Friday, 17 January 2014 15:00

MOS DEF: The Very Best Discs of 2013

by Mark A. Altman
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The Digital Bits’ Mark A. Altman weighs in on the Top 25 best Blu-ray and DVD releases of the last year… because 10 just wasn’t enough

As a longtime discophile (and, I’m not talking about Donna Summer), nothing upsets me more to hear about the so-called end of days for physical media. Cries that the streaming Visigoths are at the gates ready to crush our silver platters into dust in the process make me shudder.  [Read on here…]

As Digital Bits major domo Bill Hunt so sagely pointed out recently, even so-called purchased media from a streaming service can suddenly vanish from your queue and films that are available one day at Netflix can easily be gone the next (or even purchased films that exist in solely in the cloud a la Amazon). And with unreliable Wi-Fi connections and resolutions far below 1080, nothing infuriates me more than those who proclaim streaming is our future. While I admit, like most, I have pretty much abandoned collecting CDs for the most part (except for movie soundtracks which I’ll burn as WAV files or Apple Lossless insuring the best possible quality to listen to) largely for convenience (and storage) sake, visual media is something I don’t want to simply banish to my computer. I like my liner notes, bookshelves filled with Blu-ray cases and, most of all, the copious bonus features that are rarely included with streaming or purchased digital files.

Unfortunately, as many of the studios who largely seem focused on only the biggest blockbusters seem convinced, none of this matters. Profit margins are larger when a disc doesn’t need to be manufactured and shipped and what do you really need with first-rate bonus materials anyway? If it can’t be re-purposed from an old DVD release or re-cut from some rudimentary EPK footage, do you really need it? The answer is “hell yes!” and so when you read my best of the year list you will definitely not be reading a list of the best films of the year, some I don’t even like, but rather the best discs; films whose video transfers, audio mixes and special features truly distinguish them. If I only cared about watching a movie on my iPad, I’d just stream them… and down that road lies death – in a landfill already filled with SelectaVision discs, VHS tapes, Betas, laserdiscs, Atari E.T. games and HD-DVDs. 

Apparently “streaming is better” is already the philosophy when it comes to 4K transfers given the lack of momentum for a 4K disc format (despite some semi-encouraging news from CES). I wonder if you’ll be thinking that the first time you realize your favorite movie that you’ve been watching has disappeared overnight from the cloud one day and you can’t watch it or won’t get to re-watch it without paying for it again… and again… and again. And what about those special features? Remember how streaming and Wi-Fi downloads were going to be the savior of Blu-ray when a studio would be updating behind-the-scenes bonus features endlessly – even after you’ve bought the disc – through Blu-ray Live? How that’d work out for you? More like Blu-ray Dead.

That said, that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news; in a year which wasn’t necessarily filled with amazing sets like the James Bond: 50th Anniversary Collection and Blade Runner: The Final Cut collections of years past, there still were some really sensational offerings to enjoy as well as deeply desired films that made their highly coveted Blu-ray debuts at last. Here are just a few…


1.  SHOAH (Criterion Collection)

I could probably do a Ten Best list this year that’s just Criterion titles, but where’s the fun in that? Shoah is not a film that you’ll want to watch again and again, but it is a remarkable historical document from director Claude Lanzmann about the horror of the Holocaust which eschews using any historical footage relying solely on interviews with those who were there; the survivors and perpetrators. This 566-minute documentary is beautifully brought to Blu-ray disc with extensive special features that only further illuminate this rather tragic subject. And given you now have crazy Russians proclaiming that now gays should be put in ovens, perhaps it’s regrettably an opportune time to revisit a film that gives potency to the proclamation: “Never Again.”

2.  THE BIG PARADE (Warner Bros)

King Vidor’s 1928 World War I story is one of the great silent films ever made and gets a superb Blu-ray release courtesy of Warner Bros. It also boasts one of my favorite special features of the year: a 1925 short which is a tour of the MGM lot at the time. Seeing the lot in its heyday (long before Best Buy, Kay & Dave’s and California Pizza Kitchen surrounded it) along with vintage cars entering its Washington Avenue entrance, long since shuttered, as well as some of the studios greatest stars and filmmakers assembled (along with the accountants, really!) for this vintage piece of studio puffery is a delight from start-to-finish.


