E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

It’s a new year, and we have plenty of new entertainments ahead of us. But we can’t move forward until we know what we’re leaving behind, so here’s a look at the finest DVD and Blu-ray releases of 2012. And remember: If you’ve never seen it, it’s new to you!

Label of the Year: Universal Studios Home Entertainment marked its centenary by digging deep into its catalogue, bringing dozens of titles to Blu-ray for the first time. We got a fine boxed set of the classic monster movies, a comprehensive Alfred Hitchcock collection and excellent special editions of All Quiet on the Western Front, the Abbott and Costello comedy Buck Privates, Best Picture winners The Sting and The Deer Hunter and more. But the true essentials were Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which restored the director’s masterpieces to their original glory – and loaded them with extras.

Runners-Up: The Criterion Collection had another banner year, reissuing essential titles like the original Godzilla, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Hal Ashby’s Harold & Maude in outstanding special editions while taking the time to port over some of their finest standard-definition titles (Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) to glorious Blu-ray. And Warner Home Entertainment balanced terrific A-titles like Magic Mike and The Dark Knight Rises with splendid Ultimate Collector’s Edition releases of Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain, among others – even if they did start holding certain titles back from the Canadian market. Fine, we’ll just order that Blu-ray of Empire of the Sun from the States. But WaltDisney Studios Home Entertainment had a pretty good run, too, as you’ll see if you keep reading.

DVD Release of the Year: The lack of a theatrical run was disheartening, and the lack of a Blu-ray edition is even more so … but hey, at least The Kid with a Bikemade it out on DVD at all, huh? Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ tiny, perfect drama about an abandoned 11-year-old (Thomas Doret) befriended by a hairdresser (Cécile De France) proved too modest in stature to make a splash on the festival circuit, and wound up sliding directly to video, where it waits to be discovered by discerning viewers across the country. Criterion will be giving it a boost with a Blu-ray special edition next month … but due to rights issues, it won’t be available in Canada. Place your pre-orders at the U.S. retailer of your choice.

Runners-up: Documentaries frequently fail to get any high-def love from their distributors, so we’ll just have to hail their standard-definition editions. Both eOne’s The Invisible Warand Mongrel’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry made great docs even better with extensive supplemental sections and audio commentaries, allowing directors Kirby Dick and Alison Klayman (and their respective DVD producers) to expand upon their stories and their subjects, providing us with additional resources and points of reference.

Blu-ray of the Year: I hate to call a tie, but Disney delivered two standout titles this year in Marvel’s The Avengersand Brave, which started with reference-quality presentations of the movies and went well beyond the call of duty in the supplements, including terrific audio commentaries, hours of production featurettes and original programming: Brave included the delightful theatrical short La Luna and the brand-new The Legend of Mordu, while The Avengers threw in Item 47, a delightful Marvel One-Shot featuring actual actors Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Bradford. And they were available in 2D and 3D combo packs, in case you were worried about future-proofing.

Runners-Up: With its deluxe edition of Rosemary’s Baby, the Criterion Collection restored Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterwork to its rightful place in the canon of great psychological thrillers – and explored exactly why the film remains so potent and unsettling in a terrific supplemental section. If there was a better candidate for rediscovery this year, I didn’t see it. Also, since this section is supposed to be dealing with new releases, check out Sony’s excellent editions of Aardman Animation’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits and Arthur Christmas, which brought the studio’s latest stop-motion and CG features home with the same clarity and sparkle they had on the big screen. And Alliance Films’ Café de Floreoffered a top-tier video and audio presentation of Jean-Marc Vallée’s head-spinning Quebec drama – which, given the way the soundtrack is essential to the film’s emotional pacing, is more important than you might first think.

Catalogue Release of the Year: Much as I love Universal’s gorgeous BD of Jaws, I have to defer to my other favourite movie, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a glorious high-definition debut. Sony Pictures’ exhaustive 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia belongs on every film buff’s shelf, and whether you go for the two-disc set (which pairs the movie with some very nice extras) or the four-platter super-special edition (which adds another disc of supplements, a soundtrack CD, a coffee-table book and a 70mm frame from the film), you are bringing home an exceptional presentation of one of the very finest films ever made.

