We’re at the end of an era. It kicked off with the very first mass distribution of 78 RPM recordings. For the first time ever, it was possible to ‘own’ an artistic performance, rather than listening to it once in the concert hall, or seeing it once in the cinema or on stage, or hearing it once in the radio. Physical possession of the recording gave you the power to experience it whenever you wanted, and then to leave it for years before experiencing it again.
After 78s came Long Play records at 33 RPM, singles at 45 RPM, cassette tape 1, and then the big jump: video cassettes on VHS and, for a while Betamax. After VHS there was the ill-fated laser-disc, the equally shortlived ADAT, and then CD, mini-disc, which did almost no better than ADAT, DVD and finally Blu-Ray.
Blu-Ray is the end of the line. The future of music and video is already clear: it will be download and store yourself, or experience on demand. Already Blu-Ray is fulfilling a different function from DVD. It is the format for the treasured movie, not for the casual Friday night at home. If you want to see a film once, wait for it to come round on TV, or watch it on iTunes or NetFlix or LoveFilm, or buy it on bargain DVD if you have to. Only get it on Blu-Ray if you know you are going to watch it again, and again, and again.
I’ve blogged about it before, but I thought it would be nice to celebrate the passing of physical-format reproduction with my top ten films to own on Blu-Ray — and the great films that really aren’t worth the bother. This is not a list of my favourite films. Rather, it considers how much Blu-Ray is really adding over and above the delights of DVD. Not everything worth watching is worth watching in high definition.
10 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Coming in at number ten, and the only Western on the list, the rubbish subtitles in Italian at the start notwithstanding, the breadth of the action when it comes to the shooting across the river demands the highest resolution you can get. The true test of ‘should I get it on Blu-Ray?’ is ‘am I left wishing for more resolution whenever I see it?’. The answer here is a resounding yes.
9 Blade Runner
Inevitably, Blade Runner has to be on this list. You just want to see more detail on Ridley Scott’s amazing dystopian cities. Why is it not higher up the list? Because it’s not something you can just put on to show all your friends. Blade Runner is a Marmite film (sorry Americans, you won’t get this reference). You either love it, or it does nothing for you at all.
8 Last of the Mohicans
The film really opens out in the final scenes, but that’s the point — when the three layered score comes together, pinning the drums that represent the Indians, the jig that represents Nathaniel, and the orchestral score which represents the land — when you are desperate to see more detail in the epic landscape.
You remember it in the cinema — the moment when the fellowship reaches the gates of Moria, and, high up, water pours down from a ruined aqueduct. It just isn’t the same on DVD, and it carries on not being the same from then on.
6 Dick Tracy
At the other end of the scale, the hyper-saturated, perspective altered scenery of Dick Tracy is a treat for the eyes, and deserves maximum resolution. Sin City might have gone here instead, but Sin City doesn’t have the family appeal, and the plot is more disjointed.
Luc Besson’s space romp, betraying his love for classical music and for stories about taxi drivers, fills every inch of the screen and the imagination. If there was a beyond 1080p resolution, The Fifth Element would be an excellent candidate for the first transfer to the new format.
4 Who Framed Roger Rabbit
A labour of love and Disney’s first foray for a long time into state of the art mixing of cartoon and live action, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a film you can watch with anyone, over and over again, and still keep seeing new visual details. Great storyline too.
By the time he made Gladiator, Ridley Scott was clearly well aware that his CGI would be scrutinised by legions of fans in the finest detail possible. Gladiator sums up the premise of almost all the sword-and-sandals epics, in terms of the grandeur, the violence, and the sweep of great events which (almost) happened in the formative days of Western civilisation.
2 The Illusionist
Also made with a clear understanding of the HD market, The Illusionist is sumptuously detailed, and improves every time you see it. The choice of copper-tinted film stock reminds somewhat of Quentin Tarantino, but without the self indulgence.
Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece Stardust is a fairytale that completely satisfies down to the last pixel and the last viewing. The visual moments, especially the Iceland-shot scenes, are superbly made with the grandeur of Last of the Mohicans and completely compelling CGI which never feels like it’s anything but real, even though you know it can’t be.
And the ones not to
The films not to get are all of them (in their way) great films, or at least great fun. Some of them simply gain nothing by being seen in HD. Some of them are much the worse for the process.
10 The Princess Bride
Brilliant on VHS, The Princess Bride does not improve on DVD, nor on Blu-Ray. There’s a certain children’s TV style to it which gives the impression that nobody thought that hard about the tiny visual details. It’s a wonderful film, but that’s not because of its production values.
9 Conan the Barbarian
For bonkers mayhem madness, Conan the Barbarian is a great late night film, possibly for the after-pub moment. The visual details are superb, but some of the scenes with large casts slightly give the impression that not everyone was acting to the same script.
8 The Blues Brothers directors cut
The Directors Cut is essentially a mistake. It should have stayed the way it was. Even so, this is a film which works because of the riotousness of its plot and the amazing musical performances. It doesn’t gain by more detail. If you have it on DVD, stick to that.
With Casablanca, more resolution means more film grain and more obvious plot holes. Casablanca is best experienced in the cinema in flickering black and white.
6 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Smeagol-Gollum was hailed as a triumph when this first aired in the cinema. Even at the time I had my doubts. The CGI which enabled his creation may have been a triumph of its day, but it has dated incredibly quickly. The rest of the film is visually excellent, and the pitched-battles of The Return of the King even more so. Someone should go back and do the Gollum bits properly. In the meantime, savour it in your memory.
5 Macbeth (Ian McKellan Judi Dench)
Utterly, utterly compelling, the Ian McKellan Judi Dench Macbeth was great on VHS, ok on DVD, and, as far as I know, not slated for appearance on Blu-Ray. A wise choice. The greatness is not in the visuals, but in their absence.
Arguably one of the greatest films of all time, The Seventh Seal also reveals its flaws rather than its qualities when over subjected to high-pixel density examination.
3 James Bond boxed set
Ever wanted to own all the pre-Daniel Craig James Bond films? You can get the boxed set on DVD, but, even at that resolution, you’ll probably find the Roger Moore years disappointing. Some of the classics make Blakes 7 look polished and Thunderbirds like a documentary.
2 The Dambusters
The one film you should never, ever watch again in any resolution or on TV is the Dambusters. Keep it in your memory. Keep the story alive in your heart. Or just walk out of the room before the bombs are actually dropped. If remember the scene I’m talking about, you’ll know what I mean.
1 Star Wars
If there’s one argument for denying directors any access to their films after the first showing, it’s Star Wars. Tinkered with over many years, George Lucas has succeeded in making it more flaccid (the extended Canteena Band sequence, with extra muppets), grosser (introducing Jabba the Hutt just doesn’t work) and soppier (the original Han Solo shoots Greedo first — the current version makes him too honourable for this). Sure, the CGI is much better
- There’s a brilliant Facebook picture going round showing a cassette tape and a biro with the caption ‘a whole generation has grown up which does not know the connection between these two items ↩