Best of Lists: The Best Of


When it comes to best of lists you either love them or loathe them. Whatever your opinion may be these carefully or hastily compiled lists always seem draw readers dying for a quick fix of opinion based rankings.

Entertainment Weekly Magazine recently released its “New Classics” list for the publication’s 1000th issue. The extensive feature compiled the top 100 supposed new classics from the past 25 years covering damn near every medium–film, music, books, video games, stage, and even technological advancements. While there were a number of WTF entries in each category and countless “I can’t believe you left that out” moments, the lists were entertaining.
Best of lists are inevitable in the world of pop culture criticism. The media realizes that it’s easier for the masses to skim through a list of what certain highly opinionated folk deem the best of the rest than actually dive into something more substantial. Whether it’s Rolling Stone’s recent “Top 100 Greatest Guitar Songs,” Spin magazine’s upcoming “Top 25 Greatest Live Bands,” or the countless end of the year critics picks, there is an over abundance of best of lists for media hounds to soak up.
While an entire column could be devoted to merely debating Entertainment Weekly’s recent feature (its poorly thought out series of lists is most certainly begging for discussion) I thought it might be interesting to list a handful of truly thought out and highly comprehensive lists that are available for music, film and literature. Consider this the Best of “The Best of lists.”
Rolling Stone Top 500: Sure Rolling Stone puts out a lot of pointless, space filler lists (the formerly mentioned Greatest Guitar Songs being one of them), the magazine’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time may be the most well put together list for rock geeks out there. Sure the Beatles take up four of the top ten slots (and rightfully so in the grand scheme of things), the list focuses primarily on America and British artists, the top ten entries all come from the 60s and 70s, and certain classics end up lower on the totem pole than one might expect (Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation at #329, twelve slots below No Doubt’s Rock Steady), but reservations aside, this list pretty much nails it. Reading through each album’s descriptions and arguments for their importance, one can’t deny that a lot of time and painstaking debate went into compiling this list.
Moment of Brilliance: Listing Stevie Wonder’s terribly underappreciated 70s masterpiece Innervisions (#23), propelled by the epic centerpiece “Living for the City,” above more obvious choices like Talking Book (#90) or the mass hit Songs in the Key of Life(#56) shows that substance always prosper over hype and sales.

ImageTime All-Time 100: The most striking aspect of Time Magazine’s take on the greatest albums, films and novels of all time was the decision not to rank the entries by greatness. By taking away the urge to argue for the placement of certain titles over others, the critics were able to focus on why these selections are the most important. For films, Time’s two main critics Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, compile a global list that includes obvious choices like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, or Fellini’s 8 ½, with more curious but respectable picks like Terry Gilliam’s surreal sci-fi classic Brazil, Kurosawa’s highly influential samurai classic Yojimbo, or David Cronenberg’s gross out, mind bending horror film The Fly.
Like the film list Time’s All Time 100 novels encompasses the best of a world of literature placing as much emphasis on modern American authors such as Philip Roth or Don DeLillo with the likes of international greats such as Nabokov or Chinua Achebe. They also pick the best of certain underappreciated genres such as science fiction (Philip K. Dick’s Ubik), fantasy (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien) and even a bit of horror (James Dickey’s frightening Appalachian woods novel Deliverance).
For music Time’s critics again tried to highlight the album’s impact on music in terms of its importance. Understanding that an artist like Little Richard influenced everyone from Paul McCartney to Axl Rose or playing up the importance of the Prince’s genre bending double LP Sign of the Times (they believe it is the best album of the 80s) shows a focus on how the album’s hold up now, the criteria for true greatness. Skimming through the list (organized by decade) and noticing the absence a single Pink Floyd record (a band that many feel is overrated) is evidence that the crew at Time spent many grueling late nights and drank lots of bad office coffee while debating the history of popular music.
Moments of Brilliance: Film critics choose the Coen Brother’s often forgotten noir masterpiece Miller’s Crossing over Fargo, book worms play up the importance of Alan Moore’s staple graphic novel Watchmen as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s beautiful Their Eyes Were Watching God, music critics highlight two of alternative’s best female leads by including Hole’s Live Through This and PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert: When it comes to film criticism Chicago has given the world some of the greats. Rosenbaum, the long time critic for the Chicago Reader street publication and Ebert, head critic for the Chicago Sun Times, are both living encyclopedias of a world of film that stretches well beyond Hollywood. Both continue to recognize the current greats while also going back to shed light on the forgotten gems of yesteryears. Ebert’s ongoing Great Movies series is the place to look for the film masterpieces of past and present. Ebert revisits his picks for the Greats often highlighting their importance in present day and why some classics only get better with age. While he covers the obvious greats in his bi-weekly or monthly entries to the lists he also plays up lesser-known titles that are often overlooked upon its release and forgotten with time. Take his admiration for Nicolas Cage’s daring and haunting performance in the great but devastating Leaving Las Vegas or his argument for Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Western Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film reviled upon its release but important in the long road, paving the road for films like Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
Rosenbaum goes even further down the obscure rabbit hole of global cinema. His end of the year best of lists go completely against the grain of his fellow, more predictable film critics shedding light on films that the majority of moviegoers never saw. At his website, www.jonathanrosenbaum.com, this one of a kind critic provides readers with a different take on the best films of each year as well as an alternative to the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time. While the AFI played up obvious choices likeCitizen Kane or Casablanca, Rosenbaum argues for more obscure fare like Jim Jarmusch’s surreal Western Dead Man (a film which Rosenbaum also wrote a book on) or Kubrick’s early heist film The Killing. Of his list of the best films of the 90s only three–Dead ManEyes Wide Shut, and When It Rains–were American, while the other hailed from Taiwan, Iran, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal.
Moments of Brilliance: Ebert’s in-depth essay on Spike Lee’s still polarizing film Do The Right Thing discusses, among other things, how certain movie going experiences–that is sitting in theater alive with other viewers–can truly penetrate your soul. While it’s clear Rosenbaum has a bit of a soft spot for indie-darling Jim Jarmusch, there is no denying the importance of this unique auteur whose films continue to puzzle viewers.

