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Inherent Vice – Film and Score Review

Inherent Vice: Film and Score Review

Man, was I looking forward to Inherent Vice.  Like many people of my generation who got into film in the late 1990s, P.T. Anderson is a giant; he’s our exhibit A whenever we need to argue that we have auteurs who can step with the best of the ‘70s film brats.  For that matter, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is on my personal shortlist of favorite books (I’m a bad Pynchon fan who prefers the later, shaggier books to the canonized masterpieces like The Crying of Lot 49; it’s sort of like being Rolling Stones fan who could take or leave Exile on Main Street but is really, really into A Bigger Bang).  So when Paul Thomas Anderson announced plans to film Inherent Vice, seemingly months after its publication, I was needless to say excited.  One of my favorite living authors adapted by one of my favorite living film directors – how often do those worlds converge?

Yet all throughout the hype, I had a hard time biting back a few reservations.  Anderson had yet to make bad film, and his then most recent two – There Will Be Blood and The Master – are both frontrunners for the best films of the 21st century.  Yet throughout the past decade, Anderson has also become an increasingly formal and deliberate director.  While his films all have bracing moments of dark humor, none of them could be construed as light, fun, or whimsical (Punch-Drunk Love might comes the closest, but it takes a long, rage-fueled road to get to its happy ending).  Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, on the other hand, for all of its darker satire and bittersweetness, is a breezy, daffy Krazy Kat comic strip in novel form.  It doesn’t leave behind the grim paranoia or cynicism of the author’s earlier masterpieces, but its overall tone is one of warm, sentimental fondness for a lost anarchic sensibility.  These aren’t qualities I associate with Anderson, and after watching his adaptation of the novel, it’s clear that I never will.  The film of the Inherent Vice was clearly made by extraordinarily talented people, and it’s at the very least a fascinating experiment.  But – at least on first viewing – my overall sense is that it’s an experiment that doesn’t work.  Anderson and his collaborators have certainly poured as much of Pynchon’s prose as was possible onto the screen, but in attempting such a fastidious and literal adaptation, the filmmakers both suffocate the delicate tone of the book and lose any opportunity to make a film that works in its own right.

I’ll grant that on one hand it’s hard for me look at the film entirely objectively.  There’s clearly a disconnect between what made the book special for me and what made the book special for Anderson.  As a story, Inherent Vice places its finger on the transition between the freedom of the ‘60s and the paranoid cynicism of the ‘70s, and I suppose that how you interpret the book is going to depend on which side of that divide comes across more vividly for you.  For me, the novel’s exuberant tone makes the whole enterprise feel much more like a warm embrace of the gleeful anarchy of a distant time than an anxious warning of the turbulent time to follow.  Anderson, however, seems to have taken that vague sense of paranoia as his way into the story.  While the director has kept some of the book’s humor in the form of outright slapstick, the film by and large takes a much more tense, heavy-handed tone than anything I remember from the novel.  In the book, the convoluted conspiracy plot rarely feels like more than a loose framework to zip the reader through a series of crazed vignettes.  Anderson ditches most of those vignettes, and instead pushes us through the conspiracy narrative step by step, as though he were making an actual thriller.  Which by itself is fine – if the director is more interested thumbing through every layer of the Golden Fang conspiracy than he is in pondering why Donald Duck grows 5 O’Clock shadow when he’s lost at sea, well, it’s Anderson’s adaptation.  But even allowing for this difference in interpretation, the slavishly literal-minded approach Anderson takes to this adaptation severely hinders his ability to make a film that works on its own terms.

Much of the problem comes from the near-reverential way the film handles Pynchon’s prose.  Huge chunks of the novel are lifted verbatim for the film, delivered both by Joanna Newsom as the film’s narrator/chorus and by characters delivering long-winding expository monologues.  While it’s easy to admire the director’s attempt at honoring the novel, the issue is that little of this prose was ever meant to be spoken.  Pynchon is one of the best living prose stylists, but the quality of his writing largely comes across in the way his words, with their bizarre character names and comic-strip inspired mispellings, look on the page.  But words that the eye leaps and stumbles over with giddy abandon when they appear on the page stall and putter when actors painstakingly deliver them, one by one, as though reciting from Shakespeare.  In the film, huge chunks of exposition come out of the mouths of characters who rarely look 100% sure that they understand their own dialogue, and it kills the momentum that this material needs to work.

Furthermore, because Anderson largely relies on these nonsensical expository monologues to advance the narrative, the conspiracy plot becomes even more incomprehensible than it was in the book.  This is especially an issue for Joaquin Phoenix who plays Doc Sportello, the film’s stoner P.I. hero.  Phoenix is a talented actor with great comic timing, and his way with a double-take gives the film some of its biggest laughs.  But his method actorly habit of mumbling incoherently, inspired though it was in The Master, is fatal when he’s mumbling crucial plot points here.  And while it’s easy to sympathize with his constant look of panicked confusion, his erratic mugging also prevents him from becoming the laid-back grounded center that the story needs to anchor the surrounding chaos.

Granted, one could argue that the novel was just as guilty of mooring the audience in incomprehensible chaos, but momentum makes a big difference.  In Pynchon’s novel, you don’t always know what’s going on, but you can still feel the tension mounting page by page, and when a character has to say something important, the novel makes sure you hear it with painful clarity.  There isn’t any sense in the film, however, that any of these baffling plot pieces are heading anywhere.  In one of the best scenes in the novel, Doc makes a near-impossible escape from and declares his allegiance to the Bugs Bunnies and Popeyes of the world.  Though one may need to read the novel several times over to figure exactly why Doc was in captivity and who he was escaping from, Pynchon still makes that moment feel like a defining triumph that everything has been building to.  Anderson treats it like just another scene, and one gets the impression that if you reshuffled the scenes and moved the escape to the beginning of the film, few would notice any difference in narrative momentum.

Ultimately, the biggest problems come from trying to make a painstakingly faithful and literal adaptation out of material that only really works when it feels like it’s being made up on the spot.  People have drawn comparisons to Robert Altman’s revisionist Marlow ‘70s classic, The Long Goodbye, but where Altman clearly allowed improvisation to dictate the way he made his ambling gumshoe mystery, every scene in Anderson’s seems fussed over with meticulous deliberation – even when wacky things are happening on-screen.  The film version of Inherent Vice almost seems like it comes from some distant future society that stumbled upon Pynchon’s novel and was under the impression that it was meant to be taken as a sacred hollow text, rather than a shambling shaggy dog paperback.  Which, now that I’ve put it that way, actually makes me like the film a little better.  And I will admit that for all of the harping I just did on the film, I do feel a nagging  urge to watch it again.  Certain filmmakers are powerful enough that even their misfires leave you with the sinking suspicion that you’re the one with the problem, and I may very well take back everything I just wrote months down the line.  But as of now it’s hard not to see this as a noble misfire from a director who is apparently much better at following his own impulses than trying to honor somebody else’s.

Music:

Johnny Greenwood’s music encapsulates where I veer from this film.  Greenwood is a brilliant musician and composer, and his past two scores for Anderson – There Will Be Blood and The Master – have been radically brilliant.  But nobody could accuse Greenwood of having a light touch, and – for me anyway – a lighter touch is what Inherent Vice desperately needed.  Greenwood’s music is far more conventional than anything he’s written for the director previously, but it’s no less heavy-handed.  Granted, his anchoring theme for Doc’s ex-lady, Shasta, is certainly more accessible than anything he wrote for There Will be Blood – in fact, it’s probably the first piece of film music Greenwood’s written that could even reasonably called a “theme.”  And on its own terms, it’s a subtly brilliant composition.  Greenwood is a rare film composer who actually writes interesting orchestrations, and the creative interplay between oboes, woodwinds, and the string ensemble makes even a relatively subdued melody fascinating.  But while beautiful in its own right, the piece also has an oppressively bleak quality that ultimately weighs the film down.  Perhaps its meant to encapsulate the doomed nature of Doc’s pinning over Shasta or the even more doomed nature of Doc’s hippie existence, but these are hardly points that needed to be oversold.  Rather than subtly drawing these themes out as the film progressed, the music sets a dour tone so early on that it nearly smothers any of the film’s attempts at humor right out of the gate.

That said, n individual scenes, the music can still be very effective – Anderson and Greenwood have worked out an enviable music-image relationship, and it’s a marvel to watch and listen as Greenwood’s long-lined cues to spool over from scene to scene while Doc proceeds in his investigations.  At times, Greenwood seems to be channelling Bernard Herrmann’s romantic suspense music from the “following Madeline” scenes in Vertigo, and it’s hard not to admire any composer willing to tip his hat in that direction.  At the same time, Vertigo isn’t exactly a classic stoner comedy, and as cue after cue continues this trend of dour melancholia or anxious suspense, the cumulative impact grows increasingly wearying.  I’d like to admire the counter-intuitive logic in taking a period movie that seems to scream for psychedelic rock and scoring it with Herrmann-esque orchestral music, but the result comes across less as a clever joke and more as tonal indecisiveness.

Conversely, the period song selections are excellent, and the film comes alive considerably every time Anderson takes the jukebox approach to scoring the film.  With a few exception, Anderson avoids obvious late ‘60s staples in favor of eclectic gems like Les Baxter’s exotica lounge number, “Simba,” or Minnie Riperton’s Motown classic, “Les Fleur.”  The tone brights considerably every time one of these songs plays, hinting at the film we might have had if all parties involved had decided to let these bright moments guide the overriding tone.  But – and I rarely find myself saying this – the songs are too few and far between.  This is actually a film where I’d happily take less score if it meant hearing more great songs from the period.

