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Blu-rayDefinition’s Blu-ray Holiday Gift Guide for 2015

The holidays are upon us once again, and the studios have managed to come up with one of their most extraordinary year-end lineups yet. We’ve checked ‘em out and now hereby present this assortment, representing some of the most enjoyable, giftable discs to bestow or obtain.

Supreme Cinema Series (Sony)

The Blu-ray format has been around long enough to see its share of double-dips, and so kudos to Sony for releasing editions that are genuinely worth a re-buy. To inaugurate the “Supreme Cinema Series,” there’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which should really be called Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula for all of the passion and creativity the revered auteur put into the project), followed by Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (better known here in The States as simply The Professional, although the extended, slightly more controversial version is also included here) and The Fifth Element (actually now in its third BD incarnation).

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All have been fully remastered in 4K as well as remixed for Dolby Atmos, each with a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 core. Everyone is going to have an opinion; especially about Fifth Element, on the short list of reference discs since the DVD days; but I’m here to tell you that, a few quibbles aside, this is the best that these movies have ever looked, and the sound goes far beyond the capabilities of even state-of-the-art 1990s surround, even if you’re not currently Atmos-ready. Extras-wise, Fifth Element brings back a plethora of featurettes not seen since DVD, Léon maintains the key bonus content from the last Blu-ray, while Dracula adds new interviews with Francis Ford and Roman Coppola, alongside a fine complement of vintage extras, notably the long-unheard audio commentary that originated with the Criterion Collection laserdisc. There are more affordable versions of these three remasters, but the Supreme Cinema Series makes them extra-gifty with uniquely designed hardbound book packaging, full of facts and photos. Each also includes an UltraViolet Digital HD Copy.

 

The Ultimate James Bond Collection (MGM/Fox)

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Another Bond movie in theaters, another massive collection of the Bond saga thus far. These 24 discs are efficiently packed into three volumes covering the different phases of 007’s tenure: 1962-1977 (all of Connery, Lazenby’s only outing, and three with Moore), 1979-2004 (the rest of Moore, plus Dalton and Brosnan) and 2006-2015 (all Daniel Craig, with a placeholder for the eventual arrival of Spectre). The lack of cases/covers for individual titles might be the motivation behind the high-quality “Excerpted Edition” mini-softcover of DK’s James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters that rides along this time, complete with memorable images through the Spectre teaser campaign. Beside it is a single code that unlocks UltraViolet Digital HD Copies of all 23 of the movies here, from Dr. No to Skyfall. The bonus Blu-ray platter includes the truly outstanding 2012 documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, plus a couple of featurettes that tie into the latest adventure, naturally, currently in theaters. Other than that, the set is lean and mean, no new masters but most (not all, completists take note) of the previously released extras for each movie, going back to the DVD special editions from several years ago.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Limited Edition Gift Set (Sony)

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Surely one of the funniest movies ever made, the enduring British comedy troupe’s oft-quoted spin on Arthurian legend still cuts across a wide demographic: If you have a sense of humor at all, Grail will make you laugh. While not a pretty film certainly, it does look smashing on Blu-ray, with extras fit for a king. John Oliver hosts a new half-hour Q&A with all five of the surviving Pythons (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin and Eric Idle), in addition to the disc’s wealth of bonus materials from incarnations of the past four decades, some traditionally informative some and fittingly silly. But if you want to take your love of Monty Python over the top, this deluxe castle-shaped box includes a working toy catapult along with four disturbingly detailed rubber farm animals for you to fling at crusading knights, marauding hordes or unsuspecting co-workers. Try pairing this assault with “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” in a heavy French accent.

Home Alone 25th Anniversary Collection (Fox)

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While time might have dulled a bit of this holiday classic’s considerable power to charm, the superb casting, one of John Hughes’ best scripts and deft direction by Chris Columbus elevate Home Alone above mere childishness and sap, infusing this often-broad comedy with genuine heart. And don’t get me started on The Old Man. As with a lot of my favorite movies, I was disappointed with the big “franchise” that Home Alone grew into–comedy is particularly nebulous and difficult to replicate–but the first sequel (the last one with the original cast and crew) certainly found an eager audience, so I’ll just shrug and have some more eggnog.

Home Alone has been given a fine 4K remaster for its silver anniversary, and all five (!) movies are gathered together for the first time here: the original and Lost in New York on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD; 3, Taking Back the House and The Holiday Heist on DVD. There are quite a few carrots for the reindeer here: hero Kevin McCallister’s (Macaulay Culkin) battle plan, The Wet Bandits’ wanted poster, a Kevin ornament and a plastic replica of Buzz’s tarantula, all housed in a commemorative paint can ready knock out Grampa Joe’s gold tooth after Christmas dinner. Or for displaying proudly on your shelf.

