Top Ten: 4K Ultra HD’s of 2020

Updated: Feb 13


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.



Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award as British officer T.E. Lawrence, who lead an Arab revolt against Turkey during World War I. Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) tries to convince Lawrence to not attack the retreating Turkish army.



(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)





NO. 1 - “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray Digital copy; 1962; PG for war violence; streaming via Amazon Video Prime (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play, Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube

Best extra: A pop-up picture graphic track, with hundreds of factoids and photographs (Blu-ray version only)








THOSE WHO have never seen David Lean’s dazzling “Lawrence of Arabia” – it won seven Oscars – are in for a great 4K experience. At nearly four hours, it has the best picture (clarity and HDR toning) an Ultra HD format has to offer.


The story, based on the extraordinary life of T.E. Lawrence, is treasured by moviegoers and filmmakers. The American Society of Cinematographers selected “Lawrence” as the greatest milestone in cinematography for the 20th Century. Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) came in at No. 2, and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) at No. 3.


The original, large-format 65mm negative (2.20:1 aspect ratio) from Lean and Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Young was scanned at 8K almost a decade ago, then downsized to 4K to process the digital workflow. The negative had plenty of issues; it was plagued with color fading, chemical stains, and normal wear and tear. To handle the enormous project, Sony split the workload between two digital labs – one in India and the other in Burbank, Calif. A year later, “Lawrence” was reassembled and samples were circulated to make sure the restoration looked just right.

The 4K master from 2012 was the basis for creating the new HDR version (HDR10 and Dolby Vision). Because of the added resolution extracted from the HDR toning, Sony was forced to do another round of restoration to fix minor and major flaws as noted in the 12-pages highlighting “Lawrence” within the 80-page coffee table book for the Columbia Classics 4K box set, which “Lawrence” was included.


To ensure the best picture possible, "Lawrence" is spread across two 4K discs, with a perfect break at the Intermission – the two hour and twenty-minute mark.


Originally, Sony hadn’t planned a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack sourced from the six-track stereo composite mix made during the last analog restoration in 1988. But, the studio used its own A.I. Sound Separation software to split out some of the components to provide a more encompassing and immersive soundstage.


Original Review






Fear and loathing: George MacKay as Lance Corporal Schofield.





NO. 2 - “1917”


4K Ultra HD, 2019, R for violence, some disturbing images, and language; Streaming Amazon Video Prime (4K), Apple TV (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)


Best extra: Commentary with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, who provides a play-by-play description of each shot








AFTER FINISHING “Spectre” the last Bond film, director Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “American Beauty”) started to search for something he had never done before. He read a number of scripts and “there was nothing that I wanted to do,” he says during the featurette “The Weight of the World: Sam Mendes.”


Eventually, his agent and producer Pippa Harris suggested he write his own script. Mendes made a fuss saying, “Oh, I don’t write.” But, he remembered the stories his grandfather would tell about the First World War. He realized, “That’s the story I want to tell.”


It quickly became Mendes’ passion project. “It’s a thing that he had in his mind for a number of years,” says Harris. He brought on co-writer Krysty-Wilson-Cairns, who was able to get the words “out of his head and onto the page.”


1917” is based on a fragment of his grandfather’s story, which received 10 Academy Award nominations including Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Picture.


Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) filmed the action in extremely long takes, with few edits, and creates the illusion of one continuous movement. The story follows two young British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), sent on a harrowing, high-stakes mission to reach 1,600 British forces before dawn with orders to call off a planned attack on the Germans.


Deakins who won his second Oscar used the 4.5K Arri Alexa Mini LF digital camera (2.39:1 aspect ratio) to capture the action, and the footage was mastered in 4K. Overall sharpness and clarity are excellent with facial detail and distance landmarks along the French countryside. The standard HDR10 provides spectacular results, while the more advanced Dolby Vision and HDR10+ extend the contrast levels - especially the scenes filmed in the dead of night and the underground bunkers.


