Top Ten: 4K Ultra HD’s of 2019

Updated: Mar 31


TRUE 4K MASTERING / HDR FRAME SHOTS



THE LIST of movies is the very best in 4K viewing from disc or streaming. The criteria required the original source to be mastered in 4K and nothing less. 


No upconversion from 2K to 4K on this list.


"See how they break both ways? One guy can break right, one left, simultaneous. What do you think of that? asks surfing fanatic Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). "We ought to wait for the tide to come up," says California native and pro surfer Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms).


(Click on an image to scroll through the larger versions)




NO. 1 - “APOCALYPSE NOW: FINAL CUT – 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 1979; R for violence, grisly images, profanity, some drug use, and nudity; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”

documentary









THE SQUAD of U.S. helicopters attacking a Vietnamese village is still considered Francis Ford Coppola’s (“The Godfather”) defining cinematic moment. For its 40th anniversary, he supervised a complete 4K state-of-art restoration of “Apocalypse Now," from the original camera negative and audio elements.


Lionsgate packages the latest “Final Cut” together with the “Original” and the “Redux,” all sourced from the new 4K master (2.35:1 aspect ratio) onto two 4K Ultra HD discs. The clarity is amazing. Natural film grain is much more pronounced as it should be, while HDR toning paints a darker and more striking canvas beyond previous incarnations. I’m keeping Coppola’s “Original Edit” on repeat mode for reference 4K display viewing at my home theater. 


“Apocalypse Now” was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Director for Coppola. It won for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, which is given a real shot in the arm with a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Bullets and flairs zip around the room; deeper subwoofer vibrations arrive as distant B-52 bombers drop their payload onto the Vietnam landscape. An expansive soundstage heralds the opening as a series of helicopter blades whip overhead and around the room, while Jim Morrison sings, "This is the End," as palm trees explode under napalm attacks.


Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer



ORIGINAL REVIEW




Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall star as Jack and Wendy Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Stephen King's bestseller, "The Shining" - now in reference quality 4K Ultra HD. 





NO. 2 - “THE SHINING”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 1980; R for frightening and intense scenes, violence and gore, profanity, nudity, alcohol, and smoking; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: “Making ‘The Shining,’” a no-holds-barred look behind the

scenes











THE NEW 4K Ultra HD is a total winner. “The Shining” has never looked better or scarier. The film was shot on 35mm film with Arriflex cameras. Various aspect ratios were made to suit different theaters, but it arrives on disc and digital at 1.78:1. The original negative was used by Warner Brothers to make a true 4K scan with HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision.


This creates a more nuanced look with natural color from complexions to long-range shots seen in earlier scenes as when the family drives over the mountains to the Overlook Hotel. There’s outstanding transformation in Jack Nicholson as he devolves from his healthy-looking Jack Torrence to the pale ghoul he becomes. Detail and texturing are impeccable, with perfect contrast throughout. Dark scenes are solid yet reveal excellent background detail; highlights, again, look authentic without bursting into bright white. A fine wash of cinematic film grain covers all, adding to the viewing experience rather than detracting. “The Shining” looks great on small and large 4K enabled home screens.


Kay Reynolds




ORIGINAL REVIEW




George Bailey (James Stewart) begs for his life and discovers his lip is bleeding and police officer Bert (Ward Bond) recognizes him as George Bailey, owner of the Bailey Building and Loan Association.






NO. 3- “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 1946; unrated; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: Restoring a Beloved Classic













FINALLY, Frank Capa's ageless Christmas tale premieres on 4K disc and surprisingly it's leaps and bounds more refined and detailed compared to the 4K digital versions that premiered on digital platforms in 2018. The larger your screen is the greater the difference. The film grain is more evident from top to bottom and across each of the frames scanned with a new special 4K scanner at Technicolor's post-production house in Los Angeles. The digital versions featured on Apple TV, FandangoNOW, Google Play, and Vudu seem to be missing the full HDR spectrum found on the 4K disc version. The digital is less dynamic - a flatter grayscale, plus missing the smallest of detail in the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights. I was shocked by how much better this new version looks.


“It’s a privilege and honor to take care of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a huge burden to make sure we do it well,” says Andrea Kalas, senior vice president of Archives at Paramount Pictures during the featurette “Restoring a Beloved Classic.”


During their latest inspection of the negative, Kalas and Laura Thornburg, Exec. Director of Film Preservation at Paramount discovered the film was showing signs of deterioration. They felt the time was right for a complete 4K restoration using the latest digital advancements.


BK III



ORIGINAL REVIEW




Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) reunite at a playground in Grand Basin, U.S.A.





NO. 4 - “TOY STORY 4”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 2019; G for everyone; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: Commentary with director Josh Cooley and producer Mark Nielsen












THE OPENING FRAMES of “Toy Story 4” are radically different from its predecessors. You might not have noticed at the multiplex when Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang first appeared, but this is the first Disney/Pixar animation out of 21 feature-length films to be rendered and mastered in the higher 4K resolution. Boy, can you see that difference!

Photorealistic visuals, clarity and brilliant, natural colors look better than any previous computer-animated film.