Runners-Up: As mentioned above, Jaws and E.T. were the crown jewels in Universal’s centenary celebration; Paramount marked its own 100th birthday with terrific  new discs of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and the splendid HD transfer of Raiders of the Lost Ark that anchored its Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures boxed set. Disney started digging deep into its Touchstone Pictures catalogue, with anniversary editions of Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunionamong the highlights. And Shout! Factory launched its Scream Factory banner, dedicated to celebrating beloved 1980s genre movies in elaborate special editions with sparkling HD transfers. The first batch of titles – including Halloween II and Halloween III: Season of the Witch and John Carpenter’s paranoid masterpiece They Live – got us off to an excellent start.

Best Omnibus Boxed Set: For fans of a certain spy franchise, Fox/MGM’s Bond 50 was a handsome, irresistible collection, containing comprehensive special editions of all 22 official 007 adventures from Dr. No to Quantum of Solace with a disc of exclusive supplements and a space for Skyfall. Given that half of the titles had never been on Blu-ray before, that was quite the package.

Runner-Up: Warner’s Harry Potter Wizard’s Collection boxed up eight feature films in a chest of drawers worthy of Hogwarts, tucking a total of 31 discs into its secret cabinets and hidden folders. If you already owned the Ultimate Collector’s Editions of the first six films and plan to buy the UCEs of Deathly Hallows when they’re released next year, there wasn’t much here that was actually new … but if you didn’t, well, this was a treasure trove.

TV DVD of the Year: There was a hell of a lot of great television released to disc this year – Fox’s Homeland: Season One and Louie: Season Two, Sony’s Justified: Season Two, Community: Season Three and Breaking Bad: Season Four – but for my money, the best package was a quarter-century old. Paramount’s high-definition rehabilitation of Star Trek: The Next Generation demonstrated that there life left in the stuffy old series yet, thanks to an intricate overhaul of the original material meant to bring it up to contemporary standards. The show was mastered in the age of 480i, not 1080p, forcing Paramount to reverse-engineer new high-def masters from the original production elements. The first two seasons suggest it was well worth the effort … and the Season Two set offers some serious supplements, including an extended edition of the show’s first classic episode, The Measure of a Man.

Runners-Up: BBC’s Sherlock: Season Twooffered crystal-clear transfers of all three feature-length episodes of the British cult smash – and the cast and crew commentary on Episode One, A Scandal in Belgravia, is almost as much of a constant delight as the episode itself. (There’s another one on Episode Two, The Hounds of Baskerville, but without Benedict Cumberbatch and Scandal guest star Lara Pulver, it lacks a certain something.) Shout! Factory’s excellent Steve Martin: The Television Stuff gathered five decades of conceptual comic brilliance – much of it never before available on disc – into one magnificent box. And the “Vote Knope” sticker inside Universal’s Parks and Recreation: Season Four was the icing on the cake, perfectly complementing the campaign-centric vibe of the season and fitting right in with the campaign ads included in the special features.

Best New Trend?: Time will tell if this is actually a trend or just a one-time lapse in studio control, but 20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray release of Margaret gave writer-director Kenneth Lonergan one last chance to redeem his problematic, much-litigated post-9/11 drama, which spent seven years in the editing room as Lonergan wrestled with fitting his sprawling, emotionally complex drama into his contractually mandated running time. The two-and-a-half-hour cut that played theatrically in 2011 for just one week was a compromise, but when Fox released it to Blu-ray last summer, Lonergan’s preferred version, running an additional 36 minutes and radically reshaping the material, was included as a bonus DVD under the guise of an “extended edition”. No, it’s not in high-def, and no, it’s still not the version Lonergan originally wanted to release. But after all this time, it’s as good as Margaret’s going to get – and the fact that we got it at all should give other filmmakers hope for pulling their own long-lost cuts of butchered films out of limbo.

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com.