The Oscar-winning sound mix won't disappoint pushed to the eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, putting you in the middle of the battlefield.







Former professional football player John David Washington plays the nameless CIA secret agent “The Protagonist.”




NO. 3 - “TENET”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2020; PG-13 for intense violence and action, some suggestive reference and brief strong language; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: “Looking at the World in a New Way: Making of Tenet” documentary





THIS YEAR, high expectations swirled around Nolan’s mine-bending British-American spy thriller “Tenet,” originally scheduled for a theatrical release July 17. But, because of COVID-19 it was delayed three times and finally got off the ground in late August.


The “Tenet” narrative is extremely complex involving a mission to save the world from World War III, and with this home 4K presentation, you’ll be able to view it over and over to unravel its puzzling storyline. The colors blue and red provide key elements to time travel as the characters move forwards and backwards via “time stile” machines, which inverts their entropy. The cast and crew used a variety of techniques including a lot of in-camera photography running both forwards and backwards, actors performing backwards, or cars driven backwards. “It’s literally a project that can only exist because the movie camera exists,” says Nolan. Visual effects were used sparingly for final touchups as needed.


All of the action sequences were filmed on IMAX’s larger-than-life 70mm film, which the filmmaker has used since “The Dark Knight” (2008). The individual frames are nearly 10 times larger than the standard 35mm and equal around 18K in digital resolution. The remaining footage was captured on 65mm. “Tenet” is his first film that doesn’t incorporate 35mm footage.


No matter your 4K setup, a 55-inch or a 12-feet screen across a dedicated theater room, this presentation of “Tenet” is one of the finest visual experiences ever created for home viewing. The original 70mm IMAX footage and the original 65mm footage was more likely scanned at 6K or higher, but mastered in 4K.


The HDR10 toning has deep-deep black levels, while the highlights are never in question or overblown. The expanded color spectrum provides some of the bluest waters you’ve ever seen as The Protagonist drives a speedboat with Kat Sator onboard toward her husband’s 75-meter yacht anchored off the Italian village of Ravello. The nighttime scenes are bathed in warm tones, while the IMAX footage leans toward a warmer tonal balance.


Original Review






The beaches of Amity Island are terrorized by a 24-foot great white shark.




NO. 4 - “JAWS: 45th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and Digital copy; 1975; PG for violence, profanity, and brief nudity; streaming via Amazon Video Prime (4K), Apple TV (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere( 4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: A two-hour documentary, "The Shark is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of 'Jaws,'" narrated by Roy Scheider






LETS CUT to the chase; the new 4K Ultra HD disc of “Jaws” looks spectacular, with perfect film grain, expanded contrast levels, and a much wider color palette.

The 4K master was actually created nearly a decade ago, during Universal Studios’ 100th-anniversary restoration project in 2012. At that time, the negative (2.35:1 aspect ratio) was given a liquid bath before it was scanned to create a new 4K restoration.

Steven Spielberg’s first masterpiece was dipped into a special brew to erase scratches. The solution minimized visual damage – which was extensive in sections – as each frame was immersed, then digitally captured while still wet. “The negative was in pretty crummy condition,” Spielberg says in the featurette carried over from the restoration project.

After the scan, a digital colorist wizard examined every frame, taking up to three-to-four hours on each one, removing blemishes to reconstruct the picture, then adjusting color, brightness, and contrast. Back in 2012, Spielberg said, “The image on a really good HDTV looks better than the film looked when first projected in 1975.” Imagine how much better it looks on a 4K setup with HDR.

The second round of restoration used on this new presentation produced three HDR gradings, a standard HDR10, the more advanced Dolby Vision, and an HDR10+. Overall contrast levels are far more dynamic with deeper blacks and controlled highlights – seen when the first victim goes for a swim in the opening sequence.


