The criteria is that as long as the song was not composed and/or written specifically for the film, it was eligible.
Tiny Tim is inherently creepy, but this isn’t a knock; it’s part of what makes him strangely compelling. He is a total oddity. Insidious teases out just how bizarre his rendition of ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ is by using it as a source of diegetic atmosphere not once but twice. The warbling of the song seamlessly illustrates the strange happenings going on in the house. By the time it is used twice, the film had already jumped the shark for me, but I love the idea of the song existing as a recurring staple of ‘The Further’. Inspired song choices like this are rewarding in so many ways.
As we listen to ‘The Concept’ at the start of Young Adult, Mavis’ song of choice feels fitting; a trip back to 90’s nostalgia with a tune that clearly meant something to her and former flame Buddy when they were together way back when. Then the tape rewinds and the song starts again. And again. And again. Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody use the opening credits to start immediately peeling back the superficial layers of Mavis Gary. When we hear that obsessive repetition of Teenage Fanclub, we realize something is a little off with our protagonist. The song is used so the audience can start to sense those cracks right away; a hint of what is to come.
This year, my list is bookended with pieces of music that can guarantees my tears when I hear them. Going into The Muppets, I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of “The Rainbow Connection” being used. I just assumed it would use the original songs written for the film. When the song started, I immediately realized I was not emotionally prepared for the genius work of Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher; sure enough, within seconds my eyes were welling up. It is and always will be a perfect composition. The Muppets uses it, at first as a duet between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, and eventually as a rousingly sweet self-tribute with all of the gang.
The first scene that Denis Vellineuve wrote for Incendies was the opening,, with Radiohead’s lingering pull of a song in hopeful tow since day one. It feels not unlike a memorable music video in that it fuses music and imagery in a way that burns itself into the brain. It works because as our introduction to the film, it is allows the singularity of the music video feel because there is no other story or context as of yet. Having the next two hours gives additional meaning to the image, as opposed to having something this individually powerful somewhere in the middle where it would only then distract. It is a hell of a way to start out your film, and thankfully Villenuve’s long-standing wish for Incendies’ initial moments were realized.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol may have been the most unadulterated fun I had at the movies all year. You know you’re in for a treat when the film starts out with an elaborately staged prison breakout with Dean Martin’s classic actually functioning as diegetic music in the scene! Yes my friends, the song acts as a timer so Ethan Hunt and his breakout crew know where they have to be by the time the song ends. Furthermore, by the time the song starts, all hell has already broken loose with Cruise rushing to bring a fellow inmate with him. We marvel while he makes his way through the chaotic brawl that has imploded within the prison walls as he dodges, punches, drags and runs his way through the halls. It is about as exciting as an action film gets and once it is over you think ‘Surely, this film has already peaked’. And then it has the confidence to rise up to the occasion to create set-piece after set-piece that exhilarates, all of them without the additional help of that legendary crooner Dean Martin.
There were other song uses I could have chosen for Drive, but in all honesty I found myself much more attached to Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” than anything else (College’s ‘A Real Hero’ admittedly kind of grates on me) Being the opening title sequence whore that I am, this combination of the song’s sexy sleaze with hot pink lettering creates one of the most memorable opening credits in my recent cinematic memory.
What hasn’t been said about this scene? Carey Mulligan wears her damaged heart on her sleeve here as Sissy in a haunting rendition that single-handedly makes the case for Shame’s ambiguity. What could be more intriguingly revealing than the way Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan use Sinatra’s song, the way Mulligan performs it, and the strategic cuts to Michael Fassbender’s tenderly subtle emotional response that he is so desperate to keep at bay? These are the kinds of scenes that radiate imaginative complexity, that get us thinking, interpreting and wondering.
Melancholia opens with a greatest hits montage of what is to come. It shows us moments we will see, moments that are referred to but will not see, and moments that do not happen but are relevant character representations. They are slow moving paintings and are set to Wagner’s Prelude to :Tristan and Isolde”. From my review of the film; “It gives everything an appropriately pastoral quality and a peripheral imprint of something coming that cannot be pushed back. It is not overly present, but it is a quality in the music that is just enough for the pastoral purity to be ruffled.”
I’ll be talking a bit about Warrior in the week ahead, as it will pop up on my other year-end lists. Suffice it to say, if one film took me by surprise this year it was this. By the time Warrior reaches its showdown, we have seen each brother fight their way to the finals, interfamily drama has been milked for all its worth and the film has built itself up to epic proportions leading up to this moment. The catharsis that comes as a result is an emotional overflow, both for the characters and me as a viewer. I am still shocked that Warrior got me as passionately riled up as it did, and The National’s “About Today” anchors all of this, functioning as the perfect culmination of the hard worked payoff that Warrior unequivocally earns.
The Future is often frustrating but hit on something every once and a while that struck me in a way approaching profundity. Miranda July’s interpretative dance inside of her character’s childhood shirt was a moment that has stuck with me all year. It is clear this was a long-existing piece of performance art by July. It resonated because it entranced me, bringing me to a rare hypnotized place in my own mind. This is on no small part because of the song, my favorite by Beach House, has the power to lull me into a trance-like state, (driving with the song on is not an option for me). In a film about people emotionally stunted people unable to make the transformation from childhood into responsible adulthood, this scene demonstrates this literally. The way July performs the organic choreography makes it feel like we are looking in on an intimately personal moment, yet it still appears and feels appropriately like a performance.
2. “Marcy’s Song” – John Hawkes – Martha Marcy May Marlene
“Marcy’s Song” is used to show a disturbing dichotomy. First, we hear just how John Hawkes’ Patrick sees Martha (“just a picture hanging on my wall”). Second, it shows how Martha does not grasp this, taking his serenade as a devoted love letter, effectively sealing her commitment to him. The song itself, by Jackson C. Frank, is a stunner; exactly the kind of raw folk I tend to fall hard for. Hawkes supports the deceptive calm of the music with his ruggedly comforting but slightly unsettling vocals. It is the highlight of the film; a scene I want and plan to revisit time and time again.
I have a long history with “The Moldau”. It is my favorite piece of instrumental music. I first heard it back in 5th grade Music Class. I asked my Music Teacher for a copy of it so I could listen to it on my own time. She gave it to me on a cassette tape. For months I would lie up in my bunk bed while I was supposed to be sleeping, and would play the first three minutes on my tape player over and over right next to my ear as it lulled me to sleep.Years and years pass.
Then last year, Don Hertzfeldt used it in his 2006 masterpiece animated short Everything Will Be OK. My reaction was immediate, like greeting a long lost family member. When The Tree of Life trailer was released, and this song was played, it was like a dream come true. I hoped and hoped leading up to the film’s release that it would be played in the actual film. To my delight it was, and this piece of music about the Czech river is divinely used to depict emerging childhood, the innocence of it when wonders and fanciful merriment are all that matters; when everything is a discovery. It is an overwhelming few minutes of film, with so many memories and exuberance bursting from the screen. I honestly feel like this song has somehow become a part of me over the years, or at the very least has become so important to me that it feels that way. The way Malick has used “The Moldau” goes beyond my wildest expectations with the images further bringing the music to life and vice versa.