The consensus pop movie soundtrack of 2014 was Guardians of the Galaxy, which used a variety of easy-listening seventies hits—including “Hooked on a Feeling”—to put across the idea of a hip, relaxed $200 million summer blockbuster. With all due respect to Groot et. al, the best movie music cues of 2014 came in movies a little further down the box-office pecking-order.
Gone Girl: “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
A recent online quiz asking participants to differentiate between the noises made by household appliances and snatches of soundscapes from David Fincher films was on point: ever since Zodiac (2005), the director has employed almost exclusively ambient, minimalist musical scores. Gone Girl is no exception, with Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s music rarely rising above buzzy room tone backing. That’s why it’s doubly funny when an actual pop song rises out of the mix: Blue Oyster Cult’s seventies hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” already immortalized on Saturday Night Live but used here with a different sort of irony. Overlaid on the scene where Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne drives his addled dad back to the senior citizens’ home where he’s been stashed—a minor subplot that’s more significant in Gillian Flynn’s source novel—the song casts the father-son car ride in a morbid shade; the lyrics about the inexorable passage of time and the need to accept one’s mortality bounce tautly off of the image of a man trying to ignore the ominous portent of his own possible future sitting there scowling in the passenger seat.
Inherent Vice: “Vitamin C”
Inherent Vice features Paul Thomas Anderson’s first full-on pop soundtrack since Magnolia, and it’s a corker: the period-appropriate musical selections comprise a journey Into the past—including a song from Neil Young’s 1972 film Journey Into the Past. Young’s ragged ballads give Inherent Vice a romantic streak that’s fetching and unusual for PTA, whereas the use of Krautrock godheads Can’s driving, malevolent “Vitamin C” sets a more generally paranoid tone; cued in immediately after Joaquin Phoenix’s addled flatfoot gets his marching orders from a beach-bunny femme fatale, the track’s skittery beat and weirdly accusatory vibe–with its nagging refrain of “hey you!”–inflects everything that comes next with a jazzed-up tension that never quite releases.
L’il Quinquin: “’Cause I Knew”
Who the hell is Lisa Hartmann? Information on the singer of the unfathomably catchy “Because of You”—a.k.a. the theme song of Bruno Dumont’s amazing three-hour-and-twenty-minute minseries L’il Quinquin–is sparse: a rudimentary Google Search brings up only the similarly monikered fifty-eight-year old former star of Knots Landing. I’ve found no evidence that Ms. Hartmann is any sort of Francophone pop star, nor do her multiple performances of the song in Dumont’s epically scaled rural policier support that suspicion; the point is that her Aurelie Terrier is a mediocre young chanteuse aping American Idol vocal mannerisms to the mixed amusement and scorn of the other townsfolk. But there’s something hypnotic about the song, which melodically resembles The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” with insipid English-language lyrics, made stranger still by Hartmann’s halting, hiccuping delivery: it’s up to ninety plays on my iTunes list and counting. L’il Quinquin is a comedy, so it’s possible that “’Cause of You” is meant as a joke, a parody of Top 40 pop infiltrating a far-flung town. But it’s also so incongruously weird that it feels like something more than an art-house footnote: its repeated usage ranks among the more memorable gestures in Dumont’s career.
Listen Up Philip: “November Rain”
Some movies have blink-or-miss-them sight gags; Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip places one of its most devastatingly funny jokes on its soundtrack and fairly dares the listener to catch it. Now, it’s not as if the film’s omniscient, deliberately literary narration, delivered by Eric Bogosian in a monotone possibly derived from the overseer of Barry Lyndon (1975), is buried in the movie’s sound mix. To the contrary, Bogosian’s line readings are frequently overlaid on the action to the exclusion of all other sound. It’s just that when he tells us, moments before the film’s conclusion, that Jason Schwartzman’s eponymous protagonist was moved to remember a particular line of poetry during a painful personal moment, we may or may not immediately apprehend that the quoted passage–“nothing lasts forever, and we both know hearts can change”–is from Guns N’ Roses deathless power ballad “November Rain,” and the script doesn’t pause to explain this fact either. Axl Rose’s heavy-metal operetta provides a perfect ironic epigram for a character who’s finally younger and less worldly than he thinks—certainly than the world-beating authors he hopes to emulate and eventually replace—but anybody who knows and loves that song and all the big, sappy emotions it conjures up will be moved by the citation–provided that Bogosian’s flat, unaffected cadences don’t disguise the lines to point of unrecognizability.
They Came Together: “It Was the Last Thing on Your Mind”
Norah Jones is a good sport: she’s sung hooks for The Lonely Island about Chex Mix and palled around with a CGI doll in Ted. She’s thus the perfect secret weapon for David Wain in his cheerfully contemptuous send-up of romantic comedies. Following a brief montage in which hatefully adorable Meet Cuters Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler frolic through New York City–scored to a requisitely drippy pop composition –Wain cuts in a perfectly styled parody of a nineties’-style “music from the official soundtrack recording” MTV clip: think the cast of Friends clowning around with the Refreshments and you’re just about there. As Rudd and Poehler, now identified by their real names, sneak into a recording studio where (for whatever reason) non-cast members Adam Scott and John Stamos tweak knobs on a mixing board, Jones tinkles away at her innocuous little dribble of a song—effortlessly sending up her easy-listening image while simultaneously proving that she’s one of the cool kids.