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Best soundtracks of the decade

Best soundtracks of the decade (photo)

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This past decade has been awash in both great and terrible soundtracks, with a preponderance of directors who have great musical taste but often apply it too liberally to their films. The music video, long fallen from prominence on TV, seems to have found it’s place on the big screen, with scenes written around songs now part of a formula. This isn’t always a bad thing, and some of the finest moments in film cannot be separated from the songs that accompany them. Some even become forever inseparable.

The more gratuitous examples are tiresome, even offensive. Some directors don’t know how to build a scene or earn the right to employ the song — they just slap it in there because it seems cool. In many cases the indispensable music supervisor did it for them. A best of list for the decade is sure to include some of these lesser moments but I’ve assembled a list of films whose soundtracks have risen above the pack. Keep in mind, this is not about films scores which is another beast entirely.

1. “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)

I often think of Wes Anderson as the biggest asshole I’ve never met. Film after film, he (along with his music supe Randall Poster) selfishly claims more of the best songs ever written as his own. There they are, burned forever into his films, greats by The Rolling Stones, Nico, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Velvet Underground. He’s often the first to use them and, even when someone already has, he tends to do it better. Genius you can be jealous of. I’ve grown a bit tired of the constant song barrage he employs but glance back with me to “The Royal Tenenbaums,” before all was overplayed out. That moment with Margot coming off the bus… it still almost makes me weep, it’s so beautiful. Elliot Smith too.

2. “Adventureland” (2009)

Greg Mottola’s ’80s amusement park/graduate love story has not yet had the chance to stand the test of time, but it will. Hands down the best soundtrack of 2009 and possibly the best use of The Velvet Underground in the history of film. Even Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” was a good time.

3. “Children of Men” (2006)

It’s hard to stand back and separate a great soundtrack from a great film, and it may be that this is so high on the list because I’m swayed by the quality of Alfonso Cuarón’s filmmaking, Michael Caine and Deep Purple. Add some Donovan, Radiohead, Lennon, that wispy Franco Battiato “Ruby Tuesday” cover and King Crimson and I think you have one of the most bad-ass soundtracks of the Naughts.

4. “Breakfast on Pluto” (2005)

I was so smitten with Kitten that I had to check myself when I left the theater after seeing this Neil Jordan fun fest. You know, whistle at a couple broads on the street on my way to give my girlfriend a pearl necklace. I was even more impressed with the songcraft of Harry Nilsson, Dusty Springfield and T-Rex. Not the first time, “Children of the Revolution” was employed (see “Billy Elliot” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys”), but it was tough as nails — painted ones of course.

5. “24 Hour Party People” (2002)

If you’re a huge Joy Division fan (I am) or lover of New Order (less so) you might have had to see this film multiple times. It doesn’t necessarily live or die as a film because of the bands — it’s a great story about a moment in time in Manchester, and Steve Coogan is particularly hilarious — but the bands are why this soundtrack kicks ass.

6. “High Fidelity” (2000)

If only we still had the mix tape. John Cusack’s damaged record store owner was a dying breed then and only a memory now. This film, while lacking some of the flavor of the book, makes up for it in the music. Love, Smog, 13th Floor Elevators, The Velvet Underground, Stereolab, even the now forgotten Beta Band.

7. “Almost famous” (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical fantasy about his experience as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone is pretty much mandatory for this list. Whatever you think of the film now, the soundtrack brilliantly captured the sound and feeling of the zany trip everyone was on in the early ’70s. Remember the fun/lame Elton John sing along? Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” seals it.

8. “Juno” (2007)

Dominated by Kimya Dawson/The Moldy Peaches, this soundtrack still has some variety in Astrud Gilberto, The Kinks and Sonic Youth. What’s more, Michael Cera and Ellen Page’s cover of “Anyone Else But You” is entirely endearing.

9. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

I would never have thought I’d be so pleased with a musical film about an East German transgendered Bowie wannabe (who lost his johnson) on tour with his weird glam band. Composer Stephen Trask wrote all the songs for the stage musical on which the film is based, and likewise the soundtrack is all Trask (aside from a bit of “Walk on the Wild Side,” there’s little other music in the film). I never got so fired up about it that I bought the soundtrack, but the achievement and execution deserves serious recognition.

