When it first began, many, many years ago, The Playlist covered film in general, but with a particular focus on the places where movies intersected with music — scores, soundtracks, music videos et al. And while our remit has grown over time, it’s still something we take a particular interest in. After all, it’s hard to think of major movies in which music doesn’t play a key part, from a piece of score elevating a key sequence to a pop song that becomes inextricably linked with a film until the end of time.
And 2012 has been no exception, with a host of movies that have used songs and music to hugely impressive effect, from grand-scale musicals to contained dance sequences to memorable montages to movie-stealing karaoke numbers. So, to kick-off our year-end coverage, we’ve picked out some of our favorite movie music moments of the year. The only rule was that they had to be intrinsic parts of the film — closing credit numbers (like Arcade Fire‘s stomping “Abraham’s Daughter” at the end of “The Hunger Games“) or cuts-used-in-passing (like the cunning-but-brief use of The Walkmen‘s “Angela Surf City” in “Seven Psychopaths“) didn’t count. You can find, and watch/hear, our picks below, let us know your own favorites in the comments section below. For all The Playlist’s year-end coverage make sure to follow all our Best Of 2012 features.
“Alps” — Hot Butter’s “Popcorn”
Yorgos Lanthimos‘ follow-up to the absurdist and dark “Dogtooth” is similarly bizarre. This askew look at human relationships centers on a secret society that sets out to ease the grieving process by creating a business wherein they impersonate the recently deceased in an effort to help soften the suffering of loved ones. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but one of the members of the “Alps” is a teenage gymnast, and one of the main points of contention in the film is that her coach won’t let her do her floor routines to pop music — classical music only. It’s such a divisive issue, that the girl eventually attempts suicide. In the end however, the coach caves and she gets the opportunity to do her gymnastics floor routine to a cheerful and corny techno-version of Hot Butter’s ’70s Music to Moog By hit “Popcorn.” It’s a celebratory moment and it’s likely not going to mean much to anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but for those that have, it’s a terrific cap to this odd little gem of a movie.
“Anna Karenina” — Dario Marianelli’s “Dance With Me”
The ball scene is something of a staple of the costume drama world, and Joe Wright managed a couple of fairly definitive takes on the trope in his debut, “Pride & Prejudice,” using a Steadicam to glide between participants in immaculately choreographed long takes (we discussed it in detail right here). Reteaming for the third time with Keira Knightley in “Anna Karenina” he manages to top himself with the amazing centerpiece scene. Demonstrating the title character falling in love with the much younger Count Vronsky with barely a word being spoken between them, the pair head off to the tune of composer Dario Marianelli’s lovely “Dance With Me,” their waltzing accompanied by strange, beguiling hand movements courtesy of choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. As they move, the others dancers first freeze around them, then, in one bravura shot, disappear altogether. It’s sexy and convincing stuff — not least to Kitty, who loves Vronsky, and is helpless to watch her man being stolen away as she dances with another partner. The whole thing is one long, hugely accomplished set piece, but you can see a truncated glimpse of it below.
“Beasts Of The Southern Wild” — Dan Rohmer and Benh Zeitlin’s “Once There Was a Hushpuppy”/”The Confrontation”
The combination of Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, composer and composer/director is a deadly one that should not be slept on. Their passionate, anthemic and melancholy-tinged scores are akin to the symphonic swells, childhood pains and bittersweet aches channeled by Arcade Fire. Romer and Zeitlin’s compositions have the same heartrending trajectory of hope, sadness and fervent emotion, so much so that the Obama campaign used one of their songs from the director’s short “Glory At Sea” for one of their key commercials in the last week of their 2008 campaign. And so everything that is wonderful about their work is alive, magnetic and present in the magical and muddy fairytale “Beasts of The Southern Wild.” There’s plenty of score pieces in the film that are wistful, beautiful and filled with longing, but perhaps none is so great as the motif theme, perhaps represented well by “The Confrontation,” that reaches its stunning crescendo in the final moments of the film and the score piece “Once There Was A Hushpuppy.” The film’s precocious lead Hushpuppy’s father has sadly passed on and the young girl gives her little voice-over monologue about perseverance, survival, hope and community. The lugubrious music rises, your emotions tremble and much like the spirit of hopeful New Orleans funerals, this lament bursts into an apex of tremendous joy and celebration. Suffice to say it made many of us literally burst into tears the moment we experienced it.
“Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best” – The Brooklyn Brothers Rehearsal
This little seen indie film features some of the most charmingly quirky original tunes to be found in film in 2012, and they were played live by the actors live on set. Take THAT, “Les Mis”! Yes, they are playing that guitar and those toy keyboards driving in the car, which makes this winning scene even more remarkable. After the depressed Alex decides to go on the road with the unhinged Jim (for lack of anything else to do), these two misanthropes find a real creative connection in pairing Alex’s somber and sensitive lyrics and guitar with Jim’s mastery of a collection of toy instruments, resulting in a unique sound that manages to be not overly twee, but instead one of those chocolate and peanut butter combinations: it just goes right together. The scene in the too small car when they finally play together, just hours before their first gig, is the first of many truly inspired musical moments in the film, and their distinctive sound becomes an integral part of the film’s emotional and stylistic aesthetic. It’s also one of the first times we get to see Alex experience something like happiness, as he sets off on this unknown adventure with a possible lunatic, but a friendly one at that. Lead actors Ryan O’Nan and Michael Weston actually released an album of the self-described “The Shins meet Sesame Street” songs, written mostly by quadruple threat writer/director/star O’Nan, in addition to the film’s soundtrack, and played a few live shows promoting the film. Hopefully we’ll see more from them soon.
“The Comedy” — Donnie & Joe Emerson’s “Baby” & William Basinski’s ”Disintegration Loops (1.1 Excerpt I)”
Rick Alverson’s disturbing and hilarious mediation on the male psyche — in the form of an aging hipster played by Tim Heidecker — is an unflinching look at damaged manchilds. And the tasteful collection of mystical soul and bittersweet pop — described as the “autumn of the American Era” by the filmmaker — is a strange and wonderful elixir for this provocative picture. There’s two phenomenal sequences. The first is Donnie and Joe Emerson’s amateurishly sweet and soulful “Baby” which plays as the arrested 30-something in the picture are introduced in slow-motion– drunkenly dancing half naked and wrestling in a tribal-like ritual. With sweaty guts keeling over and beer splashing the walls it’s an amazing/beautiful/ridiculous expression of their hyper and acute juvenalia. The second sequence, is these men, free of the obligations of jobs and responsibility pissing away the day drinking beers and playing wiffle ball in the park. The montage is cut to a forlorn ambient track by William Basinski and its stunning, wonderful genius, conveying both a carefree like wonder and an underbelly of sadness. Rarely is source music used very effectively in movies these days, let alone atypically and Alverson is one to keep an eye on, at the very least for his amazing and unusual command of picking the perfect left-of-center track.
“Django Unchained” — Rick Ross’s “1000 Corpses” & John Legend’s “Who Did That To You”
While the music in Quentin Tarantino‘s “Django Unchained” is the best its been in years, there’s not really a “music moment” per se like David Bowie‘s “Cat People” in “Inglourious Basterds” or “Stuck In The Middle With You” in “Reservoir Dogs,” but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention there were a few pretty standouts. Aside from the excellent borrowed title theme (which is not really a moment, just a tremendous song), most of the memorable song moments are contemporary — a first for Tarantino. He goes super anachronistic with Rick Ross‘ spaghetti-western flecked hip-hop song “1000 Corpses” and the song is terrific and while the scene is a brief transition moment, it’s pretty badass and fitting. Meanwhile, a soulful John Legend ballad is great too, and Tupac rapping over James Brown in the action crescendo is kinda neat as well. And it looks like QT’s selections outside his well worn vinyl collection of Ennio Morricone soundtracks has served him well this time out.
“The Five Year Engagement” — Chris Pratt’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma”
There’s sort of a threefold genius to Chris Pratt’s Spanish-language cover song in this year’s “The Five Year Engagement.” For one, it’s a randomly hilarious cover of a Caetano Veloso song featured both in Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk To Her” and Wong Kar-Wai’s “Happy Together” — the former version being one of the most heartrending music/movie moments of 2002 — which makes it some strange/awesome/sly cinephile reference from writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. Secondly, it’s just rather hilarious and even moving — Pratt, the dumb oaf in the film, all of a sudden rendering everyone mute with his beautiful, gentle and heartfelt rendition of this song to his gobsmacked bride (Alison Brie). Then of course, it’s used one more time in the end of the film, a sort of electro-pop rendering of the song sung at the conclusion of the wedding between Emily Blunt and Segel’s characters that is just so joyously funny and sweet it’ll just make you cry with happiness. We laughed with tears in both moments, and for that alone you shouldn’t totally forget about “Five Year Engagement.” (There’s no embed, but watch it here)
R.L Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” & Kylie Minogue’s “Who We Were” in Holy Motors
Not to spoil two chief surprises in a film chock full of them, but Leos Carax’s wonderful whatsit was distinctly punctuated by a pair of musical sequences: one, the film’s entracte, an impromptu mid-movie accordion cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride”; the other, an original song (penned by The Divine Comedy‘s Neil Hannon) suddenly and wistfully performed by star Kylie Minogue as she ascends the mannequin-strewn levels of a vacant Paris department store. They are two sublime moments for entirely different reasons, and taken together, they’re a grand example of the wide-ranging capacity of movies to move us in ways both exhilarating and emotional. It’s about time Carax did a full-blown movie musical, right?
Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed A Dream” in “Les Miserables”
By now you’ve likely read that Anne Hathaway is a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars this year. Some are so confident they are already calling her an ironclad lock. We won’t argue with that assessment, though it’s somewhat strange because the actress is only onscreen for all of maybe 10-15 minutes maximum in Tom Hooper’s Broadway adaptation of the iconic musical. But then you see the film and you know she’s pretty much getting nominated (and yes, likely winning), simply for her showstopping performance of “I Dreamed A Dream” and nothing else. That’s not to say she’s not great in the rest of the picture, but the song she sings is extraordinarily arresting. The brilliant thing about “Les Miserables” is that instead of singing to playback of your already-recorded song (which is the norm in musicals), Hooper instead had his cast sing live and in the moment with ear pieces piping in the music (it’s explained rather brilliantly here). It allows the actors the freedom to sing with profound emotion, pauses, and capturing every moment of spontaneity in the performances rather than being locked into a song that was recorded months prior. For Hathaway it works like an atom bomb going off. Boughs break, seas churn and hairs stand up on your neck in what is one of the most heartstopping and genuinely electric four or five minutes of cinema seen all year long. You can imagine that a pin drop could be heard the day that take was recorded and if recent screenings are any indication, the cast and crew likely broke into a thunderous applause afterwards.
“Magic Mike” — Ginuwine’s “Pony”
For a movie that is Steven Soderbergh‘s ode to the stripper incubation period of the creature we know as Channing Tatum, there sure were a lot of serious cultural and economic issues packed in tighter than a grip of singles in Joe Manganiello‘s bikini briefs. Stop talking about stock equity and take your damn pants off, dudes! But Tatum more than made up for it in his signature solo to that classic grinding anthem, “Pony” by Ginuwine. This was Tatum’s moment to prove himself not as a dancer, but as a professional. He demonstrated his stripper chops, and then some (we’re talking about his butt). And like we said in our review, “He dances like he is trying to earn the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Pelvic Thrusting. Newsflash: it’s won. He wins it. No one can match his rate of thrusts per minute”). Yes, it’s pretty much the Cadillac of “Dancing Alone To Pony” numbers, but equipped with little more than a pair of dangerously loose sweatpants, a red thong, a few “WOOs,” and a scowl, the scene manages to communicate quite a bit. Most importantly, that yes, Tatum knows what he’s doing, in a way that could only come from experience (he’s the genuine article, pun intended). And while some may have been turned off by Cody Horn‘s perpetual scowl, in this scene, it works to perfection, as it shows her discomfort with her ownership of the lascivious gaze that is thrust upon her, but maybe, also her enjoyment of this gaze? A little bit? Plus, it’s just the best song selection to convey the sleaze and grime of a Central Florida strip club, while still being an absolute jam. Channing Tatum has “Pony” to thank for that Sexiest Man Alive title, hands down.
“The Master” — Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “On A Slow Boat To China”
Not to be overshadowed by the starry cast of Les Mis, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest wraps up with the most inexplicably magnetic musical rendition of the year. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, less men than forces of nature bound to one another even as they clash over and over again, meet for the last time. Dodd makes a final, incisive grasp for Freddie, the hard-drinking over-sexed animal he’s attempted to reform via The Cause, the philosophical concoction that rallies ardent followers behind Dodd. The way he does it is unforgettable – he says a few words, likely vital but not especially memorable and then…Dodd sings, a hushed and haunting cover of Frank Loesser‘s “On A Slow Boat To China.” Anderson holds on their faces, Phoenix’s especially, whose intensity falls away and reveals something that approaches heartbreak. This is goodbye and Dodd expresses what is perhaps a form of love, strange and captivating and impossible to look away from. Phoenix got a lion’s share of praise for his work but it’s Hoffman who manages to subdue Freddie with a song.
