15 Movies Defined By Amazing Song Choices

Music is a powerful tool in a moviemaker's arsenal. The right song can make a movie as much as the wrong song can break it, and the best musical cues come to be indelibly linked with the scenes they accompany. Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, know this well, using music to define key sequences and lend a unique flavor to an already offbeat space opera.

Here, we take a look at some of the best uses of music in movies that already boast impeccable soundtracks, and what it is that makes them so special.

10 Cloverfield Lane

The Best Needledrop: "Tell Him" — The Exciters

Why the Music is so Important: Music is used sparingly in 10 Cloverfield Lane — there are just three songs to complement the score and they're all diegetic — and as such, it's always to great effect (think No Country for Old Men). The songs all come from the jukebox Howard (John Goodman) keeps in the shelter that he's built, and they're all chillingly apt. "Tell Him" plays as Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) discover that, truly, not all is as it seems, and lies start to unravel as the song's lyric's push for truthfulness. "I know something about love," it also croons, just as the characters' perceptions of it begin to come into question.

Runner-Up: "I Think We're Alone Now" — Tommy James and the Shondells. Needless to say, they're not quite as alone as they think they are.

Filth

The Best Needledrop: "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" — The Shirelles

Why the Music is so Important: Filth is about as pleasant as its title suggests, but it's packed full of the kind of buoyant songs that seem to prompt a certain cognitive dissonance. The Shirelles' song is a chipper number (even Tom Jones features on the soundtrack), but they're all songs that are a little darker than their sounds make them seem. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" is a prime example, as it's a song that, in the end, is about uncertainty and loss. It's that same doubt that drives Bruce through the entire film despite his bravado, and the fault between sound and content takes us into a delirium that's hard to forget.

Runner-Up: "Love Really Hurts Without You" — Billy Ocean. The end credits are incredible on their own, let alone in context.

Blue Velvet

The Best Needledrop: "In Dreams" — Roy Orbison

Why the Music is so Important: David Lynch is a master of using music to elevate a scene, so it's hard to choose just one cue, but it's arguably "In Dreams" that's stuck most prominently in the public imagination, which is a feat in and of itself given that the movie the song is named after comes up multiple times throughout the film. In a film that often feels like a dream and ventures into the surreal and strange, it's this Roy Orbison number, lip-synced by Dean Stockwell, that reaches the sublime. The choice of song and artist are both apt (Bruce Springsteen once described Orbison as the master of the "romantic apocalypse"); there aren't really enough words to do it justice.

Runner-Up: "Blue Velvet" — Bobby Vinton (Isabella Rossellini). Naturally.

The Hateful Eight

The Best Needledrop: "There Won't Be Many Coming Home" — Roy Orbison

Why the Music is so Important: Quentin Tarantino's background as a cinephile is something that's informed every choice he makes as a director, perhaps most notably in the songs he picks for his movies. The Hateful Eight is notable straight off the bat for boasting an entirely new score written by the legendary Ennio Morricone, as well as unused tracks from The Thing. But it's the song that plays over the end credits, Roy Orbison's "There Won't Be Many Coming Home," that packs the biggest punch. Originally from a movie that starred Orbison himself (The Fastest Guitar Alive), it's equal parts saccharine and grim as it describes the idealization and then the reality of war, i.e. the perfect closing note for a movie that delves so deeply into the myth of America.

Runner-Up: "Jim Jones at Botany Bay" — Traditional Ballad (Jennifer Jason Leigh)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Best Needledrop: "Salut D'Amour" — Edward Elgar

Why the Music is so Important: For a movie about the Cold War, the heart of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is warm, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the tracklisting. While Edward Elgar's "Salut d'Amour" translates to "Love's Greeting," the song serves to mark the end of the relationship between Haydon (Colin Firth) and Prideaux (Mark Strong). It's as Prideaux listens to a nearby salon trumpet player perform the song that he pieces together that something's gone wrong, and he's shot and taken captive in the next moment. The typical arrangement for "Salut d'Amour" is for violin and piano, but the trumpet arrangement is perfect for the scene, hewing towards simplicity. It's fitting for a movie in which one of the characters, reflecting on her memories of her time at the Circus, says, "If it's bad, don't come back. I want to remember you all as you were." The title of the song suggests looking to the future, but the entirety of the movie is about looking back.

