Thursday, November 12, 2009

Soundtrack Available

I'm obsessed with soundtracks. By my estimate I have between 1 and 200, encompassing everything from Mean Girls to The Devil's Rejects. (I'm nothing if not eclectic.) I love movies and pop culture, and for me soundtracks are a natural extension of that love-- the songs help me remember great movies, or in some cases far surpass them. (Van Wilder: terrible movie. Pretty awesome soundtrack.) They've also introduced me, over the years, to some fantastic new artists, including numerous rock classics. (Thank you, Running With Scissors, for "Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart. I truly needed that song in my life.) What follows is my personal picks for my ten favorite soundtracks, in no particular order. I don't know that they're the best ever, but they're the tops in my collection. For the purposes of this list, I excluded scores and musicals (perhaps I'll get to those in another post.) Alright, here goes...
Dick (1999)/Running With Scissors (2006): I've always had a soft spot for '70s music, and these two albums represent a wide variety of its best and brightest tunes. Dick is pure pop fun from start to finish, with hits by the likes of Elton John, the Jackson 5 and Labelle. (Sixpence None the Richer-- remember them?-- also contribute a cute cover of "Dancing Queen.") It's just as enjoyable as the movie itself. The moodier side of the '70s emerges in the soundtrack to "Running With Scissors," based on Augusten Burroughs' twisted memoir. Director Ryan Murphy imagined the book as a day-glo fantasia, loaded with kitsch and-- as one critic put it-- "the best '70s pop money can buy." There's Elton John again, along with Phoebe Snow (the sublime "Poetry Man"), Manfred Mann's Earth Band ("Blinded By the Light"), and Crosby, Stills & Nash ("Teach Your Children"). The eclectic selection reflects the movie's dark sense of humor, and also includes such oddities as Vince Guaraldi's "O Tannenbaum" (from "A Charlie Brown Christmas") and Nat King Cole. As for the one contemporary song, Catherine Feeney's "Mr. Blue"? Utterly heartbreaking.
Philadelphia (1993): Jonathan Demme's seminal AIDS drama spawned a great soundtrack, which boasted not one but two Oscar nominated songs: Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" and Neil Young's "Philadelphia." The Boss took the prize-- "Streets" rates among his greatest-- but Young's mournful ballad is equally affecting. Peter Gabriel also scored a memorable entry with the darkly romantic "Love Town."
I Am Sam (2001): The producers of the Sean Penn tear jerker-- centered on a mentally challenged man obsessed with the Beatles-- avoided astronomical royalties by recruiting a who's who of talent to re-record Beatles hits. The album features a few covers not included in the film; among the best are Ben Harper's "Strawberry Fields Forever," Rufus Wainwright's "Across the Universe," and Nick Cave's wonderfully moving "Let It Be." This ultimate tribute album transcended the movie and became a phenomenon unto itself.
Cruel Intentions (1999): The late '90s resulted in a slew of alt rock grab bags tied in with teen-centric movies; I have quite a few myself, including the "Scream"s, "Jawbreaker," "I Know What You Did Last Summer," and "Go." But this album, from the guilty pleasure starring Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and a young Reese Witherspoon, was the best one of all. There's not a weak link in the mix: from Placebo's sneering "Every You Every Me" to Aimee Mann's "You Could Make a Killing" to Counting Crows' lovely "Colorblind," it's an amazing assortment of alternative music.
Magnolia (1999)/House of 1000 Corpses (2003): Two very different movies that had one thing in common: both had soundtracks provided almost entirely by one artist. Magnolia was actually built around Aimee Mann's songs: director P.T. Anderson was so inspired by her that he decided to write a movie inspired by her music. The sublime collection includes the Oscar and Grammy nominated "Save Me" as well as "Wise Up" (memorably sung onscreen by all of the principle characters) and a world-weary cover of Three Dog Night's "One." My favorite non-Mann song on the CD is Gabrielle's "Dreams," a thoroughly enjoyable pop tune. Meanwhile, Rob Zombie contributed six songs to his directorial debut, the in-your-face horror odyssey House of 1000 Corpses. The title track and "Pussy Liquor" are both outstanding, but the undisputed highlight is Zombie's driving cover of "Brick House" featuring Lionel Ritchie and Trina. I must've rocked out to that one about 1000 times during my sophomore year of college. There's also a Ramone's jam and a cute Buck Owens song called "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?" After this film Zombie stopped using his own music onscreen and turned instead to compiling quirky mixes leaning heavily on 1970s fare. I debate whether to include this album or his memorable soundtracks for The Devil's Rejects (House's sequel) or Halloween (2007). Ultimately though, his hellbilly rock collection won out.
Death Proof (2007): Another auteur known for his distinctive musical choices, Quentin Tarantino was true to form with his soundtrack for Death Proof, his half of the underrated B-movie homage Grindhouse. What makes this CD so fun is that it mixes little known rock songs (most of which are played on a jukebox onscreen) with action and suspense score pieces by the likes of Pino Donnagio and Ennio Morrocone. (In true Tarantino fashion, the entire score was made up of bits from earlier movies.) Some of QT's better finds include the wonderfully weird story song "Staggolee" by Pacific Gas & Electric and "Hold Tight" by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (the latter track featuring prominently in a gory set piece). The piece de resistance is April March's kitschy "Chick Habit," which ties in perfectly with the girls kick ass message of the movie-- and of much of Tarantino's ouvre.
Brokeback Mountain (2005): The soundtrack to Ang Lee's acclaimed gay love story is the most beautiful album on this list. Gustavo Santaolalla's Oscar winning score anchors the collection; it's utterly gorgeous. The movie's middle American milieu is reflected in many of the artists involved: Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and lesser-known chanteuse Mary McBride all contribute tracks. There are also haunting selections by Rufus Wainwright and the under-appreciated Teddy Thompson.
Cloverfield (2008): This is one of the more unique soundtracks on here for a number of reasons. For one, the movie itself is largely without music, save for the opening party scene that precipitates a giant monster's attack on New York. Secondly, it was released as a "mixtape" on iTunes. But what a mixtape. Cloverfield's music supervisors put together a vast array of some of the best up and coming artists in the indie music scene; for instance Kings of Leon, who perform "Taper Jean Girl" and "Pistol of Fire," exploded shortly after the film's release. I enjoyed the whole compilation-- save for Parliament's "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker," which I honestly could've lived without-- but my faves included Coconut Records' pretty "West Coast," Spoon's "The Underdog," and Moby's pulse-pounding "Disco Lies." Cloverfield's one score selection has also emerged on iTunes: "Roar! (Cloverfield Overture)," by Michael Giacchino.

