I’ve been working on this piece in various capacities, tempos, and formulae, since January 2012. “But…it’s been 2013 for four months now!” you cry. “Best Of List Articles should be finished within the year they’re written about or as insanely quickly afterward as is possible!”
Welcome to “as insanely quickly afterward as is possible”.
Compiling a list like this one is not as simple for me as scribbling off 10-25 numbers on a dry erase board and throwing titles at it to see what sticks, and then spending a couple of hours writing capsule reviews for each. Let me pause a moment to clarify: this is not simply a list, it’s a collection of a few lists.
I've looked at loads of "Best of 2012 Blu-rays" lists around the web (some posted as recently as the end of March). I found them all lacking as a thorough or comprehensive-enough reference point. Go look around the web. Most of them are under 1000 words and read like something designed to butter up to their favorite labels or publicists. I don't find pieces like that very helpful.
At first, I set out to write a shorter version of this for myself. It mutated into its current form where, at just over 13,000 words, it includes a healthy dose of pondering and analyzing the Blu-ray market itself. I added in pushing movies that readers may have not had on their radar nor knew were on Blu-ray in the first place.
Please click on the links of individual titles if you choose to buy through Amazon. Doing so helps make this column and articles like this one possible. I've listed the usual/reasonable prices of different discs and sets for all individual honorees so that you have a barometer of what really constitutes a "deal". These are also listed to reflect where pricing is across the board (aka still too high).
Lawrence of Arabia
"If you've never seen Lawrence, you're missing out on one of the greatest case studies for why Blu-ray is an important format."
Criterion's Brief Encounter
An early 2012 release from Criterion, the story packed into the sleeves of David Lean Directs Noël Coward is masterfully composed and told.
Criterion's The Game
David Fincher's 1997 thriller has finally seen the HD light of day it deserves, adding long-OOP laserdisc extras to a little bit of new stuff and an outstanding transfer.
David watching Lawrence of Arabia in Prometheus
Charles de Lauzirizka's three-hour-plus documentary, Furious Gods: The Making of Prometheus, is worth the price of purchase even if you hated the movie.
Studio Ghibli's Grave of the Fireflies
Don't mind the washed-out color of the cover art: the disc is gorgeous, and features a new English dub if you care about those.
Star Trek: The Next GenerationSeason 1
It’s ridiculous to compare the second season of a 25-year-old science fiction series to West Side Story, or Cinderella to Shadow of a Doubt.
It’s important to look at how different groups, which I classify as Studios and Labels, have done their work. Regarding the definition of those terms: some Studios contain Labels (i.e. Warner Archive or Scream Factory or Jezebel), but regardless, comparing a Studio to a Label is an exercise that is ludicrous in premise. They do different things. They serve different masters.
It’s crucial to highlight the historical, the mainstream and the most niche, which is why this article covers everything from A Trip to the Moon to The Hunger Games to They Live.
I didn’t watch every single Blu-ray last year. No one did. I also did not necessarily comb through every single last inch of every disc listed in this piece. If I had, I would still be working on it in 2015.
We begin with a broad view at good work and trends, and then into a series of numerical lists.
13 Great Things About Blu-ray in 2012 (in no particular order)
This is the best way I could think of to do a broad-scale look at the studios and labels who produce Blu-rays, what worked, and what I hope is an indication of things to come.
Don’t worry, the list of Worst Things/Trends immediately follows.
All Quiet on the Western Front
1. Universal’s 100th Anniversary Restorations and Releases
Celebrating a 100th Anniversary via home video releases isn’t easy when you’re the studio that home video snobs like me tend to excoriate more than the others for substandard work. Universal managed to radically change my impression of them in general terms with some rather astounding releases.
Universal trickled out some major full restoration titles throughout the whole year, all of which received new 35mm negative strikes and 4K digital masters on top of a Blu-ray release. They’re all spectacular, starting with To Kill a Mockingbird, which hit right at the end of last January. All the catalog Blu-rays Universal did throughout the year carried one of a few different studio history featurettes: one about the studio lot, one about Carl Laemmle, and a few others. They’re all very good and don’t overstay their welcome. Here’s a list of the 100th Anniversary restoration titles:
All Quiet on the Western Front
To Kill a Mockingbird
Abbot and Costello’s Buck Privates
Bride of Frankenstein
Out of Africa
With the exception of the titles in bold (which were in either the Universal Classic Monsters box or Hitchcock Masterpiece box), all of them were released in deluxe Blu-ray book packages. The Jaws “book” version, annoyingly, was a Best Buy retailer-exclusive at time of release (and may still be). Out of Africa was a much-needed do-over after the previous Blu-ray was an absolute mess.
Out of Africa
Smokey and the Bandit
The Deer Hunter
Those listed titles were joined by Blu-rays of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Harvey, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Erin Brockovich (an enormous improvement over a 12-year-old DVD), E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Airport, The Deer Hunter, and personal favorite Smokey and the Bandit. All of them look and sound great. There were new DVDs made for Sullivan’s Travels, Charade, and My Man Godfrey, all of which have superior Criterion DVDs (in the case of Charade, a Blu-ray). Loads of titles that had been long-neglected found their way to HD in editions that are reasonably affordable.
The crowning achievements for Universal in 2012 were their Universal Classic Monsters box set and, after they fixed it before release, their Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection. Both boxes are expensive, but worth getting if you need to wait for the prices to drop. The most important thing is that the movies look great. The extras are good, and expansive enough that I haven’t come close to getting through them all. The care shown to the spanish-language Dracula, shot in nights on the same sets as the Lugosi classic, is what gets me the most. Next to that are that Creature from the Black Lagoon is available in 3D, and I never dreamed I would see Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein look so lovely.
The Hitch box duplicates a couple of previous titles (Psycho and North by Northwest, the latter of which they borrowed from Warner), and recycles a fair amount of supplements. The new stuff added on top of the across-the-board excellent visuals is nice, but what I was most concerned about was the look. Early reviews of their first passes on these digital color restorations (a version of the box that never saw release in the USA) had me fearing the worst. In one of the most stand-up moves in the HD era of home video, Universal delayed the box and spend a giant pile of money re-doing all of the work. The Old Universal we like to go after would never have blinked, and released it as-is.
2. Paramount’s More Subdued 100th Anniversary Pile of Releases
These guys had the same massive anniversary number to play with, but released some great Blu-rays with less fanfare and frills. Chinatown, To Catch a Thief, and Sunset Boulevard in particular all look stunning and then some. All three have had mixed, problematic previous home video releases, and all three are impeccable. Barbarella, Wings, Top Gun and Hondo all are likewise ace. I feel like most of their best work got lost in other big, high-noise stuff and everyone gave these guys short shrift last year.
The Indiana Jones Collection is one of those big-deal things that helped lose those in the shuffle, but it’s outstanding, so who cares? Completists like me aren’t happy that it omits extras from their just-previous DVD collection of the same movies, but everyone knows movies like these get re-issued semi-regularly anyway, and we’re a fraction of a minority. Most importantly, the movies look and sound glorious.
3. Warner Archive Adds Blu-ray
The undisputed king of Manufacture-On-Demand has finally entered the HD game with a new line of small batch Blu-rays. Despite only having two titles released last year (Gypsy and Deathtrap), this is one of the biggest developments in home video as a whole due to the size of WB’s library. As great as it is to have DVDs of deep-cut classics that don’t carry the sales weight to budget for a 2K/4K/8K HD remaster, this new tier affords them the ability to do something in-house along the lines of what the heroes at Twilight Time do for others. Each title is “small batch” like a good Kentucky bourbon, but when they run out, they just do another small batch. I’m eager to get my hands on their third release, the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy, which just came out.
