High Definition Wish List

We've all complained about some of the marginal films coming out on HD DVD and Blu-ray. The situation is improving, though not fast enough for most of us. But as I look through my growing HD DVD and Blu-ray collection, I do see more great titles than I imagined.

But we aren't likely to see most of those big, high visibility, hit movies on HD discs until there are more HD DVD and Blu-ray players in consumer's homes. There's hardly enough sizzle yet to lure the average movie fan into buying an expensive new player—or movie moguls into releasing all of their golden vault treasures at once. In a classic chicken-and-egg situation, we don't really expect to see a flood of such films until the population of players reaches a critical mass—or until this annoying format war is over. Probably both.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of prime-cut, back-catalog titles that deserve the high definition treatment. I recently rummaged through my standard DVD library, looking for hidden treasures—DVDs that aren't mentioned in the same breath as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, or the like, but are good (and often better) movies. These are discs I'd definitely be willing to upgrade if HD versions were available. A few of them might have already snuck onto a release list somewhere, but if they have, I've missed it.

Here is my first cut at a list of such prime, non-prime titles. I've also listed the format or formats that would likely be used for each film in the event of its HD release, given the format(s) that its studio currently supports. So far, New Line, DreamWorks, and Anchor Bay have not committed, so no formats are listed for their entries.

(For those who don't already have some of these movies in their collections, or who haven't seen them and want to do so now rather than wait for a possible high definition release, the DVD versions of most of them are available at bargain-basement prices if you can't find a rental.)

So, in no particular order…

The Right Stuff (Warner, HD DVD and Blu-ray) Without question, this is the best of the fact-based astronaut films. Its three-hour running time soars by, and includes a shuttle load of star-making performances.

The video on the DVD of this 24 year-old movie is merely OK. The same goes for its decent but somewhat bright, thin-sounding, and dated 5.1-channel sound. If the movie gets the new transfer it deserves, however, high definition should upgrade the image substantially. Higher resolution audio won't help as much, the source being what it is, but would definitely be welcome.

Galaxy Quest (DreamWorks) A group of actors on a cancelled TV show, scraping out a living at conventions and store openings, suddenly find themselves reluctant, outer-space warriors.

Sound familiar? This might just be the best Star Trek movie ever made. And it isn't even a Star Trek movie. Kirk and Spock are nowhere to be found, but they're here in spirit.

This is an above average DVD, but with room for improvement. High definition should provide a worthwhile upgrade.

High Fidelity (Touchstone/Disney, Blu-ray) This tale about the lives, loves, and quirks of a close-knit group of rock music nuts who work in a funky Chicago record store is a cult favorite, and another disc I've often used as a reference. It's still worthy on DVD, but if you don't already own it you might want to wait for the inevitable HD version. And how can a film titled High Fidelity not be in high definition?

Fly Away Home (Columbia/Sony, Blu-ray) Yup. This is the one about the girl and the migrating geese. It's definitely a video keeper, with good audio to boot (though memorable mostly for its fine score). The first DVD release was not enhanced; a later version was. But this movie has demo class HD written all over it. Sony, where art thou?

The Legend of Bagger Vance (DreamWorks) This is the best of the golf films of the past 15 years or so. It didn't do any better at the box office than the others (they all shot double bogeys). But this story of a golfer who gets his golf mojo back with the help of a mysterious stranger, grabs me every time and won't let go. The DVD is a good one. Hopefully the wait for a high definition version won't take forever.

Gattaca (Columbia/Sony, Blu-ray) A minor sci-fi classic about gene manipulation and its possible effect on society. It's a good DVD, and was even released in Superbit. Hey, Sony again, you own this. How about a Blu-ray?

The Rocketeer (Disney, Blu-ray) Swamped at the box office by Terminator 2 in the year of its release (1991), this is one of the most appealing "superhero" movies since the original Superman. Quirky, but lots of fun, and enhanced by one of James Horner's finest scores. Unfortunately it never received a decent, enhanced DVD transfer. It's long overdue for remastering, and while you're at it, Disney, a high definition release would be icing on the cake.

