This is one of those instances where I love to be proven wrong.
Last year, when the Oscar nominations dropped and only two songs were listed as nominees, I posited on MOVIE GEEKS UNITED that the entire category should be scrapped, because obviously songs in movies had become irrelevant. The fact is, it seemed as if few musical artists and filmmakers were trying anymore--we are, after all, no longer in the era of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. I have to admit, this development made me both seethingly angry and pouty sad, because I love music nearly as much as I do movies, and when the two are combined, the best results can be explosive. So, on the show, I just said, in frustration "Can the category." And here I point out the Academy's culpability, because of their needlessly complex rules for judging movie songs (which, apparently, they have finally remedied).
This year, for the first time, I've taken the effort out to listen to nearly every one of the 75 songs eligible for this year's Oscars, and....well....wow. There are some real gems in the mix. Finally, some hits are among the competitors (I think Adele's "Skyfall" is the first movie song to hit #1 in over a decade; ditto Katy Perry's "Wide Awake"). And nearly all of these tunes have masterful lyrics and memorable melodies. So I thought I'd concoct a "Top Twenty" for the year, just to save you movie and music fans the trouble. I have listed them in order of personal preference, and I judged based on the song alone, and not necessarily how they were used in the movies they hail from. Anyway, sit back and enjoy a heartening sign that songs from movies are getting an overdue reprieve!
But first: A caveat: the REAL best film song from 2012 was recorded in the early 70s, by Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of Malik Bendjelloul's superb documentary Searching for Sugar Man. This was, as is said in the doc by one of Rodriguez's verklempt, regretful producers, the last song he recorded before he was dropped by his record company. This is a masterpiece if ever there was one but, of course, it wasn't written for the film, so it's technically out of the running. But it's REALLY the most memorable song from the 2012 movie crop; it evokes an UNBELIEVABLY STRONG emotional response in the film, and on its own. Get this soundtrack and support the memory of Sixto Rodriguez!
And now, the 2012 contestants...
"Looking for a Sign" from Jeff Who Lives At Home (music and lyrics by Beck, performed by Beck). One of Beck Hansen's most gorgeous songs, and very memorably connected to the body of the Duplass Brothers' smart little indie. The movie song of the year, for sure.
"Metaphorical Blanket" from Any Day Now (music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright, performed by Rufus Wainwright). More dreaminess from songwriting genius Wainwright. I have yet to see this movie, but this is a intimate, typically beautiful tune from this distinctive troubadour.
"Who Were We?" from Holy Motors (music by Neil Hannon, lyrics by Leos Carax and Neil Hannon, performed by Kylie Minogue). Possibly the most prominently featured song in any movie this year; it occurs as an unforgettable oasis of lament in a rambunctious sea of chaos. But this is the only song listed here NOT eligible for the Oscar. Man...how the hell did THAT happen?
"Who Did That To You? from Django Unchained (music and lyrics by John Legend, performed by John Legend). Out of the many original tracks recorded for Tarantino's ersatz western is this menacing R&B smoker!
"Before My Time" from Chasing Ice (music and lyrics by J. Ralph, performed by Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell). Miss Johansson's slinky voice is put to great use in this haunting plea that plays over the end credits for this environmentally-concious documentary.
"Dull Tool" from This is 40 (music and lyrics by Fiona Apple, performed by Fiona Apple). Wild and punchy and funny, just like much of Ms. Apple's works, it too is put to good use in the Judd Apatow comedy.
Awake" from Katy Perry: Part of Me (music and lyrics by Katy Perry,
Lukasz Gottwald, Bonnie McKee, Maz Martin and Henry Walter, performed by Katy Perry). I really love this song; like any great hit, it put its hooks into me and refused to let go. I resisted at first, but now I find it extremely moving.
"Anything Made of Paper" from West of Memphis (music and lyrics by Bill Carter and Ruth Ellsworth, performed by Bill Carter and The Blame). Achingly beautiful lyrics here from the Texas music legend; a perfect song to cap this doc about the wronged West Memphis Three.
"Still Alive" from Paul Williams Still Alive (music and lyrics by Paul Williams, performed by Paul Williams). Williams, a former Oscar winner and many-time nominee, will cap his career with yet another nod for this nakedly autobiographical piece.
"La Casa de Mi Padre" from Casa de Mi Padre (music and lyrics by Andrew Steele and Patrick C. Pérez, performed by Christina Aguilera). Wonderful, spaghetti-western production backs this huge track, sung entirely in Spanish by Ms. Aguilera. This Will Farrell comedy has a number of great songs, but I thought it fair to keep this list down to one song per film.
"The Sambola! International Dance Craze" from Damsels in Distress (music and lyrics by Mike Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger). The Sambola is one of two original songs in Whit Stillman's superb comedy of manners, but this is the one you go out of the theater humming!
"Skyfall" from Skyfall (music and lyrics by Adele and Paul Epworth, performed by Adele). Simply one of the best in a long series of Bond songs. It deserves to be in the running.
"Big Machine" from Safety Not Guaranteed (music and lyrics by Ryan Miller, performed by Ryan Miller). Not a movie I liked, but I sure have to give it to Miller for crafting a catchy tune --one of a few in a pretty good soundtrack.
"From Here to the Moon and Back" from Joyful Noise (music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, performed by Dolly Parton, Jeremy Jordan and Kris Kristofferson). Pure and superb schmaltz, but nobody does this kind of song better than Dolly Parton; it feels like an instant standard.
"Everybody Needs a Best Friend" from Ted (music by Walter Murphy, lyrics by Seth McFarland, performed by Norah Jones). I'm a bigger fan of Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" than I am of McFarland's TV work, but I do recognize the worth of this Gershwin-influenced big band number. Not a trace of irony here, either.
"Cosmonaut" from Lawless (music and lyrics by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, performed by Emmylou Harris and The Bootleggers). An evocative country song from the brilliant writing team who gave us the unforgettable score to The Assassination of Jesse James. Oh, and Nick Cave has his fans for all that other music he's done, too.
"Dotted Line" from People Like Us (music and lyrics by Liz Phair, performed by Liz Phair). This is a personal choice; I love me some Liz Phair. Never heard of the movie, but if Liz is eligible, as far as I'm concerned, she's in.
"Breath of Life" from Snow White and the Huntsman (music and lyrics by Florence Welch and Isabella Summers, performed by Florence + The Machine). Big and brash and completely different from anything else on this list. I dig it.
"Strange Love" from Frankenweenie (music and lyrics by Karen O, performed by Karen O). Wonderfully precious and rambunctious---just what we might expect from Karen O, who also gave us the great, unrecognized songs from Spike Jonez' Where The Wild Things Are a couple of years ago.
"Song of the Lonely Mountain" from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (music by Neil Finn and Howard Shore, lyrics by Neil Finn, performed by Neil Finn). Always been a big Neil Finn fan, from Crowded House til now, with this perfectly majestic ballad dedicated to Middle Earth.
I know, I know...I left off that song from Les Miserables. That's because it irritates me, like most of that entire score.