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Best Blu-Rays of 2010

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After acquiring my Playstation 3 last summer, I’ve gone mad with Blu-Ray fever, and I spent most of 2010 attempting to make my Blu-Ray collection resemble the massive and unnecessary scale of my DVD stash. Though I do not have a multi-region player and thus this list will include only Regions A and 0 discs, I stand by my year-end picks of the most essential discs for a cinephile’s collection. Not all will give your home theater a workout, but most will, and they all demonstrate the capacity of the medium to not only give the best possible image but to retain film-like quality like never before. So, without further ado, here are the Blu-Rays, and a handful of DVDs, you need to own.

Best Blu-Rays of 2010

1. By Brakhage, Vols. I & II (Criterion)

by-brakhageA collection of a master’s work that displays its greatness as much by the caliber of material left off the set as the genius of the included short films, By Brakhage is a necessary and infinitely rewarding trove of experimental cinema. Criterion have always erred on the side of preservation of a film’s look over completely smoothing grain, but they’ve managed to upgrade the technical specs of Stan Brakhage’s work while doing nothing to compromise the original image. Grain is omnipresent, because Brakhage incorporated it into his visual freak-outs (some of the shorts left off the set were omitted because Brakhage designed them with the flicker of a proper film projector in mind). Complete with footage of Brakhage’s lectures and interviews and a massive booklet, By Brakhage is a masterpiece right down to the cover art.

2. City Girl/Sunrise (Masters of Cinema)

sunrise_moc_blu-ray_72dpi_2dcity_girl_mocIt’s understandable that the otherwise laudable Kino and Criterion would insist on region-coding now that UK’s Eureka! label have gotten in on the Blu-Ray game: their pledge to release region-free BDs could cause trouble when Americans get a full view of the quality of their products. To date, their finest offerings are two restorations of F.W. Murnau classics. City Girl may not be on the same level as Sunrise (one of the 10 best films ever made), but the restoration Eureka! did for it manages to outstrip even that of Sunrise. A film made In 1931 has no business looking this pristine, and the near-total lack of the heavy damage expected in films this old distracted me from how great the film itself is, and how much it influenced masters like Terrence Malick. As for Murnau’s masterpiece, it shows its age more but still looks fantastic, and the alternate version unearthed looks even nicer. It also comes with a documentary on 4 Devils, Muranu’s legendary lost film, making these two must-owns for any cinephile.

3. The Night of the Hunter (Criterion)

night_of_the_hunter_blu-rayCriterion’s work on Charles Laughton’s fairy tale/horror The Night of the Hunter leaps over the high bar the distributor has already set for itself, turns around, raise the bar higher, then jumps over it again. Certain flaws inherent in the print remain, but the grain is pleasantly balanced when it appears, and the film never suffers for its shifts between cleaner studio shots and hazier location shoots. As impressive is the home video debut of the 2002 documentary comprising a trove of outtake footage Laughton’s widow released after his death. The two-and-a-half-hour behind-the-scenes doc shows just how meticulously and forcefully the director planned each moment, even berating the child actors to make them convincing in their scenes of terror and despair (or maybe he just hated them; Robert Mitchum himself attested to the latter). The Night of the Hunter is one of the most lyrical, multifaceted movies ever made, and Criterion gave it the treatment it well deserved.

4. Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure Edition (Lionsgate)

apocalypse-now-full-disclosure-blu-ray-380pxPresented in its definitive packaging, the Full Disclosure Edition of Apocalypse Now contains so many extras that it’s almost easy to ignore the film itself. Then you watch it (and, just as importantly, listen to it), and the stuffed-to-the-gills set takes a back seat to the enduring audiovisual might of Coppola’s schizoid triumph. A sterling video transfer and flawless update of the pioneering surround sound track make Apocalypse Now not only a film that should be a go-to on its cinematic quality but as a means of showing off a home theater. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and that’s probably a good thing for the mental and physical health of every director working today.

