I was watching The Nut Job earlier this week, an act I have no humane right to partake in, much less to share with anyone else, but it contains one of the most ludicrous and utterly unexplained musical cues of any film this year, or any other year for that matter. At some point – the exact moment or context matters not – the rodent protagonists, in a fit of glee, devolve into dancing to the song “Gangnam Style”. This moment is not informed by an investment in South Korean culture. The filmmakers just really needed a popular song to plug into their empty, unmotivated, and entirely aggravating play towards distracted toddlers. It’s a needlessly offensive inclusion, but more pressing to the point, it means nothing, and it’s not fun.
No year is in short supply of moments that powerfully fuse music and image together, whether that music is endemic to the film, or lifted from the pop-culture landscape. Last year provided an excellent supply of both, many of which came from films heavily reliant on music. There aren’t as many films explicitly about music this year, but music is undeniably a factor not just in the fabric of the films’ worlds, but in the lives of the characters.
My list came together fairly quickly and completely without much fuss, but there are plenty moments left off worth noting. Mexican holiday adventure The Book of Life smartly subverted the trend of acquiring hip musical numbers by opting instead to strum tunes by Radiohead and Mumford & Sons. “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone kept Guardians of the Galaxy groovy and afloat until, you know, the plot started. Countering that opening title tune is Can’s “Vitamin C”, kicking off Inherent Vice on a decidedly cool beat.
Into the Woods disappoints the promise of its music with lackluster staging, but the princes’ duet “Agony” remains a comedic highlight that’s difficult to screw up. The LEGO Movie has a satirical ace in “Everything is Awesome!!!!”, but never offers quite the perfect moment for it. “Untitled Self Portrait”, however, offers the perfect punchline on Batman’s oppressive and unintelligible moodiness. Speaking of oppressively moody, Rammstein’s “Fuhre Mich” electrifies Nymphomaniac at the perfect moment to get our pulse going for a four hour conversation about sex addiction. And hey, if you’d prefer your intimidation moments a bit more jaunty, “Interrogation Song” from Muppets Most Wanted is a perfectly enthusiastic moment.
None of these felt quite singular enough to make the list, though, each entry of which feels inextricable and significant in the context of their film. Granted, I haven’t seen Beyond the Lights yet, so take this list as what it is: complete, yet incomplete.
Film Misery’s Top 10 Movie
Music Moments of 2014
Emotions are tucked tidily beneath the skin-flaps from the start of Ida, but it eventually blooms to be a film about the summation of every small personal or creative expression. It’s hard to focus in on just one, particularly because the jazz numbers performed throughout the film are part of its texture, rather than focused for a single potent moment. Still, I couldn’t bear omitting the smooth, seductive tunes of John Coltrane, a crucial tool in unlocking the sensuality and individuality of the elusive title character. Much less would I want to omit mention of Joanna Kulig, the singer whose voice and physicality most beautifully captures the free spirit of the period, as an attractive magnet for both the eyes and the ears. Her presence is small, but it’s no minor performance on her part.
This moment could’ve worked with any song at all. It didn’t need to be Tommy Trash and John Martin’s party jam “Reload”. It could’ve been anything playing at a ski bar where the male lead, Tomas, and his friend Mats get away to bask in their masculine potency. It’s what the music does to the moment that makes it so hysterical and marvelous. The event of a mistaken compliment could’ve been quite commonplace, but by having the music there to amplify the guys’ feelings of male privilege, makes it’s them look so impishly dorky. Then when they find out it was a misunderstanding, the music is there to mock them and put them in their place, amplifying their embarrassment just after it amplified their buzz of triumph.
When you, the director, personally, are onscreen calling something the greatest song ever, there are two essential things you need to convince us. First, it can’t be some garbage pop tune, but a really emotionally satisfying indie number. Second, and this is non-negotiable, your characters need to be stoned out of their minds. Joel Alme’s “If You Got Somebody Waiting” only plays in the film when the characters are smoking pot, entrenching themselves in ethereal, feel-fine vibes while vaguely enjoying the company of others. That Anna Kendrick’s character feels so consistently abandoned throughout the film makes Alme’s lyrics all the more heartbreaking. By the time the song returns over the end credits, the simple company of the characters has us breezing on the same high.
Having the most morally contemptible character of a film dress up in drag is… er, not the best way of getting trans viewers on your side. It certainly helped in solidifying my already putrefied thoughts on The Hobbit: The Battle of thTOO MANY COOK! (too many cooks) TOO MANY COOKS. Oddly enough, though, the gambit works for The Boxtrolls, where complex villain Archibald Snatcher has a number of self-destructive and socially isolating quirks. Dressing up as a plump, eroticized woman is one he uses for a Vaudeville street act demonizing the Boxtrolls that’s already hard to stomach. What makes the scene so terrifying and devastating, however, is how it works on the crowd, even the children, convincing them that this persecuted minority deserves to die. The song may be shrill propaganda, but it’s one comically entertaining and deeply disturbing. It’s this mix that the film nails so perfectly.
