The confluence of my two most consistent artistic passions, when a song is given exquisite treatment by a film in a way that heightens both the song and the film it’s housed in, often stays with me more than any heated dialogue exchange or thrilling action sequence. Great movie music moments distill a film’s sensual and emotional tone into one exquisite feeling, and it’s something I try to keep a close eye out for.
In 2017, there was a fine mix of popular & lesser known songs as well as exciting original compositions in cinema. You wouldn’t have expected John Denver to be the most ubiquitous artist of this year in film, and yet Logan Lucky, Alien: Covenant and Kingsman: The Golden Circle all used him in their own personal ways. If you thought you’d heard Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” enough to be exhausted by it, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 made a delightful case for its continued use. Even in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the surging momentum of John Williams’ “TIE Fighter Attack” from the original Star Wars felt both unexpected & righteously exciting, an old classic given a vivid new lease.
Distilling this year’s best musical moments down to ten meant a number of exceptional ones were left off. Few moments this year gave me as wide a grin on my face as the introductory jammer “Who’s the (Bat)Man?” from The LEGO Batman Movie. A similarly hardcore––but more tensely ambiguous––intro tune, PJ Harvey’s “Down by the Water” gave Rooney Mara’s Una a dark, erotic and disturbed edge early on. The original compositions by Randy Newman, “Byron/Myron” and “Genius Girl”, helped lend Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories an aching sense of age & bittersweet nostalgia.
Also sublime is the titular lead of queer Chicago coming-of-ager Princess Cyd swaggering to her aunt’s literary party in a swanky tux to the tune of Psalm One’s “A Girl Named You”. Finally, I’d be remiss in leaving out the old-Hollywood-style dance sequence in The Shape of Water, set to Renee Fleming’s “You’ll Never Know”, which feels a lot like The Artist meets Creature from the Black Lagoon.
10. “Annie’s Song” by John Denver, Okja
As hinted above, John Denver had a surprisingly big role in this year in film, though never more surprisingly, nor more genuinely, than in Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja, which often reads like sentimental Spielberg gone horrifically awry. That’s not to undercut the sweetness of the film’s most sincere moments, all involving the titular pig and his human caretaker Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun, perhaps the year’s child-actor standout). Their simple bond is what lends poignancy to the film’s biggest action spectacle, wherein Mija and Okja flee through a South Korean shopping mall, as they’re rescued by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) to loving sound of Denver’s voice. Bong brings in the film’s more haunting & disturbing aspects later on, but he grounds his world in the honest emotion of a girl and her super-pig.
9. “Despair, Hangover and Ecstasy” by The Dø, Raw
Julia Ducournau’s Raw is as delicious and as intoxicatingly unfiltered as its title suggests, telling the story of a college freshman’s emerging appetites for human flesh with both carnal desire and natural sensitivity. There are plenty more lurid displays of its lead characters’ growing cannibalistic horniness, but no moment gets you as attuned to the film’s delirious rhythms as the opening party sequence, where the hazing initiation of Garance Marillier’s Justine bangs open the boundless erotic pleasures this period of self-discovery holds for her, all to the electro-party beats of French/Finnish duo The Dø.
8. “Intermission” by Blur, Baby Driver
Two of the summer’s surprise action hits also functioned as closet musicals, its characters moving and fighting to the beat of their own killer track. In Edgar Wright’s car-chase spectacle, though, my favorite moment isn’t the by-now famous opening getaway, or the grooving opening titles long take OR Baby’s wild foot-chase. No, it’s simply the moment Baby puts on the dead-wrong track for a dead-wrong moment in an increasingly dead-wrong life that, at this point, it seems like Baby longs desperately to destroy, rather than redeem.
7. “Father Figure” by George Michael, Atomic Blonde
Every action sequence in Atomic Blonde is synced up with the popular media of the time. German pop-punk, dreamy 80s crooners, even a repertory screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker serve as backdrops for the neon-lit spy mania of Charlize Theron’s bisexual lady-Bond, Lorraine. I was almost tempted to go smaller, more intimate for this pick, like Lorraine entering an already embattled Berlin to thriving beats of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom.” However, I had to go with the obvious showstopper here, as Lorraine cranks up the George Michael to kick some local police ass and make her escape.
6. “The Pure and the Damned” by Oneohtrix Point Never & Iggy Pop, Good Time
About 90% of Josh and Benny Safdie’s New York thriller Good Time is pure adrenaline, all nerve-endings firing away in spastic, erratic and mind-pulping fashion. That’s thanks in no small part to the original music by Oneohtrix Point Never, always crazed and searching for the next hit, never letting us settle into a comfortable groove as Robert Pattinson’s charismatic scumbag lead desperately cons his way out of increasingly tense scenarios. The crash after the high is inevitable, and when it passes all that’s left is to emotionally process the consequences of the ordeal. As the credits play over a therapeutic team-building exercise, reluctantly participated in by Pattinson’s character’s mentally challenged brother (Ben Safdie), slowly adjusting himself to a more honest life beyond the security of his erratic family to guide him, Iggy Pop’s voice somberly croons lyrics as absurdly mournful as “Someday I swear, we’re gonna go to a place where we can do everything we want to, and we can pet the crocodiles.”
