Saturday, April 30, 2016

2015: Year-End Top 30 Actress Power Ranking

This is my Power Rankings series where I rank actors and actresses on a mix of commercial and critical bankability. The measure is on the odds that casting this actress in your film will make it a critical or commercial success. It's based on December 31, 2015 as I originally wrote it then and haven't gotten around to posting it. Check out the last power rankings I did three years ago for reference.

Fair warning: A proper noun or two might be spelled wrong. 

The top four:

1. Charlize Theron

2. Cate Blanchett
3. Jennifer Lawrence
4. Kate Winslet

There were four clear contenders for the top spot. The two K/Cates (Blanchett and Kate Winslet) are the go-to actresses for auteurs and they have both displayed a seemingly endless range for Oscar-caliber acting in the last twenty years. Blanchett is penalized a little because she’s so chameleon-like  that she doesn’t have any star persona. Winslet is penalized a little because she wasn’t on any particular hot streak before Steve Jobs (which got her an Oscar nomination but it was a film which no one really saw) as evidenced by the disaster that was Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

Lawrence is on fire (as Alicia Keys can attest) with two franchises she’s successfully helmed and more Oscar nominations than any 25-year-old really needs. However, she could be in danger of being ghettoized if she chooses to do all her non-tentpole films with David O Russell. For non-DOR fans, she is in danger of falling off their radar as the lack of success Joy had in finding an audience showed. There’s also some debate about whether she can master an older woman but that’s based on whether you think she pulled Joy (I'm in the camp that she did).

That leaves Charlize Theron who has been recognized as a high-caliber actress for a dozen years now, has the hardware to show for it, and has a certain edge to her screen persona that sells. By sheer talent and appeal, I am comfortable calling her the biggest star in moviedom today.

5.      Meryl Streep-Universally considered the best actress of her generation, Streep continues to take risks and interesting choices while also doing broad appeal films like Mamma Mia, Lemony Snicket, It’s Complicated, Prime, and some might say Ricki and the Flash (in theory, this film should have had broad appeal). She’s aging gracefully and is a threat to get an Oscar nomination pretty much every year.

 6.      Scarlett Johansson-Although she’s never been Oscar-nominated, she’s come close enough a few times that she’s considered high-caliber. She also has several Golden Globe and BAFTA nominees and has been an established actress for a dozen years. She’s a certifiable action star and has made boundary-pushing choices through films such as Lucy, Her or Don John’s Addiction. And yes, the plot of Lucy was pretty ridiculous, but it was an edgy choice on her part.

7.      Julianne Moore-She’s hot because she just won an Oscar, but even so, she consistently brings the goods. She’s been in romantic comedies, art house films, and adaptations BUT she goes down a couple pegs from Top 5 because her best performances are often for obscure films. She won an Oscar for Still Alice but did anyone see Still Alice? Free Held, Maps to the Stars and, in the past, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio didn’t even get wide-scale distribution.

8.      Amy Adams-The female answer to Leonardo DiCaprio. She has the make and temperament of a character actress but she has shown the ability to hold her own as a lead (she out-acted Jennifer Lawrence  in American Hustle) and her filmography is so full of good films, she can rival John C Rilley or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as contemporaries.  Man of Steel brings tent pole credentials and so did Enchanted (although that was back in 2007). She also has done comedy like Talladega Nights or The Muppet Movie and was pretty game to get her hands dirty .

9.      Naomi Watts-How often she appears in film is relative but her talent alone groups her in the top tier. Like Nicole Kidman, she’s chameleon-like in accents and although this is three years ago, The Impossible was very DiCaprio-like in terms of the rigor of the shoot.

 10.  Rooney Mara-Although her filmography is relatively short (not as short as Hailee Steinfeld or Saiosre Ronan), she has made strong marks in everything she’s in. Even small supporting roles in Social Network or Her garnered attention. She has about a 50% chance of winning an Oscar for Carol but even if she doesn’t, she will likely be back.

11.  Keira Knightley-Authentic English actors and actresses always get a boost in bankability because so many period pieces (even things not explicitly set in England like Troy or Merchant of Venice) require an English thespian. On top of that, Knightley is hip and cool and has a modern sensibility. She could easily fit into a Diablo Cody or Noah Bombauch work (Begin Again or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World might not have been written explicitly by those two but they were in that mold). Plus, she can swashbuckle AND sing. 