The Walking Dead The Complete Fifth Season Limited Edition (Anchor Bay)

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After years of writing these Gift Guides, my TV-on-Blu-ray shelf is definitely turning into the stuff that nightmares are made of. Alongside The Governor’s tankful of severed zombie heads and last year’s Tree Walker I can now claim the Asphalt Walker, too. We have to give credit to the makers of AMC’s most popular series for finding new and different ways to creep us the hell out: Following the military’s napalming of Atlanta (seen in flashback), plenty of walkers were reduced to lumps of undead goo. It was a well-intentioned plan, the problem being that it’s not an exact science and if you leave the wrong lumps behind, they’re still going to try and eat ya. Which leads us to our, umm… beautifully reproduced friend on the box here, courtesy of the talented folks at McFarlane Toys. He’s protecting a five-disc set with its own special box art, plus the Digital Copy code for these sixteen episodes. Seems like Rick Grimes and his understandably un-merry band of zombie apocalypse survivors are back for more, with shocks that I wouldn’t dare spoil. The Blu-rays pack top-notch picture and Dolby TrueHD 7.1-channel sound once again, plus deleted scenes, a total of six audio commentaries by cast and crew, and assorted featurettes, some of which follow specific characters and one (“Rotters in the Flesh”) that explores the creation of the aforementioned decomposing denizens of the pavement. Like the intense fifth season, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Christmas Steelbooks (Warner)

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The WB has amassed quite the library of modern family-favorite Christmas comedies, remastering and steelbooking them into some handy combo-packs just right for the giddy run-up to the big day. Newest to the fold–joining A Christmas Story, Elf and Richard Donner’s Scrooged–is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, better conveying the warm goofiness of the Griswold Family festivities in this lushest-ever video presentation. (I’ll take a solid remaster over an old disc repackaged with tchotchkes any day.) Select cast and crew provide the audio commentary, and like all of the titles in this group, Christmas Vacation arrives with a DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD version for anywhere, anytime viewing. All but Scrooged pack some noteworthy extras, perhaps a cast or crew commentary or two, while Elf spreads further holiday cheer with its five-song CD soundtrack sampler.

Fast & Furious 7-Movie Collection Limited Edition (Universal)

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Certain movies are described as having a “formula” because the makers have figured out what works, and we should assume they will keep doing it until audiences lose interest. This year’s outing in the over-the-top car-chase franchise, Furious 7 (not to be confused with The Hateful Eight), grossed the most of any movie in the group by far, so don’t be surprised to see more installments speeding down the highway in the future. Until then, this collection whimsically bundles 7 and all the rest: 2001’s original The Fast and the Furious pursued by 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast and Furious, Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6. As I said, the producers know their business, and so all have terrific picture and truly awesome home theater soundtracks. Extras from the initial Blu-ray releases are carried over here, plus a DVD (yep) of further supplements, mostly centering upon the two newest movies. Universal sweetens the deal with a multi-format HD Digital Copy of the entire series… thus far.

Horror Classics, Volume One

Special Effects Collection (Warner)

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And now, a brief (if not entirely accurate) history of horror movies: Universal lavishly produced some spectacular scarers in the 1930s, but as the popularity of the genre grew, budgets shrank when more and more filmmakers jumped onto the bandwagon, eager to score a quick buck. The plucky Brits of Hammer Films led a bold alternative movement, ushering in a renaissance of sorts for a new generation, with earnest storytelling, enviable production values, comely leading ladies and the inspired casting of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing whenever possible. Warner’s new assemblage provides a fine sampling of Hammer’s famous monsters: The Mummy, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the singular Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Taste the Blood of Dracula, running the gamut from unrated to G to PG-13 to R. The four films have been newly re-mastered, with genuinely pleasing Blu-ray quality.

A lovingly chosen menagerie of once-cutting-edge visual effects milestones from a bygone era comprises Warner’s unofficial companion set. Fans of giant apes will have plenty to thump their chests about with stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien’s sequel Son of Kong and the significant passing of the torch to the great Ray Harryhausen on Mighty Joe Young. Harryhausen met Bradbury for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the following year brought moviegoers the giant atomic-era ants of Them! As we would hope for a quartet such as this, all here have also been remastered at Full HD 1080p, every one an improvement over previous home entertainment releases. Mighty Joe Young is probably the best-looking of the bunch, all the more impressive considering the limited source elements available.

A smattering of extras adorns the Special Effects titles, trailers only for the Hammers. Each of these collections arrives handsomely slipcased, the discs packaged inside specially designed pocket-paged hardcover books.

 

Dont Look Back (Criterion Collection)

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The great documentarian D.A. Pennebaker was given apparently unrestricted access to the one and only Bob Dylan during his 1965 tour. Near the peak of his worldwide popularity, Dylan was at a personal and professional crossroads, and Dont Look Back (sic) stands as a chronicle of the talented singer/songwriter at the center of a pop culture whilwind. While the highlight for me is probably the influential music video (long before that art form even officially existed) of Dylan’s catchy “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” this ceaselessly entertaining black-and-white gem is a can’t-miss gift for the music lover on your list. For this new Blu-ray reissue, the film has received a director-approved 4K digital remaster accompanied by restored, uncompressed mono audio, with magnificent results.