Although I’m less enamored with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Hobbit” than the previous Lord of the Rings Trilogy, there’s no denying that this release is an extraordinary accomplishment and does justice to the extended editions that preceded it; featuring literally hours of special features exploring the creation and making of the film. While few filmmakers today have the clout to pull off what Jackson does here, this massive effort is the template for what all blockbuster Blu-ray’s should be. 


Easily ranking alongside the greatest TV series of all-time, including Hill Street Blues, The Wire, the original Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Have Gun, Will Travel, Wiseguy, Arrested Development and Mad Men, Sony has always done a spectacular job with Vince Gilligan’s masterful series on Blu-ray, but it’s even better to have all five seasons of the show in one place along with the copious bonus features and a few new treats including an impressive two hour plus documentary about the making of the series, spotlighting the final eight episodes, that plays like a good friend’s entertaining high school yearbook. And for those who enjoy such things, there are also the usual kitschy collectibles you expect in such a set such as an El Pollo Hermanos apron. Great for cooking meth in.


Less than a year after the release of the Oscar winning Argo Blu-ray which was entirely satisfactory to begin with, Warner Bros tops the release with a slightly extended version that is even more laden with special features about both the real historical drama of Argo as well as the re-creating (and, in some cases, fabricating) of the real-life events. A good disc becomes a great disc with this well-warranted double-dip.

6.  ON THE WATERFRONT (Criterion)

Criterion once again outdoes itself with this gorgeous release of the personally loathsome, professionally brilliant Elia Kazan’s masterpiece, On The Waterfront. Three versions of the film are complimented by extensive special features of this 1954 classic. This is how you release film classics, guys. Please make a note of it.


One of the best films of 2013 proves to be one of the great film trilogies of all-time. Although there aren’t a ton of bonus features here, there’s enough to supplement an already terrific film, including a Q&A with the stars and director Richard Linklatter jawing with Elvis Mitchell about the dialogue driven relationship masterpiece. I just hope he doesn’t do a prequel trilogy. You know how those turn out.


CBS Home Video continues its remarkable run with its enhanced ST: TNG releases whose behind-the-scenes special features set a new benchmark for TV bonus content along with the gorgeous VFX restorations of the original episodes. Almost equally impressive is the far less entertaining series, Enterprise (sorry, Bill!), which despite its lack of on-air dramatic pyrotechnics includes a lot more heat in its candid and eye-opening bonus content in which the cast and crew address what went right (and, more often, wrong) with the ill-fated prequel series. Both are must-own’s for Trek fans who need to support CBS first-class approach to Star Trek, jettisoning the third rate fannish special features of previous volumes and delivering some of the best VAM you’re likely to see on disc anywhere.


Two films that nearly destroyed their respective studios both came to Blu-ray this year. Cleopatra incorporates much of the spectacular Five-Star Edition material from several years ago and gets a stunning new transfer. While the film itself is worth a revisit, the behind-the-scenes drama is even more absorbing in the hours of bonus material. As for Heaven’s Gate, this deeply misunderstood film, gets the lavish Criterion treatment and while it largely ignores the ignominy that the film has suffered in the wake of its disastrous release, the film itself is still an impressive effort from director Michael Cimino that is decidedly in need of re-evaluation.

12.  THE GREAT GATSBY (Warner Bros)

Baz Luhrmann’s underrated adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzergerald classic is the first film of the novel to have any life to it. Have you tried to watch the Robert Redford version recently? Don’t. A visceral and imaginative re-telling of one of literature’s greatest stories mashing-up contemporary and classic period music, Great Gatsby not only looks sensational on BD, but also has some excellent bonus material (including Baz’s musings on re-reading the book on a vacation on the Orient Express as well as insight into his unique process from stage to screen) on both the film and the era in which film is set. Music to my ears despite some dubious supporting casting including Carey Mulligan who’s almost as miscast as Daisy as Mia Farrow was four decades ago. (That said, the almost always excellent Mulligan does give a tour de force performance in year end’s Inside Llewyn Davis).