12.  Anne Hathaway-An Oscar winner at the right age to play a wide range of parts, her public persona is a bit polarizing. She did action in Get Smart and sang in Les Miserables. Even though she’s been on SNL, her comic chops are not particularly strong in my opinion.

13.  Rachel McAdams-Introduced to Hollywood in a villainess role in Mean Girls, she’s tackled a wide range of parts working with Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Thomas McCarthy and kicked ass in Sherlock Holmes and a Most Wanted Man. Turned a best supporting actress nomination in a competitive field this past year and is a very strong romantic lead.
14.  Sandra Bullock-The female counterpart to Matthew McConaughey in that she was seen mostly as a romcom type of actress with a bubbly personality but her 2009 Oscar gave her a makeover and the follow-up Oscar nod in Gravity gave her a lot more leverage in being taken seriously. 

15.  Emma Stone-This might just be me  but I have trouble not seeing her as a teeny-bopper sor tof star even though we’re apparently 5 years removed from her high school roles in Easy A and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She’s had a respectable turn in the Help, starred in two of Woody Allen’s most invisible films and her big Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman (which I’m pretty sure would not have materialized if she wasn’t acting in the eventual BP winner) was still that of a teenager. I think it might still be a while until she’s taken seriously as an actress who can play 30+. 

16.  Judi Dench-If you need a senior citizen, she’ll work in nearly every film, but it's worth noting, she’s getting to the age where her acting days are limited due to failing eye sight.

17.  Jessica Chastain-Two Oscar noms in the past five years and a very close call last year for a nominaion as well. Not to mention she’s been in four Best Picture nominees-The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, Help, and Tree of Life- in that time period as well. She’s also won a Golden Globe and two NBR awards. With Interstellar, The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, and a Most Violent Year, she has a very good track record of interesting film choices

18.  Helen Mirren-Very versatile actress who not as old as she looks (she’s 70), although she gets relegated to senior citizen parts (though she is considered a cougar of sorts). She still gets awards buzz here and there (Woman in Gold and Trumbo in this year alone). Also worth noting: Woman in Gold got $33 million domestically at the box office. Extremely impressive for a film no one’s ever heard of. 

19.  Alicia Vikander-It’s hard to properly rate someone who’s been in the public spotlight for exactly one year. Man from Uncle, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl ere all great performances and she could even win an Oscar and just won a SAG award, but it’s just one year. The longer you’re in the public eye the better chances you have of working up a fan base.

20.  Nicole Kidman-The first time I wrote a list like this in 2009, she was #1 and she’s still just as good but a lot of her films are not wide-release. Her best role in the last half-decade, Paperboy, was mostly enjoyed ironically by people. The Oscar campaign for that role was something along the lines of  “Let’s give an Oscar nom to someone in a bad movie for once!” 

21.  Saoirse Ronan-I tend to group her, Haile Steinfeld and Carey Mulligan together in the same boat. Women who got Oscar noms at young ages and subsequently got set up with expectations as the next big thing. Of the trio, Ronan has had the biggest cult. She carried Brooklyn to a Best Picture Nomination this past year.

22.  Kristen Wiig-Some might disagree but I would maintain she wasn’t as well-known on SNL as Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Those three were known as Hollywood royalty. Wiig had the most screentime of anyone on SNL in her later years, but there was a good chance if you didn’t watch SNL during those years, you wouldn’t have known she was on. Since leaving, she’s had a game-changing megahit in Bridesmaids, has taken value-added supporting roles in nearly every comedy to come out. She has also won critical acclaim in a wide variety of indie films.

23.  Emily Blunt-This is more wishful thinking because somehow I don’t think Blunt is quite A-list yet, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t. I don’t even understand why she wasn’t nominated for Sicario. She can play a brooding, introspective star, she can do dramedy (Sunshine Cleaning, Devil Wears Prada), she did period (Young Victoria), and she has edge. 

24.  Reese Witherspoon-Wild was one of the best performances of any actor last year IMO and she deserved an  Oscar, but she’s so ingrained as the ingĂ©nue that it’s sometimes hard to see her outside of that typecast. Even Walk the Line had her playing a version of that Southern Ingenue. It’s also been well over a decade since she became a tentpole star with Legally Blonde.

