Of movies and music

My top ten favorite film scores of all time

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter "Oso" Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter “Oso” Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter "Oso" Snell / Warner Bros. Source

Composer Hans Zimmer (front) performing his score for Inception in a live show. Credit: Peter “Oso” Snell / Warner Bros. Source

In an interview that’s included in the Back to the Future DVD special features, Bob Gale, one of the writers and producers of the trilogy, recounted a story of his co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis giving instructions to the film’s composer. As Gale tells it, Zemeckis said this to the film’s composer, Alan Silvestri:

I don’t have a lot of money, I don’t have a lot of really big images on the screen in Back to the Future 1, so make the music really big, so that it’ll make the movie seem bigger than it really is.

And as Bob Gale later judged: “Alan delivered that in spades.” The idea that a great film score can make a movie sound bigger or more epic than it really is is nothing new, but while the three Back to the Future movies are hardly the first examples of movies that take advantage of it, they’re still really good examples of movies that are allowed to be augmented in scope and altered in tone by a great film score. In other words, viewers feel the way they do about Back to the Future at least partially because of its score, and if there were no score, or it was a different score, your memories of the film would probably be totally different.

I guess I’ve always at least heard the score, and as I got older I occasionally noticed it enough to appreciate the big moments, particularly if the score was loud or bombastic. But in the last few years, I’ve taken to listening to film scores by themselves, while working or driving or running, and now I go into theaters listening for the score. I’ve seen a lot of movies and heard a lot of scores, and in the spirit of full disclosure, there aren’t very many that I actively dislike. But I do like some more than others, and so I’ve tried to narrow down my favorites to a top ten list. Try to stay awake (just kidding, hopefully) as I share my top ten favorite movie scores after the break.

If it bleeds, it leads

The best movies of 2014

Interstellar

Happy New Year! It’s now 2015, but before we get too far into the new year it’s worth looking back at 2014, which was another great year for movies. It was another year of sequels and sequels to the sequels (Expendables 3, The Hobbit Part 3, Transformers 4, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but it was also a year showcasing directors at the top of their craft (Gone Girl‘s David Fincher and Interstellar‘s Christopher Nolan). We also had two Liam Neeson movies (Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones) as well as two other Liam Neeson movies with different actors playing Liam Neeson (The November Man and John Wick). It was harder this year than most to choose a top five, so I’ll also include some honorable mentions before getting down to business. And as a warning, I did my best, but there may be some minor spoilers ahead. So read on, with caution, after the jump.

“Beautiful, don’t you think?”

The best movies of 2013

Gravity

2013 was another great year for movies. We had the long-awaited sequel to the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, the beginning of Phase 2 of the Marvel universe, two movies featuring a terrorist attack on the White House, and seemingly at least 30 movies featuring a futuristic dystopian US government in which nothing is what it seems. I didn’t get to the theater to see every movie I wanted to see, but nevertheless, the best five movies I saw this year are after the break.

A problem of scope

A review of Man of Steel

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There's a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There’s a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There's a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There’s a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The genius behind the Back to the Future trilogy wasn’t the nuanced way it dealt with time travel. It wasn’t the casting, it wasn’t the writing, it wasn’t even the music (although the music didn’t hurt, but that’s a topic for another blog post). The genius behind Back to the Future started with a simple idea: what would it be like to see your parents as they were in high school? This idea was the basis of the first movie, and while it had the intended consequence of making a humorous, character-driven story, it also had the unintended consequence of keeping the story scoped. The genius of Back to the Future is that it found a way to address time travel without ever leaving Hill Valley, California. Throughout the trilogy we stay within the same 15-mile radius, and although the trilogy takes place at various points in time over the course of 130 years, to Marty McFly the time-traveler (and the viewer) the events all take place over the course of at most a few weeks.

It would have been really tempting, especially in Back to the Future Part II, to try to make the story bigger. For example, when Biff used the sports almanac to win all that money, marry Lorraine and become the most powerful man in Hill Valley, it would have been natural to ask where Biff stacks up in terms of powerful figures in California, the US and the world. But the movie refused to do that; instead, it kept us focused and confined to Hill Valley.

And this is where Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel falls. For an explanation of that abrupt segue as well as Man of Steel spoilers, read on.

