The holidays are upon us once again, which means it’s time to stress out about what you’re going to buy everyone on your shopping list. Fortunately, we have plenty of great ideas for the movie buff or TV fan in your life with some of our favorite Blu-ray releases from the past year. Check out our suggestions below and click the cover art for easy-to-buy links to Amazon.
“DC Universe: 10th Anniversary Collection”
Marvel may have DC Comics beat on the live-action side of things, but DC’s animated film division has found great success over the past decade by adapting some of their most popular comic book storylines, culminating in this limited edition set, which includes every DC Universe movie from 2007’s “Superman: Doomsday” to 2017’s “Batman and Harley.” The box set features all 30 films packaged in a sturdy, hardbound book filled with cool artwork, as well as an additional disc with over two hours of new bonus material, an adult coloring book and three collectible coins with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Though the movies themselves are pretty hit-and-miss depending on your taste (certain characters are represented far better than others), there’s enough quality here to make even the most casual DC Comics fan happy. It’s just a shame that Warner Bros. didn’t feel the need to include digital copies, because that would have made the $300 price tag a lot easier to swallow.
Blending stylistic elements of “Heat,” “Drive” and “La La Land” into a cinematic milkshake that goes down smooth, “Baby Driver” is Edgar Wright’s most ambitious film yet – a music-driven, adrenaline-pumping ballet of sight and sound that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. In addition to an excellent soundtrack, the movie also boasts great performances from Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx and some of the most exhilarating car chases in recent memory. Wright’s films have never been short on style, but it’s usually there for a purpose, enriching each scene in some way. Though there’s definitely more style to “Baby Driver” than substance, the movie rises above its shortcomings to deliver a truly unique moviegoing experience that proves yet again why Wright is one of the best filmmakers working today.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
Director James Gunn was no doubt under an immense amount of pressure to deliver a worthy follow-up to 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but you wouldn’t know it from the self-assured confidence that “Vol. 2” exudes. Although the sequel isn’t as fresh as its predecessor, it’s almost as much as fun, and that’s to the credit of Gunn and his talented cast, who have once again delivered an offbeat, action-packed space opera that doesn’t skimp on humor or heart. It doesn’t hurt that the film also happens to boast two of my favorite Marvel set pieces to date, including the playful opening sequence set to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws, but while “Vol. 2” lacks the surprise factor of the first film, the real delight is just getting to spend time with this memorable group of characters again.
“Kong: Skull Island”
Combining blockbuster filmmaking with a B-movie mentality, “Kong: Skull Island” is a visually stunning adventure film that boasts great special effects, exciting set pieces and lots of humor. The story is as ridiculous as you’d expect for a movie about giant monsters, but credit to director Jordan Vogt-Roberts for assembling such an impressive cast. It’s a murderers’ row of talent, and while there are so many characters to juggle that no one is really developed beyond their respective archetypes, everyone gets their moment to shine. That includes Kong himself, who not only looks amazing but is prominently featured throughout, unlike Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla.” Though the film is far from perfect, “Kong: Skull Island” is pure fun from start to finish, proving that when it comes to cinematic monsters, Kong is still king.
DC’s troubled cinematic universe has had its share of growing pains over the past couple years, but “Wonder Woman” is a big step in the right direction. Filled with the kind of humor and sincerity that those films were criticized for lacking, Patty Jenkins’ superhero origin story is an absolute treat. There’s an overall lightness to the movie, both visually and tonally, that harkens back to Richard Donner’s “Superman” and takes a page from the Marvel cinematic playbook as well. But while “Wonder Woman” shares some similarities with “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the film does more than enough to stand on its own, thanks largely to Gal Gadot’s charismatic performance as the title character. Though it’s certainly not perfect, “Wonder Woman” is the kick-ass superhero movie that DC fans have been awaiting for a long time.
“John Wick: Chapter 2”
The first “John Wick” was a pleasant surprise that seemed to come out of nowhere in late 2014, simultaneously reviving the B-movie action flick and Keanu Reeves’ faltering career. Though the film was flawed, it knew exactly what it wanted to be and made no apologies for it, and that’s an attitude that its sequel proudly embraces again. The setup is admittedly a bit ridiculous, but none of that really matters, because Derek Kolstad’s script is merely a means to the stylish, high-energy action sequences that dominate the movie. While the villains are pretty one-note and the reunion between Reeves and “Matrix” co-star Laurence Fishburne is disappointing, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is the rare sequel that’s bigger and better as well – an action movie with a sense of humor that proves the would-be franchise has legs.
“The Fate of the Furious”
Any franchise that’s eight films deep is bound to start feeling a little stale, but while there’s certainly a sense of exhaustion surrounding “The Fate of the Furious,” it gets by on the charm of its diverse cast, particularly Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, whose love-hate bromance is the highlight of the movie. It’s also fun to watch Vin Diesel break bad for once, giving him new shades to play after seven films of relative stability in the lead role, while Charlize Theron makes for an imposing villain. Where the movie falls short is in the action department, which features a couple great set pieces but no real standouts like in past films. Although “The Fate of the Furious” is far from the series’ best, it’s still a mostly entertaining installment that delivers just about everything you could want in a “Fast and Furious” movie.