Again, on its own terms, Greenwood’s music is great, and I recommend the album (though Radiohead fans should be warned that if you’re coming for Greenwood’s reworked rendition of “Spooks,” you will only get to hear it under Joanna Newsom’s narration).  Greenwood and Anderson clearly have a great working dynamic, and I hope it continues into the future.  But in this particular instance, I actually wish Anderson had returned to Jon Brion, his prior go-to composer.  As his scores to films like Punch-Drunk Love and I Heart Huckabees demonstrate, Brion excels at music that balances offbeat humor with a melancholy underbite and his knack for balancing tonally tricky films likely would have served Inherent Vice well (it helps that Brion’s music often sounds like it was recorded by some long-forgotten ‘60s pop group).  Greenwood, for all of his many qualities as a composer, feels like the wrong person for this project.  And much as I’d love to be proven wrong, I think that statement ultimately goes for the director as well.

Film Grade: * * * / * * * * *

Score Grade: * * * /* * * * *

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2014 International Film Music Critics Association Award Nominees

I realize things have been quiet at Movie Music Musings of late – this will change soon, with some end-of-year features and other reviews on the upcoming slate.  Until then, however, I’d like to share with you the International Film Music Critics Association’s annual nominations for excellence in film music.  Every year, film music critics around the world (including myself) discuss, argue, and finally vote on the year’s best music composed for film, television, and video games.  Many great scores made the cut this year, some of which you’ll see in my own Best-of feature coming in a few weeks (no fair giving them away now).  Until then, here’s the press release with the IFMCA’s 2014 nominations:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

INTERNATIONAL FILM MUSIC CRITICS ASSOCIATION AWARD NOMINATIONS ANNOUNCED; COMPOSERS JAMES NEWTON HOWARD AND ALEXANDRE DESPLAT DOMINATE

FEBRUARY 5, 2015 — The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) announces its list of nominees for excellence in musical scoring in 2014, for the 11th annual IFMCA Awards. The most nominated composers are American James Newton Howard and Frenchman Alexandre Desplat.

Howard received seven nominations, including nods for Score of the Year, Composer of the Year, Best Action/Adventure/Thriller score, and Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror score, all of which were split between his two main works of 2014: the action adventure sequel “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I,” and Disney’s reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, “Maleficent”. Howard also received an unprecedented three nominations in the Film Music Composition of the Year category, including one for the song “The Hanging Tree,” which he co-wrote with Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers, and Hunger Games book series author Suzanne Collins, and which was performed by the film’s lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence. Howard has previously been nominated for a total of 23 IFMCA Awards, winning six of them, including Score of the Year in 2006 for “Lady in the Water”.

Desplat received six nominations: for Score of the Year, two for Best Drama score, Best Comedy score, Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror score, and overall Composer of the Year. Desplat’s work in 2014 comprised several outstanding works, notably the blockbuster monster movie “Godzilla,” director Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the critically acclaimed biopic of British code breaker Alan Turing “The Imitation Game,” and the George Clooney-directed WWII drama “The Monuments Men”. Desplat has previously been nominated for a total of 35 IFMCA Awards, winning nine of them. He won the Best Score award in 2008 for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and was named Composer of the Year in 2006, 2007, and 2010.

Other composers with multiple nominations include John Powell, who picked up four nominations, all for his work on the animated sequel “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” and Hans Zimmer, who picked up three nominations, all for his work on the Christopher Nolan-directed epic science fiction odyssey “Interstellar”. The other top award nomination went to composer Christopher Young for his score for the epic Chinese action-adventure film “The Monkey King [Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong],” based on the ancient classical novel Journey to the West.

In addition to Desplat, Howard, Powell and Zimmer, the other composer vying for the title of Composer of the Year is Marco Beltrami, who wrote a number of outstanding scores in 2014, including the Danish TV mini-series “1864,” the mafia drama “The Drop,” the futuristic adventure “The Giver,” the spy thriller “The November Man,” and the fantasy action film “The Seventh Son”. Beltrami received an individual nomination for Best Drama score for his work on director-star Tommy Lee Jones’s bleak and powerful Western “The Homesman”.

Each year the IFMCA goes out of its way to recognize emerging talent in the film music world, and this year is no exception. The nominees in the Breakthrough Composer of the Year category include German composer Alexander Cimini, for his work on the surrealist post-apocalyptic drama “Red Krokodil”; Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, the erstwhile conductor-in-residence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, who made his film music debut in 2014 scoring the epic drama “The Liberator [Liberador]”; experimental British singer/songwriter/composer Mica Levi, who impressed with her debut score for the art-house science fiction drama “Under the Skin”; and American composers Matthew Llewellyn and John Paesano, who both wrote impressive scores for a pair of films: Llewellyn with “Deep in the Darkness” and “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and Paesano with “The Maze Runner” and “When the Game Stands Tall”.

As it has in previous years, the IFMCA takes pride in honoring composers from across the film music world; this year’s international nominees include Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for his score for the critically acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic ‘The Theory of Everything,” Spanish composer Roque Baños for his work on the biopic of Mexican comedian and actor “Cantinflas,” Portuguese composer Nuno Malo for his superb music accompanying the 1920s thriller “No God No Master,” Spanish composer Zacarías M. de la Riva for his astonishing contribution to the sci-fi thriller “Autómata,” Frenchman Philippe Rombi for his first ever animation score “Asterix: The Land of the Gods [Astérix: Le Domaine des Dieux],” Norwegian composer Henrik Skram for the feature documentary “Ballet Boys,” and two composers whose superb work on international television series really captured the attention of the voting membership: Japanese composer Yūgo Kanno for the 53rd NHK Taiga drama “Gunshi Kanbei,” and Argentinean composer Federico Jusid for “Isabel”.
Several other composers are receiving their first ever IFMCA Award nominations this year, including Ben Foster (“Hidden Kingdoms,” Documentary), David Newman (“Tarzan,” Animation), Jeff Russo (“Fargo,” Television), and Sarah Schachner (“Assassin’s Creed: Unity,” Video Game).

The International Film Music Critics Association will announce the winners of the 11th IFMCA Awards on February 19, 2015.

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COMPLETE LIST OF NOMINEES

 

FILM SCORE OF THE YEAR

 

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2, music by John Powell
  • Interstellar, music by Hans Zimmer
  • Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard
  • The Monkey King [Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong], music by Christopher Young

COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

 

  • Marco Beltrami
  • Alexandre Desplat
  • James Newton Howard
  • John Powell
  • Hans Zimmer

BREAKTHROUGH COMPOSER OF THE YEAR

 

  • Alexander Cimini
  • Gustavo Dudamel
  • Mica Levi
  • Matthew Llewellyn
  • John Paesano

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DRAMA FILM

 

  • The Homesman, music by Marco Beltrami
  • The Imitation Game, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • The Liberator [Libertador], music by Gustavo Dudamel
  • The Monuments Men, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • The Theory of Everything, music by Jóhann Jóhannsson

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A COMEDY FILM

 

  • Cantinflas, music by Roque Baños
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • A Million Ways to Die in the West, music by Joel McNeely
  • Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, music by Alan Silvestri
  • Wishin’ and Hopin’, music by Matthew Llewellyn

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ACTION/ADVENTURE/THRILLER FILM

 

  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I, music by James Newton Howard
  • Inherent Vice, music by Jonny Greenwood
  • The Maze Runner, music by John Paesano
  • The Monkey King [Xi You Ji: Da Nao Tian Gong], music by Christopher Young
  • No God No Master, music by Nuno Malo

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A FANTASY/SCIENCE FICTION/HORROR FILM

 

  • Autómata, music by Zacarías M. de la Riva
  • Godzilla, music by Alexandre Desplat
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, music by Howard Shore
  • Interstellar, music by Hans Zimmer
  • Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR AN ANIMATED FEATURE

 

  • Asterix: The Land of the Gods [Astérix: Le Domaine des Dieux], music by Philippe Rombi
  • The Boxtrolls, music by Dario Marianelli
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2, music by John Powell
  • Son of Batman, music by Frederik Wiedmann
  • Tarzan, music by David Newman

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A DOCUMENTARY

 

  • Ballet Boys, music by Henrik Skram
  • Bears, music by George Fenton
  • Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, music by Alan Silvestri
  • Hidden Kingdoms, music by Ben Foster
  • The Unknown Known, music by Danny Elfman

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A TELEVISION SERIES

 

  • Fargo, music by Jeff Russo
  • Gunshi Kanbei, music by Yūgo Kanno
  • Isabel, music by Federico Jusid
  • The Leftovers, music by Max Richter
  • Penny Dreadful, music by Abel Korzeniowski

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE FOR A VIDEO GAME OR INTERACTIVE MEDIA

 

  • Assassin’s Creed: Unity, music by Chris Tilton and Sarah Schachner
  • The Banner Saga, music by Austin Wintory
  • Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, music by Óscar Araujo
  • Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth, music by Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen, Michael Curran and Grant Kirkhope
  • World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, music by Russell Brower, Neal Acree, Clint Bajakian, Sam Cardon, Craig Stuart Garfinkle, Edo Guidotti and Eímear Noone

BEST ARCHIVAL RELEASE OF AN EXISTING SCORE – RE-RELEASE OR RE-RECORDING

 

  • The Abyss; music by Alan Silvestri, album produced by Nick Redman and Robert Townson, liner notes by Julie Kirgo, album art direction by Robert Townson and Bill Pitzonka (Varèse Sarabande)
  • Empire of the Sun; music by John Williams, album produced by Mike Matessino, liner notes by Mike Matessino, album art direction by Jim Titus (La-La Land)
  • Lair; music by John Debney, additional music by Kevin Kaska, album produced by Dan Goldwasser and John Debney, liner notes by Jeff Bond, album art direction by Dan Goldwasser (La-La Land)
  • The Lion King; score by Hans Zimmer, songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, album produced by Randy Thornton, liner notes by Hans Zimmer and Don Hahn, album art direction by Lorelay Bové (Disney)
  • On the Waterfront; music by Leonard Bernstein, album produced by Douglass Fake, liner notes by Frank K. DeWald, album art direction by Joe Sikoryak (Intrada)