The Great Emancipator

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

I finally saw Lincoln tonight. It’s been in theaters for more than two full months and I’ve wanted to see it since it came out, but work, the holidays and other movies kept coming up and I kept putting it off. But finally, tonight, I saw it, and it was worth the wait. And even though the movie is two months old and most people are done talking about it, I haven’t written in a while and it seems pretty relevant in this climate of political divide and identity crisis. Fair warning: I’ll be writing about a movie you may not have seen. While the plot isn’t much of a mystery, you might prefer to be surprised by the director’s and actors’ interpretations. If that describes you, read with caution.

The end of an era

With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 opening to a record-setting weekend last Friday, the Harry Potter franchise, which is now the highest-grossing movie franchise ever, has finished its run. From the time of the first book’s release in 1997, no children’s book or movie series has had more staying power than Harry Potter. Although there will be no more books and movies for the timebeing, Harry Potter has changed the world and defined a generation. I had the pleasure of seeing the movie on opening day, and walked away, if not floored, at least satisfied. Spoilers are ahead, so if you don’t know the plot to the movie yet, kudos to you, stop reading, and come back when you’ve seen the movie.

You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling

Despite the fact that the first movie I saw in 2010 was Avatar, 2010 was a great year for movies. (Sorry, had to.) Last year, more or less on a whim, I decided to do a top five list of movies I had seen in the last year, so this year I’m taking that whim and making it a tradition. Below are my top five movies of 2010.

Honorable Mention: How to Train Your Dragon, The American, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

5 – Despicable Me

I always approach movies like Despicable Me with some caution. First of all, it’s a 3D movie. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad, but generally movies that are 3D are 3D to be a gimmick, to sell tickets, and squeeze as much money as they can out of patrons before they realize how bad it was. It pleases me to say that both of Dreamworks’ offerings, Despicable Me and How to Train Your Dragon, were both quality movies despite the fact that they were in 3D. (It should be noted that while I say all these movies were in 3D, I didn’t actually attend them in 3D.)

Despicable Me also suffered a long lead time, as it was first advertised in summer 2009. This isn’t a bad sign per se, but it means that by the time the movie comes out I’m probably sick of it. With Despicable Me however, this wasn’t the case – there were still laughs left over for the film’s release.

Steve Carrell’s performance was the best of the film, and I sort of thought the film underused Jason Segel’s talents. Nonetheless the story was good, the movie had me laughing in many spots and I walked out of the theater not regretting that I didn’t see Inception for a second week in a row.

4 – Iron Man 2

I saw Iron Man 2 at midnight and walked out of the theater thinking it would easily be a shoo-in for the greatest film of the summer. But after thinking about it for a bit I remembered that the story was a little less believable (yes, I get it, it’s about a man in a super-suit powered by an artificially sentient robot, but besides that), the characters a little more caricatured, and the movie itself a little less real.

But then I bought it on Blu-ray, and you know what? It’s still a darn fine movie. Jon Favreau had a lot to manage in the second incarnation of this franchise, while trying to tell his story as well as merge Iron Man with The Avengers and really, he did a pretty good job to make a film that is, at the very least, incredibly entertaining. I’m worried about the future of this franchise without Jon Favreau at the helm; that’s how important he was on the first two.

Equally important was Robert Downey Jr., who is experiencing a career revitalization paralleled only by Michael Vick. He was once again able to make Iron Man appear human, an impressive feat considering Iron Man’s extensive arsenal. I also liked Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, and felt that he made a more convincing Warmachine than Terrence Howard would have.

3 – Toy Story 3

When I was drawing up my top five this year, I had to go back and rethink my choices when I landed with Toy Story 3 at #3. I was shocked. I wondered if I had forgotten a plot hole somewhere, maybe forgotten one of the finer intricacies of Toy Story 3 (and to be fair, I only saw it once and have yet to acquire the Blu-ray release).

But the fact that Toy Story 3 was #3 doesn’t say as much about it or Pixar as it does about the movies that bested it. For Toy Story 3 to take a 10-year old franchise, resurrect and invigorate it with new life and end up with what is, in my estimation, the best film of the franchise, there’s really no word to describe it other than “unprecedented.”

I don’t know what the 3D looked like because I only saw it in 2D. But that 2D movie was the best looking movie of the series (not surprisingly) and perhaps the best Pixar’s ever done. The voice acting, one of the most star-studded Pixar releases ever, was superb. The soundtrack was superb. It’s a rare occasion that final movies of trilogies deliver in the way that Toy Story 3 does, but it definitely does here.

