Ready to enjoy a classic? Each of these ten titles demonstrates how Blu-ray's high-definition image and sound can re-create a bygone cinematic experience, from epics designed for 80-foot-wide curved screens to a comedy originally accompanied by live music. This list is in reverse chronological order of when the films were released. Half of them come from the 20-year period starting in the early 1950s--when Hollywood saw television as a threat instead of a market, and the industry created new film formats that TV couldn't match. Today, with Blu-ray, your TV can at least come close.
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The 70mm blow-up treatment was popular in the 1980s, and Gandhi (1982) fittingly receives almost as big a treatment in Blu-ray. The advantage to 70mm: The large prints provided a brighter, steadier image.
With its epic style and massive crowd scenes, Gandhi made as much use of the format as any film of the period. You can watch the individual extras, feel the sweep of history, and become entirely immersed in the surround sound--all while watching an entertaining, if simplistic, biopic about an important 20th-century figure.
Outstanding Restoration: The Godfather--The Coppola Restoration
The Godfather (1972) wasn't shot or presented in a now-dead format. But I'm including this three-movie box set because it contains two masterpieces that get a new lease on life with Blu-ray, thanks in large part to restoration expert Robert Harris.
The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) work together as cinema's great crime-family epic (you can skip Part III; it lacks the same resonance). The cinematography-- occasionally lush, occasionally muted--plays a large part in the story, and Harris's restoration and the Blu-ray transfer turn these well-loved masterpieces into new, or at least reborn, experiences.
65mm/70mm Roadshow: Patton
In the glory days of the wide screen, big event films like Patton (1970) weren't just shown in 70mm--they were shot that way. (Actually, they were shot in 65mm; the extra 5mm in the release prints were for six-track magnetic stereo.) This approach gave the films a resolution and impact that today's movie formats can't match. And they were originally presented in special "roadshow" engagements, with reserved seats and intermissions.
Patton was one of the last, and one of the best, roadshow productions. A war movie and a character study of a brilliant but egotistical general, it has battles, vistas, and the fine detail of assorted uniforms. The Blu-ray Disc captures all of that in beautiful detail.
Cinerama: How the West Was Won
Cinerama, the Imax of the 1950s, revolutionized the nature of the movies, and How the West Was Won (1962) was the last and best true Cinerama film. Nothing before or since has quite matched the immersive effect of three synchronized projectors and a giant, curved screen.
How the West Was Won's multigenerational story is hokey fun (and simplistic history), but the real pleasure is in the spectacle, whether it's a buffalo stampede, a train wreck, or a tracking shot through an old river town.
Since Cinerama was designed for a curved screen, it loses a lot on a flat one. Warner Brothers provides two different versions of the movie: a conventional letterbox edition and a special "smilebox" transfer that simulates the original curvature. Both make for wonderful viewing, but the smilebox version gives a better sense of what Cinerama was like--especially if you have the luxury of viewing it on a large HDTV.
VistaVision: North by Northwest
Unlike the other large formats of the 1950s, VistaVision's moderately wide aspect ratio makes it a perfect fit for HDTV's 16:9 screen. The Blu-ray of North by Northwest (1959) can therefore use all 1080 lines of resolution to show off all the detail in its twice-the-standard-film-frame image.
North by Northwest was the last and most entertaining of five movies that Alfred Hitchcock made in this format. It dresses up a typical Hitchcockian "wrong man" plot (foreign spies mistake an innocent man for their enemy while police think he's a murderer) with spectacle, witty dialog, star power (Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason), and, of course, VistaVision.
Early Cinemascope: The Robe
Cinemascope still exists as a process, though not as a brand name (this year's Inglourious Basterds and Star Trek were both shot in it). But in early films like The Robe (1953), it looked and sounded very different. Back then, filmmakers had much more fun with the wide screen (slightly wider than the current ‘scope) and "four-track stereophonic sound." For instance, when people on the left side of the screen spoke, their voices actually came out of the left speaker; that almost never happens in recent movies. The Robe was the first film released in Cinemascope. This corny but fun Biblical melodrama plays with the wide screen and stereo like a shiny new toy.
The Blu-ray disc has plenty of Cinemascope-oriented extras, too, including a Bonusview feature that lets you compare the wide images with the simultaneously shot 4:3 version.
4:3 Black and White: It’s a Wonderful Life
Before 1953, virtually all movies had a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the vast majority were in black and white. It's a Wonderful Life (1947) is, with good reason, one of the most beloved films in this once-ubiquitous format.
The best feel-good Christmas tale not written by Charles Dickens, It's a Wonderful Life acts as A Christmas Carol in reverse. An altruistic man, driven to desperation on Christmas Eve, is shown not the error of his ways but the good he has done.
Paramount's Blu-ray transfer, pillarboxed to 4:3 with black bars on the sides, is clean, crisp, and stunning. You'd never know that a 62-year-old black-and-white movie could look so good.
Three-Strip Technicolor: The Wizard of Oz
From the mid 1930s to the early 1950s, most of the few color movies Hollywood produced were shot in Technicolor's three-strip process. A special camera photographed films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) by recording each primary color on a different strip of black-and-white film. The result was a beautiful, supersaturated color that looked both painterly and photographic.
The Wizard of Oz makes full use of the Technicolor palette, from the ruby slippers to the "horse of a different color." For the Blu-ray release, Warner Brothers has freshened up the Technicolor with a brand-new 8K (7680 by 4320) scan of the original negatives, bringing out details that I missed even in pristine 35mm prints--I'd never noticed before that Munchkinland was wet as if from a fresh rain. (Pay no attention to the restoration short among the extras; it's five years old and comes from a previous, 4K restoration.)
Hand-Drawn Animation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Animation didn't always come out of a computer, and something was lost when studios stopped making it by hand. The first American animated feature, Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), shows just how beautiful hand-crafted animation can look.
The new Blu-ray release restores that original glory. The foreground action and painted backgrounds have a dimensionality that only Disney could achieve in animation, and the color red pops so brightly that you wonder why a serving girl is so well made up.
The story suffers from a sugary sweetness that later Disney works managed to control, but Disney's technical dazzle was never better. Watch Chapter 8, where Snow White sings to the woodland creatures. As story, it's laughable (especially if you've seen Enchanted), but as hand-drawn craft, it's amazing.
The three-disc set has the movie on DVD and Blu-ray.
Silent Movie: The General
Buster Keaton's comic masterpiece The General (1926) was made at a time when movies didn't have soundtracks and theaters kept musicians on the payroll. Patrons who saw it more than once heard different musicians performing different scores.
Fittingly, Kino gives us three separate scores on its release of The General, the first Blu-ray release of a silent film in North America: two with orchestras (one in 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio) and one with just an organ performance. Each score finds its own way to present this Civil War epic adventure that frequently lands on "Greatest All-Time Comedies" lists.
Keaton grounded The General's humor in exciting visuals and historical authenticity, and Blu-ray enlivens those elements as no previous video version did. You can see the grain in the wood and the greasy texture of the locomotive's well-worn metal, for instance. Oddly enough, such epic details make this movie even funnier.
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