National Public Radio’s 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century:Leave it to NPR to create the snobbiest best of list for music. Rather than focus solely on recorded albums (as almost every other list does) NPR 100 goes beyond to cover all composed pieces of music. From rock to reggae, classical to country, songs to albums, NPR tries to encompass it all and does a damn good job. For serious listeners out there this is one of the best reference lists out there for important pieces of music. Similar to Time’s All-Time 100, NPR does not rank the pieces but rather focuses on their importance in the tide of time. From Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” to Paul Simon’s multi-cultural record Graceland, NPR’s critics intermix their own opinions of the recordings with interviews with experts and the artists that helped shape American music.
Moment of Brilliance: Rather than talk more about Talking Heads’ records or its unforgettable concert film Stop Making Sense, NPR focused on David Byrne and gang’s composition, “Once in a Lifetime” as being one of the first popular jam tunes. The Heads were able to compose an entire song built around Tina Weymouth’s simple but tight bass line and worldly percussion rhythms.

Amazon.com’s Listmania Feature: While the latter lists and list makers are all from well-seasoned critics and know-it-alls, sometimes you just want to know what the average Joe likes. Amazon became much more than a bookstore years ago and while it tries to everything–some better than others–one of the sites most ingenious features was the creation of Listmania. Want to know which are the best James Bond flicks? Interested in diving into the music of Neil Young but don’t know how to navigate through a discography of over 30 albums, check out the many Young fans who post their rankings on Amazon. Sure some lists will interest you more than others, the feature gives fans a chance to be the critic.
Moment of Brilliance: Want to dive into the world of avant-garde, experimental films? Check out one user from Japan’s list of“Totally Trippy Films For Your Multi Colored Nights.” Other random and fascinating lists are waiting for those curious.

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McCarthyism


When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping behind him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.


So begins Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, soon to be a major motion picture. The veteran American author, whose prose is often compared to the likes of Faulkner, Melville and Joyce, has been a household name in the literary world for a number of years but is just starting to move into the mainstream spotlight thanks to some recent and upcoming page to screen adaptations.


It’s been a surprisingly busy past couple years for the mysterious author. The observant moviegoer might recognize McCarthy’s name from last year’s No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ Academy Award winning film adaptation of the author’s 2005 novel of the same name. Though the film was very much in the Coen tradition the story, complex dialogue and underlying message/critique of violence in society was all McCarthy.


NCFOM was not the first film to take on McCarthy’s literature, nor will it be the last. Billy Bob Thornton directed a not-so-well-received screen adaptation of McCarthy’s most critically acclaimed novel and National Book Award winning, All the Pretty Horses, in 2000. An adaptation of McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark, is supposedly in production according to Imdb.com. Next fall fans of the author will get to see The Road, the author’s latest novel, come to life on the big screen and there’s also a proposed and possibly worrisome film adaptation of McCarthy’s most brutal but arguably his finest work,Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, slated for a tentative 2009 release.


Those familiar with McCarthy’s varied canon–starting with his Tennessee Appalachian period, followed by a move to the Southwest where he would take on the Western genre–will know that NCFOM and The Road, the author’s last two novels, were the most celluloid friendly. They lacked the author’s usual dense and sometimes cumbersome flow and were both dealt with a current or not so far off time period.