5. Beauty and the Beast (Disney)

beauty_and_the_beast_bluDisney’s work with their films has been nothing less than exemplary, and I nearly flipped a coin to decide between this and their restoration of Walt Disney’s still-ahead-of-its-time, genre-annihilating Fantasia. But the Beast won out, not only for the slight edge it offers it audiovisual upgrade but for the host of extras it offers. Commentary tracks, a making-of twice as long as the actual film, remastered deleted scenes, a host of ported DVD extras and more add to the immaculate restoration of one of Disney’s finest films, making the complexities of the love story between Belle and a transformed prince all the more engaging. The best Disney movies have the ability to take your breath away, and however much of an imperial sub-power they’ve become, someone over there still recognizes that and has put all effort into ensuring the presentations of those films leave us breathless, too.

6. The Thin Red Line (Criterion)

the_thin_red_lineFar and away the best audiovisual presentation of the year, and certainly a contender for one of the most impressive in home video history, Criterion’s Blu-Ray of The Thin Red Line took one of the most beautiful films ever made and somehow makes it look even better. Fans sent rumors into a whirlwind over the possibility of the original, five-hour workprint version being included, but the scant outtakes that are included are a joy, containing elongated shots of Terrence Malick’s sensual transcendentalism and even the faces of cut actors like Mickey Rourke. Yet the caliber of the extras only seems the cherry on top as I continue to marvel over the sheer perfection of the film’s high-definition mastering. The Thin Red Line is one of the great war films, one that manages to avoid glorifying war while still being enthralling, and the Blu-Ray perfectly captures its power.

7. The Double Life of Veronique (Artificial Eye)

veronique_uk_bdWith Criterion’s own update on the way in February, I shall be interested to see if they can produce a finer transfer than the sterling one offered by Artificial Eye’s region-free disc. Containing most of the extras included in Criterion’s DVD release - the highlight of which are short films by Kieslowski - the Artificial Eye Blu-Ray proves its own mettle with a stunning transfer that restores, then bolsters, the original cinematography to its transfixing, green-yellow glory. Kieslowski was a sensualist poet, treading in metaphysics but only ever putting emotion on the screen in a way that only the finest modern directors - Malick, Kar-wai, Kiarostami - can manage. The Double Life of Veronique is possibly the best starting point for Kieslowski’s

8. Minority Report (Paramount)

minority-report-blu-raySteven Spielberg was an early supporter of Blu-Ray and refused to let his films appear on what he felt was the inferior HD-DVD, but since Paramount initially had HD-DVD exclusivity, we had to make do with the (excellent) Close Encounters of the Third Kind set until Spielberg could get to work on remastering his modern films for Blu-Ray release. The wait was worth it. All of Spielberg’s Dreamworks releases this year — Minority Report, War of the Worlds and Saving Private RyanMinority Report benefits the most from the upgrade (besides, it’s my favorite of the three listed). The sterile, hyper-white tones of deceptively utopian society are blinding, while the more chaotic look of the film’s dynamic scenes is immaculately preserved while still looking gritty. Spielberg avoids commentary tracks (a crying shame, since he’d probably be brilliant at them), but there are enough behind-the-scenes mini-documentaries to satisfy all your pressing questions. The bounty of extras pushes a superb offering over the top, and one of Spielberg’s finest films has never looked better.

9. The Twilight Zone: Season 1 (Image Entertainment)

twilight-zone-bd-cover_300Rod Serling was a few decades ahead of his time when he took the budding television medium to an early zenith with The Twilight Zone. Dismissed in its own time by those who could not process the numerous commentaries on ’50s social and political life — a particularly risible interview at the time had Mike Wallace asking Serling, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?” — The Twilight Zone is today rightly heralded as a masterpiece of programming. Image Entertainment has set out to honor the show’s legacy, and they’ve succeeded beyond doubt with this set. The remastered A/V quality astounds for a 50-year-old series recorded on old T.V stock, but the extras, oh Lord, the extras. The only reason this is just in ninth place is because I haven’t yet had the time to go through them all. Commentaries of 19 of the season’s 36 episodes, the unaired pilot, the unaired unofficial pilot, interviews, radio dramas inspired by the series, lectures by Serling at Sherwood Oaks College. It is an absurdly bountiful package, and I assume the same is true of the recently released second season, which I have not yet bought. The show is a seminal piece of pop culture history, it now looks as if it had just been made, and the extras are voluminous and (at least of the ones I’ve gone through so far) highly rewarding. What more must you know?

