2014 In Review

The 20 Best Soundtrack Moments Of 2014

When we first did a Best Soundtrack Moments Of 2013 last December, it was initially thought up as a one-off. But, hey, then we decided to turn it into a column! So the approach this year is a bit different. Last December, I spent a lot of time digging back through TV and movies I had missed, scouring things for music moments that stood out. This year, it was all about what had lingered with me over the course of the year, scenes and songs that I couldn’t get out of my head well after the fact. That means there’s some good stuff that might’ve popped up on this list quite a bit over the last twelve months, but didn’t have one major moment that struck me again when it came to think about the year at large. The soundtrack moments that did make it range from stuff that just made me really happy to stuff that was deeply emotionally evocative to stuff that was just brilliantly composed within the framework of its respective film or TV show. (I was a bit too transient to keep up with video games this year, unfortunately, but shout out to the bizarre, very brief use of the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” in the very beginning of Far Cry 4.) The common denominator is that this is stuff I thought could go toe-to-toe with the kind of moments that made last year’s list, the kind of stuff that’ll hold up and stick in my memory when 2015’s own onslaught of media starts up in earnest.

Some quick stipulations, before we get started. If you back to January’s installment of Trackspotting, you’ll notice Her and Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf Of Wall Street represented, because I had been back in Pennsylvania last December/January, and those movies didn’t see wide release until after the end-of-year list for 2013 had been filed. I didn’t count them as 2014 movies here, but they all have some amazing use of music if you haven’t seen them yet. Also, before anyone gets apoplectic about Gone Girl not being included: I typically try to avoid including scores in this column. It’s supposed to be more about how a show or movie or whatever makes interesting use of a pop song, how it takes an independent piece of work and incorporates it into its own universe. So, while material like Gone Girl or Johnny Greenwood’s score for Inherent Vice would be worthy of digging into extensively on a month-to-month basis, by the time we get to the end of year wrap-up there’s more than enough great pop moments to dig into, so that’s where we’re going. (WARNING: There are spoilers ahead, so proceed with caution!)

20. Chef

In general, I gravitate toward the heavy moments in art — for the purposes of this column, that usually means the sort of music cues that represent cathartic emotional swells in a movie or TV show. And, man, 2014 was a heavy year in general. Politically, atmospherically, and, on a personal level, one with a handful of big changes in my life that I’m still processing. So there are a lot of heavy moments on their way further down this list! But before that, there’s Chef, a movie that has its own amusingly sad moments (I still love the scene with Jon Favreau’s protagonist Carl Casper watching a street performer make a toy skeleton mime along to Al Green’s “Tired Of Being Alone), but mostly just celebrates the joys in life. Family, good food, fun music, etc., etc. Chef is a casual movie made by people with a lot of means. Jon Favreau got famous pals to stop by for small roles, and he packed his movie to the brim with music as vibrant as all the food looks onscreen, giving the whole viewing experience this vibe of kicking back with friends. (The Latin jazz is where most of the good times are, but the rising tension of Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” building toward Carl’s blow-up at the food critic is also still a winner.) I haven’t seen this movie in its entirety since May, and Joe Cuba’s “Bang! Bang!” is still getting stuck in my head all the time, and that’s never a thing that doesn’t put you in a better mood. Every now and then, comfort food like Chef or “Bang! Bang!” is all you want.

19. The Skeleton Twins – Blondie, “Denis”

There are so many ways this could’ve gone wrong in another movie. Starting the whole thing off by soundtracking Milo’s (Bill Hader) suicide attempt with the glossy New Wave of Blondie’s “Denis?” It could’ve come off as trivializing or somehow precious. Somehow, though, even if The Skeleton Twins was advertised as a mildly sharp-edged family-drama indie-comedy, the movie manages to go to darker-than-expected places while still, ultimately, traveling in comedic and more or less uplifting waters. In that sense, the “Denis” sequence actually manages to solidify the movie’s tone in one quick burst, showing early on how The Skeleton Twins blends darkness and quirkiness, which really means it winds up feeling a lot more human than anticipated.