The Coen’s take on NCFOM was respectful of McCarthy’s original text while also adding a bit of the filmmakers’ signature sense of style, use of quirky supporting characters and sly dark humor. The Road, McCarthy’s haunting post-apocalyptic thriller just finished production and has the potential to be yet another successful film thanks to a unique, lesser-known director and a perfectly assembled cast of strong character actors.


The post-apocalyptic film has morphed into its own genre over the years with horror films ranging from 28 Days Later to this year’s I am Legend, not to mention past sci-fi staples such as the Mad Max trilogy and James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which used the threat of nuclear proliferation as its canvas. Where McCarthy’s The Road differed from the more extreme stories mentioned above is in its chilling sense of realism and constant reminder of hopelessness, page after page.


The New York Times recently ran a story about the filming of The Road and the difficulties of recreating a desolate American landscape in today’s world (the crew settled on Pennsylvania and the Lake Erie region for it’s crumbled America backdrop). The film was directed by the rising Aussie filmmaker, John Hillcoat, whose gritty take on the Western set down under in 2005s The Proposition, just so happened to be one of the closest film portrayals of the brutal violence depicted in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. With The Road, Hillcoat directs Viggo Mortensen and newcomer child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and son walking a mysterious unnamed road through a desolate and crumbled post-disaster America.


Joining Mortensen is Charlize Theron as the Wife (who in the novel is only mentioned in back story), Robert Duvall,The Proposition’s Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams aka Omar from HBO’s late series The Wire and possibly one of the best character actors working today, Garret Dillahunt, who had a small but memorable role as a slow-witted deputy in NCFOM. Aussie musician Nick Cave, who scripted and scored The Proposition, is also hard at work on the soundtrack for the film.


While normally a story as dark as The Road might turn moviegoers away, the post-NCFOM Oscar sweep and the fact that Oprah picked McCarthy’s novel in her book club two years ago gives the film version of the book the potential to be one of 2008s best films.


Then there’s Blood Meridian, quite possibly the white whale of film adaptations. Little is known about this project other than the fact that the film’s scribe is William Monahan, a rising name who won an Oscar two years ago for The Departed, and the person helming the director’s chair is veteran Ridley Scott. While both talents backing this film are notable and have the filmmaking chops (Scott has proved time and again that he has a knack for onscreen violence) there is a greater underlying question of whether or not Blood Meridian should make the leap from page to screen.


It is rarely the case that films best the books that they’re based on. That goes without saying. With Blood Meridian many believe the story is simply too densely written and overly violent (even for today’s standards) to come alive on the big screen. Others argue that if done well it has the potential to be one of the best and most historically accurate portrayals of the “real” Wild West ever seen on film.


For those unfamiliar with the story McCarthy tells the stomach turning tale of the Glanton gang, a group of weathered, blood-thirsty soldiers just out of the Mexican-American War in the mid 19th century who are contracted to travel through northern Mexico collecting the scalps for a price. Led by a larger than life character known as the Judge (if you thought Javier Bardem was creepy as Anton Chigurh in NCFOM read about the Judge to see what true heartless evil really is) the gang of misfits roam the desert landscape leaving a sanguinary trail of destruction behind them.


While the violence in the book is often unimaginable it serves as a reminder of the horrors our American forefathers unleashed on the North American natives and of the blood that built this country. To justly recreate the sort of mayhem McCarthy weaves in Blood Meridian it’s safe to say a film adaptation of this tale has the potential to be one of the most violent films ever made, making Mel Gibson’s biblical lesson in torture seem tame in comparison. To give you a taste of the madness McCarthy unleashes on his readers during one early scene the gang stumbles upon a tree riddled with the corpses of infants and children. This brings up another dire question about the making of this film: is there an audience for such brutal, in-your-face violence? Should a story like this, no matter how historically relevant, be brought to life for the movie going audience? If so, how do you stage a scene like the one just mentioned?


John Hillcoat’s The Proposition took the concept of Western film iconography and turned it upside down with its portrayal of Australia’s brutal, blood-soaked past. The film was, again, a reminder that the chapters in history aren’t always pretty. Ridley Scott has too dabbled in violent historical fiction with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, but unlike Hillcoat’s more subtle and refined style, Scott seems stuck in the big budget Hollywood spectacle mindset, which is exactly what Blood Meridian the film should avoid.


McCarthy fansites and message boards have been flooded with dream casts/directors for Blood Meridian with many saying the only true filmmakers to tackle the project would be the late John Huston or Stanley Kubrick or someone like Terrence Malick, all of which could bring to life such an epic story. Many worry that Scott will destroy the project’s potential by opting for a movie star filled cast with the likes of someone like Russell Crowe. Perhaps the film adaptation just wasn’t meant to be.


