Friday, January 8, 2010

Best of the Decade: Musicals

We all know that the best musical of the decade was Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Once More With Feeling" - which had catchy songs, staged brilliantly, all of them entirely relevant to the show - something which most of these musicals even struggle with. The sad fact is that although musicals seem to be on the rebound after a fairly meager existence since the late 70s, they've still functioned as pretty piss-poor entertainment for these last ten years. I was all set to blame a whole host of factors, but after a bit of thought, it all seemed to come down to casting. Famous faces don't always have pretty voices, nor do they always seem to readily embrace the fact that they're in a musical. The thing is, most musicals these days get some things so right, but when the cast just doesn't come through, I have a difficult time fully embracing it. Sometimes, those musicals go on to win Best Picture, but who's naming names?

This is decidedly the strangest list I've ever put together. It's a mishmash of films that take themselves a little too seriously with others that seem a bit hastily put together. It's also largely foreign. Only 3 - that's right, 3 - American musicals made the cut. Even only one of those is your conventional Hollywood fare. They also operate on a smaller scale than musicals you're used to (with two notable exceptions) which is kinda cool, even though it makes me long for the sweeping classics like Oliver! and The Sound of Music. Yet none of that gets at the utter strangeness I was trying to emphasize. That comes from the genres pulled from among these films, not limited to science fiction, murder mystery, horror, and Greek tragedy. Also Bollywood, which is kind of a genre in itself.

So this one's a bit bizarre, and I'd be genuinely impressed if you've seen more than 3 of these. Come to think of it, I'm not sure how I ended up seeing more than 3 of these. But it's a fun batch, so maybe you can netflix one of these to brighten up a rainy day (except #2, which I guarantee will send you into throes of depression). On that note, onto:

Top 10 Musicals of the Decade

10. Karmen Gei (dir. Joseph Ramaka)
The first of many entries to come out of left field, Karmen Gei is a Senegalese retelling of that most famous of operas, which in case you didn't pick up from the title, is Bizet's Carmen. In a course taken on the modern cinema of Africa, it was the lone standout (except for Kandahar, which isn't African, so I don't count it) and with good reason. The dancing is mesmerizing - unlike anything you've seen before - and the film feels so unique to the culture that I was hooked from the beginning. Of course, it's no typical Hollywood musical, but the music and dance alone is so enrapturing that I glad I remembered it in time to put it on the list.

9. Hairspray (dir. Adam Shankman)
Maybe it's because of the ties to John Waters' original source material, or maybe it's from the almost maddeningly infectious quality of the songs, but Hairspray stands a whole beehive above most other hit musicals of the last few years. Hell, the whole thing is just so bouncy and fun that I can even look beyond the presence of Zach Efron and way, way too much of John Travolta. And who would have thought I'd cite Amanda Bynes as my favorite part of any cast, but that she is, though Michelle Pheiffer is pretty spectacular when in villain mode.

8. The Happiness of the Katakuris (dir. Takashi Miike)
A family that runs a quaint little mountain inn is forced to confront the looming threat of death, as various guests begin turning up dead. Of course, it all plays out as a musical. But it's also partly animated and filled out with both comic gags and gruesome images. I warned you - this list is strange.

7. Love Songs (dir. Christophe Honoré)
It's a lovely, if fleeting, homage to classic French musicals like Umbrellas of Cherbourg and A Woman is a Woman. The songs themselves are nothing extraordinary, but they move along breezily and do they're part in creating a handful of compelling characters. Quite wonderful, and sadly under-seen.

6. Once (dir. John Carney)
Everyone's favorite indie musical, and it's pretty darn good so I'm down with all the love. The songs aren't exactly my style, but the passion you can feel behind the music is undeniable and the relationship between our main characters has a rare organic quality to it. And "Falling Slowly" gets credit for being one of the more tolerable songs in contention at the Oscars this decade - slight praise - but still deserved.

5. Repo! The Genetic Opera (dir. Darren Bousman)
It took a while, but I finally have a film from the 2000s to love like I love Tank Girl, Rocky Horror and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This camp-tastic science fiction opera generates a darkly satisfying cult classic from one of the oddest casts imaginable. Like Alexa Vega (the girl from Spy Kids), Paul Sorvino, Paris Hilton, Sarah Brightman, and Anthony Stewart Head (who it turns out was in two of the best musicals of the decade). Even when the music resorts to talk-sing (frequently) it's still never less than committed to filling the sci-fi musical gap in the early 21st century. And for that service, I'm eternally grateful.

4. Moulin Rouge! (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
There's nothing I love quite like an all out spectacle, and Moulin Rouge! is most certainly that - shamelessly. It's fast paced, positively manic much of the time, and the attention to detail is extraordinary. And what I love most is how much a part of the experience the camera work is. The cinematography sets the momentum as much as the music does. For all that, I'm willing to forgive John Leguizamo's infuriating presence. One of the few recent musicals totally deserving of it's acclaim.

3. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (dir. Ashutosh Gowariker)
Lagaan was my introduction to Bollywood cinema, and a pretty strong introduction at that. It's long, but that's to be expected, and the acting takes some getting used to for American perception, but the simple story is both fun and effective and it leads us through a handful of marvelous musical numbers in the process. It's when those musical numbers are on that the film really becomes wondrous. They're backed by stronger production values than any Bollywood numbers I've seen since, and the songs are as catchy as they can be when you have no way to intelligibly sing along. Definitely recommended as an introduction to Bollywood. It was the perfect start for me.

2. Dancer in the Dark (dir. Lars von Trier)
So I just now realized that 2 directors have films on both my top 10 musicals and top 10 horror lists, Lars von Trier being the second to hold that honor (also see Miike, Takashi). Dancer in the Dark may indeed be a musical, but if the presence of von Trier or Bjork didn't tell you already, this one ain't all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, it may just be the most depressing film I've ever seen. An immigrant mother and her young son, afflicted with a condition causing him to go blind, struggle to make a go of it in America. Selma, our heroine, finds relief from musical theater, but not enough relief to prevent he utter ruination of her life, no thanks to mean old Catherine Deneuve (who is in pretty much every great musical ever, like the next one). It's a harrowing couple of hours, so prepare yourself, but certainly one of the most emotional musicals you'll ever see.

1. 8 Women (dir. Francois Ozon)
Well, here's where personal preference kicks in. There was no way that I wasn't going to flat-out fall in love with 8 Women - it's a French comedy, murder-mystery, musical, melodrama starring a handful of amazing French leading ladies (Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Ludovine Sangier, Emmanuelle Beart...). The songs are actually fairly strong, with a few standouts to boot, and the staginess of it is countered by the similarities drawn to Douglas Sirk melodramas, well-constructed and hard to ignore if you've seen his films. And the whole affair is a blast - especially Ms. Huppert, who proves she can be a comical spinster as well as a sexually alarming one. So while for me its the perfect combination of everything I love so much in movies, it would still place respectably on this list had I lacked those predispositions.

That's all for now. Waiting to see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus before putting up my fantasy list.

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