18. Before I Disappear

Shawn Christensen’s Before I Disappear hasn’t garnered the same amount of praise as his 2012 Oscar-winning short Curfew, which served as the basis for his full-length debut. Having never seen Curfew, I could still kind of tell where the story had been unnaturally stretched to fill 90 minutes, between odd tonal shifts and weird side characters who seemed out of a different movie than the core story of Richie (Christensen) and his niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek). But one nice thing about the budget of a full-length is how much music Christensen could cram in. You might recognize his name: He was the frontman of Stellastarr, one of the bands involved in the early ’00s NYC rock resurgence. So he knows a good song. The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” is the kind of song built for dramatic film moments far larger than anything in Before I Disappear, so it’s still great when it plays as Richie rises in slow motion after getting into a fight with Sophia’s asshole dad in a music shop. Christensen may be more indebted to the old, gritty Lower East Side than to contemporary Brooklyn, but his depictions of the latter are still convincing, between Richie walking through a party smoking as Tame Impala’s “Elephant” plays above, or he and an acquaintance having a particularly intense conversation as the War On Drugs’ “Red Eyes” is in the background. The best of them might be one of the film’s earliest cues, when a still-suicidal Richie takes a ton of pills and begins to hallucinate that a man is coming to his apartment to settle a debt. He walks out into the hallway, amongst a party full of people in weird costumes, still holding the phone until he borrows a partygoer’s bow, notches an arrow and aims at the elevator door. David Bowie’s “Five Years” soundtracks the whole sequence, which is completely surreal and memorable with or without the movie surrounding it.

17. Halt And Catch Fire Season 1

AMC’s new Halt And Catch Fire had an intriguing pilot and premise, an on-and-off record for half the season, and then started to get really quite good in the latter half, leaving me thinking the show could have a lot of promise. There isn’t necessarily ingenious use of music in the show — it’s set in the early ’80s, so it uses early-’80s music. But, hey, it’s drawing on one of my favorite eras of music, so I’m not going to complain about Cameron walking into Cardiff Electric to the Clash, or Joe and Gordon staying up all weekend working on a computer to XTC, or the crew at a hotel room party in Vegas where A Flock Of Seagulls’ “Space Age Love Song” can be heard. My favorite moment from the show so far is still the beginning of its third episode, “High Plains Hardware,” where Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?” plays as Joe stares around his apartment naked, intercut with the mornings of Gordon and Cameron. It isn’t always perfectly clear where it wants to go with images like that, but Halt And Catch Fire is very good at coming up with them. Bonus points for the fact that they used the not-from-the-’80s-but-could-be War On Drugs’ “Red Eyes,” albeit too briefly, as Joe and Cameron and Gordon and Donna climactically drive away to Vegas in the season’s third-to-last episode.

16. White Bird In A Blizzard

Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas” was one of those songs not released this year that wound up defining my 2014 anyway. So as soon as White Bird In A Blizzard’s title came onscreen accompanied by their “Sea, Swallow Me,” I was onboard with the film musically, even if the story itself was a bit of a mixed bag. Part of the movie is a dreamlike haze retelling of adolescence and discovery, with Shailene Woodley’s Kat obsessing over sex while the Psychedelic Furs or Tears For Fears or Depeche Mode linger in the atmosphere. There’s a borderline nostalgic tone to that portion of White Bird, and the whole topic is something that an ’80s set drama and ’80s pop songs always seem unnaturally well-suited for. The rest of the movie leans more nightmarish — Kat’s mother’s disappearance, the eventual awful revelation of why. Former Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie bridges all of this with his score — which sounds, fittingly, like Cocteau Twins music — but on the nightmarish end of things the one moment that’s really stuck with me is the sequence in which Eva Green’s Eve (the aforementioned disappeared mother of Kat) drunkenly dances in front of Kat and her boyfriend while Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Bring On The Dancing Horses” plays. Man, if you’re young and impressionable, it’s the kind of scene that could mess you up. There’s a sick hilarity to it, but also a deeply unsettling quality, especially when considering the revelations held at the end of the film. I haven’t been able to shake “Bring On The Dancing Horses” since I saw it.

