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The best films I have ever seen

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Wednesday, 27 Mar 2024, 16:21

Two people seated at a large table in a garden room, reading newspapers

Citizen Kane

You can watch almost any film ever made since 1941 and there will be an echo of Citizen Kane in it. Focus and it’s there, as resonant and specific as the dying gasp of ‘Rosebud’ which punctuates the entire film. Have you ever seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? The Godfather? Aftersun? Then there will be something in Citizen Kane you recognise.

The juggernaut-like legacy the film has left behind has rather obscured the poignancy of the story: a very broken man whose entire existence is an attempt to recapture senses of security, joy and love. It is an unemotional argument for the necessity of unconditional parental love and how misunderstandings can ruin a person’s life. In fact, it’s a testament to the film’s quality that it is neither tragic nor melodramatic, especially when you consider Orson Welles watched Stagecoach as research.

Citizen Kane is so intricately constructed that I reckon it invented academic film study. What is so unnerving on first watch is the sheer specificity of embellishments, of snowglobes, jigsaws and breakfasts surrounded by pot-plants. This is because everything you see on screen, the order in which you see it and the way it is presented to you, can be identified as purposeful with an attached meaning which adds to the appreciation of the story. This is the influence the film has over every other: that filmmaking is not only an art, but one of such intricate and spiralling possibilities that if a woman dressed in white is just a woman dressed in white then, quite frankly, watching is a waste of time.


Image address [Free to share and use]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Citizen-Kane-Welles-Warrick-Breakfast.jpg

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The best films I have ever seen

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 12 Mar 2024, 09:27

Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, both angsty and on the telephone in His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday

People always say to me of Shakespeare: ‘He’s a classic, but of course things seem unfunny/misogynistic/antisemitic/trite/boring as hell, because you have to appreciate him in the context of his time.’ Yeah, well, for me, that’s not good enough. A piece of art ceases to be a classic when it ceases to speak to its audience – by which I do mean me. A classic must entertain beyond its time. I believe Shakespeare is rubbish because his contemporaries are so much better: Aphra Behn, Ben Jonson and Thomas Kyd wrote plays with more accessible language, better constructed plots and HAMLET ISN’T IN ANY OF THEM.

But I digress. The point is that a classic should remain so for as long as it entertains, enraptures or engages the audience. Whilst some comedies from the Golden Age fail to raise a chuckle (My Man Godfrey, I’m looking at you), His Girl Friday is so whip-smart, fresh and feisty that you’re almost afraid to laugh lest you miss another brilliant zinger. It’s the comedy Shakespeare wished he had written. The idea to have the characters speaking across each other throughout the film is such an audacious move that even today, it’s almost never done, even in Aaron Sorkin.

To give away even an overview of the plot seems a crying shame, but basically Rosalind Russell is a journalist who divorced Cary Grant, her ex-editor who now wants her to cover one last story. What’s so fresh, even now, is that Russell’s professional talent is explicitly rated by all other characters (except Paul Bellamy’s stock doofus) above her beauty and fabulous dress sense. Considering that this is a woman in 1940 – Simone de Beauvoir hadn’t even written The Second Sex yet! – makes it even more exciting politically. This is only one way in which this still topical film resonates: there is also a fascinating exploration into the morality of owning firearms. I showed this film to friends who typically hate screwball comedies whose socks were knocked off by this film. Seriously: watch.

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The best films I have ever seen

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Cyrano (2021)

There’s a terrible trend in the visual and musical arts at the moment: the idea that beauty is an overrated, outdated concept. Better for an artwork to shock or disturb. Things don’t have to be beautiful to be art, they say: things don’t have to be beautiful to have an impact.

I condemn this idea. The achievement of beauty through art is not only a showcase of skill; it makes art worthwhile in the first place. What is the point in creating something which looks like a manifesto – or worse, a reactionary piece to somebody else’s – if nobody wants to look at it because you have made it ugly? Ugliness is not a mode of expression; it’s a statement of artistic quality.

The exception to this trend is in film. I put it down to the existence of Cinematography film awards, which force filmmakers to consider the aesthetic qualities of the production. And I have seen no film more beautiful than Cyrano

Given its plot is so dependent upon aesthetic appreciation, it is no wonder that beauty is threaded into every piece of production on the film – the effect is utterly heart-stopping. Beauty is coded into every frame, the presentation of the actors, the songs they sing and the words they say. The handling of the theme of love is breathtakingly beautiful in itself and the ‘Every Letter’ scene is so palpably moving that I don’t watch it so much as feel it, feel it in every inch of my body. I find it hard to write about a film which had such an unstoppable effect on me, but it has seared me to the core in a way that no other film has.

