Best Contemporary Titles
WINNER: "Avatar: Extended Edition"
Doesn't matter what you thought of the film, I enjoyed it but didn't particularly love it, James Cameron fully delivers on his promise to make the 'Extended Edition' Blu-ray release worth the double-dip as it has to be one the single deepest and richest releases for a single film on the market.
The transfer is pure reference quality, the inserted new footage in the three alternate cuts available is exactly the same quality as the rest of the cut, and the sound design is awe-inspiring. Extras are disgustingly rich - three near feature-length docos, nearly an hour of cut footage, countless featurettes, artwork and a beautiful looking if a tiny bit awkwardly designed packaged set.
Picking a runner-up wasn't that difficult. Christopher Nolan's puzzle box of a film "Inception" is a trippy but whip smart and bold heist film set in the world of dreams, and easily the best film of the Summer. The extras aren't that exhaustive, a 'special edition' later down is probably going to happen, but the transfer is excellent and the quality of the film itself makes it well worth it.
This is the category where personal taste dominates the most, so my other recommendations to hit stores in the past twelve months include some choices you might not have considered. There's the acidic black comedy of last year's best film "In the Loop", Pixar's joyous sequel "Toy Story 3", the gritty French prison drama "A Prophet", Tom Ford's dazzlingly beautiful directorial debut "A Single Man", Roman Polanski's richly atmospheric political thriller "The Ghost Writer", and the superb non-Hollywood film adaptation of Swedish literary sensation "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".
Also making the shortlist is Hayao Miyazaki's delightful fable "Ponyo", Dreamworks Animation's best film to date "How to Train Your Dragon", Edgar Wright's 80's teen comedy for the Xbox 360 generation "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World", the Tilda Swinton-led Italian family drama "I Am Love", Ben Affleck's skilled thriller "The Town", Lisa Cholodenko's indie delight "The Kids Are All Right", and Martin Scorsese's fun if over ripe noir "Shutter Island".
Best Catalog Titles
WINNER: "Alien Anthology"
RUNNER-UP: "Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure Edition"
The single hardest category to pick this year because some of the greatest films of all time got such beautiful high quality remasters for the format that they've never looked better. In fact in some cases, the new transfers are so good as to make the viewing experience feel like the first time again. The winner though was clearly Fox's almost perfect delivery of the "Alien" saga on Blu-ray.
The packaging is the year's best and all the extras from the 'Quadrilogy' have been ported over and are accessible through a unique interface system that makes full use of the new format. The "Alien 3" and "Alien Resurrection" transfers are notably better than their DVD counterparts and strong Blu-ray transfers on their own, but aren't all they could be.
The gems here though are the two cinematic classics - "Alien" and "Aliens" - which both simply have NEVER looked this good before. Ridley Scott's "Alien" is absolutely pitch perfect, a reference quality transfer. James Cameron's "Aliens" has had its color completely re-timed and the detail level boosted to incredible new levels of clarity, even the grain level is perfect - enough to keep all the detail, but not enough to overpower the image. Arguably the finest release out on the format right now.
Choosing a runner-up was more difficult but ultimately the stellar job done on the three-disc edition of what is still the best war film ever made, Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", has to nab it. The transfer is incredible, the extras abundant and rich, and the making of documentary "Hearts of Darkness" (a legend in its own right) is finally included and never looked better. The only drawback? The packaging isn't what it should be.
Other recommendations to hit stores in the past twelve months include the "Back to the Future" trilogy, Hitchcock classic "Psycho", the original and still frightening "The Exorcist", the definitive family classic "The Sound of Music", the stunningly restored wartime tales "The African Queen" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai", Kino's extended version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", Disney animated classics "Beauty and the Beast" and "Fantasia", David Fincher's modern thriller classic "Se7en", the greatest cult film of them all "The Rocky Horror Picture Show", the Bogart double play of "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", and Steven Spielberg's overrated but commendable "Saving Private Ryan".