BEST ARCHIVAL RELEASE OF AN EXISTING SCORE – COMPILATION

 

  • The Ava Collection; music by Elmer Bernstein, album produced by Douglass Fake, liner notes by Douglass Fake, album art direction by Joe Sikoryak (Intrada)
  • Batman: The Animated Series Volume 3; music by Shirley Walker, Carlos Rodriguez, Peter Tomashek, Todd Hayen, Harvey R. Cohen, Michael McCuistion, Lars Clutterham, Stuart Balcomb, Mark Koval, Lolita Ritmanis, Richard Bronskill, Tamara Kline, Carl Johnson, Steve Chesne and James Stemple, album produced by John Takis and Neil S. Bulk, liner notes by John Takis, album art direction by Dan Goldwasser (La-La Land)
  • Elmer Bernstein: The Wild Side; music by Elmer Bernstein, performed by Big Band de Canarias feat. Esther Ovejero, Kike Perdomo and Sara Andon, album produced by Robert Townson and Kike Perdomo, liner notes by Robert Townson, album art direction by Robert Townson and Bill Pitzonka (Varèse Sarabande)
  • Henry Mancini: The Classic Soundtrack Collection; music by Henry Mancini, album produced by Didier C. Deutsch and Mark G. Wilder, liner notes by Didier C. Deutsch, album art direction by Chris Mancini and Edward O’Dowd (Legacy/Sony)
  • The Naked Gun Trilogy; music by Ira Newborn, album produced by Dan Goldwasser and Neil S. Bulk, liner notes by Daniel Schweiger, album art direction by Dan Goldwasser (La-La Land)

FILM MUSIC RECORD LABEL OF THE YEAR

 

  • Intrada Records, Douglass Fake and Roger Feigelson
  • La-La Land Records, MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys
  • Moviescore Media, Mikael Carlsson
  • Quartet Records, Jose M. Benitez
  • Varèse Sarabande, Robert Townson

FILM MUSIC COMPOSITION OF THE YEAR

 

  • “Flying With Mother” from How to Train Your Dragon 2, music by John Powell
  • “The Hanging Tree” from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I, music by Jeremiah Fraites, Wesley Schultz and James Newton Howard, lyrics by Suzanne Collins
  • “Maleficent Flies” from Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard
  • “Maleficent Suite” from Maleficent, music by James Newton Howard
  • “Tsunami” from Exodus: Gods and Kings, music by Harry Gregson-Williams

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The International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) is an association of online, print and radio journalists who specialize in writing and broadcasting about original film, television and game music.

Since its inception the IFMCA has grown to comprise over 60 members from countries such as Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Previous IFMCA Score of the Year Awards have been awarded to Abel Korzeniowski’s “Romeo & Juliet” in 2013, Mychael Danna’s “Life of Pi” in 2012, John Williams’s “War Horse” in 2011, John Powell’s “How to Train Your Dragon” in 2010, Michael Giacchino’s “Up” in 2009, Alexandre Desplat’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, Dario Marianelli’s “Atonement” in 2007, James Newton Howard’s “Lady in the Water” in 2006, John Williams’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005 and Michael Giacchino’s “The Incredibles” in 2004.

For more information about the International Film Music Critics Association go to http://www.filmmusiccritics.org , visit our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter @ifmca, or contact us at press@filmmusiccritics.org.

Introducing the Critic: Paul Cote Interviewed by The International Film Music Critics Association

Recently, I was featured in the International Film Music Critics Association’s ongoing interview series, Introducing the Critic. This was a wonderful opportunity; while I frequently analyze specific film scores at Movie Music Musings, I’d never previously taken the time to really analyze myself as a film music critic. In the interview, I go into detail on my background as a fan and aficionado of film scores, my thoughts about the industry as it currently stands today, and the things I overall value most in a film score. You can read the interview here:

http://filmmusiccritics.org/2014/08/introducing-the-critic-paul-cote/

Boyhood – Film and Score Review

boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the biggest critical darling in recent memory – indeed, it’s the only film on Metacritic to reach a 100% approval rate on its initial release.  I struggle to add anything to the conversation that hasn’t already been said at length, but I’ll start at least by saying that the film is just as staggering, brilliant, and moving as everybody else has lead you to believe.  For the three of you who aren’t already aware of the premise, every year for 12 years, director Richard Linklater made on short film with the same cast, most of them centering on a young boy played by Ellar Coltrane and his relationships with his divorced parents. After 12 years – at which point the boy had grown to be a young man entering college – Linklater cut the short films together and released them as one narrative. This might sound like a gimmick on paper, but it’s hard to overstate how powerful and unique the effect is onscreen.  Yes, many critics have cited the Harry Potter films and the 7 Up series as precedents for watching children growing up on camera (and you could go back at least as far as Francois Truffaut’s “Antoine” tetralogy if you’re really intent on playing “who did it first”). But those are all instances of watching children grow up over the course of multiple films; they essentially take place in real-time, because you actually have to wait seven years to see the cast of the Up series age another seven years. Boyhood, the other hand, compresses that experience into one two-and-a-half hour sitting, and it attempts to forge a coherent movie-length narrative from this expanse of time.  The gradual realization that the characters onscreen are literally growing a year older every 10 minutes – not through makeup, not through CGI, but through actual bodies that are aging onscreen – is as emotionally staggering as it is unprecedented. There are many films that try to represent the fleeting nature of childhood, but this is the first film I’ve come across that literally captures it on-camera.

The sense of gradual growth extends to all aspects of the production. Linklater reportedly allowed his cast to improvise heavily, and did not have a set narrative end goal in mind when he started this long-form endeavor. While that loose framework might have led to the aimless, ramshackle quality of earlier Linklater movies like Slacker, improvisation in Boyhood rarely results in formlessness. Rather, Linklater and his cast’s open-ended approach enables the narrative and the characters to evolve organically.  We see characters in their casual, everyday moments, but each of these moments, however seemingly mundane, is presented as a key insight into the way these characters are constantly developing as human beings.

This sense of development holds for both the characters and the actors who play them.  It’s most dramatic for Ellar Coltrane, who stars as Mason, the “boy” of the Boyhood. Mason remains a quiet, sensitive young man throughout Boyhood, but as the film progresses, we see him grow from a child who wears his vulnerability on his sleeve into a teenager who tries to mask that vulnerability in sarcasm and philosophical musings (Mason will likely be spending much of his time in college watching Linklater’s Waking Life). Coltrane grows from being a great child actor to being a legitimately promising adult actor, and one can only imagine that his natural sincerity onscreen was informed by his own experience of simply becoming a teenager.  The same extends to the adults in the film. Patricia Arquette gives an uncharacteristically raw performance as Mason’s struggling single mother, but her intensity from the earlier scenes gradually subsides as her children mature and she loses her fear that their futures hang on her life decisions. Ethan Hawke essentially reprises his affable Before Midnight persona as Mason’s life-lesson spouting father (so much so that I half-wonder if this is what Hawke is actually like when the cameras are off), but he also laces each cocky joke and charming smile with a sense of guilt and sadness that grows more pronounced as the film progresses. Time’s passage seems to render him acutely aware that while he can play the part of a sage benevolent father to his children, he’s only able to do so because he only sees them at sporadic intervals.

None of this is ever stated directly, thankfully. The film touches on a wide range of themes ranging from divorce, alcoholism, bullying, and teenage romance, but the film never makes a point of being “about” any of these themes; they’re simply incidents that pass through one family’s lives over the course of a decade. For all of the widespread praise the film has received, Linklater seems to have little interest in being overtly cinematic or artful – this is not a Terence Malik-inspired tone poem on the nature of human existence. But by observing characters with a casual, nonjudgmental eye and allowing their growth to dictate the terms of the story, Linklater and his crew have creating something just as profound.  It wouldn’t be fair to claim that the film captures some sort of universal experience, as this is very much the story of one relatively privileged middle-class family dealing with middle-class problems. But the film’s unassuming and unsensational treatment of one family making its way through the decade captures something raw and piercing about the passage of time, and it’s unlikely that we’re ever going to see anything quite like it again.

The score:

Calling this a “score” review is something of a misnomer, as the film does not have a traditional score (at least in the instrumental non-diegetic sense of the word).  That said, the soundtrack is guided by brilliant song choices that perfectly capture the larger pop and indie trends of the past decade. The director apparently commissioned actual young friends and acquaintances to help curate the songs on the soundtrack, and the result is a much more honest account of what young people in the mid-2000s were actually listening to than Linklater could have hoped for if he’d relied on a studio marketing department to compile the soundtrack.  The approach also leads to a refreshingly eclectic compilation, ranging from Britney Spears to Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys, Arcade Fire, and even John Williams’ Harry Potter music (a cue from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban plays during a midnight Harry Potter book event – I’m somewhat embarrassed that I immediately recognized the piece as “The Whomping Willow,” a cue where the Harry Potter theme isn’t even present).  As great as the music itself is, it’s also deployed with subtlety.  Songs are rarely foregrounded for long; more often than not, we only hear brief snippets of songs in the background of bars, dorm rooms, and car stereos. And while each song is likely to carry its own emotional triggers for individual audience members, the film doesn’t use the music to goose up the audience’s emotions – there are no weepy montages where the music is supposed to carry the film. Rather, the music provides insight into the characters’ own tastes and personalities – the songs play because this is the music that these specific characters connect with at these specific points in their lives.

