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The 2011 Golden Gavel Awards

SANTA MONICA, CA (31 Dec 2011) Another year in home media comes to an end and the Verdict team gathers to identify the best Blu-ray and DVD releases the studios had to offer. As has been the case over the past 10 years, these award winners are often unconventional and speak to a segment of movie lovers who find some of the best entertainment exists just outside the mainstream.

**) Raro VideoStudio Commendation: Raro Video
We begin this year's awards by honoring a studio or distributor that has gone above and beyond the call of duty in preserving films most audiences don't even know exist. These are anti-blockbusters from years past which hold a special place in the hearts and minds of true film fanatics. To award this year's winner, I turn the podium over to Appellate Judge Tom Becker: It was a good year for boutique labels. Severin and Synapse made terrific headway into high definition, with terrific releases like Vampire Circus and The Dorm that Dripped Blood (Synapse) and Horror Express and Bloody Birthday (Severin). Code Red and Scorpion stayed in the game with their Maria's B-Movie Mayhem and Katarina's Nightmare Theater lines. But one studio that really stood out was Raro Video, an Italian company that started distributing in the US in 2011. Raro releases lesser-known but still valuable European films that sport good technical presentations and worthwhile supplements such as often enlightening essays. Some of these films had previously be given US "budget releases," so it's great to have the chance to see them uncut with nice transfers. Raro turned out my favorite release of the year, Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection, an essential set of influential action/crime films that are aching for rediscovery. Other rare treats from Raro included The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Fellini's little-seen The Clowns, Anger, The Secret of Dorian Gray, Ruggero Deodato's Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, and Crime of Love. Too often, "foreign" films that were not widely distributed in the US during their theatrical runs get short-shrift when it comes time for Region 1 DVD releases. Fortunately, Raro has upped the ante. These films run the gamut from art to exploitation, and thanks to Raro, they're getting the respect--and hopefully the audience--they deserve."

10) Three Colors Trilogy Blu-ray Criterion CollectionThe Three Colors Trilogy (Blu-ray) -- Criterion Collection
What would the Golden Gavels be without the presence of at least one Criterion release? The highly respected historians and preservationists of film continue to raise the bar for physical media and do so once again with this release. Judge Clark Douglas: "True to form, Criterion produced a host of terrific releases in 2011, but arguably their most impressive achievement is the tremendous presentation of Krzystof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy, three thought-provoking, subtly connected films which collectively rank as one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1990s. These fine efforts have been blessed with exceptional high definition transfers and a host of informative, rewarding supplements. For serious cinephiles, this is surely one of the most exciting box sets of the year." Judge Brett Cullum: "Criterion always gives film buffs something to celebrate, and having these three films on Blu-ray is cause enough for cheering in the streets. This is smart cinema for the collector."

09) Citizen Kane Blu-ray Ultimate Collectors EditionCitizen Kane Blu-ray Ultimate Collectors Edition -- Warner Bros.
After being shut out of the Golden Gavels in 2010, Warner Home Video returns to the stage with the first of two special edition releases, and one of the most highly anticipated for movie lovers everywhere. Judge Clark Douglas: "Few films demand repeat viewings quite as insistently as this one. The previous DVD transfer is nearly as exceptional as one could want a 480p release to be, but this Blu-ray disc represents an entirely new level of beauty. Gregg Toland's deep focus cinematography offers some of the most striking imagery the movies have ever seen, and this stunning transfer should certainly give many viewers a new appreciation for his work." Judge Patrick Rogers: "There's a reason why Orson Welles' masterpiece is considered by many to be one of the greatest American films of all time. Its innovations behind the camera and masterful mix of comedy and drama packed within a surprisingly breezy and non-linear narrative are what give this film relevance even today. The fact that this disc houses one of the greatest black and white Blu-ray transfers ever seen only insures that Citizen Kane will remain relevant for many generations to come." Judge Brett Cullum: "Talk about everything and the kitchen sink, this is everything and the sled to boot. It's amazing that we also get the never before released The Magnificent Amerbersons. An awesome collector's set that eclipsed all others this year."

