DoBlu’s Best (and Worst) of Blu-ray 2011

It’s 2012, and who wants to look forward when you can look back at the year that was? Blu-ray’s 2011 was jammed with high-quality releases, many of which could have slipped you by. What’s the fun in that? So, DoBlu slides in to save the day (with a major tip ‘o the hat to CinemaSquid for keeping this stuff in order), so you can revel in everything the format did right. Oh, and laugh at what it did wrong. Selection rules from last year’s list also apply to 2011:

1. This is a list about home video, so while the movie may have come out ages ago, the only date that matters for inclusion is the Blu-ray release.

2. DoBlu didn’t review or see everything that came out in 2011, so a few categories have “Missing Links,” where certain discs that received high marks elsewhere are tossed in as contenders, something to consider in addition to our own picks.

3. The “worst of” categories could have been overloaded with Stone Cold Steve Austin movies (and the like), but the decision was made to limit it to major studio releases. The “best of” for animation was similar in that almost any CG animated film could have made it in, but it was narrowed for space.

4. If you would like to buy any of these Blu-rays, every winner has a link to DoBlu’s full review, which contains an opportunity to purchase said disc from Amazon. Doing so helps DoBlu grow, so thanks in advance!

Moving along…

Best Video (Live Action)

Fast Five

Meant to appeal to everyone, this Fast sequel pours on the gritty, lifelike texture as if the visual team was gunning for DoBlu’s coveted video title, because clearly, that’s always the first thing on a cinematographer’s mind. Egotacular sarcasm aside, Fast Five is a Blu-ray darling, maintaining its composure under intensely edited action scenes and close-ups that are allowed to soak the screen with precision definition. Short of some smoothing applied to Jordana Brewster (it’s all the rage these days), Universal’s weighty, intense home transition is everything you’re seeking for a home video showcase of your equipment.

The Help

So beautiful in saturation and so sterling in its fine detail, this vintage fueled story tells itself amidst some of the strongest, richest definition you’ll see. Every shot is glistening with facial texture, pouring from the frame like it’s meant to be seen. The movie demands your attention for a purpose, and the visual splendor makes it hard to merely look away. Instead, you can watch it multiple times and still pick around the environments for their miniscule additions. The Help is superbly warm, and not in a way that deems it necessary to burn flesh tones. It flushes the piece with primaries and never softens up.

True Grit

Rooster Cogburn and crew are included here because of their need for additional resolution. This piece is overloaded with forests, brilliantly realized locations, and an Old West identified by its dusty texture. True Grit doesn’t do much with its color palette; that’s not what matters. The photography is just razor sharp and crisply resolved, the Blu-ray able to not only handle it, but create additional spectacle for the home videophile. This is what the technology can do, not merely replicate rapid-fire actioners, but appease filmmakers, letting them know that when done right, Blu-ray can provide accurate replication of their work.

Runner-ups: Source Code, Super 8, The Smurfs, The Company Men | Missing Links: The Tree of Life

Best Video (Animated)

Rango

Rango, as sort of the oddball out coming from Nickelodeon Studios yet being well out of the full grasp of children, goes wild with its visuals. The title character, a lanky chameleon cowboy, is dressed to impress… err, textured to impress that is. Scaly skin is jaw dropping here, and saddled with a depth-defying (that makes no sense but the pun is too delicious not to use) intensity, Rango literally feels like it is leaping to life. Other characters startle too, including near photo-realistic moles and their fur that is resolved down the tiniest of hairs. Going full-on creative with the backgrounds  -made up of human trash like cans and the like- means seeking out the little things, which this Blu-ray provides.

The Lion King

Disney’s 2011 catalog push didn’t contain any strangers, but the one that is most technologically fresh is the resounding winner. That shouldn’t take anything away from the premiere work done on, say, Bambi, but Lion King is a marvel of intensity and mood. Lovingly crafted African planes are showcased with the full impact of their work. Paint strokes are lovingly cared for and preserved, while the tight lined animation can be presented for what it is: perfect. This is such a lush, bright piece of work that it was meant for HD before anyone knew of the hi-def revolution. Now that it’s happened, it’s sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lion King is where it needs to be and in the capable hands of Disney who clearly go to great lengths to preserve their catalog.