10 / 0. “Watchmen” (2009)

Lastly, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen deserves some special top ten consideration. Think of this less as number 10 and maybe more number 0. It’s rare that a film employs a repertoire of such weighty songs and so many of them so badly. Snyder doesn’t earn half of the songs he uses — “The Sound of Silence,” are you kidding me? — and he basically rapes Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” As confounding and tasteless as it is used, the soundtrack alone is fantastic. The Phillip Glass song worked wonders and the revisionist history opening credits, set to “The Times They Are A-Changin,” are magic.

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

The Thin Line Between Lovely and Crazy

The Thin Line Between Lovely and Crazy (photo)

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If you’re expecting Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” about how new South African president Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) used the country’s rugby team as a way to bring the nation together, to be preachy and obvious, the film’s first and last scenes will fulfill your worst fears. Everything in between, however, comes smarter and more moving than you might expect.

That first scene takes place on the historic day when Mandela was released from prison, and two groups of children gather on opposite sides of the street to watch the motorcade go past: Black children playing soccer on a dusty field surrounded by a sagging chain link fence erupt in cheers, while across the street, white kids playing rugby on an immaculate athletic pitch have stony faces as their coach tells them to remember this as the day that South Africa went to the dogs.

There’s nowhere to go but up from an opening that on-the-nose, and “Invictus” works best when it examines Mandela’s political plight after he’s elected president. How does he foster a reconciliation between the nation’s whites, embittered at being taken out of power, and its black population, furious over decades of cruel apartheid? How can he curry favor with the white power base — which still controlled the nation’s banking, police and army — while making both black and white South Africans feel as if they’re both part of the country’s future?

(more…)

Why it’s so hard to say what’s good when it comes to movies.

Why it’s so hard to say what’s good when it comes to movies. (photo)

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Barring whatever Artforum cooks up, you’re unlikely to find a more uncompromisingly festival/arthouse/”difficult”-centric best-of-the-decade list than the TIFF Cinematheque’s Top 30 of the decade — which is actually 54 films long due to a truly staggering number of ties, but who’s counting?

The most “popular” movies on the list — I use that word advisedly — are probably “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “A History of Violence” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I’ve seen all but nine of the rest — the list tops out with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Syndromes and a Century,” the definitive beloved-by-critics-and-seen-by-almost-no-one-else 2006 film.

All the movies on the list are worth taking seriously. Some of them I love viscerally, some of them I respect abstractly and some of them I frankly despise (looking at you, “Colossal Youth”). But is the whole thing a bit airless? Definitely.

It’s tough enough to get the festival world’s elite to agree on what the best non-festival movies might be (try to get ten reasonable people to agree about “Zodiac” or, hell, “Spider-Man 2″) but it is a bit surprising that the cineastes of the world couldn’t get it together to at least, I dunno, champion something perverse like “Speed Racer.”

Guess the highbrow world really has given up on trying to find signs of life in the studio system, which is a shame. It really is harder work. Art films announce themselves and, at a certain level, have an easier time breeding consensus on what’s “the best” than finding common ground on more popular fare.

11252009_pulpfiction.jpgThere’s just something a little lazy and presumptive about the TIFF list, even though it does reflect where my head’s at a lot of the time. These are not movies anyone has to defend: even if they aren’t all as great as the list says, they do come pre-packaged with the label of greatness. (Most of them, incidentally, also screened at TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, itself — the festival circuit is more and more of a closed loop when it comes to launching works that can be seen in enough places to get word of mouth out. TIFF’s list confirms its status as the key place for critical respect, if not commercial success.)

Maybe future high-brow film historians will have to put more effort into re-excavating and re-evaluating Hollywood and mainstream fare than they will to identify the great arthouse hits of the aughts. Even in the ’90s most of us could agree on, I dunno, “Pulp Fiction” or “Unforgiven.” 20 years from now, I hope “The Devil’s Rejects” is rediscovered and venerated.

Incidentally, TIFF’s list makes no discriminations between shorts and features. So if you haven’t seen one of the entries for #23 — Guy Maddin’s “The Heart of the World” — now is a perfect time to do so. In a just world, this would’ve been broadcast and beloved on Adult Swim, where it would’ve fit in perfectly:

[Photos: “A History of Violence,” New Line Cinema, 2005; “Pulp Fiction,” Miramax Films, 1994]

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