In the rare occasions where music does rise to the foreground, it’s less because the movie is trying to use a song to make a point and more because the characters are. That dynamic is particularly compelling in a scene where Mason Sr., Hawke’s character, gives his adolescent son a mix CD for his birthday. The CD, which Mason Sr. has proudly dubbed, “The Black Album” (adorably oblivious to Jay-Z, apparently), is a compilation of post-Beatles solo songs from Starr, Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney – the equivalent of a “new” Beatles album, he explains. In a scene that was apparently drawn from something the real Ethan Hawke did for his daughter, Mason’s father tries to use this compilation as a life lesson about the value of collaboration; he urgently tries to impress on his son that together, these songs elevate each other, for each Beatle’s solo work gains new meaning when it comes into conversation with his other former bandmates’ songs. But where the film could easily take this sweet idea at face value, instead it uses the father’s CD as a site for generational tension. Mason is now at an age where he’s starting to have his own ideas about music, and he quietly pushes against his father’s insistence that he appreciate all of these songs on his father’s terms. Because Mason Sr. has prepared this album as a statement, not an entry point for conversation, he’s visibly agitated when it seems that his son might be resisting the premise of his carefully rehearsed pearl of wisdom. For if his son now has his own opposing opinions about the music, Mason Sr. is forced to face the fact that his children are not always going to take his subjective thoughts on art and music as gospel; a new generation will eventually assign its own values to these songs.  Thus when Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run” plays to cap off this scene, it doesn’t emphasize the father’s message so much as it emphasizes the lingering tension in the air. The music in this scene doesn’t dictate meaning or emotion; instead, it reminds us that meaning and emotion in music are constantly in flux, shifting as different generations negotiate their own relationships with popular culture.

The scene is illustrative of the film’s overall ambivalent approach to music – songs in Boyhood serve less to amplify emotion than they do to reveal different aspects of the characters and the culture they inhabit.  While the music is rarely dramatically vital to the story as a result, this is hardly a bad thing.  Rather, the music’s subtlety is in keeping with the rest of the film; rather than force an interpretation on the audience, it gracefully gives the characters and their stories the space to develop on their own terms.

Film: * * * * *

Score: NA, but * * * *  for the diegetic song choices.

 

For people in the Long Beach/Los Angeles Area: Come See a Great (Free!) Show from The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble

I know I don’t usually plug things on the blog, but this upcoming show is too awesome to ignore. For anyone in the Long Beach/Los Angeles area who’s looking for a great way to spend next Saturday evening, I strongly recommend checking out this free show from The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble. I met Jack at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference last March, and in addition to being a brilliant scholar and an all-around great guy, he’s also an amazing film composer and musician. This performance will spotlight one of his new compositions – it won’t be film music-related per se, but it sounds like a video component will feature prominently in the performance. The show is at Third Eye Records in Long Beach on Saturday, August 9, at 8:00 pm. Check it out if you’re in the area. Also, whether you’re in LA or not, keep your eye out for screenings of I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Pool, a documentary featuring a great Jack Dubowsky score.

Here’s the press release for the August 9 show:

THE JACK CURTIS DUBOWSKY ENSEMBLE
performs “How I Got To Long Beach”
with video and electroacoustic contemporary new music

“Redefining musical boundaries” – San Francisco Classical Voice

For Immediate Release Long Beach, CA: The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble (JCDE) will perform live at Third Eye Records in Long Beach. The new music ensemble, currently an electroacoustic trio, will consist of founder/composer Jack Curtis Dubowsky on synth, Scott Worthington (wasteLAnd new music group) on acoustic double bass and Alicia Byer on clarinet. They’ll showcase new material with a video element titled “How I Got To Long Beach”—a three-part composition composed by Dubowsky, who recently relocated to Long Beach from St. Paul MN and before that spent a good part of his career in San Francisco. The compositions are inspired by aspects of each city. The performance will be the premiere of JCDE’s first collection of new work since 2013’s multimedia show “Current Events.” The show is free.

WHO: The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble
WHAT: New music work “How I Got to Long Beach”
WHERE: Third Eye Records, 2701 E. 4th St. Long Beach, CA 90814
TICKETS / COST: FREE !!!!!
WHEN: Saturday August 9th
7pm The Keith Walsh Experience
8pm Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble

JCDE is an internationally recognized new music group that combines acoustic instruments, electronic hardware, composed material and structured improvisation. The ensemble treats analog synthesizer as a rare and unpredictable performance instrument. The ensemble has released three full-length albums and has performed in noted venues nationwide including The Tank (NYC), Meridian Gallery (SF), AS220 (providence, RI) and The Lilypad (Cambridge, MA).

For more information on JCDE visit:
http://www.destijlmusic.com/jcde/

How to Train Your Dragon 2: Film and Score Review

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The Film:

Few aspects in Western culture are as immune from criticism as our love for our pets.  You can be the world’s most jaded, intellectual, cynical hipster and still rest easy knowing nobody will judge you for thinking your dog is the bestest, sweetest, most perfectest friend in the whole wide world.  Whatever biological history of inbreeding led them to this point, your dogs and (some of your) cats seem to have morphed into living stuffed animals who seem to exist just to love you unconditionally.  Or more simply put: Your dog is the one creature on the planet who will never get upset with you. You don’t have to worry about your dog getting edgy when you bring up politics, or hurt that you forgot her birthday even when you had a Facebook reminder, or irritated that you won’t shut up about Game of Thrones even though you know she doesn’t get cable, so seriously, why would this be interesting to her?  No, your dog will just look up at you devotedly and hope against hope that you might take a few moments to scratch her behind the ears.  We’re devoted to them in part because they seem capable of sustaining the perfect uncomplicated love that isn’t even possible in the healthiest human relationships.

2010’s surprisingly wonderful How to Train Your Dragon did many things well, but its smartest move was tapping into that bottomless reservoir of good-will that audiences have for their pets. Toothless, the film’s star dragon, became a practical repository for favorite pet traits: he had a cat’s playful expressiveness, a horse’s willingness to be ridden, and a dog’s fiercely protective and unrequited love for its person. The film took the time-tested boy-and-his dog formula and committed to it with so much disarming sincerity that it managed to make all of the old clichés seem fresh again.  You could call the film a shamelessly manipulative crowd-pleaser, but damned if it wasn’t an effective shamelessly manipulative crowd-pleaser.  Few people are immune to a story that reminds them how wonderful their pets are, and the film milked that soft spot for all it was worth.

The result was a rare film from Dreamworks Animation that was both a box office hit and a critical darling. The studio wasted no time exploiting this success into a massive franchise, with multiple TV shows, holiday specials, and even stage shows following each other in short succession.  But to the studio’s credit, they didn’t rush on the sequel. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has arrived four years after its predecessor, an unusually long time for a studio that rarely waits more than two years before pumping out part two of a moderately successful animated film.  After seeing the film, it’s clear that this extra time directly reflects the care and attention that went into making the sequel a worthy follow-up.  Where the first film limited its aims to telling a simple story effectively, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is far more narratively, emotionally, and thematically ambitious.  The film is still fundamentally about the connections people share with their pets, but the film takes a surprisingly mature and multi-faceted approach to that relationship, and the result is a rare sequel that’s actually more powerful than its predecessor.

I won’t go into too much detail about the story here, as some of the potential spoilers come early on.  But the basic premise entails young Hiccup’s now-pro-dragon Viking community learning of a potential threat from Draco, a crazed warrior who sails from shore to shore hunting dragons and turning them into submissive weapons for his massive armada.  Hiccup rushes off to confront Draco, confident that he can change the warrior’s mind and persuade him to see the benefits of the Vikings’ peaceful symbiotic relationship with their dragons.  This sets off a plot that has far-ranging implications for Hiccup and his relationships with this family, his community, and, of course, his dragon.  The film attempts to cover a great deal of ground, and it has much to say on topics ranging from the possible limits of pacifism, the role parents play in shaping our identities, the responsibilities of leadership, balancing the needs of the local community versus the global community, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, the consequences of animal abuse. This is lot for an ostensible children’s film to bite off, and to be fair, the film handles some of its messages with more grace and subtlety than others.  But the filmmakers are ultimately remarkably successful at letting these themes build off of one another organically without sacrificing character-driven storytelling.

Of those themes, however, the film cuts deepest in its treatment of animal abuse.  I said I won’t give away any major spoilers here, but I will say that a tragic second act development is going to feel especially wrenching for anyone who’s seen an abused animal lose control and lapse into blind violent instinct.  The filmmakers even attempt to imagine the animal’s point of view in this violent state, which is depicted here as a blurry void where loved ones disappear into blurry shapes and noises.  It’s an act of empathy – an attempt at imagining the painful places our pets can go when we can’t reach them – and it’s empathy that the filmmakers demand of the audience as well.  Where the first film took the beauty of the human-animal bond at face value, this one has the fortitude to put that bond through legitimately harrowing challenges. The film takes a pointed stance on the compassion and empathy that we owe our animal companions, even – and, indeed, especially – when instinct and abuse robs them of their agency.

But reading the review up to this point might give one the impression that the film is a solemn sermon, which is certainly not the case.  Significant screen time is still devoted to exuberant spectacle, with giddy flying scenes and some of the best large-scale battle scenes since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The film makes some of the best use of 3D technology in recent memory, particularly in a mid-film action set-piece that manages to stage separate battles in the foreground and background simultaneously, all in perfect focus.  The film is at its best, however, when it’s simply letting its main characters – human and dragon alike – interact with each other. This comes across through voice cast, of course, with Jay Barachel, Gerard Butler, and Cate Blanchett all giving subtle, multi-layered vocal performances (the film even partially redeems Butler’s performance in Phantom of the Opera by finding a context where his raggedy singing voice is actually dramatically appropriate). But the film is more intuitive at developing these characters when they aren’t speaking.  There are requisite moments where people state exactly what they’re feeling for the younger viewers, but the filmmakers also place significant trust in expressive animation and sensitive music to convey much of the characters’ conflicting internal emotions (this is particularly true of Hiccup’s interactions with Cate Blanchet’s new character, Valka).  It’s perhaps for this reason that the film never feels heavy-handed, even when it does introduce serious issues; there’s never a point where the characters and their relationships aren’t driving the story.