For fans of Cormac McCarthy the recent production news and photographs from the set of The Road is a breath of fresh air since the project seems to be in good hands and will most likely be worthy adaptation. It’s hard to say how many more books McCarthy has in him as he–he just turned 74 this year–but hopefully his new foray into the mainstream eye might encourage curious minds to check out this literary master’s collection of tomes. His work is difficult to read and sometimes stomach but his style and comprehension of the English language is unprecedented.

The Best Films You’ll Never See


For every movie that makes it to the big screen there are hundreds of other projects or ideas that never reach production, let alone an actually release. Budget issues, lack of major star power, legal conundrums, constant script rewrites, political strife with major studios, whatever the reasons may be, there are countless cases of potentially major films that never see the light of day. 

Recently I read an article about Michel Gondry’s (one of the more interesting directors working today) proposed next project falling through. Set to direct an adaptation of Rudy Rucker’s novel, Master of Space and Time, a story that chronicles two mad scientists quest to control time, Gondry has supposedly moved on thus leaving the film’s future questionable.

The story is supposedly prime material for Gondry’s knack for surrealism and interests in bending the line between dreams and reality. Still the film, at least Gondry’s version, seems destined to join the long list of films you’ll never get to see. Below is a short-list of what I feel are some of the best examples. Some are projects that were simply too big or problematic to be completed. Some are alternate versions of pre-existing classics. All have gone down in history as some of the best films never made.

Kubrick’s Epics

Steven Spielberg once said in an interview that he was shocked that Stanley Kubrick passed away at 70 because he had expected the director to make his magnum opus well into his 80s, similar to Japanese great Akira Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Ran. The truth is Kubrick had been toying with a number of potentially epic films throughout his career, most notably a grandiose and highly detailed biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte with Jack Nicholson set to star. The film was originally to follow 2001: A Space Odyssey, then later during the time between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket but somehow never developed. Many speculate that the film’s scope and more importantly its budget was just too big. Some believe the coinciding release of the epic film adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the film Waterloo played into the projects delay. Others believe the major studio system shot the idea down. 

What little is known about the project comes from Kubrick’s estate, which featured countless articles, books and roughly 25,000 note cards chronicling day-to-day happenings of France’s notorious tyrant. Rumor has it Kubrick even had ties with the Romanian army, which was going to lend the ambitious filmmaker roughly ten thousands soldiers for extensive battle sequences. 

It’s possible that Kubrick spent much of his life dwelling on this one project. Add this to Kubrick’s original vision of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (another project he supposedly worked on for much of his life) and a proposed Holocaust film calledThe Aryan Papers that was scrapped around the same time as Schindler’s List and you have a director who still had some tricks up his sleeve before his untimely departure. 

Tackling Cervantes

One of the most fascinating film projects that failed to launch on a number of occasions was the adaptation of the Spanish literary giant Don Quixote. Following Citizen Kane Orson Welles was attached to the project and actually shot a great deal of footage but the project eventually fell through due to Welles’ reliance on independent filmmaking and the death of the film’s star. Welles continued editing the film throughout his lifetime and was supposedly set to complete the film before his death in 1985. Unfortunately much of the footage was eventually lost and what little was left was released in the early 90s as an incomplete version of the film directed by smut filmmaker Jesus Franco. (It should be noted that Welles was notorious for having countless other projects under way during his career. Another notable example was a proposed adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was later loosely adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now)

In 2000 director Terry Gilliam took on the Quixote tale and added his own modern twist. The project entitled, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, eventually crashed and burned due to countless obstacles during the production, including, yet again, a serious injury inflicted on the film’s star. At the time the film boasted to have one of the largest budgets of any film shot in entirely in Europe (roughly $40 million) and Gilliam had admitted that it would be his most ambitious project to date. In 2002 a fascinating documentary, Lost in La Mancha, was released chronicling the film’s rise and fall.

More Terry Gilliam
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is just one of many films that Gilliam failed to complete. His most recent effort, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was put on hiatus after the unexpected death of its star, Heath Ledger but is not back on board. Gilliam once tackled another literary opus, The Tale of Two Cities, originally with Mel Gibson (he dropped out to direct Braveheart) and then Liam Nesson (not a big enough star according to the studio) on board to star. Ultimately the film fell apart due to conflicts with the studio financing the project (money has never seemed to agree with Gilliam’s creativity). During the early 90s he twice attempted to get Alan Moore’s monumental graphic novel Watchmen made into a film and was J.K. Rowling’s first pick to helm the first Harry Potter film, The Philosopher’s Stone. Fans of Gilliam might also be interested to know that he’s long had a script for a Time Bandits sequel floating around, another possible classic destined to go to his grave

From Star Wars to Dune to Blade Runner

Often times films shuffle around the creative players with projects often going through multiple scripts and different visionaries. George Lucas had always expressed his admiration for surrealist David Lynch, particularly his film Eraserhead, and at one point tried to woo him towards the director’s chair of Return of the Jedi (originally titled Revenge of the Jedi). Lynch instead ended up taking the helm of another sci-fi epic, the adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. 

