is also noteworthy as his ailing wife. Watching the aging couple become ignored by their adult offspring is heartbreaking, and both actors completely sell their politely veiled disappointment with their children. A momentary role reversal, where Ryu's character comes home drunk with his friends is also particularly amusing, and the actor does an amazing job of layering his character with pathos and humor. As tragedy strikes the film's third act, Ryu and Hara both rise to the script's challenges, offering subtle but potent portraits of loss and loneliness. Their scenes together are among the film's many highlights, and through Ryu's wise, friendly, tired, and quietly devastated eyes we see Ozu's entire worldview -- filling the screen with palpable pain, sorrow, and love.
One of cinema's true masterpieces, 'Tokyo Story' is a sensitive and insightful work of art. A bittersweet picture of humanity at its best, worst, and everything inbetween, Ozu's simple story about everyday life and death touches upon all the facets of existence, revealing the careless pangs of selfishness, and the life-affirming touch of simple kindness. The Blu-ray from Criterion offers pleasing video and audio, and a great selection of comprehensive supplements. A masterful presentation for a masterful film, this is a true must own piece of world cinema and a defining example of moviemaking as art.
So, there you have it. While there are many titles worth picking up this November, 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 November's must own titles?