Rio

Marvel at Rio. Not the movie, but Rio De Janeiro itself, which even in its animated form is a place of natural beauty. It’s hard to say whether a computer animated film has ever created a real life environment with such staggering attention to detail before. If Lion King sells the natural wonders of Africa, Rio sells, well, Rio. Characters are rife with genuine, purposeful details, revealed in close-ups or at a distance. It’s a small miracle how well this one does when the camera pushes backward. It’s almost a shame this one has a story to tell instead of just letting animated visuals splurge across the screen for 90-minutes. It looks good enough to pull it off.

Runner-ups: Tangled, The Incredibles, Gnomeo & Juliet

 Best Video (Catalog)

Mysterious Island

Sadly limited to a paltry 3,000 copies, few will experience how majestic Ray Harryhausen’s work can look in HD. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, especially after such critical darlings like Jason & the Argonauts performed right up to par. Released by Twilight Time in a limited edition, Mysterious Island reflects the original photography with exquisite fine detail, superbly rendered island views, and razor sharp looks at those iconic stop motion models. The encode handles a vintage Technicolor film stock like it’s nothing, preserving an unexpected layer of textural acuity. While the film starts with extensive blue screens that dim the appeal ever so slightly, it’s all preparation for something you wouldn’t expect: near perfection.

Tron

Disney’s ’80s classic was undoubtedly a technical nightmare, being filled with such dated and quaint visual effects. This is a mass of early electronics, multi-pass matte effects, polygonal tanks, and gray faces. Before entering the realm of Tron, the sharp, crisp look of the film stock takes advantage of  being able to show itself off, and then, Tron becomes a world of its own. You can’t fault a film for its low resolution effects, so low in fact that they break up and shimmer. That’s how it always will be, and quite honestly, should be. It’s no different than rendering a classic video game in HD and smoothing over the sprites because they look blocky. Disney only gets their hands messy if they have to, leaving Tron to its own vintage devices.

Alien 2: On Earth

Alien 2 is here more or less because it shouldn’t be. Who in their right mind takes the time and energy to bring this Italian knock-off back to life on Blu-ray? Not only did that happen, Midnight Legacy gave the film a look it probably never had in the first place. Unlike it’s mega-budgeted off-shoot from Fox, Alien 2 doesn’t look new, but it represents a cheaper means of filmmaking. It looks like it was shot in the ’70s, but with flashes of modern brilliance brought forth by this restoration and encode. There are studios who can’t even get their best and brightest titles looking correct in their catalog, yet Alien 2 just sort of dumfounds anyone who chooses to watch it. Go figure.

Runner-ups: I Spit on Your Grave, The Island

Best Audio (New Release)

Sucker Punch

Last year proved a banner year for Blu-ray’s replication of modern sound design. Any disc squeezing onto this list deserves placement on your shelf, but few more than Sucker Punch. While Zack Snyder’s action piece offers mounds of debate and discussion in regards to its narrative, audibly, few did it better. Every dream sequence is another sucker punch (sorry) to the gut, a weighty, beefy blast of bass that mixes with pristine highs. Imaging could be record setting considering how much is being thrown around, and machine gun fire has rarely carried this much oomph. All of it is built for spectacle without ever going out of control or throwing off a genuinely perfect balance. Salute your new home theater master.

Super 8

The train crash.

Oh, you want more? Well, Super 8 has more to give, including a substantial run through the small town as military types begin a bombardment seeking an alien life form as only Americans know how: with tanks. An attack on a bus features the sides being ripped apart, sending the vehicle tumbling with the cast terrified inside. Super 8 does the little stuff too, the real determination of whether or not deserves placement. Prior to an attack, the alien is scrounging about, knocking debris around and shuffling trees, and every ounce of energy from this track goes towards ensuring accuracy and aural splendor.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Surprised? No, you probably weren’t. In spending obscene amounts of money to bring a bunch of transforming robots to life, Michael Bay never considers the art of being subtle. That goes for his visuals and seemingly by default, the audio too. Paramount delivers a hard-to-find TrueHD 7.1 mix that doesn’t skip an opportunity to blow something up. If there’s anything graceful here, it’s the bullets that skim overhead with pleasing front-to-back transitions and crunching/scraping metal that always seems to be placed somewhere other than the center. You certainly can’t call this one boring, and you almost have to be careful with a disc like this. The bass is relentless and pulsing, never letting up. Despite that, it never feels out of place, just right at home.

