Trying to come up with a reasonably brief list of titles worth upgrading to 4K HDR is as maddening as lopping off hydra heads. Once you have one nailed down, up pops another equally worthy contender until you feel like you’re going to be devoured by the damn things. So what follows is far from exhaustive and is being put forth knowing full well there are scores of other titles that should have made the cut as well. To help keep things manageable, I’ve limited the list to:
♦ Movies from before digital filmmaking went mainstream. These are the efforts most likely to benefit from 4K HDR, if done right.
♦ Ones where the elements are likely to be in decent shape. As we’ve said often, UHD can work wonders but it can also be merciless at revealing flaws, so there’s little point in prioritizing titles that will just leave you asking “Why?”
♦ Movies as vital and relevant as anything of more recent vintage, as opposed the kind of musty old museum pieces that are easily filed away under “Classics”.
And there’s one other criterion: There seemed little point in pushing titles based on their popularity. Blockbusters and fan favorites will inevitably get leapfrogged to the front of any upgrade queue because, while they rarely reflect well on the filmmaking art, they’ve got the built-in advantage of fan rabidity to help ensure ROI.
I’ve instead focused on movies based not on their box office but their influence—especially their influence on other filmmakers. These tend to be the films that innovate instead of replicate, that are more likely to be the (sometimes awkward) expression of an individual viewpoint than of a corporate collective. “Big” movies tend to be able to fend for themselves, while more human, inherently, not accidentally, creative efforts need all the advocates they can get.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS
All of Douglas Sirk’s subversive soap operas from the mid ‘50s should be upgraded immediately. Their influence on filmmaking has been undeniable and huge; by being so true to their era, they’ve aged well; and they’re still reliable roadmaps to how to effectively screw with the system. All That Heaven Allows goes to the head of that list, though, thanks mainly to the genius cinematography of Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, Spartacus), who might have done his best work here, somehow both respecting the subject matter while puckishly revealing its cheesiness.
THE BAND WAGON
Technicolor from the ‘50s can look garish if not handled right—partly because the original films already looked pretty gaudy and even the slightest misstep can push that completely over the line. Of course, Technicolor got goosed hardest of all in musicals, many of which have such amped-up palettes that they can be painful to watch now. (I pity the poor tech fool who gets assigned The Pirate.) But The Band Wagon is often considered the best musical ever not only because Comden and Green’s script opts for wit over jokes—an intelligence that tends to spill over into the production numbers as well—but because Vincente Minnelli deployed his Technicolor resources with taste if not always with restraint. Upgrading The Band Wagon could give it an unfiltered immediacy it hasn’t had since the day of its release.
Given the phenomenal job Warner Bros. did with The Shining, it’s impossible not to be antsy to see what they’ll do with what might be the most masterfully photographed movie ever. Clockwork Orange is due out over the next few months, but that won’t give us many clues about how Lyndon will fare, since Kubrick went deliberately low-fi for Orange. But if they can pull this off, it could easily become the reference disc for judging films from before the digital era.
How can you not? Terry Gilliam, with this film, created a style that influenced practically every film and cinematic TV series since. The trick would be upgrading it while staying true to its very deliberate messiness. This is not a film you want looking like it was shot yesterday.
Not only is Raoul Coutard’s cinematography brilliant, but this film—and specifically, the look of this film—has been so influential that it deserves to be pushed to the top of the Godard list. If you want to cut straight to what was coolest about the look and feel of the ‘60s, watch Contempt. Godard was mocking epics shot in widescreen (in the film, Fritz Lang famously says widescreen is only good for shooting snakes and funerals), but makes an indelible case for it here.
(A quick digression: Foreign films tend to be treated like the Miss Congeniality of lists like this—and I’m pretty guilty of that here as well. Their influence on filmmakers, though, is on par with—and often exceeds—the influence of the stuff from their squeaky-wheel American cousins. But because they’re not big, loud, and stupid, eager to slap you on the back or punch you in the face, we don’t offer them up for consideration as often as we should.)
How do you pass over the film that single-handedly defined noir? People are still reinterpreting, and outright stealing from, John Seitz’s groundbreaking cinematography to this day. As films like Psycho and Dr. Strangelove have shown, it can be a gamble whether older black & white films will hold up under the upgrade process. But Indemnity was a prestige project for Paramount, so hopefully there would be a decent source to work from.
Silent films tend to be as easily overlooked as foreign films but many of them are as visually compelling as anything shot today. Singling ones out for upgrades can be a tough call, though, because who knows what kind of shape the elements are in? I’m throwing The General out there because it’s as much an exercise in style as it is in genius comedy—like Matthew Brady photos come to life.
THE LONG GOODBYE
Robert Altman’s both affectionate and cynical reimagining of Raymond Chandler continues, like Once Upon a Time in the West (see below), to be hugely influential, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s deliberately funky cinematography could look gorgeous in 4K HDR (despite the flashing). A lot of films aim for grit—this one has it on display in every frame.
There are at least 15 Woody Allen films from Annie Hall on that deserve to be done in 4K HDR, but given the opprobrium that’s been heaped upon him it’s likely to be a struggle just to get couple of them upgraded. It might seem to be perverse to be pushing for what has become, decades after the fact, his most controversial film, but this is his most ambitious and satisfying work and Gordon Willis’s widescreen black & white cinematography, which isn’t particularly well served by the current HD incarnation, could look spectacular in UHD.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN
John Ford was such a consummate filmmaker that at least one of his films needs to be bumped up soon—but which one? The obvious choice would be The Searchers, but that
seems too obvious. I’d opt instead for either one of these—partly because they don’t carry as much extraneous baggage as Searchers so you can appreciate Ford as an artist without getting dragged into faux notions of myth. (If we were just talking about visuals, a case could be made for the Greg Toland-lensed Long Voyage Home, but that’s not really Ford at his best.)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
The influence of Sergio Leone’s epic, cheeky western is pervasive (Tarantino wouldn’t have a career if he couldn’t constantly pillage this film) and its reputation grows with every year. It’s not the most subtly photographed movie, but 4K could make it sublime just by staying true to its sheer widescreen filminess. And then there’s that Morricone score . . .
Blake Edwards was a solid but only occasionally brilliant filmmaker, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, and even The Party would all seem like good candidates for upgrades. Many film enthusiasts would vote for The Great Race, and parts of that would look spectacular, but it’s just too ungainly a film, and not that funny. Victor/Victoria is solid, beautiful, and the laughs still work—4K HDR, in competent hands, couldn’t help but enhance the experience.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.