10. The White Ribbon (Sony)

whiteribbonA personal choice, perhaps, but I continue to be struck by the perfection of Sony’s transfer of The White Ribbon, one of the most gorgeous films in years. Unlike the other choices on this list, all of which came out before I was born or when I was too young to go see them in a theater or at least retain the experience, I had the luxury of catching The White Ribbon in theaters. Take it from me: the Blu-Ray puts the film on the small-screen without error, completely capturing the texture of its old-school film. Extras may be on the slim side, but this is a film that should seep into your mind without the director standing five feet away informing you of the themes as soon as you finish. For all its beauty, this is not an easy film to watch, but Sony have made things as gentle on your eyes as possible, so give this haunting allegory for the rise of Nazism if you have the fortitude to stand it.

Best DVD-only releases:

Rossellini War Trilogy (Criterion)

rossellinis-trilogyRoberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy truly changed the face of film forever, exploding Italy’s nascent neorealist scene into international acclaim. Viewed today, the film that started it all (Rome, Open City) looks remarkably melodramatic, but its spiritual sequels — Paisan and Germany Year Zero are uncompromising and scathingly political in a country that would probably best be served by just keeping quiet and saying only “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” to anyone that paid them attention. Criterion gives these films strong transfers despite the limitations of the grainy, cheap stock used to record them, elegantly preserving some of the most important movies of all time.

The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory)

the-larry-sanders-show-the-complete-seriesWhile Seinfeld may deservedly command reverence among comedy acolytes for its depiction of “a show about nothing,” for my money it will always live in the shadow of Garry Shandling, whose metacomedic It’s Garry Shandling’s Show subverted conventions far more than a lackadaisically plotted tour of Manhattan. But Shandling’s greatest achievement was a six-season sitcom on HBO that received copious praise but little in the way of commercial attention. Based on the fallout from the Tonight Show handover — with which Shandling, considered to take Letterman’s vacant spot at Late Night when Dave jumped to CBS — The Larry Sanders Show peeled back the veneer of late night, exposing the greasy sheen and phony interest that Johnny Carson could make genuine and inviting but everyone else could not contain. I had previously been acquainted with the show by its first season the only one released by Sony all the way back in 2002, and I was struck immediately by its pitch-black tone of voice, a relentless discomfort that would go on to influence most of the best comedy of the new millennium (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant cited it as a major influence for The Office). Having just gotten it for Christmas, I’ve only just started to work through the other seasons, but taking that and the abysmal video quality of the low-budget show into account, I feel no qualms calling this essential. I’ve heard that the show maintained its quality throughout, but even a dip couldn’t kill the power of its early seasons. A buried classic is finally unearthed.

Best Music DVD:

The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story

darkness_boxBruce Springsteen intended to give 30th anniversary reissues to his classic albums - which is a redundancy on my part, as they’re all classics - but he never made it to the second reissue without problems. Two years late, the anniversary edition of Darkness on the Edge of Town makes up for the setback by blowing the impressive Born to Run package out of the water. The box set offers a remastered album and a two-CD set of songs that were left off the meticulously planned final cut of Darkness — and these 21 songs are but a fraction of the nearly 70 Springsteen wrote during the legal duress that kept him from recording after Born to Run, some of which would make his release The River while others remain in the vaults or nothing more than notebook scribblings. But the three DVDs are the chief draw. One features a making-of documentary for the album with background info on the legal troubles and a self-critical eye toward the writing and recording of ten perfectly chosen songs. The second disc features the album played in its entirety last year, while the third unloads a previously unseen film of one of the Boss’ legendary Darkness tour shows in Houston. While I wish he’d remastered the Dec. 20 show in Seattle, a bootleg I hold so dear I would actually trade the memory of concerts I’ve attended just for high-quality audio of this performance, I think it’s admirable Springsteen would acknowledge the efforts of bootleggers to put out material from that tour and give them something new. Bruce Springsteen is simply the most dynamic white man to perform rock ‘n roll, and he never topped the energy and force of his ‘78 tour. To have an official release finally documented it is a joy, and the other five discs included - to say nothing of the impressive packaging - are delightful extras compared to it.

- Jake Cole is a journalism student at Auburn University, where he regularly avoids people in favor of writing about film, television and music on his blog, Not Just Movies. Where he gets the nerve (or the money) to get and review all these Blu-Rays is anyone’s guess. After all, he’s too fat to be a thief. The mystery continues.

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