What makes a great song choice in a film? The best ones aren’t just cool tracks that “sound good” with the picture, as in a music video. Like any other element in a movie, a song—diegetic or no—should serve multiple functions, conveying a mood, providing information on setting, and advancing narrative and theme.
If you think that sounds like a lot of work for a single song to do, well, it is. But the following five picks—our favorite soundtrack moments in 2014—proved themselves up to all those tasks. It’s important to note that some of them aren’t even “good” songs (that is, depending on your musical tastes). Yet the contexts in which they are played truly, so to speak, make them sing.
1. The Rover: “Pretty Girl Rock” by Keri Hilson
Deep into David Michôd’s The Rover, after Antony Partos’ score has haunted and hypnotized viewers, it is flat-out shocking to hear Keri Hilson’s bubblegum R&B anthem “Pretty Girl Rock,” the opening strains of which start playing as Eric (Guy Pearce) and Rey (Robert Pattinson) walk out into a post-apocalyptic desert distance. In fact, I suspected the projectionist had hijacked the sound system to stage a prank. But when, after 30 seconds, the film cuts to Rey alone in a car, inexpertly but endearingly singing along, initial surprise (and humor) turns into a deep feeling of sadness.
This fluffy, catchy song could not have been made in the brutal, doomed world that Eric and Rey now inhabit. Out of the millions of disposable pleasures the world of the past took for granted, this one has survived 10 years (presumably as the last CD in the car stereo before everything went to shit) to provide the only moment of carefree joy for the fragile, puppy-dog Rey.
2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: “Death” by White Lies
Sometimes all you need to create three minutes of cinematic perfection is a boy, a girl, and a song. The scene—the Girl dancing in her bedroom—is so deceptively simple in its construction (only two shots and no dialogue), but the groove that Ana Lily Amirpour finds is so delicate, one wrong move could break the spell. It’s not exactly a dance scene, but it is choreographed; slow and hypnotic, every movement matched to the music. The song expresses perfectly both the bliss and danger of the potential new romance these characters have discovered in one another.
3. Inherent Vice: “Vitamin C” by Can
Talk about setting the mood. And, in a movie where plot points threaten at all times to turn to smoke, mood is the best thing for both audience and protagonist Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) to grasp onto. Paul Thomas Anderson fades into the song slowly then turns up the emphasis, using the first drum kick to punch the bold neon title of Inherent Vice onto the screen (in typical PTA fashion, we see no accompanying credits). From there he lets the the song play out in its entirety (another classic PTA move) over the next several scenes. The 1972 classic foreshadows the tone for the rest of the movie: undeniably groovy and fun (I love the Wikipedia description: “thick base line, bouncy procession, and catchy chorus”) but also possessed by an uncomfortable rhythm, speeding up only to abruptly slowing down to look over its shoulder. Playful but paranoid, the repeated refrain “Hey you, you’re losing your Vitamin C” speaks volumes about what Doc (and the audience) has lost or might lose in the film: his high, the love his ex-old lady Shasta, the utopian dream of the ’60s, his grip on reality… And the song is an excellent set up for Jonny Greenwood’s scoring of the rest of the movie.
4. Boyhood: “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy
The perfectly curated soundtrack is rarely true-to-life, especially in films about adolescence. Not every kid walks around like a Wes Anderson character, accompanied by a vintage record player and a well-chosen LP; most of the music you listen to growing up is fun but terrible and, more often than not, just inescapably there. Richard Linklater captured this truthful reality in Boyhood, from Coldplay’s “Yellow” over the opening scenes, to Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up The Sun” playing in the car as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family move to Houston. Those or a dozen other songs would be worthy entries on this list (the film doesn’t hit one wrong note), but Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” has a special place in my heart. It soundtracks a scene where Mason rides his bike with his new stepbrothers and neighborhood friends. With a reckless, yet completely good-natured, adolescent energy, “Crank That” marks a very specific shift in time (i.e. fall, 2007). It’s one of the most significant instances of a song (and dance, if you call it dancing) going viral in the modern age, and it’s as fun, awful, and inescapable as any song you might have grown up with.
5. Only Lovers Left Alive: “Funnel of Love” by Wanda Jackson, covered by SQÜRL and Madeline Follin
Few directors have the advantage of combining great musical talent with great filmmaking, the way Jim Jarmusch does. His band SQÜRL provided the score to Only Lovers Left Alive along with composer Jozef Van Wissem, in addition to performing as a band within the film. There’s so much good music throughout the movie—in particular, a performance of “Hal” by Yasmine Hamdan—but, like “Vitamin C,” SQÜRL’s cover of Wanda Jackson’s 1961 “Funnel of Love” is a great example of using a song to set a mood early on. Jarmusch combines the droning, dreamy melody with inventive visuals, using a spinning camera crane revolving at a speed just between hypnotizing and dizzying. It spirals in and cross cuts between Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) as the record plays on the turntable, implying a deep connection across a great distance and an immense history together as a couple. MM
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