Some criticism came up that they should be doing the same volume of Blu-rays as they do DVDs each month, but I prefer the scale of one or two every few weeks. That makes it easier for people to work into their budgets, and it’s a strategy that has served Criterion and Twilight Time extremely well.
CBS film archives, containing the original 35mm negatives for all of Star Trek: The Next Generation
4. CBS TV (and other) Massive TV HD Restoration Projects
CBS did something truly amazing in returning to the original 35mm elements of Star Trek: The Next Generation to create new, HD masters for the classic show. The compressed, low-resolution TV masters have never looked good on HDTVs. They didn’t even look that great on SDTVs, for that matter: muddy and murky.
They re-scanned the original negative, re-composited as many original effects as possible, and only reconstructed the effects that simply couldn’t be transferred over in a higher-res version of their original form. The result for Trek TNG is what looks like a brand new show. In my original review of the first season set, I mentioned that the new, cleaner, and crisper look contributed to my gleefully re-watching even the absolute worst episodes they ever made, most of which are found in the first two seasons. At once, true classics of serial television are in there, including A Measure of a Man, which finds Data on trial for his sense of individuality.
Star Trek: The Next GenerationSeason 1
The colors are more vibrant and alive than ever, the field of action is much more easily absorbed, and the new level of detail is staggering as a whole. The new extras are added to all previously-available content from the original DVD sets. I love that three of the new sets take up the same amount of shelf space as one of the old DVD boxes. These sets feels like the future in addition to portraying it.
I assume that there may have been some incentive to do this, in the form of whatever money comes in from having crisp, HD-quality episodes to syndicate across cable. On top of that, the right people inside CBS TV pushed this, and for one of these rare moments, we have to be thankful for someone on a lot fighting for the right thing. On top of that, without the kind of dedicated fanbase that bought two episodes-per-tape at $30 a pop in the early days all the way through the DVD sets, they may not have been able to justify these new sets. People have complained “they’re too expensive”, but at even $80 a pop, that’s a good half of what I paid for some of the DVD sets back in the day.
Star Trek: The Next GenerationSeason 2
Restorations cost money, and are worth paying for when they happen. This makes more of them happen.
Also worth noting in this arena from last year is Image putting the entire Dick Van Dyke Show on Blu-ray. I can’t comment on quality having not seen it, but the notion it exists excites me, since I grew up watching it every night as a kid.
5. The Big Disney Catalog Explosion of 2012
While Disney’s relatively enormous flood of animated catalog titles on Blu-ray last year include the more-successful Rescuers, Pocahontas, and Aristocats, they also released the much less financially lucrative Pete’s Dragon, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, The Great Mouse Detective, and others. In past years, we would be lucky to get a couple titles beyond that year’s prestige Diamond Edition release. Titles still go “in the vault” (which is silly), but many more are readily available than I think was the case even at the height of DVD.
6. Scream Factory: Shout Factory Expands Specialty Scope
Fro years now, Shout Factory has been taking beloved niche properties and spinning gold where others saw a pile of hay. The best thing they’ve done since starting this campaign of joy is dive headfirst into creating a specialized retro genre sub-label. 2012 Blu-rays of Halloween II and Halloween III were among the best of the year, defying the expectations of long-saddened die-hard fans who never thought they’d see so much care lavished on their favorite movies. Painstaking new HD transfers are paired alongside a healthy stack of supplemental features to deliver a just presentation of some truly great and influential titles that many of us worried were destined for neglect. Their work on They Live is one of the best individual releases of the year, as I note further down.
7. Redemption and More: Kino Lorber Expands Specialty Scope
Along the same lines as the above, Kino Lorber has added a new layer to their already astounding work in preserving and promoting classic and important cinema. The Redemption sub-label lives for the most part in the exploitation-based worlds of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Lina Wertmüller. It also includes title considered salacious-but-still-“art”-with-a-soft-“h” titles like Girl on a Motorcycle (aka Naked Under Leather), one of the signal highlights in the masterful career of cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Whether the majority of these movies are your thing, or you consider them verging on soft-porn, they are important works of cinema.
On the more…”Film Society of Lincoln Center” side of things…the release of Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire (in cooperation with the Library of Congress) was one of the most important releases of last year, if you ask me. I have not had a chance to appreciate the disc myself (to to limited time and not having bought it yet), but as one of those Kubrick nerds who sought out bootleg tapes of his “lost film” (which he himself tried to bury permanently) when I was in college, the early work of a great auteur is one of the most precious artifacts we can hope to uncover as historians.
To cap off the year, they released a massive Buster Keaton box set that I recommend grabbing before it goes out of print. It includes all 14 of their Buster Keaton Blu-rays for about $225, including College, which was recently issued as a single. Boxes like this are not always long-lived, so grab it while you can.
War of the Arrows
8. Well Go USA: Affordable Asian Releases Sooner Than Ever
Ten years ago, the notion of timely releases of Asian titles from Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Japan was a joke. Forget about Korea. Even a few years ago, this was still generally the case. When Asian titles got picked up for US release, it was often years after die-hards like me had imported it uncut, with better subtitles and bitrate. Funimation has released some stuff in a more timely manner, but the prices are often a bit high for me on non-anime titles. CJ Entertainment themselves, the biggest Korean domestic distributor, released a few titles themselves on DVD only (barf) last year.
What I love most about Texas’s own Well Go USA up in Plano is that they’re getting more of these movies out in limited release and out on disc in high-quality, cost-effective iterations. You can rent them on VOD for $3-6 for just the movie, or own them on Blu-ray for under $20, if not closer to $15. They offer a diverse spread of the biggest mainstream Asian blockbusters (China’s The Viral Factor) to piles of period “swordsman” action movies (White Vengeance and Wind Blast) and tense horror (Korea’s Bedevilled) and those unique multi-hybrid fun-fests that defy a single genre (Let the Bullets Fly). They drop the prices on these after a reasonable time so they can be impulse buys at Best Buy or Fry’s, for example. I love that this diverse a spread is available and affordable. I remember when you couldn’t pay for anything approaching this if you wanted. If possible, their 2013 slate is already as ambitious and growing.
Orson Welles' MacBeth
9. The Abundance and Quality of Olive Films
Olive Films has picked up a massive pile of Paramount-owned catalog content and have been releasing it at a blistering pace and in outstanding quality on Blu-ray over the last year. From loads of John Wayne westerns (Rio Bravo and Fort Apache) to the work of Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar), Orson Welles’ take on MacBeth, the greatest filmed version of Cyrano de Bergerac (if you ask me), and another of the most important releases of the year: The Otto Preminger Collection, which includes the exceptionally rare psychedlic comedy misfire Skidoo, stunning racial drama Hurry Sundown, and the wonderful Such Good Friends. It kills me that I haven’t sunk into that one yet. The supplemental features are generally very limited on these, but I am much happier to have them at all, even at prices of $20-$25 a pop individually (the Otto Preminger set is $60, and I urge it as a blind buy). The ones I care about are worth the price to just have the movie.
I consider Olive’s release of High Noon one of the most beautiful black & white Blu-rays I own. The look of film grain is retained alongside a clean, crisp new transfer of the image. You can see the sweat running down Gary Cooper’s brow. I reviewed it at length here.
Olive releases some off-the-beaten-path stuff like the amazing, bizarre, and staggering Love Exposure too. They are now one of my most-watched labels, and I couldn’t be happier that they’re cranking out so much product. If they can drop their SRPs and/or bundle a bunch of things together, they could be a massive force to reckon with in volume, at a handful of brick and mortar retailers in addition to online.
