2020 will forever be marred by the coronavirus pandemic that has practically destroyed the theater industry and stalled the premiere of many new movies. But as folks have stayed indoors more often home media consumption has spiked, along with interest in maximizing the home theater experience by upgrading to 4k video and object-based audio.
Every year we bring you the Top 10 4k Blu-ray Disc releases that are must-have for anyone with a 4k Blu-ray player and 4k HDR TV. There were close to 150 new 4k Blu-ray releases in 2020 (about 240 if you include retailer exclusives, gift sets and re-releases), so determining the Top 10 was not the easiest task.
This year we brought in our friend DJ from Bright Side Home Theater to help determine (as well as argue) what the best 4k Blu-rays of the year were, as well as some honorable mentions. If we missed a title or disagree with our choices we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter. And, be sure to check out our complete list of 4k Blu-ray Discs since 2016.
10. Spartacus (1960)
Jeff: For the 60th Anniversary Edition of Spartacus the original large format negatives were rescanned in 6k and restored and color corrected in 4k. Spartacus was shot on Super Technirama 70 film (allowing twice the width of traditional 35mm movies) and the new mastering brings a unique level of sharpness to the film on Ultra HD Blu-ray. Spartacus is presented in 2160p with HDR10 and a DTS:X soundtrack (an object-based improvement from the 7.1 channel upgrade in 2015) delivering a home theater experience like none other.
DJ: I remember seeing this as a kid, on a small screen and I haven’t seen it since. The picture is just spectacular and the DTS-X track makes you wonder how many people have really missed out on how great a movie from 1960 could be, jaw dropping.
9. Joker (2019)
Jeff: Talk about a reference quality 4k disc, Joker is right up there with the best of them. With HDR (Dolby Vision & HDR10) enhancing a 4k digital master and haunting soundtrack in Dolby Atmos/TrueHD 7.1/Dolby Digital 5.1, this movie, while extremely dark in terms of content, is every bit worthy of your 4k Blu-ray collection. Joker was the first 4k Blu-ray to release in 2020, so it’s fitting the movie makes our Top 10 list of most impressive 4k Blu-rays of the year.
DJ: Between the crystal clear dialogue and the haunting score it’s easy to overlook the discrete channel use. There are so many levels of sound to this movie it’s as deceiving as the character himself. The 4K presentation was even better than I experienced in the theater and let me get absorbed into each scene. This movie isn’t as puzzling as Tenet but deserves multiple viewings and with this sound and picture quality you’ll hear and see new things each time.
8. Doctor Sleep (2019)
Jeff: I know I’m going to hear some slack for this, but both DJ and I agree that Doctor Sleep is a Top 10 4k Blu-ray release. Not only is it a successful sequel (not all sequels are) it’s a great home theater experience with beautifully shot video and mesmerizing audio. Turn off the lights and crank up your sound system to experience this film as close as a theatrical experience as possible. If you can, watch The Shining in 4k before Doctor Sleep -a 4k Blu-ray release we ranked Number 4 in last year’s Top 10 4k Blu-rays. [Editor’s Note: The Director’s Cut, unfortunately, is only available on 1080p Blu-ray and Digital 4k. Read a review of Doctor Sleep.
DJ: At the heart of this Atmos track is, well, a beating heart sound effect that absolutely sets the tension. Add in some great ambient effects throughout and fantastic use of overheads that will have your head spinning and you’ll find yourself pulling this off the shelf more often than you thought.
7. 1917 (2019)
Jeff: Presented in 2160p with Dolby Vision/HDR10+ and a soundtrack in Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1, Sam Mendes’ 3x Oscar-winning film 1917 on 4k Blu-ray provides one of the best home theater experiences of the year. The incredible sharpness of the 4k video holds up even on the biggest of screens, and there are audio moments when you might find yourself immersed in the battle with Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield.
DJ: Just for the “single shot” approach of filmmaking this movie should be in the top ten, but add in the picture quality that lets you practically count the threads on the WWI uniforms and an Atmos track that will have you ducking and dodging in your seat and you’ve got a must-own 4k Blu-ray Disc. It’s filmmaking at its finest.
6. Jaws (1975)
Jeff: Jaws is such a great movie that even if the video and audio quality wasn’t so great on 4k Blu-ray it would still rank very high. But that’s not the case. The newly restored 4k Blu-ray edition of Jaws is spectacular in both visual and audio presentation (formatted with Dolby Vision/HDR10+ & Dolby Atmos audio). In our full review of Jaws on 4k Blu-ray we mention how some of the original shots don’t live up to today’s expectations, but in terms of bringing new life to a 45-year old film not many other titles have done it as well as Jaws.
DJ: This movie, from 1975, has never looked this good. The 4K picture is so clear and sharp that you can see where they drew a shark eye with a sharpie. And, the famous score and suspenseful silences are enhanced by the new Atmos track that makes you afraid of the water all over again.
