Posted Mon Feb 2, 2015 at 01:00 PM PST by Steven Cohen
Every month, dozens of Blu-rays hit shelves, littering stores with High-Def temptation. New releases, catalog titles, complete TV seasons, and elaborate box-sets all vie for attention, and with so many worthy releases targeting our wallets, choosing which discs to spend our hard earned cash on can be rather tricky. To make things a little easier, we here at High-Def Digest thought it might be helpful to bring you our top three must own recommendations for the month.
From important classics to contemporary blockbusters, these are the discs that we consider to be the absolute cream of the crop. High quality releases with great video, audio, and supplements, these are the Blu-rays that are truly worth every penny.
Last month we spotlighted a rag-tag group of space outlaws, monkeys who ride horses, and a golden age Hollywood classic. Be sure to check out the Essential Picks for November 2012, December 2012, January 2013, February 2013, March 2013, April 2013, May 2013, June 2013, July 2013, August 2013, September 2013, October 2013, November 2013, December 2013, January 2014, February 2014, March 2014, April 2014, May 2014, June 2014, July 2014, August 2014, September 2014, October 2014, November 2014, and December 2014.
For January, we're covering an innovative coming-of-age story, a riveting mystery thriller, and a crime drama's final season. Please be aware, that if you haven't already seen them, there are some MAJOR SPOILERS for the discs listed.
If you can only buy three titles that hit Blu-ray in January, here's what we suggest you pick up, starting with the most essential...
'Boyhood' - More than any other medium, film allows artists to examine the concept of change. Unlike a painting or a photograph, cinema is able to capture successive moments building upon one another in motion, recording time itself in action. Fully embracing this concept to its fullest, director Richard Linklater exposes his camera to twelve years of growth, coming away with an emotional and unassumingly perceptive piece of filmmaking. Experimental in production but refreshingly straightforward in execution, 'Boyhood' follows one child as he goes through the natural ebb and flow of adolescence. Through girl troubles, first jobs, traumatic moves, and everyday occurrences, his experiences tap into universal themes about life, childhood, and adulthood. And while Mason (Ellar Coltrane) forms the movie's primary point of view and is the story's ultimate focus, the narrative is just as much about the character's parents and their struggles, forming a rich and multifaceted look at growth.
As Mason's mother, Patricia Arquette is simply wonderful, crafting a fully formed woman struggling to provide for her children while navigating some emotionally and physically precarious waters. She imbues the role with a realistic sense of warmth and frustration, revealing all of the difficulties, sacrifices, and joys that motherhood brings, and though her choices don't always work out the way she hopes, she always remains there for her children. The scene in which she finally breaks down after Mason graduates -- both lamenting the loss of her little boy and confronting her own disillusionment and dissatisfaction about the increasing speed of her life -- is perfectly realized by the actress. Likewise, Ethan Hawke turns in an equally complex performance as the children's mostly absentee father. At first, the actor plays the role of a typical "fun weekend dad," but as Mason grows throughout the runtime, so too does his father. Through Hawke's portrayal, we bear witness to a man who simply was not ready to become a parent or a husband, and yet while his initial disregard for his responsibilities is inexcusable, he gradually begins to rise toward the challenge. Smart and compassionate, he instills Mason with genuinely thoughtful life lessons and their heart-to-hearts prove to be some of the film's best scenes. In fact, he would be a fantastic father… if he was actually around.
Throughout it all, Linklater employs an understated and naturalistic aesthetic, creating a delicate sense of realism that is heightened by key visual choices. One particular stand-out scene features a fantastic extended single shot of Mason and a female classmate walking and talking together, drawing out the natural chemistry between the performers while serving as a fun nod to the director's celebrated "Before Sunrise" series. The aforementioned scene where Patricia Arquette breaks down right before her son leaves for college also features some strong direction, and is made all the more powerful thanks to the devastating framing Linklater employs, highlighting her loss and loneliness. Together, the film's acting, direction, and unconventional production result in a rare sense of authenticity. The twelve-year conceit could have been nothing more than a buzz-worthy gimmick, but Linklater and company turn that passage of time into an integral component of the story. In fact, at its core, the movie is actually about that passage of time, and simply would not work if we could not feel its weight build upon us. Using the unique attributes of filmmaking to his advantage, the director has crafted one of the most unassuming and innovative coming-of-age films ever made, fully examining the essence of growth by literally capturing it before our eyes. Heartfelt and honest, 'Boyhood' is a singular achievement, one of 2014's very best films, and easily this month's most essential release.
