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Last year was a pretty fantastic one for movie music. Directors like David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Ben Affleck made not only fantastic films, but also beautifully crafted soundtracks that blended perfectly with the story and visuals on screen. The mix created some stunning, haunting, exciting, uplifting and thrilling movie music moments that we will remember for years to come. As a result, 2013 had a lot to live up to, but looking back on the last twelve months reveals that this year’s crop of filmmakers were more than up for the task.
As I’ve done for the last four years, I’ve taken a detailed look back at all of the films that have hit theaters this past year searching for the best movie music moments I could find. While there was a large crop to choose from, I’ve narrowed it down to my 10 favorites of the year. Will yours make the list? Read on to find out!
"Duet" by Phillip GlassUncle Charlie, the character played by Matthew Goode in Chan Wook-park’s dark horror Stoker, is a man that Winston Churchill may have described as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. His niece, India (Mia Wasikowska) never even heard of him before her father’s death, and any story about where he’s been the last few years ends quickly and with few answers. Even small claims about not being able to play the piano turn out to be lies, as seen in the incredibly powerful sequence where India and Charlie team up on a piano bench to play the hypnotizing "Duet" by Phillip Glass.
As the plot of Stoker unfolds we learn that there is a deep natural bond that exists between India and Charlie, but it’s their paired performance tickling the ivories that first really informs their strange, important connection. As Glass wrote the music directly for the film, the audience is meant to believe that the two are composing the piece together on the spot (building on the piano work that India is seen practicing earlier in the movie), and it’s a perfect blend of the fantastical, phenomenal and disturbing that the two characters are able to perform so beautifully in sync. The aesthetic of Stoker is all about swirling together the horrific and the beautiful, and no scene in the movie does that better than Charlie and India’s duet.
Inside Llewyn Davis
"Please Mr. Kennedy" by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam DriverIt would be impossible to have a conversation about the best movie music moments of 2013 without mention of Joel and Ethan Coen’s extraordinary Inside Llewyn Davis. The tale of a Greenwich Village folk singer trying to get back in the early 1960s, the film shows a deep appreciation for the genre at the heart of the story and takes great pride in the real performances by the actors. From Oscar Isaac’s heartbreaking rendition of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," to a troupe of Irish singers in nice sweaters singing an a cappella version of "The Auld Triangle," this entire list could entirely consist of songs from the Coens’ latest bit of genius, but if I’m going to pick one it has to be the in-studio performance of "Please Mr. Kennedy."
An intentionally bad song that is partially based on a track from a folk outfit called The Goldcoast Singers back in 1961, "Please Mr. Kennedy" represents the exact level of phony that the eponymous Llewyn (played by the excellent Oscar Isaac) can’t stand, which makes the sequence in the film where he performs it all the funnier. Amazing as that is, however, it’s actually the supporting cast that makes the scene so perfect. Between Justin Timberlake’s ridiculously cheery disposition and terrible lyrics and Adam Driver’s bizarre baritone vocal stylings both before and during the song’s performance, you’re laughing from the moment the sequence starts until it ends. And then, of course, there’s the way that the song comes back to bite Llewyn in the ass at the end of the story…
The Lone Ranger
"The William Tell Overture" by Hans ZimmerLike many critics, I can’t say that I was a big fan of Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger. It’s far too long, Johnny Depp’s shtick wears thin, the framing device is incomprehensible, and a good number of talented actors in the supporting cast are totally wasted. Most of the movie is a slog to get through, but that all changes at one very specific moment: when the film begins to play the titular character’s famous "William Tell Overture" theme.
The song is used to dramatically announce the beginning of the third act and the action sequence that concludes the plot, and like a bolt of lightning it sends the film’s energy level through the roof and actually turns the movie into what the audience actually paid to see. What we get to watch on the big screen is great all by itself, as the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto (Depp) ride alongside and on top of a train in order to stop the bad guys and their plan, and the score – which was adapted by Hans Zimmer – helps generate tons of excitement. In the long run, the film’s use of the William Tell Overture" is an example of too little, too late, as it was incorporated way past the movie’s point of no return, but the sequence still goes down as one of my favorite movie music moments of 2013.