Runners-up: Social Network, Source Code, Tron Legacy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Fast Five, Battle Los Angeles

Best Audio (Catalog)

The Island

A DVD audio staple comes to Blu-ray with remarkable results, certainly in the back half when the flick begins pushing forward with its unreal pacing. A street chase, moving from some epic car wrecks onto the back of a trailer and then onto flying motorcycles is ten straights minutes of bliss. Explosions resonate into the subwoofer and do their best to get the foundation shaking. It’s not all action though either, as the underground facility that initially contains these characters is vividly imagined as a living, breathing place. There are echoes in wide halls, chatter in crowded rooms that swell into the rears, a driving, bass-loaded score, and some restraint to keep it all level-headed.

The Lion King

Oh happy day. The Lion King is now remixed into 7.1, and while the stampede sequence seems like it would shoot ahead to lock in contention, this is here for the music. So crucial to any Disney animated fare, Lion King’s rich selection of peppy, vibrant, and lively tunes are pure showcase material. Not only can a friend or family member experience the fluidity of music on Blu-ray, they’ll be hearing things they know by heart as if they’re hearing them for the first time. Energy soars through this modern remix, keeping the purity of the original mix and adding zest, power, and fidelity. Elephants stomp, drums bloat up, and lyrics are so smooth, they’ll melt the heart of even the stingiest audiophile. And yeah, the stampede is ridiculously awesome too.

United 93

If there’s anywhere you don’t want to be, it’s in the middle of 9/11 as it happened. United 93 had a mission though to force people into the situations and experience them firsthand. Part of that is the Greengrass directorial style, and other part is the sound design. This disc plants the viewer dead center in these rooms. Panicked moments of confusion are accentuated by ringing phones, background TVs narrating events, people yelling for answers, and computers beeping. On the fateful jet itself, engines are subtly inserted for a constant sense of being in the air, while the cabin maintains a tightness in the dialogue that is so rarely given attention. United 93 came out in 2007, and it’s master hold on sound design (Oscar winning too) still outmatches most modern films.

Runners-up: Mysterious Island, Jurassic Park Trilogy

Best Extras

Social Network

Despite a rather oddball packaging for such a wide release, it doesn’t dim what comes inside the case. Two commentaries are housed on the first disc, leaving the second Blu-ray to pour it on. How Did they Ever Make a Movie About Facebook? is easily the best behind-the-scenes documentary of the year, rich in detailed explanations on every topic imaginable. Fincher takes time to explain his penchant for shooting digitally and the reasons he’s favored it in a short featurette, showing the thought process that goes into camera selection. So few discs (or directors) would even care to discuss that on camera. Details on the soundtrack, scene comparisons, and post-production are still left, because clearly Fincher cares enough to make sure this info is out there.

Monsters

There’s an inherent interest in seeing how something like this was made as opposed to a Michael Bay blockbuster, something Gareth Edwards and crew capitalize on. A rich, ancedote-laden commentary sprouts up with plentiful details on the shooting schedule, which in most cases happened on the fly. An hour-long documentary is one of the better ones this year, again the nature of the piece piling on the detail, budgetary restriction work-arounds, and design work. You’ll find interviews, visual effect breakdowns, Comic Con chatter, and even after that, the disc still finds more information.

Red State

This year has become all about director involvement, and Kevin Smith is clearly a completionist. Ready for this? Seven hours of podcasts. Seven hours. And there’s more where that came from. There’s a 45-minute making-of which makes for compelling material because of the budget restrictions and the eventual release which was anything but standard. A handful of deleted scenes will keep you occupied, while a film festival interview session contains information not mentioned anywhere else on the disc. To put this in perspective, nothing here goes by without Kevin Smith’s introduction. He’s involved in every piece on the disc.

Runners-up: Super 8, Paul, Attack the Block

Most Disappointing

Jurassic Park Trilogy

Oh Universal, will you ever stop being catalog schmucks? All three movies in this set collapse from the studio’s pitiful, shameless, and cheap mastering process which includes slapping a little visible DNR on the thing, edge enhancing to fix that, then shipping it to a waiting public. It’s not fair to the format, consumers, or the filmmakers. With so much riding on a catalog release like this, to muck it up is just inexcusable. Then again, Universal found themselves here last year too with Back to the Future, an equally fudged DNR masterwork. And just to pour it on, the abysmal quality of the Collector’s Limited Edition was absurd.

The Star Wars Prequels

Egad. Universal may drop the ball, but mega powers in Fox and George Lucas? Huh? While the original trilogy has its own share of concerns and messy moments, Episode I is vying with Tremors to be one of the worst DNR hack jobs out there, and that’s saying something. Sure, it’s just the prequels and not many actually care, but the DVD is widely regarded as one of the worst modern (well, modern in 1999) films ever released to the format. To further complicate matters, Episode II looks like a dated digital experience across the board. Shockingly, the decision to shoot with such new equipment at the time is coming back to bite Lucas. At least Episode III picked up its game in terms of video while the audio slouched off.

