DVDTalk's Top Releases of 2011
2011 saw a lot of great discs hitting store shelves. Many classic movies finally saw high definition releases, including some great silent films, and TV on DVD is still very popular. It was hard to narrow it down to just a handful, but DVDTalk's staff of reviewers did just that. They voted on the best releases of the past year and came up with an interesting and diverse list. From titles that should have received more attention such as the Ernie Kovacs Collection to blockbuster hits like the Lord of the Rings Blu-ray release and everything in between made the list, did your favorites? Take a look at DVDTalk's Top Releases of 2011 and see!
1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Extended Editions: When the Lord of the Rings trilogy was released in 2010 without the option to view the superior extended cuts, a battle cry emerged from the depths of the internet that would have tempted Sauron himself to give up the quest for the one ring. Many feared they wouldn't see them released until 2012, when The Hobbit was set for its theatrical debut. Those concerns were alleviated this past year however, and although this release wasn't met without its own share of criticism (due to an intentional color time change in the first film), this set was still a big enough improvement over the previous release to warrant the coveted DVD Talk Collector's Series rating. With gorgeous, sturdy packaging, a noticeable leap in quality, and hours upon hours of extras, you're bound to find yourself hugging the package after all is said and done, whispering, "My preciousssss...."
2. The Social Network: David Fincher is an outstanding filmmaker and one of the best in the business. Aaron Sorkin is another talented craftsman in the art of screenwriting. One of the joys of experiencing The Social Network is witnessing the united efforts of two uniformly excellent artists blending together their craftsmanship into a unique cinematic powerhouse that reinforces the joys of the movies through being constantly innovative in compelling storytelling approach and told with superb dialouge, visual wonderment, and performances that are unforgettable. And, yes, they did go and make a movie about the start of Facebook without ever being a bore for a single, solitary second. One of 2010's finest films received a generous assortment of supplements on a 2-Disc Blu-ray release and with a technical presentation that was near pefection.
3. Citizen Kane (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition): Blu-ray is the perfect, ultimate venue for Orson Welles's compulsively watchable, endlessly rewarding, permanently modern classic, which is filled with the kind of incredibly rich, detailed imagery (courtesy the ingenuity of Welles and master cinematographer Gregg Toland) that easily justifies a (re)purchase of the film on the media that can bring you as much of that detail as possible. Warners has generously brought us the movie that has everything in a 70th-anniversary set that aims for the same, starting with a practically perfect visual and sonic treatment of the feature and extending to a cornucopia of diverse extras (including the cable film RKO 281, with Liev Schreiber as Welles) that not only allow you to spend an entire weekend with Kane, but make it kind of a priority.
4. Taxi Driver: Martin Scorseses's grimy saga of isolation turning to madness finds its debut on Blu-Ray a stunning success. With a remastered transfer that replicates proper color reproduction that prior DVD releases lacked, Sony has gotten this release "organezized," treating fans to the long anticipated Scorsese commentary that hadn't seen the light of day since the days of laserdisc. If that's not enough, two more commentaries grace this disc providing multiple viewpoints from screenwriter Paul Schrader's take on his script to a more analytical scholarly examination from Professor Robert Koller. As intense and poignant nearly four decades later, "Taxi Driver" features two masters in their prime.
5. Buster Keaton - The Short Films Collection, 1920-1923 In 1920 producer Joe Schenck bought Charlie Chaplin's old movie studio, renamed it Keaton Studios, and turned it over to Buster Keaton. His instructions were simple: make eight two-reel comedies a year, and for the next couple of years that's exactly what Keaton did. He made 19 shorts before graduating to features and those films are some of the finest silent comedies ever made. Kino has, for the first time (in R1 at least) released all of Keaton's solo silent shorts in one incredible Blu-ray set. With newly remastered prints and some nice bonus features, this is an must-buy collection.
6. The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection: This set measurably improves upon its standard DVD releases of 2003-04, but whether you'll want to toss those old DVDs in the dustbin in favor of this shockingly compact Blu-ray set is less than elementary, my dear Watson. This new Blu-ray set, with all 14 films in high-definition, plus a few new extra features retails for about half of the retail cost of the DVDs, $129.98. That's an incredible deal if you don't already own the DVDs. For the rest of us, it really boils down to a combination of personal taste, affection for the series, the limitations of the surviving film elements, and the size monitor you'll be watching these films on. On smaller monitors the difference will be almost imperceptible, but on big screen TVs there's a noticeable bump in quality that improves the sharpness and more detail is highly visible. If you're as fond of these movies as we are, and if that little extra bit of added high-def clarity is worth the cost....
