Have a Blu(-ray) Christmas: 8 Gifts Ideas

‘Tis the Season—for last minute, desperation shopping. But what could be easier than one or a few Blu-ray discs for that stocking by the fireplace.

I know that sounds like an anachronism. After all, haven’t we all heard that DVDs and Blu-rays (and CDs and those quaint LPs) are on the way out. Physical media indeed! Streaming and downloading are kings of the road. Get with it!


For those of us who care about quality and who have invested in good audio and video gear, even the affordable variety, only Blu-ray offers that quality. Yes, many of us will use streaming for less than archive quality material. It’s certainly good enough for The Smurfs and Paul Blart, Mall Cop. But for films such as Star Wars, (apart from Episodes 1-3!), Lawrence of Arabia, Terminator 2, The Godfather, and dozens or hundreds more, only Blu-ray offers sufficient bandwidth. And with Ultra UD coming to a home theater near you soon, that gap will widen.

For those of us who care about quality and who have invested in good audio and video gear, only Blu-ray offers that quality.

On the audio plus video side, the best that downloading and streaming can offer is lossy Dolby Digital Plus (hi-res audio alone is a different story). It won’t give you lossless Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD-Master Audio.

I’ve heard fans argue that DD+ is at least a step up on plain vanilla Dolby Digital. No, it’s not, or at least not necessarily. Ten or so years go, when Dolby Digital Plus was first announced, a knowledgeable Dolby rep told me that it was designed not specifically for better quality than Dolby Digital (which I’m sure Dolby thought was just awesome, thank you very much) but to enable a variety of data rates. Specifically, it was said to offer the quality of Dolby Digital (typically 384Kbps at the time) at half that rate (192Kbps). While it can be used at a higher rate for somewhat better quality, if you’re the bandwidth monitor at a popular downloading site which route do you think you’ll take?

One problem with recommending Blu-ray titles this close to Christmas is that it’s likely too late for on-line ordering, and local availability of Blu-rays has slipped dramatically in recent years outside of major metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, I’ll plunge head with some last minute suggestions. Worst comes to worst, you could order them for delivery directly to the recipient. Christmas can then last into New Year’s week! Or even gift him or her with a pre-order of recent films like The Martian (out on January 12), Brooklyn, In the Heart of the Sea, The Good Dinosaur, Spectre, or even Star Wars: The Force Awakens, if available. Christmas in July!

So here are a few recommendations. I love them all, but one or more of them should fit any taste. And since a few of them aren’t brand new, they’re often available at very reasonable prices (Oblivion was recently listed on Amazon for $7.99). And if you order from some on-line sites, exchanges are possible if the recipient already has that title.

Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation – Of all the titles here, this is the one I’m least familiar with on Blu-ray. But who can resist seeing Tom Cruise dangling out of an airplane on takeoff? It’s been said that he does his own stunts, but I’d bet money that this was a blue screen shot with a wind machine in front of him and a mattress sitting a foot or two below. Still, it looks mega-scary on screen (though we know the character isn’t going to fall!). The MI series is one of the most successful franchises sourced from a television original. Only Star Trek can challenge it.

Jurassic World – Apparently the audience can’t get enough of dinosaurs, as this was the biggest box office hit of the year before the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens obliterated everything before it. Jurassic World isn’t as good as the original Jurassic Park, but it’s worlds better than the middle two (though JP3 had its moments—the scene with Barney was hilarious). Great soundtrack, though the picture quality is a little suspect. Flesh tones had a slightly plastic look on more than one HDTV. Or perhaps it was just Bryce Dallas Howard’s makeup.

Ant-Man – After all the chaos unleashed in the previous 25 or so comic book films, this small scale wonder featuring one of the lesser characters in the Marvel Comics universe was one of my favorite films of the year. It won me over with a great cast, great special effects, and genuine humor without turning to camp or parody. Spoiler Alert: Only a single building and…um…train get lunched. I’m doing a full print review of this for Sound & Vision's print edition, but that won’t be published in time for Christmas.

Oblivion – This title had mixed reviews from both critics and audiences a couple of years back. It was criticized for being too derivative of other films, but most movies are. With a good cast and good special effects (again, no cities are destroyed—that happens before the movie’s time frame), it sucked me in. The video transfer here is among the best I’ve seen in the past couple of years, and the sound, particularly the music, blows me away every time I hear it.

Self/Less – An older, dying man has his consciousness transferred into a younger body. He soon finds out that this new procedure isn’t exactly what he thought it was. Audiences didn’t exactly flock to see this, and critics didn’t like it either. But critics are often notoriously tough on serious science fiction (as contrasted to good space operas), which is exactly what this is. To say more would be to spoil it, but this movie intrigued and (in the end) moved me. I call it halfway house because while there’s some action here this isn’t really an action movie. Solid picture and good sound.

Cinderella Disney’s 2015 live production of this classic fairy tale trumps its early animated version by a mile. With a superb cast, direction by Kenneth Branaugh, and a production design you’ll want to hum to, it’s entertaining from start to finish. The video here is just a little soft, but that might have been intentional. The sound is outstanding, including a majestic, cinematic score by Patrick Doyle. Doyle is Branaugh’s favored composer, and did similarly terrific work for Branaugh’s Thor—one of the elements that made that origin story one of the best (and most Shakespearean) of the comic book sagas and vastly superior to its overblown sequel.

Quartet – A story set in a retirement home for (mostly classical) English musicians might not sound too appealing, and is likely why this film came and went in theaters. But if your giftees are into music they might well find it delightful. The cast is superb, including Magee Smith (with her trademarked, biting wit), Tom Courtenay (wasn’t it only yesterday that he was a twentysomething revolutionary in Doctor Zhivago?), Michael Gambon (AKA Dumbledore), and Billy Connolly. They’re supported by a host of genuine retired musicians, and directed by Dustin Hoffman in his first directorial effort. It’s certainly not for everyone, but those prone to like it may well love it. Crisp picture and sound. (Not to be confused with A Late Quartet, also about musicians.)

Anonymous – This movie is perhaps not for those Shakespeare lovers who find noxious the rumors (or fantasies) arguing that he was not the true author of the plays written under his name. For anyone else, however, it’s a fascinating take on this subject. Mistaken, most certainly, but highly entertaining—particularly for those who love historical films and recognize that they are almost never particularly factual. Beautifully written and full of personal and court intrigue, it’s also an acting master class full of known (and unknown) British performers. Most interesting, perhaps is Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford (the purported true author here). Those who recall Ifans as Hugh Grant’s loopy roommate in Notting Hill will find this performance mind blowing. Similarly disorienting is the skilled direction of Rowland Emmerich, best know for action films like Independence Day the remake of Godzilla, and 2012. The sound and picture here are first rate though the latter, clearly by design, is dark and sepia-toned.

hannaebba's picture

Yes Tom did hang from that airplane... no faking done..