'Gone Girl' - Can we ever really know another human being? Surely, we'd like to think so, but is it actually possible to know what someone else is really like inside? People only show us what they want us to see. And far too often, we only see in people what we want to see. But what's really there, behind the pleasantries, behind our own blinded perceptions? David Fincher's twisting and absorbing thriller, 'Gone Girl,' tackles this ambiguity head on, becoming an engrossing mystery steeped in dangerous facades and precarious points of view. A decidedly dark examination of marriage, murder, and the media, the film leaves a haunting aftertaste tinged in ominous satire.
Perfectly playing with the audience's perception, the plot initially keeps us on our toes, keeping the characters' true motivations and potential guilt up in the air. To this end, the filmmakers carefully decide just when and how we learn certain information, gradually clueing us in on the realities behind the movie's carefully constructed lies. And while most thrillers might lose steam after their central mysteries are revealed, 'Gone Girl' bucks this trend by evolving its narrative into something else entirely. The truth behind the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is only part of the story here, as Fincher's tale becomes just as much about the perversions and manipulations of that truth. Through Nick Dunne's (Ben Affleck) ordeal as an accused murderer, we are given a front row seat to the horror that is the contemporary media circus, where guilt and innocence are decided upon by poorly timed smiles and charming television interviews rather than actual evidence. And enhancing this larger examination of mass perception, is a more concentrated look into the dangerous facade of one woman. As "Amazing Amy," Rosamund Pike is exceptional, putting a deceptively beautiful face on a deadly sociopath. But far from a one-dimensional killer, Amy is an extremely complex and fascinating character, and through her twisted point-of-view we are allowed to sympathize with her skewed motivations. Sort of.
With his pitch-black look at marriage, David Fincher crafts an artfully constructed genre thriller that places new twists on classic Hitchcock themes and conventions, fully bringing the master's tropes into the 21st century. In the end, this is a film about a missing woman who, in many ways, never really existed at all. Though it's disappointingly light on supplements, this Blu-ray release features an exceptional technical presentation, bringing the film's ominously dreamy visuals and sound design to life. Gripping, twisted, and darkly satirical, 'Gone Girl' presents both an entertaining and inventive murder mystery and a thought provoking examination of facades, manipulation, control, perception, and growing resentments. In other words, it's the perfect date movie.
'Boardwalk Empire: The Complete Fifth Season' - For all the glitz and glamour that Hollywood uses to depict their rise toward the top, things rarely end very well for gangsters. Most get gunned down or wallow away unceremoniously in prison. HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire' seems to be very well aware of this fact, and its uses its final season to bring a bullet-laden curtain call to its ensemble of criminal stars. But as bloody as these last episodes are, the violence is often tinged in a delicate sense of loss or a matter-of-fact sense of abruptness. Unlike Tony Montana, no one here goes out in a blaze of drug-addled "glory." No, for its coda, the show takes a much more contemplative and character-driven emphasis, finally taking Nucky Thompson's story full circle.
Featuring a seven year time jump, season five begins in 1931, taking us into the Great Depression and closer to the end of prohibition. This casts a certain dwindling malaise over the entire season, as one era limps toward its end and another begins. Likewise, the air of impending change complements the episodes' sense of finality, as it becomes abundantly clear that this really is the final chapter in Nucky's story, complete with a season long peek into his childhood and path toward crime. The rest of the ensemble also feature strong arcs, bringing various storylines to powerful though sometimes rather abrupt conclusions. One quickly gets the sense that no one is safe, as major characters get whacked left and right. And then there's Nucky's demise itself. Though the circumstances behind his death seem obvious and telegraphed in hindsight, I somehow didn't see the show's final ironic twist coming. But the reemergence of Tommy Darmody puts one last nail in Nucky's coffin, and reveals the tragically cyclical inevitabilities of violence and murder.
I was initially skeptical about the need for the season's flashback scenes, but as the series comes to its final moments it becomes clear why they were necessary. Through their inclusion, we're allowed to see Nucky before he was corrupted by greed. We are allowed to see the character when he was innocent. Likewise, we bear witness to one of the man's defining moments. The day he handed a poor young girl over to a monster. It's his original sin, the instance that truly created the criminal we've followed since day one, and it's only fitting that this haunting moment helps to inform the thematic arc of the character's swan song. Though comparatively subdued, 'Boardwalk Empire' ends on an appropriately tragic and somber note; a violent yet sudden end for a complex but irreversibly flawed gangster.
So, there you have it. While there were many titles worth picking up this January, those are our top three must own recommendations. We'll be back next month with three more essential picks, but for now, what do you think of our selection? What are your choices for January's must own titles?
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