Even as Criterion special editions go, this disc is especially loaded, starting with a new documentary, new interviews and other exclusive content. From the vault, there’s a 1999 audio commentary, a 2006 documentary, a 2010 Q&A session, as well as audio for five uncut Dylan songs from Dont Look Back and three short films from Pennebaker’s early career.

(Mostly) DVD

Each year I make it a point to call out titles that are not available in Blu-ray definition but are nonetheless deserving of gift-wrap and bows. I’ve done it again, although these first two suggestions have made matters a little more complicated….

King of the Hill The Complete Seventh thru Thirteenth Seasons (Olive Films)

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Some gifts are long overdue. Mike Judge’s still-underappreciated animated sitcom played out in the long, dopey shadow of his other hit series, Beavis and Butt-Head, butt Hank Hill & Co.’s many fans are as loyal as the family bloodhound, Lady Bird. We snapped up Seasons One to Six on DVD from Fox… until they just stopped in 2006. We figured that was the end, which was a real pity since the later seasons yielded some of the funniest and most touching moments in the arcs and evolutions of these beloved characters, while giving the supporting cast and guest players (voiced by a who’s-who of superstar talent) their time to shine.

Hope had all but been abandoned until the folks at Olive, who tend to specialize in obscure classic motion pictures, shocked the world–or at least that cross-section that buys King of the Hill DVDs–by starting to release the AWOL volumes over the past year. Seven on through to Twelve are DVD editions in slim cases, a blessing for crowded libraries, while the 13th and final season has landed on Blu-ray. (I’m sure that this upgrade somehow ties into the timing of the Digital TV Transition, as well as the show’s switch from 4:3 to 16:9.) No extras, but the Season 13 episodes that never aired on Fox primetime are included in the last set.

Little House on the Prairie The Complete Series (Lionsgate)

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Tremendous praise must be lavished upon Lionsgate for the time and effort expended to remaster all seven seasons of NBC’s Little House, now uncut and looking far better than they possibly could have in the ‘70s and ‘80s. This small-screen staple recounted the triumphs and tragedies of the humble, happy Ingalls Family, as captured in the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and dramatized through the honed TV sensibilities of sagacious Bonanza veteran Michael Landon, or “Pa” to generations of viewers. The earliest, most innocent years are hard to beat here, but none of these episodes (before the cast shifts and the re-naming to Little House: A New Beginning) make us feel like The Ingalls are overstaying their welcome.

The first six seasons are available individually on Blu-ray, each with a different chapter of the six-part retrospective documentary and accompanied by a code for an HD Digital Copy, but curiously the seventh and final season is being offered on DVD (with SD Digital Copy) only. So we can choose the neat boxed set of The Complete Series, all on the same format, or videophiles can buy One to Six on Blu and Seven alone on DVD. Either way, this is timeless, heartwarming family fare.

Cannon Films Collection (Warner)

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For me, this one is about the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films, which is of course the incredible true tale of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, a pair of dynamic, self-styled movie moguls whose bizarre choices and dubious business ethics have become Hollywood legend. The evidence is right here in this ten-disc box, rounded out by nine would-be blockbusters spanning 1984 to 1994 (more than half of them starring Chuck Norris?!?): Missing in Action, Invasion U.S.A., Cobra, The Delta Force, Masters of the Universe, Over the Top, Bloodsport, The Hitman and Hellbound. Ordinarily I’d skip right past most of these in my channel surfing, but Boogaloo instills an insatiable curiosity, and these movies now serve as “extras.” Even so, Boogaloo packs its own deleted scenes plus a trailer gallery for some of Cannon’s greatest misses.

Manimal The Complete Series

Automan The Complete Series (Fabulous Films)

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The heyday of sci-fi action hours on the major TV networks has long since passed, but leave it to Fabulous/Shout! to give us a double dose of nostalgia. In the fall of 1983 we were introduced to Manimal, who in the guise of professor Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale) was able to transform himself into different beasts, always using his powers for good. Just as his eight-episode run was winding down, Automan was revving up: Desk-jockey Walter Nebicher (Desi Arnaz Jr.) created a perfect virtual crimefighter (Chuck Wagner) that breaks free of the computer to serve justice. Both were the brainchild of Glen Larson (Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider) and although neither lasted a full season, their offbeat appeal made a lasting impression on the young demographic, and has now earned them these well-produced U.S. DVD debuts. The three-disc Manimal collection includes a 2012 interview with the late Larson, while the four-disc Automan has a documentary with Larson and his stars, and both titles offer talent biographies, photo galleries and more.

 

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