'Best in Blu-ray' is a weekly column that runs on Tuesday; we sift through the week's new releases and recommend titles for both the Blu-ray veteran and newbie, as well as the coolest special feature (unique to the format) and most intriguing rental.
For Blu-ray Vets:
'Once Upon a Time in America'
What It's About: Robert De Niro and James Woods are boyhood buddies who have grown up to become gangsters in Sergio Leone's messy, mythical crime epic.
New Features Unique to Blu-ray: None. Per DVD Beaver, nearly all supplements from the 2003 DVD edition are retained, except "Photographic Memories." While the DVD edition split the movie onto two discs, the new Blu-ray fits it all onto one disc.
Transfer/Audio: Unfortunately, the video quality is still problematic, an issue previously noted with the DVD. "It hasn't benefited extensively from the HD transfer," according to DVD Beaver. "The image is richer but it's not a dramatic increase."
Replay Value: Leone intended for the film to shift back and forth in time via the extensive use of flashbacks, but the U.S. distributor released a cut in chronological order that was, somehow, even more confusing and disjointed. Reassembled in a cut closer to Leone's vision, the film still is a bit of a narrative mess, but that's also its glory. Life is messy, after all. The film "is better appreciated the second or third time through," says Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant.
For the Newbies:
'Raging Bull' (30th Anniversary Edition)
What It's About: Robert De Niro stars as pugnacious Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese's true-life classic about the rise, fall and redemption of a boxer.
Why See It (Again): The kinetic appeal of the boxing sequences; the dirty beauty of the black and white cinematography by Michael Chapman; the scary domestic tension; the recreations of the past; the stunning performances by De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty.
What to Look (and Listen) For: If you missed the film's first appearance on Blu-ray in 2009, the new edition will look properly revelatory. The sound may surprise you with a sneaky uppercut. And if you -- or your friends -- are still hesitant about upgrading to Blu-ray, the new edition also includes a standard-definition DVD as part of the package.
(Note to Blu-ray veterans: While 50 minutes of new features have been added, it's apparently the same transfer and the audio commentaries are only available on the DVD.)
Coolest Special Feature:
'Dances with Wolves' (20th Anniversary Edition)
What It's About: Union officer Kevin Costner gets lonely while stationed at a remote outpost during the Civil War before befriending wolves, Native Americans and a white woman.
Feature: "Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide"
Details: The original theatrical cut was released in a bare-bones Blu-ray edition in 2009. The new version from MGM features the extended, nearly-4 hour cut, and includes nearly all the supplements from previous editions, according to DVD Beaver. The new "Military Rank and Social Hierarchy Guide" can "optionally run with the film filling in details." If you've seen the film before and wondered where the characters fit into their respective hierarchies, this will be the coolest special feature ever.
Most Intriguing Rental:
'Army of Shadows'
What It's About: Jean-Pierre Melville's masterpiece explores the inner workings of the French resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II.
Why Seek It Out on Blu-ray: The Criterion Collection, which released a very good standard-definition version not long ago, now upgrades with a high-definition transfer. Our own David Ehrlich says it's "an instantly satisfying upgrade." Three stills from the Blu-ray have been posted by Rodney Perkins at Aphanisis for your viewing edification.
Why Rent and Not Buy: As good as the film proves to be, it's a quiet, subtle, nuanced drama. To be sure, there is a thriller element to it, but it's more in the vein of "Will this character, based on a real-life counterpart, live or be slaughtered by the Nazis?" It's not exactly escapist fare, and demands your full attention while viewing. Plus there's that whole "subtitle" thing.
But rather than pass it by entirely, try renting it and let it play for a good half hour. We're betting that you'll be completely engrossed by that point and wishing you had ponied up for a purchase.
Criterion Corner Preview:
'Robinson Crusoe on Mars'
What It's About: U.S. astronaut Paul Mantee gets lonely while stranded on a remote planet in the future before befriending Mona the Monkey.
Why Preview Criterion Corner: The Criterion Company releases a steady stream of films on Blu-ray and our own David Ehrlich discusses them at length in his monthly Criterion Corner column. Rather than duplicate our coverage, we'll make brief mention of the company's release(s) each week, with links to David's notes at his Criterion Corner blog.
Further reading: Criterion Corner on Tumblr.
More New January 11 Releases on Blu-ray:
'Alpha and Omega.' Family comedy. Cinematical: Review.
'The Great Debaters.' Denzel Washington. Cinematical: Review.
'Piranha 3D.' Adult thrills. Cinematical: Review.
'The Social Network.' Facebook founding. Cinematical: Review.
Further reading: New on DVD & Blu-ray, Week of January 11 (Moviefone)