MOS DEF #2: 2009 - The Best Discs of the Year

January 6, 2010 - 2:00 am   |   by Mark A. Altman
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With all the talk about digital downloading and the implosion of home video sales, it's easy to lose of the sight of the fact that 2009 was another fantastic year for home entertainment. Blu-ray took another quantum leap forward as it penetrated further into the mainstream, although I could do with a little less bells and whistles as the tub thumping of BD-Live turned out to be much ado about nothing and I continue to loathe easter eggs. And DVD proved that while it was down, it definitely wasn't out. And most of the studios began amping up their release of vintage catalog titles on Blu-ray with Warner Bros leading the way with the great (The Wizard of Oz) to the good (Gone With the Wind) to the kitschy (Logan's Run). It was exceptionally hard to narrow down my favorite titles of the year to only ten (and, all of my Top 10 are Blu-ray titles with a few standard def DVD titles singled out among my runner-up's), but after many bleary eyed hours of re-sampling the candidates, here is my list of The Best Discs of 2009. Let the kvetching begin.

1. NORTH BY NORTHWEST: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Warner Bros). One of my favorite films of all-time gets the singular honor of being the first Hitchcock film to make the jump to hi-def and it looks and sounds completely stunning. New special features are welcome, if not overly insightful (while interesting they're not nearly as exhaustive as the Laurent Bouzereau featurettes on earlier standard-def Hitchcock collections) as is the re-purposing of the original release content. An absolute classic that makes a compelling case for Warner Bros evangelism for releasing classic titles on Blu-ray. It really doesn't get much better than this.

2. THE WIZARD OF OZ: 70th ANNIVERSARY ULTIMATE COLLECTORS EDITION (Warner Bros). A stunning 8K restoration led to a meticulous hi-def BD transfer along with an abundance of special features, all in a sturdy and slick slipcase package that gives the film the prominence on the shelf this classic deserves. Re-purposing the extensive special features created for previous editions along with a wealth of new material.

3. WOODSTOCK: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Warner Bros). Another joyful restoration by Warner Bros of a classic library title. Despite the fact that much of the film is shot on 16mm, the BD transfer looks great and, more importantly, sounds as good as a film shot in the rain and mud is ever likely to sound. Special features are welcome along with some kitschy packaging, but the real success here is the definitive release of this culturally and musically significant film itself.

4. THE PRISONER: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (A&E). While the release of the original Star Trek on BD was deservedly lauded this year (and only misses making the list because of its dearth of new special features), one classic 60s series that didn't get the same amount of attention, but is a more satisfying all around package with exhaustive bonus features examining all the minutiae of the making of the series and some surprisingly candid comments about creator/star Patrick McGoohan is this anniversary set of the brilliant revisionist spy series.

5. THE MEL BROOKS COLLECTION (Fox). Not unlike last year's Planet of the Apes collection, Fox spares no expense delivering all of Mel Brooks' classic films on Blu-ray (except for The Producers) as well as a few non-classics like Men in Tights in this superb set which features a fabulous hardcover book about the comedic auteur's career and a wealth of new bonus material that manages to make even the lesser lights in his filmography worth a revisit. But Fox/MGM, where the hell is that Woody Allen set? Bananas, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Husbands and Wives, not on Blu-ray yet. Inconceivable!

6. REPULSION (Criterion)/WAGES OF FEAR (Criterion)/WINGS OF DESIRE (Criterion)/FOR ALL MANKIND (Criterion)/THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (Paramount/Criterion)/THE SEVENTH SEAL (Criterion)/THE 400 BLOWS (Criterion). Criterion continues to get it right with their latest wave of titles on BD, including some long desired catalog releases. I'm still hoping for Charade, The Killers, Breathless and High & Low for starters, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time. Criterion remains the one label where the name on the spine is always enough to buy a film, sight unseen.

7. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Universal). Although it lacks a new, definitive documentary overview of the making of this landmark re-invention of the 70's space opera (and infuriatingly lacks an inset listing which episodes are on each disc along with their accompanying special features, a deficiency remedied by Bill Hunt. Thank you, Mr. Bill), this is a beautifully packaged and presented collection of the most significant science fiction TV series since the original Star Trek (although you can admittedly make that case for Lost as well, if you consider that sci-fi, which it is).

