As long-time readers will note, it has been a long year for This Week in Blu-ray, my weekly column exploring the world of high definition home entertainment. The column began 2009 under a different title, with a different format and a rather lame consistency. But as the year has gone along, I’ve caught my stride just in time to review some pretty wicked Blu-ray collector’s sets, new releases and second releases. And with our Year in Review forging forward, I thought it might be nice to share ten of the best with you.
So here we go…
The most recently released Blu-ray on this list, District 9 nearly knocked me on my ass last week when I sat down to review it. It wasn’t a plethora of special features that got me, but the quality of the features. For once, it was nice to see a recent release get some extras that provided real value. And not just value for a movie that needed the help, but for a movie that I’ve already called the best of the year. We found out very quickly that there were so many secrets in District 9, and it was the job of this Blu-ray to uncover said secrets. It is a Blu-ray disc that you should be proud to have in your collection, because it represents one of the best releases of 2009, in theaters and in your home.
This release wasn’t the first to use the side-by-side comic book panel and storyboard comparisons in an interactive mode, but it was the first to use them in a way that really blew our minds. As well, the Blu-ray included two separate versions of Robert Rodriguez’s comic wonder, the original theatrical cut and the extended director’s cut. There is also an option to watch the individual stories within Sin City in chronological order, making the task of seeing the Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) moments quick and easy. It is one of the best Blu-ray releases I’ve seen since the dawn of the format, and one that’s been on this list since the moment it hit my doorstep.
It is possible that Mike Dougherty’s campfire stories come-alive anthology gets special consideration because its Blu-ray release represents the first and best chance for wide audiences to see the movie. But it isn’t just that fact. The truth is, the movie is an ode to Halloween and a pitch-perfect thriller that will soon become a traditional must-see in late October. And the Blu-ray is more than impressive, with an additional commentary track and several great bonus featurettes. It is the only time that Warner Bros. has given this movie a release that it deserved, seeing as it skipped a theatrical run. So yes, maybe there is a special place on this list for that sweet horror flick we’ve waited for all these years. In the end though, it earned it.
I was sad to have to cut Zack Snyder’s Watchmen from my best of the year list earlier this week, as I did feel it to be one of the most faithful and stylish comic book adaptations of all-time. But I knew I would get to make it up to fans in my Best of Blu-ray recap, as Watchmen had not one, but three great Blu-ray releases throughout this year. It hurt our pocketbooks (who still carries pocketbooks?) to buy all three, but in the end it was probably worth it. Personally, I was most struck by the Director’s Cut, with its beefed up story and Maximum Movie Mode. It had an Owl-ship load of BD extras and a beautiful transfer of the film, which worked perfectly. I know that many of you would nominate the Ultimate Edition in its place, but I wouldn’t. The Ultimate Edition was released too late and just didn’t have the same zip. By then I had already combined my Director’s Cut copy with my Tales of the Black Freighter and my Motion Comic, so I had it all. Why spend more money just for limited edition packaging? The Ultimate Edition was for uber-fanboys, whereas this Director’s Cut was the perfect Watchmen selection for any consumer.
Of the very few Criterion Blu-rays that I had a chance to review this year (for reasons unknown), this was certainly the most impressive. For All Mankind has been a personal favorite doc of mine for a long time, speaking right to the space nerd that has always dwelled within me. Al Reinert’s wonderful documentary of the Apollo space program seen through the eyes of its astronauts has never looked so vibrant. The transfer is pristine, as is the audio track and the special features. So much so that even thought his disc didn’t have any juicy Blu-ray exclusive extras, it still makes the list. I’d recommend it one hundred times over if I could.
I’m in love with beautiful transfers on movies of old. In 2008, I named Dr. No as the best Blu-ray release of the year because even though it was shot in 1963, the movie looked as though it had just wrapped, and a young Sean Connery existed today. The same can be said for Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s beautiful black and white parody of Cold War era military politics. The likes of Peter Sellers and George C. Scott were at the top of their game in ’64, and we’re more than blessed to have it come to life in such a vivid, all-encompassing way in ’09. The featurettes are long, but deeply fascinating. The packaging includes a book that is worth a read as well. All-in-all, Strangelove could very well teach you how to learn to love the Blu-ray format.
There is no substitute for Pixar. And in the releasing of their movies on the Blu-ray format, Pixar and their parent company Disney have found a groove. This year they brought Monsters Inc. to Blu and it was amazing. Last year, Wall-E was dazzling in HD. But none of these can top the quality we saw with the incredibly charming, heartfelt story of Up on the high definition format. The movie was vibrant and beautifully animated, the special features were off the chart, and the release came with both Digital Copy and a standard DVD copy of the movie. As we’ve seen from Disney before, it was the perfect item for anyone with or without a Blu-ray player.
Having seen The Wizard of Oz in high definition on TNT last year during the holiday season, I couldn’t wait to see it on Blu-ray. There is so much color and life in this film that it’s hard to imagine that we’re celebrating its 70th anniversary. But we are, and this Blu-ray came to party with bells on. With hour upon hour of special features — everything from radio promos and theater broadcasts to featurettes about Victor Fleming and an HD-exclusive documentary about MGM, this release was a completist’s wet dream. It’s likely that there is not a more definitive record of this film anywhere in the world. And with wonderfully sturdy packaging and a few sweet little gifts, it is the perfect addition to any collection.
Who doesn’t love the work of Alfred Hitchcock? If your hand is raised, please leave this website and never come back. We don’t have any advice for you. Actually we do, but it would be to go back and watch Hitchcock’s mastery again, and again, until you see what the rest of us see: unmatched brilliance. That said, it is easy to see why I went ga-ga over North by Northwest (a personal favorite of mine) when it hit Blu-ray. Not only has Hitch’s epic chase flick never looked better, it comes with two Blu-ray exclusive featurettes that shed even more light on the brilliance man behind the camera. It was more than just an entertaining thriller with a few iconic shots and a hot blonde at its heart, but a true work of art from top to bottom, just the way Hitchcock made it.
Choosing the best Blu-ray release of the year was tough. Do I choose one of the classic releases, which took years to restore and transfer to high definition? Or do I go with one of the ’09 releases that dazzled us in theaters, then months later drove the experience home with a stockpile of special features? In the end, I just couldn’t resist the Herculean effort that went into the assembly of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek on Blu-ray. Over 30 behind the scenes featurettes, all just as interesting as the last, a gag reel for the ages, and a movie that exists as a truly wonderful rebirth of one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all-time. How could I resist? This disc boldly goes to a place where so few Blu-ray releases go, in the category of first-run wonders. There’s no need for a special collector’s edition later, or an ultimate director’s cut in a year. It is all here, done right the first time.