Thursday, September 18, 2014

On My Fifth Birthday: My Top 10 Movie Soundtracks

A friend recently sent me a clip, which I was trying to avoid watching for a few days at all costs. But then I watched it, and when you compare it to the real glorious event, it makes you think: what a fascinating concept film music is, and how (as shown in this simple example) it defines some of the cinema's greatest moments.

I mean, how can you even imagine a shark fin rising from the waters, a knife (supposedly) stabbing a girl in the shower, or a prehistoric ape smashing an animal's bones ... without hearing the soundtrack in the back of your mind? Those scenes don't exist without the soundtrack.

So I thought, for the occasion of the blog's fifth birthday, how about spicing it up by posting my 10 favorite soundtracks of all time? I'm neither counting movies with a compilation of songs as soundtracks (so unfortunately Grease and Saturday Night Fever and all Tarantino movies are out), nor any musicals (sorry, Sound of Music). The list is composed of original music written purely for the movie. Each composer gets only one chance - otherwise, John Williams would have grabbed at least 7 of the 10 slots.

And for each movie, I'll post the track the film reminds me of the most, ... so get ready for things to get a little strange here. In alphabetical order:

1. 1492: Conquest of Paradise (Vangelis, 1992)

Vangelis has quite a few great moments in the movie world, primarily the soundtracks of Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. But Ridley Scott made this incredible Christopher Columbus film (which I'm not sure why it bombed), and Vangelis composed its even greater soundtrack. Among the tracks, the actual moment Columbus and his crew set foot on America is made both victorious and menacing, because of Vangelis' music.

2. Dances With Wolves (John Barry, 1990)

I know, John Barry means James Bond soundtracks. But the guy got five Oscars for his works, and none of them were for Bond movies. Among the Oscar winners, I have some incredible sense of nostalgia for Dances With Wolves, and although this would be considered the film's most recognized theme, the following track resonates with me the most: the film is almost over, the Indians' lands will soon be lost, and their struggle was for nothing.

"Dances with Wolves! I am Wind In His Hair! Do you see that I am your friend?! Can you see that you will always be my friend?!"

3. Edward Scissorhands (Danny Elfman, 1990)

This movie seems to end up on all my ten favorite things of everything. But I can't elude its magic - especially the ending scene, where we finally realize where snow comes from (Edward is making ice statues on the hilltop). Listen to how the dream-like main them walks you through the climactic last scene, and blends in with the end credits, in "The Grand Finale":

4. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Ennio Morricone, 1966)

How can any favorite movie soundtrack list be complete without a mention of Ennio Morricone? In my very humble opinion, the entire Western genre culminates in this one greatest scene, when after hours (in our time) of searching ... Tuco is finally there. He's finally found the cemetery where the treasure is buried. All he needs to do, is to find the gravestone. So he keeps on looking - in circles and circles. Listen to how the music crescendos at a dizzying speed as he runs; how the glory of this moment would have been impossible without Morricone's music. Fortunately, I found the actual scene:

5. The Message (Maurice Jarre, 1977)

I guessed Maurice Jarre specialized in composing foreign melodies: Russian for Doctor Zhivago, Arabic for Lawrence of Arabia, Indian for A Passage to India. But he also wrote the Arabic-themed soundtrack for this lesser known movie in Western countries, The Message, about the life of Mohammad, which by some estimates is the most-seen movie of all time. Geographical setting aside, I've never heard of a soundtrack more appropriately "spiritual". And considering that Jarre also wrote the mesmerizing soundtrack for Jesus of Nazareth, I guess you can infer a certain amount about the man's spiritual side:

By the way, you can find the full movie here.

6. North by Northwest (Bernard Hermann, 1959)

When it comes to Bernard Hermann, not mentioning Psycho's soundtrack (chopped up lines in a background of choppy music, describing a shattered mind) would be a crime. But I can't help it. When I think of the names Hermann and Hitchcock, I hear the opening rumbles of North by Northwest first.

7. The Omen (Jerry Goldsmith, 1976)

As soon as I mention hardworking Goldsmith's only Oscar-winner, you may think of Ave Satani. But nothing matches the scene where Gregory Peck and David Warner are attacked by dogs at the cemetery. (Second mention of a cemetery; cemeteries must be very soundtrack-prone.) Without watching the film and just by listening, you can follow step by step what is happening in the scene. Which is actually the beauty of a great soundtrack.

I couldn't find a separate YouTube clip, but the above-described track starts from minute 32:30, ending at 35:50:

8. The Rock (Hans Zimmer, 1996)

With all his improvisations, Hans Zimmer is getting up there as one of the highest ranking soundtrack composers in movie history. But this was the one that introduced me to him first. The entire Rock soundtrack is an incredibly energizing experience, and if you listen to the music for the San Francisco chase scene (Nicholas Cage driving a Ferrari in hot pursuit of Sean Connery's Hummer), you may achieve road rage status. So seriously, don't listen to this while driving.

