2011 was quite the year for Blu-Ray releases, especially for those crossing their fingers for long-awaited catalogue titles like Citizen Kane (1941) and Star Wars (1977). The cinephilic wizards at the Criterion Collection continue to impress with their mixed slate of reissues and newly licensed titles, stacked to the ceiling with intelligent bonus features and sparkling transfers, winning the year as my favorite home video production houses. However, Warner Brothers and Lions Gate were not willing to be left in the dust with some of their affordable, extras embellished, catalogue releases.
Without further ado, here’s a list of the ten Blu-Ray releases (or, if you’re still sans HD, you’ll find quite a few of these in decent DVD packages as well) you should get your family’s film buff for the holidays…
10. Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner Bros.)
It’s the best film ever made for a reason. Between the tragic, Gatsby-esque, fall of a Romantic idealist to Orson Welles and Gregg Toland’s exploration of film space and film form, there never was and, since its release, there has not been a film like Citizen Kane (1941). Warner Brothers dropped the ball a little bit on this package, giving us a stunning high-definition transfer that faithfully replicates the deep blacks of the film, while skimping a bit on the extras (everything from the original set, plus RKO 281 has been ported over…in standard definition). The best extra feature available with this release can be found only in the Amazon.com package: the long awaited DVD release of Welles’s follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
For better and for worse, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) changed the course of the American cinema when it was released. It’s existential thugs, fractured storyline, and eloquant street talk have made it a modern classic that has spawned many lesser imitators. Well, as Samuel L. Jackson notes in Jackie Brown (1997), “accept no substitutes.” The high definition Lions Gate releases feature great transfers that veer a little soft. Extras include (I think) everything from the original special edition DVD release (trivia track, deleted scenes, Tarantino’s speech at Cannes) in standard definition and two, brand new, HD documentaries covering the legacy of the film and a critic’s roundtable discussion. The main highlight? A cheap price point; it’s just $10 to take each of these beauties home.
7. Sweet Smell of Success (The Criterion Collection)
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was one of those catalog titles released in the early days of DVD that never got much love. The original transfer on the MGM DVD was widescreen non-anamorphic. Essentially, if you tried to watch the MGM release of this beautifully shot and sharply written film noir on a widescreen, HDTV, you’d get a picture that took up only 33% of the screen. The MGM disc contained neither any special features exploring the groundbreaking work of Howe nor the connections between the film’s antagonist, JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and his influence, Walter Winchell. But, thanks to Criterion, all that has been changed. The Blu-Ray sports a polished anamorphic transfer that makes James Wong Howe’s Weegee-esque compositions pop with grit and grain. Moreover, Criterion has given us a bounty of extras ranging from a informative commentary track with noir expert James Naremore and documentaries on Howe and the underappreciated Mackendrick (among other features).
6. The Killing (The Criterion Collection)
Stanley Kubrick’s superb noir The Killing (1956) was another early MGM DVD release with many of the same problems as Sweet Smell. Again, Criterion gave this underappreciated film – from a home video standpoint – a great deal of love. First, they cleaned up the transfer, which showcases some dazzling traveling camera shots. Secondly, they cleaned up the transfer of Kubrick’s prior noir feature, Killer’s Kiss (1955) and included that as well. Then, Criterion packed the edition with a glut of interviews with the likes of star Sterling Hayden, producer James B. Harris, and a couple of scholars as well. Sure, the package lacks a commentary track, but you basically get two film noirs by one of the masters of cinema for the price of one. [Note: Criterion also released Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. The package may have slightly paled in comparison to Sweet Smell and The Killing, but if one word describes the stellar year they had, it would be “noir.”]
5. The Complete Jean Vigo (The Criterion Collection)
While French director Jean Vigo (1905-1934) died at age 29, his cinematic legacy has lived on for the past seventy-five years. The inspiration of his masterpieces, Zéro de conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934), has spread – both temporally and geographically – from the French New Wave filmmakers to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011). His stories about the angst of childhood and the difficulties of newlyweds, placed alongside his two short films (À propos de Nice – a stunning dadaist city symphony – and Taris, roi de l’eau), Criterion’s release serves as a proper tribute that was a long time coming. Also included are commentaries with French film scholar, Michael Temple, a feature-length documentary on Vigo, a conversation with François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer on Vigo’s influence on the New Wave, and other bonus features.
4. Star Wars: The Complete Saga (20th Century Fox)
Every Star Wars home video release is a devil’s bargain. Time after time, we are given improved AV quality on the condition that we take another George Lucas digitally-tweaked edition that erases any previous edition off the face of the Earth. The long-awaited Blu-Ray release was no exception. We get more tweaks, some improving on the controversial ones of the past (Han still shoots second, only slightly) and some just digging a deeper hole (Vader’s symetrically “poetic” “Noooo!” in Return of the Jedi). Still, these films have never looked or sounded better, and the archival commentary tracks, edited out of interviews with everyone from Lucas, the actors, and the special effects gurus, make this a must for any HDTV owner.
3. Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection (Warner Brothers)
The main reason why Warner Brothers’ Stanley Kubrick set comes in near the top of this list is, frankly, its price. Containing nine of Kubrick’s films, ranging from the classics (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining), near-classics (Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut), and the always watchable (Spartacus, Lolita, and A Clockwork Orange), and Jan Harlan’s loving appreciation, Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) – all in HD – for $100, this set is a must-have, the foundational piece in any proper cinephile’s HD collection. Nearly each film has a commentary and barrage of special features (except for Spartacus, Lolita, and Barry Lyndon, the latter of which is an inexcusable oversight) and, especially in the cases of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980), a dazzling transfer, perfect to showcase your home video set up.
2. Three Colors (The Criterion Collection)
Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski left us with not one but three masterpieces of the cinema – produced in little over a year – when he passed away shortly after the release of the Three Colors concluding chapter, Rouge (1994), in 1996. Over the course of three films, Kieślowski gives us a heartwreching portrait of a wounded widow (Bleu), a comedic tale of romatic revenge (Blanc), and the bonds that form between even the most different of people (Rouge). Long available on a decent edition from Miramax, Criterion’s package picks up the slack on the transfers, upgrading Kieślowski’s beautifully shot films to HD, and the extras ranging from visual essays to the director’s short films. The package does have a few minor flaws. Chiefly, a few of the major bonus features included on the Miramax set (some of the short films and the commentary tracks recorded by Annette Insdorf, who is present on the Criterion extras) are oddly absent.
1. The Social Network (Sony)
David Fincher’s The Social Network was one of the best film of 2010. The film is a timely document that explores both how software has changed our social interactions and the geeks inheriting the Earth, featuring a groundbreaking soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, pitch-perfect dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, emotionally complex performances, and Fincher’s ability to make court dispositions visually engaging (this is not a slight on his abilities at all). Fincher, with the assistance of his home video producer David Prior, is never one to pull out the stops on home video releases (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, Panic Room, and Benjamin Button are bursting at the edges with bonus content). The Social Network gives us two commentary tracks (one with Fincher, one with Sorkin and cast), a feature length making-of, and featurettes covering everything from Reznor and Ross’s contributions, the sound design, the visual design of the film, and the chronicle of how a scene makes it from the page to the screen. Essentially, The Social Network Blu-Ray is the cheapest film school you can ever attend.