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Best DVD-to-Blu-ray Upgrades of 2010
With another year behind Blu-ray's reign in the home-video market, we've seen another wave of both new and catalog releases that push the limits of the "cinema at home" experience. As restorative processes grow more (and less) refined, companies continue to reach into their respective cookie jars for films primed for high-definition makeovers, tapping into pieces of art that would satisfy cult appreciation, classic aficionados, and the all-around general public. This year, however, is especially impressive; an onslaught of must-see films have seen releases that reveal exactly how immaculate and natural the Blu-ray experience can be, mostly due to the stark comparison to its previously-available presentation(s). To quote the same column from last year, "What we get, as lovers of both the technology and of movies in general, are high-definition releases that truly showcase the difference between the DVD technology of yesteryear and the new-fangled crispness and clarity of Blu-ray -- steps closer to true cinema in the home." Here's a list of some of the Best DVD-to-Blu-ray Upgrades of 2010.

The African Queen: Sure, this one's a bit of a cheat on an "upgrades" list, and a bit awkward to start things off since, well, Paramount hadn't ever actually released John Huston's film before this. Therefore, all one really has to compare the disc against is a slew of unsavory bootlegs and region-locked discs from varied locations, none of which held a suitable-enough presentation to do the film justice. It boggles the mind, too, that they never really made the effort to release this Bogart-Hepburn action-adventure vehicle, as it's one of those sublime classics that -- though not of the same caliber as Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre -- captivates to great lengths through Jack Cardiff's African-shot cinematography and the mischievous banter between its leads. Just because Paramount didn't have any competition didn't mean that they skimped out on its treatment, either; along with a high-definition scan that encapsulates the three-strip Technicolor photography in glorious 1080p, it also weaves the story of The African Queen's conception through an hour-long documentary that's really not to be missed. [DVDTalk Review]

Apocalypse Now: Really, one could go on and on about Francis Ford Coppola's deft themes, anti-war sentiment, and glorious grand-scope assembly for his depiction of Vietnam's maddening essence -- yet, it's not just for those with a penchant for war films. There simply isn't a piece out of place in the entirety of Apocalypse Now's construction, from its psychological deconstruction to the primal nature of its electric essence, and that takes it far above being just some stance against the brutalities of warfare. Yet to justify the leap into the high-definition treatment, especially to the Full Disclosure Edition, only three things really need to be said. For one, and perhaps the biggest, Lionsgate have presented the film in its originally-intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio for this Blu-ray disc, a first for the picture on the home-video front, and it looks smashing. Secondly, both cuts of the film -- the Theatrical and the Redux -- have been packed onto the discs with a near-endless assortment of special features. And third, the massive documentary Hearts of Darkness has been polished in HD and included as well. It's, quite simply, the definitive package of Coppola's challenging, mind-rattling, muck-covered exercise. [DVDTalk Review]

Delicatessen, the wildly-creative story of post-apocalyptic cannibalism in an amber-drenched corner of France, is Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's first feature-length film, a fact that's still tough to understand. The sheer craftsmanship within each shot, including the meticulous details in the cinematography and the eccentric musical rhythm that permeates the picture, showcase talent that speaks much louder than the experimental filmmakers' experience purely in short films. Yet there's more underneath this black comedy than just artistic extravagance, as it also carries a few inklings of meaningfulness within humanity's resilience and its natural need to gravitate back to normalcy after catastrophe. And, of course, there are renegade vegetarians in frog suits. As mentioned in the review for StudioCanal's Blu-ray for Delicatessen, it's astounding to imagine that this picture, which was difficult to find roughly five years ago, has seen such an evolution in digital quality over that time. What's available via this high-definition disc is an exquisite, faithful presentation that retains every ounce of yellow-tinged, grainy exterior shots and sumptuous crispness of the sallow interiors, while also offering a comprehensive slate of extras that tacks on a beefy hour-long retrospective. [DVDTalk Review]

Fallen Angels and Happy Together: Having access to Chinese films, especially those of visual poet Wong Kar-wai, has always been a bit of a tricky affair. Heck, there still isn't an unequivocally definitive release for what's arguably the director's best film, In the Mood For Love. It seems, though, that the emergence of faithful high-definition mastering has finally started to iron out the wrinkles in discrepancies over color timing and grain levels, seen over the past two years with Criterion's sublime rendering of Chungking Express and Artificial Eye's leaps-and-bounds improvement on Ashes of Time. Surprisingly, the once-questionable transfer process over at Kino's labs have turned a near-complete 180 in the high-definition spectrum, resulting in two Blu-ray discs here for Fallen Angels and Happy Together that tower far above any other visualizations on the market for the Hong Kong films -- including the DVDs released that were stricken from the same masters. Both films, differing in tone and purpose, are equally intriguing entries into Wong Kar-wai's oeuvre, bolstered further by the long-desired correctness of their cinematography in HD. [DVDTalk Reviews of Fallen Angels and Happy Together]

Fantasia / Fantasia 2000: What first started as a way to reinvigorate the Mickey Mouse character with the short "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" soon turned into Walt Disney's concoction of a road-show production, becoming the visual and aural experience known as Fantasia. He and Leo Stokowski cooked up a new sound design (Fantasound) and a reverence to classical music to backdrop Disney's animation style, and the product -- including bits of "The Nutcracker Suite", "The Rite of Spring", and a combo of "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria" in the same piece -- becomes what's considered to be one of the first real projections of the "cartoon" as an actual exertion of artistic beauty. Disney's Blu-ray presentation, which also includes Fantasia 2000 (though that's almost considered a "supplement" to the main attraction) and the Disney-Dali collaboration Destino in high-definition, taps into the company prowess in polishing the hand-drawn animation; it looks almost brand-new with its vivid colors and shapely lines, while sounding equally as spectacular and containing a hearty amount of special features that include a terrific new commentary with the original film. Absolutely delightful, though this author's bias is, to say the least, palpable (it serves as the backbone to his appreciation for both animation and classical music, period).

The Night of the Hunter -- Criterion Collection: Charles Laughton, the actor who portrayed Quasimoto in the '39 Hunchback of Notre Dame and Sir Wilfred in Witness for the Prosecution, only stepped into the directing ring once. The result was the poorly-received, poor-performing The Night of the Hunter, a troubling thriller wrapped up in a parable of faith. The film features two children, the son and daughter of a man locked away in jail, that possess knowledge of a large sum of money, something that the tattooed, sharp-eyed "reverend" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) also knows about. The kids aren't willing to cough up the information, so, in an effort to learn the money's whereabouts, Powell assimilates to the town they live in -- including wooing their mother and spiritually herding the town's citizens like sheep. The discomfort created at the start funnels into an edgy and beautiful chase down river late in the film, building into a fluidly-propelled suspense-horror hybrid. Though not acknowledged as such upon its release, Laughton's work assuredly earns the rank of a tried-and-true classic with the more "aware" audiences of today. And, boy, does Criterion pull out the stops for their Blu-ray presentation, offering it in the proper aspect ratio, terrifically-balanced audio, and an array of extras -- including two-and-a-half hours or rushes and behind-the-scene ephemera -- that'll put just about any other set to shame. It's my choice for release of the year, bar none.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australian Import): You don't get a much more varied catalog than that of Peter Weir's, ranging from the likes of Master and Commander to Witness and The Truman Show. But his demeanor in the '70s gravitated around unnerving suspense pictures with a horror slant, and his stride during that time can be perfectly seen in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Weir takes Joan Lindsay's novel and creates a visceral exploration of a rocky, wispy nook of the Australian countryside, utilizing an aggressive sound design into an experience that's unsettling on quite a few levels. Its key driver, however, is its relentless ambiguity, remaining an intriguing mystery amid maddening aural devices and claustrophobic cinematography that poses many more questions than it answers. Australian label Umbrella delivered a region-free Blu-ray overseen by Weir himself, and the results -- both the audiovisual uptick over Criterion's non-anamorphic DVD and the exceptional feature-length documentary included -- are well worth the import price. Though a release from The Criterion Collection is more than imminent, as it was one of the contestants during their Amazon Blu-ray poll, the opportunity to have this film now, in this quality, shouldn't be overlooked.

Psycho: Alfred Hitchcock elected to shoot his horror masterwork Psycho in black-and-white for two specific reasons. An obvious one comes in the film's budget, clipping his overall cost significantly. The second, perhaps the more influential, comes in the shower scene; his choice to photograph in this manner allowed for a much more grueling experience as blood slowly streams along the curves of the bathtub, swirling down into the drain following a chill-inducing sequence that, fifty years later, maintains its effectiveness. As a result, Hitch's eye also captures a handful of other captivating shots that simply wouldn't have been as striking in color, such as when Janet Leigh's Marion peers up at stuffed birds in the hotel's parlor and the assorted banter that takes place between Norman and his assorted "guests" at the Bates Motel's check-in desk. With a brand-new restoration from Universal that deserves much fanfare, these stunning sequences look -- and sound, via the original mono and a 5.1 HD track -- better than one could expect, easily earning a spot in one's collection as a black-and-white demo disc. There's absolutely no reason to not own either of the nearly-identical Blu-ray discs that Universal released in the US and the UK, as it's a classic that really only gets better upon every nuance-revealing watch. [DVDTalk Review]

The Red Shoes: One needs only to watch the included Martin Scorsese-led discussion about The Red Shoes' restoration to see why The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray earns a spot as one of 2010's most dramatic upgrades. The film itself stuns with its depiction of an artist's obsession, handled in the familiar Powell and Pressburger scale that leaves just about anyone -- classic film lovers and modern breakout enthusiasts alike -- with their jaws slammed against the floor. Dance aficionados will also find a purely surface-level reason to purchase this high-definition disc, if only to see the late-'40s ballet performances themselves in such razor-sharp clarity. Here, in this restoration, the picture's imagination breathes with far more life than ever before, towering far above The Criteiron Collection's now ten-year-old pressing. Criterion have also rustled together a heap of old and new supplements -- a commentary, sketches, novelization readings, and a new 30-minute retrospective -- that delve deeper into this majestic film. Note that Black Narcissus also received a similar treatment with stellar audiovisual merits and a great slate of extras, but only didn't make the list because of the excellent (albeit featureless) region-free disc from the UK. That one should be purchased too, though. [DVDTalk Review]

Se7en: When it comes to directors with exposure in the high-definition format, David Fincher's one of the most seasoned and widely-available. What's interesting about his films, aside from being a shrewd mix of suspense and interpersonal closeness like in Fight Club and Zodiac, is that they're all shot very, very dark, both in the tone and the actual look of the film. His masterful, unsettling neo-philosophical mystery Se7en exemplifies all that; with soupy blacks around every corner, heavy rainfall, grimy downtrodden houses and more disgusting elements than you can wrap you mind around, needless to say it's a complex -- and utterly gripping -- viewing experience. Warner Bros.' treatment of the film doesn't try to veer away from Darius Khonji's cinematography either for this Blu-ray, gloriously retaining every ounce of those stark black levels and finely-etched textures. That makes it a complex disc that'll test the threshold of black levels on one's system, and the output's a real stunner -- especially considering all the supplements from the exquisite two-disc DVD are also crammed onto the disc for investigation. [DVDTalk Review]


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