Runner-Up: National Anthem of the USSR. In another extremely apt cue, this song plays as a joke during the Circus Christmas party, but it notably scored over Smiley's (Gary Oldman) discovery of his wife's affair with Haydon, blinding him to the fact that Haydon is the Soviet spy.

Tron: Legacy

The Best Needledrop: "Separate Ways" — Journey

Why the Music is so Important: Journey has cropped up in both Tron films. You can hear "Only Solutions" playing in the arcade in the original movie, and in the franchise reboot, it's "Separate Ways" that kicks on as Sam (Garrett Hedlund) revisits that same old arcade in search of his father, Kevin (Jeff Bridge). It's a nice touch that reminds us of the franchise's provenance as the story and visuals move into new territory. Tron doesn't exist without an appreciation for the "retro," and even though the score is now by Daft Punk and the graphics are on the cutting edge, it hasn't forgotten its DNA.

Runner-Up: All of Tron: Legacy Reconfigured. The soundtrack on the whole is absolutely incredible, and the remixes even more so.

Moonlight

The Best Needledrop: "Hello Stranger" — Barbara Lewis

Why the Music is so Important: Every aspect of Moonlight is carefully thought-out, and the music is no exception to the rule. Impressively, the music spans multiple genres, from classical music, to R&B, to hip hop, etc. "Hello Stranger," however, is maybe the most potent musical cue. It's diegetic; Kevin (Andre Holland) plays it for Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) as they meet for the first time in years. He tells Chiron that this particular song made him think of him, and given the lyrics ("I still love you so, although it seems like a mighty long time"), it's a startling and poignant choice. The backbone of the movie is a love story, and this is an openness and tenderness that lies in stark contrast to what Chiron's been told for the rest of the film.

Runner-Up: "Every N****r is a Star" — Boris Gardiner. This song opens the movie, which on a surface level is a nice nod (stars, moonlight) but also carries associations with the 70's movie of the same name as well as having been sampled in the opening track to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.

Jennifer's Body

The Best Needledrop: "Violet" — Hole

Why the Music is so Important: There isn't a single track on the soundtrack to Jennifer's Body that isn't a relic of its audience's teen years. From Dashboard Confessional to early Florence and the Machine, the soundtrack is calibrated to recall the cheap pop of high school. "Violet" is an especially on-the-nose choice; it's plucked from Hole's second album, Live Through This, which also features a song called "Jennifer's Body," about a girl's kidnapping and dismemberment.

Runner-Up: "Through the Trees" — Low Shoulder. It's admittedly a song that was written for the film, but it's still terrific as a mimicry of this particular era of pop music, down to the near-whiny male vocals.

Watchmen

The Best Needledrop: "Unforgettable" — Nat King Cole

Why the Music is so Important: As an alternate American history, Watchmen relies fairly heavily on its music to ground it in a specific period ("I'm Your Boogie Man" and "99 Luftballons" also make appearances). "Unforgettable" is a song choice that's remarkable for other reasons; the love song is a sharp contrast to the brutal murder over which it plays, the tinny sound of the TV turning into a full-blown musical cue, wrapping up just as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is flung out of his apartment window and to his death. Most of the other songs generally play over scenes that match their tone, and the exception here works better than any other scene except maybe the opening credits and the Koyaanisqatsi cue.

Runner-Up: "The Times They Are A-Changing" — Bob Dylan. The film's opening credits need no introduction.

Zodiac

The Best Needledrop: "The Hurdy Gurdy Man" — Donovan

Why the Music is so Important: Zodiac is another movie that uses music to clearly evoke a sense of time. The film is based on Robert Graysmith's (played in the movie by Jake Gyllenhaal) book on a serial killer who called himself the "Zodiac" and committed murders in the Bay Area during the 60's and 70's. Zodiac opens with a dramatization of the attack on Mike Mageau and Darlene Ferrin; it's scored to the magnificently creepy "The Hurdy Gurdy Man," a track that features distorted guitar and ramps up into a cacophony that's apt for just how unsettling the whole case is. It also plays against typical horror music, as it's slow and assured rather than quick and panicked, setting an uneasy tone for what's to come.

Runner-Up: "Easy to Be Hard" — Three Dog Night. This track is a cover, and also lends itself to the slow sense of dread that suffuses the rest of the film.