Best Criterion Titles
WINNERS (tie): "The Thin Red Line" & "Seven Samurai"
RUNNERS-UP (tie): "The Night of the Hunter" & "The Red Shoes"
Criterion had an absolutely stellar year as they embraced Blu-ray full force, delivering a healthy mix of new titles simultaneously launched on both DVD & Blu-ray, along with remastering some of their old classics for the HD format. It was very difficult to scratch off any of their releases this year as being unfit for recommendation. Picking favourites however proved quite a bit easier with four titles really blowing me away on all fronts - Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line", Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai", Charles Laughton's under-appreciated horror classic "The Night of the Hunter", and the Scorsese-assisted remaster of Powell and Pressburger's "The Red Shoes"
Other must buys this year were Stanley Kubrick's other great war parable "Paths of Glory", Luchino Visconti's lengthy and nostalgic "The Leopard", Malick's haunting "Days of Heaven", Steven Soderbergh's commendable biopic "Che," Steve McQueen's remarkable debut effort "Hunger", Fritz Lang's early talky classic "M.", Powell and Pressburger's anti-imperialist missionary tale "Black Narcissus", the utter insanity of late 70's Japanese horror tale "House", Stanley Donen's delightful Hitchcock-esque "Charade", David Cronenberg's horror/satire "Videodrome", John Ford's western classic "Stagecoach", Kurosawa's most outright fun film "Yojimbo", and the solid box-set "America Lost and Found - The BBS Story".
Best TV Series Titles
WINNER: "Deadwood: The Complete Series"
RUNNERS-UP (tie): "Life (BBC)" & "Sherlock: Season One"
There's plenty of great TV shows on right now but the best box-set this year went, unsurprisingly, to the HD upgrade of an HBO classic. A year after the simply beautiful "Rome: Complete Series" Blu-ray hit stores, the premium cable channel delivered the even more impressive "Deadwood: Complete Series" - a show that redefined the boundaries of both westerns and cable drama. I hope HBO is planning a similar treatment for its other completed shows yet to make the HD leap, Blu-ray box sets for the likes of "Carnivale," "The Wire," "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos" would make any serious lover of cinema and/or TV drool.
The runner-up noms went to two British efforts that have still stuck with me long after I saw them. BBC's high-def documentary series "Life" is a wonder, and arguably up there with "Planet Earth" in terms of sheer spectacle. While Steven Moffat's new take on "Doctor Who" has split reaction and has both its up and downs, his modernisation of the Holmes tales with "Sherlock" is undisputedly brilliant. Despite being only three TV movies long, it makes its mark right from the start and has me and many others keenly anticipating next season.
Other recommendations this year include the truly stunning remastering job done for the early seasons of the sci-fi anthology classic "The Twilight Zone", the first two seasons of "Breaking Bad" and third season of "Mad Men" from AMC, ABC's clever new comedy "Modern Family", the gritty British three-part crime saga "Red Riding", the fifth series of "Doctor Who" which rebooted the reboot with a more polished but younger-skewing take, the deservedly buzzed about first season of "Glee", Kenneth Branagh's dark and moody Swedish detective procedural "Wallander", HBO's mega-budget undertaking "The Pacific", the "Lost" complete series box-set (even with that show's awful ending), and if you can import it - the British Blu-ray release of Olivier Assayas' astounding "Carlos" mini-series.
WINNER: "Predator: Ultimate Edition"
Last year the clear winner of the most botched Blu-ray release was "The French Connection", William Friedkin essentially mutilating his greatest work with a horrendously misguided transfer that upped the pink, blew out the contrast and just made an absolute mess of the original. This year the booby prize goes to Fox's second attempt at bringing 80's action classic "Predator" to Blu-ray and failing even more miserably.
When other studios have screwed up their initial transfer, they make sure to spend the money and not make the mistake again. Recent remastered re-releases of "Gladiator" and "Gangs of New York" on Blu-ray are quite jaw-droppingly good and correct all the errors made in their initial transfers which were god awful.
Fox's initial "Predator" Blu-ray release was pure laziness - a half-assed effort full of noise and suffering from a low bit-rate transfer. This second go around however over-reacted to the complaints, stripping out every hint of grain and in the process much of the detail. The color and contrast is better, but now the actors literally look like wax figures running around a very artificial jungle - some shots are so airbrushed as to turn the film into something akin to one of those creepy Robert Zemeckis style mo-cap features. It's a disaster and it looks like we won't ever get to see this great action film the way it deserves to be seen.