Best of 2011


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Links to Amazon

Links to Amazon

Top Ten Blu-ray Releases

  1. 1.Downton Abbey: Season 2 (Julian Fellowes, 2011); Universal International; Region-All

2. Doctor Who: Series 6 (Created by Steven Moffat, 2011); BBC Warner; Region-All

3. Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) Warner; Region-All

4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) Criterion; Region-A

5. Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982) Criterion; Region-A

6. The Stool Pigeon (Dante Lam 2010) Well Go; Region-A

7. The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall (Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh, 2011) Universal UK; Region-All

8. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) Warner; Region-A

9. Jane Eyre (Cary Fukinaga, 2011) Universal; Region-All

10. HANNA (Joe Wright, 2011) Universal; Region-All

A Note about Region Coding:

Region-A discs are coded to play in North America, China, Korea and Japan; Region-B are coded to play in Europe. Region-All discs are coded to play in any Blu-ray player.  Therefore, Region-B discs can be played only on a player so designated (made in Europe typically) or one that has been modified to play all regions.  Likewise, if you have a European player, it cannot play Region-A discs unless so modified.  Players made in North America can play “Region-All” or Region-A discs.  It doesn’t matter where you purchase the disc, only how it is coded and what player you play it in.


I think we can agree that the bloom is starting to fade from the rose - and that this is a good thing.  Blu-ray titles are showing fewer instances of transfer issues; classic and silent films are showing up in greater numbers.  What more can we ask?  More of the same, I guess.  One could even make a case for creating a “Ten Best” list entirely from one’s favorite movies - classics all, very likely - that have been given a proper high definition presentation, but personally I find this a bit lazy.  What this means for a Ten Best List is that we need to find more inventive criteria for inclusion.

These are the Blu-ray titles I found to be the most involving in the medium and that I thought would have a particularly high rewatchability factor.  In part, that’s why two television series, both from the U.K., are at the top of my list.  I was handing high fives every few minutes to both the second season of Downton Abbey (even more than the first) and the most recent series of Matt Smith incarnation of The Doctor.  The fact that these series have as good or better picture quality than others just as good in their way (Mad Men 4 and Dexter 5, to name two that come immediately to mind) is just one factor in their favor.

If you haven’t already discovered it, Downton Abbey is a kind of upscale Upstairs Downstairs: the locations (Highclere Castle), production values, the writing, the performances, the themes - every aspect of the show is richer.  The second season, which completed its run on ITV-HD just this past November 6 revisits the same ground as that memorable fourth season of Upstairs Downstairs, and by my reckoning does it better, to wit: the Great War and its effects at the home front.  This can be painful viewing, and couldn’t be more timely.

As for Doctor Who, what can I say but that this is a series has that has little business being alive, let alone fascinating.  Do you realize that just about every episode since the beginning of time has roughly the same arc: The Doctor is separated from his companions who, in turn, get in life-threatening danger - as does The Doctor, if such can be said of an immortal - and by the end of the episode, things are set right.  Usually.  More or less.  There are many who have not been able to let go of their feelings of hurt and betrayal for the loss of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, nor embrace the manic gyrations and speech of a young Matt Smith (he’s not yet 30) - thank heavens for subtitles! - but I have to say this latest series is a real page turner and relentlessly inventive in the bargain.  And, in my experience, Series Six has the most fascinating and most endearing character the Doctor has come across in his 47 years of travels on the small screen (made all the larger since 2009 thanks to HD broadcast): Idris (Suranne Jones), the title character in an episode smartly titled The Doctor’s Wife.  It was written, by the way, by Neil Gaiman in his first outing for the series.  More, more.

Two titles, Citizen Kane and Fanny and Alexander, are perhaps the best of a growing number of classic films lovingly transferred to Blu-ray this year - with a special mention to Criterion for including the television version and the bonus features in high-def for the Bergman movie as well. Add to this short list, Ben-Hur, and not only for the chariot race.  You can just feel the heat and the dust as well as the taste of regret that Stephen Boyd must have felt for being passed over in favor of Hugh Griffith. 

In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick seems to have made the film that Kurosawa thought he was about in his Dreams; Criterion outdid themselves for one of the best soundtracks of the year.  The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall is a late entry from the U.K.  Gorgeous to look at, it is all the more astonishing when you realize it is staged in the same venue as Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much.  Once we grasp that idea, we ask: how did they get such sound from such piss-ant microphones at the side of their heads.  By leagues, the best Phantom on disc.

The Stool Pigeon scores in every department: story, performance, picture and sound quality and inventive action directing - this in a field where most settle for bigger explosions, more gunfire and longer and crashier car chases.  Cary Fukinaga’s Jane Eyre definitely has its detractors, but I found it engaging on all fronts as well as an excellent example of the subtler capabilities of high definition video.  HANNA may only be a slightly better than your routine thriller, but it made my list for two reasons: 16 year old Saoirse Ronan and a phenomenal score and sound design by The Chemical Brothers.

Rants and Raves


• Every Blu-ray that converts a mono or stereo soundtrack to 5.1 without offering the original in a high-definition format. And a special fatwa for omitting the original in any format.

• Hinged pages in cases that have only two discs, and any case that takes longer than one second to remove a disc.

• Fox, for their persistence in hiding their chapter search menu under a search menu that includes bookmarks. How dumb is that!


• The Blu-ray studio community in general for plowing into classic and silent film with a vengeance.

• Universal’s HANNA for the Best Sound Design, dynamically reproduced without distortion and with more bass timbre distinction than I would have though possible.

Leonard Norwitz

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December 19, 2011