5. “Whip My Hair” by Willow Smith, Nocturama
A film about a terrorist attack on Paris that breaks many of our conventional assumptions about the motivations and psychologies behind the horrifying act, there’s scarcely anything that’s conventional about Nocturama. At least once it moves beyond the procedural thrill of its first half and ventures into more leisurely, bizarrely party-going territory. The young, immature insurgents of the film hide out in a shopping mall and quickly fall into indulgence and carelessness after the immense care of the act itself. The moment that acclimates us most jarringly to their frivolous, self-destructive state of mind is when they crank up sound of “Whip My Hair” by Willow Smith while watching news coverage of their attack. It seems like their dead, uncertain faces are processing the horror of their actions, until one remarks in astonishment that Willow Smith was 10-years-old when she made this. “The music video is sick.” The reality is even sicker.
4. “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band, Lady Bird
One understanding that makes Greta Gerwig one of the most carefully brilliant filmmakers working today: even the most sentimental tunes from generally infamous bands can wrestle some genuine emotions out of us. I doubt Dave Matthews Band is likely to get a better, or sweeter, onscreen treatment as the one in Lady Bird, playing twice during moments of emotional distress the titular lead experiences. The first time, it plays quiet after a breakup as she whispers the lyrics with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein, the film’s most overlooked standout). The next time, it’s what brings them back together after a fight. Both times it hits with the loving force of a tidal wave*.
*”Lena, tidal waves are vicious and not loving.”
3. “Visions of Gideon” by Sufjan Stevens, Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino’s queer Italian romance is typically full of sumptuous classical and modern compositions, the latter mostly coming from popular indie artist Sufjan Stevens, who forms the supple emotional backbone of the film’s latter half, as the young lovers Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) find themselves blissfully enamored with each others’ increasingly brief companionship. It’s something special, but also too cruelly fleeting, fluttering off as mysteriously as it began. Stevens’ most beloved song from the film, “Mystery of Love”, certainly speaks to this, and I’d love to give notice to Doveman’s remix of his song “Futile Devices”, played over a moment of longing reflection. Inevitably, though, it has to be the film’s crushing finale, so simple, but so elegant, running credits beside Elio’s heartbroken face, processing the pain of what he lost on his way to accepting the joy of what he felt.
2. “Abracadabra,” The Lure
The only out-and-out musical on this list, I almost wish I could yield every slot to Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, the lone entry (thus far) in the genre of Polish queer-vampire-mermaid musical. The film is a wild, messy, and mesmerizing spectacle. We follow two young mermaids who fall in love within the 1980s nightclub scene, forging their own dark spin on Hans Christen Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” along the way. One of the film’s best scenes involves the mermaids, Silver & Golden, becoming seduced by the artificial glitz of 80s Poland to the tune of “I Came to the City.” For the sake of this list, though, I went with a scene where they use music to seduce club patrons into their own erotic delirium. The girls seize center-stage, drawing the whole club, and us with it, into drunken hysteria in their wake.
1. “Desperado” by Rihanna, Girls: American Bitch
I do love a good TV-as-cinema cheat, and I simply couldn’t resist a music cue that so deeply startled and roused me in ways that felt particularly resonant to 2017.
I admit I have a softer spot than most for Lena Dunham’s HBO series, which often manages the difficult task of both empathizing with and skewering the ambiguities and hypocrisies of contemporary white women. The season six episode, American Bitch, is almost another beast entirely, with Dunham’s conduit verbally and emotionally sparring with a famous writer accused of sexual misconduct and abuse (played by Matthew Rhys). The episode is particularly ironic in the wake of recent assault allegations against Murray Miller, a member of the show’s writing staff, whom Dunham infuriatingly wasted no time defending. In the aftermath of her own frustrating misjudgment, her onscreen condemnations almost feel like they’re directly accusing Dunham herself.
Perhaps the episode’s most genius emotional cue, though, comes at the very end, as Rhys’ character’s daughter performs a woodwind solo that elicits the pride and respect from her father that he ignorantly refuses the women he engages with sexually. It’s an irony that’s not lost on Dunham’s lead, as the flute gathers synth energy and swells surprisingly into Rihanna’s “Desperado.” The song captures the disorientation and indignation that many women have felt over the past few months of sexual assault revelations (as well as long beforehand throughout the offenses themselves). It’s a moment that does what the show Girls, even at its best, so rarely does, speaking out in righteous anger, screaming that it’s past time to end this shit.