9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (James Horner, 1982)

Interestingly, as crappy as the first Star Trek movie was, Jerry Goldsmith's music was so good, they used it for the New Generation TV series. But then James Horner (of later Aliens and Braveheart and Legends of the Fall and A Beautiful Mind and Titanic and ... soundtracks fame) came along, and wrote music of such power and allure for the second installment, that combined with the movie's memorable story, surpassed all expectation, and made The Wrath of Khan the best Star Trek movie to this day. You can find the entire soundtrack online, but my favorite track belongs to the film's most pivotal scene: a parallel editing between Kirk in the Enterprise, and Khan in the Reliant, when after so many years, Khan's moment of revenge has come, and he utters the lovely sentence:

"Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold in space ..."

10. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (John Williams, 1980)

When it comes to John Williams, how can one possibly choose? Which soundtrack? Which track? Do you go with the music accompanying ... humans communicating with the Mother Ship? The bicycle flying into the night? Indy on the rope bridge? Seeing the brachiosaurus for the first time? Or Oskar Schindler having a nervous breakdown? Utterly impossible.

So the best you can do, is to come up with the best compilation - the best "whole".

In that regard, three movies shine: Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. ANH is probably John Williams most recognized achievement, but when assessing a movie soundtrack in its entirety, I believe ESB is 'slightly' more profound. This soundtrack has so many everlasting moments: the Imperial March, the battle in the snow, the asteroid field scene, and even Yoda's beautiful theme. But in terms of movie background music, one track stands out, and I told you, this will get strange: "The Duel".

Starts out with Vader using the Force to hurl huge objects at Luke, then moves to Leia and Lando fighting their way through Bespin's corridors to reach the Millennium Falcon, R2-D2 decoding and opening the platform gate, and the ship swooping away with four uplifting notes. Listen, and you can actually "see" these events happening right before your eyes.

So ... which are your favorite soundtracks?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Coherence (2013)

Director: James Ward Byrkit. Cast: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon. 89 min. Sci-fi/Thriller.

Group of people gathered at a night party gradually realize the house across the street is a mirror image of their own reality - same people, some actions, ... and same frightened interactions with themselves. This creates a very bizarre philosophical situation, where people start forgetting which guest belongs to which side, which side is reality, and which side the alternate reality. With some suspense/horror undertones, this is an entertainingly complicated story, but other than the small point of "don't take anything for granted", the take-home message was lost on me. Of course our lives can take infinite alternative paths; so what?

Mo says:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Willow Creek (2013)

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait. Cast: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson. 77 min. Unrated. Horror/Mystery.

In 'found footage' format, young couple hikes deep into California forests to visit the Patterson-Gimlin site where the only known footage of Bigfoot/Sasquatch was shot in 1967, and possibly even see the beast itself. The Blair Witch Project comparisons are inevitable, and the ending is predictable just by reading these few words. Still, the last third of the movie is a feat of "artistic terror" I've rarely experienced, and includes an extended night-time tent scene, with a completely still camera on its protagonists, and the sheer madness of forest noises ... for a full 16 minutes! Must-see for horror gurus.

Mo says:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Giver (2014)

Director: Phillip Noyce. Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift. 97 min. Rated PG-13. Sci-fi/Drama.

The whole Hunger Games/Divergent teenager-chosen-among-crowds-of-a-post-apocalyptic-dystopian-future is getting so out of control, even stories written 20 years ago are jumping on the bandwagon. Actually, this one has interesting concepts, about a society that maintains peace by injecting memory-erasing drugs to their subjects, but preserves history by one "Giver" transferring memories to a "Receiver" (but then again, why not also eliminate the Giver-Receiver system?). The fatal flaw, is that the movie spends an hour defining the territory, but then as soon as the narrative starts gaining momentum, the ending is so rushed, you suddenly go: "Whaaaaa? What happened?" Deadly sequel-hungry screenplay.

PS: If you don't already know before the movie, you deserve a prize if you can spot Taylor Swift.

Mo says:

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Two Lives (Zwei Leben) (2012)

Director(s): Georg Maas, Judith Kaufmann. Cast: Juliane Köhler, Liv Ullmann, Sven Nordin, Rainer Bock. 97 min. Germany/Norway. Drama/Thriller.

If you've seen (and loved) The Lives of Others, this can act as a companion case. Without spoiling anything, it asks: Remember the GDR Stasi agents in that movie? What happened to them after the Berlin Wall fell? Do they feel guilty, and if they do, how do they cope with their past? That guilty feeling can be material for great cinematic drama - excavated for its potential in Two Lives. The protagonists here act as movie "heroes" do (and not necessarily as most criminals against humanity do in real life), but still, it's a story you can strongly root for.

PS: Thank you, Kaleem, for the fascinating recommendation.

PPS: This is streaming on Netflix.

Mo says:

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)

Director: Lasse Hallström. Cast: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon. 122 min. Rated PG. India/UAE/USA. Drama.