Ultraviolet

Clearly, the studios don’t quite get it. Paramount is trying to sell Ultraviolet movies direct to consumers for more than their UV-fueled Blu-ray counterparts, movies that feature it are being ripped to shreds by consumers on Amazon, and just registering is a demented nightmare. There’s not even a need for self-preservation, because clearly, with the consumer experience being such a dreadful, clumsy mess, Blu-ray isn’t going anywhere. And besides, who wants to deal with this fiasco when they can watch Netflix, a better quality disc, or find some “other” means to watch it without the hassle? Fail: Hollywood.

Worst of

Carjacked (Movie)

Someone made a movie where a carjacker and the victim get along. No, seriously. Sure, it doesn’t actually end up positively, but for most of this movie -which seems shot on a singular location- Mario Bello (victim) and Stephen Dorff (‘jacker) chat about their lives, kids, and experiences. Oh, and this happens while Dorff is holding a gun at Bello. Stupid characters do even stupider things, stuff so inept 911 operators should hang on these morons and weed out the gene pool. Actually, scratch that. Bello confuses 911 with 411 in the movie. Even a sitcom wouldn’t do something that stupid.

The Big Lebowski (Video)

Guess who? It’s Universal! Yet again they’ve taken one of their most recognizable catalog favorites, lavishly stuffed it inside special packaging, and treated the actual film like it was total garbage. The Dude and his cohorts are irreparably destroyed by a layer of smear-inducing noise reduction and surrounded by halos that are not meant to indicate their sainthood. Colors are washed of their purity, fine detail is simply removed from the frames, and print damage remains in excess. Smearing the film in a puddle of mud would be less offensive, or as Universal calls it, “a lavish restoration.”

King of Fighters (Everything)

Who knows where they keep coming up with the idea to produce movies based on one-on-one fighting video games. The whole movie feels like it’s shot on a broken tripod since none of the film is actually shot straight. Incoherent dialogue rarely strings together a plot with any logic or sense. Audio mixing is done incorrectly, dialogue missing the center and stretched into the stereos. Medium shots break down into murky, filtered messes. Ray Park tries to salvage it with some martial arts fun, but is stuck inside editing that doesn’t seem to understand the pacing or the flow. The whole thing is about as stunted as this paragraph reads.

Runners-up: Crazy Stupid Love (Video), Daylight (Video), Blood Out (Movie)

 Best Movies

The Social Network

Stupid Facebook. For everything you do to make us hate you, it’s impossible to deny the greatness of the story behind your creation. Jesse Eisenberg portrays Mark Zuckerberg with such dominating and interesting quirks, his own ideas almost seem lost behind a shroud of awkwardness. He’s brilliant (referring to Zuckerberg, although it applies to Eisenberg too) yet so shrewd and level-headed, you’re never quite sure if he grasps the gravity of his situation. Dialogue never misses a beat, and direction from the lens of David Fincher gives the piece a sense of class and an air of authenticity.

The Help

Much like Social Network, The Help thrives on its ability to produce authenticity, even if it’s with more pep and energy. The Help needs that electricity, that anger, and those joyous moments of revenge because the material it builds itself on is deplorable. Deep southerners are probably none too thrilled about the portrayal here, the country still dealing with the ignorance of segregation when one young woman decides to reveal the story of these hard working maids. Ingenious casting gives the dramatic piece some spunk, while the balance between the unimaginable and the happiness is pure precision. You’ll leave this one feeling overwhelmed with emotion and rightfully so.

Super 8

Alien invasion has become a hotbed of Hollywood activity, but while the likes of Battle Los Angeles still want to blow them up, Super 8 wants to send them home peacefully. Sharply written, crisply photographed, and lens flared until it couldn’t be lens flared anymore, J.J. Abrahams brings the ’80s kids movie back into focus. No doubt, this young cast eats this material up, the visuals adding that glossy Hollywood feel and the actors bring it into reality. These are all troubled youngsters in some way, wrapping up the narrative with the Super 8 monster that makes perfect, logical sense if you’re paying attention. Sure, it has 2011’s “Nuke the Fridge” moment, but it also has one of most enjoyable, smartly written scripts from mainstream Hollywood in ages.

Runners-up: Inside Job, The King’s Speech, Lincoln Lawyer