Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Top 10 Blu-Rays of 2009

This review first appeared on The web site.

No. 1: Battlestar Galactica - The Complete Series

It's gritty, well-acted, beautifully written and despite the 'science fiction' tag is all about the characters - NOT the effects or aliens! The 'revamped for the noughties' Battlestar Galactica thankfully bears little relation to the bad hair/cheese-fest low budget series of the same name from the early 70's.

We've had a lot of high quality TV series from the States, and against all the odds, Battlestar Galactica proved to be right there amongst the best written shows that shine light on the human condition - shows like The West Wing, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Disillusioned former Star Trek writers were given the chance to produce the show they really WANTED to make, and the years of frustration with a tired, formulaic franchise that they'd previously been working on well past its 'Sell by' date helped them produce one of the best written drama series ever shown on TV.

Best of all, Battlestar Galactica has a beginning, a middle and an end, and just when you think you know where it's going, it changes tack on you (like the whole 'parallel Iraq' storyline that dominated the middle season of the series). Five years of one of the best shows on TV is now available in a reasonably priced tin box set that includes not just the mini series that kicked the whole thing off, but also extended versions of transmitted episodes (as well as the originally transmitted episodes), and extra one-off 'specials' as well. There's also a surfeit of episode commentaries and 'making of' featurettes that dissect the whole phenomenon.

This is the definitive set and the only thing excluded is the one-off 'special' The Plan (which retells the main story, but from the robotic Cylon adversary viewpoint), issued after the series ended. Since this late offering (available as a region free Blu-Ray in its own right, albeit on US import only) turned out to be a huge disappointment and represented a drop in quality compared to the main series anyway, its omission is no great loss.

Admittedly the series 'dark and gritty documentary style' with its profusion of grain and shaky-cam means this isn't a '3D window on the world' hi-def experience, but the series was shot using HD cameras and it looks far better on Blu-Ray than it did on terrestrial transmission or on the originally issued DVD sets.

If this had been shown on one of the major terrestrial channels like BBC1, it would have had a far bigger cultural impact outside the critics, media watchers and fan boys that caught onto the show through word of mouth and took the show to their hearts. It makes the 'overly polished turd' that is Russell T Davies' Doctor Who look like the infantile, poorly written, hammily acted, overly clunky garbage it is, and it's depressing to see the dominance of 'nostalgia over quality' where mainstream science fiction is concerned, with Battlestar Galactica never entering the popular consciousness the way the inferior Time Lord remake from the BBC did.

Bottom line: Battlestar Galactica is an essential purchase, even if you don't ordinarily like science fiction. If you can't afford the 'Limited Edition' Blu-Ray tin, HMV are currently offering the DVD equivalent in their instore sale at £70. At that price, it's a complete steal. Miss it at your peril!

No. 2: The Prisoner - The Complete Series

This ground-breaking ITV series from the 60's has had more releases on DVD than I've had hot dinners, with each successive release being apparently justified by a gradual improvement in picture quality (the first DVD release was like a really bad VHS recording!) The Blu-Ray edition packages the previously available extra's with an authorative paperback book detailing the origins of the series in an annoyingly over-sized cardboard case, but it's the picture quality that makes this an essential purchase - it blows all earlier editions away. Serious money has been spent on restoring a show that was thankfully shot in colour using expensive film cameras, and it looks absolutely stunning, albeit in 'old school' 4:3 format.

Admittedly, some of the stories are dated, and a few of the seventeen 45 minute episodes that were filmed are clearly 'filler' material, but when the series hits its stride nothing comes close (not even the expensive 'modern' remake starring Ian McKellan that Sky have put together).

Saturated colours, blemish-free prints, and stories that were thought-provoking and challenging mean that it's worth purchasing this series on Blu even if you own all the previous releases on DVD: the improvement in picture quality is THAT good. 'I am not a number. I am a free man.' has even more relevance in today's world of high surveillance, privacy-inhibiting laws than it did in the 60's.

No. 3: Moon

If you like your science fiction to be a non-stop CGI action popcorn rollercoaster ride, then Moon probably isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you like science fiction that's intense, thoughtful and mind-bending then Moon is a film you have to see.

David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, turns in a truly astonishing debut film as writer/director on this beautifully constructed slow burner that will have you thinking over its implications for days after you've seen it. Jones builds tension and cleverly constructs a story where the twist that a weaker director wouldn't have revealed until the end, makes an appearance 20 minutes into the main story.