The Shadow (Universal, HD DVD) The only widescreen home video version of The Shadow was on laserdisc! The DVD was released in 4:3 in the first year of the format and has never been revisited. Talk about retro-tech. A 4:3 transfer is taking the 1930s setting of this film a bit too literally, don't you think?

While this isn't a great superhero film, it's fun, has one of the more tolerable Alec Baldwin performances, features an appealing Penelope Ann Miller, gives small but choice roles to Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, and Jon Lone, and is supported magnificently by a terrific Jerry Goldsmith score.

But more to the high definition point, The Shadow has a superb production design with a convincing, 1930's art-deco look. This is one movie that really will let you hum the scenery. I'm not sure how well it would sell, but I'd grab a high definition version in a heartbeat.

Fargo (MGM, Blu-ray) North Dakota, a wood-chipper and lots of snow. What else do you need, don'tcha know? Not an eye-candy, video grabber, but most certainly a sales magnet for collectors. It will sell in high definition.

Unbreakable (Touchstone/Disney, Blu-ray) This was director M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up to The Sixth Sense. The latter might be a better choice, but this title—a worthy entry in the Shyamalan's filmography—fits the low-visibility target a bit better. It has also become something of a cult favorite. Very dark and gloomy, it won't light up your screen, but I'd definitely add it to my high definition collection.

Frequency (New Line) OK, I'm a sucker for this sort of time-bending story. But along with its sci-fi credentials it's probably the best of the modern fire fighter in jeopardy tales. The DVD is good, but not exceptional. Only a great HD transfer will sort out whether the original photography was crisp or a bit soft, but it's well worth a shot.

Peter Pan (Columbia/Sony, Blu-ray) This isn't the Disney movie, although a new video release of that 1953 animated feature is in the works. It's the 2003 live action version and probably the best Peter Pan ever filmed. There's a Freudian subtext here that will fly right over the heads of small ones, but adults won't miss it. It's definitely darker than the Disney Pan, but not excessively scary, apart from that tick-tock croc. The DVD is a solid effort all around, and with all the detail the movie contains, the HD version should be a winner. It's a great choice for a double feature with Finding Neverland, though the latter (which is due on Blu-ray in March) will bore tiny tots to tears.

Battlestar Galactica (Universal, HD DVD) OK, we have to have at least one high definition TV series on this list, and since this is currently the best show on television, it qualifies nicely. (I refer here, of course, to the new version of the show, not the 1970s camp classic).

The first run cablecast of this show on the Sci-Fi channel looks abysmal, the DVD boxed sets are worlds better, and the delayed HD broadcasts on UniHD are better yet. The prospect of an HD DVD—any or all seasons will do— gives me goosebumps.

No, it still won't be intensely colorful, consistently razor sharp, or free of noise. But the departure here from the sort of pristine images you see on TV shows like House or Lost clearly better suits the dark mood of the show, so I suspect that it is, for the most part, deliberate.

An HD DVD release of BG has already been hinted at, but as yet there are no details or release date. Why wait, Universal? This title will sell a lot of HD DVDs—and a lot of HD DVD players, as well.

Tombstone (Touchstone/Disney, Blu-ray) This may not quite be the best Western of recent years (Unforgiven probably deserves that crown) but it's certainly close to it. It has a great cast, including an Oscar-deserving turn by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, plus a great (if historically dubious) retelling of the shootout at the OK Corral, It's a good DVD (but only the 2002, 16:9-enhanced, Vista Series Director's Cut); an HD version should be even better.

Face/Off (Paramount, HD DVD and Blu-ray) This is still director John Woo's best Hollywood film. Its plot has bad guy John Travolta switching faces with good guy Nick Cage. Why? Watch the film to find out. (In an oddball twist, what was science fiction in 1997 has since become reality (there were a couple of face reattachments prior to the making of the film, but the first partial face transplant took place in France in 2005).

The DVD is a very good one, with good video and a dynamite soundtrack. I once used this DVD as an audio and video reference standard, and it still measures up. I’ll be first in line for the HD version.

The Truman Show (Paramount, HD DVD and Blu-ray) For my money this is still Jim Carrey's best film. The story, of a man whose life, unknown to him, is a 24/7 TV show, has both laughs and warmth to spare. It was always a fine DVD, both in picture and sound, and can only be better, in all respects, on a good high definition disc.