10. GKIDS Becomes an Animated Force of Nature
GKIDS picked up the Studio Ghibli back catalog for theatrical distribution, and after some glorious animated movie Blu-rays last year, I wish they could take over all home video for Ghibli as well. GKIDS put together exceptional packages for Academy Award nominees Chico and Rita and A Cat in Paris, two of my favorite viewing experiences of the year. With regard to Chico, the set includes a soundtrack CD and supplemental features that justify the ~$30 price tag. GKIDS is putting out titles I care about and packaging them in the way I want to be able to own them. They get the content, they get the audience, and the end product defies the trend in animation on disc: more value for the same price.
I wish I could put into words how happy I am that they are handling the home video release of the latest feature from Studio Ghibli, From Up on Poppy Hill, to be released sometime this year.
If you're the sort of parent who likes to go beyond Disney and like to show your kids Ghibli movies, the mix of non-US, European and Asian animation being quickly gobbled up by GKIDS is a great thing for you.
11. Criterion Flexes and Further Diversifies
One of the best things Criterion has done in its history of great work is choosing to revive what I consider “classic Criterion”: titles that lack many or any extras in the interest of release at a lower price point (or release at all). A further drive to release exceptional studio movies, like Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude on top of a concerted push to Blu-grade early spine titles that have been begging for it (A Night to Remember, The Samurai Trilogy) has borne yet more compelling evidence that they’re doing God’s work. Box sets that no one else could do so well, like David Lean Directs Nöel Coward, The Trilogy of Life, and The Qatsi Trilogy further reinforce this opinion. My love of Criterion is thoroughly documented, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m putting the finishing touches on a Best in Criterion 2012 post that will be separate from the monster you’re currently reading.
11. A Stand Against Ultraviolet
Those of us who are after the best bitrate possible already rip our own copies from the discs we buy, but I for one actually use the Digital Copy codes that come with my Blu-ray discs. I should clarify: I use the iTunes Digital Copy codes.
I cheer the studios that choose to offer iTunes Digital Copy over the shitshow that is Ultraviolet, a broken system that would have to be entirely overhauled to make sense. Disney and HBO provide only iTunes, while the good people of Fox, Universal, Lionsgate/Summit, and Paramount all give you iTunes plus Ultraviolet codes. Special kudos goes to Universal, who started providing the HD iTunes file with their releases with the release of Jaws last fall.
In a perfect world, these files wouldn’t be DRMed and therefore locked to Apple devices, so even the iTunes model isn’t perfect. In what may surprise those who follow my writing and utter hatred of Ultraviolet, I have to admit the main reason I like the iTunes-defending studios is that their holding out is what could make Ultraviolet a drastically better service that is superior to and more useful than iTunes. I use Apple devices,
13. Fox and MGM: Quality Control and Consistency
They’ve reissued The French Connection with the correct color timing intact (which was an error of judgment on William Friedkin’s part, not theirs), they cranked out a couple of very impressive Woody Allen classics (Annie Hall and Manhattan), a trio of solid Hitchcock titles (Notorious, Spellbound, and Rebecca), and managed to keep their new releases devoid of much, if any, fluff supplements.
I point out that last bit as it relates to an epidemic that began a few years ago on new release titles, wherein the back would read like there’s a ton of stuff on on the disc, when in reality it’s almost all EPK-level garbage. They fluff up the contents as they appear on the back cover. I call this trend “backfluffing”, and it’s awful. WB has started releasing “movie plus backfluff” Blu-rays in addition to ones that cost $5-$10 more and have the rest of the extras. Fox isn’t alone in how they do this (Universal is pretty good at it too), but since Fox is also producing the Blu-grades of one of the great catalogs in Hollywood (MGM), they’re accomplishing this across not just their new releases, but some of the greatest films ever made.
Fox and MGM also got the memo on releasing titles at lower SRPs and then dropping the prices relatively soon so that once the obsessives were done, they could settle in nicely into the $8 bin at your local big box store (recent re-re-issues of Spaceballs and The Princess Bride come to mind.
That the Bond 50 set exists at all is a minor miracle, and across the board, it’s the culmination of everything I’ve said above re: Fox doing it right.
They also got into the Manufacture-On-Demand game in a strong way last year. Hopefully they can ramp to being a solid competitor to Warner Archive on both the Fox and MGM side of things, because then everyone wins. Early titles featured modified aspect ratios (aka pan & scan chopping), but I think they heard us loud and clear in complaining. They aren’t there yet, but I think they can. I look forward to them getting to where they can do small-batch Blu-ray as well.
The Worst 2012 Trends in Blu-ray
1. Giant, Empty Chocolate Boxes and Oversized Inefficiency
I love how small and compact the new Star Trek: TNG sets are. I love the repackaging of the Planet of the Apes collection that actually fits on standard DVD shelving.
On the complete other end of the scale, Warner Bros is still releasing enormous, hardcover-book-omnibus-sized sets like Casablanca 70th Anniversary and Singin in the Rain that lack the greatness of the first one they did in the Blu-ray era, The Wizard of Oz.
Bond 50's contents are great, but it still displaces itself from easy storage. Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary mega-set is likewise great, and therefore manages to overcome its oversized nature.
The sins of Singin and Casablanca are chiefly thus: a) the extra tchotchkes in the box aren't that great, and in the case of Singin, b) you can't get the extras from the DVD special edition in the cheaper slimcase edition released the same day.
Actual supplemental features are fewer and further between than ever. As an extension of how I explained this further up, new editions of classic catalog titles will also tout new "never-before-seen" interviews and such that are not that great.
3. Blu-ray Mutli-Dips
We used to get a year between these, but now they take multiple forms and happen in rapid succession. The second pass might feature the same flawed transfer but a "book" case (oh brother, more on that in a minute). The second pass may suddenly pack in the extras previously on DVD and a new transfer at half the price of the first pass. In yet another twist, a title previously available on its own on a single disc may be taken out of print and reissued with another movie on the same disc. More often, we pay for a bunch of movies and then a collection is released, complete with new "exclusive extras". It's infuriating.
The Tarantino XX set and its exclusive extras, for example, did not tempt me to purchase after grabbing most of those same movies within the same year. At a lower price point, maybe it would have.
The Blade Runner 30th Anniversary set offers no new extras outside a photo gallery, when they could have finally released Charles de Lauzirika's masterful Dangerous Days doc and the deleted scenes in HD.
4. Pricing is Still Too High (Especially Inflated "Book" Packages)
I'm not paying $30 for Guys and Dolls on Blu-ray. The same goes for Meet Me in St. Louis and others. Like a dope, I paid it for Little Shop of Horrors. Stop abusing us and sell radically more product by either ditching or drastically lowering the price of the book-and-case packaging. Just look at some of the prices included alongside the titles listed below. The prices from smaller labels and sub-licensors make sense, as their margins are much higher, but look at some of those first-party titles and think about how many of these titles came out over a year ago and still cost an arm and a leg.
5. Inexcusably Bad Transfers Still Exist
That The Color of Moneylooks so poor is an embarrassment for Touchstone/Disney.
6. The Miramax Asian Catalog: Still Treated Like Garbage
The offloading of the majority of Miramax's holdings in home video to bargain distributors means we get the same VHS-quality, utterly awful transfers and dubs of the majority of Jackie Chan's filmography. The silver lining is that a pile of Jackie Chan releases in particular have been sub-licensed by the great people at Shout!Factory.
7. An Explosion of Retailer Exclusives
I hate it when they do one of these and it isn't "get a free poster" or "here's a LEGO figurine", but instead, you have to hunt for which retailer has the full-length documentary you want and weigh that against another one that has a deleted scenes disc. Make retailer exclusive incentives tchotchkes, not supplemental features.
