The BEST Blu-ray Discs of 2011


Best Contemporary Titles

WINNER: “The Tree of Life”
RUNNER-UP: “Black Swan”

Love it or hate it, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is visually the most luscious film of the year and Blu-ray transfer recreates this in perfect detail. No digital artifacts or enhancements are done here, there is a bit of grain but that’s expected with the photography on offer, while the IMAX 65mm sequences are true visual wonders.

Coming in second is my favourite film of last year, Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller “Black Swan”. Here is a challenge of a different sort, a film shot on both 16mm film and off the shelf DSLR video cameras. The result is a deliberately soft and grainy handheld-style image which lends a realistic documentary feel to proceedings and could look terrible if the Blu-ray transfer was handled poorly. Full kudos to Fox for a high quality presentation lacking in any additional artifacts combined with strong colours and bold blacks – a textbook demonstration of just how good 16mm film can look in high def.

There were many other disc releases for recent films this year of note including many of last year’s Oscar winners and the few shining lights in the first half of this year’s theatrical schedule. Amongst the holdovers from last year’s awards season came top notch transfers for Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech”, David Fincher’s handsome if overrated “The Social Network”, the startlingly personal “Blue Valentine”, the exquisite hand-drawn animation of “The Illusionist”, the Coens’ surprisingly strong remake of “True Grit”, the underrated and quietly devastating “Never Let Me Go”, Abbas Kiarostami’s nicely contemplative “Certified Copy”, Takashi Miike’s truly epic “13 Assassins”, and finally Werner Herzog’s stellar doco “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”.

More recently we saw some great early films of this year coming to disc including Cary Fukunaga’s inventive take on “Jane Eyre”, the Michael Connolly adaptation “The Lincoln Lawyer”, Mike Mills’ surprisingly structured indie “Beginners”, Joe Cornish’s sci-fi comedy “Attack the Block”, Jee-woon Kim’s brutal revenge thriller “I Saw the Devil”, James Wan’s spooky “Insidious”, George Nolfi’s fun fate-themed romantic fantasy thriller “The Adjustment Bureau”, Joe Wright’s unusual assassin thriller “Hanna”, and Duncan Jones’ twisted sci-fi tale “Source Code”.

Shout outs to this summer’s trio of solid superhero films lead by Matthew Vaughn’s truly superb part prequel/part reboot “X-Men First Class”, then the giddy space opera fun of Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” and finally the handsome if overly earnest “Captain America: The First Avenger”. In the last few weeks of the year came the Blu-ray releases of some of the best titles of the late Summer and early Fall including Rupert Wyatt’s prequel/reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, Gavin O’Connor’s brotherly MMA tale “Warrior” and Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic thriller “Contagion”.

Paramount’s “Rango” was the first real animated film of the year and remains arguably the best (depending upon how you feel about “The Adventures of Tintin”), while the detail level on the Blu-ray is nothing short of astonishing. Finally no list of this type would be complete without mention of both parts of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, an epic end to a great saga.


Best Catalog Titles

WINNER: “Ben Hur”
RUNNER-UP: “The Ten Commandments”

They’re two of the biggest films ever made, they both star Charlton Heston, they’re both nearly four hours long, and this year they both hit Blu-ray in restorations that are simply nothing short of incredible.

If you ever doubted old movies can look better in HD, “Ben Hur” puts any suspicions to rest with an obviously costly 6K frame-by-frame restoration. There’s practically no grain to speak of and yet the transfer is natural and very film like (not digital video), and there’s no DNR or skimping on bandwidth. It’s over fifty years old and yet looks so detailed it was as if it was shot yesterday – Warners has set the bar so high it’ll be tricky for anyone to cross it.

Coming close though is Paramount’s work on that other Heston epic “The Ten Commandments”. Similarly blemish free and yet obviously shot on film, the VistaVision photography leads to such bold and brilliant colours and detailed picture that it really is like seeing these films anew. Great work by everyone involved.

Also this year Warners delivered a stellar 4K restoration of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”, a cinematic classic some call the greatest film ever made. Still my favourite Pixar film, “The Incredibles”, finally came to Blu-ray matching the high standard we’ve come to expect from Pixar releases on the format.

Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, his master work and a film frankly even better than his “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”, hit Blu with a strong transfer. You also couldn’t go wrong with the HD upgrades for “Taxi Driver,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Blue Velvet,” “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” “Tora Tora Tora,” “Bambi,” “The Scent of Green Papaya,” “All About Eve,” “The Sacrifice” and “An Affair to Remember”.

The extended editions of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy made the jump and proved much more detailed and better quality than their theatrical version counterparts. ‘Fellowship’ in particular saw the biggest improvement in detail, but at the same time had some color re-timing back towards the greener and cooler end of the spectrum which proved distracting in a few scenes.

George Lucas brought “Star Wars” to HD with a surprisingly soft ‘Phantom Menace’ transfer, strong ones for the other two prequels and quite good ones for the classic trilogy, even if the films themselves were the altered ‘Special Special’ Special Editions.


Best Criterion Titles

WINNERS (tie): “Three Colors Trilogy” & “Carlos”
RUNNERS-UP (tie): “Fish Tank” & The Complete Jean Vigo

Once again Criterion had a truly brilliant year with a gush of Blu-ray releases. Every time you thought they would rest on their laurels and take a month off, they would suddenly announce far more ambitious slates than you would expect. As a result one often saw a half dozen titles of ‘must-have status’ hitting shelves every few weeks. It was a serious challenge keeping up.

