Technology with attitude

Holiday Gift Guide: The Best Blu-rays of 2012

1

 

Normally, my general holiday sentiment isn’t too far removed from W.R. “Bud” Thornton’s in the picture above, but this year, I’ve mellowed.  It’s all a question of perspective.  If you choose to view the holidays as a soul-crushing ode to Hallmark spirit, you will be depressed.  If, however, you look at December as a period of rest, the whole month goes down much smoother.  The year is ending, and while another is waiting in the wings, the whole renewal thing doesn’t start until January.  It’s a time to recharge, to reflect, and, if possible, to absorb as many movies as possible while moving very little.

That’s the great thing about Blu-ray: it lets you reconnect with movies a) from the comfort of your own home b) in a better quality than you’ll see in theaters.  Pay $30 bucks for two tickets during opening weekend, or own a movie for $20 – and avoid the lines/parking/texting/talking/previews/concessions/disgusting displays of humanity that movie theaters breed – three months later.  If you don’t mind waiting, there’s no choice involved.  Sit back, and nestle into your couch’s loving folds.

These twenty titles mark some of the best Blu-rays that 2012 offered.  For convenience sake, I’ve divided them into five sections, with each title linked to its respective Amazon page.

Now get to it.  If you start now, you can finish these by New Year’s.

New Releases

  • The Bourne Legacy:  The most underrated blockbuster of the summer (man, that phrase feels oxymoronic).  Audiences and critics largely ignored this Bourne “side-quel,” which is a shame, considering how compelling it is.  Writer/director Tony Gilroy does an admirable job of melding standard Bourne thrills to bureaucratic skullduggery straight out of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, and new lead Jeremy Renner almost makes you forget about Matt Damon.  Almost.

  • The Dark Knight Rises:  And they said it couldn’t be done.  Christopher Nolan has done the (almost) impossible: he’s made a “three-quel” that satisfies the cinematic ambitions of his massive Dark Knight trilogy.  While not as diamond-hard as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises benefits immeasurably from repeat viewings – the slight pacing and story issues of the first sit reveal themselves as strategic moves necessary for pulling off the grand finale.  The last hour of this movie just sings; it’s deeply ludicrous and deeply moving, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Nolan has succeeded where Robert Zemeckis, Sam Raimi, the Wachowski siblings, and Francis Ford Coppola could not, and if that feat does merit his inclusion into the Directing Hall of Fame, I don’t know what does.

  • Prometheus:  When I first saw this not-an-Alien-prequel-but-really-an-Alien-prequel, I mostly loved it; now, my enthusiasm for it has cooled significantly.  It’s a shame that the most visually stunning film of the year is also one of the dumbest, but that’s what happens when a brilliant-yet-spotty director (Ridley Scott) uses not one but two deeply flawed scripts to make a movie.  Yet the Blu-ray is magnificent, and a worthwhile endeavor even for those who loathed Prometheus.  Not only does it provide forty-five minutes of deleted scenes that address many of the movie’s issues, but the four-disc-set’s four-hour documentary is the best of its kind – at every level of production, the cast and crew discuss the film’s strengths and weaknesses with great candor.

  • Shut Up and Play the Hits:  Like Prometheus, here’s another case of the special features validating a movie, and not the other way around.  The 100-minute LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits is a maddening thing; it dices up the band’s thrilling final concert into unsatisfying microbursts that run between pretentious, borderline-asinine musings from frontman James Murphy.  For the Blu-ray, however, Oscilloscope has done LCD Soundsystem fans a mitzvah – we get the documentary, sure, but we also get the entire three-and-a-half-hour concert, presented without interruptions and in full HD.  I’ll never watch Shut Up and Play the Hits again, but I’m already on my third viewing of the concert.

Catalog Releases

  • The Funhouse:  For the past few months, independent film distributor Shout Factory has been churning out great cult horror titles through its Scream Factory genre branch; Halloween III: Season of the Witch and The Funhouse are Scream Factory’s most exciting releases, and I’ll give a slight edge to The Funhouse – it remains the 1980’s most underrated slasher movie.  Director Tobe Hooper trades in the handheld grit of his Texas Chainsaw Massacre for beautifully composed widescreen images and full Technicolor and if nothing else, The Funhouse vies with John Carpenter’s Halloween for best-looking slasher.  But I prefer the game that Hooper’s playing.  The Funhouse is his gently postmodern examination of the horror genre at that time (1981), and he tosses in references to all his ghoulish loves, including Alfred Hitchcock, Italian giallos, and, most notably, Universal’s Golden Age monster lineup.  A lovely little shocker, and one far less gory than its reputation suggests.