The Best in 2012 Animated Feature Blu-rays
I am intermixing catalog and new release in this case only, because I felt it provided the better list.
The Dark Knight Returns Part 1
The adaptation many thought impossible works so well in animation that I don't see a reason to do it live-action. The quality of animation and production is theatrical-level, and the extras are sufficient. I mention Justice League: Doom in the same breath because the supplements, which are mostly dedicated to the too-soon-gone Dwayne McDuffie, are almost more valuable to me than the feature he wrote. DC Animation is doing virtuoso work.
The presentation looks and especially sounds great, and the supplemental features include a bunch of great stuff, including commentary.
The Rescuers Down Under
The Great Mouse Detective
$30, $30, $25, $18
Part of the explosion of Disney catalog this year, these are not only the best quality movies of the bunch, but the most substantive releases. The four of them are grouped due to the almost identical level of presentation.
Everything you would expect to be top-notch on a new Pixar release is on this disc. The best part of it, for me, is how respectfully they treated Brenda Chapman in leaving her all over the supplemental features. As classily as one can handle the dismissal of a director, it seems Pixar did in this case, down to the home video release.
Whisper of the Heart
Castle in the Sky
$30 and $28
Though I wish Disney had included more supplemental features on these, the picture quality and sound are flawless. I've left off Arrietty because the movie is fine enough, but there's nothing included there that compel me to recommend buying it rather than renting digitally.
Pixar Shorts Volume 2
$35, $25, and $33
The last remaining holdouts in the Pixar catalog are finally on Blu-ray, and neither of them seem to be in any danger of getting "vaulted" any time soon, if ever (I hope). As has been the pattern, the best extra on Nemo is the filmmakers' roundtable, where the creatives reminisce. The entire reason to get Pixar Shorts 2 is the inclusion of John Lassiter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter's student films, but their introductions to each as well.
Lady and the Tramp
$26 and $20
These are listed jointly (as will a couple of others in this list) due to fundamental similarities in packaging, supplemental features, and general treatment. The process of grain-stripping and cleaning will remain controversial to some, especially those who obsess over stills rather than the way the image looks in motion. The depth of detail allows you to see down to brushstrokes, as in previous top-tier "masterpiece" releases. Grab these before they go "into the vault". Deleted scenes can be seen and heard in various animatic forms for the first time, on top of all the previously-available extras from DVD SEs.
The Beatles' Yellow Submarine
12. Yellow Submarine
The 4K restoration done on one of the trippiest, childhood-nightmare-inducing-est movies of all time here is stunning, with decent supplemental features and handsome packaging.
Grave of the Fireflies
I had avoided the Blu-ray of Studio Ghibli's saddest (and arguably best) movie ever, Grave of the Fireflies, due to not trusting its unknown-to-me American home video distributor, Sentai Filmworks. What an idiot I am. Don't mind the washed-out color of the cover art: the disc is gorgeous, and features a new English dub if you care about those.
This is a great film, and one of the greatest in the history of animation, but be forewarned that it is both beautiful and profoundly depressing. It opens revealing that the two kids you're going to fall in love with are already dead, and that the movie is about their struggle to survive WWII Japan. Even with that setup, it has my highest "what do you mean you haven't seen it?" recommendation.
It's breath-taking and gorgeous (and depressing).
The 9 Best in 2012 New Release Blu-rays
These titles are not being evaluated on a basis of whether these are my favorite movies of the year (some of them I didn't even really like!), but rather, a look at the comprehensive value of the package.
A strong albeit small set of extras, exceptional AV quality, and a good retail price made this one hard to find during its week of release, and for good reason.
The extras round out a nice, sturdy release. There was a Best Buy retailer exclusive that included a documentary about sabremetrics, but I never managed to track it down or feel it merited the $10 upcharge. What's on the disc is great and gets the job done. I would have preferred they include something substantive about the entirely different take Soderbergh was going with and the resulting controversy. Oh well.
The confusing pricing matrix above reflects the two most common, widely-available versions, which differ only in that the second includes a DVD. The yet third one is the Best Buy exclusive version, which cost around $30 originally. How the expensive fall.
In addition to the loads of supplemental features one expects from Universal on a new release (expescially a David Wain movie), there's an entire Bizarro Cut of the movie made up of unused takes, riffs, and adlibs. Believe it or not, I laughed more at it than most comedies of the last three to five years. Especially if you're a comedy, improv, or State fan, this is one of the most unique and wonderful extras surprises of recent memory.
6. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Best Buy Exclusive)
This one would have been further up the list, were it not for the retailer exclusive status. The additional behind-the-scenes doc on the Best Buy version is the best thing on the set, if you ask me. It's very candid and shows the director (Brad Bird) and star (Tom Cruise) in truly unguarded moments. Footage from iPhones and other devices is included, stuff that would ordinarily consitute home movies from the set that no one would see. At one point, Bird even addresses something to "Steve". The poignance of seeing that mere months after Jobs' death hit me right in the chest. Not everyone who watches this thing will worked for Apple as recently as I did (2007-2010), nor were they among the people who helped solve problems emailed to Steve's not-so-secret email address, but I imagine that plenty of people who see that piece will be affected by it. It isn't every day that a massively-budgeted, ultra-high-profile blockbuster movie has something like this tucked away alongside extras obviously curated by people who like this stuff too. If you wrote this movie off as "just another Mission: Impossible thing", it'll surprise you in more ways than one. Track down the Best Buy version if you can.
Cabin in the Woods
Excellent, engaging, and active commentaries pair very nicely with the other supplements to make for a solid, reasonbly priced disc that belongs on everyone's shelf.
"But the movie is technically ten years old!" you say, or "there are basically no extras on this thing". Who cares, and if you think the latter, you're wrong. The inclusion of Kenneth Lonergan's Extended Cut on the included DVD (wish it were a Blu-ray) is more worthwhile than just about any featurette or behind-the-scenes doc on any disc this year. What was essentially a lost film has been saved by painstaking work on the part of Fox Home Entertainent.
Criterion's Tiny Furniture
I know I'll get no end of venom for this from some people. Again, this movie didn't come out last year, but the disc did. Maybe you hate the movie or hate Lena Dunham. So sorry if you do, but from an objective standpoint, Criterion's prescience here is astonishing when you consider this release came before Girls premiered on HBO. The release includes a thorough look at Lena Dunham's student films, an interview with the great Nora Ephron, and her entire first feature, plus a piece with none other than Paul Schrader.
David Fincher's exacting attention to detail and the comprehensive nature of the home video editions of his movies shines once again here. The supplemental features equate to a lost weekend in Fincherland, and the picture quality is flawess.
From Charles de Lauzirika's Furious Gods: The Making of Prometheus
Charles de Lauzirika, the producer of this disc and many of the best home video special editions ever made, should be canonized as a saint. His three-hour-plus behind the scenes documentary on Prometheus is worth the price of purchase even if you hated the movie. The deleted scenes reveal some of the shaping and honing work that obviously came down to the wire.
The Best in 2012 Deep Catalog (pre-1980) Blu-rays
This batch of 25 is the longest list in this series of lists, since it covers such an enormous part of cinema history. I chose 1980 as the cutoff specifically due to the larger quantity of badly preserved films coming from before that semi-arbitrarily-chosen year. I tried to limit the quantity of Criterion titles on here, since they're getting a list and article all their own, but they deserve to be on here.
In the interest of not giving myself a heart attack from the stress of ranking all 25, I'm listing all, but only ranking the top 10.
