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Best All-Around Showcase DVDs

Now let's look at those DVDs that deliver the whole ball of wax—terrific picture and sound in a totally immersive experience. These are the DVDs you want to pull out to really impress your visitors, the ones that get people to sit back in their chairs and say "wow."

These discs have terrific and often aggressive surround soundtracks, with lots of stuff happening in all the channels. They also deliver detailed picture quality with vivid color. And best of all, they combine all these features in an entertaining and impressive manner. In other words, these discs not only show off your system, they also whack you over the head and make you really pay attention. You know the kinds of discs I mean.

So which discs are the very best all-around showcase DVDs? Here's my list:

  • Kill Bill: Volume 1. This film, along with the companion Volume 2, is a visually and aurally impressive experience from start to finish. Quentin Tarrantino creates a fun and colorful visual palette, making full use of bright colors perfectly registered. My favorite bit runs from when Uma Thurman purchases her ticket to Japan (accompanied by the theme from the old Green Hornet TV series) through the Crazy BBs fight, through the final duel with Lucy Liu in the Japanese garden. Simply a great demo sequence, all the way around—the sound knocks you on your butt, while the picture pops your eyes open. I particularly like the audio mix when Uma is motorcycling through downtown Tokyo, with the music clearly in the front left and right channels, Uma's motorcycle roaring in the center channel, and directional effects coming from the surrounds. On a lesser system, all these sounds muddy together; on a great system, everything is clearly positioned.
  • Spider-Man 2 (Superbit Edition). Check out the Superbit version of this DVD and you'll find an exceptional transfer of a visually and aurally dynamic film. The film's bright comic-book colors virtually pop off the screen, while the finest details are clearly visible. You can clearly see edges of the webbing on Spidey's suit and the metallic sheen on Doc Ock's tentacles. The soundtrack is equally impressive, with good use of surround effects. The best scene for a demo is where Spidey and Doc Ock duke it out on the runaway El train; it'll give your subwoofers a workout!
  • The Matrix. For many viewers, this is the ultimate demo disc. The best version of this film is in The Ultimate Matrix Collection; the picture is sharp and detailed and the sound is simply stunning. There is ample use of the surround channels, with left and right surrounds typically carrying different information. My standard demo involves the final shootout between Neo and Agent Smith, with bullets whizzing around the room—in slow motion, of course—followed by the room-shaking helicopter crash. Watch for Keanu Reeves propelling himself out of the window while the window explodes in a rain of finely detailed shattered glass.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. This is another one of those discs that is picture-perfect from start to finish. The colors are lush, the picture is sharp enough to note fine costume details, and the sound simply surrounds you. For a good demo, go to any of the film's big battles, which are simply amazing on a good widescreen TV, accompanied by room-filling sound. It's easy to lose yourself in this one.
  • Star Wars Episode II: The Attack of the Clones. The movie was created entirely in the digital domain, which makes for a first-class transfer to DVD. Colors are superbly rendered, and the detail in some of the very crowded scenes makes you want to pause your DVD player and just gawk. The image is incredibly sharp, whether you're watching space fighters, lightsabers, or good old-fashioned explosions. And, as you've come to expect from Star Wars films, the soundtrack combines impressive surround effects, deep bass, and John Williams' full-range musical score.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. This is a visually stunning film, all computer-generated (except for the actors, of course), with enough room-shaking action to impress even the most jaded viewers. The entire film was shot in black and white, with all the color added via computer in post-production, which contributes to the film's unique look. It was shot 100% digitally, so the digital-to-digital transfer to DVD results in a picture totally free of noise or grain. My favorite demo scene is at the beginning, when the giant robots are rampaging through Manhattan; Jude Law's fighter plane veers from front to rear to front again, giving your surround speakers a real test. (The giant stomping feet also provide a good test for your subwoofer!)
  • Super Speedway. This film was originally shot for the IMAX format, and the transfer to DVD totally immerses you in the race car experience. Narrated by Paul Newman, it follows Mario and Michael Andretti through a series of races, with more than a fair share of in-car views. The best demo sequence is the in-car footage of Michael Andretti racing in the rain; the 800 horsepower motor is so loud it sounds as if you're there in the car with it. You'll come away from this one with your hands shaking.
  • Days of Heaven. For a more understated demonstration, one of my favorite demo DVDs remains Days of Heaven, a gentle film with an equally gentle soundtrack. There are no big explosions here; it's all subtle, realistic effects, such as crickets in the surround channels and gentle breezes blowing back and forth. Only the very best systems can reproduce this soundtrack as it was intended. In addition, this DVD has exceptional picture quality—with golden tones and an almost three-dimensional look in places. This one doesn't "wow" like some of the other DVDs listed here, but it impresses in a more restrained fashion.
  • Apocalypse Now. What can I say? Even though this is an older film and not for all audiences, the "Ride of the Valkyries" helicopter attack never fails to impress. Sit back and turn up the sound!
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