Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Ten Essential Blu-Ray's of 2011

Throughout 2010 I had resisted the urge to dip my toe into the waters of High Definition film presentation. But in January 2011 I finally took the plunge and immersed myself in the world of the blu-ray. My main motivation for doing so was that the discs had become more affordable, and a far greater selection of older and interesting titles were seeing the light of day courtesy of niche distributors such as Arrow Video and Eureka . The first blu-ray I purchased also happened to be the same title that marked my first DVD purchase; John Carpenter’s wonderful 1982 remake of The Thing. Oddly my awakening to blu-ray has also gone hand in hand with a need to seek out and view rare films in which print condition was a secondary condition. 2011 has been both a year of pristine visual beauty, and murky monstrosities. I rarely do list based articles on The Celluloid Highway, mostly because I find it terribly unimaginative and pointless, and frankly who cares (other than me) what my ten favourite westerns or horror films are? However this particular list will hopefully be slightly more useful than other redundant ego-trip lists you might see elsewhere. Naturally due to the archive nature of The Celluloid Highway, the ten blu-rays under discussion here are older titles. A quick note to my American readership - the discs listed here are all UK releases, however I would welcome with open arms anyone from the States who would like to share their own Top 10 US released blu-rays…please feel free to leave a comment. For that matter I invite anyone from anywhere to do the same. Without further ado I present The Celluloid Highway’s ten essential blu-ray’s of 2011.

Distributor: Studio Canal/Optimum
Release Date: 10th October 2011

Studio Canal & Optimum began the task of releasing their back catalogue of Hammer titles in blu-ray with the ambitious and cerebral Quatermass and the Pit. The presentation is near flawless and this bodes well for The Reptile (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) which are scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2012. This was always one of the more impressive looking Hammer pictures and it benefits tremendously from the upgrade. The weird electronic score by Tristram Cary has also never sounded so good. I did find the special features to be somewhat static and staid. They consist mostly of so called ‘experts’ who love the sound of their own voices spewing out stuff we have read a hundred times or more. However the enthusiasm of Kim Newman is always a welcome addition to any package. The cover design added a nice touch of class to an already very stylish and impressive release.

DEEP END [1970]
Distributor: BFI
Release Date: 18th July 2011

The BFI’s ‘Flipside’ imprint continues to unearth gems from the vast mine of British cinema, and continues to thrive amid an uncertain marketplace. The year saw welcome blu-ray releases for Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (1974), Voice Over (1983), Requiem for a Village (1975), Joanna (1968), Lunch Hour (1961), Private Road (1971), and Duffer/Moon over the Valley (1971/76), in addition to re-issues for the first ten titles. However the crowning achievement was the release of Polish émigré director Jerzy Skolimowski’s surreal tale of sexual obsession Deep End. The careful and symbolic colour palette employed by the director shines (as does Jane Asher’s lustrous red hair) and the contrast between such resonant colours and the drab tiredness of turn of the decade London is made even more noticeable. The disc also includes a wonderful 73 minute ‘making of’ documentary entitled Starting Out, and a host of contextually related short films by other filmmakers.

Distributor: Studio Canal/Optimum
Release Date: 13th June 2011

Studio Canal/Optimum’s second entry into my top ten is Sam Peckinpah’s shattering anti-war statement Cross of Iron. A film that over the years has been butchered by cuts and been further abused with appallingly bereft distribution. This has been completely readdressed by this blu-ray which is effortlessly the finest treatment Cross of Iron has ever received. Other older titles from SC/Optimum such as Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) were less impressive, but the distributor hit all the right notes with this divisive but fascinating picture.

Distributor: Arrow Video
Release Date: 26th September 2011

Arrow Video are a definite contender for UK distributor of the year. On blu-ray the label continues to excel with Maniac Cop (1988), The Exterminator (1980), The Funhouse (1981), Obsession (1976), Tenebrae (1982), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Beyond (1981), Battle Royale (2000), Phenomena (1985), Vamp, and Deep Red (1975) all taking their bow on high definition in 2011. Although it is one of the least trendy of Dario Argento’s films I found myself to be most impressed with Arrow’s treatment of Cat O Nine Tails. I’ve never had many positive things to say about this film over the years, but I found myself enjoying it more than I ever have, and this may be in part due to the excellent transfer. The beautiful and nuanced Ennio Morricone score has also never sounded so good. It was difficult to choose a representative title from Arrow Video, but this excellent giallo from 1971 just gets the nod.

Distributor: Eureka's 'Masters of Cinema'
Release Date: 14th November 2011

The other strong contender for UK distributor of the year is Eureka whose ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint continues to excel. In late 2011 the British distributor struck up a deal with Universal, so one can expect many more interesting HD presentations from Eureka as it plunders the Universal back catalogue. Already scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2012 is Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Repo Man (1984) and Island of Lost Souls (1932). Douglas Trumbull’s ecological science-fiction fable Silent Running is another excellent film that has been mishandled and abused in the past by clueless distributors. Although relatively light on special features (though the obligatory thick booklet that always accompanies MOC releases) more than compensates, the outstanding picture and sound quality breathes new life into this intelligent and thought provoking film.

Distributor: Odeon Entertainment
Release Date: 13th June 2011

Although not an outstanding blu-ray, Odeon’s disc of Witchfinder General makes it onto my list simply because of my love for the film. This is another horror title that has endured ignominious treatment over the years, so it feels like something of a blessing to have it in its most complete form. At times the archive nature of some of the footage tells, usually in troublesome night time sequences. But the glorious English countryside is brought vividly to life, and the autumnal colours shine with vitality. Odeon have the rights to a number of British horror films including Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Pete Walker’s 70’s horror films, so there could be good things in the future from this label.

Distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
Release Date: 5th September 2011

This was probably the most highly anticipated release of 2011 for me and I’m glad to say that Paramount’s blu-ray did not disappoint. Paramount have been hit and miss over the years, failing to generate the same level of consistency as Sony Pictures. But on this occasion they afford Sergio Leone’s epic and elegiac western the treatment it deserves. Leone’s intense close ups have never possessed such clarity, and the 5.1 DTS Master Audio illustrates the full range and beauty of Ennio Morricone’s plaintive score. It also shows how integral sound effects were to Leone’s strategy, as can be seen in the dialogue free prologue that opens proceedings. The plethora of special features add value to a wonderful package.

Distributor: Arrow Academy
Release Date: 25th April 2011

In 2011 Arrow Films added to their first imprint Arrow Video with a second entitled Arrow Academy. Whereas Arrow Video concentrates on cult horror and action, Arrow Academy is more concerned with the greats of European art cinema. In addition to Les Diaboliques 2011 also saw releases for Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Rififi (1955), and The Bicycle Thieves (1948), with The Tin Drum (1979) and The Conformist (1970) to come in early 2012. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques has traditionally been discussed in terms of its beautiful and labyrinthine plot mechanics, but this new blu-ray presentation adds emphasis to the wonderful monochrome cinematography that gives the films its wonderfully sinister atmosphere.

Distributor: Eureka 'Masters of Cinema'
Release Date: 14th November 2011

It could be argued that Eureka’s second entry in my Top 10, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, is the release of the year. The package includes five different versions of the film - a testament to the interference it has endured over the years! If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite there are four audio commentaries, 38 minutes worth of documentaries, and a 56 page booklet. In amidst all of this supplementary material it easy to forget about the film itself. This is probably my favourite Orson Welles film, and easily one of the darkest and most paranoid of film noirs. The border tensions only adding to the simmering corruption and atmosphere of vitriolic hatred. This is a unique viewing experience and one that has been made very special by this blu-ray.

Distributor: Fremantle Home Entertainment
Release Date: 2nd May 2011

The only television entry into my Top 10 is this spectacular presentation of the first season of The Twilight Zone. All thirty six episodes have been upgraded in HD, and each episode comes with its own plethora of extra features. Even long term fans of the series will find something new with a selection of blu-ray exclusive features. The first season represents the pinnacle of Rod Serling’s writing, at this point in time his repetitious themes and concerns were fresh and original, as was the structure of the episodes. I have yet to purchase the remaining seasons, but if they match the quality on offer here, then it will only be a matter of time.

And in conclusion I would like to wish all those who follow The Celluloid Highway, be it through Google, Facebook, Twitter or Networked Blogs a very happy and prosperous new year. Your support is an inspiration. - Shaun


  1. Have you sneaked into my living room Shaun? Apart from the Argento tripe I'm with you all the way. Deep End has got to be the transfer of the year.

  2. You better check that they are still there Rich! DEEP END is the crowning jewel in the BFI Flipside crown. It will be interesting to see what the BFI do with THE DEVILS next year.

  3. Though I have yet to transition into the brave new world of Blue Ray, Shaun, it's thoughtful and well researched lists like this one that ultimately make me want to edge out over the DEEP END and finally taker the plunge. And since I do not own a Blue Ray player, let alone any Blue Ray discs, I can't contribute in any useful way here, other than to say I agree with you about TOUCH OF EVIL - a fascinating down and dirty film that (literally in some places) wallows in the muck of humankind's darker half. Truly great work here, buddy.

    Oh, and I've been meaning to see CROSS OF IRON - perhaps I'll hold off on viewing the new DVD release and make it my first Blue Ray purchase!

    Happy New Year, pal.

  4. I'd have to put the 'Alien Anthology' up there (although it contained a good percentage of previously released extra content), the Criterion 'Videodrome', and the Optimum 'Peeping Tom'. All are 2010 releases, but only purchased by me in 2011.

    I've always enjoyed the film, but I only have BU's 'Cat 'O Nine Tails' release. I do lean toward BU releases when t, irrespective of Arrow's reputation as regards extras.

    Personally, I can't wait to get my BD copies of 'Touch of Evil' and 'Once Upon A Time in the West', although I am hoping that 2012 will bring us BD releases of 'Suspiria' (without the blown up color scheme) and, my personal grail, 'Blood and Black Lace'.

  5. @ Greg - I only made the switch because the discs are now affordable. So it's well worth it. By the way you would love DEEP END, I think it would be right down your street, and Jane Asher looks amazing in it. The useful thing about blu-ray players is that you can still play DVD's on them, so really there is no reason whatsoever to buy a DVD player. You haven't seen CROSS OF IRON? I'm surprised by that - Sam Peckinpah, James Coburn, James Mason and David Warner, that would be movie heaven for you, wouldn't it? Happy new year to you too my friend :-)

    @ Johnny - I purchased the ALIEN ANTHOLOGY for a ridiculously low price, around £14 if I remember correctly. It is indeed a great package. I have the Criterion DVD of VIDEODROME, but importing Criterion blu-rays from the UK is a very expensive business. You're looking at about £20 per title. If they were a little more affordable I would probably collect them all. Believe it or not I have yet to buy Optimum's disc of PEEPING TOM, so I had to omit it from the list for that reason.

    Again BU releases, especially the BD ones tend to be more expesnive to import, and so Arrow Video is naturally the cheaper option for UK residents. I know that Arrow have been dogged with controvery, especially over their releases of THE BEYOND, and THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, but I'm just thankful that somebody (anybody) is releasing these titles in the UK on this format.

    I have the Nouveaux BD of SUSPIRIA and I have to admit I find it perfectly decent. I had no problems with it at all, and enjoyed it immensely. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE would be a must buy!


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