Criterion's Rosemary's Baby
The general expectations one has of a Criterion edition looking and sounding great are a given at this point. You expect a great suite of supplemental features that are like a miniature film school in a box. I never expected that they would manage new interviews with not just Polanski and Mia Farrow, but Robert Evans of all people. That get in and of itself almost put this in the top ten for me. This is one of the quickest Criterion blind buy recommendations that I make now.
Criterion's A Night to Remember
In the shadow of Titanic, this movie plays much better than modern audiences might assume that it does. As Criterion's spine number 7, it was previously one of their longest-in-the-tooth titles without an upgrade. I've banished Criterion's basic Blu-grades form this particular list (the ones that are HD transfers alongside the exact same extras), but this one squeaks in thanks to a half-hour Swedish documentary that features survivor interviews, plus a rather recent BBC hourlong documentary called The Iceberg That Sank "Titanic".
Criterion's Belle de Jour
My favorite Luis Buñuel movie looks utterly gorgeous here, and the supplements (as per usual with Criterion), explore the socio-cultural elements of the film with regard to gender and sexuality in addition to the commentary, vintage TV show, and talent interviews one would expect. I felt guilty not including this one in the top ten, but such are the tough choices in making silly lists like this.
The DVD special edition from nearly ten years ago stripped out more than just grain. This new digital restoration undoes that indignity, and I'm surprised that this disc flew under the radar for many. On top of drastically better visuals than ever before, this edition carries over a pile of previously-available extras and adds a never-before-seen deleted scene in HD.
The colors pop, the audio is clean and clear, and the level of detail is extraordinarily clear while at once retaining the look of film grain. The Sting has always looked dull and muddy on DVD, and this was a massive jump in all departments.
The Library of Congress-backed restoartion and preservation of this one deserves a great deal of praise simply for having happened. It's a black spot on my record that I haven't watched the thing yet, but that's in the cards for this next week at some point.
Yet another excellent Paramount restoration that didn't get as many notices as I would have expected (considering the movie), this one has suffered the same fate as To Catch a Thief, where it's never looked very impressive on DVD, with only the most recent DVD looking...pretty good, and finally anamorphic-enhanced. Also worth noting: the cover art on these Paramount 100th movies all look gorgeous, down to the feel of the finish on the paper sleeves.
West Side Story
A sticking point that legitimately kept this one out of the top ten is a nitpick that I share with the often-wrong-but-roughly-as-often-right Jeff Wells, who, like me, went a little ballistic when a notable color tone sequence in the overture was replaced with a fade to black that was never there. Aside from this gross error in the movie's opening sequence, the rest of it looks and sounds great and all that. I bought my copy used when the "thick" version could be gotten for about 15 bucks.
Criterion's Harold and Maude
This is one of the best movies of the 1970's, bar none. Don't let the setup of "young guy obsessed with death has a love affair with a much older woman" turn you off. Hal Ashby's comedy masterpiece is equal parts touching and disturbing, turning on a dime from sweet sincerity to gallows humor. Aside from the usual-usual bang-up Criterion AV job, the commentary with Ashby biographer Nick Dawson (Being Hal Ashby is a wonderful read) and producer Charles B. Mulvehill is outstanding, as is the new interview with Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens).
Criterion's The 39 Steps
This is yet another great Criterion upgrade of an early spine number (#56) Hitchcock classic, which keeps all of the old extras and adds a couple of new ones, like a visual essay. The stunner here is the difference in picture quality as compared to the original DVD. The almost 80-year-old thriller looks better than I thought possible.
The Girl on a Motorcycle
The inaugural release from Kino's "Jezebel" label is notable for more than its titilation value. This movie, also known as Naked Under Leather, is more than a cult movie starring two of Europe's biggest stars of the 1960's (Alain Delon and Marianne Faithfull). It's gorgeously shot and directed by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who is best known for The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The African Queen, among others. The extras include only a commentary with Cardiff and the trailer, but the commentary alone, combined with the AV quality on display is worth it for me.
A great example of how Olive Films is succeeding and then some with their release of many Paramount and Republic Pictures catalog titles. This Nicholas Ray humdinger bleeds color all over the screen, and is given the vibrant, stunning treatment it deserves here. This edition is short of extras, but long on quality.
I was worried when this title got yanked away from Criterion. It represents one of my favorite film school discovery moments from back when it was still functionally difficult to watch movies like this. The Lionsgate/StudioCanal edition looks and sounds great, and includes new extras. I still miss the handful of stuff from the Criterion DVD.
A Trip to the Moon
A still of Meliés' toy shop from The Extraordinary Voyage
I like "steelbook" cases for the right movies, but it doesn't really sway me in the analysis of quality. The "steelbook" editions are going for over $100 on Amazon now, which I find kind of crazy.
I will say that production quality in general is what I noticed most about the first Flicker Alley title I've bought. The greater reoslution offered by Blu-ray is nice, as is the additional disc space, which allows uncompromised versions of two more Meliés shorts (The Eclipse and The Astronomer's Dream) to live on the disc alongside multiple versions of the 15-minute film on the cover, on top of the 65-minute documentary about the salvation of the movie, The Extraordinary Voyage. Keep in mind this movie was "lost" for 109 years. It came back into existence when, coincidentally, the "YouTube" span of attention is more in fashion than the old-fashioned feature-length one. I wish I'd tracked down Flicker Alley's This is Cinerama and Windjammer discs. I heard good things. There was a mastering error in the first run of these for which Flicker Alley proactively offered a disc replacement program.
Buster Keaton in The Saphead
10. The Saphead
Kino continues their outstanding track record with Buster Keaton-starring releases with this indispensible 1920 classic, Keaton's first feature film performance. He plays a spoiled son of privilege who bungles and bumbles his way through a variety of hijinks. The centerpiece extra of this release is a complete variant version of the feature comprised of alternate takes and angles, which is supplemented by a short comparison featurette. The rare 1962 audio included, wherein Keaton reminisces on his days in vaudeville make this even better.
9. High Noon
The extras are limited, the picture quality is astounding, and the movie just so happens to be one of the best westerns ever made.
Singin in the Rain
Singin in the Rain
Singin in the Rain
Singin in the Rain
Singin in the Rain
$15 reasonable single disc edition
Gorgeous audio and video are paired with the first disc of extras from the wonderful two-DVD special edition. Hang onto that 2-disc DVD edition if you have it, or pick it up on the cheap used, since no one should have to massively overpay for the mega-box version. Had the second disc of extras been included, this one would have ended up higher on the list.
To Catch a Thief
This Hitchcock classic has been issued on home video something like six times (I may be slightly exaggerating, but only slightly). More often than not, it's looked like absolute mud, been cropped/letterboxed badly, or has lacked anamorphic transfer. It finally looks as great on home video as, in my mind, it should.
One of the earliest 2012 releases finished the year as one of the best. I met Criterion boss-man Peter Becker some years ago at SXSW, and I mentioned to him offhandedly how much I wish they could get their hands on this one, which I felt Classic Media did an amenable job on both on DVD and Blu-ray, but the Blu edition omitted the US cut that was on the DVD edition. I told Becker "who knows if much could really be done on the picture quality side of things", and his response made it seem like he was working through the idea of doing this one in his head. I'd like to think that short snip of a longer conversation helped nudge this bad boy into existence.
To Kill a Mockingbird
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
This is a great release and the movie looks great, but I have a personal quibble with the contrast and black levels. I haven't seen a 35mm print of this movie in a long, long while, but I wish they could boosted the black levels on this new transfer. It just looks a tiny bit blown out to me. Why, then, has it landed the #5 spot on such a list? The detail of the scan is wonderful, even if I'm finnicky about the contrast. The extras are solid, and in general, it's one of the least "fluffy" complete packages we got last year.
