HDR’s Best of Blu-ray 2008 by Studio

2008 began and concluded in two very different places for Blu-ray Disc. On January 1, 2008, Blu-ray was still in a heated battle with HD DVD and reeling from Paramount’s recent decision to go HD DVD exclusive. Little did we know then that Warner would drop HD DVD days later preceding CES, effectively sending HD DVD to its immediate grave.

By year’s end, previously neglected Blu-ray was under attack from mainstream media citing the format was either dead on arrival, would succomb to video-on-demand any day or single-handedly was responsible for PS3 bringing up the rear in the videogame console sales war. All these arguments proved a moot point when The Dark Knight sold well over 1 million Blu-ray Disc copies its first week and continues to sell strong.

Looking back at 2008 in retrospect recalls many solid Blu-ray title releases from all studios. For the first of our pair of “Best of 2008” lists, I’ve selected the top three influential and must-own titles from each of the six major studios along with the top studio that set the bar for Blu-ray heading into 2009.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
The studio where Blu-ray was born entered 2008 with some lingering issues, most notably the lack of a consistent audio format and slow adoption of profile 1.1 and 2.0 features. By year’s end, Sony righted their ship by including Dolby TrueHD lossless audio on “every” Blu-ray release, catalog or new theatrical, and entered the world of picture-in-picture and BD-Live.

Unlike Sony’s 2007 slate, 2008 lacked the big blockbusters other studios were able to build comprehensive Blu-ray Disc releases around. That didn’t stop Sony from tapping into several high-profile catalog releases, two of which made our top 3.

3. The Fall
Tarsem’s The Fall isn’t the most easily digested story and trying to understand what its young lead is saying can induce a migraine. Where The Fall earns its spot are through breathtaking visuals brought to life in 1080p that you’d swear are CGI-enhanced, yet aren’t.

2. Ray Harryhausen Collection
Seeing one Harryhausen classic arrive on Blu-ray before the format goes mainstream is a gift. It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 20 Million Miles to Earth seeing a simultaneous Blu-ray release? Christmas came early for fans of old school stop-motion animation.

1. Men in Black
The Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones action/adventure isn’t worth the top spot by itself. Sony used this mid-year release to push its use of Blu-ray’s advantages with lossless audio and a BD-Live interactive trivia game. It marked a turning point for Sony and commitment to investing dollars in new content for catalog Blu-ray releases.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Disney and Buena Vista has been a strong proponent of Blu-ray since first announcing their support and used 2008 to release a number of high quality titles as well as launching the Disney BD-Live portal. It was a difficult task to choose only three and leave some solid titles off the table.

3. Sleeping Beauty: Platinum Edition
Disney told us exclusively almost a year to the date before this title was released that it was coming and would kick off a series of Platinum titles on Blu-ray Disc. I’ve had my eye on it ever since and now can’t wait for additional Platinum series discs to arrive.
2. Kill Bill vol 1 and 2
The Kill Bills aren’t the best looking for feature-packed Blu-rays from Buena Vista. But they are highly coveted and arrived sooner than anticipated. I also applaud Buena Vista for teaming with Amazon.com to offer both as a set for under $40.

1. Wall-E
I’ll be the first to admit that portions of Wall-E left me peeking at my watch. What Disney and Pixar accomplished with this Blu-ray Disc release both technically and in substance sets the bar high for the next Pixar film on Blu-ray.

Warner Home Video
No studio instigated more frustration for Blu-ray owners in 2008 than Warner Home Video. They are the last studio yet to adopt lossless audio as the default audio format on all Blu-ray Disc titles. They also continue to use BD-25 discs at a brisk clip and rarely offer HD bonus features.

Warner did have its moments in 2008 and looks ready to turn the corner and appease buyers more in 2009. Publishing the bestselling Blu-ray Disc of all time isn’t too shabby, either.

3. I Am Legend
Blu-ray was still searching for its legs back in March having recently been annoited champ in the high-def war with HD DVD. Warner’s I Am Legend, while receiving mixed reviews, succeeded in two ways. First, it offered the theatrical and superior director’s ending. Second, Amazon sold it for a then-unheard of $17.99, making I Am Legend the first hot-selling Blu-ray title of 2008 and first Warner Blu-ray title to receive a double-dip — in the same year, no less.

2. Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition
Warner made Dirty Harry’s fans’ day when releasing this impressive five-disc collection this past summer. Low resolution extras aside, the Dirty Harry films have never looked or sounded better than they do on Blu-ray.