25.  Claire Danes-Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, James Gandolfini and Kyle Chandler have enjoyed extremely successful movie careers since their star-making TV roles have ended. I predict when Homeland ends, Danes will be an A-lister in the movies.  As far as I can gather, she’s only been in one film in the 2010s (a Sundance entry) but that should change when Homeland ends. Anna Faris and Kerry Washington are two others I believe will explode in film when their TV shows end. 

26.  Carey Mulligan-Her casting in the Great Gatsby when it was hyped up in the pre-production phase says a lot about how prized she is among casting directors. She’s the right age to be cast in young women roles. Garnered some Oscar buzz this past year for Suffragette.

27.  Marion Cotillard-Being from England is a big plus. Being from nearly every other country is an impediment, but Cotillard has done extremely well for herself acting in such high profile films as Public Enemies, Midnight in Paris, and Inception and shone in MacBeth this year. 

28.  Kerry Washington-She had a long career as a character actress (Ray, Mr and Mrs Smith, Last King of Scotland) before being cast in a highly visible TV show which should give her a big boost when Scandal ends. She’s even done great work in the movies while on Scandal (Exhibit A: Django Unchained) 

29.  Rosario Dawson-Dawson amasses a lot of longevity points: She’s been in consistently good roles for the last 13 or 14 years throughout multiple genres. With a supporting role in Daredevil, she's dipped her toe into prestige TV, but she still has plenty of time on her schedule to be in the next big thing on screen.

30.  Ellen Page-Has a hip and cool edge (Whip It, Juno) but could use a better agent. Her latest film, Freeheld, did not get great distribution but she's visible enough that a comeback isn't out of the question.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Favorite Songs for their Lyrics Part VII

This is a series where I look at songs I like for their lyrical value and use my fancy degree (in overthinking song lyrics) to analyze the hell out of them. Why is it not called "best songs"? Because I don't believe music itself can be subjectively analyzed as good or bad. Different melodies hit people in different ways. I also apologize that I don't have very sophisticated tastes in music to choose songs from. I don't really listen to anything that's not directly in front of me and on the Top 40 radio station.

I Want to Dance With Somebody, Whitney Houston (1987)-The classic ballad hides a lot underneath the surface. It seems as though the narrator just “wants to dance with somebody,” but the verses expose just how much aching she’s feeling over not having met that somebody yet: “I’ve been all right up to now, it’s the light of day that shows me how, but when the night falls, my loneliness calls.” In other words, the narrator is feeling starved for love on a nightly basis when the workday ends. It paints a vivid picture of a desperate person but it’s also startlingly true of all of us: Being lovesick rarely comes up when we’re swamped at work or engaged in a string of errands.

Speed of Sound (2005), Viva la Vida (2008), Coldplay-Sure, a sampling of Coldplay’s singles (I’ll openly admit that I’m only familiar with Coldplay songs that have played at least 40 times on the radio ) show their share of fluff (“Yellow”) and when it comes down to it, Chris Martin consciously trying to be the best band of all time is off-putting. However, there’s a feeling in some of Coldplay’s songs that these guys are at least two or three rungs higher on Manslow’s hierarchy of needs than your average teeny bopper singing about a girl’s beautiful soul. “Viva la Vida” is a song that mixes a hodgepodge of biblical references (the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the “Keys to the Kingdom” allegory, St. Peter at the gates of Heaven) with mythology from various wars and revolutions (the Greek legend of Damocles, the beheading of Louis XVI in the French Revolution, etc) to fashion an epic tale of monarchical power and faith. “Speed of Sound” is a more meditative number about seeing the grandness of the universe and wondering whether he can achieve his potential. He also talks about the limits of understanding or learning everything he can. A sign in Japanese, for example, is a barrier of sorts.