There’s a new Dolby Atmos eight-channel up-mix soundtrack created from the original analogue mono track. This forced sound engineers to insert new background and sound effects, giving the Oscar-winning soundtrack a more active soundstage, moving elements from left to right, front to back, and from ceiling to the floor.

John Williams’ Oscar-winning score still drives the suspense, raising goosebumps with its menacing opening. This edition gives the soundstage a tad more envelopment, with the active height speakers and responsive bass. But for the purist, Universal also provides an uncompressed mono track.


Original Review






John Hurt received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his moving portrayal of Englishman John Merrick - “The Elephant Man,” while Anne Bancroft plays actress Mrs. Kendal, one of Merrick’s biggest supporters.



4K frame shots courtesy of StudioCanal - Release from the UK



NO. 5 - “THE ELEPHANT MAN: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, 1980, PG

Best extra: Film journalist Ian Haydn-Smith hosts a British Film Institute Q&A with producer Jonathan Sanger (4K disc)












THE SCRIPT was based on British/American anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book, “The Elephant Man, A Study in Human Dignity,” which focused on the life of imprisoned Joseph “John” Merrick and his malformed body. The movie opens as Victorian physician Dr. Frederick Treves played by Anthony Hopkins searches for “The Elephant Man,” at a London “makeshift freak show,” says Kim Newman in her essay featured in the 64-page booklet. Merrick’s body had so many physical deformities and fleshy tumors – most were frightened by his appearance.


The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in TRUE 4K, while the folks at L’lmmagine Ritrovata in Paris and Bologna handled the 40th-anniversary restoration cleanup work, which was supervised by Lynch.

The 16-bit HDR toning was applied at Fotokem in Los Angeles and the results are PURE cinematic magic. The blacks are deeper than anything you’ve seen, and it rivals the work Universal and Paramount produced for Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” our best 4K disc of 2018, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” a top-five 4K from last year. Natural film grain is ever-present and controlled, while the highlights and mid-tones are right on target giving you a full spectrum of gray-scale from top to bottom. Overall sharpness is excellent – especially the wide shots giving clarity from the foreground to the background. Tight shots are extremely detailed with facial markings and costume texture.


A six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack highlights the Oscar-nominated score by John Morris, which includes several carny-jingles and the rest are full orchestrated music, but the climax is Samuel Barbar’s classic “Adagio for Strings.” Sound effects are sparse and most evident during the dramatized opening of an elephant causing Merrick’s mother to fall while she’s pregnant.



Original Review





Producer/actor Kirk Douglas plays Roman slave Spartacus, who leads a revolt that eventually spreads over half of Italy.




NO. 6 - “SPARTACUS: 60th ANNIVERSARY EDITION”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital copy, 1960, PG-13 for battle sequences and sensuality; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: The carryover featurette, “I Am Spartacus,” a conversation with the late Kirk Douglas





SPARTACUS received six Academy Awards nominations, winning for supporting actor (Peter Ustinov), cinematography (color), art direction/set decoration, and costume design. Strangely, Douglas, who gave the performance of his career as the Thracian gladiator who leads an army of slaves against the Romans in the Third Servile War, wasn’t even nominated.


The original Super-Technirama 70 camera negative (2.20:1 aspect ratio), which was exposed horizontally at twice the size of traditional 35mm, was scanned at 6K in 2014. The condition of the film elements was rough, says restoration project manager Seanine Bird. Scenes were then repaired and each frame was cleaned up.

The output resolution was 4K, which provides a washing of super-fine natural film grain—while the 4K disc extracts a higher level of that grain that enlarges during the few composite shots. Overall, the 4K upgrade provides superb clarity, especially the wide shots and its cast of thousands and the bonus facial and costume details.


The HDR toning is a major difference compared to the previous HD version, as the mid-tones and facial toning are more natural and darker. The Blu-ray now looks too bright.