I've watched the feature on this disc around ten times since I got it. The movie looks better than it ever has, and that assertion has been backed up by my friend Eric Vespe at Ain't It Cool, a guy whom he and others wager has seen the movie more than anyone else on the planet. The color balance is perfect, the sound mix is clean and crisp, and the level of detail in the picture make this a top-shelf reference disc of the highest stature. The only minor annoyance is that the Shark is Still Working doc included is letterboxed and pillarboxed. There was some insistence that this is how it was originally intended to be seen, but I think that press release-y explanation is bullshit.
Criterion's Anatomy of a Murder
Criterion's Anatomy of a Murder
The picture and sound are great, a true testament to one of the great films. What rocketed this set toward the top of this chart is the spread of supplements, which touch on every part of the production I could hope them to, from the Duke Ellington score to Saul Bass's title sequence, a reproduction in the booklet of a LIFE magazine article on the real-life lawyer featured in the movie as the judge. The crown jewel, however, is a 1967 episode of William F. Buckley's TV program Firing Line, in which Preminger rips Buckley to shreds in the pre-Daily Show era. The clarity in the depth of field seen here allow the viewer to see more than under ideal projected conditions, but not more than Preminger intended. I marvelled at George C. Scott visibly performing and existing in the frame with James Stewart, but even more so at perceiving Scott's personal enjoyment in watching Stewart chew the scenery.
Criterion's The Gold Rush
One of Chaplin's best and most re-watchable movies finds both its less-seen 1925 silent cut and the "talkie-ized" 1942 version both in HD on the same disc, and bith look great. That, in and of itself, is a compelling enough reason to have this thing. The newly-recorded commentary for the 1925 version, plus the pile of other featurettes and docs (representing all of the old DVD features) make this yet another knockout Criterion Chaplin release.
Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia
1. Lawrence of Arabia
This movie is one of the best justifications for the existence of an HD format like Blu-ray. The scale and scope of its filmmaking are paid proper tribute thanks to the painstaking full restoration by Grover Crisp's crack team at Sony. Instead of simply going back to the previous restoration, they started back from scratch, re-scanning the best available film elements.
Where I turn into a massive hypocrite is in that I bought the massive chocolate box-sized mega-set, the type of release which I decry above as one of the worst continuing trends. In this case, it really is a great set for those who love thois movie. I like that the soundtrack/score CD includes two new, unreleased tracks of music I dearly love. The additional Blu-ray features worthwhile extras, the 88-page coffee table book is not full of fluff and pictures, and for the love of Sharif Ali, the 70mm film cel I got is a frame from just as Lawrence has lit "the match". The set has dipped down to the $40 range at retailers like Fry's (and occasionally on Amazon). I'm very happy that one can get a pretty great pile of extras and the gorgeous Blu-ray transfer for around $10, and that there aren't five tiers of different versions of this release. Sony has always done a great job with Lawrence, and I wish other studios would look at this, take notes, and treat the greatest films right. The only minor quibble is that I wish the 3-Blu-ray discs-only version were available at the same time, so that the third disc of Blu-ray extras was not a dangled incentive to get the giant box, in case one doesn't want to get the big box. I've watched the movie on this three times since getting it last year, and I'm due for a summer and fall viewing as well later this year.
If you've never seen Lawrence, you're missing out on one of the greatest case studies for why Blu-ray is an important format.
The 11 Best in 2012 Modern Catalog (post-1980) Blu-rays
Post-1980 catalog faces a rather different preservation challenge. People assume that the relative age of these movies means that they're fine and totally safe, but that is rarely the case. It is far more likely that something "newer" will get tossed out as it's assumed everything is fine and dandy. For example, whether you believe it or not, there is no "preservation print" of Martin Scorsese's 1993 film The Age of Innocence.
The Breakfast Club
This one has a new 12-part documentary, but more importantly, includes a video transfer that is amazingly close to exactly how I remember 35mm prints of it looking: grainy. It could, however, use some extra love in the form of a true restoration, since the fine detail and color balance leave something to be desired. This could be among the prettiest-looking "regular people" movies of the 80's.
Little Shop of Horrors
The movie looks great in HD and everything, but the bigger deal here is the original ending (the ending of the musical this is based on) having been restored for HD. The "book" version is overpriced at $25-plus, but mega-fans like myself will probably pull the trigger anyway.
9. Dick Tracy
There are no extras on this, likely due to the difficulty of approving things like that through Warren Beatty, but the upside is that at least we've got the movie, and it looks better than I remember it playing in theatres (or on the collector's print of a friend I watched a while back). This is as good as we're likely to get on this, and frankly I'm just glad to have the movie treated this well.
Criterion's The War Room
8. The War Room
It is possible to set aside one's political beliefs and find The War Room a fascinating look at the evolution of political campaigns at a crucial point and inside a compelling perspective: the winning 1992 campaign of President Bill Clinton. Especially looking back at this 20 years on, the way that campaigns have changed at a fundamental level is eye-opening and depressing (but informative) all at once. Newly-recorded pieces with the filmmakers and the inclusion of the 2008 Return to doc make this Criterion set a master class in political campaign analysis and operation for junkies like me.
The only really new features found here are the Reflections on Titanic and cable TV special Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron. That said, the AV upgrade is gorgeous on the 2D version (I lack a 3D setup or I'd have tried that). The beautiful transfer seems like an easy thing for a movie that's "only" 15 years old, but it'd be an easy thing to screw up. The only "Lucasing" on display is the correction of the CG star field in the night sky, consulted on by Neil DeGrasse-Tyson.
You might think I'm insane for including some goofy Disney family comedy on this list, but underestimating this disc would be a great mistake for any DVD nut worth their salt. The feature commentary with writer/producer Judd Apatow, director Steven Brill, and a pile of cast members is one of the better commentaries I've listened to in the last ten years. It's dense with unrepeated anecdotes and production details that are interesting whether you were a fan of the movie or not. The disc also packs in over 30 deleted or additional scenes, a Making-Of, home movie footage shot on Super 8, a "where are they now" piece on the cast, and a video chat between Apatow and Keenan Thompson. This is actually one of the most stacked, best special editions of last year. Trust me on this one.
Edging out a children-focused box office bomb is a family movie mega-blockbuster by Steven Spielberg. The picture and sound are great, but the real standout for me is the addition of a new behind-the-scenes piece where you get to watch Spielberg direct. I don't mean that you get to see something super-stagey where he says "ok guys, big energy, let's make this one count!!!1!!1" and then it cuts to him yelling "CUT!!! Brilliant work! We're all geniuses!". This is something I'm rather certain I haven't seen on any of Spielberg's tightly-controlled DVD special editions. He's an outspoken detractor of commentary tracks, and that's fine by me if this is the sort of thing we get, which is honestly more interesting or useful than half-remembered, recycled anecdotes as most tracks end up being filled with.
Vanya on 42nd Street
I know what many people are saying: "What the hell is Vanya on 42nd Street?". In 1994, André Gregory (co-star alongside Wallace Shawn in My Dinner with André) directed a very intimate, private production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. It was staged in a crumbling 42nd street theater (the Victory), which couldn't be used for the purpose of this, Louis Malle's final film. They shifted the production to the similarly-decrepit New Amsterdam Theatre. The cast includes Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Brooke Smith (The Silence of the Lambs, Series 7: The Contenders), and the great George Gaynes (probably best-remembered from Punky Brewster). The performance itself as captured on film is magnetic. Almost as stirring is the new retrospective doc that interviews the entire cast and producer Fred Berner. The booklet is packed as is the custom for with Criterion. This is one of the most important choices they've made in preserving/promoting modern films, and it will surprise you. It is not on this list at this spot as a stunt. It earns this place and then some.
