The smell of nutmeg and cinnamon and brewing family arguments may hang heavy in the air, but we’re not quite done with our pre-Christmas blow out of Best of 2014 features yet (you can find the whole lot of them to date here). While we’ve already run through our Best of 2014 Soundtracks and Best of 2014 Scores, there’s one last music-related feature that we always run—our Favorite Music Moments.
In a way describing what constitutes a Music Moment is more difficult than actually agreeing which to choose—it’s a prime example of the “I’ll know it when I see/hear it” syndrome. In fact it’s surprising how quickly we can all agree on the fine distinction between music simply used well and music used transcendently—and the latter is what we’re looking for here. If sound in general is the ugly sister of visuals when it comes to the priorities of cinema, these music moments are times when picture and audio combine to bring something greater than the sum their parts.
And so, these are the 15 most memorable times in 2014 when, to moving, hilarious, or thought-provoking effect, we felt that fusion reaction occur, giving us the transportive impression that we were witnessing cinema firing on all cylinders. Beware that because of the nature of this feature, some of the moments listed below could well be SPOILERS if you haven’t seen the film, and you may want to avoid reading about them so that you can get their full effect when you do.
15. “We Are The Best!”—“Hate the Sport”/”Hate Vasteras”
There was a certain amount of debate over whether the most memorable cut from Lukas Moodysson’s gloriously 1980s punk coming-of-age tale actually counted as a music moment—after all, there’s not much in the way of a melody, or real instrumentation involved, just an improvised chant about how much they hate having to exercise. But what is the spirit of punk if not picking up instruments you don’t know how to play, banging on them for 60 seconds, while shouting, and bingo, you’ve got a band. Bobo and Klara’s composition “Hate The Sport” recurs a few times in the film, first in Klara’s bedroom (where her dad, played by David Dencik, tries to get involved in a sweet, genuinely loving family moment), then amped by the condescending youth club elders, then finally, and most transcendentally, in an altered version at a gig in their neighboring town (“Hate Vasteras!”), which, like all good punk gigs, causes a riot. Among many things, Moodysson’s film is a love letter to that DIY musical aesthetic, and the band’s abrasive earworm is the best example of that building to one of the most joyously satisfying finales of the year.
14. “Only Lovers Left Alive”—Yasmine Hamdan “Hal”
There was some debate about whether to include this music moment as it’s really “just” a live performances captured on film that plays out in full toward the very close of Jim Jarmusch’s vampire love story. But we judged that while it may not have that the punchy quality that so many of these other picks do, where suddenly the pictures and the music converge to transform the narrative in some visceral way, Yasmine Hamdan’s spectacular, haunting, evocative performance of this incredible song actually is the narrative. Bringing about the quietest reunion between Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s erudite vampires, the song, and Hamdan’s sinuous performance of it, becomes the perfect expression of their mysterious, eternal existences and of the mood that the film evokes so well: a world-weary sensuality both beautiful and full of doom; a poisoned chalice. It’s the perfect ending to a story that has none.
13. “Get on Up”—The T.A.M.I Show performance
There are many amazing musical moments in “Get On Up,” and Chadwick Boseman if not nails, then comes pretty damn close to James Brown’s fervent, possessed performance style. An early performance at The T.A.M.I Show (Teenage Awards Music International, hosted by Jan and Dean, like a 1960s VMAs) is recreated in detail. In the legend, Brown is so furious to be opening for newcomer Brit band the Rolling Stones that he tears the roof of the place with a scorching 18-minute medley of fancy footwork, fainting, and heartbreaking belting that even a young Mick Jagger couldn’t follow. And he does it in a houndstooth waistcoat and sky-high pompadour to match. While the “Get On Up” version has to be truncated, it’s a fine recreation, and serves to perfectly encapsulate Brown’s fire and desire to prove himself over and over again.
12. “Listen Up Philip”—Diana Ross & Supremes “I Hear Our Symphony”
No matter how much new music comes along, it’s always a thrill to hear the old greats, and that’s the feel we got when Alex Ross Perry went with this brilliantly against-type track from Diana Ross & The Supremes. Just as the pitch-perfect narration in the film is finishing, telling us the fate of the characters, especially the dark, lonely, and depressing future that lies ahead for Philip, the song kicks in (be still our hearts, those lovely chimes and of course Diana’s voice) and fades into the end credits. The outright joy and effervescent mood of the song contradicts so nicely the almost two hours of pure, at times unadulterated, assholery that makes up “Listen Up Philip,” meaning that despite it being populated with difficult, prickly characters, you end up walking away feeling light and fizzy. As the credits and the song continue, there’s that wonderful montage of pseudo-Rothian dust jackets, which adds another element of spot-on humor.