Cleverly playing on expectations set by similarities to previous classics like 2001 and Solaris, the film is a true sci-fi classic in its own right, and comes across more as a masterwerk from some established master like Scorsese, than the debut feature from some 'punk who used to make music videos'!

And if Sam Rockwell doesn't get a 'Best Actor' nomination for his performance in this film then there really is no justice in the world. Don't
rent this one - buy it because you'll want to watch it several times over to discover its beautifully sign-posted subtleties and clues. The attention to even minor details in this film is astonishing. It also looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray, which is all the more astonishing given its unbelievably low 'indy' budget.

No. 4: The Hurt Locker

Words like 'Iraq' and 'war' were the kiss of death at the box office, so it seemed like The Hurt Locker - a documentary-style fictionalised account of three bomb disposal experts working in Iraq - was on a trip to nowhere when it was theatrically released.

However a film that makes the esoteric Top 10 of a magazine like Sight and Sound, and gets called The Film of the Decade by Robert Duvall is worthy of anybody's attention, and I wasn't disappointed!

If you've seen the excellent US HBO TV series Generation Kill then you pretty much have the bare bones of what to expect here - except that The Hurt Locker condenses and intensifies the feel of that mini-series, managing not just a much shorter running time, but something with even more of an emotional punch to it too.

Unfortunately, UK purchasers get short-changed (again!) with the Blu-Ray release since it is lacking the commentary track from its female director, Kathryn Bigelow that the US release features, but the film is so powerful that the UK release makes my Top 10 anyway. An astonishing film, well presented in HD on Blu-Ray disc!

No. 5: The Wizard of Oz

Lovers of classic movies have been spoilt with expensive restorations this year. It's A Wonderful Life, North by Northwest, Brief Encounter, The General, Sunrise, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Red Shoes and Quo Vadis were just some of the classic films that received great high definition makeovers this year. (Side Warning: Avoid Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a truly dire 'restoration' that looks no better than a VHS release)

Gone with the Wind would have made my Top 10 (and is highly recommended, if only for the amazing quality of the HD transfer and the unbelievably generous extra's) had this hi-def release not just pipped it to the post in terms of being a better 'film' (For me Gone with the Wind is just rather over-hyped soap opera!)

The movie looks better than it could have done on first release, and although the UK release is worth consideration despite its unbelievably naff 'Singalong version' packaging, its the lavish US region free 'Ultimate Edition' import you want if you care about movies, including as it does an extra double-sided DVD disc with a 6 hour documentary on the history of the MGM film studio (which is also included with the region free US import of Gone With the Wind!). This documentary is presented in three two hour 'episodes' by Patrick Stewart and is worth the asking price of the import in its own right.

The Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic, and the over-saturated Technicolor land of Oz has never looked as gorgeous as it does on this Blu-Ray release which features not just the film itself, but hours of generous and informative extra's too.

No. 6: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The decision to do a remake of this classic from the 50's, starring a wooden Keanu Reeves and a lot of modern CGI nonsense in a tale about aliens warning us that they're watching us and can't allow us to destroy our planet seems timely. Alas, the resulting film was terrible, but its release was a good thing because it meant that we got a restored version of the original black and white classic on the HD format, to tie in with all the new film's publicity.

Play the old 1950's film next to the new version and even the most gadget-obsessed teenager who argues that he doesn't 'do' black and white films will be forced to agree that the original version is by far the superior release.

This timeless classic holds up well, and the Blu-Ray transfer is flawless - a convincing argument that even old 4:3 ratio black and white classics can enjoy the benefits of the high definition revolution.

No. 7: Star Trek XI

The original TV series was a classic, albeit one that outright stole most of its ideas from the less widely known Forbidden Planet (which was released on HD-DVD, so where is the Blu-Ray release of THAT title?!) Alas, the film versions of the first two TV shows bearing the 'Star Trek' legend never lived up to the hype of the original shows, a fact verified by this year's release of restored versions of all ten original films on Blu-Ray. Even in high definition it is astonishing how flabby and downright dull they all seem, frequently proving to be just elongated versions of the weakest episodes of the original TV series.

Then along come J J Abrams to bootstrap the whole franchise and, despite a misleadingly 'generic' trailer, and a writer/director with a reputation for sometimes getting carried away with 'style, gimmicks and endless repetition over substance' he delivered on all fronts this time round, giving us a film that old and new fans could embrace.