8. STAR TREK (Paramount). Sure, there are some plot holes you could drive a starship through and using the Budweiser brewery as a stand-in for the Enterprise engineering section was a mistake of Praxis size proportions, but it's sure a hoot and, more importantly, a definitive reference quality release with ample, superbly produced special features and deleted scenes that make this the first of Paramount's Star Trek releases that can be recommended without a caveat.

9. ROME (HBO). The entire two year Rome saga, part history lesson/part soap opera and all good, is compiled in one box set featuring a wealth of fantastic bonus features about both the making of the series as well as real Roman history. A terrific way to revisit HBO's most glaringly under-appreciated series. Now bring on Deadwood.

10. 500 DAYS OF SUMMER (Fox)/FUNNY PEOPLE (Universal) (TIE). A transfer that perfectly captures the varying film formats of 500 Days, an inspired non-romantic comedy and is distinguished by a plethora of top-notch bonus features including an avuncular commentary from the writers, director and star Jonathan Gordon-Levitt as well as edifying featurettes about the making of the film as well as its premiere at Sundance last year. Deleted scenes are particularly noteworthy here rounding out an extremely satisfying package that rang out 2009 in style. Meanwhile, Judd Apatow delivers another outstanding BD on the heels of superb editions of both The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. The movie which inexplicably got a bad wrap from critics and sputtered to disappointing box-office is one of the best films of the year and Apatow's most assured effort behind-the-camera yet (with first-rate cinematography from DP Janusz Kaminski). In addition to boasting both exceptional R-Rated and Unrated transfers of the film, Funny People may have the most impressive line-up of special features of any disc released in 2009. Extensive special features include legitimately funny deleted scenes in their own rite, a great documentary, blooper reels, faux-episodes of "Yo, Teach," the show within a film starring a hilarious Jason Schwartzman, home movies from Apatow and Sandler and a freewheeling commentary track from the boys. All in all, Funny People lives up to the promise of its comedy pedigree.



ZODIAC (Paramount), a BD re-port of the terrific HD-DVD from two years ago of David Fincher's restrained and under-appreciated masterpiece, SUNSET BOULEVARD: CENTENNIAL COLLECTION (Paramount), an even better version of the previous release of Sunset Boulevard on DVD (now where's the damn Blu-ray of this and Chinatown?), DR STANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (Sony), stunning black and white transfer with a decent new PiP "Cold War" trivia track, THE PAUL NEWMAN COLLECTION (Fox), some of Newman's greatest roles including Hombre, The Verdict and The Hustler - although who needs standard def versions of Butch Cassidy and Towering Inferno which have already made it to Blu-ray in superior versions, SIN CITY (Disney), a re-port of Disney's outstanding standard def deluxe set of Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's classic noir comic, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (Universal), the best this film has ever looked on home video with a great and comprehensive, albeit amateurish, feature length documentary, THE GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION (Criterion), the title says it all; classics you could only find at the Paley Center for Broadcasting from Serling, Chayefesy and other TV pioneers make their way to DVD, WATCHMEN: THE ULTIMATE CUT (Warner Bros), exhaustive and exceptional double-dip on BD, THE COLLECTOR'S CHOICE: COLUMBIA PICTURES' FILM NOIR I (Sony), another great noir collection and a welcome addition to Sony's fabulous "Collector's Choice" series, BRAVEHEART: SAPHHIRE EDITION (Paramount), you may not like Gibson anymore, but the movie's as good as ever and the crown jewel of the Sapphire line, sugartits, SNOW WHITE & THE SEVEN DWARVES (Disney), Disney continues to do justice to their animated classics with a gorgeous restoration and ample and informative special features along with plenty for the kiddies as well, UP (Disney), beautiful release of the new animated classic, and THE COLLECTOR'S CHOICE: THE SAMUEL FULLER COLLECTION (Sony).

NEXT WEEK: My best DVDs of the decade.

- Mark A. Altman

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