The opening scene unfolds during a thunderstorm at night in front of a suburban two-story brick home where Andy and his toys live. Thousands of raindrops are falling, showing impeccable detail as they hit the pavement, grass and windows. From corner to corner, the film’s superior resolution reveals the smallest and most complex elements. This fourth installment is also delivered in the super widescreen aspect ratio 2.39:1, another first in the Toy Story franchise. The others were framed in 1.85:1 minimal widescreen aspect ratio.


The multifaceted imagery of “Toy Story 4,” was processed with the new RIS RenderMan. Even then, processing time ran at a snail’s pace ranging from 60 to 160 hours per frame, according to producer Jonas Rivera. The thunderstorm scene averaged between 11 to 13 layers. “Toy Story 4” has an approximate 133,920 frames depending on how many were used for the end credits. Pixar uses its own “Rendering Farm” at an undisclosed California location. It has an endless bank of computers to handle the 13 million-plus hours needed to make this film come alive.


BK III



ORIGINAL REVIEW






Black Hawk Super Six-Four is overrun by Aidid’s forces and Mogadishu residences.






NO. 5 - “BLACK HAWK DOWN”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 2001; R for intense, realistic, graphic war violence, and for profanity; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: PBS Frontline documentary “Ambush in Mogadishu”











Sony knows how to do it right.


This 4K Ultra HD presentation (2.39:1 aspect ratio), which includes the Theatrical and Extended Versions, are both a knockout. Sourced from a new 4K master scanned from the Super 35 camera negative (Director Ridley Scott supervised), the imagery has a powerful three-dimensional appearance. It highlights Scott’s hyper-contrast and color palette of orange/green and deep blues. Black levels are some of the deepest and darkest you’ll see on 4K, a product of the expansive HDR10 & Dolby Vision toning.


Natural film grain prevails – especially during the opening sequence introducing the horrific humanitarian crisis facing the people of Somalia. Scott purposely jacked up the grain during the chemical film process for the beginning, then toned it back down to normal range for the rest of the film creating a balanced, cinematic look.


Overall sharpness is superb, as wide shots uncover an extra level of clarity – not evident on the Blu-ray – as an American helicopter hovers over hundreds of Somalis, while another camera tracks a warlord’s jeep, with a clan member stationed behind the machine gun.


The new eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack is earth-shattering as helicopters and rocket-propelled grenades whiz overhead from height speakers. Scott collaborates again with composer Hans Zimmer (“Gladiator” “Hannibal”) for a score full of acoustical and electronic elements blended with North African and Middle Eastern themes and instruments.


BK III





ORIGINAL REVIEW





The Terror. The Violence. The Alien.







NO. 6 - “ALIEN: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 1979; R for sci-fi violence/gore and language; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: “The Beast Within” (exclusively on iTunes & Movies Anywhere)










FOX USED the original camera negative for this 40th Anniversary presentation, rescanning each frame (2.40:1 aspect ratio) at 4K, even though it received a 4K scan in 2009.


This time director Ridley Scott and Fox Technical Services VP Pam Derby supervised the remastering and HDR toning, which is evident by the improved color palette’s cool, bluish tone. Who knows what the original looked like? I didn’t see it in the theaters in 1979, but Scott is known for readjusting his color palette. “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” coming out on 4K in a couple of weeks, are both on the warm side. For the recent “All the Money in the World” (2017), Scott dialed it toward the cool side.


The results from Scott and Derby are dramatic and powerful. The overall HDR contrast toning is darker, with deeper blacks in scenes filmed with stark lighting. Ultra 4K sharpness marks a major leap in clarity, revealing the natural film grain throughout. The cinematic look dominates throughout.


Sorry – there’s no Dolby Atmos upgrade, but the six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack is still extremely potent, delivering a deep bass response and potent sci-fi sound effects bouncing around the room from front to back. It’s surprising those effects weren’t nominated for an Oscar. The same for Jerry Goldsmith’s creepy score, one of his best, with skittering strings and esoteric electronic elements. Without the Goldsmith score and the effects, this sci-fi classic might not have become the masterwork it is.


BK III



ORIGINAL REVIEW




The March sisters read a letter from their father who's off fighting in the Civil War as a Union officer.



4K frame shots courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment


NO. 7 - “LITTLE WOMEN”


4K Ultra HD; 1994; PG for two uses of mild language; (Streaming only)


Best extra: Commentary with director Gillian Armstrong





THIS HOLIDAY season Louise May Alcott's “Little Women” has been adapted again. The classic story is set in Concord, Mass., in 1862, and times are hard. The March family is on its own since their father has gone off to war.


Writer-director Greta Gerwig ("Lady Bird") assembled a stellar cast to play the March sisters. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as headstrong Jo, Emma Watson as older sister Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. Timothée Chalamet as their neighbor Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.


Critics have loved it, and many are crowning it one of the top 10 movies of 2019. Sony Pictures is hopeful that it will receive a good number of Oscar nominations next month, even though the box office returns have been slightly below expectations.