So while the film isn’t entirely perfect, for my money it’s easily the best studio-produced animated film since Toy Story 3 in 2010.  For that matter, it’s the first film from Dreamworks Animation that deserves serious consideration alongside Pixar’s best. The film introduces heavier emotional gravity, but it manages to do so in ways that actually enhance the unabashed joy that made its predecessor so well-loved.  It’s disappointing that the film has struggled so much at the box office, but I can say with confidence that if you want summer popcorn spectacle, you’re going to have a much better time here then you are with any of the transforming/mutant/superhero/Godzillas currently fighting for your attention.  It will be a shame if the film’s disappointing box office leads to the cancellation of the planned third installment, but How to Train Your Dragon 2 is more than strong enough to stand on its own without getting roped into a trilogy.

The Music:

Steven Spielberg once famously claimed John Williams’ music for Jaws accounted for 50% of the film’s success. In the case of John Powell’s music for the original How to Train Your Dragon, I’d bump that number up to at least 70%.  As well-animated, edited, scripted, and acted as that film was, it might have been nothing more than a than a well-meaning piece of fluff without Powell’s unabashedly earnest, heart-piercing music.  Dramatically urgent without ever straying into sentimentality, Powell’s music was frequently the biggest reason to feel invested in scenes that might have played out like tired clichés in any other film. The film’s many dialogue-free sequences gave Powell the opportunity to write the sort of emotionally direct, instantly memorable melodies that have long-since gone out of style in Hollywood, and the result was a rare contemporary film that actually allowed music to drive its narrative.  The score has gone on to become what is quite possibly the biggest fan-favorite in the film score community in nearly a decade, and it’s left the composer with a great deal to live up to with this follow-up.

But he certainly made sure to take the time he needed to get it right.  When Powell scored How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, it was one of approximately several thousand animated Hollywood films he had scored over the course of several years.  He followed Dragon’s success with an insane sprint that entailed scoring Mars Needs Moms, Rio, Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet 2, The Lorax, and Ice Age: Continental Drift, all back-to-back over the course of 2011 and 2012. While he did a pretty amazing job with a few of these, it was also clear towards the end of this run that he was starting to run out of steam. Following the last Ice Age in 2012, he took a well-needed sabbatical from Hollywood, a decision he apparently made both to spend time with his family and to recharge his compositional batteries. In other words, How to Train Your Dragon 2 marks more than his return to the franchise; it also marks his return to film music itself (ok, technically his score for Rio 2 was released a few months before Dragon 2, but it’s splitting hairs).

While he obviously didn’t take his break specifically for the sake of writing a great score for How to Train Your Dragon 2, the extra time he spent absorbing new musical influences and rethinking his technique certainly shows in this sequel score. While it certainly reprises much of what everyone loved about his first score, Powell has also taken this as an opportunity to push himself into much denser and more detailed orchestral writing, drawing in equal measure on English composers like Vaughan Williams and impressionists like Ravel. This means that, much like the film, Powel’s score often comes across as a more complex and nuanced continuation of its predecessor.  It possibly loses some of the original’s non-stop emotional immediacy in the process, but it makes up for those instant pleasures by taking the time to build to what is ultimately the most profoundly moving music of Powell’s career.

Having said that, Powell certainly doesn’t abandon the key features that made his first score so beloved. All of the old themes and motifs are back, from the Vikings’ burly Scottish theme to the insanely catchy “Flight Test” theme that hasn’t been out of my head since 2010. Powell gets a great deal of mileage from spinning new variations on these themes, and the score is worth listening to just to hear Powell finding endless ways to twist the first film’s melodies in and out of new harmonies and orchestrations.  The caveat is that because the film isn’t quite as linear or straightforward as its predecessor, the score has a little less room to carry the film with broad, long-lined statements of these themes (though mammoth showstoppers like “Battle of the Bewilderbeast” will certainly fill that craving).  At the same time, not always being in the spotlight also gives Powell the space for more intricate and nuanced orchestral writing, and his clever new arrangements are captured in a detailed recording that’s miles above the first score’s notoriously muddy mix (which was the first score’s only real shortcoming).

As nice as it is to hear old favorites, however, Powell anchors the score on a new theme, a wistful melody with vaguely Celtic overtones.  Though it initially seems to represent Hiccup’s relationship with a new character who enters the film, it eventually comes to stand for Hiccup’s evolving relationship with his dragon (and while I can’t go into detail here, I will say that using the same theme for the two connections is narratively significant).  Unlike virtually every buoyant theme from the first film, this melody has a melancholy edge that speaks to the graver emotions the film has its characters face.  True, Powell often uses the theme to joyous effect, most prominently during a mid-film flying montage that sends the theme through everything from rousing swashbuckling statements to effervescent Madrigal choir arrangements.  Yet even in iterations like this, melody’s minor chords always carry traces of sadness that make even jubilant moments seem like they’re constantly on the cusp of despair. Multiple relationships in the film are underlined by an unspoken fear of loss and abandonment, and the music keeps that fear present even in seemingly lighthearted moments.

That added level of gravity also pays enormous dividends during the climax, where Powell transforms the theme from a desperate and vulnerable choral arrangement into a massive “rallying the troops” march.  It’s  here that Powell’s score truly elevates and transforms the film; the logic of certain plot points in the climax are arguably a bit muddy, but the music is so overwhelmingly powerful that it’s all but impossible to notice anything but the huge emotional stakes playing out onscreen. The music manages to answer questions that the script withholds, and it makes the film’s bittersweet resolution feel as world-changing to the audience as it does to the characters.  It’s enough to give the score a slight edge on its already nigh-perfect predecessor, which also makes this the finest score Powell has written to date.  I’m under the impression that Powell will only be taking the occasional film scoring assignment from this point on, but if slowing down results in music this profoundly moving, I hope he continues to take as much time as he needs.

Film Review: ****1/2

Score Review: *****

The Best Film Scores of 2013

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Around this time last February, I looked back at the year’s film music highlights and actually thought I saw signs that things were changing for the better.  In 2012, a remarkable number of big-budget studio films seemed to be allowing composers with distinct voices more leeway.  Love them or hate them (and I’ll admit I hated some of them), Michael Giacchino’s John Carter, Alan Silvestri’s The Avengers, James Horner’s The Amazing Spider-man, Thomas Newman’s Skyfall, and Carter Burwell’s Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 2 were all clearly written by their respective composers; each represented its author’s distinct dramatic instincts, and none could be mistaken for the work of anyone else.  For a moment, the pendulum seemed to be swinging away from the Remote Control factory music that has dominated film music throughout the twenty-first century.  Sadly, 2013 saw that pendulum abruptly stop mid-swing and turn right back around.  A brief survey of 2013’s biggest films – commercially successful or otherwise – reveals a long list of scores that rigidly adhere to the clichés that Hans Zimmer and his various protégés have steamrolled over the industry.  Listen to the music in Oblivion, Iron Man 3Man of SteelPacific RimCaptain PhilipsEnder’s GameThor: The Dark World, or Gravity and you’ll hear variations on the same looped ostinatos, the same three or four pop chord progressions, the same orchestras recorded to sound like synthesizers, and the same blaring “BWAAAAAAMPs” that sound like a garbage truck just cut you off.  These scores aren’t all irredeemably bad (Oblivion in particular has a handful of standout moments where M83 actually gets to cut loose), but they’re built on such tired, simplistic, and superficial foundations that they’re practically interchangeable.  On a surface level, some have basic entertainment value, but enjoying music like this requires so much aggressive intentional amnesia that I just can’t do it anymore.

Granted, my lack of patience may have as much to do with my own drifting tastes in music as it does with current trends in film music itself.  It actually embarrasses me to say this now, but 10 years ago, I listened almost exclusively to movie scores.  I like to think that the quality of said movie scores was generally higher 10 years ago, but I also know I was much more forgiving of mediocre work back then.  If a score featured 60 minutes of monotonous padding and 15 minutes of halfway pleasant melodies, that was usually enough to keep me listening.  After all, when your CD collection is largely limited to the used soundtracks you’ve found at Wherehouse Music, you tend to be more willing to grasp at those straws.  Somewhere along the line, however, I started branching out into other genres of music, and I found myself falling in love with the sorts of trendy indie bands and popular musicians that used to make me feel alienated (it helps that so many indie bands in the 2000s have started incorporating the same ornate orchestrations and pretentious compositional quirks that drew me to film music in the first place).  I still care deeply about film music and I still listen to copious amounts of it, but my perspective on listening to it has changed.  When so much fresh and exciting music gets released every month from so many different genres, I find myself growing less willing to sit through film score albums that strike me as generic or derivative or generic.

This may be coming across like a negative rant, which isn’t my intention.  2013 also gave us some wonderful and original film music, much of which I will no doubt still be pouring through years down the line.  What I’m finding though is that the scores I gravitate towards today are actually the sorts of scores I’d have vehemently opposed 10 years ago.  Where I used to staunchly defend traditional composers writing “proper” orchestral music, I now tend to drift towards smaller experimental scores for independent films, scores written by people who are largely outsiders to the industry.  I’ll always have a soft spot for big traditional orchestral scores with memorable themes (and a few made it on to my top ten list this year), but these qualities alone are no longer enough for me.  At this point, I don’t particularly care whether the score is written for a full symphony orchestra or for a Casio keyboard; I just need it to sound – if not unique, then at least distinct.  Something that doesn’t sound like it could have been tracked in from another film.  Something that doesn’t sound like it could have been written by anybody but the person (or people) who wrote it.