“Illumination Presents: 3-Movie Collection”
Illumination Entertainment has made some decent movies over the past eight years, but the “Despicable Me” series is far and away its best work. The ongoing franchise is the jewel of Universal’s animation arm, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the studio has repackaged all three films together in a convenient box set for the holidays. If you already own the first two installments, you’d be better off picking up “Despicable Me 3” on its own, as the discs are exactly the same across the board, but for those that have yet to invest in physical copies or need to replace them due to overuse and/or destructive children, then this six-disc set (which includes copies of the movies on Blu-ray, DVD and digital) is a great gift for the Minions-obsessed family on your list… even if the 2015 “Minions” spinoff film is suspiciously missing here.
“Narcos: Season Two”
There are so many new shows released on Netflix every month that it’s impossible to watch them all, but “Narcos” is among the cream of the crop. It’s not only one of the best dramas on the streaming service – it’s one of the best dramas on television, period. In addition to the top-notch writing and high production values, “Narcos” boasts several great performances from its ensemble cast. Wagner Moura remains the show’s prized asset, delivering a multi-layered, chameleon-like turn as Pablo Escobar that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, while Pedro Pascal is also really good as the DEA agent hot on Escobar’s trail. Pascal gets a lot more to do in Season Two, and “Narcos” is all the better for it. Though the pacing suffers a bit from the story’s shortened timeline (months versus the years covered in the first season), it’s nonetheless a fitting end to Escobar’s reign that skillfully plants the seeds for the series’ continuation.
“Big Little Lies”
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, “Big Little Lies” is arguably director Jean-Marc Vallée’s best work to date; it plays to his strengths both as a raw character study and a visually lyrical melodrama, and it also happens to boast an amazing ensemble cast. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley deliver award-worthy performances as the three leads, while Laura Dern and Adam Scott turn in some good supporting work as well. Though it’s a murder mystery at its core, “Big Little Lies” takes its time over the course of its seven-episode run to really flesh out the characters, setting up a number of conflicts that eventually come to a boil in the end. By the final episode, there are so many different misdirects as to who the victim and killer might be that even though the conclusion is predictable, it’s still incredibly satisfying.
“Westworld: Season One”
HBO’s “Westworld” is a really cool premise in search of a great show. Though it has some talented people working behind the scenes, including executive producers Jonathan Nolan and J.J. Abrams, the first season of the sci-fi drama is wildly uneven. So much energy is spent trying to hide the major revelations at the center of its mystery box plot that it comes up short in other areas. Not everything works as a result, but to completely discount “Westworld” as a failure would be to rob yourself of its delights (violent and otherwise), particularly the storyline involving Thandie Newton’s self-aware robot. Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood are also good in their respective roles, while Anthony Hopkins chews scenery like no one else can. That’s not to say that “Westworld” doesn’t have its problems, because Season One is littered with them, but while it may never replace “Game of Thrones” as HBO’s flagship program, it’s still a fairly entertaining genre show that has the potential to be even better once it figures out the right balance of philosophy and spectacle.
“The Walking Dead: The Complete Seventh Season”
“The Walking Dead” has come under heavy criticism over the past few years, especially in the wake of the contentious Season Six finale, but it’s been mostly warranted. Instead of addressing those issues, however, the show only digs its hole deeper at the start of the incredibly bleak seventh season, which opens with the deaths of two fan favorites and continues with Rick and Co. being kicked around by new villain Negan at every turn. Though Jeffrey Dean Morgan keeps things interesting as the foul-mouthed leader of the Saviors – he manages to make an evil asshole like Negan somewhat charming – “The Walking Dead” eventually clicks into high gear during the final eight episodes when the people of Alexandria strike back. It’s a pretty mixed season as a result, but the terrific ensemble cast makes it worth trudging through the lows in order to enjoy the highs.
“The Young Pope”
At a time when peak television has delivered some truly original series, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Young Pope” stands above most of them with its unique look behind closed doors at the Vatican. A beautifully shot and well-written satire that expertly blends dark comedy with drama and political intrigue, the HBO limited series is highlighted by a standout leading performance from Jude Law. Though Diane Keaton and James Cromwell also deliver good work in limited roles, the real surprise is Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who’s so compelling as the duplicitous Cardinal Voiello that he deserves a show of his own. Like most of Sorrentino’s work, “The Young Pope” has a tendency to be a bit pretentious and overly meditative at times, but it’s a largely impressive piece of storytelling that demonstrates what can be achieved on TV when an auteur like Sorrentino is given the freedom to execute his singular vision.