A good two dozen titles could’ve easily taken the top spots, but ultimately it came down to two modern masterworks – Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski’s Three Colors Trilogy box set and the full five-hour version of Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos”. Both films represent some of the best in European filmmaking of the past twenty years and both get the treatment they deserve here.

They were followed closely by Andrea Arnold’s brilliant “Fish Tank” with Michael Fassbender at his most devilishly seductive, and a powerful film I keep coming back to. The Complete Jean Vigo box set was a must have for French film fans with all four of the helmer’s efforts (“À propos de Nice,” “Taris, roi de l’eau ,” “Zero de conduite,” and “L’Atalante”).

Just missing out but oh so close were Stanley Kubrick’s still great early work “The Killing” which also includes “Killer’s Kiss” on the same disc; two of cinema’s all time masterpieces in the form of Henri Georges Clouzot’s thriller “Diabolique” and Sidney Lumet’s most famous work “12 Angry Men”; Robert Aldrich’s noir classic “Kiss Me Deadly”; Andrei Tarkovsky’s original sci-fi mind-bender “Solaris”; Gillo Pontecorvo’s still unmatched political doco-drama “The Battle of Algiers”; Brian De Palma’s most subversive and effective 80’s thriller “Blow Out”; Jean-Pierre Melville’s WW2 French Resistance masterpiece “Army of Shadows” and Terry Gilliam’s wild acid trip adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”.

Shout outs also to Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime thriller “Le Cercle Rouge”, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notoriously grotesque “Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom”, Ingmar Bergman’s classic “Fanny and Alexander” in both its incarnations, Alexander Mackendrick’s acidic comedy “Sweet Smell Of Success”, Jane Campion’s early masterpiece “Sweetie”, Zoltan Korda’s gold standard adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s “The Four Feathers”, Robert Epstein’s groundbreaking doco “The Times of Harvey Milk”, Akira Kurosawa’s kidnap thriller meets social satire “High and Low”, Ken Loach’s heartbreaking “Kes”, Jean Cocteau’s romantic fantasy take on “Beauty and the Beast”, and Mike Leigh’s joyously rich Mikado-themed “Topsy-Turvy”.

Finally of note Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir Les Enfants”, Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”, Jean Coteau’s “Orpheus”, Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi”, Roman Polanski’s “Cul-de-sac”, Frederico Fellini’s “Amacord”, Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore”, Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl”, Nicolas Roeg’s “Insignificance”, Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” and Mike Leigh’s “Naked”. Like I said, it was a banner year for the company and these are only a fraction of the releases they put out.


Best TV Series Titles

WINNER: “Breaking Bad: Season Three”
RUNNER-UP: “Archer: Seasons One & Two”

HBO has one of, if not the best show on TV right now in the form of “Game of Thrones” and for the last two years have easily won this category with their ‘Complete Series’ box sets of “Rome” in 2009 and “Deadwood” in 2010. This year they didn’t put out such a set, a surprise as many are chomping at the bit for the likes of “Carnivale,” “The Wire,” “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos” to make the jump.

Instead this year’s best Blu-ray release is the continuing misadventures of Walter White in the third season of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”. Starting very strong and having only gotten better as it goes along, ‘Bad’ is easily the best and most original drama on cable right now and this season is the show’s most consistent. Plus AMC deliver great transfers with this series in a tastefully packaged box-set.

‘Bad’ just edges out the first two seasons of FX’s “Archer”, the animated spy comedy which fuses James Bond with “The Office” and is completely unafraid to take its twisted sense of humour to places television hasn’t really dared to tread in the past. Beautifully performed and consistently fresh, the animation is jaw dropping on BD and far better quality than even the broadcast episodes.

Not far behind were both a quite superb first season of ITV’s “Downton Abbey”, and the game changing fourth season of AMC’s always acclaimed “Mad Men”. Special shout-outs to both “The Walking Dead: Season One” and “Doctor Who: Season Six” which start out with some of the best TV episodes produced of any show these past few years before losing control and falling into messy tedium in the second halves of said seasons.

Nods also go out to the Blu-ray releases of “Louie: Season One,” “Fringe: Season Three,” “Dexter: Season Five,” “The Borgias: Season One” and “Justified: Season One”.


Worst Title

WINNER: “My Fair Lady”

The inclusion of a new fade in/fade out effect during the Overture of “West Side Story” caused outrage among cinephiles, so much so a second pressing is on the way that’s corrected the issue. Others had big issues with the softness of the “Jurassic Park” trilogy, or the single film issues with the “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” box sets mentioned above.

The dud this year though was the shoddy treatment given to the cinematic classic “My Fair Lady”. On first glance it looks like CBS has done a quick dust off and dump of an old transfer which was decent for the DVD release nearly a decade ago but in high-def is full of flaws that become more apparent with each viewing.

From vibration of the entire image throughout, to the visual density of the picture fading off on the sides and taking on a strange hue, this was a film that could’ve easily been made to look splendid – especially considering the painstakingly restored 70MM print is still floating around and only needed a mild digital overhaul. Instead you have a textbook example of the worst kind of catalog release in Blu-ray – one where the improvement over a near decade old DVD is marginal at best.