Dune itself went through many different incarnations. In the 1970s epic filmmakers David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) and Alejandro Jodorowsky were both set to take on the novel. Jodorowsky was very close to making a version starring Mr. Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and, get this, Salvador Dalí as the emperor. If Jodorowsky’s version would have gone through it is said Pink Floyd would have provided music for the soundtrack. Later in the 80s before Lynch finally took the reins Ridley Scott was attached to direct (he would go on to later direct Blade Runner and Alien shortly after).

ImageThe Best of the Rest 
Dalí Disney Project: 
Around the same time painter Salvador Dalí was collaborating with fellow surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchock he began storyboarding an animated short film for Walt Disney entitled Destino. The film remained as just that–a vision and a collection of drawings and test animation footage–until 2003 when it was finally completed by a group of animators with the blessings of Roy Disney for use in the never finalized Fantasia 2006. NOTE: The film was eventually released for film festivals and briefly played before the filmCalendar Girls during its theatrical release. The original Dalí incarnation will never truly be imagined on screen though. 

Stalingrad: Italian Spaghetti Western auteur Sergio Leone was hard at work at the end of the 1980s on a film chronicling the siege at Stalingrad during World War II. With a supposed large budget of over $100 million, half funded by Americans, half by Russians with Robert De Niro in line to star, this project might have been Leone’s final epic masterpiece.

Kaleidoscope: Hitchcock’s Darkest Film: After Alfred Hitchcock hit a low point in the mid 60s after his film Marnie failed to capture the same suspense as previous endeavors he began work on a radically different script about a violent killer who dabbled in necrophilia. Much to the dismay of studio execs Hitchcock wanted the film to be shot from the POV of the killer, he was keen on utilizing more experimental or “European” filmmaking techniques, and also planned for an elaborate death sequence involving an acid bath. The 60s title was originally Kaleidoscope, however, after the film failed to get a go-ahead from any studio, despite Hitchcock’s plan to film with a miniscule budget, aspects of the story were eventually fleshed out a decade later on screen in 1976s Frenzy

Scoring the Silver Screen


This past year was no doubt a good one for Radiohead. The internet exclusive, pay what you want download release of its seventh album garnered enough media attention that even mentioning it again seems pointless. Still one of the most interesting, partially overlooked news to come out of U.K.s best export is guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s venture into film scoring.

There Will be Blood technically opened towards the end of 2007 in select theaters, but is just now getting a wide release. The long anticipated fifth film from filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) is not only one of the finer films you’ll see but features a bizarre yet stirring score from Mr. Greenwood.

Greenwood has in many ways always been the core of Radiohead. Sure lead singer Thom Yorke’s lyrics and musical visions are monumental to the band’s success but it’s multi talented Greenwood’s ambitions and constant desire to change what sound means to music that makes him the driving force of the group. The classically trained musician seems right at home conducting a full symphony orchestra for the scoring of There Will Be Blood possibly because part of his brilliance is taking any instrument or musical medium at his disposal and completely stretching the limits of its range and sound.

While There Will be Blood’s score may not win any awards this season the likes of which generally fall towards household pioneers such as John Williams, Howard Shore or Thomas Newman, Greenwood’s step into film scoring is exciting because this venture may be the start of a long career into cinema.

If done right film scoring can be an amazing part of the cinematic experience. A good score is as important to the story and overall feel of a film as the actors themselves, adding to the allure of the escapism of film. The greats are still adored, hummed and applauded even today. John Williams’ minimalist nightmare crescendo from Jaws, Max Steiner’s beautiful medley for Gone with the Wind, or Bernard Herrmann’s universally known frenzied string score for Psycho or his slow burning moody jazz cuts for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, among others, are some of the most memorable scores in history.

Greenwood’s take on PT Anderson’s film of greed, corruption, and the birth of ruthless modern capitalism compliments the films frenzied, chaotic themes while also adding flavors of early 20th Western movie lore musicology. Perhaps its wishful thinking on my part but I hope this is just his beginning. Since I’m a sucker for moving film scores I decided to compile a list of recent film composers that continue to stand out in my mind and are destined to go down in history as some of the greats. Please feel free to add.