Cyrano is a drastically under-appreciated film, and works as an irrefutable argument in favour of the importance of beauty.



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The best films I have ever seen

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 12 Mar 2024, 09:29

Wallpaper flare free download poster, depicting Wall-E and EVE from the film 'dancing' in space

Wall-E

Children’s films have a commitment to truth which ‘adult’ films typically refuse to have. Upon passing puberty, the true mark of artistic quality is ambiguity, as if the inability to accurately sum up stuff indicates maturity. Citizen Kane is characterised by an avoidance of easy answers; The Godfather can be read to both demonise and exult the Mafia. Children’s films bypass such intellectual cop-outs by telling concrete stories with specific moralities. The best example of this is Pixar’s Wall-E

Wall-E, were it not for human characters, practically counts as a silent movie, and its titular protagonist reminds us of the Little Tramp. In fact, the film refers to classic cinema throughout, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hello, Dolly! and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wall-E is literally a rubbish robot left on Earth after humanity evacuated in 2105 who, when searching through the detritus of human civilisation, learns senses of curiosity, beauty and emotion. When a scout robot named EVE comes to Earth searching for evidence of plant life, Wall-E appears to fall in love with her and her mission becomes his.

Not only does the film constitute a manifesto on the benefits of unadulterated love, but carries a heavy (but by no means heavy-going) moral message on the intellectual and emotional cost of sacrificing our planet to consumerism, wastefulness and human-driven climate change. The film is heartbreaking without being desolate and uncompromisingly comical. On that note, it is always a good idea after watching the main feature to see the associated animated short, Burn-E, which just proves that everyone’s a protagonist in their stories!

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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs: The Top 1

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1. I’d Do Anything for Love (Meat Loaf, 1993)

You don’t get more Jim Steinman than this! Twelve minutes of sheer, relentless bombast, ever-increasing stakes in the wild promises made by the male singer (can he return from hell? Yup) made even more over-the-top by the challenges levelled by his lover (can he build an emerald city out of grains of sand? Yup). Frankly, there’s an excellent reason why this topped the charts all over the world. This is ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ grown up, maturer, and with a sense of the limits love must go to beyond the black-and-white morality of youth (can he screw around? Nope). The song is also one of immense beauty, complete with screaming angels and revving motorbikes – as ever, the clash between the divine and the dirty, euphoria and apocalypse which makes Jim Steinman such a unique songwriter.


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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time: medal positions!

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 23 Feb 2024, 15:42

2. Paradise by the Dashboard Light (Meat Loaf, 1977)

This song is almost a musical in its own right, falling into four separate narrative ‘scenes’ which build to a crescendic climax which the characters never quite get in their night together. The exuberantly pouncy music and ebullient couplets in the first section evokes youthful naïvety, before moving into the bizarrest way of portraying a love tryst: racing commentary. However, it's when Ellen Foley's character (apparently recorded in one take) becomes standoffish in the third section when the song turns farcically hilarious and a joy to behold. The fourth section is a cumulation of what's gone before and if you haven't started dancing and screaming along by that point then I can't help you.

Most Steinamnesque line: 'Glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife'

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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time: medal positions!

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Wednesday, 21 Feb 2024, 11:54

3. Dead Ringer for Love (Meat Loaf and Cher, 1981)

A key characteristic of Jim Steinman’s music is complete clarity of voice: the lyrics should be un-confusable. Hence why this duet is so impressive, because it is fast; Meat Loaf and Cher don’t deliver so much as spit out the lyrics with a lusty speed which lesser singers would trip over. At the same time, the song works like a sitcom in miniature: Meat Loaf of the awful chat-up line (‘Throw the dog a bone’) and Cher of the diamond-sharp put-down (‘You’ve got the kind of mind that does less than think’). Think West Side Story if it was written by anarchists and you’re not far off.

Most Steinmanesque line: the title line has got to be one of the most daring allusions in rock history.

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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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4. What Part of My Body Hurts the Most? (Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton, 2017)

People don’t come to Jim Steinman expecting a lovely song. Written especially for his jukebox musical, ‘What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?’ is as lovely as rock gets. Sung by an old married couple following a separation, they invoke phantom limbs and exorcisms in a sad lament of their mutual loneliness. See? Lovely. Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton are the voices on the original soundtrack, and quite frankly it’s devastating that Steinman never wrote an album for them, because they have the bombast to carry it off.

Most Steinmanesque line: 'You're a ghost and I've been cursed – But if you were exorcised, it would only make it worse!'