15. A Most Violent Year Trailer – Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”

Sometimes in this column, there’s room for trailers, the ones that function as their own little emotive works; bits of imagery and sound that might entice you to see the movie but can also be captivating two-minute worlds on their own. So, here’s a trailer for A Most Violent Year, a movie about crime in early-’80s NYC, directed by J.C. Chandor (the man behind the great Margin Call and All Is Lost, which is supposed to be great but I still haven’t seen it), starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, and those are two people who can’t really do any wrong in my book as of right now. These are a lot of factors for a movie to have in its favor. And it’s soundtracked by Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Besides the fact that “Inner City Blues” is my favorite Marvin Gaye song, it’s also the kind of song that just screams “cinematic.” There are a bunch of little poetic touches in here already, as a trailer — the way Jessica Chastain moves her hand, says “This was very disrespectful,” and then the those opening moments of “Inner City Blues” come in — the kind of opening moments that, too, suggest a whole world — that’s the way you make an artful and gripping trailer. I wish the song continued on through the whole thing, but the gasping anxiety of the trailer’s final minute serves as a pretty effective, things-are-falling-apart counterpoint to the first half. “Inner City Blues” is the kind of song that sounds like things are simmering and simmering, just waiting to explode. Given the pedigree this movie has going for it, I really hope it delivers on the promise.

14. I Origins – Radiohead, “Motion Picture Soundtrack”

It’s a remarkably hard thing to take a Radiohead song and make it your own, to use it in a movie or on TV and not have it totally overpower the work in question. It’s more remarkable, still, that I Origins was the movie to come along and use “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and to do it so damn well. I liked this movie, but I also wanted to like this movie; for a less forgiving viewer, the tonal shifts and gradual move into more abstract, sci-fi-leaning storytelling would be a dealbreaker. (Given, director Mike Cahill’s on record saying this is a prequel to another movie he wanted to make, so it makes sense, but that’s kind of tangential when you’re judging a movie on its own merits, in a vacuum not-yet-occupied by a proposed companion piece.) In the movie’s final minutes, a seeming defeat suddenly turns into a long-awaited triumph — Ian Grey (Michael Pitt) finds the Indian child who shares the irises of his deceased wife Sofi, which suggests some sort of reincarnation, and a veer toward mysticism. But that’s it: Then the movie ends, and you’re left unsure what the implications for Cahill’s hoped-for sequel might be. Still, if you’ve gone along for the I Origins ride up until that point, there’s a significant poignancy to the final, unresolved revelation, and Ian’s slow motion walk out of the hotel, carrying the child, with no sound other than a few minutes of “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” is one of the more beautiful, ethereal moments I saw in a movie this year.

13. Fargo Season 1

Shows rarely have a tone as well-developed as Fargo did earlier this year, before the show even premiered. Given, it had the advantage of the rich Coen brothers filmography to draw upon, but still — it had its own thing going on, too. In less than half a minute, you watch Billy Bob Thornton pull out a vicious knife to cut his steak at a diner while a muzak rendition of Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” plays, and simultaneously you immediately know what you’re getting into even if you have no idea what to expect. Even when the show got really dark (Lorne Malvo’s pure animalism; Lester tricking Malvo into murdering his innocent second wife instead of him) it balanced it out with sadistic quirk (Lester’s ultimate, undignified demise). At the end of the show’s second episode “The Rooster Prince,” in one of the show’s few big moments featuring music other than the score, the two hitmen from Fargo dispose of a body in a frozen lake while Eden Ahbez’s meditative proto-hippie spoken word “Full Moon” plays. Some reviewers pointed out that the show felt indebted to Breaking Bad as well, and while Fargo’s brand of maliciousness might’ve skewed more sardonic, that was definitely evident in a scene like this. There’s a really, really wicked sense of humor at play, taking an old-timey obscurity like this and using it to soundtrack murderers. The fact that the ending of Fargo was ultimately a just and relatively happy one balances this out, keeps it from getting too craven or cynical. Fargo’s an anthology series, and Season 2 will be a different story, so who knows how different the tone will be, but my hope is that they don’t stray too far, and that there are more ridiculous/great sequences like the one that ends “The Rooster Prince.”