7. Blow Out
Brian DePalma's "aural riff" on Antonioni's visual "Blow Up," Criterion's release nulifies the barebones, visually iffy DVD from a decade ago. Whether you love or hate DePalma, it's hard to argue that "Blow Out" is not an atmospheric thriller that allows John Travolta to turn in one of the, if not THE performance of his career (John Lithgow has a late act supporting role that "Dexter" fans will want to seek out). DePalma fans will be interested in the supplements, particularly a high-def presentation of "Murder a la Mod," a late 60s effort from the director.
8 (4-way tie). Hanna: Director Joe Wright again teams up with Saoirse Ronan to excellent results in this twisty, emotional and exciting thriller. Ronan plays Hanna, a sixteen-year-old raised in the wilderness and hellbent on forcing her father's icy CIA handler out of hiding. Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana give strong supporting turns, and Wright packs the film with action, black humor and exotic locations. The Blu-ray is nearly flawless and complements the film's beautiful photography and booming Chemical Brothers soundtrack.
8. Memento: Christopher Nolan's Memento takes a familiar premise -- a whodunit procedural involving the investigation of a rape and murder -- and turns it completely around. Literally. The way in which Nolan interweaves each twist and turn seamlessly through the main character's memory condition still boggles the mind, in creation of a chilling, suspenseful jigsaw puzzle that's self-aware of its layers yet aggressive in execution. This 10th Anniversary Special Edition upgrades the audio and visual from the earliers release significantly and that makes the purchase in itself worth the money; the Nolan-supervised transfer towers high above its rickety single-layered Blu-ray counterpart. This one's a no-brainer for, well, everybody.
8. The Ten Commandments:
While most DVD/Blu-Ray collectors balk at double-dips, I think most would agree the high definition debut of The Ten Commandments is worth every penny. Coming in a standard two-disc release as well as multi-disc gift set, the reference quality A/V presentation is supplemented by a feature-length commentary and in the multi-disc release an almost equally stunning high definition presentation of director Cecil B. DeMille's original 1923 silent film version. Even if you already own either of the previous DVD releases, a fan owes it to oneself to make the upgrade and treat their eyes and ears to one of cinema's grandest spectacles.
8. Twilight Zone Season Sets:
There were some concerns before Image Entertainment released The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray. Namely, the studio's history of providing this series with an insanely high MSRP, and some people doubted the show would look good enough to warrant a high-def treatment. Image may have stayed true to their high priced business model, but they've truly gone above and beyond to justify it. Besides all five season sets housing what's arguably the most timeless televised classic ever to grace the airwaves, we're treated to reference quality video and more supplements than we can shake a Talking Tina doll at. Take it from us (while doing our best Rod Serling impression, no less): Missing out on the release of such a flawlessly preserved series is a guarantee for one thing and one thing alone - A one way ticket to... The Twilight Zone.
1. Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection Finally! This 10-disc set is absolutely essential for anyone who loves classic film comedy - even if you already own the similar and widely popular if shoebox-sized UK set. It includes the same shorts and feature films from the team's talkie years at Roach, some 32 hours, 21 minutes worth. Moreover, it includes many things not on the UK discs, and it's generally superior in every other way. The biggest difference is that this set includes English-subtitled versions of the team's surviving foreign language versions, which were usually substantially longer than their English-language counterparts. Some include Laurel & Hardy gags not in the shorter U.S. versions, while others have oddball Vaudeville acts shoehorned in to pad the running time (you haven't lived until you've seen the great Hadji Ali, whose performance in the Spanish version of Chickens Come Home (1931) must be seen to be believed). Even better, these high-definition transfers reportedly are derived from much newer 35mm film transfers using fine grain elements or duplicate material borrowed Munich, where Eastern Hemisphere rights are controlled by a CCA. Beyond the DVD- and even home video-debuts of so many shorts and versions of shorts, the set includes other intriguing extras. A Tribute to Laurel & Hardy is just that, and chiefly discusses the team from a unique perspective. That's because interviewees Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, and Chuck McCann all knew Stan Laurel quite well in his last years. (Others are also interviewed to good effect, but apparently they didn't get to meet Laurel.) On Location with the Boys is an interactive featurette/map showing nine then-and-now filming locations, as well as the site of the Hal Roach Studios lot in Culver City. It's a marvelous little extra; we only wish it were five times longer. Also included are Laurel & Hardy guest appearances in other films, and superb, informative liner notes by Richard W. Bann. Worth every penny!
2. Barney Miller: The Complete Series: This is an excellent series. It is one of the best from the 70's and that's saying something. Those that missed the show when it originally aired, or didn't manage to catch in on reruns on TV, will now have the chance to see one of the really classic series from TV's past. Shout! Factory has done an amazing job with this package. They really went above and beyond the call of duty by including the first season of the spin-off series Fish as a bonus. Even if you have the earlier Sony releases of seasons 1-3, it's worth the (very reasonable) cost to get this complete series. There's a lot of great comedy in this box.
3. Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood: One of the greatest surprises of the year was this entertaining and informative documentary series produced for Turner Classic Movies. Consider it an essential viewing for anyone who appreciates cinema history, and is interested in the story behind the foundation of Hollywood. This multi-part series looks at the sheer power of studios, executives, and the film stars that made the entire spectacle of cinema-going possible. This was one of the best written, edited, and produced documentaries of the past year and it will be an absolute delight to cinema buffs everywhere.
4. Araya: The release of Margot Benacerraf's too-long-neglected 1959 film reminds us of one of the highest purposes of those round, shiny things that revolutionized the home movie-watching experience: to rescue and make available a magnificent cinematic achievement that we might not otherwise have access to or even hear of. The film--which recounts the invasion of a tiny, struggling, but self-sustaining Venezuelan fishing and salt-mining village by corporate industrialism--is a highly original amalgam of ethnographic documentary, drama, social protest, and sheer, virtuoso, graceful visual poetry, a revelatory must-see/must-own that Milestone, the indispensable DVD label releasing it, has brought to us looking and sounding its very best. Its release is nothing short of an event for discerning, DVD-collecting cinephiles everywhere; not one but two DVDTalk reviewers gave it our highest possible rating. [Another DVDTalk review]
5. The Honeymooners - Lost Episodes 1951-1957: You're going to want to get this. A chronologically presented boxed set featuring every surviving, live-on-kinescope "Honeymooners" sketch performed on the Dumont Network's Cavalcade of Stars and, later, on CBS's The Jackie Gleason Show, this is, easily, one of the best releases of this or any other year. For decades, fans of this all-time great sitcom had been limited to the "Classic 39," the half-hour Honeymooners episodes shot on 35mm film during the 1955-56 TV season. However, these so-called "Lost Honeymooners" (which never were lost; Gleason knew were they were all along) began airing on Showtime in 1985. All of that material is included here - and much, much more. A big brick of a release with approximately 50 hours of material spread across 15 discs, it includes 30 new-to-DVD episodes, some of which haven't been seen publicly since 1957, some 54 years ago. Also included is an entire disc of extra features: rare radio episodes, commercials, spoofs, color home movies on the set, an interview with co-star Joyce Randolph, scripts for three of the missing shows, and lots more. If you're a fan of The Honeymooners - and just why wouldn't you be? - this set is as exciting as digging up Captain Flint's buried treasure chest.
6. MST3K Vs. Gamera: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. XXI: If you are only going to have one set of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, this is the one to have on your shelf. It contains all five of the Gamera movies that were riffed on MST, and they are some of the very best installments from that classic program. What's more, is they're housed in an attractive metal box... what more could you want?
7. Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends: Complete Series:
100% Bull (Winkle!) indeed. This beautifully crafted box-set contains every single episode from the complete five season run. There is more humor, zaniness, and smiles in this box than one can normally expect. Fans of laughing, smiling, and generally feeling quite good would be hard pressed to find a more pleasantly delightful box-set this year. Of course... if for some reason your name is Boris and you don't like Moose or flying squirrel this set won't be quite as remarkable. We just happen to have it on good record that most animation buffs in the world are going to find something to enjoy with this delightfully complete set.
We were surprised to learn that one of the year's best MOD releases wasn't reviewed by us nor practically anyone else - despite our repeated requests for a review copy. Nonetheless, Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth's (Local Hero) indescribably beautiful adaptation of Marilynne Robinson's first-ever (and Pulitzer-nominated) novel is just mesmerizing. Filmed around Nelson, British Columbia, it tells the story of two sisters taken in by their eccentric, sometimes transient aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti) after their mother commits suicide. Funny and deeply moving, this was one of the best films of the entire 1980s and deserves a much wider following.
9. Park Row Despite a budget really too low for its ambitions, Samuel Fuller's 1952 mini-masterpiece is at once a romantic, exciting, and authentic portrait of the New York newspaper business circa 1886. Fuller himself was every inch the cigar-chomping Front Page reporter, supposedly covering the crime beat while still a teenager and credited with breaking the news of Jeanne Eagles's death when he was barely 17 years old. Park Row, Fuller's fourth low-budget film as a director, was obviously a personal project and he sank all his money into its production, some $200,000 - save for a grand he kept for vodka and cigars. The film is Fuller's Citizen Kane: the subject matter is similar and like Orson Welles's masterpiece Fuller crams every scene with innovation and terrific performances. Part of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" line of DVD-Rs, Park Row has been given a strong black and white, full-frame video transfer that does the picture justice.
10. Two in the Wave Godard. Truffaut. Combined or apart these artists are amongst the greatest filmmakers in French New Wave. This documentary explores their friendship and the films that made them icons of cinema. Explore their work and the friendship that helped to shape an entire cultural shift in cinema-going.
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