6. “I Love You All” by the Soronprfbs – Frank
There are plenty meaningful music moments in Frank, but not all of them are particularly beautiful. In fact, many of them are just downright embarrassing, flaunting the musical ineptitude of Domhnall Gleeson’s stubbornly misguiding character. At a point his attempts at songwriting devolve into just shrill “LA LA LA-LA-LAAAAAAA”s, and you know he’s not the right person to psychologically direct Frank, much less musically. It’s the cathartic, yet crushing closing moments, though, that wander into a compelling sweet spot of loneliness, desperation, and quite compulsory love. It’s messy, tear-stained, but pulsating with a heartbeat devoid of the chintzy pop value that Gleeson’s character aspires to. There’s more company as a wreck than as a success.
If I’m not able to parse any single song out of this film, that’s largely by intent. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is an atmospheric search for alternative creative lifestyles, and likely many other things besides, but it also has the single greatest long take of the year, putting to shame the digital masking of Birdman. The third act of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s experimental documentary is a deep dive immersion into inky, moody heart of a black metal band performance, and one which never relents until the frontman leaves and heads back out into the hazy, frightening, exhilarating world. The scene is a showcase for a wide variety of emotions, or emotional numbing, that occur during such a mindless, but very communal gathering, and calls potently to mind Ben Russell’s Black and White Trypps: Number Three for how beautiful and cathartic what others might term as abrasive noise can be.
4. “Pretty Girl Rock” – The Rover
There’s a lot that’s tough to pinpoint about The Rover, a handsomely rugged but emotionally inert post-apocalyptic thriller of sorts. There are few moments that intrigue or captivate significantly, or at least coalesce to be part of a whole, but the unexpected emergence of Keri Hilson on the soundtrack puts it in a fascinating, and quite heartbreaking direction. Guy Pierce’s journey is all too oblique to seize us, but Robert Pattinson’s daily struggle immediately, if quite basically, yields sympathy. His inconsistent rendition of “Pretty Girl Rock”, his feeble mind wandering and voice cracking along the way, is perhaps the one moment we get faint glimmer a basic fundament of civilization that’s been lost. Also, it’s Robert Pattinson singing “Pretty Girl Rock”. That kind of absurdity is magic on its own.
3. “Like a Fool” – Begin Again
If I weren’t sticking to a one-per-film rule with this list, I’d be happy to stack it high with songs from John Carney’s charming, calmly reinvigorating musical. Others would be just as happy with none at all, but what most consistently won me over was the directly and poignantly the songs mirrored the emotional progression of Keira Knightley’s character, none more humbly than a seethingly twinkly revenge song directed at her ungrateful ex. Filled with intense reservoirs of anger, regret and happiness reneged, it’s one that ideally sums up the jaded frustration of the post-breakup period. Amplify it with James Corden on a kazoo for good natured comic interruption, and it’s a sublime little gem.
The girls of We Are the Best! make terrible music. Deny as you may throughout, it’s clear at the very end how childishly confined their punk songs are. Their song compares ignorance to world suffering to blind submission to sports culture. It’s so culturally on-the-money, yet so flawed and shrill that it reminds how briefly they’ve been doing this. And you know what? That’s fine! Hate good music. Hate success. Hate approval. As the film wanders into its finale, the complete dissolution of their song as they come under fire by a hateful crowd embellishes the spirit of punk and the spirit of friendship in a gloriously amateurish way. It’s a film of pure joy, even in the moments revealing the cracks that could shatter that friendship one day.
Figures that I’d hand my top slot out to something that few have the ability to watch just yet, a short film that I saw on a Saturday afternoon at BAMcinemaFest. Jennifer Reeder’s lovely, miniature coming-of-age tale contains two moments worthy of consideration for the top rungs of this list. I’m just compulsively drawn to this nifty choral subversion of a 1980s rock song by Judas Priest. Rather than being sung by earnest children, it’s sung by a group of bored teenagers who are probably rolling their eyes at the emotional breakdown their substitute teacher is having in front of them, countering any base sentimental moments. It’s a moment of true cross-generational empathy, and one that’s so emotionally engrossing that it’s both surprising and heartbreaking when it comes to an end, and so does that unspoken support. The film’s set to show among the Sundance Film Festival short film programs, a position well deserved, and after which it’ll certainly reach wider availability.