This Is The End
"When The Shit Goes Down" by Cypress HillGiven the size of the ensemble and the fact that the film was helmed by two first time directors, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is The End is an amazingly even comedy that gives all of its stars – including James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel – ample individual time in the spotlight. But if a standout from the cast has to be selected, it’s Danny McBride. The movie makes the actor seem like he is absolutely the last person on the planet who you want to be stuck in the apocalypse with - as his selfishness and petulance seemingly knows no bounds – and the performance created some of the best scenes in an overall hysterical feature. And it all kicks off with an amazing movie music moment.
Knowing how much trouble and chaos the character winds up creating in the film, I can imagine that Rogen and Goldberg spent a good amount of time picking out the perfect introduction song for Danny McBride, and they totally nailed it with a track by Cypress Hill. Featuring a chorus that repeats the line "When tha shit goes down ya better be ready," there is a great foreshadowing element to all of the terribleness that McBride is about to unleash on all of his "friends," and the beat gives him something perfect to dance to as we watch his feet cross through Franco’s house down to the kitchen (where he will do his part to waste the group’s food supply). Thanks to the song selection we know everything we need to know about McBride within 30 seconds of his arrival on screen, and that’s what a great movie music moment does.
"Let It Go" by Idina MenzelDisney’s Frozen offered a number of memorable musical moments, among which was Josh Gad’s snowman character Olaf hilariously and obliviously daydreaming about how great it’ll be to do "whatever snow does in summer," and a group of trolls enthusiastically singing about accepting people’s flaws with "Fixer Upper," but no song was quite as powerful and moving as Elsa’s "Let it Go," the song she sings as she abandons the castle and her newly acquired crown in favor of being free to use her frosty super powers whenever and however she wants.
In addition to sufficiently making up for the Idina Menzel sung song we were so unfortunately denied in Disney's Enchanted, "Let it Go" is also an outstanding demonstration the Broadway star’s powerful vocals in a tune that emphasizes her character’s frustration, which set a course for her to become an unintentional almost-villain — or at the very least, a misunderstood woman with powers not entirely within her control. The "Let it Go" sequence is thrilling and moving, and both audibly and visually stunning all at once. Watching Elsa belt out her song while shedding her gloves and building herself a beautiful ice castle in the mountains, we’re torn between feeling happy for her, for being free to finally be herself and embrace the things that make her special, and sad for her for having no place else to do that but near the top of a mountain, all by herself. (by Kelly West)
The Spectacular Now
"Live Fast Live Hard Die Young" by Faron YoungIt’s not hard to see why the Sutter, the free-wheeling protagonist of James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now would be attracted to the song "Live Fast Live Hard Die Young" by Faron Young. First released in 1955, the song’s message about living life to the fullest and leaving behind a good looking corpse fits perfectly with his personal philosophy regarding living in the moment and never bothering to think too far into the future. Unfortunately, it’s this personal connection that also leads to one of the most devastating moments in the film.
Sutter plays the song on a jukebox for his estranged father, Tommy (Kyle Chandler) at a bar hoping that it will bring them together, Sutter not only believing his dad to have the same philosophy as himself, but also a memory of hearing it when he was a kid and his parents were still together. This reach leads to nothing but rejection, however, as Tommy not only dismisses the song but also his son’s memory. The reunion only deteriorates further from there, but even after the song has ended you can still practically hear it echoing as Sutter learns who his father really is and who he may be destined to become. It’s one of the most crucial scenes in the film, and the song choice is perfect.
The World’s End
"I’m Free" by The Soup DragonsIn Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, Simon Pegg stars as a man who knows exactly who he is. During his teenage years, the black trench coat-wearing Gary King decided that he just wanted to live life to have fun, and that’s exactly what he did (of course, that also meant starting up some terrible drug and alcohol habits). He prides himself on his freedom, so naturally when he first heard the song "I’m Free" by The Soup Dragons he connected with it to the point that it can practically be called his anthem.