The Graduate

The Best Needledrop: "The Sound of Silence" — Simon & Garfunkel

Why the Music is so Important: Most of the music in The Graduate is Simon & Garfunkel, and the songs used are now almost inextricable from the film (that Arrested Development has made a new case for "The Sound of Silence" is a testament to the series). "The Sound of Silence" is the most famous cue, as it plays multiple times throughout the film but most notably over the ending, as Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross) sit in the back of a bus, having just run off together. The joy and rush of that impulsive choice fade as they sit there, the strains of Simon & Garfunkel only growing louder as the seemingly happy ending slides back into reality.

Runner-Up: "Scarborough Fair" — Simon & Garfunkel. A seemingly unorthodox choice, and all the more memorable as such.

Tropic Thunder

The Best Needledrop: "Run Through the Jungle" — Creedence Clearwater Revival

Why the Music is so Important: As needledrops become more ubiquitous (and more abused), it's worth looking back at Tropic Thunder, which now seems ahead of its time in terms of its use of music. The movie deals in layer after layer of parody, and its soundtrack is a perfect example. The songs on the soundtrack are all those you'd find in any recent Vietnam War-era movie (take Kong: Skull Island, for instance), except there's not a touch a self-seriousness to be found in them. Even Theodore Shapiro's score gets in on the jokes as it explicitly apes Spielberg-ian sounds, and there's even a track explicitly titled "Cue Bill Conti." Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle" is the most iconic cue in the movie, and plays over exactly the kind of scene you'd think it would: as the "soldiers'" helicopters run (fly) through the jungle.

Runner-Up: "Get Back" — Ludacris. Tom Cruise. Nuff said.

Shaun of the Dead

The Best Needledrop: "Don't Stop Me Now" — Queen

Why the Music is so Important: Like Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright is impeccable when it comes to his taste in music, and although the soundtracks to his more recent movies are loaded with gems, it's Shaun of the Dead's jukebox scene that is still the most iconic. The moment itself spawns some incredible jokes (see: "I think it's on random!" and, obviously, "Kill the Queen!"), but it's also just an exhilarating sequence, as the gang takes on incoming zombies while Freddie Mercury warbles above it all. It also makes it extremely clear just how much of an effect music can have on a movie's mood, as, when the jukebox dies, the sudden silence immediately makes the audience aware of how much danger the protagonists are in.

Runner-Up: "The Blue Wraith" — I Monster. The pedantic tempo of the song makes a point about the zombie-like quality of regular life, with just enough weirdness in it to foreshadow what's to come.

Brazil

The Best Needledrop: "Brazil" — Michael Kamen feat. Kate Bush

Why the Music is so Important: Maybe Brazil is an odd choice for this list, as there's effectively only one song on the soundtrack, but there's no other movie that's quite so defined by the music in it (as may be obvious by its title). "Brazil" takes on a million different iterations over the course of the movie, with different arrangements being called upon to evoke different moods, but the most stunning version is still the one played as we first see Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) take flight. It's a song in a major key that utilizes minor builds in order to express a sense of longing; it's always just one note away from fulfillment, but even so, it soars to such great heights. It's also fitting as the single musical theme given Sam's singular vision and wish to break free, not to mention the colorful, erratic nature of the song in contrast with how structured and routine (and cruel) the world is.

Runner-Up: "Brazil" — Geoff Muldaur. The "original" version of the song seems to lend itself to dancing more than it does longing, but we've heard too many deconstructions of the song by the time the credits roll to be so fooled, especially not after an ending like that.

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Best Needledrop: "Come and Get Your Love" — Redbone

Why the Music is so Important: Given the opening of the sequel this week, we'd be remiss not to include Guardians of the Galaxy on this list. The songs and the setting shouldn't go together, but they jive together perfectly, just as Peter (Chris Pratt) jives to Redbone in the opening of the first movie. It's a joy watching Peter dance through a foreign planet as he listens to his Walkman, and it's a joyfulness that carries through the entire film, partly on the strength of the soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy is a breath of fresh air, both in relation to the usual stock of summer blockbusters and in relation to the Marvel crop, and that's in no small part due to its soundtrack.

Runner-Up: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" — Marvin Gaye. A song that's already a classic is elevated to the level of tearjerker as it closes out the first Guardians movie.