Post Script: The New Amsterdam is now under long-term lease to Disney, who debuted The Lion King: The Broadway Musical there in 1997, and where they recently closed Mary Poppins after a lengthy run. I think they're mounting Aladdin next. I would go to whatever big Disneyfied piece of garbage they have just to walk among the ghosts of this show.
3. They Live
God bless Shout! Factory and their new Scream Factory sub-label. If they didn't exist, we wouldn't see this sort of treatment for a good chunk of modern cult and genre classics like this John Carpenter favorite much, if ever. A great HD transfer paired with a Carpenter/Roddy Piper commentary, a new interview with Carpenter, and yet more make this one of the best treatments of a 1980's movie on Blu-ray to date. The extra touches, like the reversible cover art and the "BUY" sticker on the front are just the right finishing touches. BUY NOW.
$23 & $19
I stay up on a lot of genre titles, and the treatment of these two movies by Scream Factory earns them the joint number-two position on this list rather handily. Brian Collins at Badass Digest does a great job properly showing tribute to what Shout!/Scream Factory have been doing on this stuff all around right here.
Criterion's The Game
1. The Game
David Fincher's 1997 thriller has finally seen the HD light of day it deserves, adding long-OOP laserdisc extras to a little bit of new stuff and an outstanding transfer. I reviewed it back in October at length. Here's an excerpt:
The significant bump up in video bitrate compared to the creaky old DVD is significant, since the visual palette is so consistently dark throughout, with everything creeping in and out of shadows, it would seem. The void of blackness that envelops San Francisco for most of the movie looks magnificent here, without any hint of artifacting or crushed blacks.
The extras are, as I mentioned above, a direct port of the laserdisc, but that only means that they're likely new to most reading this. The commentary offered over the feature, behind the scenes, and trailer is cut across comments from director David Fincher, Director of Photography Harris Savides, star Michael Douglas, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, digital animation supervisor Richard “Dr.” Baily, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug. I actually miss these "laserdisc-style" commentaries, since they go for the choice cuts of comments.
The 9 Best in 2012 Blu-ray Box Sets
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
This one would have ranked higher had Paramount not done what they've often done in the past with Indy and dropped extras from the most-recent box set collection of these titles they put on DVD. Expect a double-dip on this set at some point in the next three years.
Criterion's The Samurai Trilogy: Musashi Miyamoto
3 movies, ~$42
Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)
Physically, this is the smallest box set in this list, but it is very important. It represents yet another outstanding combination of upgrading visuals and audio for one of their earliest spine number titles (#14-16), plus new interviews that add actual extras to these classic 1950's color samurai movies for the first time. I gave this one extra points for reducing three discs worth of width on the shelf to just one compact "case worth" of space.
Lethal Weapon 2
4 movies, ~$55
Undoubtedly delayed by the series of scandals Mel Gibson found himself embroiled in, this set has been available overseas since 2010, unless I'm mistaken. The set includes new HD transfers compared to the previous individual releases, and the improvement is visible across the board. The new extras are all great, and this is worth grabbing even if you're more partial to the first two, more Shane Black-ified movies.
11 features & 2 shorts collections, ~$250
Packaging all of Kino's outstanding Buster Keaton Special Edition releases in one box, this is a solid investment for both serious cinephiles as well as, I would argue, parents looking to educate their kids on classic films that they haven't seen. If you love comedy, taking a chance on Buster Keaton is a pretty sure bet. I worry more and more about individual titles going out of print as companies keep acquiring classic film libraries. I'm unclear as to whether the Cohen Media Group acquired home video rights to these titles when they recently grabbed rights to screen and restore the Keaton catalog. Get this while you can, or you'll be looking at double the price on eBay.
3 movies, ~$60
The "Qatsi" movies aren't documentaries, narratives, or even some sort of "reality" pictures. They're meditative filmic essays, which is a great way to recommend a movie to a starnger in college and get a weird look back. I usually go with calling these movies a progressive look at the transformation of the world around us, especially focusing on how technology is changing us and the world. Believe it or not, I would call them just as appealing as the Planet Earth documentaries to those series's rabid fans. Even though the Earth series has a more mass-market core audience, the themes are not that different, even though the Qatsi series is happily and comfortably more esoteric and ethereal in nature. These are some of the most unique and captivating films I've ever seen. The box set includes and early rough version of the first film, multiple companion pieces, a new afterword from the director, and beautifully complimentary interviews.
9 movies, ~$90
The Mummy (1932)
The Invisible Man (1933)
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Wolf Man (1941)
The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
This is one of the sets I've been waiting for since the Blu-ray format won out over HD-DVD. The picture and audio quality is consistently great across the board, most stunning me with both Dracula (Spanish Version) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Invisible Man looks pretty good, but not as great as I was expecting. The focus feels a bit soft throughout, and more so than was intended by the director. I'm more focused on the picture and audio quality on this release than the extras, which I haven't been terribly motivated to chew through in general. Pricing could have been more reasonable on this, evinced by a bunch of friends importing the UK all-region edition that came in at nearly half the price.
North by Northwest
15 movies, sub-$150
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Rear Window (1954)
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
North by Northwest (1959)
The Birds (1963)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Family Plot (1976)
Universal did the right thing pre-emptively recalling this set and re-working movies that had issues in picture quality, screwed up credits, and varous other issues. The end product looks and sounds great, and is stacked with all sorts of extras. The biggest strike against it was its original $200-plus pricing that made grabbing it prohibitive for the majority of people who I think would wanted this set. The only reason I got a copy last year is that Universal sent me one in preparation for an interview I did with Guillermo del Toro. I'm not imagining that they would have sold ten times as many had the price come in sub-$200, or better yet, sub-$150 (where it sits now on Amazon). I'm glad that it only made two discs on my shelf redundant (Psycho and WB's North by Northwest), and am glad they crammed 15 movies into a set that's two or three "cases" wide.
From Russia With Love
22 movies, sub-$150
I love having all of these movies in one place. I wish the case were more shelf-friendly. The transfers are oustanding, and very few extras are omitted from previous editions, most notably to me a couple of Brosnan-era Blu-rays and the Limited Edition of Casino Royale. The pricing was reasonable (sub-$150 for 22 movies). The new and exclusive extras are all right enough. This set checks more boxes in more categories than most mainstream box sets generally do: it's completist, doesn't exclude loads of previous supplements (see Indiana Jones), sports great AV transfers, and adds some nice new stuff in a set priced at around $7/movie. My crazy wishes and hopes included sub-licensing of the great OOP Criterion laserdisc commentaries, which included stories like that of Sean Connery greeting foreign dignitaries while not wearing pants and so on. I very nearly gave this set the #1 spot.
In Which We Serve
This Happy Breed
Film legend Ronald Neame, who worked on the Lean/Coward movies (in addition to his own amazing résumé), from the extras
The 45-minute interview with him on this set brought him to tears, and likewise affected me
4 movies, ~$60
An early 2012 release from Criterion, the story packed into the sleeves of this set is masterfully composed and told. Following the career-changing collaboration between mega-star playwright/actor/bon vivant Noël Coward and the legend-to-be David Lean, then an editor, this set represents a semester in British Film Studies shoved into a box. The interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day on each film is a great post-film "discussion away from the cinematèque" that few if any of us would get in the first place at our local arthouse.