  • Lawrence of Arabia:  What can anyone say about Lawrence of Arabia that others haven’t said before, and better?  David Lean’s widescreen epic remains as unconventional and perverse a biopic as cinema has ever seen, and its visual splendor is unparalleled.  In fact, the film’s scope is the lone problem with Sony’s marvelously restored Blu-ray; like 2001: A Space Odyssey, you really need to see Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen to have the full experience.  The Limited Edition box set adds two discs to the already-healthy Blu-ray set, as well as a full-size coffee-table book and a 70mm film frame.

  • Singin’ in the Rain:  The best musical ever made, in a gorgeous Technicolor restoration.  Singin’ in the Rain is so good because it’s all things to all people – a star-crossed romance, a giddy sing-a-long, a fleet Hollywood satire – while always seeming one of a piece.  Few films do so much so well, yet you never catch directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly straining; the whole thing unfolds like an effortless dream.  The problem with a perfect movie like Singin’ in the Rain is that you can’t pick one signature moment, though I’m going to try: Donald O’Connor’s madcap, virtuoso “Make ‘Em Laugh” number.  You watch O’Connor vault himself through a series of expertly timed pratfalls, and you see the ghosts of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  Look a little closer, and you can also see the future, as action icons like John Woo and Jackie Chan got their inspirations from watching O’Connor spin.

  • Scarlet Street:  As film noirs go, Scarlet Street deserves mention in the same breath as Double Indemnity and They Live By Night.  Boy (Edward G. Robinson) meets girl (Joan Bennett); boy falls for girl; girl deceives boy; things end bloodily.  The conventions are sound, but director Fritz Lang’s execution transforms this pulp into nightmarish art.  Rarely will you find noir villains as venal and monstrous as Bennett and her lover (Dan Duryea), or a hero as uncomprehending a dupe as Robinson’s patsy.  Scarlet Street‘s climatic act of violence is still shocking – and surprisingly graphic – but it’s the film’s bleak, psychologically wrenching coda that really twists the knife.

Box Sets

  • Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection:  Along with Criterion’s David Lean collection, this Hitchcock bundle is the most important home video release of the year.  It’s a hefty thing – every film that the Master of Suspense made for Universal Studios (as well as Warner Bros’ North by Northwest) – and it displays the development of Alfred Hitchcock the Artist as well as any career retrospective could.  We move from the hungry Young Turk of Saboteur and Rope, to the screen master behind Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho, and end on the fading legend, who used his declining years to experiment with form and narrative in pictures like Marnie, Topaz, and Frenzy.  Watching enough Alfred Hitchcock mainlines you straight into modern moviemaking’s soul; you can trace the influence he had on every major filmmaker of the past fifty years.

  • Bond 50:  Here’s the thing – I don’t even care for James Bond that much (I preferred The Bourne Legacy to Skyfall), and I think you’d be a fool to pass up on this set.  You get every Bond feature, meticulously restored (the Sean Connery entries look like they were shot yesterday) and loaded with behind-the-scenes footage and commentaries.  It’s an ideal way to chart the development of the modern action blockbuster; the le Carré-like thrills of From Russia with Love slowly got bigger and more extravagant, and for every The Spy Who Loved Me or Goldeneye, you’d see a Moonraker or Die Another Day.  A perfect set for our most imperfect action hero.

  • Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures:  Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy (not a misprint) is the high-water mark for many action-adventure fans, and Paramount’s restored Blu-ray set helps make that case.  Spielberg doesn’t traffic in grim heroics or a run-and-gun aesthetic; this is classical filmmaking at its best, energetically staged and delivered with a knowing wink.  Everyone knows how great Raiders of the Lost Ark is, but I was especially taken with its follow-up, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – the last hour comprises some of Spielberg’s most ecstatic action-movie inventions. As for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, pretend it’s a bonus feature, and treat it like the most ambitious piece of fan fiction that you will never watch again.

  • Universal’s 100th Anniversary Collection:  A more ambitious box set you will not find – Universal has culled twenty-five films from its production history and served them up in an attractive Blu-ray package.  The scope is admirable; where else will you find All Quiet on the Western Front nestled alongside Animal House and Despicable Me? There are some puzzling inclusions (Mamma Mia instead of the Best Picture-winning The Deer Hunter or A Beautiful Mind?  Really?), and I would have liked to have seen more deep cuts from Universal’s back-catalog (so, Sea of Love and An American Werewolf in London fans, I’ve got some bad news for you…), but I can’t badmouth this set too much, considering it’s practically its own Blu-ray-starter set.

TV on DVD

  • “Girls: The Complete First Season”:  Given HBO’s track record with “girl power” TV (I’m thinking of the execrable “Sex and the City”), I expected the worst from this dramedy about four twenty-something women struggling to get by in New York City.  I needn’t have worried.  Under the guiding hand of 40-Year-Old Virgin mastermind Judd Apatow, “Girls” is equal parts hilarious and honest – it’s the most accurate, unvarnished look at what it means to be a part of the millennial generation.  Series writer/director/creator/star Lena Dunham could be the next Woody Allen; at twenty-six, she’s already developed a fully formed comic voice that’s simultaneously optimistic, wise, enraged, and self-pitying.  The best new TV show of 2012.

