Wednesday, December 28, 2016

It's that time of year again! In preparation for the publication of my annual list of my top ten films of the year, here is my list of the best film scores of 2016. Special shout-out to TV scores for GAME OF THRONES and STRANGER THINGS, as well as Austin Wintory's score for the video game, ABZU (which would make the top 5 easily if I included video game scores).

(Johann Johannsson)

While the prominent use of Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight" may have been what audiences remembered the most from Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (subsequently resulting in the score's disqualification from Oscar consideration), its circular rhythms and use of human voices to convey the idea of communication and competing languages make Johannsson's score the year's most accomplished musical work. No other score this year comes close in terms of originality and intellectual construct. It's a shame that its use of tracked music disqualified it, because it absolutely deserves to be recognized by the Academy for its daring achievement.

(Alexandre Desplat)

Alexandre Desplat continues to probe why he is one of the best film composers working today. He's also one of the busiest, which makes the consistent quality of his work all the more impressive. While he also turned in terrific scores to 7 other films and a TV series this year (which may be why he had to bow out of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), it was The Light Between Oceans that really stood out. Desplat took Derek Cianfrance's melodrama and found its lyrical soul. You'll find no melodies more beautiful in any other score this year.

(Justin Hurwitz)

An over the moon pastiche of jazz, Broadway, and classic Hollywood musicals. Absolute heaven.

(Nicholas Britell)

Nicholas Britell captures the heart of Moonlight's young protagonist, giving each of his different iterations a unique theme, then beautifully tying them all together in the end. Haunting work.

(Mica Levi)

Mica Levi's woozy, punch-drunk compositions sound like they're the score inside Jackie Kennedy's head, taking us on a journey into the inner workings of a grieving mind trying desperately to cling to her dignity.

(Abel Korzeniowski)

Abel Korzeniowski's lovely, classically minded scores continue to impress me, each time ending up on my year end list (A Single Man, W/E, and Romeo & Juliet were all #1 in their respective years). While Nocturnal Animals shares similar qualities with his previous work, there's no denying how effective (and how devastatingly beautiful) it is.

(Andy Hull & Robert McDowell)

Maybe the year's most unusual score (and film), Swiss Army Man is an a capella wonder, coming off like a score hummed by a child as they play in their backyard. As the characters conjure their own score to their own internal adventure, Andy Hull & Robert McDowell's music is always right there with them.

(Jo Yeong-wook)

As dark, melodious, and grand as the film itself. Park Chan-wook's erotic thriller is buoyed by Jo Yeong-wook's sensuous melodies.

(Scott Walker)

While the film is a bit of a mess, Scott Walker's bold, bombastic score to The Childhood of a Leader fills in the gaps that the film leaves behind, recalling the pomp and circumstance of Russian and German propaganda.

(John Williams)

John Williams remains a personal favorite, and while The BFG may not rival his classic works, its hard to deny the impressive intricacy of its writing for woodwinds, or its simple sense of childhood wonder. Even at 84, the maestro's still got it.

Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass (Christopher Wong)
Pete's Dragon (Daniel Hart)
Rogue One (Michael Giacchino)
The Jungle Book (John Debney)
The Monkey King 2 (Christopher Young)
The Witch (Mark Korven)
Elle (Anne Dudley)
Kubo and the Two Strings (Dario Marianelli)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (James Newton Howard)
The Red Turtle (Laurent Perez Del Mar)

Friday, December 09, 2016

As he had done with war movies in his breakout hit, M*A*S*H, Robert Altman set out to make a revisionist Western that completely upended the conventions of the genre in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  Altman chose the source material, "McCabe," by Edmund Naughton, for its conventional Western structure, in hopes of using those stereotypical western tropes to fashion a brand new vision of the American west.

The result is unlike anything else in American cinema, a wholly organic and lived-in film that seems to have appeared through the fog of time. Altman intentionally exposed the negatives, giving the film an ethereal, otherworldly look (beautifully rendered on Criterion's gorgeous new Blu-Ray), as if everything we are seeing is viewed through a slight haze. The cinematography of the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond, along with intricately detailed production design by Leon Erickson, create an evocative sense of time and place, transporting the audience into another world.

Warren Beatty's McCabe is about as far from the archetypal western hero as you can get. He's a smooth-talking businessman with a self-styled reputation as a deadly gunslinger. But at heart he's little more than a mealy-mouthed coward, constantly hiding behind smooth talk and a ridiculously over-sized fur coat. So when a major out-of-town business shows up at his new brothel, co-founded with English madame, Mrs. Miller, with the intent to buy, McCabe is thrown into an impossible situation. The businessmen will not take no for an answer, and McCabe finds himself presented with a choice - stand up for little guy against a monopoly and face death, or do as he has always done and run away.

Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a fascinating upending of the romanticism surrounding the American west and its ideals of masculinity. It's also a startlingly relevant critique of American capitalism, as big business devours small businessmen with ruthless effeciency. If they can't buy out the competition, they will destroy it at all costs.

It all culminates in one of Altman's finest set pieces - an improvised showdown in a surprise blizzard, that may be one of the most striking finales in all of American cinema. Of course, this showdown is everything the typical shoot-em-up Western finale is not. It's almost eerily quiet, played without music (we had become accustomed to the film's haunting use of Leonard Cohen songs up to this point) Altman's place in the New American Cinema of the 1970s cannot be overstated. His loose, hangdog style, the overlapping dialogue, his almost lackadaisical indifference to plot conventions (the main "plot" of the film isn't introduced until halfway through), were revolutionary. And while McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a box office bomb in 1971, it remains one of of the towering cinematic works of the decade.  A bleary-eyed, hazy evocation of the American west as seen without Hollywood's rose colored glasses. It has become a cliche to say that "they don't make 'em like this anymore." But in this case, the old cliche is wholly appropriate. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one-of-a-kind.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.


  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • Audio commentary from 2002 featuring director Robert Altman and producer David Foster 
  • New making-of documentary, featuring members of the cast and crew New conversation about the film and Altman’s career between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell 
  • Featurette from the film’s 1970 production 
  • Art Directors Guild Film Society Q& A from 1999 with production designer Leon Ericksen 
  • Excerpts from archival interviews with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond 
  • Gallery of stills from the set by photographer Steve Schapiro 
  • Excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: An essay by novelist and critic Nathaniel Rich