THE GIZMO: A Blu, Blu-ray Christmas.
For many, the 2009 holiday season will be remembered as the "Blu-est" of them all. 'Tis the season when millions of high-definition-TV owners finally bought a Blu-ray disc player and software to pump up the performance of their HD display and surround-sound systems.
Lower prices for Blu-ray players - as little as $78 for a basic model that also plays regular DVDs - have been a great sales motivator. But it's really the expanded depth and diversity of high-def Blu-ray disc titles that's driving the conversion.
By letting loose some classics like "The Wizard of Oz," "North By Northwest" and "Gone With the Wind," as well as the hottest new releases on the higher-resolution format, studios are sending a strong message that Blu-ray is "real" and ready for mass consumption.
Looking to build your Blu-ray library? Consider these suggestions.
HOLIDAY TREATS: No matter how often you've caught "It's a Wonderful Life," you've never seen it as it plays on Paramount's Blu-ray treatment.
The black-and-white rendering of the 1946 classic is so vivid, you can count the liver spots on Old Man Potter's face, feel the texture in George Bailey's overcoat and see the glint in the eye of the angel who saves him. The included colorized version is tastefully wrought but a bit of a scene softener.
The original, 1947 "Miracle on 34th Street," as well as the 1994 John Hughes remake debuted this season on Blu-ray, too, from 20th Century Fox. This saga of the "real" Santa holds up well in the classic (black-and-white) version, though it lacks the hyper-clarity excitement of that upgraded "It's a Wonderful Life."
For a daft and romantic contemporary twist on the holiday, try the dipped-in-Blu "Love Actually" (Universal) and family reunions from hell "Four Christmases," (New Line) pairing Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn.
BLOCKBUSTERS: The (now) teenage conjurers' latest yarn can be slow in the unspooling. Still, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (Warner Bros.) oozes state-of-the-art cinematography, lively spatial sound cues and magical special effects, making a perfect showpiece for a home theater system.
Do not watch the charming "Julie and Julia" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) on an empty stomach. The French food coming out of the oven looks so dangerously appealing in Blu-ray, you'll suddenly be starving!
"Public Enemies" (Universal) with Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard should keep both you and the neighbors awake with its loud, loud, loud Depression-era adventures of a "heroic" bankrobber. And the high-def transfer is so transparent, you can detect when the cinematographer switches from film stock to videotape (usually for action scenes.)
Vatican City looks spectacular and Tom Hanks is kicking major spiritual butt in "Angels & Demons" (Columbia).
Happy times are here again with "(500) Days of Summer" (Fox) and "Taking Woodstock" (Universal.)
ANIMATED: Looking to impress a mixed crowd of young and young-at-heart movie buffs? Play 'em a Blu-ray-transfered CGI cartoon masterpiece like Disney/Pixar's newly upgraded "Monsters, Inc." or the high flying "Up." Then watch their eyes pop.
Tim Burton and friends' animated doomsday tale "9" (Universal) - not to be confused with the new musical of the same name - is also an eyeful, though kinda scary.
And even the youngest videophile will enjoy Fox's adorably populated sequel "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs."
But the biggest Blu-ray animated surprise is the hand painted, 1937 classic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" from Disney. The restoration work is amazing. Plus, this charmer boasts many a high-tech extra, demanding a Blu-ray player with Internet connectivity!
FROM THE VAULTS: Clearly, not every "classic" is worth upgrading to high definition. Reissuing Robert Altman's soft-focused "Mash" (20th Century Fox), for example, seems misguided.
On the other hand, I've been shocked by the added realism some older films project after renewal - like the 15th anniversary edition of "Groundhog Day" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), revealing every nagging pockmark in Bill Murray's acne-scared face, or the extra edgy, 20th anniversary edition of Spike Lee's claim to fame, "Do the Right Thing" (Universal).
That aforementioned 50th anniversary rendering of Alfred Hitchock's "North By Northwest" (Warner Bros) and 45th anniversary special edition of "Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) are both darkly comic wonders, boasting career-best performances by Cary Grant in the former and Peter Sellers in the latter.
Even grander and goofier in Blu-ray is the nine disc "The Mel Brooks Collection" (20th Century Fox/MGM). The grainy "Twelve Chairs" seems only mildly improved, but later gems like "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and the Hollywood spoofs "Silent Movie" and "Space Balls" all look zingier.
MUSIC TO YOUR EARS: Bottling up their biggest "Steel Wheels" concert extravaganza from 1989, "Rolling Stones Live at the Max" (S2BN Entertainment) is now the in-your-face, super-HD concert video against which all others must be judged. 'Twas originally shot for IMAX theater presentation and also is pumped to the max with a superb, multi-channel sound mix.
Not too shabby, either, is whirlwind singer/dancer Beyonce's new "up close and personal" concert (and career overview), "I Am . . . Yours" (WorldMusic World/Columbia).
A hot and heavy (238-minutes long!) "Blues at Montreux" (Eagle Vision) in Blu finds Carlos Santana hosting and heating things up with Buddy Guy, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Bobby Parker.
TV SHOWS IN HD: "The National Parks - America's Best Idea" (Paramount) is the first Ken Burns documentary series shot with HDTV and Blu-ray discs in mind.
Fighting off the alien underworld living in modern day Cardiff is the premise for "Torchwood" (BBC Video), a great "find" easily jumped into in "The Complete Second Season" Blu-ray set.
"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - the Ninth Season" (Paramount) is even more gruesomely detailed in Blu-ray than on broadcast HDTV.