08) Star Wars The Complete Saga Blu-rayStar Wars: The Complete Saga (Blu-ray) -- Fox
The first of three Fox releases and the most contentious of all our awards this year goes to Lucasfilm's much maligned high definition upgrade of the two Star Wars trilogies. First generation fans love the original films and despise the prequels. Second and now third generation Jedis overwhelmingly love everything George has given the franchise, including The Clone Wars animated series. But the sticking point here continues to be the absence of the original theatrical prints in favor of the enhanced special editions. We can argue for hours over why this is the case, but the fact is adverse public opinion undermined what could have been one of the finest releases of the year. Judge Patrick Naugle: "Yes, I complained as loud as the next guy about the changes Lucas has forced on fans. The same guy who didn't want the vintage The Three Stooges shorts colorized because it didn't preserve the films in their original state has become one of the worst offenders when it comes to offering fans the movies they remember. That said, it was still nice to see Luke, Han, Vader, and Yoda in sparkling 1080p, even if we had to suffer through George tinkering like a kid rebuilding his Lego castle." Judge Steve Power: "Fans clamoured, and Lucas answered with a beautifully crafted 9-disc set. The restorative efforts look marvelous, the sound mix is excellent, and the collection of extras is extensive if not exhaustive. This one might rank higher if not for further needless tampering and what I expect will be further efforts to tie these films more closely together to the entire franchise." One last note: Fox decided against providing us with review product for this release, which is why Verdict did not post a review.

07) MST3K vs. GameraMystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXI, MST3K vs. Gamera -- Shout! Factory
There's no disguising the fact that Verdict has a special place in its heart for Shout! Factory. They've grown from an obscure niche distributor to one of the finest purveyors of pop culture, picking up licenses for many properties that other studios have long since abandoned and giving them the care and attention fans clamor for. Nowhere is that more evident than in their handling of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The original Rhino collections were fan favorites, but they don't hold a candle to what the DVD production team has done with this franchise, which only seems to be getting more impressive with each subsequent release. This year we pay homage to their limited edition collection MST3K vs. Gamera. Judge Erich Asperschlager: "The waiting is over, MST3K fans! Hell has frozen over, and it tastes like chicken. Although none of the episodes reach the dizzying comedic heights of Season Three classics like Pod People or Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, Shout! Factory has outdone themselves with a rock solid set from beginning to end." Judge Mac McEntire: "The ultimate this will never be released on DVD release was actually released on DVD! Five movies, tons of extras, absolute entertainment heaven." Judge Roman Martel: "Not only did we get these five Gamera episodes, but they managed to score a whole set of fun extras including a documentary about the Gamera phenomenon, the original Japanese trailers, and interviews with the MST3K crew about their experiences with the rocket propelled turtle. Sing with me, Gamera is really neat, this DVD set is super sweet, we're all watching GAMERA!"

06) Super 8 Blu-raySuper 8 (Blu-ray) -- Paramount
The only Paramount release to make this year's list is also one film that is criminally underrepresented in the throng of 2011 Best Of lists from industry guilds and movie fans alike. At the core of JJ Abrams Super 8 is a heartfelt sincerity, tapping an innocence most of us have long since buried or forgotten; a sense of wonder and trust that enables us to see the world with fresh eyes, untainted by life's failures and regrets. Inspired by classic sci-fi/monster movies and informed by an era in which America's innocence was still hanging on by a thread, this is love letter to genre fans and a thank you to Steven Spielberg and his peers. For those who argue that Super 8 is far too derivative, I challenge you to name a film that isn't influenced by the collective conscience of the modern world. The key to storytelling is taking your thoughts, dreams, and experiences and synergizing them into something new, to engage, entertain, challenge, and thrill your audience, which is exactly what this film does. Judge Paul Pritchard: "More than mere homage, Super 8 is just about the best family sci-fi adventure this side of 1982. Exceptional work from a young cast is complemented by excellent effects work. But what cements the film's place as a modern great is its heart, which actually means all the top-notch action sequences are merely icing on the cake. Judge Steve Power: "Not only was this my favorite film of 2011, but the Blu-ray hosts an impeccable transfer that looks stunning, with a bombastic soundtrack guaranteed to disturb the neighbors. This is one flick I'll be pulling off the shelf on a regular basis."