The eight-channel DTS-HD soundtrack from the 2015 restoration continues to provide excellent sonic tones from highs to low bass, allowing Alex North’s Oscar-nominated score to shine. The separation in the dialogue is excellent. The new DTS:X upgrade for your height speakers is used sparingly and really doesn’t provide any real audible difference. I spent some time with my ear to the height speakers and just once in a blue moon did I hear any music cues or sound effects.


Original Review







Zorro (Antonio Banderas) is not just a great swordsman but has amazing acrobatic skills.





NO. 7 - “THE MASK OF ZORRO”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1998; PG-13 for some intense action and violence; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu, YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Ported-over documentary “Unmasking Zorro” (digital & disc)







FROM THE opening moments of “The Mask of Zorro,” you’re in for a fabulous 4K watch. The restored picture, with striking clarity and elevated Dolby Atmos soundtrack, makes this late ‘90s swashbuckling adventure a top contender for one of the best 4K discs of the year.


The Spanish hero is played by Antonio Banderas, who grew up pretending to be the Robin Hood of Mexico. Director Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”) relays on his commentary track how co-star Anthony Hopkins first turned down the role of the elder Zorro – a.k.a. Don Diego de la Vega — because of a bad back, and how producer Steven Spielberg spotted Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones while he was watching the TV mini-series “The Titanic.” She plays Elena, the kidnapped daughter of Don Diego, whom the evil Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) takes as a baby, kills her mother, and ends up raising her while imprisoning her father for two decades.


Sourced from the original 35mm camera negative (2.39:1 aspect ratio) the 4K scan is top-notch with HDR10 toning that’s controlled from highlights during bright daylight scenes to deep blacks during night scenes and dark interiors. The colors are natural from facial toning to the warm palette.


The Oscar-nominated sound continues to provide a deep bass response, with the eight-channel Atmos soundtrack from explosions to pounding dance steps, while the sword fights choreographed by Bob Anderson (“The Princess Bride”) rings throughout your sound system – alone with James Horner’s active orchestrated score.


Original Review







(1) Tom Cruise as Lieutenant Pete Maverick Mitchell, who attends the Navys elite Top Gun school at Miramar Naval Air Station, San Diego.





NO. 8 - “TOP GUN”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1986; PG for profanity; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime (4K), Apple TV (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Five-part documentary, “On Your Six: Thirty Years of Top Gun”









GROWING UP, Tom Cruise moved around a lot. When he packed his things he always included two pictures, he says in the new documentary featured on Paramount’s 4K disc. One was a P-51 Mustang, the other a Spitfire – both World War II aerial warriors for the U.S. and the British. He also says as a kid he wanted to be an actor, “To make movies – I love movies – and to be an aviator.”


The idea for “Top Gun” launched when producer Jerry Bruckheimer saw the cover of the May 1983 California Magazine showcasing two Navy jets, one flying upside down over the other. “This is really cool, and it could be a great movie,” he says in one of the extras. The article by Ehub Yonay focused on the U.S. Navy’s Top Gun school at the former Miramar Naval Air Station, San Diego, and included a series of aerial photographs by Lt. Commander Charles Heatley.


The 4K remastering from the 35mm camera negative – Super 35 format – is one of Paramount’s best upgrades to date, up to the quality of “Gladiator.” Natural film grain is completely intact, with no sign of digital noise reduction (DNR) which popped up slightly in the 4K versions of “Forrest Gump” and “Braveheart.”


The 4K includes an eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which lightly adds effects and music to height speakers. The overall soundstage is wide and full from front to back, and floor to ceiling, with Harold Faltermeyer’s pulsating electronic score, and the roar of jet engines.

Bruckheimer had singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins compose two new songs to match the on-screen action: “Danger Zone” and “Playing with the Boys.” There’s also the love song from Berlin, “Take My Breath Away.” No one would forget the crowd-pleaser when Maverick, Goose, and the rest of the guys sing The Righteous Brothers’ classic, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”


Original Review








"Parasite" follows the lives of two diverse South Korean families. The Parks live in a luxurious world and celebrate their son's birthday.





NO. 9 - “PARASITE”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2019; R for language, some violence, and sexual content; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: Only extra is a Q&A with director/co-writer Bong Joon Ho







A DELICIOUSLY wicked class conflict is at the crux of “Parasite,” Korean writer/director Bong Joon Ho’s (“Okja,” “Snowpiercer”) masterpiece of horror-comedy. Nominated for six Academy Awards and won four Oscars including Best Picture, Best International, Director, and Original Screenplay. The film is mesmerizing in its laser focus on the lives of two families and their doomed intermingling.


We meet the down-on-its-luck working-class Kim family first as they struggle with basement living, stolen WiFi, and general squalor. Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the father, is out of work, as is his wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin). Their teenaged children are daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) and son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). Ki-woo’s friend Min (Seo-joon Park) tells him about a pretty high school girl he’s been tutoring in English, with whom he’s fallen in love. Min is leaving the country to go to university and asks Ki-woo to take over as tutor in Min’s absence.


Originally Universal Studios only released the outstanding 4K/HDR version on digital platforms, but the physical 4K disc arrived a few months later. Right from the start, there is a major bump in pin-point detail in the 4K, sourced from 6.5K digital cameras, and nicely mastered in true 4K. Plus it features brilliant color saturation, natural skin tones, with expansive HDR contrast levels.


The 4K disc includes the new eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack an upgrade from the previous six-channel DTS HD featured on the Blu-ray. The dialogue-driven story has limited environmental effects pushed to your height speakers, but overall the soundstage has been elevated. The score from Jung Jae-il is composed of a classical piano and strings flare.

Original Review








British actor Cary Elwes was 23 when he played Westley the farm boy and American actress Robin Wright was 20 when she played the beautiful Buttercup.





NO. 10 - “THE PRINCESS BRIDE”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD; 1987; PG; streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Goggle Play (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: “True Love: The Princess Bride Phenomenon” two-part featurette











INCONCEIVABLE!

Family classic “The Princess Bride” is now available on 4K disc – but only in Germany. Lionsgate, who has European distribution, originally packaged the 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD in a splendid padded 50-page digibook, with essays in German and behind the scenes photographs. Plus, in November a two-disc 4K version was released.


At this point, there’s no hint if or when a 4K disc will arrive in the U.S. Remember, 4K discs are not coded so it plays on any 4K player no matter its location.

The fairytale itself is as much fun as ever – still, the higher resolution gives it polish we’ve never seen before.


The 4K Ultra HD disc is sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio). It extracts excellent sharpness from wide shots to extreme close-ups. Plus, the natural film grain is ever-present giving “The Princess Bride” a true cinematic experience.

It’s a shock to see how much richer the colors are presented with the three HDR formats coded from the standard HDR10, Dolby Vision and HDR10+. The lush, green pastures of central England are gorgeous, far surpassing previous editions. The shade of red found in Prince Humperdincks costume is remarkable. Facial toning is natural and balanced without any red push, while the blacks are deep and dark. The overall contrast spectrum is complete.


The English track is the same six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack found on previous Blu-ray edition, mostly balanced for the dialogue-driven film. There are some excellent environmental sounds pushed around the room. (Nothing like the shrieking eels, and sound of suffering from Wesley.) Dire Straits’ frontman Mark Knopfler wrote the score featuring a blend of synthesizers and warm acoustic sounds, especially guitar, from the composer. For German viewers, there are German subtitles if they want to hear the original sound or a dubbed German six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack.


Original Review





Honorable Mention

(1) Back to the Future (2) Blade (3) Chernobyl (4) Emma. Digital

(5) Full Metal Jacket (6) Gandhi (7) Home Alone (8) Joker (9) Just Mercy Digital

(10) Little Women Digital (11) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

(12) Onward (13) Psycho (14) V for Vendetta (15) Vertigo



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