There are food movies, and there are feel-good movies. But then there's a feel-good-food-movie from a seasoned director, which you haven't seen the like of in years, about a charming culture clash in a small French village, which literally "feasts" the eyes with breath-taking panoramas and numerous close-ups on its mesmerizing actors, and charms the ears with a mixed Eastern/Western soundtrack. Even if it didn't have a story (which it actually does), I don't remember the last time I felt so elated for a full two hours. There would've been more peace in the world with more movies like this.

"Maybe the brakes break for a reason."

PS: Thank you, Emmie! Your very first recommendation got the highest honor!

Mo says:

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

To Be Takei (2014)

Director: Jennifer M. Kroot. 94 min. Documentary.

George Takei's life has three prominent aspects: his role as Sulu on Star Trek, his childhood internment in an Arkansas camp during WWII, and his gay activism. Mostly people know him for the first, and I was interested in the second; to understand how he overcame the bitterness for his own country, and become such a positive figure. Well, the film is almost entirely about his gay activism. Not only that, it appoints a significant portion to his partner, who doesn't seem like a very pleasant guy, or at least isn't too bankable for artistic purposes. Somewhat prejudiced and disappointing.

Mo says:

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Frank (2014)

Director: Lenny Abrahamson. Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal. 95 min. Rated R. UK/Ireland. Comedy/Drama.

Rocker wannabe joins an eccentric band (aren't they all?) lead by a musician with a big fake head. I know, it's so odd. But with some patience, you'll find this an extremely brave and poignant film. Some of the symbolism ("fake" head, shattered head) is obvious, but the film is mostly open to interpretation. My take: it's a more complicated rendering of one Woody Allen film, that some eccentricities are better left untouched. As with any Fassbender movie (even when he has a big fake head on), I found this recommendable. Guaranteed to hum the ending song when it's over.

Mo says:

Monday, September 8, 2014

Night Moves (2013)

Director: Kelly Reichardt. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard. 112 min. Rated R. Drama/Thriller.

Based on bizarre theories ("... hundreds of salmons are killed to power up an iPad"), three nerdy environmentalists plan a terrorist attack to explode a dam, with consequences that apparently are only unknown to the protagonists, as the massive risks of blowing up dams are quite obvious. Well-directed drama with nicely-spaced moments of nail-biting suspense, starring Jesse Eisenberg (currently the "go-to guy" for nerdy characters) has an anti-climactic ending that leaves the viewer hanging - as expected from the artsy director of Wendy and Lucy.

Mo says:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director: Peter Bagdanovich. Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Randy Quaid. 118 min. Rated R. Drama.

A desolate Texan town in the 1950s is dying, and the sudden death of one of its locals exponentially accelerates the process. Some movies provide a very detailed snapshot of how it must have been to live in a certain time and place, and although I wasn't around at the time, this film with its bleak black-and-white cinematography (which oddly lost the Oscar to Fiddler on the Roof that year),  offers the atmosphere of such a life, and what people do when there's nothing to do in a very small town where every single move is known to everybody.

Mo says:

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Mira Sorvino, Helena Bonham Carter, F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, Paul Giamatti, Peter Weller, Jack Warden. 95 min. Rated R. Comedy.

The good thing about Woody Allen is that he's directed up to 50 films, so you can always go back and watch the ones you've missed. Among them, this was a pure delight. In addition to Allen's usual neurotic characters, memorable dialogue, and twisted couple relationships, this also adds the spices of a very unpredictable ending (exactly how fate works), Mira Sorvino's dominance as the "hooker with a heart of gold" (actually the leading actress, but shoved in as a supporting to get her an Oscar), and an immensely creative Greek chorus line that acts as Woody's usual reproaching conscience.

- "Achilles only had an Achilles heel, I have an entire Achilles body."

- "Who is the boss between you and mommy?"
- "Who is the boss? You have to ask that? I'm the boss, okay? Mommy is only the decision maker. You know, there's a difference between ... Mommy says what we do, ... and I have control of the channel changer."

- "I'm not a violence person! I write about boxing and hockey and football!"

- "My father's brother was supposed to be a genius. I never met him, but everybody said he was brilliant."
- "Really? What did he do?"
- "He was a serial rapist. He spent his whole life in jail, but if he had gone straight, he might have been very good in math."

PS: So I still need to see Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alice, September, Broadway Danny Rose, Interiors, ...

Mo says:

The Trip (2010)

Director: Michael Winterbottom. Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon. 107 min. Not Rated. UK. Drama/Comedy.

Here's my roller-coaster ride with Steve Coogan: I found his 90% rated Tristram Shandy (also directed by Winterbottom and co-starring Brydon) obnoxious and boring to death, but then his role in Philomena a lovingly obnoxious performance. So when this year The Trip to Italy, the Winterbottom/Coogan/Brydon sequel to The Trip opened, I gave Coogan another chance. Again, I was bored to death. I don't see the point of making a movie about two people eating in fancy restaurants and (artfully) impersonating famous actors. If I ever do watch the sequel, it will be just to watch more impersonations.

PS: Let me save you some time. Watch some of the incredible impersonations here.

Mo says: