It does not take a genius to recommend a good surround sound movie. Just pick any action flick that had a ridiculous budget, two or more sequels, and tons of special effects.
Applying these rules gives us a whole catalog of movies with amazing soundtracks that will make the rear speakers scream and the subwoofer shake the plaster off the wall; Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, The Avengers, The Matrix, Transformers, The Dark Knight, The Bourne movies, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and all the recent Bond flicks.
Now for those who want to show off their surround sound systems while also demonstrating a more, shall we say, erudite taste in cinema, here are some recommendations that will test the more refined aspects of a speaker system while also impressing any film critical friends.
GOSFORD PARK (2001)
British period dramas are not usually known as surround sound spectaculars but those who have spent time balancing the levels and delays of the channels in their system will be rewarded with a fantastic in-the-room feeling with Gosford Park. A trademark style of director Robert Altman was to use multiple layers of concurrent dialogue from differing plotlines. The movie is essentially a murder mystery in the typical upstairs/downstairs setting of an early 20th century English manor.
During the parlor scenes, the hushed whispers of gossip and scheming from various characters are so specifically segregated to different channels that the unnoticed failure of one speaker would result in pages of missed dialogue. When the tale goes downstairs, the utter chaos of dozens of servants cooking, cleaning, and gossiping while scrambling to meet every whim of their various masters is imparted through speakers both front and rear. While light on action, there is a pheasant hunt scene that gives the sub some work with the shotgun blasts.
Runner Up for terse British drama pitting servants against their masters: Atonement (2007)
THE PIANO (1993)
The Piano provides one of the most beautiful soundtracks in modern cinema and, while any decent surround sound system can get loud, not all can do this score justice. About a third into the movie the mute protagonist is re-united with her piano which was previously abandoned on the beach where she first landed.
Having been deprived of her beloved piano for several days, she sates her thirst with a day of endless concertos and symphonies at the keys while her delighted daughter dances around her in the beach and surf. The score swells to a magnificent level beyond the reality of the setting. The soundtrack contributes to the emotional element of the film by conveying the soul consuming importance of music in her and her daughter\’s lives. (Pass the tissues.)
Runner Up for period piece tragedies involving musicians: Amadeus (1984)
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
One of the best movie lines ever, accompanied by one of the eeriest movie scores ever. This is a soundtrack that can really test a systems dynamics, its ability to handle the seamless transitions from silence to full volume and back. The opening scene fades in while the score provides a growing sound wave from a seemingly possessed string section creating an ominous tension. Several parts of the movie switch back and forth between the sparse landscapes of southern California desert to the narrow confines of a mining pit. The soundtrack provides the quiet natural sounds only heard in the solitary silence of the desert.
But when the story drops into the mines, that environment is ripped away and all the speakers sit up and provide the heavy handed claustrophobic sound of being 50 feet down a narrow hole with a pick axe and some dynamite. The best full on action sequence is when the first oil derrick in Little Boston hits a gas pocket and then becomes an inferno of a gusher. Scenes like this make all the effort of setting up a home theater worthwhile.
Runner Up for sociopaths dealing in precious commodities: Scarface (1983)
SHOOT \’EM UP (2007)
There had to be at least one action movie on the list. The reason Shoot \’Em Up makes the cut is because it is so ridiculous, so over the top and tasteless, that it is clear that director Michael Davis is eschewing any \’suspension of disbelief\’ in favor of raw action and shock value. In the first 10 minutes, the gritty protagonist comes to the aid of a fleeing pregnant woman, engages in a lengthy gunfight with her attackers, delivers a baby during said gunfight, and kills the bad dude by jamming a carrot through his eye socket. The sound effects are as awesome as the action. A nice squishy thud is used to highlight the death by carrot.
Keeping this ridiculousness from devolving into a mess of a movie are the A-list actors and film-geek favorites (Clive Own, Paul Giamatti, and Monica Bellucci). Bonus points for a soundtrack pulled from a long haired metal head\’s iPod,with cuts from AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, Motorhead, Nirvana, and Wolfmother.
Runner up for plot less action movie salvaged by a good cast: Shaft (2000)
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)
This selection is not as atypical as the rest but there needed to be at least one movie here that the kids could watch without experiencing psychological trauma. From start to finish this movie will challenge and highlight every element of a good home theater system. There is scattered dialogue, dynamic sound shifts, a beautifully musical score, and immersive environments. Most of all this, this is an awesome subwoofer movie.
Legendary sound designer and mixer, Randy Thom, created the voice of the titular dragon, Toothless; by mixing the natural sounds of elephants, horses, whales, tigers, and his own breathing and vocal skills. In particular, note the montage sequence of Toothless being gradually befriended by the Viking boy Hiccup. An excellent subwoofer here will fill in the bottom end of the dragon\’s very communicative vocal sounds. The astounding finale of the movie will crush the dreams of lesser subs that cannot keep up with the explosions, fireballs, wing flaps and triumphant score of this amazing sequence.
Runner Up for fans of sound guru Randy Thom who have kids: The Incredibles (2005)