When the Soundtrack is Better Than the Movie

Recently viewed: Dedication, a weird twist on the three-act romantic comedy in which the dashing hero (the Hugh Grant character) is replaced with the attractive, mean-but-damaged OCD guy (Billy Crudup) and the female lead is replaced by an enthusiastically eyelined Mandy Moore. The plot is vaguely compelling, sort of quirky but not earth-shattering; frankly, put it in the Netflix for after you've exhausted the Seth Rogen bonanza.

The soundtrack, however, is divine. Composed by Deerhoof, a band whose relevance to my music library I'd always assumed was negligible, it's haunting (people always call soundtracks haunting, but in this case, it's apt) and catchy and it seeps into you and becomes your own life's soundtrack, in a good way. The Strokes are actually employed beautifully (you're still relevant, boys!), Fischerspooner pops up unannounced (also still relevant! who would have thought?), perennial fantasy girlfriend Cat Power mopes appropriately, and relative newcomers Au Revoir Simone, recently dismissed by a certain music critic friend as "kind of boring," are anything but here. I've kind of forgotten the plot of the movie (something about a book illustrator, cameo by Amy Sedaris), but the music's still in me.

I Am Sam. I admit it. I never saw the movie. The entire notion of Sean Penn as a mentally challenged guy who gets by with a little help from Michelle Pfeiffer makes me uncomfortable. It always seems patronizing when actors deliver what you know they're banking on critics calling "an emotional tour-de-force" for playing someone with a disability. I didn't like Forrest Gump, I remember being into Rain Man but that may have had something to do with a totally inappropriate crush on no-not-Tom-Cruise but Dustin Hoffman. Who, I take it, is channeled in the final scenes of I Am Sam, as Sean Penn revives a speech from my very favorite 1970s DH tear-yanker, Kramer vs. Kramer. Who do you take me for? A girl who doesn't have every Dustin Hoffman movie on VHS? At least he doesn't do the "I'm a woman" speech from Tootsie (also heart-wrenching!).

The I Am Sam soundtrack is pure delight, without any Sean Penn being sentimental gumming up the works. Sarah McLachlan covering "Blackbird," (I'm repressing the Lilith Fair memories and so can you. Also that "Adia" summer. See? Still relevant!); Rufus Wainwright does his unimpeachable best on "Across the Universe" (forever his girl for the line "I did go from wanting be someone, now I'm drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue" from Poses, and annoying pop outfit The Wallflowers comes through with the most Beatles-esque of all the covers, with a jangly, irresistible "I'm Looking Through You" that makes me forget the serious questions that always plague me when I think of the band (1. How did a group fronted by Dylan's son get so blah? 2. How did a Dylan son get so damn hot? 3. Who spells Jakob with a "K"? Very Kampground of America.)

Why am I talking about this 2001 movie now? Because I am fully prepared to love the also all-Beatles covers soundtrack to Julie Taymor's new musical Across the Universe, despite how I feel about the movie. Also, as a postscript, I'd follow Paul Westerberg to the end of the earth, and his "Nowhere Man" on I Am Sam isn't really a standout, but it's him.

The Virgin Suicides: I liked the book. I like that Jeffrey Eugenides. Soon, so will the entire western world, thanks to Oprah's baffling but truly inspired choice of Middlesex for the book club (Confidential to Oprah: I wrote a book. No pressure. But seriously, call me.) The movie of The Virgin Suicides, however, was a mere confection. I know this is a controversial view. But I'm here to talk about soundtracks. The movie brought the band Air widespread popularity, and rightly so. Say what I will about Kirsten Dunst frolicking in soft focus (What I will say: Ew.), I listened to that soundtrack, I continue to listen to it, for it's transporting, calming eeriness (My favorite track--"Playground Love," the vibraphone version. Yours too? I know, right?)

Ascenseur Pour L'echafaud: Louis Malle directing Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet in a film noir classic--what could be better? Despite how good the movie is, the score is a trillion times better (I swear). Improvised by Miles Davis over the course of a few hours while watching the movie, it's perfect, whether accompanying the movie or (more likely) blocking out passersby on your iPod. "Hear it and weep," wrote critic Phil Johnson. I couldn't agree more. But try not to weep in public. Unless absolutely necessary.

Bonus: Great Movies With Equally Stellar Soundtracks:

Once: The little musical that could. They said Hairspray was the musical of the summer. They were so wrong. I knew my ex-boyfriend was on to something with The Frames. Rent this. Maybe before Knocked Up.

Rushmore: I'm trying to pretend The Darjeeling Unlimited isn't happening. It's easier with this perfect movie, perfect soundtrack to get me through. Quirkily perfect Mark Mothersbaugh, punctuated with quirky highlights like an Yves Montand tune, The Kinks, and the best (only?) use of Cat Stevens songs for emotional uplift in a movie since Harold and Maude.

About a Boy: Fine. I can't resist Hugh Grant in that bumbling leading man role. This movie's so good, it makes you forget the book was better. And the soundtrack by hopefully-not-chosen because of-titular-similarity by Badly Drawn Boy is perfect. Perfect with the movie, perfect on its own.

(Confession: I once interviewed Hugh Grant and asked him about his tendency to always play these blustery, buffoonish cads and he pretended to have no idea what I was talking about. This was, to be fair, right before the release of Small Time Crooks, which would have given me selective amnesia too if I'd been party to what no one could have predicted was going to be an excruciating string of Woody Allen "madcap romps.")

Pretty in Pink: Because it's true. And because James Spader should have been winning awards then, not now.

I Can Hardly Wait for the Soundtrack to Be As Perplexing As the Movie

I'm Not There: New Dylan biopic in which the musician is played by seven different actors, including Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett. The Hold Steady doing "Can You Please Call Out Your Window?" "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," by Antony and the Johnsons? The soundtrack comes out October 30. Stay very tuned.