The 2009 Golden Gavel Awards
SANTA MONICA, CA (Dec 30, 2009) As another year draws to a close, the Verdict team gathers around the fire to discuss and debate the best that DVD and Blu-ray had to offer. While there may not be many surprises, the justification behind this year's Golden Gavel recipients is bound to stir some interest.
10) The Golden Age of Television -- Criterion Collection
A seldom seen PBS mini-series from the 1980s gets the Criterion touch, and the world is reminded what television was like in its infancy. Forget Dancing with the Stars, The Hills, and American Idol. Television's golden age brought compelling works of theatre into the homes of millions who had never seen live stage drama. This collection spotlights the works of legendary artists like Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Jack Palance, and John Frankenheimer. And while the imagery and sound may be several steps down from the standards of our new high-def world, the fact that these performances exist at all is the real gold. As Appellate Judge Tom Becker points out, "These are landmark productions, major signposts in our cultural history. With decent transfers and comprehensive and enlightening supplements, this set is required viewing."
09) AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa -- Criterion Collection
In the pantheon of great directors, Akira Kurosawa may forever claim the throne. From Shakespeare and noir, to full-scale war and intimate character drama, this visionary storyteller transcended language barriers to amaze and inspire generations of film lovers and filmmakers alike. In honor of what would have been his 100th Birthday, Criterion has packaged 25 of Kurosawa's films -- including Drunken Angel, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Kagemusha -- alongside insight from film historians, crafting a touchstone for any film collection. Judge Adam Arseneau concurs, "This set gives you ultimate bragging rights in the collecting game. Four of the films have never been released on DVD."
08) Mystery Science Theatre 3000: Volumes XIV, XV, and XVI -- Shout! Factory
Since taking over the distribution rights to the cult classic series from Rhino, Shout! Factory has repeatedly knocked the ball out of the park. Each volume release offers up not only a balanced mix of episodes from MST3K's 11 season run, but the addition of KTMA episodes, behind-the-scenes footage, retrospective documentaries, and interviews with skewered filmmakers and cast members leaves fans wishing Shout! would have handled this beloved property from the very beginning. Judge Erich Aspeschlager commends the studio's efforts, "Sure, there's a mile-long list of fan favorites yet to be released -- some of which may never see the light of day (darn Sandy Frank!) -- but Shout! Factory has done plenty in the past year to assure fans that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is in the right hands."
07) Gone with the Wind: Ultimate Collector's Edition -- Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. has long been convicted of unnecessarily double and triple dipping their biggest films, but they've escaped Verdict's wrath with this beautiful package. I'll turn the floor over to Judge Bill Gibron for a brief Q&A -- "Is Gone with the Wind still a great movie? You bet your sweet Southern belle it is. Does it still hold up even after seven decades of cinematic sophistication? Yes, indeed. Is the new box set a treasure trove of intriguing information, from the exhausting casting and preproduction process to the onset spats and post-release reactions? And HOW!"
06) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Blu-ray) -- Criterion Collection
Whether or not you enjoyed F. Scott Fitzgerald's unique story, David Fincher's unconventional film, or the performances of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, one cannot argue with the exquisite treatment it has received at the hands of the Criterion team. How rare a treat for a new theatrical release to be offered up for such an honor, especially considering Paramount's rather dismal track record when it comes to bonus materials. Judge Gordon Sullivan explains, "The orchestration of the various cinematic elements of Benjamin Button is the film's real triumph. I can't recall the last time I felt this absorbed in a world created entirely on the screen. And I have one word to describe the Blu-ray release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: superlative."
05) Up (Blu-ray) -- Disney
Pixar has set the animation bar so high, I'd be surprised if anyone ever comes close to surpassing it. From concept to execution, there is more blood, sweat, tears, and love infused in each and every digital frame than Walt Disney instilled in his own films. So it comes as no surprise that Up has found its way onto this list. Director Pete Docter, screenwriter Bob Peterson, and their team have created yet another heartfelt story of love and friendship, set against a breathtaking South American backdrop. In the words of Judge Clark Douglas, "Moreso than any other animation studio, Pixar has filled their films with loads of rich visual nuance and detail that one starts to notice after repeat viewings." We're doubly blessed this year, in that Docter's first film Monsters, Inc. also received a magnificent Blu-ray release. And with Disney's DVD/Blu-ray combo packs, there's little reason not to invest in a high-definition future.
04) Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog -- New Video
In what may be the single most important release of the year, Team Whedon's little project shook Hollywood's content creation/distribution formula to its core. For a script written during the writers strike, filmed on the cheap, and released in chapters, free of charge via the internet, Dr. Horrible was nothing short of a phenomenon. And that's not even including brilliant performances turned in by Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion. But the magic didn't stop there! For its DVD release, Joss and company recorded a feature-length musical commentary that was another film unto itself and just as enjoyable as the original. Judge Melissa Hansen agrees, "This web effort was a game changer in its original format, and the DVD adds even more brilliant content to the experience." While the monetizing model still needs work for creator-owned, internet distributed films, this sure as heck gave studio executives night sweats and fans plenty to cheer about. But don't take my word for it. Just listen to Appellate Judge Mac McEntire, "It might not have multi-million dollar effects to show off your fancy home entertainment system, but it's certainly the DVD I was most excited to buy this year, and the one I've rewatched most often."
03) The State: Complete Series -- MTV
The most requested and most delayed television release in the history of the format finally sees the light of day. While Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, and the rest of the gang have gone on to cultivate impressive careers, their little rebellious MTV sketch comedy series will forever hold a special place in the hearts and minds of its fans. And after an interminable wait, Paramount and MTV got their act together and released The State to well deserved fanfare, like that of Judge Erich Asperschlager, "Frankly, I don't know why Christmas even bothered to show up this year. This set has every surreal sketch, audio commentaries for each episodes, and hours of bonus material. Only the twisted tangle of legal rights that forced MTV to swap out the licensed music keeps this from being the best TV-on-DVD release of all time." More importantly, it provided a huge sigh of relief for the Verdict team, as Judge Brett Cullum explains, "Finally, Judge Dave Johnson can stop bitching."
02) Watchmen: The Director's Cut (Blu-ray) -- Warner Bros.
Before we begin, I'll let Judge Bill Gibron preface our discussion, "While it may not be recognized as one now, it is easy to see Watchmen going down as one of the best films of the new millennium." Now here's where things get dicey. For as much as the fans were split over Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' legendary graphic novel, and given the mixed reaction received for tie-in releases like The Complete Motion Comic and Tales of the Black Freighter, Warner Bros.' decision to release an Ultimate Cut of the film incorporating these pieces into a cohesive whole ultimately backfired. Which is why the Gavel goes to the Director's Cut. I'll let the gang explain the rest. Judge Mac McEntire, "Now this is the disc you use to show off your fancy home entertainment system! The Director's Cut is an improvement, but the movie still has its flaws, especially the ending." Judge Steve Power, "Not only is this the superior cut of the film, but the audio and video quality is excellent, and the In-Movie Experience demonstrates the qualities of the Blu-ray format without feeling superfluous or gimmicky." Judge Gordon Sullivan, "I can't help but admire the sheer bravado it takes to make a release as complicated as this."
01) Star Trek (2009) (Blu-ray) -- Paramount
I came away from the press junket with the gut feeling this would be our top choice for the year, and I wasn't wrong. To a person, the Verdict brain trust has looked to JJ Abrams' franchise reboot as not only an impressive cinematic experience, but a home theatre product whose very DNA is encoded in pure high definition. I'll just sit back and let the team share their views. Judge Adam Arseneau, "JJ Abrams did the impossible. Three discs of glorious nerdy excess. Now experience all the thrills of light flares in your living room!" Judge Eric Profancik, "The movie had been lavished with praise since Day One, so the disc had much to live up to. It took up the challenge and excelled." Judge Jim Thomas, "The presentation is nothing short of spectacular. I've been underwhelmed by the sound mixes for a lot of releases this year, but the moment that TrueHD kicked in, I got all moist and tingly. (In a good way, you perverts.)" Judge Christopher Kulik, "This is, without a doubt, the gold standard by which all other Blu-rays should follow."
So there you have it -- six DVDs and four Blu-rays, making up our Best of 2009. The high-def world is definitely making strides. It'll be interesting to see what the new year holds, especially if studios like Warner Bros. continue to sabotage their DVD releases to bolster the impressiveness of their Blu-ray product.