Sony celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Gillian Armstrong's (1994) adaptation of Little Women," with a striking 4K presentation exclusively on digital platforms. We're keeping our fingers crossed the physical 4K disc will get a second chance when Gerwig's film makes its way onto home viewing this coming spring.


The 4K presentation was sourced from the original camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio), as Sony extracted a balanced level of natural film grain and exceptional clarity. The color palette is warm and rich, while the blacks are deep and detailed from the HDR10 and Dolby Vision toning.


The March sisters include Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as younger Amy and Samantha Mathis as older Amy, Claire Danes as Beth, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Christian Bale as Laurie and Gabriel Byrne as the German professor.


On her commentary, Armstrong recounts that she received a copy of the novel for her 11th birthday and the movie at first was considered "an underdog and a little girls film"... for moms and children at Christmas - that's until studio executives Mark Canton and Sid Ganis got a screening. "They cried and actually hugged each other," says Armstrong. "Maybe they were deeply moved by the film, or they thought 'My God' we're going to make money."


BK III








Dorothy and the Scarecrow oil up his joints and the Tin Man performs the delightful “If I Only Had a Heart.”






NO. 8 - “THE WIZARD OF OZ: 80th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 1939; PG for some scary moments; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: "Making of a Movie Classic"












THIS AMERICAN masterpiece has been meticulously restored again by the folks at Warner Brothers, with the help of MPI colorist Janet Wilson. She has supervised color correction on three previous “Oz” restorations over the past 20 years. In this version, Warner pushed the scanning process to a new 8K-16 bit scan of the original three-strip Technicolor negatives (red, blue and green). The three combined digital files for each frame (1.37:1 aspect ratio) create the richest color palette ever seen on screen. Nothing compares – especially with the application of the HDR toning.


Emerald City greens leap off the screen as Wilson dials up for expansive HDR toning. Three different HDR formats are available depending on what type of 4K display device is used from flat panel to projectors using the industry-standard HDR10, to the more expressive and dynamic Dolby Vision and HDR10+, the competing format available on various 4K TV brands.


Reds, greens and blues, the base of the Technicolor process, are extremely rich. Black and white scenes at the beginning and Dorothy’s return home are sepia-toned like previous editions. The overall grading is slightly darker than the HD versions; highlights are much brighter yet still controlled, with bright spots, while the shadows are deeper without losing detail.


BK III



ORIGINAL REVIEW






Robert Redford stars as "middle-aged rookie" Roy Hobbs, a hard-hitting right fielder for the New York Knights.






NO. 9 - “THE NATURAL: 35TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1984; PG for language; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: The Heart of “The Natural”











SONY PICTURES HITS this cinematic sports classic out of the ballpark with its 35th-anniversary package of “The Natural.”


It features a new 4K master, scanned from the original camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio), with rich and painterly visuals from director Barry Levinson (“The Diner,” “Rain Man”) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Right Stuff,” “The Patriot”). Sony also upgraded the audio with a multi-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which perfectly highlights Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated score that, at times, resembles an Aaron Copland composition.

The HDR toning and expanded color palette is full of warm and golden tones, which dominate Levinson and Deschanel’s photography. Many of the finer moments were captured during “magic hour,” shortly after sunrise and before sunset, as Hobbs strikes out “The Whammer,” (Joe Don Baker) based on Babe Ruth, at a 1920s carnival set up along a railroad stop. Glenn Close notes that many days the production fell behind schedule while Deschanel spent hours setting up his perfect shots.


Surprisingly, the 8-channel Atmos track, sourced from the original 6-channel mix to the height speakers, were more active than expected. Effects and music cues elevate the soundstage.


BK III



ORIGINAL REVIEW





Newcomer Himesh Patel plays singer/songwriter Jack Malik, whose career takes off after a global blackout. He performs a punk rock version of “Help!”

in front of 6,000 fans for his album release party.






NO. 10 - “YESTERDAY”


4K Ultra HD, Digital copy; 2019; PG-13 for suggestive content and profanity; (Disc & Streaming)


Best extra: Commentary with director Danny Boyle and producer/screenwriter Richard Curtis












THIS 4K movie is a rarity within the format, but possibly a wave of the future. Boyle and cinematographer Christopher Ross captured “Yesterday” on 8K Redcode RAW cameras (2.39:1 aspect ratio) and then mastered it in 4K. The results are stunning with impeccable sharpness and clarity – especially during wide-angle shots at London’s Wembley Stadium and from the rooftop of the Pier Hotel, where Jack sings a punk rock version of The Beatles’ “Help!”


HDR toning with the standard HDR10 and HDR10+ is slightly less saturated than the HD version, which appears over-bright at times. Facial toning is natural without any excess red or orange tint, while the highlights are controlled on 4K (disc & digital), without blown-out highlights. Darker scenes are dark and bold without losing detail. Outdoor scenes really punch on-screen during the final act.


The 4K features an active and punchy eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, while the digital platforms offer the lesser and compressed Dolby Digital six-channel track. Deep bass arrives at the right moments, while environmental sounds pushed to height speakers during concert scenes adding a nice, atmospheric touch. Dialogue is well-balanced, and never gets lost within all of the music.


BK III



ORIGINAL REVIEW






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