13.  LIFEFORCE (Scream Factory)

Tobe Hooper’s camp classic gets the loving Shout Factory treatment here featuring a beautiful transfer of the film’s international cut along with a coterie of special features including actress Mathilda May musing on her unforgettable nude scenes in one of the most absurd, but enjoyable cult classics of the 80s.


Warner’s does a nice job with their latest box set which not only assembles all three of James Dean’s classics; East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant on Blu-ray but includes a wide array of special features about Dean and the films that make this ultimate archival tribute to one of Hollywood’s most iconic actors. 

15.  SECONDS (Criterion)

John Frankheimer’s 60s nail-biter gets a beautiful BD release with re-purposed commentary, but new bonus features which re-evaluate this misunderstood classic. There’s also some great vintage footage of Rock Hudson shooting on set from a local newscast during production.

16.  TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Criterion)

Ranks alongside Some Like It Hot, Duck Soup, Animal House and Annie Hall as one of the greatest film comedies of all time. The classic Lubitsch touch is in ample evidence throughout and Criterion does a nice job with this classic Warner Bros title providing an array of extra goodies to enhance the viewing experience.

17.  SHANE (Paramount/Warner Bros)

Although there’s not much in the way of bonus material here, the new transfer – in its original aspect ratio – is a doozy. Come back, Shane indeed.

18.  SKYFALL (Sony/MGM)

One of the best of the Bond’s gets a stellar video and audio transfer, among the year’s best. Special features are adequate but not nearly to the level one would expect given the long history of magnificent special features that have accompanied many of the 007 films in the past which is the sole reason the disc just misses the Top 10 unlike last year’s 50th Anniversary Collection which easily topped the list.


Splendid transfers of the greatest Warner Bros gangster classics including Public Enemy, Little Caesar and White Heat among others are packaged along with a DVD release of the entertaining documentary, Public Enemies, about WB gangster classics, in this stellar set. Ask your ma for it for the holidays.

20.  EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Criterion)

Another great Criterion release of an underrated French classic peppered with some solid re-purposed bonus material makes it BD debut.


So great to finally have this milestone film on Blu-ray by the brilliant and underrated Phillip Kaufman. If Warner Bros had created some new bonus materials rather than re-ported all the previous supplements, this would assuredly made my Top 10.

22.  THE BIG COMBO (Olive Films)

The gorgeous lensing of genius director of photography John Alton has never looked better than on this lush transfer of the film noir classic. A welcome release from Olive Films who also released the Wachowski Brother’s superb neo-noir debut feature, Bound, in a bare-bones release earlier this year as well.

23/24.  OBLIVION (Universal)/JACK REACHER (Paramount)

Two solid Tom Cruise films came out on Blu-ray this year. The first, Oblivion, combines director Joseph Kosinksi’s Kubrick-ian aesthetic with a pulp story sensibility, Oblivion was one of the most satisfying sci-fi films of the year with a Twilight Zone twist straight out of Moon, but still…. The Blu-ray has some nice, if not fully loaded set of features and a great transfer. Equally, if not more impressive, is Chris McQuarrie’s excellent homage to 70s thrillers, Jack Reacher. With a villain played by Werner Herzog, what’s not to love. Two informative commentaries and some nice bonus features that address the concerns fans had about Cruise’s casting as the titular hero don’t shy away from the controversy surrounding the film.


Admittedly, I co-created and produced this cult television series which pays homage to classic film noir and pulp fiction, but one of the thing’s that was important to me was that the DVD was packed with special features and on that score, we definitely delivered with everything ranging from multiple behind-the-scenes featurettes to deleted scenes, blooper reels and audio commentary for every episode. And let me tell you, those were some long ass days. Whether you love the show or not is up to you, but if you like noir, pulp fiction and pretty girls (and guys), you’re likely to dig Femme Fatales.

Producer Mark A. Altman (center in hat) on the set of Femme Fatales

Image: Producer Mark A. Altman (center in hat) on the set of Femme Fatales

- Mark A. Altman


Coming Soon to MOS DEF… Mark’s Top 10 Movies That Need to Come to Blu-ray in 2014

You can follow Mark and his musings on Twitter at @markaaltman.


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