2009 has come and gone bringing with it a slew of new Blu-ray titles as the high-def format continues to pick up steam and drop in price. Which ones are worth your hard earned dollars whether as a new release, a double-dip of a DVD classic or a title to entice you to finally make the jump to high-def media? While by no means definitive (no “best of” list ever is), here are some of my personal favorite choices from the past year well worth your consideration heading into 2010.
The hyper-kinetic tale about mutant psychic powers that brought Anime to light outside of Japan makes its BD debut. Sure, there are minimal extras (so the potential for an “ultimate edition” double-dip does exist) but that’s due to Bandai Entertainment dedicating space for the feature film. Not only do they give us a pristine 1080p picture, but equally impressive they actualize the full potential of lossless audio with a Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track mixed at 192 kHz/24-bit averaging a whooping 14 Mbps. Blu-ray is the premiere way to take in this Anime classic.
|Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series
Admittedly the packaging is bulky and kind of crappy (seriously Universal, was folding paper the cheapest way you could find to hold the discs?). So if you’re anal about that sort of stuff, you may want to hold off for the separate season box sets. But the content is some of the best TV, not only of this decade but ever. Don’t be put off by the sci-fi exterior as the show doles out some delicious drama, politics, action and intrigue over a brilliant morality play (and yeah there are space ships and sexy robots). With the exception of the “Face of the Enemy” webisodes, everything (and there are a lot of extras) from the five year run of the show is here in all its gritty HD glory spread across 20 Blu-ray discs. “So say we all.”
Just when I was ready to write off Tarantino for good, he finally delivers his decade plus promised WWII flick. And while it is not quite the “epic” that had been touted about for years, damn it was worth the wait! If Brad Pitt butchering both Nazis and the Italian language isn’t enough, Quentin’s love of clever dialog and cinematic homage (along with Christoph Waltz’s devilish breakout performance) make this his best flick since Pulp Fiction. Oh yeah, Universal’s BD looks and sounds great, too!
Since seasons 3 and 4 were already out and the latter made my list last year, I am cheating on this one by slipping in seasons 1, 2 and 5 (as a single choice) which graced BD this year. While we still have 17 more episodes left, the show is well on its way to securing a place as one of the most original, complex, challenging and sometimes frustrating in the history of television. Shot on exotic locations with a slew of actors acting as eye candy for both ladies and gents, the series is one of the best looking airing today and is a perfect match for high-def. And these Blu-ray sets (with a slew of in depth extras covering all areas of production) are the premiere way to delve into exactly what is happening on “the island.” If you’re new to the show, just make sure to start from the beginning or you’ll definitely get “lost” (bad pun intended).
Disney’s “old school” animation proves that anything of quality can look better on Blu-ray with satisfying high-def crispness and well saturated colors that give Pixar and Dreamworks a run for their money. Plus this 70 year-old tale has a tasty dark side that offsets a lot of the kid-friendly flicks pumped out by studios today. Disney pretty much gets everything right here with the immaculately restored image, a nice lossless audio boost and sumptuous extras that spill over onto a second disc. Lovers of classic cartoons can rejoice at the combination of animation and Blu-ray.
I was tempted to leave J.J. Abraham’s 21st century update to Roddenberry’s sci-fi franchise out just because it is on virtually everyone’s “best of” list for this year. But just because we all recognize when something is done right, doesn’t mean credit shouldn’t be given where it is due. And damn if Paramount’s BD doesn’t deliver on almost every front with rock solid HD visuals, a seriously immersive soundtrack and top notch extras. Of course, the technical presentation wouldn’t mean as much if the story didn’t work, and this reboot/sequel combo makes Star Trek something that’s actually cool even for non-geeks while still satisfying fans of the series.
|The Bourne Trilogy
The Bourne Identity gave the spy genre a well needed kick in the butt and was followed by two fast paced sequels making this series one of the best fixes for the HD action junkie. This 3-disc set has been sitting at a premium price point since its release back in January, but I don’t regret the purchase at all considering I’ve given each movie several spins over this past year. Blu-ray delivers the quick cuts and shaky camera work with impeccable detail while rocking a thumping soundtrack. Depending on your taste about Universal’s new flipper BD discs (of which the Bourne films will be the first), this may be the best way to own these films in HD.
|The Complete Monterey Pop Festival: Criterion Collection
Though Woodstock also bowed on BD this year (and definitely delivers for fans), I’m partial to the 1967 Festival which was the first of its kind and paved the way for the better known 60’s rock event. I think the Monterey film gives a better balance between interviews/behind the scenes info and supreme rock and roll performances (Hendrix dry humping a speaker before burning his guitar is about as iconic as rock gets). Criterion’s two-disc set delivers the classic tunes in both lossless stereo and 5.1 mixes and with the inclusion of the Hendrix and Redding films along with over an hour of extra songs not incorporated into the main feature, it really can be called “Complete.”
|The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Criterion Collection
I initially had no interest in seeing the story about a man aging backwards as it just seemed gimmicky. Boy was I wrong. Don’t let yourself get caught up on this admittedly peculiar plot device and miss out on David Fincher’s best film yet. Not only breathtakingly shot in native 1080p (showing how digital cameras can rival celluloid) but it’s a deeply moving meditation on time, aging and death. Plus the extra BD has a great documentary about the making of the movie.
|The Seventh Seal: Criterion Collection
I could easily have populated this whole list with Criterion releases (there are three included anyway), but Bergman’s classic parable about faith and existential searching is a perfect example of the studio’s restoration magic. Living up to their legacy by breathing new life into this Swedish treasure, the black and white picture probably looks more stunning than when it originally played in 1957. For anyone who wonders why bother putting old, B&W relics out in high-def, here is definitive proof that Blu-ray (with some excellent help from Criterion) is a film lover’s dream come true.
It should be no surprise that Pixar’s latest is a winner on all accounts. The video and audio are demo quality and work to perfection accentuating the off beat story about a man fulfilling a life long dream that just happens to involve travelling with his house supported by balloons. Don’t let the whacky storyline turn you off as Up is equal parts poignant (it starts off with a surprising emotional heft) and humorous. The BD set is jammed packed with extras including more “making of” features than you may be able to handle in addition to the requisite cartoon shorts we all love. Plus Dug may be the most beloved Pixar character yet. “Squirrel!”
And to prove that it wasn’t easy to pick just a few titles which exemplify Blu-ray in 2009, the following lump of close runners up are all worth an honorary mention: 500 Days of Summer, Braveheart, Coraline, District 9, Do The Right Thing, Dollhouse: Season One, Dr. Strangelove, Drag Me To Hell, For All Mankind, Forrest Gump, Galaxy Quest, Heat, Howard’s End, I Love You Man, Leon: The Professional, Mad Men: Season Two, North by Northwest, Raging Bull, Saturday Night Fever, Shaun of the Dead, Sin City, Sleeping Beauty, Star Trek: The Original Series, Stop Making Sense, The 400 Blows, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Green Mile, The Hangover, The Prisoner: The Complete Series, The Wizard of Oz, The Wrath of Khan, True Blood: Season One, Wages of Fear, Watchmen, Woodstock, and Zodiac.
– Robert Searle