1. The Dark Knight
Warner was blessed to have this box office champ in their corner and wisely used it to debut their BD-Live portal including a live commentary chat with director Christopher Nolan. It easily broke every previous Blu-ray sales record and is a must-own film for any Blu-ray player owner.

Paramount Home Entertainment
Though it seems like ages ago, Paramount began 2008 as an HD DVD exclusive studio and did not release their first Blu-ray this year until it was nearly half over. It didn’t take long for Paramount to hit their Blu-ray stride with several big releases in the latter half of the year, one of which held the all-time sales record for several months.

3. Transformers
Yes, Transformers was previously released on HD DVD a year prior and the Blu-ray version is essentially a port with the added benefit of lossless audio. Every time I want to demo by high-def system to someone, Transformers on Blu-ray is one of the first discs that comes off the shelf.
2. Iron Man
Iron Man not only resurrected Robert Downey Jr’s troubled acting career but also resurrected Blu-ray sales after a relatively flat summer. Everything about this disc from the menus to the extras to the audio/video presentation are top notch.
1. The Godfather Collection
The Coppola Restoration edition of these classics has been in the works for a long time and the wait paid off. Seeing The Godfather’s restoration is almost like seeing it again for the first time. There’s simply no comparsion to the previously released DVD. More than reasonable sale prices and scads of bonus features make this set must-own.

Fox Home Entertainment
Fox takes a lot of flak for their steep retail Blu-ray prices and lack of interaction with fans. Lets not forget they were the first studio to support DTS-HD Master Audio, have never released a Blu-ray title with non-lossless audio, were the first studio to offer D-BOX Motion Code on Blu-ray and were the first Blu-ray studio to offer profile 1.1 picture-in-picture (Danny Boyle’s Sunshine). In 2008, they put out arguably the best box set the format has seen to date.

3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Fox took their time getting this “most wanted” title in our hands after multiple delays. The wait turned out to be worth our while with a booming lossless soundtrack and a pair of new extras. Several bonus features from the previously released DVD were not included but that doesn’t detract from this otherwise impressive releease.
2. I, Robot
Like Transformers, I, Robot is one of those films you either love or hate but can’t deny how impressive the high definition presentation is on Blu-ray Disc. It’s also loaded with bonus features including exclusives.
1. Planet of the Apes 40th Anniversary Set
Last year Fox used November to release the full series of Die Hard films leaving us wondering if another “collection” of classics would come in 2008. It did, and improved upon the Die Hard set with a creative hardcover book package, HD extras and never-before-seen footage. This is the ultimate Apes collection that won’t be topped anytime soon.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
The last HD DVD holdout and exclusive Toshiba-backing studio learned a lot before that format’s demise. They took criticism, listened to fans and used the reboot opportunity with Blu-ray in July to start anew with a clean slate.

Like Fox when they began their Blu-ray support, Universal came out gunning with DTS-HD Master Audio mandatory on all releases and offered elaborate gift sets on big name titles. With a strong selection of summer blockbusters ready for Blu-ray in the fall, Universal used lossless audio to offer the best collection of sonic assaulting titles the format has seen yet.

While Warner continues to search for consistency in their Blu-ray releases, Universal has practiced it from day one starting with the catalog The Mummy films. Because of this attention to quality over quantity, and appeasing fan requests for Serenity and The Bourne Trilogy, Universal is our top Blu-ray studio for 2008 despite sitting half the year out.

3. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
What is a comedy doing on this list? Well, this is one funny film and Universal went all-out on bonus features. If you haven’t seen it yet consider it for a blind buy.
2. Wanted
Wanted’s bullet-bending special effects and over-the-top action sequences were made for Blu-ray. Like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, this is a great blind buy disc you’ll be likely to spin more than once.
1. The Incredible Hulk
The neon green case is the first clue this is a special title. Universal absolutely nailed the transfer with Hulk and offers up an audio track that will crack wall studs and force neighbors to call the police. Iron Man may receive all the praise, but Hulk is technically the superior disc.

2008 will be remembered as the year Blu-ray defeated HD DVD and, thanks to The Dark Knight, broke into mainstream media. Blu-ray Discs continue to sell ahead of DVD’s pace at the same time in its lifecycle despite a strapped economy. All those “Blu-ray and PS3 are dead” articles continually popping up would have you think otherwise. Don’t believe them.

As for 2009? Be on the lookout for our crystal ball predictions to help ring in the new year.

– Dan Bradley

See also HDR’s Best of Blu-ray 2008 Top Ten

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