5. Game of Thrones: The Complete Collection
Jeff: We already got a taste of Game of Thrones in 4k with Season 1 and Season 8, so the superb quality of the rest of the series came at no surprise. GOT on UHD BD includes both Dolby Vision and HDR10 specs to expand the color range, and delivers incredible Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio throughout. With a runtime of almost 70 hours and over 15 hours of bonus material, this collection is one you’ll always go back to. Plus, who knows how long it will be (if ever) before all of the single seasons are released?
DJ: The Blu-ray set with Atmos was already a clear cut step above what we got on cable or streaming. But this 4K set ends the debate of Physical Media vs Streaming. From episode 1 all the way to season 8 you’ll see Westeros as you’ve never seen it before with its deep detailed black levels and vibrant color.
4. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Jeff: One of the hardest decisions was separating the first 3 Star Wars films, but since Episode IV is available as a single edition there is no doubt it belongs in your 4k Blu-ray collection. This is the movie that started it all, and the 4k upgrade along with Dolby Atmos soundtrack delivers a timeless home theater experience.
DJ: Over 40 years later and it’s never looked and sounded this good. An Atmos track that puts you in an X-Wing and a video presentation that makes Tatooine look gorgeous. Personally, I will probably watch this disc more than any other on this list.
3. Tenet (2020)
Jeff: To be completely honest, at first glance I questioned why the black levels are so heavy in Tenet. Even having seen it in the theater, I wondered why HDR was not used to expand the range of detail in the darker values. But then I compared it to the Blu-ray and understood why. This is an aesthetic that director Christopher Nolan was shooting for. That “inky” black is what gives this film such a cinematic look that you can’t resist – like the difference between dark and milk chocolate. The audio mastering and music composition are also Oscar-worthy.
DJ: A movie you NEED to see multiple times. And because of the crisp detailed picture and a 5.1 audio track that ends the debate that you need Atmos for a great audio experience, you’ll WANT to see it again and again. Pick this movie up and tell me you NEED Atmos, I dare you.
2. The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy
Jeff: DJ wanted to count the LOTR Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy as one collective title (which makes perfect sense as Peter Jackson color graded and audio-mixed the six movies to flow as one continuous story), but because The Hobbit films were made 10 years after LOTR with different technology it made more sense to me to rank it separately (plus, each trilogy is a separate purchase). So, here is The Hobbit: The Motion Picture Trilogy at Number 2, an almost perfect 4k presentation and audio mix that must be part of your 4k collection.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy
Jeff: One of the ultimate trilogies and ultimate 4k discs to show off your home theater system, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is vibrant, sharp, and so visually impressive that it was not a hard choice to make this the number one UHD BD of the year. Add to the presentation an incredible Dolby Atmos audio experience and story that almost seems to get better with every watch and you’ve got a must-have for any 4k home theater.
DJ: Absolutely the best remaster for sound and picture I have ever seen. Picture is so crisp, sharp and vibrant that each movie feels like a whole new film. The updated Atmos sound mix utilizes every speaker you have and will push your subwoofer(s) to their limit. I will be comparing each new movie release to this set for quite some time.
DJ: Zack Snyder is a master of color and scene setting. 300 in 4K with HDR reminds us that when he is left alone to make the movie he has envisioned it can be spectacular. The grain and color pallets are so greatly enhanced it was hard to not make 300 higher on this list.
Jeff: The 4k upgrade to Katsuhiro Otomo’s masterpiece Akira is a must-have for anyone who can appreciate this genre of filmmaking and achievement in animation. Although missing the HDR10 spec (with replacement discs coming in Feb. 2021), the sharpness and color are impressive. Read our full review of Akira in 4k.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Jeff: When you start with a great film like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket there must be a ton of pressure to restore it to its fullest capability. And this 4k Blu-ray edition does just that with incredible video quality and color depth via HDR10 that brings new life to this Oscar-winning classic war drama. Read a review.
Invisible Man (2020)
DJ: The nature of this movie, what you can’t see, will have your ears perked up. And the Atmos track delivers with ambient sounds, discrete channel use and dynamic bass that will have your head spinning and you jumping out of your seat.
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Jeff: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back could have easily been placed in the Top 10. The new remastering of this classic sequel made it’s way to some theaters this year celebrating 40 years since 1980 and it has never looked so good on the big screen and at home on 4k Blu-ray.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Jeff: The Ultra HD Blu-ray edition of Lawrence of Arabia should have been in the Top 10, even in the Top 5, but because the 4k version of the film is only available in the Columbia Classics 4k Ultra HD Blu-ray Collection Vol. 1 we kept this one as an honorable mention. It is likely when the single edition releases it will make the Top 10 list that year.