The song first appears in the movie shortly after Gary’s childhood friends have all arrived back in their hometown of Newton Haven and get picked up by their "leader" in his hunk of shit car to go on their drinking marathon. Watching Gary sing along to the track you can see that he’s filled with glee, but also notice his intense desperation to get his friends in on the fun (which just about works until Gary creepily admits that the song is being played off a cassette mixtape). Beyond just being a song he listens to, however, the lyrics have practically become mantra. What does Gary tell the Network at the end when asked what the human race wants? "We want to be free to do what we want."
The Kings of Summer
"Pipe Drumming" by Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises AriasSuburban life does not fit Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso), the two leads of Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ coming-of-age dramedy The Kings of Summer. Both of them have parents and homes that they can’t stand, and in an act of rebellion against the system they team up with their odd friend Biaggio (Moises Arias) to leave civilization behind and make a fresh start for themselves deep in the woods. They build their shelter by hand and make plans to live off the land. It’s a return to nature, and one that’s ushered forward by a loud drumbeat created by hitting sticks against a giant metal pipe.
I will admit that a big reason for this entry’s inclusion into the list is because the beat the drummers create is just so catchy, but it’s also just impressive how it evokes memories of childhood and elegantly fits with the movie’s themes. Most men – and probably more than a few women - can think back on their childhood walking through the woods and hitting trees, rocks and pipes with sticks – be it to create rhythm or just with the intention of destroy stuff. With his film Vogt-Roberts gives us a meaningful and reflective look at a very specific age and the pipe scene definitely hits on that (if you’ll pardon the pun).
"The Moon Song" by Scarlet Johansson and Joaquin PhoenixFollowing a successful collaboration on a re-recording of "Wake Up" for Where The Wild Things Are, director Spike Jonze and the band Arcade Fire reteamed to create the score for the sci-fi romance Her, and the result is spectacular. The band’s almost haunting guitar and drum work beautifully accentuate the sense of loneliness in the film’s atmosphere and it has a lasting effect even after you’ve left the theater. Great as their work in the movie is, though, it’s actually Scarlet Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix’s duet performance of Karen O’s "The Moon Song" that creates not only the film’s best movie music moment, but one of the best of the year.
Over the course of Her the relationship between the emotionally fragile Theodore (Phoenix) and the conscious operating system Samantha (Johansson) undergoes a number of wonderful ups and heart-shredding downs, but the performance of "The Moon Song" comes pleasantly during an upswing. Theodore and Samantha decide to take a vacation together, and while resting together in bed he picks up a ukulele and the two of them sing while looking up at a giant full moon in the sky. It’s the kind of moment that’s photographed in your memory forever when thinking about a relationship with someone and it’s stunning to watch in the context of the story.
"Everytime" by James FrancoWhile he may have a few duds on his filmography, James Franco really is an incredibly talented perform, and he has never demonstrated that more clearly than with his performance in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. The actor fully disappears into his role as the corn-rowed gangster/rapper/drug dealer Alien and elevates the film’s crazy level to 11 as the character leads a group of college girls on a crime spree around St. Petersburg, Florida. The real insanity of the performance and the story, though, comes towards the middle of the film when Alien and his girls sit by a piano and sing a rendition of the Britney Spears song "Everytime."
Alien sings the song to express his love to his "soulmates" – which seems to work quite well – but it’s the way that the tune operates against the tone that makes it such a great movie music moment. Most of the film’s soundtrack is comprised of dubstep and hard beat techno, so when Alien starts belting out a pop ballad you can’t help but raise an eyebrow and laugh. Let’s also not forget that this is a movie starring a group of former Disney princesses and that Britney Spears used to be a Mickey Mouse Club member, so the whole thing works on multiple levels.