05) Tree of Life Blu-rayThe Tree of Life (Blu-ray) -- Fox
Fox's second Gavel award goes to another controversial choice. Director Terrence Malick has a flair for the esoteric and undefined, which both thrills and aggravates moviegoers. This film is no exception. Judge Clark Douglas: "A new film from this reclusive director is always a treat, but The Tree of Life is astonishing even by his standards. A rich, deep, wildly ambitious piece of philosophical filmmaking which is more than just a movie. It's a cinematic prayer, hymn, and poem that thoughtfully and tenderly explores life's biggest questions. On top of that, the film has received the strongest Blu-ray transfer I've had the pleasure of witnessing since the creation of the format. Just pop in this disc, turn on the film's now-famous Creation sequence, and prepare to be awestruck." Judge Patrick Rogers: "One of the most loved films of 2011 was also one of the most hated. The Tree of Life almost indecipherable narration, complete lack of traditional structure or plot, and an experimental ending that would rival even the most zany French New Wave film divided both audiences and critics. This is not merely a film, but an ode to the tragic yet beautiful nature of humanity and the world we live in." Judge Gordon Sullivan: "The most purely cinematic offering of 2011. With no separate DVD release, this three-disc set had to pull triple duty, resulting in a transfer that's engrossing, sound that's enveloping, and few extras." Judge Paul Pritchard: "In many ways what you get out of The Tree of Life is equal to what you put in. The O'Briens are a cipher onto which the viewer is encouraged to imprint his or her own experiences in order to truly gain meaning. Submit yourself to Malick's spell, and the film delivers a unique and frequently rewarding experience."

04) Rise of the Planet of the Apes Blu-rayRise of the Planet of the Apes (Blu-ray) -- Fox
The third and final award for Fox goes to its most surprising release. After Tim Burton's miserable attempt to reboot the franchise died a quick and painful death, no one anticipated revisiting the monkey house any time soon. And yet, Rise of the Planet of the Apes wound up catching everyone off guard by becoming the darling of the 2011 summer movie season. Judge Patrick Naugle: "When the trailer hit, it genuinely gave me goose bumps. How often can you say that about summer popcorn fare? This is the true definition of a sleeper hit, as moviegoers quickly realized the 40+ year old franchise still has a lot of life in it, juiced by a visual and audio quality on this Blu-ray release that is nothing less than stunning." Judge Franck Tabouring: "Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes counts among the best action blockbusters of 2011. Visually, the film is as engaging as its story, and enjoying the rise of the super smart apes in glorious high definition turns every home viewing into an immense pleasure." Judge Mike Rubino: "Given the franchise's B-movie-esque titles and abundance of latex masks, the original Planet of the Apes movies generally took themselves pretty seriously. This not only reboots the franchise with a disaster movie style attitude, but presents its apes in cutting-edge CGI. The Blu-ray offers a pristine high definition transfer and a huge assortment of special features." Judge Brett Cullum: "One of the best films of 2011 gets serious treatment for home theaters. It's truly a fan boy's dream that will look great sitting next to that big monkey head collector's set." Judge Clark Douglas: "This film marks the second time a Planet of the Apes movie has left me satisfied, and the first time one has left me hungry to see what comes next. Bravo."

