The Beatles, rock band: George Harrison (1943-2001), lead guitarist; Paul McCartney (1942-), bass guitarist; John Lennon (1940-1980), rhythm guitarist; and Ringo Starr (1940-), drummer
They're the perfect sound. They were capable of so many things, too, slipping in and out of genres, bending and breaking the rules without ever really trying; George Martin deserves every accolade he gets for being able to keep up with and augment their ideas. The Beatles began as four happy-go-lucky lads with a love for Elvis and Little Richard, and ended as four disenchanted, embattled men. It's a tribute to their collective power that Abbey Road, their most harmonious album, was made when they often couldn't stand to be in the same room together. After they broke up in 1970, they each had their great moments (especially John), but they were never as great apart as they were together.
Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), writer and director
Bergman's films are unabashedly emotional without ever relying on cheap sympathy or anything as saccharine as that. He was a true master of his craft, making films which were highbrow without being inaccessible, and relatable without being commonplace. He was a one of a kind spirit, and the film world misses him.
Bob Dylan (1941-), singer, songwriter, and musician
I'm not a very big fan of Bruce Springsteen, but I have to agree with him when he said, "Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body." Elvis was the one who definitively set down the primal roots of rock, but it was Dylan who made you think about what they meant. That inimitable voice, which has gone from a nasal whine to a cracking grumble, sings his beautiful words in a way that hits you in the head and the heart at the same time. For my money, perhaps the best lyricist in the history of rock music.
Roger Ebert (1942-), film critic
I may disagree with Ebert at times--I mean, the guy liked both Garfield movies, which despite my inclusion of Bill Murray here, I definitely do not--but once I read his review of a film, I will without doubt understand exactly why he liked it and why he came to it with that certain perspective. His reviews are always interesting and enlightening; his books and essays are truly illuminating. Basically, when I don't know why I love movies, he tells me.
Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), writer and director
Akira Kurosawa made adventurous, exciting films which always felt like great art even if they were about two bumbling ne'er-do-wells and a general trying to rescue a princess (without The Hidden Fortress, there would be no Star Wars). He also made films more artistic in their subject matter, such as Dreams, his underappreciated exploration of the subconscious. And while his samurai films will always be my favorites, he was a versatile filmmaker who took his time but almost always delivered.
Stan Lee (1922-), writer
The man above is responsible for many of the dreams I dreamed as a child (not to mention many of the action figures I played with), for he created Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk...pretty much all of Marvel Comics' iconic characters. His writing style was simple and corny, yet undeniably unique and with a genuine level of pathos. Lee is the father of the modern comic book. Before the advent of the Fantastic Four, heroes at perpetual rival DC Comics palled around and got along well (the Justice League was something of a mutual admiration society); afterwards, it would seem like no heroes would ever get along again. Then, of course, there was Peter Parker, who had to stoop to taking photos of his costumed alter ego to pay the rent. Alan Moore may have exploded the superhero mythos with Watchmen in 1986, but it was Stan Lee who laid the groundwork.
John Lennon (1940-1980), singer, songwriter, musician, and peace activist
It's difficult to explain just what John Lennon means to me. I was born after he died, but he's had such a tremendous impact on my life. In his life and his work he was thoughtful, angry, witty, raucous, and romantic, sometimes all at once ("I'm Losing You" is a skillful emotional blender). If I'm ever in a bad mood, I just need to hear his voice or his music, and even though I may still be sad or upset, it's a release of sorts. John Lennon was no saint, as some paint him, but he stood for peace, love, and life. He's like a voice from the past whispering into my brain.
Bill Murray (1950-), actor
Bill Murray is the greatest actor of our generation. There. I said it. Call me crazy if you want; it wouldn't be the first time. There is a very specific reason why I believe this: Murray can be in any part, of any size, and walk away with the show. Yes, he was perceived more as a box office moneymaker in the 80's, and though Ghostbusters will always, predictably, be my favorite of his movies, few people mention his outstanding work in Tootsie. He didn't have a lot of screentime, and played second fiddle to Dustin Hoffman, but he stole every scene he was in. In the 90's, he faltered a little, but still had ace supporting roles in films like Ed Wood and Mad Dog and Glory. Beginning with Rushmore in 1998, his career has achieved something of a quiet revolution, and Murray now routinely takes on complex roles in smaller, quirkier movies. Before Lost in Translation, you may never have noticed how brilliant Bill Murray was. Now you have no excuse.
Sam Raimi (1959-), writer and director
Okay, I saw Spider-Man and loved it. I've always been a huge comics geek, and that movie, more than any others before, was a total wet dream come true. I knew Sam Raimi had also directed the Evil Dead movies, so I picked up a cheap VHS copy at Wal-Mart. This movie fucked me up. Sam Raimi can take credit for completely warping my mind and sense of humor, as well as for giving me a penchant for off-kilter visuals. Not only can he do insane gorefests, he can also do classy (A Simple Plan), Gothic (The Gift), and of course superhero blockbusters (Spider-Man 3 notwithstanding). This guy's crazy.
Quentin Tarantino (1963-), writer, director, and actor
I saw Pulp Fiction when I was thirteen years old, and I was never the same again. The movie sparked in me some kind of primal reaction; I knew it was brilliant without knowing why it was brilliant. I just knew. This and Tarantino's other works spurred me to discover more and more films, and now I devour them voraciously. His movies are colorful, entertaining, but above all always heartfelt. Say what you will about the oft-publicized violence in his films, but he's never made a movie without a heart and a good sense of humor (he may have "presented" Hostel, but he never could've made it himself). Besides, no one makes movies that look as good as his.
Joss Whedon (1964-), writer and director
This man is largely responsible for any art I may inflict upon the world. He isn't aware of this, of course, nor is it his fault; I mean, he didn't realize just how much Buffy the Vampire Slayer would blow my mind, did he? After scraping through several humiliating film experiences (including the transformation of his very fine Buffy movie script into excruciating pop trash), he was allowed to unleash his vision on television, and the medium was never the same. Not only was Buffy simply a great story with great characters, it also recognized and displayed its form's boundaries before gleefully breaking them. The fact that he managed to do it twice more, with Angel and the short-lived yet much-loved Firefly, plus make some great movies and comic books, is just icing on the cake. And the guy's only in his 40's!
The White Stripes, rock band: Jack White (1975-), guitarist; and Meg White (1974-), drummer
These guys are weird. Their music is obsessed with eccentric themes, weird symbolism, things that sometimes feel more like puzzle pieces than lyrical subjects. And yet they manage to turn them into catchy rock songs, infused with the blues and with a touch of punk here and there. Oh, and they only consist of two people. Jack's guitar playing is insane, and his vocals are a desperate yowl (and when he gets sentimental, it's soft and poignant). Meg's drumming may be simple, but that doesn't mean it's simplistic; after all, without her, "Seven Nation Army" would only be half a song, and the White Stripes only half a band.