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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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5. Holding out for a Hero (Bonnie Tyler, 1986)

This is Jim Steinman at his most libidinously hysterical. It’s essentially five solid minutes of Bonnie Tyler screaming into a wind tunnel. The epic style of Steinman’s music means that a certain enormity of voice is mandatory. This is why Air Supply and Barry Manilow should not have been allowed to sing his music. Fortunately, Bonnie Tyler has such an impressive set of pipes that the unreasonably high criteria she has for a lover in this song seems not only justified, but non-negotiable. You would expect no less than a superman to woo a woman with fire in her blood!


Most Steinmanesque line: The one about there being fire in her blood, see above.

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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Wednesday, 14 Feb 2024, 09:36

6. Rebel without a Clue (Bonnie Tyler, 1986)

Have you ever heard a guitar sing? Bonnie Tyler’s duets with disposable men (Total Eclipse, Loving You’s a Dirty Job) don’t stand up to the plaintive wail of the guitar in the bridge of this masterpiece. I cannot imagine why this song isn’t more well-known – it’s humorous, the imagery comes thick and fast with some of the most exuberant rhyme schemes anywhere else in rock. It’s awfully grown-up for a song about (ahem) romantic ineptitude…

Most Steinmanesque line: ‘Dirty Harry to Madonna!’ 


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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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7. Bat Out of Hell (Meat Loaf, 1977)

This is one hell of a prologue (pun intended). As an exemplar of Jim Steinman’s extraordinarily evocative imagery, this opening number (for his career!) is unparalleled. It sounds like the shooting script for a dystopian blockbuster, whilst also moving through unpredictable musical phases. It has all the elements of a good story: protagonist, love interest, obstacles, goals, three-part structure; and to top it all, it's the highest-selling debut in pop history. Not bad for a song about motorbikes.

Most Steinmanesque line: ‘He was starting to foam in the heat.’ I mean, what does that even mean?


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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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8. Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire (Meat Loaf, 1993)

Unusually devoid of laments, dystopias or irony, Steinman finally wrote an unambiguously happy song for Bat out of Hell II (not counting the random ‘walking wounded’). It opens with a cheery woohoo from each of the instruments, building into a surrealist city in which yet another libertine attempts seduction via a series of extravagant metaphors backed by yet another angelic choir. It’s great fun! (Do note that the full-length song is actually the half-length song sung twice.)

Most Steinmanesque line: ‘You can feel the pulse of the pavement racing like a runaway horse.’


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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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9. Total Eclipse of the Heart (Bonnie Tyler, 1983)

Sometimes considered Steinman’s masterpiece, this inescapably weird song is accompanied by an even weirder music video. But don't worry – the look isn't the point, we're here for Tyler’s raspy voice and Rory Dodd’s scrotally-scrunching falsetto, each reflecting the wild torment in the lyrics. The song literally explodes off the record player with sudden harmonic shifts and continual escalation, as frightening and dazzling as staring into the sun. What a coincidence!

Most Steinmanesque line: 'We're living in a powder keg and giving off sparks.'

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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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10. It’s All Coming Back to Me Now (Céline Dion, 1996)

If anything, this may be the hardest song in Celine Dion’s catalogue, requiring as it does the quiet bits to be sung loudly and the loud bits to be sung REALLY LOUDLY. There’s no easing in, making ‘My Heart Will Go On’ seem like a warm-up. Despite Dion's almost antibacterial elegance, the music video is nevertheless classic Steinman, complete with motorbikes, gothic manors and ostentatiously symbolic lightning. But don’t listen to the extended version: 6 minutes is this song’s natural length.

Most Steinmanesque line: 'There were nights when the wind was so cold, that my body froze in bed if I just listened to it right outside the window.'

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Top 10 Jim Steinman songs of all time

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Everybody has that one album, one songwriter, one voice which seems to ricochet around their heart. A musical arrow which lands so directly into the bullseye of your soul you wonder if it was written directly for you. As surprising as it is to anybody who knows me – the shambolic, fluffy-spirited musical theatre fan – the rock innovator Jim Steinman writes the music to my soul. Something about the extremes of emotion, the dizzying heights of humour, the random angelic/satanic choirs, all captures me spellbound. 

Hopefully it isn't just me. 

Whilst I'm not a music critic, and I'm not studying music with the OU, I believe (hope) that my lived experience is enough to make a semi-authoritative list of the best Jim Steinman songs he ever wrote. I also intend to give a flavour of Jim Steinman music as a genre unto itself, in the hope that he does not remain a niche obsession.

Things are looking up for his influence. Olivia Rodrigo's recent hit single Vampire seems to at least reference the gothic twinges, searing agony and wild excesses of Jim Steinman. More like this, please!

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