12. Foxcatcher – Bob Dylan, “This Land Is Your Land

Foxcatcher is a grim and sparse film, a methodically paced glimpse at American decline and the more corrosive and warped elements of American ambition. It’s also, for much of its length, fairly subtle or underhanded: You’re watching a movie about an impossibly rich eccentric, John du Pont, and his sponsorship of wrestlers for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, but if you don’t know where this is all headed from the real-life story, you never really know why you’re seeing what you’re seeing. (Even if you do, that moment is still portrayed as randomly and unexplainably awful, which is fitting considering nobody understands what the motivation was in real life, either.) It’s not a movie you’d go into expecting a lot of big music cues, and there aren’t many. There is no dramatic ’80s movie training montage set to some big pop song; this is a story that ends in tragedy, not triumph. But there are a few songs sprinkled throughout, including David Bowie’s “Fame” at a post-victory party at the du Pont estate that ends in the unsettling look at how the whole enterprise is rooted in John’s complicated search for either approval from or victory over his mother and her equestrian awards. The most striking moment, particularly for the lack of such flourishes surrounding it, is the scene in which Mark Schultz (the central wrestler, played by Channing Tatum) and du Pont are on the porch of the estate, doing coke, in the midst of whatever weird, creepy, kinda exploitative bond they have, as Bob Dylan’s version of “This Is Your Land” plays. It’s such a knowing, direct thing compared to the rest of the film, and in less-assured hands than Bennett Miller’s, it’d probably be a disaster of a scene. But here, in Foxcatcher, it is a dense, perverse image of American class, American id, the pressures of some notion of American masculinity. This porch scene, in particular, is a kind of halfway point, a pivot from the Mark we see in the beginning, a bored and frustrated Olympian telling a lackadaisical auditorium full of elementary-school students that he wants to talk to them about America, to the hardened, inscrutable shell we see enter the UFC ring at the end of the movie, right before the credits abruptly truncate the “U.S.A.!” chants so that it’s a stifled cry, an abstracted and fragmented statement of identity.

There actually isn’t a good version of that Dylan cover on YouTube, so here’s Bowie instead:

11. Wild

The thing that’s so great about the soundtrack to Wild is how the songs — which are great, too — reflect the major role music plays in our lives, the way a song can get bound to a memory or experience, and from there on can recall that experience, or a memory can recall the song, as if they’ve become one symbiotic unit. (That relationship in memory between image and sound is a big reason why I started doing this column in the first place; once you have an association with a song from a movie or show, it changes your relationship to both.) In Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who, after losing her mother and spiraling into heroin abuse and chronically cheating on her husband, decides to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own as a sort of cleansing journey toward herself. Songs flit in and out — early on she hitches a ride, and the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” on the radio reminds her of dancing with her mother in the kitchen as a child. Later, the deeper she gets into her trip, you’ll hear her sing along to songs, sometimes with made-up words, and the backing tracks will come in and out of focus, sometimes finally becoming clear and overcoming the scene for one brief moment. (It helps that one of these moments is with Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than The Rest.” Always bonus points for Springsteen.) One of the more harrowing ones is Portishead’s “Glory Box,” which plays in the distance during a flashback where Cheryl meets a friend at a restaurant back home and stares out the window, then becomes much more present and visceral as she reveals she’s pregnant (this is, presumably, amidst the divorce and heaviest heroin abuse).

Perhaps the most important one is Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” a song soundtracking a flashback where a frustrated, college-age Cheryl demands to know why her mom can be so happy with the state of their lives, and her mom explains her philosophy of not dwelling on the traumas of the past. Later, when Cheryl comes to the end of the trail, there’s an interior monologue where she reflects on having gone through everything she had as being necessary, as being the stuff that lead her to some sense of resilience and knowing her self. She looks up to the sky, the credits roll, and the song returns — connecting back to her memory of her mother, but now also to ours of Cheryl before the journey.