The Blu-Ray looks amazing and represents the state-of-the-art in special effects and digital grading. Coming so soon after the theatrical release, Paramount could have cashed in with a double-dip and a first 'bare bones' HD release, but there are enough extra's, albeit of the rather formulaic 'making of' variety, to keep the most ardent fan boy happy.

Apparently some Trekkies are refusing to watch the film because of the 'parallel timestream' reboot that Abrams' writers built into the script to free themselves from having to conform to complicated plot developments that have arisen over 40 years of the franchise. Their loss! Talk about burying your head in the sand and missing out on a treat!

No. 8: Midnight Express

OK, so this is more of a 'personal favourite' than a 'true classic' per se, and I struggled to choose between this and David Fincher's excellent Fight Club Blu-Ray release, but in the end nostalgia won out and I was very happy to see the big leap in picture quality improvement over the previous DVD with the release of this title on Blu-Ray.

Based on a true story, the book's a 'must read', and I've never understood why director Alan Parker went with a far-fetched and inferior made-up ending when the real story is much more dramatic and exciting. Nevertheless the film is a gripping, if sometimes harrowing, account of a young American drug smuggler's time in a brutal Turkish jail, with a career best performance from the late Brad Davis.

At a time when too many films from the 70's and 80's receive a lacklustre HD transfer (Don't get me started on Friedkin's post-processing 'rape' of The French Connection on Blu-Ray) that adds little over the DVD equivalent, it was a relief to find this dark, gritty film looking so good on the Blu-Ray format.

No. 9: Mad Men - The Complete Second Season

Arguably the best drama series currently being shown on television, Mad Men: The Complete Series 2 maintained the high standards set by the Emmy-award winning first season.

The writing's the thing, but the high production values of this tale of advertising and marketing men (and women) in the early 60's mean that the show looks best in glorious high definition.

The Blu-Ray release doesn't disappoint with stunning picture quality and a ton of accompanying commentary tracks for the episodes. If you haven't caught the show because the BBC have done their usual trick of constantly shifting it around the late night schedules when nobody's watching (WTF do they do that?!) then now's the time to catch up with it on Blu-Ray.

If you missed the first season there's a special bundle that packages the first two seasons together for a very reasonable price. This is high quality drama that's given the time it needs to breathe, beautifully acted and written, perfectly wedded to Blu-Ray viewing!

No. 10: Watchmen - The Director's Cut

It was a bit of a toss-up between this one and Coraline to be honest. I'm not a big fan of animation, even of the CGI variety, so the fact that Coraline was even under consideration is a testament to its quality.

But the opening title sequence to Watchmen swung it for me. Was there ever a better opening sequence for a movie? Issued in far too many versions, the Director's Cut is the version I'm choosing (or the 'Ultimate Edition' if you're happy to import), not least because it's the first time I've seen the over-hyped Blu-Ray special features used to such good effect.

The director's walkthrough of the film, where he stops and starts the film periodically, is an excellent use of the format and the picture-in-picture feature really works on this title. Admittedly the film is too slow burning for many (Iron Man or Spider-Man this isn't!) and criticisms that the director stayed perhaps a little too close to the original comic book, and made far too much use of his camera's slow motion feature, are valid. But for those with the patience to sit through the film's near 3 hour running time, this is a real treat.

The film is an astonishing accomplishment, albeit one that didn't fare well at the box office. The Blu-Ray (in all its different release formats) more than does justice to that accomplishment.


Steve Langton said...

Beautifully electic list, which provides solid background for your choices.
I was also blown away by "Moon" and I'm sure I'll find "The Hurt Locker" to be well worth my time in the next week or so.

2009 was a good year for Blu, and the next 12 months will, I'm sure, be even better. Happy New Year.

Ian said...

If I knew what "eclectic" meant I'd probably agree with you ;-)

Hardest thing was choosing which titles NOT to include - so many good releases came out over the last 12 months.

Suspect that now that I'm FINALLY going to have a multi-region player it's going to get even more difficult (and expensive) to single out the best titles over the next 12 months.

Happy new year to you and yours too.

Steve Langton said...

You're right, Ian. Ton of good stuff happening, inc LOTR, the Alien franchise, Wings Of Desire, The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, Suspiria, The Double Life Of Veronique... really looking forward to seeing Shiny Discs evolve. We need something like this.