Air Force One (Columbia/Sony, Blu-ray) President Harrison Ford's plane is hijacked by Russian terrorists, and he becomes our first kick-#&& President. The video on the DVD is excellent (particularly the Superbit version), the soundtrack is one of the most dynamic ever, and Jerry Goldsmith's music soars. Ford hasn't made a better or more crowd-pleasing film since this one (Indy 4 now, please, before it's too late), and a high definition version should be a big winner.

Empire of the Sun (Warner, HD DVD and Blu-ray) Director Steven Spielberg is notorious for not letting his movies out on new video formats until those formats reach a tipping point, and the current format war isn't helping. But while this is one of his best films, it's underappreciated, so perhaps he'll let it out early. (Please make it this one and not the deservedly neglected Always or Hook!).

This is also one of the best-photographed Spielberg movies. I much prefer the clean, vividly-colored photography of Spielberg's 1980's cinematographer, Allen Daviau, to the often bleached-out, grainy, noir-ish work of his more recent collaborator, Janusz Kaminski. But that's a matter of taste. Good sound here, too, including a great John Williams score. Should be a treat in high definition. Whenever…

Blade Runner (Warner, HD DVD and Blu-ray) There isn't much that needs to be said here. This dazzling sci-fi cult- classic has had a mixed history on video. The Director's Cut on DVD is a good one. But the movie is long overdue for a freshening up, and high definition is the only freshening up that makes sense.

Deep Impact (Paramount and DreamWorks) I'll confess. I actually like the other asteroid-strikes-the-earth film better, though Armageddon, that way over-the-top, scientifically illiterate Michael Bay film, is clearly a guilty pleasure. This movie is more serious, though its science is only slightly more believable. The DVD is merely OK, but a high definition version could be outstanding. With both Dreamworks involved, however, we're likely to be in for a long wait.

Star Trek: First Contact (Paramount, HD DVD and Blu-ray) Gotta have a Star Trek title on this list. I chose this one not because it has the best story (though it belongs in the top three in that respect) but because it’s the best overall for its combination of story, picture, and sound. It's already a fine DVD, and the superb-looking transfer will make for a knockout high definition disc.

I figure it's only a matter of time before Paramount decides to tap its mother-lode franchise for some more cash. Unfortunately, if they start at the beginning, this film, at number eight in the string, will be a long time coming.

October Sky (Universal, HD DVD) Several years ago I hosted a movie night, featuring A Simple Plan. It was a well made but depressing film. Later, after the guests had left, I needed a lift so I popped this film, which I hadn't yet seen, into the DVD player.

What a charmer. This coming-of-age flick, about three teenagers who take up rocket building, immediately raised my spirits. Unfortunately, the DVD does have some obvious edge enhancement. Hopefully a new transfer will fix that. A high definition version will definitely be a treat.

The Stunt Man (Anchor Bay) Every list needs a real long shot. This quirky little film from the early 1980s, about the crossed paths of an on-location film production company and a runaway convict, is one of my favorites. Peter O'Toole, dazzling in an Oscar nominated performance (one of his best), stars as the film within a film's megalomaniacal director.

The video on this Anchor Bay two-disc Limited Edition DVD set, despite its appealing extras, are little more than OK at best and poor at worst, with video noise, washed-out colors, and soft focus. The so-so audio has been "upconverted" from a mono original.

It's possible that the original film elements are in bad shape, but how this release ever got THX certification is a mystery. If the transfer itself is to blame, or the source can be rescued, a good high definition version would find a place on my top shelf.

That's 23 prime selections. If you want to make it an even 25, throw in two seminal animated titles covering both traditional and computer techniques: Beauty and the Beast from Disney and Shrek from DreamWorks.

Everyone will have their own favorites for a list like this, of course, and we invite you to share your own choices with us. But be aware your rummage through nostalgia could be more time-consuming than you expect. After pulling these particular movies off the shelf and remembering how much I liked them, I had the irresistible urge to watch many of them again, often for the first time in years. Can I hold off until they arrive in high def? I'll try, though it won't be easy. After all, the whole point of this is the anticipation of seeing old favorites in a whole new light. That's why I chose them for this list in the first place.

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