California Dreaming, Mamas and the Papas (1965), Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles (1987) (orig. Simon and Garfunkel (1966)-Both of these songs talk about how the change in seasons of a picturesque setting becomes a reminder for the narrator of how life is slow to move on. In “California Dreaming,” the narrator goes for a walk on a winter’s day and the brown leaves and gray skies are a catalyst for wanting to leave. In a meandering story style, he meets up with a preacher who seems to know better than the narrator himself that his efforts to escape this purgatory of sorts are fruitless (“he knows I’m gonna stay"). He also mentions that “if I didn’t tell her, I could leave today”). Although this isn’t a very fleshed-out part of the song (which only has 126 words including repetitions), there’s something oddly relatable there: It’s usually one or two small commitments that keep us from making a big move (at least that’s how it often plays out with me).

Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles/Simon and Garfunkel- Clocking in at 200 words, Hazy Shade of Winter is a bit more descriptive although it covers eerily similar territory. The sky is “hazy” instead of gray but the leaves are still brown and both these seasonal changes seem to depress the hell out of the narrator. In a very subtle way, “Hazy Shade of Winter” broaches the irony of how the joys of Christmas can invoke depression. The narrator instructs you (the subject of the song as it is in the second person) to listen to the Salvation Army Band and think about how what they’re doing is better than what you’ve got planned. Still, while winter is winter and gloomy, it’s the narrator who is in the springtime of his or her life (I’m not sure how that makes the subject feel better). There’s also a suggestion that the gloomy winter is part of a larger tapestry in a sort of ying-yang manner.

Better in Time, Leona Lewis (2008)-Leona Lewis was a big deal around 2008 with her ubiquitous song “Bleeding Love” which is a pretty depressing anecdote on how she keeps bleeding, keeps, keeps bleeding love. Whatever that means, no thanks. Her lesser-remembered second single of that year, “Better in Time” is definitely a more complete sentiment. The narrator is getting over someone and uncovers some pretty deep stuff about the process along the way: That pain and healing occur simultaneously (“It’s going to hurt when it heals too”), that the media makes love sickness harder (“How could I turn on the TV without something that would remind me”) and that things do get better with time. The most affecting sentiment from the song to me is “I’m gonna smile because I deserve to” as if she has to remember to give herself permission. It’s also a song with an interesting call-and-response pattern that symbolizes an internal dialogue.

The A-Team, Ed Sheeran (2013)-A valuable lesson to all you teeny boppers out there: Release a song that’s not about yourself as your first single and then you can spend the rest of your music career whining about your sex life and still have artistic credibility. “The A-Team” tells the story about a drug addict who doesn’t appear to be leaving bad decision land any time soon (prostitution is among the measures she’s resorting to). The song starts out with descriptive half-sentences (“White lips, pale face, breathing in snow flakes, burnt lungs, sour taste) which hint at a very sad character but the description brings an curiously undeniable sense of beauty to it. When he talks about how “she flies to the motherland,” it’s in keeping with the fantasy element. Sheeran Sheeran is very soft-spoken even as he sings the line “and they scream.”    My favorite line of the song is: “The worst things in life come free to us.”

Dare You to Move, Switchfoot (2004)- If music genres were determined by the content of a song’s lyrics, then “Dare You to Move” would be in the “You’re awesome, go out into the world and be awesome” genre along with  Kelly Clarkson’s “Break Away” or Katy Perry’s “Firework” but Switchfoot’s entry into the genre seems so enchantingly grandiose lyrically speaking.

The narrator talks to the subject as if he’s being born (or being reborn) as he welcomes him/her/you to the planet and to existence. Very little in the song can be taken literally. If you go the literal route with it, you’re bound to hit upon unanswered questions: What is “the fall out” exactly? Why is everyone watching you? Is this being addressed to an alien? Switchfoot is composed of Christian members who aren’t clear about whether their band identifies as Christian rock but that might be part of it. Look closer and you see that Switchfoot is even expressing doubt about the lyrics they write as they’re singing them: “Redemption has stories to tell” and “Forgiveness is right where you fell” are both prefaced by the magical word “Maybe.” The grandiosity of the imagery is contrasted by a mandate (or rather a “dare”) that’s pretty simple: To move. Action is better than inaction is the message and within the context of the song, there’s a drastic difference.