Hans Zimmer–I begin with Hans Zimmer because, like Greenwood, Zimmer began his career in popular music and transferred his unique talent over to silver screen scoring. As a keyboardist for The Buggles (80s one hit wonders responsible for the iconic/ironic MTV premiere music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star”) he got a taste for the popular music industry but clearly was destined for bigger things. From his sublime score for Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (seriously download this if you’ve never heard it), to Rain Man, True Romance, The Lion King, Gladiator (a beautiful score to an overly hyped film), Black Hawk Down and most recently taking on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Zimmer remains one of the most innovative scorers working today. His continued collaborations with siren vocalist Lisa Gerrard should also be noted. Key Tracks: “Journey to the Line” (Thin Red Line), “Gortoz A Ran J’Attends(Black Hawk Down), “Elysium” (Gladiator)

Gustavo Santaolalla–This Argentine classical guitarist first made a splash after his haunting instrumental piece “Iguazú” was featured in the soundtrack for the shamefully overlooked 1997 film, The Insider, and later on countless other film’s, television shows, and commercials. Since then he has partnered up with Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzaléz Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), provided moving scores for The Motorcycle Diaries, North Country, and is set to score Walter Salles’ upcoming adaptation of On the Road. Still his finest work yet is also the one that was ruined by public satire. Despite being an overall beautiful film, Brokeback Mountain has one of the finest scores in recent years but somehow countless Youtube parodies of the film’s themes have ruined what is an extremely moving score. Other Key Tracks: “El Otro Lado Del Rio” (The Motorcycle Diaries), “Can Things be Better” (21 Grams), “Tema + Atacama” (Amores Perros)

Trevor Jones–While this South African composer’s heyday was during the early nineties, he produced possibly one of the finest scores to ever pair up with a motion picture. His epic compositions (co-credited to Randy Edelman) for Michael Mann’s film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans were the perfect musical backdrop for the film’s vast natural settings and intense chase storyline. He also collaborated with Mr. David Bowie on the soundtrack to the dark muppet tale, Labyrinth. I know there are some “Magic Dance” fans out there. Key Tracks: “Promontory” (Last of the Mohicans)

Match Made in Heaven: Some of the most notable composers working today are the ones that continue to team-up with equally unique filmmakers. Film after film these gifted duos always seem to find that special artistic bond. Clint Mansell’s work on all three of Darren Aronofsky’s films (Pi, Requiem For a Dream, The Fountain), rock hipster Jon Brion’s collaborations with indie film hipster P.T. Anderson (Hard Eight, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), Cliff Martinez’s longstanding work with Steven Soderbergh (King of the Hill, The Limey, Traffic, Solaris), veteran maestro Angelo Badalamenti’s dark yet hauntingly beautiful work with surrealist David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) and finally jazz trumpet extraordinaire Terrence Blanchard’s ongoing partnership with Spike Lee, most notably his moving requiems for the must-see HBO post-Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke and his score for the films Clockers and 25th Hour. Also lets not forget Howard Shore’s long standing partnership with David Cronenberg, which has now spawned a Broadway musical adaptation of Cronenberg’s gross out 80s horror classic, The Fly. Key Tracks: Besides seeing all the great films mentioned, check out this innovative and unique group of composers wherever you acquire music.

Ennio Morricone–This is cheating since Morricone is a veteran scorer, still for those who are not familiar with his work he is hands down the greatest living film composer. This Italian legend has contributed to over 400 projects and has created some of the finest pieces of music out there (whole symphonies are devoted to his scores). While he’s most well known for his work with Spaghetti Western filmmaker Sergio Leone–his scores for A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West–Morricone’s best work can be found in the forgotten masterpiece, 1986s The Mission. Also worth noting are his scoring for The Untouchables, Days of Heaven, Cinema Paradiso, and State of Grace. Key Tracks: “Ecstasy of Gold” and “The Trio” (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), “Falls” (The Mission), “The Harvest” (Days of Heaven)

Films You May Have Missed in 2007

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 So it’s the end of the year and you know what that means, the inevitable swarm of Top Ten lists. Whether it be a magazine, newspaper, or website, it seems anyone and everyone dealing with popular culture sums up the year with a series of rankings. For the most part, these lists are predictable and unanimous. In the music arena there is Kanye’s Graduation heading off against The Boss’ Magic or indie sensation, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible versus internet music marketing savvy Radiohead who kind of unleashed In Rainbows this year (this album may also be on next year’s lists…). In the realm of cinema, people can’t stop talking about the Coen’s haunting return to form in No Country For Old Men or Oscar hopeful George Clooney’s “proof that I’m more than just a pretty face” legal drama vehicle, Michael Clayton.
 
Now I could follow suit and provide a short-list of this year’s highlights and award season shoe-ins but it would be more of the same. I’ve always been interested in shedding light on the films that for some reason or another fail to make the lists and are worthy of some attention. The following are ten films, in no particular order, that most people may have missed this year.