The context is a great way to string these together, and I support Criterion's decision to only make their Brief Encounter Blu-grade available as part of this set. I was particularly moved by the interview with Ronald Neame, who alternately worked as a cinematographer, writer, and producer on these movies before becoming a British film legend in his own right. His death in proximity to the release of this set was truly sad, but the nature of what he says in his piece of the set is a tribute to his towering artistry and brilliance. If you dismiss or don't care about WWII-era British film or film history, I'm surprised you read this site. That isn't to say that those who haven't seen these films need not feel part of the "in" crowd at all. Before its release, I'd never seen In Which We Serve nor This Happy Breed. Sets like this are how many of us discover classic and important films.
The Best in 2012 Catalog TV Blu-rays
5. Dragon Ball Z Kai Seasons 1-3
I didn't follow this show when I was younger, buying trmemendously overpriced VHS tapes at $30 a pop like my wife did (yes, my super-hot wife is a massive Vegeta nerd). My wife introduced me to the original, uncut, and properly subtitled original episodes on standard def, 4x3 DVDs by way of Funimation's handsome Dragon Box sets. After we got through about 70 hours of those original, filler-packed episodes, we found out that the Japanese studio that owns Dragon Ball (aka Anime Money-Printing Machine Deluxe) was remastering the original episodes in widescreen HD and cutting out virtually all of the excessive filler from the original show. I've briefly sampled some of these episodes, and they do look and sound great, and are radically less like watching jell-o cool. The proper preservation and remastering of animation is a big deal to me, even the most mass-market, popular stuff. I'm not thrilled with the notion of them chopping art out of the frame or adding new animation to the sides to make what was square a rectangle. I'm strictly against Modified Aspect Ratios, but this series in particular has been rife with so many compromises, it doesn't bother me as much.
Fox's Simpsons sets obviously have a great deal of input from the production staff, including Matt Groening. Every episode features commentary, there are tons of featurettes and little odds and ends sprinkled throughout. The way these sets are done makes the experience of having them strikingly different than just having the episodes. The episodes are syndicated into oblivion and always on TV, but real fans get more than just a commentary or two and a fluff-tastic featurette. This set just made me want a mega-set of the early seasons in HD all the more.
~$35 per season individually, $140 for all 6 as The Early Cases
Acorn Media is one of the unsung heroes of TV on disc, dutifully releasing all sorts of great shows over the years to the point that many Barnes & Noble music departments have most of a shelving unit packed with Acorn box sets of everything from Doc Martin to The Forsyte Saga. A big surprise for me last year came when I found that I had missed the release of the wonderful David Suchet-starring Poirot telefilms, six sets worth, in fact. I haven't watched them all (just the first couple of Season 1 episodes), but Acorn's track record leads me to believe there won't be a big drop off in quality, since they're extremely consistent across the board. These new sets feature all episodes remastered, uncut, and in their original UK broadcast order.
Another big surprise was the 35mm-shot Dick Van Dyke Show getting the HD upgrade. Again, I've only sampled a small piece of this set, but what I've seen has been oustanding. I grew up on this show in its reruns on Nick at Nite, and I'm glad to see it treated with some love.
Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1
Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2
Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2
Far and away the biggest deal in catalog TV restoration, preservation, and upgrade to Blu-ray is the now 25-year-old Star Trek sequel series. All of the previous extras are retained, and the AV upgrade makes it look like a brand new show. The substantial difference in appearance made re-watching even the most cringeworthy episodes enjoyable. At times, the enhanced resolution and brighter picture showed some of the cheapness of makeup or costuming, but not so often nor so much so that it disintegrated the fourth wall. The new extras on both season sets from 2012 are substantial, and feature much more candid discussions of everything, from the removal of Gates McFadden in the second season to strife in the writers' room (explored further on next week's Season 3 set in a big way). My lengthy review of the first season set mirrors my assessment of the second season box. There will undoubtedly be episodes on both sets that mega-fans will say "I never need to watch that one again", but the new lease on life given to the picture will surprise you to the point you'll just hit Play All and you'll just go make a sandwich during particularly racist or misogynist moments. Some have made hay over the price of these sets ($60-80), but I don't think they're unreasonable at all, considering I spent $140-180 each on the creaky old DVD sets from the early aughts.
The new visual effects shots utilize the original effects whenever possible, which ends up being most of the time. This is not a complete "do-over" like the Trek: TOS sets.
I decided to skip doing a first-run TV category due to there not being much to distinguish first-run TV sets aside from personal preference. The extras are generally a waste of time, but notable exceptions are HBO's Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire sets, the IFC Portlandia sets (cheap too!), and AMC's Walking Dead. I'm writing a piece for laer this week about what is intentionally wrong with first-run TV on disc. Anyone else notice 30 Rock and Community have avoided Blu-ray thus far?
2012 really was an outstanding year for Blu-ray, and I would reckon it was the best yet. There are still many things for the industry to improve upon form the consumer perspective, but I think there are very specific reasons they avoid doing so, partly in curbing demand and driving us toward the consumption models they want us to use. As much money as the studios made from the DVD boom, they are moving toward a preference of not driving a desire for ownership, but rather, DRM-laden and tightly-controlled "paid borrowing" via streaming services.
I use streaming services, but mostly for more disposable content. Things I want to own, I still go for physical media. It's better quality, more feature-rich, and not that much (or at all) more expensive than the movie-only options from iTunes, Amazon, and others.
Most importantly, all I need for my discs is electricity, not an internet connection and reliable servers that someone else is in charge of maintaining.
"Vote with your dollars" has been my mantra for a long time, but I'm not as sure as I once was that it's a cause we can actually affect a change in with our wallets like we once did. The studios have long-since killed their rather singular reliance on DVD revenue since that bubble burst. For example, I'm rather convinced that the money for the Star Trek: TNG restoartions was approved not based on projected profits form the Blu-ray sets, but rather, the giant pile of money CBS will get from properly mastering the show for HD syndication and streaming.
Don't misunderstand me, I think reliably supporting restoration and preservation work with our dollars is the best way to promote and protect preservation into future generations.
I had one of the most meaningful, rewarding, but at once, foreboding conversations of my life last year with Thelma Schoonmaker. If the name doesn't ring a bell, first of all: shame on you. Thelma has been editing Martin Scorsese's pictures for a few decades now and was married to the great Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) until his death. We talked about her fears that after her generation is gone, no one will carry the standard for film preservation. She expressed shock and fear that when she and "Marty" (as she called him) asked Sony for a 35mm print of The Age of Innocence for a screening, they were told no screenable print is available or even owned by Sony/Columbia. I was aghast at the thought that the owner (the studio) for a 20-year-old movie had lost or ditched all of the movie's film elements.
My fondest hope is that Kickstarter culture will lead to fans crowdsourcing the financing and resources to continue preservation when foundations and private financiers fail. I love film, and I love that we have a format as great as Blu-ray to help amplify the voices of those of us who care about quality and, above all, preserving our cinematic history.
Post Script: This piece took a great deal longer to complete than I had planned, and I have backdated Disc Roundup pieces coming as well. The plan going forward is to have a different and more useful weekly disc digest column for you, and frankly, just as much for me. Home video is how I have discovered more movies than anywhere else, and I hope to help others do the same. Getting this piece completed is an enormous monkey off my back, and it allows me to re-focus the giant pile of time I had been using to peck away at this and the tons of discs I enjoyed but weren't featured here.
Regularity will return for my longer-form retrospective pieces (Ozu, Soderbergh, the Scott Brothers, Michael Powell, Ice-T [seriously], Jackie Chan, Jack Cardiff, Roger Deakins, and others planned). The linked list-style news posts I've toyed with will be a regular, reliable daily thing. I might eventually dig into doing some video essays. I might actually do first-run reviews again, believe it or not.
Thanks for reading this site, listening to the too-many shows I do on 5by5, and in general, for paying attention to what I do.