Dance, Dance, Fall out Boy (2005)-Despite being in his late 20’s when he wrote most of Fall Out Boy’s most well-known songs, Fall Out Boy lyricist Pete Wentz has a knack for capturing the adolescent experience with a playful and genre-savvy vibe.  “Dance Dance” tells the story of a hormone-addled teenager going through a date with the girl of his dreams to a school dance which happens to be a pretty horrifying experience because of the pressure he puts on himself. The great thing about the song is that it unfolds in real-time as he blows the opening line of his date in the first verse and admits to being weighed down with “words too overdramatic.” He then starts to alternate between being obsessed and invested like a kid in line at a video game arcade who is already “two quarters and a heart down.” He finally capitulates into admitting “I only want sympathy in the form of you crawling into bed with me.” In between this tale, the chorus treats dancing as a stress-inducing routine that collectively leads everyone to fall apart but there’s little doubt that the narrator is likely dancing and undergoing the misery needed to attain his goal. 

Hold My Heart, Sara Bareilles (2010)-I’ve noticed as I’ve done this that some songs feature a narrator evolving as the song goes on (Barenaked Ladies "One Week", The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends”, and  Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" are three random examples that comes to mind).

In this song, narrator has a habit of guarding her heart in relationships. She sees herself as bad news of sorts. She doesn’t know how to “see anybody by me getting hurt.” But in the relationship that’s the subject of the song, the narrator issues a distress signal of sorts to have insurance for her heart (“can anybody here to hold her heart”) because she doesn’t want to let go too soon of a good situation. However, the narrator gradually admits to herself that she doesn’t want to let go of the guy she’s with. The struggle in her is not about her specific habits but one specific guy who means a lot to her.

1979, Smashing Pumpkins (1996)-A song drenched with nostalgia about being young on the precipice of adulthood. The narrator is inviting the audience (“You and I should meet”) to join him in a vividly detailed point in time where he and his friends were care free. Words like “live wire,” “junebug” and “zipper blues” give the song a sense of (possibly regional or historical) specificity to the narrator’s experience. The narrator notes that while they “feel the pull” of the impending future and the adult responsibilities it will bring (he equates this future to “the land of a thousand guilts” and “poured cements”), the greatest thing about the moment is that they don’t care about what’s next in store. There’s a very strong duality about this moment that makes it memorable enough to sing about: The accrued experience of having conquered childhood while knowing that adulthood is about to kick in.

A historical footnote:   Although the song is titled “1979,” it doesn’t really sync with lead singer and songwriter Billy Corgan’s experiences in 1979. He was born in 1967. He later revealed that he chose to name the song “1979” because It was easiest to rhyme with.


All Songs I've Analyzed at this point:
Anna Nalick: Breathe
Avril Lavigne: I'm With You
The Bangles: Hazy Shade of Winter
Ben Folds: Landed, Annie Waits
Barenaked Ladies: Testing 1 2 3
Cat Stevens: First Cut is the Deepest
Charlotte Martin: Your Armor
Coldplay: Speed of Sound, Viva la Vida
Counting Crows: She Don't Want Nobody Near, Hard Candy, Rain King
Dave Matthews Band: Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, Grace is Gone
Ed Sheeran: The A-Team
Fall out Boy: Dance Dance
The Fray: You Found Me
Foo Fighters: Learn to Fly
Gin Blossoms: South of Nowhere
Goo Goo Dolls: Broadway is Dark Tonight, Better Days, Here is Gone
Green Day: Wake Me Up When September Ends
Jason Mraz: On Love in Sadness
John Cougar Mellencamp: Jack and Diane
John Mayer: Clarity, 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than My Body, Why Georgia
Howie Day: Collide
Hootie and the Blowfish: Time
Leona Lewis: Better in Time
Lorde: Team
Macklemore and Lewis: Thrift Shop
Mamas and the Papas: Dance Dance
Matchbox Twenty: Downfall, All I Need, Let's See How Far We've Come, Black and White People
Michelle Branch: Game of Love
Nickel Creek: Green and Gray
Paramore: Ain't It Fun
Sara Bareilles: Bottle It Up, Fairytales, Hold my Heart
Sarah McLachlan: Adia
Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
Script: For the First Time
Sister Hazel: Your Winter
Steely Dan: Barrytown
Switchfoot: Stars, Dare You To Move
Sum 41: In Too Deep
Taylor Swift: Blank Space
Whitney Houston: I Want To Dance with Somebody
Zedd: Clarity

Be sure to click on the lyrics tab below for past editions of this series.