  • “Justified: The Complete Second Season”:  The best season (so far) of TV’s most quotable cop procedural.  Season Two of “Justified” is when the characters really started to come into their own.  Criminal mastermind Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) suffered an existential crisis, and Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) proved definitively why he is the angriest man on the planet.  Best of all: Margo Martindale’s genially terrifying crime lord Mags Bennett, who infuses the season with a pathos straight from King Lear.

  • “Luck: The Complete First Season”:  Many of you only know HBO’s short-lived drama “Luck” as “that show where they killed all the horses.”  I’d like to correct that misconception.  Showrunners David Milch and Michael Mann’s vision here deserves comparison with the best of Robert Altman; in their compassion for the various characters surrounding a California horseracing track, Milch and Mann have blended the foul and the fancy, the sacred and the profane, the transcendent and the mundane.  This is a show that believes wholeheartedly in the divine even as its narrative twists seem to suggest otherwise – if Walt Whitman rewrote something by James Ellroy, the result would feel a lot like “Luck.”  Had the program a little more time to develop, I feel confident that “Luck” would have been the next great television series.  Still, better to enjoy greatness in limited quantities rather than no greatness at all.

  • “Mad Men: Season Five”:  When all is said and done, I think “Mad Men” is going to go down as a legitimate American masterwork, and this season goes a long way towards furthering my case.  After a turbulent start-up, the Sterling Cooper Draper Price advertising agency is settling in for the long haul, just as its tortured, brilliant creative executive Don Draper (the great Jon Hamm) is trying to settle into domestic responsibility.  The string of great episodes in Season Five is a little unnerving; I’d wager I’ve yet to see anything – film or television – to top the run from episode six (“Far Away Places”) to episode twelve (“Commissions and Fees”).

The Criterion Collection

  • Brazil:  I used to think that this surreal, histrionic mix of 1984 and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was director Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece.  Now, I’m not so sure – I’ve come to appreciate The Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – but I can’t deny that Brazil represents Gilliam at his most unfiltered.  It’s a wild, strange, occasionally off-putting ride, and its ambition puts lesser science-fiction entertainments (The Fifth Element, Minority Report) to shame.  Criterion’s Blu-ray is part-HD showcase, part historical document; we get everything connected to its torturous production journey, from Jack Mathews’ The Battle of Brazil documentary to the film’s controversial “Love Conquers All” re-edit.  No one puts cinema in a context better than the Criterion Collection – here’s hoping that one day, they’ll be able to work their magic on Steven Spielberg’s gloriously flawed 1941.

  • David Lean Directs Noel Coward:  Of the two David Lean entries in this guide, this four-film box set is the most revelatory; who knew that the visionary behind Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago could function so effortlessly within the realm of intimate character studies?  Criterion makes a case for David Lean the Humanist, whether he’s examining the psyches of men facing certain doom (In Which We Serve), charting one middle-class London family from World War I to World War II (This Happy Breed), refashioning the war of the sexes as a battle fought from beyond the grave (Blithe Spirit), or presenting romantic love in all its vivid, horrible complexities (Brief Encounter).  That’s what I love about the movies: even after 100+ years, they still have the potential to surprise us, and the David Lean Directs Noel Coward package is beautifully jarring.

  • The Game:  Proof that even great trash deserves a second glance.  In terms of artistic import, The Game has always ranked near the bottom of David Fincher’s distinguished oeuvre; it’s up for debate whether this or his 2001 suspense thriller Panic Room is more insubstantial.  However, no one makes a confection quite like Fincher, and the director’s filmmaking bravado in The Game more-than compensates for its lack of Big Themes or Relevant Insights.  The Game plays like some nightmarish conflation of The Trial, The Parallax View, and A Christmas Carol, as Michael Douglas’ miserly billionaire finds himself trapped inside the shifting guidelines of an epically scaled role-playing game.  We’re as confused about the Game’s (potentially fatal) parameters as Douglas is, and Fincher uses our unease to – of all things – comment on the relationship between illusion and reality, between entertainment and aggression.

  • Heaven’s Gate:  This revisionist Western remains one of Hollywood’s most maligned films, but thanks to Criterion, the picture’s sharper, the sound’s clearer, and the movie itself…isn’t so bad.  It isn’t the neglected masterpiece that some might have you think, but it’s also not a trainwreck of epic proportions.  Seen controversy-free, Heaven’s Gate is a beautiful, muddled, compelling, slow, visceral examination of how the West was really won; in that sense, it prefigured now-classic Western dissections like Unforgiven and No Country for Old Men.