It’s so hard for me to pick favorite Pixar movies anyway because they’re all so so good, but I’d be hard-pressed not to put this one near the top.

2 – The Social Network

When I heard they were making a movie about Facebook, I was interested. When I heard Aaron Sorkin was attached to the project, I was very interested. But seriously, I didn’t expect this movie to be good. It’s a movie about a programmer and friends, people who generally communicated via IM during the day instead of getting up and talking to each other twenty feet across the room. The catchphrase “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” was pretty corny, and the trailer with the operatic emo music was really just awkward. All of these factors caused The Social Network to be made fun of incessantly before its launch.

But then I went to the movie, and despite all the hype, despite all of the “what the heck are you doing?” press, it was fantastic. I fully credit Aaron Sorkin for the fast-paced, intelligent dialogue (this had to be the first movie I ever saw in which the text editor emacs was referenced). Jesse Eisenberg, who was probably cast based on how similar his appearance is to Mark Zuckerberg’s, does really well at playing a college student who suddenly becomes a billionaire.

And while some of the story is true, some of it is embellished, and some of it is downright false, the movie as a whole is entertaining, thought-provoking, and yes, inspiring. Unfortunately for The Social Network, it happened to come out in the same year as the #1 movie, or it wouldn’t have settled for #2 on this list.

1 – Inception

If you’ve talked to me about movies since this summer or read my blog, you’ll know that Inception was going to top this list. I first saw the trailer before Avatar back in January, but my interest grew after seeing the now famous trailer before Iron Man 2. Why was my interest high? Three people: Christopher Nolan, Hans Zimmer, and Leonardo DiCaprio, in that order. Those three people rarely make bad movies (especially Nolan). And the catchphrase “Your mind is the scene of the crime” grabbed me.

I saw this one in theaters, at midnight on opening night. And again a couple weeks later. And again a week after that. It’s the first movie I’ve seen three times in theaters, and I’d have happily seen it a couple more times. Everything about the movie was outstanding. The writing was deep and extremely provacative, the acting was superb (Ellen Paige, DiCaprio and Tom Hardy get special mention), and the musical score, by Hans Zimmer, is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Zimmer’s score seems like it’s a part of the movie in a sense that if you listen closely you can hear three different levels at three different tempos, symbolizing how time moves differently in the different dream levels. Zimmer could have gone with something ordinary here, and it would have been fantastic. But the fact that he went out on a limb and did a multi-tempoed waltz made it extraordinary.


It seems like most top-N lists just end, so instead of doing that, I’ll list a few of the movies I’m looking forward to in 2011: The Adjustment Bureau and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II top the list, but Thor, Sherlock Holmes 2, Star Trek 2, Cowboys and Aliens and Captain America are high up there too. I’m also looking forward to PotC: On Stranger Tides and The Hangover 2, and yes, even Cars II. In short, it’s a great time to be a movie fan, and although I’m not sure any year could top 2010, I’ve been wrong before.

Reality check: why Avatar wasn’t really all that great

"I'm flying Jack, I'm flying!" ...oh wait, wrong James Cameron movie.

"I'm flying Jack, I'm flying!" ...oh wait, wrong James Cameron movie.

Back in December of 2009 (Christmas Day, actually. See how dedicated I am to this blog and my readers?) I wrote about my five favorite movies in 2009. My list, you may remember, wasn’t exactly conventional: I included movies like 2012 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen instead of some of the more conventional favorites. (And I’ll still defend those choices as good movies, or at least better than everyone gives them credit for.)

One of those conventional favorites, released for the first time a week before I wrote the post, was James Cameron’s Avatar. It made (and topped) many people’s best movies of 2009 list, and it eventually became the highest grossing movie of all time. This weekend, it was rereleased in theaters with an extra eight (no really, eight!) minutes of special, never-before-seen-but-just-as-green-and-blue footage.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Despite its sales, despite its hype, and despite the fact that sequels are already in the works, Avatar wasn’t really that great. Read on to find out why.

To infinity, and beyond…again…and again!

At some point, Pixar is going to make a bad movie. I mean, it has to happen at some point, right?

Right?

Note: I don’t think I give anything away, but consider this a general warning that I will be talking about Toy Story 3 in the paragraphs that follow.

Drink up me hearties, yo ho: the case for piracy

The fact that I’m still referencing Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat three years after it was required reading in my ENGL 398 class means, unfortunately, that I was wrong: ENGL 398 wasn’t completely useless.