03) 13 Assassins Blu-ray13 Assassins (Blu-ray) -- Magnet Releasing
We welcome a newcomer to the Golden Gavels hallowed halls in the form of Mangolia Pictures' Magnet sub-label. Magnolia is another niche distributor that has struck a profound chord within the Verdict family, consistently offering up obscure and compelling genre releases with style and flair. So it's not surprising that director Takashi Miike's latest epic has propelled the company into the ranks of the physical media elite. Judge Patrick Rogers: "Was there a more viciously entertaining Blu-ray release in 2011 than Takashi Miike's violent ode to Kurosawa and the jidai-geki genre? 13 Assassins was not only a masterfully paced examination of vengeance and honor at the point of a sword, it was also one of the most blood drenched films of the last decade. The final forty five minutes showcase some of the greatest action the genre has to offer. And with an outstandingly detailed 1080p transfer and rocking 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio housed on the Blu-ray release, things only get better." Judge William Lee: "Japan's prolific but wildly uneven director delivers one of the most satisfying action movies in a long time. Riveting from the slow build-up to the extended climax that takes up the second half of the movie, it's a masterful accomplishment." Judge Mac McEntire: "It has the themes and imagery you'd find in an old-school samurai flick, combined with modern-day action, with the two elements perfectly balanced. If you didn't know it was Miike, you'd never guess." Judge Josh Rode: "The umpteenth Seven Samurai remake is the best of the bunch...and that includes the original. Great performances, a solid story, interesting characters, and excellent cinematography and choreography combine for 125 minutes of pure awesome." Judge David Johnson: "Typically, when I look back at a year's worth of film viewing, I end up with a favorite film and a best film, the former I flat-out enjoyed the most, the latter I put on my stuffy critic's hat and objectively proclaim as the finest piece of cinema. It is rare for both criteria to intersect with one film, but 13 Assassins has unified the title belt."

02) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Blu-ray Extended EditionThe Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Blu-ray) Extended Edition -- New Line
Warner Bros. second award (as owners of the New Line label) is the second major box set release for which Verdict was deemed unworthy of receiving review product. Hence the lack of a review. But we're not bitter, as it rose to rank as one of the team's favorite releases of the year. Judge Steve Power: "Not much need be said about Peter Jackson's superlative adaptation of Tolkien's beloved books. Destined to be a classic in every sense, and to some the most resonant films to come along in decades. This set is wholly exhaustive, collecting every supplement of the previous DVD releases, and presenting the films in glorious 1080p high definition. Comprehensive doesn't even begin to describe it." Judge Franck Tabouring: "This is the ultimate Blu-ray set for a superb trilogy, no question. Releases like this make you appreciate the existence of Blu-ray even more. And unlike a certain recent release of the Star Wars saga, this set boasts so much extra content, it will keep those new to the franchise drooling for a long time to come." Judge Roman Martel: "This is how you watch The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. You get all three films in their superior form, with an amazing high definition transfer that shows off all the detail that went into the costumes, sets and productions design. Watching these adventures again on Blu-ray was like suddenly seeing the true depth of their visuals for the first time, and that is an impressive feat." Judge Dawn Hunt: "The amount of special features is phenomenal and includes everything which was previously released on other formats. That means I don't have to buy this and six months later start fuming at another release that offers something I'm missing. Plus, New Line okayed a massive price drop in less than a year of its release, making it one of the most affordable collector's sets out there."