11. “The Lego Movie”—Batman/Will Arnett “Untitled Self-Portrait”
Sure, “Everything is Awesome” is the theme song for “The Lego Movie,” capturing the movie’s chipper, anything-is-possible optimism in the most catchy way imaginable. But there was another, equally amazing song nestled within “The Lego Movie”—Batman’s song. After rescuing our heroes from certain doom, the Dark Knight (voiced by Will Arnett) plays them a ditty he wrote himself. “This is a song I wrote for Wildstyle,” Batman boasts. “It’s about how I’m an orphan.” His girlfriend, Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who has been berating our square hero Emmet (Chris Pratt) for his devotion to “Everything is Awesome,” says, “This is real music, Emmet. Batman is an artist—dark, brooding,” all while an ominous bassline thunders overhead. Listening to the full-length version of the song (available on the soundtrack) reveals just how impressively silly the lyrics are: after rattling off a series of adjectives describing how good the music is, Batman screams, “Continued darkness, the opposite of light, black hole, curtains drawn, in the basement, middle of the night.” “Batdance” this is not.
10. “The Guest”—Annie “Anthonio (Berlin Breakdown Version)”
Adam Wingard‘s ’80s action throwback “The Guest” has a number of strong music moments (this is, after all, a film featuring no fewer than three songs by Dutch oddities Clan of Xymox), but the very best is a climactic use of an Annie track. This isn’t the chase song, it’s the song played after the chase is done, and that makes it infinitely more powerful. Titled “Anthonio (Berlin Breakdown Version),” it’s a slower, more woozy remix of the original single by producer Richard X and it plays in the moment when the two kids (Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer) finally confront David (Dan Stevens), a warped war veteran who has taken over their family’s lives. The sequence is set at a Halloween dance, complete with garish decorations are on the walls (look for the “Halloween III” reference) and a steady stream of milky canned fog leaking out across the gym floor. The song is perfect because the violence is so personal. These aren’t grand gestures, even though the setting is stylized and hyper-real, this is a family settling their differences in the most blood-soaked way possible, and for some reason the Annie song, danceable but still melodic, is the perfect accompaniment. When David, after getting stabbed, tells the young boy, “You did the right thing, don’t feel bad,” it’s the perfect ending for one of the most wondrously evil characters of the year, and one of the grooviest, drunk-on-style movies of 2014, too.
9. “Two Days, One Night”—Petula Clark “La Nuit N’En Finit Plus”/Van Morrison’s “Gloria”
Perhaps the closest the Dardennes will ever get to a horror movie—there’s a palpable sense of terror about losing your livelihood and your self-worth—their latest film, “Two Days, One Night,” is a harrowing story about a woman, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), swallowing her pride to ask her co-workers to give up their annual bonuses in order for her to keep her job. The line between petitioning and begging is an extremely thin one and so Sandra’s frail dignity is on the razor’s edge of collapse the entire time. Repetition is crucial to the movie, with Sandra beseeching each employee with a similar request, and it extends to the two brief music moments in the film, uncommon for the Dardennes. Ready to give up almost from the start, Sandra finds the spiritual fuel through song to keep her going. One is Petula Clark’s melancholy “La Nuit N’En Finit Plus,” about loneliness and loss that her husband initially turns off. She turns the song back on, and in an unusual moment, turns it up, smiles, and enjoys the moment. She exchanges a wordless beam with her husband and we know, that at least for a short reprieve, Sandra’s back on track. Later on, as things are looking grim for the woman and her employment chances, Van Morrison’s “Gloria” comes on the radio, once again lifting her spirits. Sandra, her husband, and a fellow sympathetic co-worker sing their hearts out together in prideful reclamation that, even for a brief moment, soars with hope. These aren’t big cinematic gestures, but for the Dardennes, they are huge, an intimate celebration of the human spirit and a inkling that for Sandra there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter where the decision lands.
8. “The Skeleton Twins”—“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”
Despite strong, dramatic-muscle-flexing performances from Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, we weren’t crazy about “The Skeleton Twins,” which seems to have been created out of bits and pieces of other disappointing Sundance dramedies. But the film did contain one moment of pure joy that brings Wiig and Hader’s suicidal, clashing siblings Maggie and Milo together. Maggie reaches a sort of breaking point with her feckless brother, screaming into a pillow, so he attempts to break the ice by lipsynching to Starship’s power ballad classic “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Hader’s left to do it solo for a good minute, amusing Maggie’s husband (Luke Wilson), but leaving his sister stone-faced, until, no longer able to stay pissed at him, the facade breaks and she joins him. It’s a scene that plays off the unfakeable, and decidedly sibling-like chemistry that Wiig and Hader built up over their years on “Saturday Night Live,” and though it might be a little cheap, it’s also entirely infectious.
7. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”—White Lies “Death”
“This fear’s got a hold on me” is hardly the most conventional lyric to hear repeated over a tender, oh-so-slowly love scene, but then that’s quite appropriate for what is hardly the most conventional love story between the dreamy-eyed Iranian vampiress (Sheila Vand) and her handsome mortal crush (Arash Marandi) in Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Already featured in our Best Soundtracks of the Year, this one scene, an embrace that comes together achingly slowly in The Girl’s bedroom, while this White Lies song plays out almost in full, is as self-consciously emo as you like. Edged with trippiness (Arash is coming down from a chemical high), this is still probably the single most swooningly romantic, hairs-on-neck moment of the year, as the Girl’s caress exposes Arash’s neck, only for her to curl herself against his chest in slow motion. There is eternity in that embrace.
6. “Inherent Vice”—Neil Young “Journey Through The Past”
We’re granted few breaks from discomfort during Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”, the director choosing instead to frame his searching characters in frozen expressions of anxiety, confusion, and anger. Chief among those souls is Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello, who has only just lit an expertly-packed spliff before another bad news phone call begs his attention. As such, it’s warming to witness his brief instances of happiness, and the one you’ll leave the theater remembering blends the film’s themes of love, nostalgia, and memory. In a wistful flashback, set to the strains of Neil Young’s acoustic tune “Journey Through the Past”—as you’ve never heard it so heartachingly performed before—Doc and his soon-to-be-ex-old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston) consult a ouija board for an address where they can score some dope. They take off with a lead down Sunset Blvd. as it pours, and in one fluid tracking shot, the soaked pair comb the Strip at a ruby-kissed sunset. They fail, but find themselves in a doorway instead, together and content. It’s a perfect, swooning, and yet melancholy moment that provides a pause before the madness continues, as well as one that allows the lovestruck couple to, as Thomas Pynchon writes in the book, “[forget] for a few minutes how it all was going to develop anyway.”
5. “X-Men: Days Of Future Past”—Jim Croce “Time In A Bottle”
No matter what you think about Bryan Singer‘s superhero sequel “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” there’s one undeniable truth: that the Quicksilver sequence was really cool. A big part of that is the choice of song that Singer had accompany it—’70s folk rocker Jim Croce‘s dreamily contemplative “Time in a Bottle” (it was supposedly written after Croce’s wife told him she was pregnant with their son, Adrian). In the sequence, Quicksilver (played by Evan Peters), defuses a tense stand off between armed guards and fellow mutants Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) by running around the room at super-speeds, which, for him, means everything around him moves very slowly. The song is period-appropriate (it was released in 1973, the year the film is set, a month after Croce was tragically killed in a plane crash), even though the technology Quicksilver is using to play it isn’t (the Walkman wasn’t introduced until 1979). With all the chaos going on around Quicksilver, and his impish playfulness in turning a large level of destruction into something more comic than violent, the song feels like an internal call for peace. (It’s also easily the most reflective moment in a movie typified by large-scale mayhem.) In the eye of the storm, Quicksilver (and the audience) finds peace, and the song turns what could have been simply a cool sequence into something iconic.
4. “The Rover”—Keri Hilson “Pretty Girl Rock”
David Michod‘s “The Rover” is unrelentingly bleak, or very nearly so. Set in a post-apocalyptic Australia that makes the world envisioned by George Miller‘s “Mad Max” movies seem like a day at a multi-level spa, the narrative is defined largely by bloodshed, squealing tires, and grime. But it’s during the movie’s darkest section that Michod brings out the most wonderful moment of levity. Over a stark, wasted landscape, and stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson tromping over brush, a familiar tinkling piano starts to boom over the soundtrack, former Timbaland protégé Keri Hilson‘s outrageously wonderful “Pretty Girl Rock.” It lets the audience say, “Wait! I know this song,” plugging them into the character’s mindset in a way that the movie hadn’t previously accomplished, segueing to the next scene, where Pattinson halfheartedly sings along to the song in some bombed-out vehicle (notably the line “Don’t hate me ‘cos I’m beautiful” which has to have meta relevance for the actor). The upbeat nature of the song gives the movie hope, even if that hope is just as phony and shiny as the song itself (and over just as quickly). It’s sometimes hard to make an emotional connection with a movie as single-mindedly brutal as “The Rover,” but this moment, thanks to this song, lets you in. It’s also amazing to think that, in the dusty distant future, people are still doing the pretty girl rock.
3. “Mommy”—Oasis “Wonderwall”
Simply a total standout moment of the year for anyone who’s seen it, Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy” features (in addition to the great sing-along Celine Dion moment later) an unforgettable scene that marks the uptick ending of the first movement. It is basically an “everything’s gonna be all right”/”getting our shit together” montage set to, of all the songs in the world, “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Somehow the triteness of the song and the hugely cliché scenario combine to produce something utterly sublime. Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) rides his skateboard on a manic ADHD high, while Die (Anne Dorval) and Kyla (Suzanne Clement) run along the street like the kids they are not. And just when you’re already marvelling at the infectious joy that this audio/visual combination can generate, Steve stretches out his arms and pushes back the frame so that the 1:1 aspect ratio expands to widescreen, and you feel a little bit like your heart is going to burst right along with it. Cue gasps and spontaneous mid-film applause at Cannes, because this is not just a technical gimmick, this is proof of how alive these characters are—they can reach through that fourth wall and literally change the shape of their world.
