Updated: Jul 1, 2018
THE LIST of movies and TV shows is the very best in 4K viewing from disc and streaming. The criteria required the original source to be mastered in 4K and nothing less. No upconversion from 2K to 4K on this list.
No. 1 - “PLANET EARTH II”
4K Ultra HD, 2016-17, Not Rated
Film crews spanned the globe for three years – 40 countries and 177 film trips –
weathering the craziest conditions to capture the “sheer grandeur and splendor” of nature using the latest and greatest 4K cameras. “The technology brings us much closer to the animals,” the 90-year-old narrator British naturalist Sir David Attenborough says. At one point, a miniature “lipstick” camera was attached to a golden eagle soaring in the European Alps to capture footage as never seen before.
Aerial photography, mostly from drones, is extraordinary providing a panoramic view of landscapes reminiscent of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Spectacular time-lapse photography of a lightning storm in a Southwest desert becomes an introduction to a herd of wild American mustangs battling for mating rights.
“Planet Earth II” celebrates life and all of its challenges, while serving as a cautionary tale of how fragile our planet has become. It’s a masterful piece of work, making it required viewing for the whole family.
No. 2 - “DUNKIRK”
4K Ultra HD, 2017, PG-13 for intense war imagery and some profanity
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’s outstanding World War II film “Dunkirk” is a visual
stunner. “It demanded an enormous canvas,” Nolan says in the 16-part making-of documentary included in the 4K set. He envisioned IMAX (18K resolution) would handle 70-percent of the footage, with the rest on 65mm, substantially larger than standard 35mm. The aspect ratio bounced between a slight widescreen shape for IMAX scenes (1.78:1) and super-wide screen (2.20:1 aspect ratio) for the 65mm footage.
Every single footprint on the Dunkirk beach is reproduced, even in wide shots, as are the silhouettes of thousands of soldiers. These breathtaking images and others are as clear as if seen through a picture window. The aerial battles between Spitfires and Luftwaffe planes are spectacular – a ballet in the sky.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) toning is balanced, providing deep blacks and brilliant whites for striking contrast levels. Color is natural and rich from landscapes to the all-important, realistic skin tones.
No. 3 - “E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL: 35TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, 1982; PG for mild profanity and mild thematic elements
UNIVERSAL scanned the original 35mm camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
and the sharpness level has never been this pronounced; we can see every single fiber of 10-year-old Elliott’s (Henry Thomas) classic waffle-knit long johns while pretending to be sick in bed. Clarity in darker scenes – especially during the first act when E.T. is left behind in the forest with government agents chasing, and his first encounter with Elliott in the backyard, are noticeable.
The expansive HDR contrast levels really open up the shadows keeping the blacks from blocking up, giving Spielberg and the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Allen Daviau a fresh new look. Plus, the film grain is completely intact. Thank goodness there are no signs of digital noise reduction. And, the composite special effects moments, like when Elliott and ET ride across the moon, hold up nicely.
The wider color gamut boosts the colors into a much richer and natural toning as shown during the Halloween sequence, with its beautiful warm glow and Elliott’s red hoodie.
No. 4 - “LOGAN”
4K Ultra HD; 2017, R for strong brutal violence and profanity throughout, and for brief nudity
REIMAGINING THE gritty, character-driven “Logan” into a black-and-white
film noir presentation for 4K was more organic than preconceived, director James Mangold says in his commentary track.
Mangold and cinematographer John Mathieson (“Gladiator,” “X-Men: First Class”) used strong side and backlighting which helped Hugh Jackman’s Logan a.k.a. saber-clawed Wolverine transition into quality noir visuals.
Captured on 3.2K digital cameras (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and, most importantly, mastered in 4K. Mangold and his colorist handled the B&W 4K/HDR toning with the utmost care, ensuring each frame and scene replicated a striking and balanced gray-scale ranging from deep blacks to upfront mid-tones to brilliant highlights. Scenes became more dramatic in the hard edge contrast that “carves the actors out from the background,” Mangold says.
No. 5 - “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND: 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, 1977, PG for profanity and mild thematic elements
FROM THE opening frames, we know we’re in for an extraordinary 4K viewing
experience. Sharpness and clarity are fully cinematic as a group of scientists led by Claude Lacombe, played by French director Françios Truffant, arrive at a Mexican outpost in the Sonoran Desert.
The original 35mm camera negative (2.40:1 aspect ratio) extracts the finest detail missing from previous editions. Film grain is precise and natural and the smallest of details are now visible: zippers on jackets, the grill pattern on an approaching vehicle, imperfect teeth, and moles on actor’s faces.
Surprisingly, the HDR toning gives the imagery an overall brighter appearance resulting in a snappier pop from shadows to highlights. The color gamut is also richer – especially when three-year-old Barry (Cary Guffey) opens the front door and brilliant orange light from the alien craft penetrates the house.