01) The Social Network Blu-rayThe Social Network (Blu-ray) -- Sony
The Verdict team never ceases to amaze me. For a film that was released on DVD and Blu-ray during the second week of year -- one we had to fight Sony to get review product for -- to remain in the forefront of the minds of more than half our reviewers is an astonishing feat, especially when most of the Top 10 and Best Of lists you'll come across will be heavily favoring titles to street in the second half of 2011. So it's with reverential pride that I offer our top spot to director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's biopic of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Judge Roy Hrab: "Has any film better captured the spirit of our times? Technological innovation, popularity, ambition, greed, ego, envy, fame, social alienation... While The Social Network is nominally about Facebook, it's really a contemporary morality tale that reveals much about some of the early leading themes of the 21st century. An excellent film that should have won the Academy Award for Best Picture." Judge Gordon Sullivan: "As the years roll by more and more people will forget who won the 2011 Oscars. This excellent Blu-ray release, with a reference quality presentation and host of informative extras -- will ensure The Social Network will still be wowing people long after Facebook and The King's Speech have been forgotten. Judge Tom Becker: "The first really successful serious film in which the characters are not heroes, not anti-heroes, but twits. An audacious and intriguing true-life, modern-day parable in which six of the seven deadly sins become stepping stones for success, with sloth replaced by ruthlessness. It's a cool, engrossing, yet somewhat distancing film that not only tells its story, but reflects the whole impersonal intimacy of online socializing. Credit Sony for going all out on this release rather than making it a bare-bones teaser for the double dip Special Edition." Judge Frank Tabouring: "Probably not the obvious choice for many, but Fincher's The Social Network simply reinforced the great passion I have for filmmaking. Yes, Facebook may have grown into the most annoying social media tool on the Web, but the fast-paced, energetic, and compelling story about the beginning of this online phenomenon quickly earned its spot among my top films of the year." Judge Clark Douglas: "In addition to granting this razor-sharp drama a terrific transfer and sublime sound (the nightclub scene is a certainly a showcase sequence), you have a generous supply of informative, well-produced bonus features to dig through: a pair of audio commentaries featuring Fincher, writer Aaron Sorkin, and the film's young cast, a feature-length documentary, detailed examinations of the film's complex sound design and nearly invisible special effects work, and more. Most of Fincher's films have been blessed with atypically generous and revealing supplements, and this one is no exception."

So there you have it. Another exceptional array of Golden Gavel winners. Our sincerest congratulations and appreciation go out to the production and post-production teams on each and every one of these titles, for it is through your dedication and often overlooked efforts that we will be able to enjoy these films for years to come. A couple observations before I let you go. I'm always intrigued by the breakdown of these awards, in that Universal -- who claimed three of the top five positions last year is nowhere to be found. You'll also notice the absence of Disney, single nods to Paramount and Sony, and only catalog recognition for Warner Bros. There's no getting around the fact that the face of Hollywood entertainment is changing, due in large part to the massive shift towards digital streaming. In last year's summation, I made passing reference to the cheap and taudry introduction of Video on Demand (VOD) and Made on Demand (MOD) services from studios like Sony and Warner Bros. That opinion has changed very little over the past year, even with Fox, MGM, and other distributors entering the mix. These dump and run options are not catching fire with movie lovers the way studio executives had hoped. And yet services like Netflix Instant Watch, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, Vudu and others have exploded at an alarming rate. We critics have long thought physical media would stand the test of time and yet we find ourselves in a rapidly changing world where most entertainment we consume is done on the fly over a broadband connection. Television on demand is negating the need for recording devices, while digital downloads and streaming media to iPads, tablets, laptops, and smart phones is surpassing the need to purchase new releases on DVD and Blu-ray. The Hollywood we once knew is dying quicker than any studio executive cares to acknowledge, though backstage they're scrambling to sign licensing deals to ensure their properties are carried by new media, and companies like Disney are investing in cloud-like applications (e.g. Disney Universe) to ride this wave of success. Let's hope, for their sake, it enjoys more success than the doomed evergreen-content concept known as BD-Live. For as more and more creative people find success operating outside the archaic confines of the studios, we teeter on the edge of an entertainment renaissance in which the next David Fincher or Aaron Sorkin could be discovered by creating an eight episode web series, completely self-funded and distributed. And when a video game company like Naughty Dog can produce uber-compelling storylines for properties like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception that easily transcends much of what passes for box office blockbusters, you know a revolution is in the making. Buckle up, folks. This is gonna be fun!

Happy New Year!
Chief Justice Michael Stailey

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