2. “22 Jump Street“—DJ Assault/Creed “Ass-N-Titties”/”Higher”
After the “fuck you science!” moment in the original, “22 Jump Street” had a high bar to clear when it came to drug freakout scenes, but as with so much about Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s excellent sequel, that bar was cleared, in this case with the aid of the unlikely pairing of DJ Assault and Creed. Experiencing the effects of new drug WHYPHY for the first time, Channing Tatum’s Jenko’s having a whale of a time, partying away on a Jim Henson tropical island, dancing to “Ass-N-Titties” with multiple versions of himself and Vietnamese Jesus. But on the other side of the split-screen, Jonah Hill’s Schmidt is having a bad trip, stuck in a rainy volcanic landscape with only Creed’s terrible “Higher” for company. There’s a lot packed in here (including crucial story points), but it’s the unholy musical mash-up that might be the cherry on the top.
1. “Frank”—The Soronprfbs “I Love You All”
We were hard pressed to choose between a couple of tracks from this film, not surprising perhaps when it’s about a deeply self-serious indie band, and when the songs are this good and disparate. The ironically titled “Most Likeable Song Ever” is a great source of humor, sounding a little like the bastard stepchild of Spencer Krug’s work with Moonface, or even a B-side from his other band Sunset Rubdown’s album Shut Up I Am Dreaming. The absurdist raised voice Frank uses sounds just like it. But the real showstopper (and climactic song) is “I Love You All,” in which the film achieves an unexpectedly deep emotional impact as Michael Fassbender—tears running down his face, finally without his mask, and more honest than he’s ever been—sings a type of mea culpa apology to his band, and in the process revealing to one another what they all now realize to be true: they’re not just a band, they’re all soulmates. It’s a brilliant, moving track, and Fassbender’s broken, but not defeated voice is up to the challenge, going deep and moody and building as his true family picks up the other melodic pieces.
Transparent—Jeffrey Tambor “Somebody that I Used to Know”
Two covers bookend the series “Transparent,” “Operator” by Jim Croce (who’s clearly having a moment with this and ‘X-Men‘) and Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie,” done by different iterations of Glitterish, the band Josh (Jay Duplass) manages. Both are sweet and sad at the same time, placing the series in its ’70s California nostalgia vibe but in a fresh and modern way. There’s also the use of Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister” in the ‘80s flashback episode, “Best New Girl,” where Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and Marcie (Bradley Whitford) run off to drag camp, which draws out the nostalgia, as well as the themes of risky intimacy that pervade the series; while the end of episode 4 finds Duplass in his car singing along to “Night” by Smog. But most memorable of all is undoubtedly Gotye’s shameless earworm “Somebody That I Used To Know,” brought to new life at a talent contest at which revelations about the nature of Maura’s relationship to her children occur one after the other, all while she’s onstage, performing the song like a trooper. It’s a perfect moment of congruence in a show that’s all about facades and acts, the people that you used to know, and the people that you used to be.
You can consult our Best Soundtracks of the Year feature to find other films whose song choices impressed us. A few of those, and others, had moments that nearly made it onto this list, but just didn’t quite momentarily transform the vibe the way the above choices do. Those picks include Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance of “Blackbird” in Mexico in “Beyond the Lights’; ”Band on the Run” by Wings as used on the mixtape Ethan Hawke gives Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood” (as well as several other nostalgia cuts); speaking of mixtapes, there’s any number of music moments in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but we couldn’t settle on just one, and it’s such an integral part of the film that it felt wrong to pick out one track from such an enjoyably eclectic collection; Cream’s “Strange Brew” is used to strong effect in “Snowpiercer,” which also features Alison Pill’s bitterly funny “Ode to the Engine”; “Jersey Boys” was a big disappointment, but the rendition of “December ‘63” is one of its better moments; “The Book of Life” featured a great cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”; and one of “Pride”’s many upliftingly great sequences comes when Dominic West dances to “Shame Shame Shame” by Shirley & Company. And one dishonorable mention, if we may, goes to the use of Lana Del Rey’s “Big Eyes” in Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” which, according to those of us who’ve seen the film, is shoehorned into the middle like a surprise music video.
So what are the music-led movie moments that got the hairs on your neck prickling this year? Call them out below and meantime, check out all our other Best of 2014 coverage here.
–Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Erik McClanahan, Katie Walsh, Charlie Schmidlin, Rodrigo Perez