As a result, the scores you’ll see in my yearly top 10 list below are primarily written by either veteran composers who developed and mastered their voices before the industry became a factory, or industry outsiders who have actually been given the space to try something fresh and original.  Few of these scores are perfect, and I already know that many of my fellow film music critics absolutely hate some of my top choices (my top 2 in particular). But every score you’ll see below place is sensitively and thoughtfully attuned to its film, and each serves as a reminder – for me at least – that film music can still be one of the most powerful contemporary forms of expression.  They’re reminders, in other words, that film music can still be an art, even when Hollywood seems intent on turning into a craft.

10.  To the Wonder by Hanan Townshend

Director Terrence Malick has a strange habit of inspiring film composers to do their best work for his films, then hacking all but a few minutes of that work out of his finished films in favor of classical music.  Newcomer Hanan Townshend is the first composer in a long while to emerge with his score relatively intact, which is perhaps ironic as he’s easily the least prestigious composer Malick has worked with since Badlands in 1973.  Yet to listen to this confident and sensitive classically attuned music, you would never know that this was Townshend’s first film score.  Apparently he was also Malick’s music licensee in Tree of Life, so perhaps it would make sense that he’s so in key with the ethereal melancholy “Malick sound” that so many eclectic composers struggle to replicate. While it’s not quite on the level of Morricone’s Days of Heaven or Desplat’s Tree of Life, Townshend’s To the Wonder is still a beautiful, graceful composition that at least deserves a place alongside those earlier Malick masterworks.  Its centerpiece, “Marina’s Theme,” is in many ways Malick encapsulated in a single piece of music: pastoral, graceful, and aching with a sense of loss and spiritual yearning.  While the score can at times get a little too withdrawn for its own good, it’s nevertheless an extraordinary achievement.

9. The Best Offer by Ennio Morricone

By most conservative estimates, Ennio Morricone has written music for approximately 145,346,345,678 films.  It’s easy to take someone for granted when they’re that prolific, even when that person is very possibly the great living film composer.  Yet his work for Giuseppe Tornatore always seems to particularly spark his creative energy, and if The Best Offer is never going to rank among Morricone’s greatest works, it certainly displays more than enough evidence of the man’s brilliance.  Tornatore’s attempt at turning his signature treacle into a Hitchcockian thriller is more than a little ridiculous, but Morricone’s music creates emotional dimensions that the film arguably doesn’t deserve.  Of particular note is his dazzling music for the protagonist’s horde of artwork – as Geoffrey Rush’s characters sits and gazes at the hundreds of great artworks hanging in his secret room, Morricone responds with a canon of solo sopranos, fluttering voices that twist over and under each other as they ripple across the sonic spectrum.  In moments like this, it’s almost as though Morricone is scoring from the perspective of the artwork itself, suggesting a legacy of aesthetic beauty that rises above the convoluted plot machinations and implausible character behavior that otherwise dominates the film.

8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Howard Shore

I’ll admit that I’m of two minds about this one.  On the one hand, this is easily the least enjoyable of Shore’s middle earth scores, lacking the instantly memorable themes and emotionally vibrant moments that characterized his Lord of the Rings music (which remains film music’s greatest achievement of at least the 21st century).  But the film also didn’t give Shore much to work with, offering little of the drama or character development that used to inspire such so much emotionally charged music in these films.  Shore then at least deserves to be commended for creating so many distinct musical landscapes within the narrow confines he’s been given. From the unsettling echoing string effects for the forests of Mirkwood, to the distorted reversal of his elf music for the woodland elves, and finally to the exotic metallic percussion music for Smaug’s cave, the score is rife with inventive textures.  And once again, the long-term thematic development is extremely impressive; as he did in the Lord of the Rings sequels, Shore gradually reveals that throwaway melodies from the last Hobbit film have actually been character motifs all along (Smaug’s theme, referenced briefly at the start of the first film, practically takes over the last act of this one).  Part of me wishes that Shore the restrained intellectual would have made a little more space for Shore the crowd pleaser, but this is still substantive and original music.  I only hope that the final film in the series stops wasting its time with subplots nobody cares about and centers back on Bilbo Baggins for its last installment– if for no other reason, then because the hobbits themselves seem to bring out Shore’s most lyrical music.

7. The Book Thief by John Williams

It always seems ridiculous to call any John Williams score underrated, especially one that’s been nominated for an Oscar (I can almost promise you it won’t win)  Yet this one seems to have taken a lot of guff that it didn’t deserve.  While it doesn’t push the composer into any new frontiers, The Book Thief is easily the best of Williams’ “post-retirement” scores, sensitive and restrained in ways that Williams hasn’t been in decades.  There are certainly similarities to the composer’s score for Angela’s Ashes, but where that score tended to have an overbearing impact on its film, The Book Thief is a gentle and delicate score never overwhelms the story’s central drama.  Like the film’s personified version of Death, the score sympathizes with the characters from certain point of removal.  The music responds to emotional currents of the story, but it does so from a distance, always maintaining a wry tone that skirts the balance between whimsy and melancholy.  While certain critics are inclined to see Williams name on the credits and assume that they’re in for overbearing Hollywood schmaltz, Williams’ music here is easily the most thoughtful and nuanced aspect of this misguided holocaust drama.

6. Grand Piano by Victor Reyes

The entire concept of this movie almost forces a high level of quality from its film score: a disgraced classical pianist comes to a concert hall for a comeback performance, only to learn that an anonymous gunman is threatening to kill him if he plays a single wrong note.  What follows is a stylish mesh of Speed and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but if the film works it’s 80% because of the elaborate score/source piece by Victor Reyes.  Reyes composed the central piano concerto that Elijah Wood’s protagonist performs onstage, and it’s music that functions both as an insanely difficult showcase piece for piano virtuosity and as dramatic film music for the suspense plot.  I’m not crazy about some aspects of the recording – the orchestra often sounds at least partially synthesized, which is particularly odd given that we often see actual instruments playing onscreen.  Yet the music is so memorable and so effective at generating tension that it’s easy to overlook any reservations about the recording.  The piano writing is suitably insane, written to be as difficult as humanly possible while still reflecting the protagonist’s tumultuous character arc.  Reyes succeeds in paying homage to composers like Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, but members of a certain generation will likely be more reminded of the gothic excess of 1990s Batman music. As a members of said generation will tell you, this comparison is the best compliment I can give a score.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines by Mike Patton

Synth choirs, electric bass, and keyboards – if you had walked up to me 10 years ago and told me that I’d love a score with these ingredients, I’d have said, “What?! Who are you?! I don’t have any change,” and likely called the police (seriously, don’t do that to people).  But 2014 Paul will tell you that you’re absolutely right, even if he’ll also ask you to please not follow him home.  Mike Patton creates a feverishly compelling atmosphere from these inauspicious elements, with sharp choral bursts and menacing bass creating a larger-than-life soundscape.  The resulting score is harmonically and sonically inventive for all of its simplicity, and it signals to the audience that this seemingly small-scale character drama has epic ambitions.  In the film, the score is augmented effectively with music by Avro Part and Ennio Morricone, but Patton’s score is ultimately what gives the film such a unique hallucinatory glow.

4. The Wind Rises by Joe Hisaishi

Hiyao Miyazaki’s apparent retirement also marks the end of one of the most fruitful director-composer relationships of the past three decades.  For nearly 30 years, Joe Hisaishi has been accompanying Miyazaki’s flights of fancy, often serving as the tender earth-bound anchor that grounds Miyazaki’s outlandish fantasies in pure human emotion.  For The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s love letter to flight and the pre-industrial Japanese countryside, Hisaishi responds with a stroke of counterintuitive genius: old-world European romance.  Essentially ignoring period-specific Japanese music, Hisaishi writes in the dreamy style of mid-20th century European film composers like Maurice Jarre (Doctor Zhivago) and Nino Rota (La Dolce Vita), and the result almost makes you wish you could jump several decades into the past.  It’s an old-Hollywood score written to a film with intensely conflicted feelings about Japan’s military history, and it aids immeasurably in tipping the film’s balance away from militant nationalism.  For by evoking another culture’s musical tropes for bittersweet nostalgia, Hisaishi keeps the film from seeming like a glamorization of the WWII-era Japan itself.  Instead, both film and score emerge as a more universal attempt at savoring life’s fleeting moments of beauty, even if the horrors of industrial warfare ultimately can’t be suppressed.  The end result registers as an achingly poignant coda to one of the international filmdom’s most treasured artistic partnerships.

3. Only God Forgives by Clint Martinez

When I listened to this score by itself, I was at a loss for why anyone was paying attention to it; all I could hear was an eclectic and unpleasant grab bag of gothic pipe organ music, synthesizers that sound like they belong in a 1980s Yamaha demo, and pan-Asian percussion, all operating with no melody to speak of.  Yet somehow, this ugly mix takes on a level of brilliance in Nicholas Refn’s film.  Only God Forgives is essentially Refn’s Drive stripped of its charm and romance, an intensely abrasive journey into highly stylized depravity that almost seems to punish its audience for taking enjoyment from Drive’s extreme violence.  Somehow, despite sounding for all the world like a series of minimalistic doodlings, Martinez’s score takes on a level of operatic grandeur when it plays against the film.  The score amplifies the cruel and avant-garde aspects of the onscreen violence so much that the finished product registers less as a thriller than a modern art installation.  I’d hesitate to recommend anyone the album – or the film for that matter – but combined, I can’t deny that they create an aura of fevered brilliance.

