With awards season in full-swing, there’s a lot of talk about who was the best director, who wrote the best screenplay and who gave the best on-screen performances in 2014. But the element that brings together the storytelling, cinematography and editing into a world of cinematic wonder is sometimes taken for granted: the music.
Soundtracks help set the pace and the mood for a scene. The music can tell viewers when a situation is stressful, when they should feel hopeful or when it’s time to unleash the tears. Music creates the atmosphere, whether it’s tense, with dissonant chords and low tones, or uplifting, with sweeping violins and cheerful melodies. While we may not always walk out of a movie saying “that music was amazing,” sound is just as important as the other elements that make a film great.
There was a lot of great music in cinema last year, like the quirky original songs in Frank, the nostalgia-ridden Awesome Mix Vol. 1 in Guardians of the Galaxy, and the haunting score that permeates Gone Girl. From collections of popular songs to original scores, here are the 15 Best Soundtracks of 2014.
15. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
A film about music is inevitably going to have a soundtrack that showcases what makes music so all-consuming to those who practice it. But the soundtrack for Whiplash does more than that. It sets the impossibly fast tempo that gets the heart racing for this unrelenting film about the search for perfection and the palpable fear of failure.
Andrew (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old drummer, may start off as shy, but inside him burns the fire of not just wanting to be great, but wanting to be the best. And so the music that bursts out of him is like that fire: fast and raging. What drives him is not the search of the happiness that comes from doing what he loves, but the desire to be perfect and the fear of what his mentor will do if his performance is anything less that flawless.
The music also reflects the volatile relationship between Andrew and Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the terrifying teacher who is willing to push him past his breaking point, past tears and bleeding hands, until he finds that perfection within. You never know what will happen between these two, but you can be sure it won’t involve the words “good job.”
14. The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014)
Many have compared this film to Drive, mainly because the main character is a stoic, unflinching, good-looking guy with a penchant for violence—although Dan Stevens’ jacket isn’t nearly as cool as Ryan Gosling’s. Genre-wise, the similarities stop there. While there are about equal amounts of blood-shed, The Guest is a little less serious and uses violence more for sheer entertainment.
Another thing these films seem to have in common is the synth-heavy soundtrack. In The Guest, the ‘80s-style tunes serve to establish a likeness to horror films of the era, in which a psychopath would hide in the midst of a small town, waiting for the right time to wreak havoc.
The music is mostly diegetic, and David (Stevens) even proclaims to like it. While there’s evidently something a little off with him and he can’t be trusted, this one statement does seem genuine. Maybe it’s because when he cranks it up, the danceable beats and electronic sounds help drown out whatever it is that’s going on inside his head.
13. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
The music in Wes Anderson’s films tends to be as rich and complex as the sets. The soundtrack for The Grand Budapest Hotel is no exclusion. The music is full of arrangements and details that add to the wonder of the world Anderson created for this film, set in the Alps in the time between the World Wars.
Just as the film requires undivided attention, maybe even multiple viewings, to catch all the little visual jokes and intricate details in the background, the score requires equal attention to catch all the arrangements and the variety of instruments that round out the sound.
The music, composed by Alexandre Desplat, blends baroque elements like the harpsichord with military-style rolling snare drums and whimsical bells. The result is a dramatic but light-hearted score that reflects Anderson’s dry, self-conscious humor and the beautiful and often ridiculous realities that he creates.
12. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013 – released in 2014)
If there’s one aspect of this film that critics agree on, it’s that not everyone will appreciate its subtle pace or openness to interpretation. With little dialogue and basically no exposition, it’s up to the audience to decide what they think is going on. That’s where Mica Levi’s unsettling score comes in, raising the hairs on the back of your neck as you experience this seductive, predatory, unnamed alien (Scarlett Johansson) walking in her new human skin.
Described as a horror sci-fi film, Under the Skin transcends the genre, raising a lot more questions than it answers. The same can be said for the score, which makes you wonder what instrument could possibly be making that sound, or whether the slow, steady beat will eventually explode into something more. The result is a constant feeling of being on the edge of your seat, convinced that at any moment all could be revealed.
The answers are never laid out the way you expect; the beat changes in surprising ways but never fully reaches any expectations of where it’s going next. This film, and its dissonant music, will linger in your mind for days as you try to sort out what happened and how it made you feel.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)
Like any Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy counts with an epic original score, filled with dark, ominous moments and grandiose, adventurous themes. Unfortunately for composer Tyler Bates, what most viewers will remember of this film’s soundtrack is Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) Awesome Mix Vol. 1, a mixtape worthy of its title.
As the representative for the entire human race, there’s a lot of pressure for Peter’s character, a.k.a. Star-Lord, to be likeable. While that is mostly accomplished by Pratt’s general awesomeness, sympathy for this character is successfully established through his love of his Walkman, which is packed with the songs of his childhood that connect him to his roots on the planet he left far behind.
With timeless tracks like “I’m Not In Love” by 10cc and “O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps, this soundtrack will bring a smile to even the toughest alien’s face. The nostalgic tunes not only make Star-Lord relatable, they will inevitably make you want to find the Star-Lord in yourself.
10. Cold in July (Jim Mickle, 2014)
Yet another homage to the ‘80s, the decidedly masculine Cold in July blends elements of neo-noir and buddy comedy. There’s plenty of gratuitous violence in this exploration of machismo, where Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall, rocking a mustache and a mullet) unlocks a web of unexpected events after shooting an intruder.
The formerly tremulous father embarks on a road paved with blood and shell casings, as an ex-con (Sam Shepard) and a private eye (Don Johnson) show him what it means to be a man in 1980s Texas. As expected, this all takes place to the sound of dark, electronic beats interspersed with the iconic arena rock of the era.
The music—along with the mustaches, VHS tapes and enormous cell-phones—helps establish the easily parodied time period, which the film embraces in all its glory. It also sets the tone for the many violent scenes and the tension as Dane fails to anticipate the plot twists ahead of him.
9. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)
It begins with the sound of wind gusting in the midst of a snowstorm. A vague melodic sound is born in the distance and slowly grows louder. A strong gust suddenly brings in a low bass note, ominous as it reverberates, contrasted by organ notes playing in the background.
The notes begin to meld together into a melody. More and more instruments join in, adding layers of melodies that intertwine. The rhythmic ticking of the clock and a ghostly chorus erupt as Cooper struggles with the loss of his family for the sake of humanity. Hans Zimmer’s score for Interstellar is as complex as the physics explored in the film.
The music is intricate and cerebral, which is fitting since many scenes in this film are dedicated to discussing science and philosophy. As astronauts Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Amelia (Anne Hathaway) travel through a wormhole in search of a new home for mankind, the music blends into the background at times, and suddenly bursts with sweeping crescendos at others.
Love, longing and the painful passage of time are the themes that carry this philosophical film, and the score gives voice to all the emotions that rage within the astronauts as they move further from—or closer toward—their loved ones.