Film:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
It’s easy to see why this film had a short life in the theaters and failed to garner any major attention. This is not the suave, ultra charming Brad Pitt that most moviegoers are used. This is why it’s also one of his best performances. This film has been labeled a Western when in reality it’s about an early form of stardom in American history and the obsession and corruption that comes with it. Pitt’s performance is full of detailed nuances that bring both a sense of melancholy and fear to his take on the legendary James. The cinematography by one Roger Deakins (also behind No Country For Old Men) is some of most richly toned and distinctive in recent years and Casey Affleck’s take on the Coward is one of the finest performances this year (seriously, he’s ten times the actor his brother is). Still very few people actually saw this in the theaters, which is a shame since its also one of the most visually stunning films you’ll see this year completely worthy of the $9 admission ticket.

The Lookout

This little indie film from last spring featured yet another scene stealing performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, arguably one of the better young actors working today (sorry Shia Lebouf). This small town bank heist sleeper is one part Fargo, one part Simple Plan, with a little Memento thrown in the pot and features a scene stealing performance by Jeff Daniels, one of this generation’s most underused actors.

Sunshine

Danny Boyle is by far one of the most unique and diverse filmmakers working today who–and I know people will find fault in this comment–is likening his career to that of Stanley Kubrick. Allow me explain. Similar to Kubrick, Boyle continues to change his style up with every film. Trainspotting put him on the map with the same grittiness and eye opening themes and imagery as A Clockwork Orange28 Days Later was his foray into horror, helping to reinvent the zombie genre for this generation (Kubrick’s The Shining remains one of the finest thrillers out there), and Millions showed he could do a children’s story (Kubrick’s A.I. would have been a similar venture). Sunshine, Boyle’s sci-fi epic holds many comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey–beautiful special effects, moving score, and a things fall apart in space storyline–but is also an extremely unique film with a fairly believable premise, which also serves as scathing social commentary to that inconvenient truth that Gore was on about.

28 Weeks Later
Speaking of 28 Days Later, this surprisingly good sequel to Boyle’s instant classic zombie nightmare film featured one of the best opening chase scenes of any scary movie in recent years, had a fairly original and unique storyline for a sequel and above all was as frightening as its predecessor. Still this film had a short run in the theaters but should not be missed if you’re up for a good old-fashioned scare.

Zodiac
During the rush of Award season hopefuls it’s easy to forget the films that were released earlier in the year. David Fincher has long been a master of the modern thriller but Zodiac was proof that he also had a knack for crafting a realistic investigation flick, in the same vein as All the President’s Men. Add a stellar performance by the always-great Robert Downey Jr. and you have a forgotten slow burner from last spring that should be sought out on DVD.

Into the Wild

Sean Penn’s faithful adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name may be my favorite film this year. Perhaps its because I’ve always loved a good road movie, or maybe I just have a certain level of admiration for the character of Christopher McCandless who in the early 90s set off on a major walkabout of the America’s heartland. Penn has always had a knack for directing (seriously seek his little seen 2001 film The Pledge that featured Jack Nicholson’s best role of the decade) and his young star Emile Hirsch joins the ranks of Gordon-Levitt as one of the best young actors working today.

Paris, Je T’aime

It’s hard to make a bad film about the beauty and magic of the city of Paris and sure enough this collection of vignettes from a crew of international filmmakers doesn’t disappoint. Sure some film shorts are better than others but overall this is a beautiful and at times surreal look at the city of love. Highlight segments: “Quais de Seine” Gurinder Chadha’s (Bend It Like Beckham) lovely boy meets girl story, which is sure to bring a smile to your face and the Coen Brothers’ brilliant use of Steve Buscemi as a confused and unlucky American tourist.

Lucky Miles

This instant classic from Down Under has yet to get a wide release but was one of the gems I was lucky enough to see at Chicago’s International Film Festival earlier this fall. In true indie fashion this film relies on a clever often-funny storyline, great performances by extreme unknowns and an important social commentary floating just under the surface. It’s also a film that should be seen fresh without any prior knowledge of the plot so I’ll leave it at that.

No End In Sight

Forget Sicko. If you see one documentary this year your time should go towards this scathing look at the Iraq war. Told by the people behind the downward spiral of our presence in Iraq, this film will/should make even the staunchest of conservatives second-guess our current administration.
Rescue Dawn
Werner Herzog is one of cinema’s best-kept secrets. He’s a natural filmmaker who isn’t afraid to tackle some of the toughest and most fascinating tales and has a unique adoration for natural surroundings. Dawn joins the ranks of The Great EscapeThe Deer Hunter,Escape from Alcatraz and even The Pianist as one of the finest escape/survival films out there and is also a fascinating look at the pre-stages of the Vietnam war. Funnyman character actor Steve Zahn delivers a career best dramatic performance and Christian Bale proves that even though he stars as everyone’s favorite caped crusader, he still has time for thought provoking and challenging roles.