2. All is Lost by Alex Ebert

Here we get to the point where I start enthusing about scores that other members of the film music community seem to hate.  Make no mistake: Ebert’s score to J.C. Chandor’s character study about an old man lost at sea could not be further from traditional film music.  Indeed the score is often so subtle that it almost registers as sound design.  But this is also one of the most legitimately organic scores I’ve come across in a very long time, and Ebert’s score quietly adds layers of spiritual meaning to this intensely minimalistic film.  The score largely eschews a traditional orchestra, but the ensemble is also entirely acoustic.  Woodwinds dominate, often blending so seamlessly into the ocean wind that it’s difficult to tell where the music ends and the environment begins.  But when the score gradually does lean forward, pushing into long-lined melodies (complete with chord progressions straight out of Ebert’s work with Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes), the effect is mesmerizing.  The film is extremely light on dialogue and narrative, and it relies almost entirely on Ebert to probe at any deeper layers in the straightforward story.  Ebert responds by finding moments of quiet grace in small details.  When Robert Redford’s character takes a brief pause in his labors and savors the cooling rainstorm that’s drifted overhead, for example, Ebert’s soothing main theme gradually pours out of the woodwinds, making the moment one of gentle transcendence.  The score also avoids restating the obvious, favoring sympathetic serenity over suspense – even in climactic scenes when the protagonist seems close to death.  And the end credits song, “Amen,” is one of the most powerful things Ebert has ever written, a riveting musical catharsis that easily equals anything he’s sung as Edward Sharpe.  I don’t think I’ve listened to any film score more in 2013 than I listened to All is Lost.

1. Her by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet

While not as flashy as the type of score that typically stands out as the year’s best, Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet’s score, more than any other released in 2013, positively makes its film.  Spike Jonze’s mediation on human relationships in the digital age is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and deeply affecting film on just about every level, but it would not work without its music.  The film rests on its ability convince the audience that a man’s relationship with his operating system deserves to be taken seriously.  And without discounting Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson’s excellent performances, I would argue that the music is ultimately what ensures we’ll take this relationship as more than a bizarre joke.  In a pivotal love-making scene – a scene that essentially determines whether you the audience are going to be able to buy into this love story – the score surges with so much vulnerable longing, tenderness, and heartbreak that you practically need to be a smartphone app yourself to not give in.  Arcade Fire fans may be particularly inclined to find this moment potent, as it climaxes with a string arrangement of the finale from their song “Porno” (it’s taken from the point in the song where Win Butler starts wailing, “I’m not over it”).  The band apparently composed this score while writing songs for Reflector, and the motifs and themes from that album that bleed into Her’s score add rich extra-textual dimensions to the music.  Yet you don’t need to be familiar with Arcade fire as a band to feel the impact of its score for this film.  This is deceptively complex music that evolves alongside the film’s characters, a score where every individual instrument, timbre, and harmony reflects on the characters’ psychological development.  Though it begins as a slightly off-putting series of electronic distortions, it gradually evolves with the characters and their relationship, growing more emotionally accessible as both Theodore and Samantha learn to come to terms with themselves. Sadly, the score has yet to see release as an album release, but it’s really at its best in the context of the film.  Her is my favorite film of 2013, and I’d even go so far as to call it one of the great films about human relationships, period.  But as much as I love the film, I doubt it would have anywhere near this profound impact without Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet.

Runners up:  While I didn’t have room for them in my top 10, Joe Hisaishi’s romantic Miracle Apples, Angelo Bandalamenti’s rousing Stalingrad, Javier Navarrete’s elegant Byzantium, M83’s seductive and ethereal You and the Night, and Danny Elfman’s charmingly cornball Oz: the Great and Powerful are all very fine 2013 scores that come highly recommended.

And that’s it: thank you all for coming back.  I know that it’s been a long time since I updated this blog, but I do mean to change that in the future.  Despite my grousing at the start of this piece, few things give me more excitement than great film music, and I look forward to exploring more of it in this blog in the months to come.

Best Films of 2012

Was 2012 a good year for film?  It was certainly a good year for hype.  Last January, we were looking at a year that promised new films by Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Spielberg, in addition to widely anticipated entries in the Batman, James Bond, Avengers, Alien, and Lord of the Rings franchises.  How much did these widely disparate films live up to the hype?  By and large, extraordinarily well.  While there were always going to be disappointments, 2012 was largely a year of great filmmakers reminding us why we pay so much attention every time they make a new movie.  Some of them surprised, some of them fell short, and some simply managed to meet intimidating high expectations, but more than any year in recent memory, 2012 felt like a year when individual director’s voices dominated  both the blockbuster and the arthouse.  As much as the media would like to turn a “flop” like John Carter into a cautionary tale of too much directorial power, it’s telling that three of the hugest hits this year – The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Skyfall – are each clearly the product of a strong-willed director with a distinct voice.  That said, there were also many unexpected surprises, often from first-time directors who will hopefully go on to have long and fruitful careers in movies.  But for the present moment, the stars seem to have briefly aligned so that it’s possible to be an artist and still find enormous commercial success within the Hollywood system.  I’m not holding my breath for how long it will last, but 2012 was a nice reminder that quality and commercialism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Below are 10 films that – for me – stood out amidst a remarkably strong year.  Motivated in part by this blog, I made an effort this year of seeing as much as possible, and as a result I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to condense my favorites into a top 10 list.  The picks below are by no means perfect – in fact, many are so heavily flawed that some of you may be flabbergasted that I’ve included them.  But every film below tried something ambitious, something memorable that attains greatness despite – and sometimes even because of – other perceived shortcomings.  Before I begin, I should acknowledge one caveat: I still have not seen Holy MotorsWuthering HeightsRust and Bone, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Killer Joe, and a handful of other titles that have made a lot of other critics top ten lists.  Others critical darlings like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are absent for a reasons that I will get to into in a later post.  With that out of the way, here are Movie Music Musing’s …

Top 10 Films of 2012:

10.  Prometheus

Remember that thing I said in the opening paragraph about some of these films being heavily flawed?  I know it was a long time ago, so I can wait while you go back to re-read it if you like….  Good?  Good.  Well, I was mostly thinking of Prometheus when I said that.  Ridley Scott’s film certainly has its weak spots, especially when it tries to be a traditional horror film and sends presumably brilliant researchers to do insanely stupid things.  Yet these moments are secondary to the film’s remarkable achievement – legitimate science fiction on a massive blockbuster budget.  For the first time in decades, the Ridley Scott who made thought-provoking, visually intricate films like The Duelists and Blade Runner seems to have returned.  Working with a script by Damian Lindelof, whose final season of Lost covered similar ground, Scott uses the epic platform to pose a provocative question – can we assume that any creator that made us had wise benevolent intentions in mind when we take such a reckless and cavalier attitude to our own creations?  The film doesn’t outright state this message so much as it allows the question to play out through various interlocking creator/creation relationships, whether from man to robot, father to daughter, or mother to an entirely new species of life.  Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the film is the way it weaves its origin story of the creature from Alien in as a thematic parallel to mankind’s own obsession with its own origin story – while the humans run around desperately searching for the secret of their creation, they themselves are inadvertently creating a brand new form of life that they’d just as soon destroy as abandon.  There are of course better films this year, but short of The Master, I can’t think of another film that prompted more interesting conversations.

9.  Antimetheus

A spin-off of Prometheus about a little-known god who runs around looking for people lighting fires, then angrily snatches the fires away and shouts “Hey – you can’t have that!”  It’s a stunning use of … ok fine, there is no movie called Antimetheus – that was a goof.  But if anybody’s interested in my spec script: “Antimetheus Decides He’s Fine Being Bound, Really Don’t Trouble Yourself,” please contact me.

9 (actual).  Skyfall

I reviewed this a few months ago, and since that time the film seems to have attracted equal measures of intense praise and criticism (the latter mostly from fans who can’t get over the film not looking precisely like their version of a Bond film).  As I stated then, it’s another flawed film, particularly clumsy during the action scenes that would normally be the Bond film’s reason for existence.  The thing is, in this particular film they aren’t – Mendes invests the film with so much emotional weight for both Bond as a character and Bond as a cultural institution that all the various plot holes and awkward fight scenes just seem like trivialities.  Remember that brief gasp of tragedy that closes the otherwise lighthearted On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?  Skyfall is that moment extended over two and half hours, resulting in installment for this franchise where the thrills come from the character relationships, not the explosions.

8.  Amour

Part of me feels guilty for placing this so low on this list, because it’s an objectively brilliant film and I completely understand why it’s received so much widespread critical adulation.  Michael Haneke is notorious for brutal portraits of human cruelty in films like Funny Games and Cache, but he’s often misunderstood as a cruel director as a result.  In truth, every Haeneke film invites compassion from its audience – he just uses cruelty to make us recognize how much damage we can do to each other when we aren’t careful.  Amour might be his first film that instead focuses squarely on humankind’s capacity for kindness, though Haneke being Haneke, the film does so in the most brutal fashion imaginable.  Without a trace of sentimentality, he shows us the last days of an elderly married couple (played by French New Wave icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva).  After a botched operation and stroke leaves Riva unable to tend to even her basic body functions, Trintignant’s role gradually shifts from husband to nurse as he struggles to take care of his wife even while her brain slowly leaves her.  In terms of achieving what it sets out to achieve, Haneke’s film is unimpeachable – the cold static shots, the absence of any musical score, and naturalistic performances of the actors create an approximation of reality so convincing it’s often easy to forget you aren’t in a nursing home (I know that people throw these statements around quite a bit, but it really will be an outrage if anybody but Riva wins the Best Actress Oscar).  Yet that same commitment to realism can make it hard to shake the feeling that I could have the same experience with a trip to the local nursing home.  That isn’t necessarily a problem with the film, but it makes for occasion where I can say a film was a masterpiece, yet I’m not entirely sure what I gained from seeing it.

