Blu-ray Feature: The 10 Best Blu-rays of 2011

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CHICAGO – Does it say something about the current market of Blu-rays that nine of our top ten releases of the year (and, honestly, most of the runner-ups considered) are for catalog releases and special editions instead of films produced in the current era? More and more often, modern releases seem kind of lackluster. Throw on a featurette, maybe a deleted scene or two, and put it on the shelf.

More often, it is the anniversary editions, special release, and, of course, The Criterion Collection that lives up to the true potential of the format. Critics Matt Fagerholm and Brian Tallerico have assembled their ten best of 2011, all of which should be added to your collection as soon as possible. Or ask Santa if you think you’ve been good enough this year.

Matt Fagerholm’s Five Best Blu-rays of 2011

5. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Photo credit: Paramount

Though this 50th anniversary edition of Blake Edwards’s iconic 1961 classic mainly offers featurettes recycled from past DVD releases, it is worth the purchase simply for its luminous restoration. The picture is sharper and the colors are more vibrant than ever, allowing Audrey Hepburn’s grace and impeccable style to shine like never before. The screen legend’s utter lack of vanity and unmistakable sweetness could even turn a gold-digging kleptomaniac like Holly Golightly into an irresistible heroine for the ages. It’s her go-for-broke performance coupled with Henry Mancini’s wistful score that makes the melodramatic finale such a timeless tearjerker. In the extras, both Edwards and producer Richard Shepherd adamantly voice their deep regret of casting Mickey Rooney as Hepburn’s grotesque Japanese landlord. Yet instead of ignoring this gaping flaw, the disc includes a superb featurette chronicling the depictions of Asians in American film, from Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon” to Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek.”

4. “Fiddler on the Roof”

Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof
Photo credit: MGM

One of the most purely enjoyable Blu-ray releases of the year was the 40th anniversary edition of Norman Jewison’s 1971 classic, which offers a textbook example of the best possible way to make a musical for the big screen. Instead of casting a star like Zero Mostel, Jewison chose stage veteran Topol to reprise his role as Tevye, the impoverished father of five in Czarist Russia. Topol brings nuance to every “Daidle” and “Doddle” in his rousing showstopper, “If I Were a Rich Man,” and joins Jewison for a superb audio commentary that is one of many classy extras on the set (the director admits that he used clipped fragments of his own graying hair to age his 35-year-old leading man). Immortal composer John Williams, who deservedly won an Oscar for his adaptation of the score, is on hand for an interview where he recalls how he got violin virtuoso Isaac Stern to perform the brilliant opening cadenza.

3. “American: The Bill Hicks Story”

American: The Bill Hicks Story
American: The Bill Hicks Story
Photo credit: BBC Warner

Aside from some distracting photo animation, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’s 2009 documentary triumphantly built a convincing case that its titular subject was indeed the greatest comic of his generation. Before succumbing to cancer at age 32, Hicks fearlessly satirized America’s sanctimonious culture while utilizing his stand-up routines as vehicles for enlightenment. The two-disc Blu-ray set includes five hours of special features, three of which are devoted to additional interviews expertly edited into subject-specific featurettes. Yet the real highlight of the extras is the additional footage of Hicks himself, who truly was one of the seminal voices of our time.

2. “The Times of Harvey Milk”

The Times of Harvey Milk
The Times of Harvey Milk
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

Another documentary about a vital figure in American culture was given a stellar Blu-ray release jam-packed with fascinating extras. Rob Epstein’s profoundly moving 1984 Oscar-winner examined the movement surrounding the late San Francisco supervisor with priceless archival footage and illuminating interviews with members of his staff. Harvey Milk was the sort of grassroots political hero that would’ve never fit into our modern world of corporately controlled politics. This Criterion release boasts so many extras that it practically encourages viewers to conduct their own research. Highlights include extensive interviews with Milk’s longtime boyfriend Scott Smith and political analyst Cleve Jones. There’s also an infuriating 2003 panel discussion in which attorneys Doug Schmidt and Stephen Scherr justify their defense of Milk’s assassin Dan White.

1. “People on Sunday”

People on Sunday
People on Sunday
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

As a precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, this silent German masterpiece from 1930 is a must-own for cinephiles. It marked an extraordinary collaboration between then-unknowns Robert Siodmak (“The Killers”), Edward G. Ulmer (“Detour”), Eugen Schüfftan (“The Hustler”) and Billy Wilder (“The Apartment”), who sought to illustrate the universality of the human experience. As the weary citizens of Berlin lounge in the sun of Nikolassee beach, lustful urges and sordid betrayals emerge and evaporate in the summer haze. Criterion’s high-definition restoration features an excellent making-of documentary, as well as Schüfftan’s 35-minute directorial debut, “Into the Blue.” To watch this film is to witness the birth of independent cinema.

Head on to page two for Brian Tallerico’s top five…

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