Friday, November 6, 2009

2009's Horror Renaissance

People like to say that horror is dead, but I've always found that pessimistic. I think there have been plenty of good horror movies over the last decade or so; HorrorHound, my new favorite magazine, even has a cover story this month listing their 20 Best Horror Movies of the Past 10 Years, with standouts like The Descent, 28 Days Later, and Grindhouse among them. This year, in my opinion, has been particularly good, with several very entertaining and original entries. Prompted by the much-ballyhooed Paranormal Activity, I decided to compile reviews for my favorite fright flicks of the year. And heck, it isn't even over yet-- Daybreakers, a sci-fi vampire hybrid with Ethan Hawke and the amazing Sam Neill, opens soon, too!
Drag Me to Hell--It all started, for me at least, with this Sam Raimi mini-masterpiece. After years spent on the big budget Spiderman franchise, the Evil Dead auteur got back to his down and dirty horror roots with a wickedly entertaining scarefest. Alison Lohman stars as a hapless loan officer whose bid to impress her boss backfires-- reeeeally backfires-- when she denies a repulsive gypsy hag an extension on her mortgage. Poor Lohman winds up cursed and tormented by demons who want to-- well, the title says it all. What follows is a cavalcade of scares, laughs, and gross out gags that quite simply never lets up. The fun that Raimi and his cohorts were having is palpable, as they pull out all the stops to deliver a gonzo thrill ride.+
Orphan--After Raimi's demons, I figured nothing could be as rollicking a good time. Surprisingly, this creepy kid shocker comes pretty darn close. Although it's the umpteenth variation on the Bad Seed formula, Orphan distinguishes itself with a peculiar blend of realism and off the wall camp. As sinister Esther engages in increasingly vicious activities, the movie pushes far, *far* beyond the bounds of its predecessors. Strong performances by the entire cast help elevate this from pure trash into something gaudy and over-the-top yet effective and deeply disturbing.
Grace--Released to theaters in a very limited capacity, Grace is a small independent film with a truly creepy concept. A pregnant woman (Jordan Ladd) decides to bring her stillborn baby to term, than inexplicably wills it back to life. But baby Grace has special needs, which can only be met if her mother is willing to do unthinkable things. What could have been tasteless becomes haunting and even moving, with a dense script and an array of subplots that ground this fantastic premise in a very real and tortured world. Special mention goes to the music, by composer Austin Wintory (also responsible for the moody score of my best friend's debut feature Print.)
Trick 'R Treat
--This long delayed Halloween-themed horror flick was well, well worth the wait. The fantastically fun movie pays homage to Tales From the Crypt and Creepshow with its interconnected stories involving a serial killer, ghost children, a werewolf, and the demonic spirit of Halloween itself, all converging on a small midwestern town on October 31st. I really can't praise this movie enough. Great cast (including character vet Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, and Brian Cox). Mesmerizing production design. Loads of scares. And good old fashioned powerful storytelling, with sublime surprises around every corner. Pure horror bliss.
Paranormal Activity--And cementing 2009 as one of the best years for horror in recent memory? This out of nowhere screamer, famously shot for $11,000-- in the director's house!-- and now on track to earn $100 million. With all the hype, a backlash seems imminent, but all Hollywood talk aside... it's a good movie. And it's fucking scary. Suspense and mood are key as Paranormal presents, in docudrama fashion, the saga of a young couple terrorized by an unearthly presence in their home-- one that's followed Katie, the girl, since she was a young child. The simple premise and minimal resources available are more than enough, in the filmmaker's capable hands, to scare the bejeezus out of us. The sound design and eerie nighttime camera shots disturb on a profound level. And the idea that Katie can't escape her demon by simply leaving the house-- that it will follow her wherever she goes-- ensure that the film has an overwhelming sense of dread and mounting terror. By the finale I was literally on the edge of my seat-- but oh so glad that I can still find outstanding scares at the movies.