7.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s probably not fair to call this the best representation of high school in any American film, but statements like that assume that everybody has the same memories of high school and their teenage years.  But I will say that it is the only film I have seen, to date, that actually resonated with my own memories of being a teenager.  The film does not exist in a reductive universe made up of broad character types (i.e.  The Breakfast Club) – it’s instead a sensitive and nuanced look at the makeshift communities we form when we’re just old enough to start developing our own identities.  Director Stephen Chbosky adapts the story from his novel, yet at no point does he fall to the traps of other novelist-turned-directors – he knows when to trust wordless audio-visual sequences to tell the story, and when to let the actors carry the emotions that aren’t explicitly spelled out in the dialogue.  The film captures the early point in adulthood where we’re mature enough to have profound feelings but not mature enough to know how to control them – if that doesn’t seem like big praise, think of how few American can films can genuinely make the same claim.

6.  Life of Pi

When word broke that Ang Lee would be adapting Yann Martel’s novel, I suspect that most expected Pi’s odyssey would be getting the somber treatment of the man who gave us The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain.  What a wonderful surprise then, to see that Lee has instead turned the material into his most whimsical and visually spectacular film to date.  Navigating around the problem of adapting a book that spends the bulk of its story on a lifeboat, the director turns the film’s potentially monotonous setting into a showcase for vivid, impressionistic fantasy sequences and 3D effects that put Avatar to shame.  These showstopping set-piece aren’t gratuitous, but rather extensions of the protagonist’s free-flowing spiritual imagination.  Granted, some of the film’s philosophical musings hit dead ends (the film stakes a lot of weight on whether or not the tiger has a soul, and its criteria for determining this question are questionable at best).  But the film’s viscerally thrilling combination of dazzling imagery and soulful music makes an extremely convincing case for the spiritual ecstasy that the Pi embraces.  It’s rare to see Ang Lee wearing his heart on his sleeve so shamelessly, and it’s a pleasure to discover that he’s actually very good at it.

5.  Django Unchained

Django Unchained is probably Tarantino’s most straightforward “movie” since Jackie Brown, and one of the few that functions just as well as a satisfying action film as it does a metacommentary on filmmaking.  Yet though it succeeds in telling a supremely satisfying story, it also doubles a sly rebuke against Hollywood’s frequently shameful history with racial representation.  Much controversy was caused by the film’s premise – a Spaghetti Western/exploitation pastiche about a slave who slaughters white Southerners – and if you take Tarantino’s highly stylized vision of the Antebellum South on strictly historical grounds, I’m sure you’ll find a great deal of fault.  But while the world that this film creates isn’t plausible as a real historical setting, it’s highly plausible as a slightly distorted reflection of the equally fictitious worlds we see in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.  Tarantino sets up the icons from these films – the majestic Klan, the plantation, the southern belle, and the Uncle Tom/Mammy figure, and then proceeds to reveal how dangerous despicable all of these fantasies actually are.  Then Django blows them to smithereens (spoiler?).  After so many films that spend their time hand-wringing and falling over themselves to make sure that white audiences don’t have to feel too bad about slavery, there’s something cathartic about a film that’s willing to declare all-out war on the sentimental tropes that have somehow allowed white American culture to get nostalgic for its darkest shame.

4.  Moonrise Kingdom

Another film I’ve already reviewed, and I don’t have a lot to add other than to reiterate how moving it to see Anderson take the whimsical children’s storybook world that his disillusioned adult characters usually cling to, and firmly give that world back to the children who still have a chance to avoid their parents’ mistakes.  Wes Anderson will always make “Wes Anderson” films, but when they’re this charming and deeply felt, how could that be a bad thing?

3.  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

I know next to nothing about director Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Turkish cinema, but part of this chillingly beautiful crime drama’s brilliance is that it could have been made anywhere.  Perhaps that isn’t strictly fair – the simultaneously gorgeous and dreary rolling hills of rural Turkey have a distinct quality that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else on the planet  –  but the film’s mediation truth and morality extend far past its geographic and cultural setting.  Two brothers confess to a murder and proceed to lead a group of policeman and law officials to the body.  But because one brother is mentally handicapped and the other drunk when the murder took place, the search for the body ends up stretching long into the night.  The long monotonous scavenger hunt serves as a fodder for philosophical conversations with unsettling ramifications, but the film is the most affecting when it quietly hints at a heartbreaking truth that the confession conceals.  Not that truth is ever clear in this story – Ceylan keeps his central themes unresolved, resulting in a gut-wrenching film that’s all the more devastating for the closure it denies us.

2. The Master

Yet another film I’ve already reviewed, and while there are certainly many more things that I could say about it, let’s just suffice to say it’s a masterpiece, a film that we will be talking about for decades to come.  Nobody else is making movies like this – nobody who can build an entire film on character relationships that are painstakingly intimate yet ambiguous in nearly every respect.  I had to limit my reading to Joaquin Phoenix’s character just to keep my review from turning into a book, but I doubt that even a book-length analysis would do justice to the countless beguiling and contradictory layers that Anderson has woven together.  Part of me feels that this should be in my number one spot, and really at this point, the rankings are arbitrary.  But if, gun to my head, I have to pick one film from 2012, I have to go with:

1.  Beasts of the Southern Wild 

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who read my earlier rave.  This is a film that manages to burrow deep into squalor, yet with that filth it builds its own beautiful new universe.  In some ways, the film is the polar opposite of The Master – where that film buries any affect or meaning under countless contradictory layers, Beasts gives us direct, naked passion from the first frame.  Perhaps because it relies so much on its raw emotional appeal, the film does admittedly tend to either affect people enormously or not at all.  But I don’t necessarily see that as a shortcoming – any film that pierces so fiercely at the heart is going to miss a few viewers in the process.  Ultimately, while there may have been more intellectual or carefully crafted films released this year, none of them could claim such a startlingly unique and overwhelmingly moving vision.

Runners Up:

Martin McDonagh’s meta-dramedy Seven Psychopaths might seem like a Tarantino riff on the surface, but it’s much closer to his own play Pillowman – like that theater piece, the film is a dark examination of storytelling and its capacity to both mirror and influence traumatic violence in the real world.  The man against-wolves plot of The Grey might seem like a horror thriller on the surface, but the film itself is a surprisingly a sensitive and tender look at the different ways we face death, and it features Liam Neeson’s best performance in nearly a decade.  A dramatic event takes place midway through a couple’s backpacking trip in The Loneliest Planet, and your ability to accept the film will likely hinge on whether you can swallow the idea that the couple could go for days without so much as mentioning the event.  Yet it raises profoundly unsettling questions about gender roles in the 21st century, and deserves to be seen simply for the difficult conversation it prompts.  The last act of Spielberg’s Lincoln caves a bit too much to celebrating the brave rich white men who talked about ending slavery, but it’s otherwise a remarkably sober reflection on the way our political process forces even a national hero like Lincoln to make ethical compromises for the greater good.  Finally Looper operates on a brilliant high concept premise, and it manages to surprise even as it follows that premise to what, in retrospect, was always its natural conclusion.  That it also builds to a surprisingly moving critique of our modern-day culture of selfishness almost feels like a bonus.

Five Great Popcorn Films from 2012:

These films that ultimately didn’t have the substance to merit a place in the above lists, but they proved that quality and innovation aren’t always enemies to escapist entertainment.

The Avengers

Clever dialogue, great character chemistry, and a sense of scope that’s as gloriously ridiculous as the comic books themselves lead to one of the few modern-day action films that kids will still be watching in their basements decades into the future.  No other film this year was quite so successful at creating a giddy sense of fun, and it served as a reminder that in the right hands, a crossover can actually be thrilling.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

People expecting either the scope of the Lord of the Rings films or the quiet whimsy of the original novel are almost certain to be disappointed, but taken on its own terms, Jackson has created an enormously entertaining adventure yarn.  It’s best approached if you consider The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings appendices as raw material for a new story, rather than as a holy text that requires the film’s total fidelity.  While the frame story with Ian Holm is a bit much, in other respects Jackson and his writers actually improve on the novel – it’s clearer why Gandalf’s here and how he eventually evolves into the character we see in the later films, and the dwarfs’ quest has a meaningful justification here that never quite came across in Tolkien’s novel.  No it’s not as powerful as the first trilogy, but it makes up for epic scope with a more light-hearted and inventive approach to escapism.

The Cabin in the Woods

Drew Goddard’s film probably isn’t as profound as it seems on the surface, but he deserves kudos for delivering both a clever deconstruction of horror movie tropes and the biggest monster melee since House of Frankenstein.  It manages to satisfy both fans of slasher flicks and people who generally hate slasher flicks, and it closes with one of the most perversely satisfying closing sequences of any film this year.

Premium Rush 

This zippy action-comedy about a thrill-seeking bicycle messenger shows its cards from the start when it refers to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s hero as Wile E. Coyote.  Truth be told though, both the film and the hero are much closer to the Road Runner.  Like that cartoon bird, Levitt and the film are singular in purpose, and they make fast-paced adrenalin its own ethos.  The result is a compact speed-run that’s more electrifying than any live-action Looney Tunes cartoon has right to be.

Dark Knight Rises

Nolan’s big caper to his Dark Knightt trilogy was rife with plot holes and troubling thematic implications (this is not a film that handles class or gender conflict gracefully), but it’s hard to fault Rises for its entertainment value.  The film relies a lot on the audience’s built-in goodwill from the previous films, but by and large Nolan manages to draw his saga to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, even in the midst of significant shortcomings.

And that was 2012!  Tune in later next week when I talk about this year’s Oscar nominations, and thanks for reading!

Apologies

Apologies for anybody who follows this blog for the occasional “Discussion Prompt” posts that end up on Movie Music Musings.  As you might imagine, these are intended for the Course Blog of a class that I teach.  Wordpress seems to have some sort of glitch that sometimes resets any new post back to your default blog, even when you’re posting it on a different blog’s home page.  Sorting this out, and hopefully it won’t happen again.  Thanks, and stay tuned for new “real” articles on Movie Music Musings.

Best,

Paul