“Perks Of Being A Wallflower” — David Bowie’s “Heroes”& Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s “Come On Eileen”
While the film itself is terrific, there are a number of annoying things about the music in “The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.” For one, we really have to declare a moratorium on people bonding over The Smiths in indie movies. For another, the film seems to be set in a strange alternate universe where hip, smart indie kids have never heard of David Bowie. But while that’s a bit irritating and precious, and some of the song choices verge on obvious, that doesn’t negate their effectiveness. First, there’s the scene where the lead trio (Logan Lerman, Ezra Miller and Emma Watson) happen across “Heroes” on the radio as they drive into a tunnel. It’s simple stuff, but swooningly romantic, evoking those adolescent moments when anything in the world was possible, with it, and doubly so when director/author Stephen Chbosky reprises it at the film’s finale. Almost as memorable is the high school dance sequence, where Watson uses the pub-chant charms of Dexy’s Midnight Runners‘ “Come On Eileen” to start to coax Lerman’s wallflower out of his shell. They might both be wedding DJ staples, but sometimes the iconic is needed over the obscure.
“Pitch Perfect” — The Bellas’ “No Diggity”
The Riff-Off in the fuzzy, giddy slice of pure pop genius that is “Pitch Perfect” isn’t necessarily the most spine tingling number of the a cappella flick (“Right Round” by The Treblemakers) or the most impressive (The Bellas final mash-up), but it is the most important music moment in terms of the film’s story. The Bellas assemble their motley crew of misfits and rejects, and meet up with the other groups in an empty pool (always an empty pool) for their Riff-Off: a game of vocal wordplay involving stealing songs from another group by jumping onto a particular word. The Treblemakers and Bellas trade blows on Rihanna’s “S&M” (sung, interestingly, by the song’s writer Ester Dean), Salt n Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You,” and Foreigner’s “Feels Like The First Time,” but when Beca (Anna Kendrick) jumps in with Dr. Dre’s verse from STONE COLD MOTHERFUCKING CLASSIC “No Diggity” by Blackstreet, it’s the pivotal moment of the entire film. She’s finally, finally showing some gumption, ditching the cool kid attitude and proving not only her musical chops, her gangsta cred and her ability to bring something fresh to the tired Bellas set list. Each member of the group gets to display her quirky personality and skill visually within the number (Rebel Wilson grabbing her tummy on “got game by the pound” = idol status), and it’s the true moment of their cohesion as a group, even if the film takes a frustratingly long time to get back there. And seriously, who can resist “No Diggity”? Guaranteed, that moment in the trailer of Kendrick singing the hook a cappella all alone in the pool sold that movie instantly.
“Rust & Bone” — Katy Perry’s “Firework”
Critics at the Cannes Film Festival are a hardened bunch. Usually jet-lagged, weary, sleep-deprived and perhaps a bit standoffish as world cinema’s finest try to impress, it speaks to the skill of Jacques Audiard that his repurposing of Katy Perry’s “Firework” left nary a dry eye in the house. So how on Earth do you make a ubiquitous, throwaway pop hit into one of the emotional turning points of a film? You do the work. The first time we hear the song in the film it’s part of the Marineland show that winds up leaving Marion Cotillard’s trainer Stephanie paralyzed from the waist down. She then essentially shuts herself off from the world, but buoyed by the attentions of Matthias Schoenaerts’ Alain, she starts to come out of her shell. Indeed, when she eventually rolls herself out onto the sun soaked balcony it’s like she’s starting life anew, and as she goes over the hand and arm movements that she used with the whales, Audiard slyly pumps “Firework” into the background, slowly rising in volume. Stephanie isn’t just coming to terms with her past, and perhaps saying goodbye, she’s also claiming her future. Out of context — and we don’t recommend watching the below unless you’ve seen the movie — it’s not quite as powerful. But in the film, given the hard road we’ve take with Stephanie to this point, “Firework” literally explodes in your heart, the first upbeat, sugary note of hope in the story, and we dare you not to reach for the nearest Kleenex box.
“Shut Up And Play The Hits” — LCD Soundsystem’s “45:33 (ii)”
“Shut Up and Play the Hits,” the unimpeachable documentary that charted the final show of cooler-than-cool electro-pop outfit LCD Soundsystem (at Madison Square Garden, no less), was one giant music moment; a singularly uplifting, dance-your-pants off experience. But if there’s one truly transcendent moment in the bulk of the documentary, it’s when the band performs the second part of “45:33,” joined onstage by comedian/musician Reggie Watts. “45:33” might be the most esoteric part of both the concert and the documentary (it was an unbroken running mix that LCD mastermind James Murphy made for Nike and iTunes), but it quickly became the highlight of both. Watts, in his trademark T-shirt and suspenders, rocking a mile-wide afro, engaged in an amazing vocal tête-à-tête with Murphy, even though the portion of “45:33” only consisted of a handful of lyrics, adding some wonderfully sweet soulfulness to the proceedings. Like the rest of “Shut Up And Play The Hits,” this moment is both spirited and melancholy, deeply dance-able and strangely emotional. And when the section of “45:33” ends and “Sound Of Silver” starts up, you realize that the band may be done but the party will never, ever end.