No. 6 - “ALLIED”
4K Ultra HD, 2016, R for violence, some sexuality/nudity, profanity and brief drug use
OSCAR-WINNING director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the
Future”) used Hollywood’s newest, top-of-the-line Red Dragon 6K and 8K digital cameras/sensors framed at (2.40:1 aspect ratio) filmed by longtime collaborator and cinematographer Don Burgess (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away”) for his romantic WWII thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Resolution is so life-like it makes “Allied” one of the top three viewing experiences from a digital camera. Colors and contrast levels are superb with its expansive HDR and color gamut toning.
Despite its “Casablanca” roots, “Allied” is not a Hollywood classic – not even within Zemeckis’ canon of work. But its remarkable picture and always twisting storyline will keep mature moviegoers entertained for an evening.
No. 7 – “THE DARK KNIGHT”
4k Ultra HD, 2008, PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace
NOLAN’S VISION was simple: just make the next "Batman" bigger and better.
His mission was accomplished using the immersive IMAX cameras for six action sequences and all aerial photography over Chicago and Hong Kong for the 18K treatment. Just like “Dunkirk” the aspect ratio changes from moment to moment (1.87:1 to 2.40:1).
The HDR toning produces the deepest blacks you’ll ever see while preserving the shadow detail painted by cinematographer Wally Pfister. And, the color palette is rich and warm during Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) penthouse gala for Harvey Dent.
Intense. Powerful. Disturbing. This Batman sequel is clearly a masterpiece – especially with Heath Ledger's haunting archvillain role as The Joker. Moviegoers were enthralled with Ledger's Oscar-worthy performance.
No. 8 - “A FEW GOOD MEN: 25th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”
4K Ultra HD, 1992, R for language
SONY’S NEW 4K master gives this anniversary edition an astonishing level of
clarity – from close-ups to wide shots (2.39:1 aspect ratio) from Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson.
The film grain is natural and controlled as the camera follows actors Tom Cruise and Kevin Pollack along a colorful tree-line neighborhood in Georgetown, before heading to Guantanamo Naval Air Station in Cuba to investigate a killing of a U.S. Marine. You can pick out every single gold and red leaf on the sidewalk and on the trees, while the close-ups reveal moles, freckles, and skin imperfections.
The HDR toning produces inky blacks and richer colors, far superior to previous editions. You won’t be disappointed with this 4K upgrade.
No. 9 - “PEANUTS: HOLIDAY COLLECTION”
4K Ultra HD, 1965, 1966, 1973, Not Rated, for everyone
The “Peanuts’” specials get their biggest boost in 4K clarity with the wide shots.
For example, when Linus takes the stage to recite the true meaning of Christmas, viewers can still pick out his mouth, eyes and his favorite blanket in hand from the distant viewpoint of the back of the school auditorium. During “Great Pumpkin,” added resolution is evident when Sally joins Linus in a huge pumpkin patch of orange, contrasted against a nighttime sky of dark blue, grays and purple with wavy clouds and stars.
Each 4K frame is available in its old-school square shaped (1.37:1 aspect ratio) matching its original broadcast or reformatted in widescreen (1.78:1) with some cropping on the top and bottom to fill horizontal 4K sets. I watched the classic format, to make sure I viewed the frame from corner to corner, catching every brush stroke and line drawn by the artists. These specials were all hand-drawn.
The HDR contrast and color toning provide
a noticeable uptick in color and brightness, and black levels for each special. The “Thanksgiving” show, the tenth in the series, gets the snappiest picture. Woodstock, Snoopy’s little bird friend, pops in yellow.
No. 10 – “STRANGER THINGS: SEASON ONE”
4K Ultra HD, 2016, TV-14
ONE OF TV’s hottest the Netflix original series “Stranger Things,” has been
streaming in 4K with HDR since its launch. “Season One” recently premiered on 4K Ultra HD discs (sold exclusively at Target and housed in a vintage VHS sized case), but was strangely missing the expansive HDR toning.
Was it an oversight from Netflix, rushing the homage to sci-fi thrillers of the 1980s onto the shelves during the holiday shopping season? Or was it a calculated decision to keep fans connected to their Netflix subscription.
Still, the sharpness is flawless, captured on 6K and 8K Redcode RAW cameras and mastered in 4K, plus framed in the Netflix trademark aspect ratio of 2.00:1. The lack of HDR on the discs is not a deal breaker, it still features bold and bright colors, but hopefully “Season Two” will get the bonus treatment for disc lovers.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Interstellar,” “Jumanji: 20th Anniversary Edition,” “Léon: The Professional,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Blade Runner,” “Passengers,” “Apollo 13,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Spider-Man Limited Edition Collection”
- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch, producer