That Actor, From That Movie


Character Actors


For every leading A-grade actor, every tabloid luminary there are countless, equally talented character actors stealing the show from their more mainstream costars. These actors often have heavily padded resumes and work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. While moviegoers usually recognize these actors many will often have trouble matching a name to a face. This “what’s that actor’s name?” commonality is probably amusing to the actors (Being John Malkovich shed light on this with satirical brilliance) and quite possibly embraced in the acting community, however, it is important to credit and praise these talents.

It could be said that “character acting” is kind of a redundant term since the essence of acting has always been taking on the form of different characters and personas and making it your own. Still since the dawn of celluloid this title has been reserved for a certain sect of actors and actresses who devour every role they’re handed. Classic legends such as Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon), Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen, Marty) to more contemporary greats like Steve Buscemi (quite possibly a modern day Lorre), the impeccable Gary Oldman (seriously this versatile and terribly underrated actor has played it all and brings shear brilliance to each role), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joey Pantoliano, Harry Dean Stanton and Paul Giamatti to name a few, are versatile actors who slip from role to role with care and ease, always putting out a stellar performance even in the bleakest of films.

Many of these character actors have hit it big landing more leading roles and garnering award attention, however, the truly great ones continue to pick their roles wisely and despite their new found fame are persistent with their scene stealing ways. Widely known examples such as Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects, John C. Reilly in P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight and Magnolia, Frances McDormand in Fargo, Chris Cooper in American Beauty, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Danny Aiello in Do The Right Thing, Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, to name a few, may now sound cliché but are still prime examples of highly skilled actors stealing the show with small character roles.

I was reminded of the allure of great character actors this past week after I saw three great new releases, all of which featured stand out performances from a number of new and veteran character actors.

Michael Clayton, the new legal drama and George Clooney vehicle shows that yes, Clooney can act and is more than just a pretty Hollywood face, however, while his acting chops were top notch it was two of his supporting thespians that truly caught my attention. Tom Wilkinson has been making films (usually out of the spotlight) since the 70s but only recently garnered the attention and diverse roles he deserved. He’s played the devastated, vengeance filled father (In the Bedroom), the light-hearted comedic role (The Full Monty), the quirky human psyche specialist (Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind) and even stole the show with a small but memorable role in Shakespeare in Love. With Clayton he masters his role as a crazed legal genius going through a bizarre mid-life crisis who comes to a startling realization and questions his morals. His performance, along with co-star Tilda Swinton, who plays a conniving corporate lackey, is so strongly executed that event he finest of details (body language, eye contact) are brought to life strengthening two fairly minor but important roles.

The newest addition to this wonderfully welcomed new-wave Western revival, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, featured a great performance by Brad Pitt (a star who is best in projects that he’s no doubt passionate about) and an even better one by Casey Affleck (a longtime superior actor to his older brother), however, it was some of the minor roles that truly caught my eye, specifically by one Garret Dillahunt. In James Dillahunt’s character is minor and merely serves to aid the plot, however, his few scenes with Pitt’s Jesse James are spellbinding to watch due to the actor’s patience with his character and brilliant attention to the finer nuances of his slow-witted character (see the movie to understand this). This actor has a short film list to credit but is quickly becoming the go to man for Western and early American History period pieces thanks to his outstanding performances (he actually plays two different roles during two different seasons) on HBOs brilliant short-lived Western drama, “Deadwood.” With an upcoming role in the highly anticipated modern Western No Country For Old Men and two more films in the works Dillahunt seems to be on the right track towards a promising acting future ahead of him, one where he will no doubt wear many different faces.

Finally I was awe struck by veteran character actor Hal Holbrook’s (All the President’s Men), moving performance in Sean Penn’s must see film, Into the Wild. Here’s a movie that features a number of fine bit roles from a number of great actors including Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and even a toned down Vince Vaughn (if you ever saw Return to Paradise you’ll know Vaughn is more versatile then people think), who all shine with small but juicy supporting roles. Still it’s Holbrook’s turn as a complicated, deeply saddened nobody whose eyes of the world are reopened by a young vagabond that truly stands out.

I could probably throw out an even longer list of great character actors working today–for those curious here are some others: Javier Bardem (his creepy role in the upcoming No Country for Old Men has people talking already), Danny Huston (Angelica’s gifted brother; see The Proposition), Danny Trejo (go-to-man for crazy Mexican desert biker roles), Alfred Molina (from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Frida, he’s done it all), Dylan Baker (go to man for square everyman, oh, and creepy pedophile), Ted Levine (chilled audiences with his flawless portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs and still pops up in film and on TV), and Billy Bob Thornton (ok so he’s a bit mainstream but some of his early roles, specifically the indie sleeper A Simple Plan, are simply jaw dropping). People joke about the universal “What’s that actor’s name?” discussions when talking about character actors but what’s interesting about this is that these are the faces that we continue to remember from past movies. More often than not we favor the smaller roles over the obvious star performances.