“Skyfall” — Adele’s “Skyfall”
Hands down the best moment in the overlong, poorly paced and exhausting “Skyfall” belongs to songstress Adele and designer Daniel Kleinman, who turn in a smashing theme and sequence combo after several diminishing returns. Relying largely on Adele’s vocals and sparse orchestration, the song is a throwback to old-school themes without feeling tacky or hung up on past glories. Kleinman, on the other hand, breaks with tradition a bit, the visuals suggesting nothing less than the shattering of the Bond mythos, a spiritual death and funeral proceedings for the spy icon. It’s an elegiac tour de force, interplay between light, shadows and mirrors, as the blood rains down from the sky and dragons lurk across the screen. It’s such a strong entry that it makes the plodding film that follows all the more of a disappointment.
“Tabu” — The Ramones’ “Baby I Love You”
While it might look on the surface like an homage to silent cinema akin to “The Artist” (and it is, in a way), the charms of Miguel Gomes‘ glorious “Tabu” go much deeper than that, particularly in its second half, a dialogue-free, magic realist forbidden romance set in colonial Africa… some time in the middle of the 20th century. As with Gomes’ other films, pop music pays a big part of the film, most notably a gorgeous Portuguese-language cover of “Be My Baby” that proves to be the crucial link between the film’s first and second half. Much of these song moments come courtesy of Mario’s Band, the snappily-dressed group that hero Ventura, and his best friend Mario, belong to. Ventura is sleeping with the beautiful Aurora, married to a powerful local man, and is starting to reach the end of his tether. At a local party, Ventura drums along to a mimed, deeply anachronistic version of “Baby I Love You,” the Ramones‘ cover of the Phil Spector hit. The band lined up alongside a half-empty swimming pool, as if to drive home the chasm between Ventura and Aurora, who dances on the other side. It’s a great reminder of a somewhat overlooked track by the seminal punk band, and is one of those times when it makes perfect sense, historical accuracy be damned.
“Take This Waltz” — The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” & Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz”
Sarah Polley’s sophomore effort “Take This Waltz” pops with expressive color and music throughout and takes a lot of wonderful wide and creative swings. One of those risks is an ambitious sequence demonstrating the passage of time wherein a camera circles the room and a couple that have cheated and start anew, span time and eventually fall into the same dull routines that led them to stray in the first place — all of it set to Leonard Cohen’s titular song. But this sensual picture about marriage, love, infidelity and grass-is-always-greener restlessness is also heartbreaking. And an unlikely song, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” which does have its minor key lament of loss and change in it, represents heartache and longing. Michelle Williams’ Margot takes a trip with with her illicit paramour (Luke Kirby) to a theme park and in a moment of elation and bliss, they joyfully go on an amusement ride. But later on, when the pair have long-cemented their affair and relationship malaise has set in, the mockingbird Margot goes back to the amusement park to take the ride. Alone and on her own, she closes her eyes and lets the wind blow through her hair and the music boom in her ears. It’s a devastating scene, Margot on the ride, trying to chase and reclaim that fleeting romantic bliss she once felt. It’s in that affecting moment, we know Margot will sadly, always be chasing a never lasting feeling.
“This Is 40” — Fiona Apple’s “Dull Tool”
Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40” has a terrific and memorable score by Jon Brion that fits the mood and tone of this family-in-crisis drama, a little bit funny, a little bit serious and a little bit sad. But the highlight piece of music in “This Is 40” is another Brion-assisted piece: Fiona Apple’s “Dull Tool,” specifically written for the film. Without giving away too much of the film, the song hits at the apex of crisis, as an angry and frustrated Pete (Paul Rudd) goes for a cathartic bike ride in Los Angeles that borders on suicide run, chaotically weaving in and out of traffic. We won’t spoil how it ends, but it’s a fast-paced and aggravated scene, and Apple’s pounding and choleric “Dull Tool” is the perfect aural diatribe for Pete’s little tantrum-y joyride.
— Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Katie Walsh, William Goss, Mark Zhuravsky, Drew Taylor, Oliver Lyttelton