8. Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, 2013 – released in 2014)
As unsupervised teenagers wander through life in a haze in Gia Coppola’s first film, they are accompanied by easy, dreamy tunes. Adapted from James Franco’s book of short stories, Palo Alto offers a glimpse into the fleeting time between childhood and adulthood.
Not particularly a plot-driven film, it captures the mood of that transitional period, which we all remember but can’t ever recreate. The soundtrack, which includes original music by Devonte Hynes and Robert Schwartzman, captures than sensation of rolling through the moment without wasting a thought on consequences.
Taking place in a nice, Northern California neighborhood, the main characters aren’t facing any dire situations or deep emotional trauma. Their anguish stems from within, as the question of “who am I?” begins to surface. The tracks that accompany their angst are mellow—these teens are in no rush to grow up—yet tinged with a certain melancholy, perhaps from knowing deep down that these moments are fading. They remind the viewer of a time that was both simpler yet also more confusing than any other.
7. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is largely being described as “the first Iranian Vampire-Western,” and the only way to understand what that means is to watch it. In her first feature film, writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour creates a unique but recognizable world in the fictional ghost town Bad City. The mostly desolate streets—shot in beautiful, surreal black and white—are sparsely populated with addicts, pimps, and generally lonely people, the loneliest of which is the eponymous vampire girl.
Our immortal vigilante, who roams the streets on a stolen skateboard, fills her lonely hours with a love of music. Her passion is evident when she plays the perfect track, “Death” by White Lies, during an intimate, tender moment with fellow loner Arash.
The music isn’t just a reflection of the title character. Amirpour carefully created a soundtrack for each character, mixing the cool, moody tunes of Iranian rock band Radio Tehran, the western sound of Federale and the techno beats of Farah.
6. Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014)
It might seem a little too vague to call a soundtrack “honest.” Maybe what makes it seem so is that it’s the backdrop to such an honest film. In this clever romantic comedy, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is a comedian faced with a life-altering decision when she learns that she’s pregnant after a rebound one-night stand. Except it doesn’t turn out to be such a one-night stand when Max (Jake Lacy) keeps popping into her life and she likes him more than she expected.
The music reflects the candor of Donna’s character by mixing tracks that highlight her irreverent sense of humor, like “Nevada” by Scout Niblett, her youthful spirit, like “Singularity” by HITS, and her vulnerability, like “Letting Go” by Casey Brooks.
And then, of course, there’s the song that inspired the film’s title, Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” which perfectly sums up the spirit of the film. The song speaks to growing up and finding your identity, or maybe finding that you still haven’t’ figured it out. It’s the perfect backdrop to the scene where Donna and Max drunkenly dance in their underwear, just enjoying the ephemeral moment.
5. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
Defining this film’s soundtrack is almost as complex as defining its plot. Adapted by Paul Thomas Anderson from Thomas Pynchon’s almost unadaptable novel, Inherent Vice is a noir-style mystery set in California in the early ‘70s. The deeper we delve into the convoluted plot, the less we have any idea what’s going on. No one is who they seem, and untangling the mess of lies and disguises seems almost impossible.
As Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) dives into a world of deception in search of his ex’s new flame, he constantly finds himself exactly where he didn’t want to end up. Seemingly unconnected stories begin to intertwine, keeping the viewer slightly lost and confused.
The soundtrack is equally complicated, combining Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s unexpected compositions with ‘70s classics like Can’s “Vitamin C,” Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs,” and Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past.” Greenwood’s score surprises with orchestral instrumentation mixed with ominous, cinematic tunes, mirroring the many twists and turns that Doc’s journey takes.
4. Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)
At this point, we’ve learned to expect great things when David Fincher, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross team up. Yet somehow they manage to keep surprising us with great films accompanied by great music. This film is dark, tense and full of unexpected twists—unless you’ve read the book, and then it’s even more exciting to see the revelations play out on screen. The soundtrack reflects all those attributes, with unexpected progressions, haunting tones and even a few whimsical moments.
The music sets the tense atmosphere of this film, which just keeps slowly building beyond what most viewers think they can handle. With beautiful piano interludes followed by electronic beats, Reznor and Ross’ score keeps the brain guessing what could possibly happen next. The same could be said of the film, which changes pace so subtly and aptly.
While we know the musicians are perfectly capable of fast, raging tempos, in this film they keep it slow and pulsing. The score swiftly moves with the story, leading viewers astray into unexpected corners until they’re suddenly somewhere completely different than where they expected.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013 – released in 2014)
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are the couple that all other couples dream of becoming. They’re connected on a deep level, even when they’re thousands of miles apart. They’re gorgeous, immortal, wise and effortlessly cool.
Adam collects old records and vintage guitars, surrounding himself with odd, beautiful things. Eve voraciously consumes literature, reading the classics in minutes—not to mention she’s close with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), the man who many believe to have written the works attributed to Shakespeare.
Yes, there are many films about vampires out there, but Only Lovers Left Alive is a unique look at a love of art and creativity that keeps these immortal beings interested in their eternal life. That love of art is reflected in the complex, ethereal music that permeates the film. Just like its main characters, the soundtrack is cool and mysterious, with distorted guitars, exotic instruments and an unearthly sound.
Mostly composed and performed by Jozef Van Wissem and SQÜRL (Jarmusch’s band), the soundtrack echoes Adam’s disillusionment with the world, which he feels has become infected with the indifference of humans. But the music also mirrors Eve’s conviction that there are still curious and wonderful things left to discover that make life worth living.
2. Frank (Leonard Abrahamson, 2014)
While the endearingly strange film Frank touches on themes like the creative process, authentic art and fleeting fame in the age of YouTube, at its heart it’s really about being an outsider. Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the ultimate outsider, creating art that is so great and so weird that it’s not destined to become popular. But when he’s with his band Soronprfbs, a collection of equally strange characters, they create a synergy that is beyond them, and their music becomes fantastic.
The soundtrack to this film reflects just that, with songs that are quirky—sometimes simple and other times elaborate—but in such a way that they end up being little masterpieces. The music also reflects the polar opposites of the songwriting process.
On one hand, there’s Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who tries to write songs about waves and ladies in red coats and comes up with nothing. On the other hand, there’s Frank, who can find inspiration in the most mundane things (creaky doors and a tuft in the carpet), but he elevates them to something more by projecting his inner peculiarity onto them.
This insane soundtrack, comprised of original songs by Stephen Rennicks, is the perfectly weird, authentic, inspired vehicle to carry this heartfelt story to all the creative outsiders out there.
1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
While there’s already one other nostalgic soundtrack on this list, what sets the Boyhood compilation apart is how the music is used to place the viewer in time. It’s quite the undertaking to film a movie over the course of 12 years. Besides the actors, who grow old on-screen, the music ties this movie together and gives it a continuity that makes the story relatable.
Even if you weren’t a complex little boy who grew into a focused young man, the placement of the songs throughout the film helps viewers connect to their own memories. By using radio favorites, like Coldplay’s “Yellow” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the film makes audiences think “Hey, I remember when that song was popular. I remember where I was in life.” It instantly creates a bond with the main characters, as we see a little of ourselves in their struggles and small victories.
As Mason (Ellar Coltrane) so eloquently says at the end, “It’s always right now.” That statement encompasses the entire film, which is really a collection of the little moments that add up to who he is. And the music embodies that too, engaging us in each moment and making us appreciate it before we move on to the next.
Author Bio: Nathalia Vélez grew up in Venezuela and now lives in Denver, where she works as a freelance journalist by day and blogger by night. She likes to write reviews, analysis and lists about film, television, books, art, culture and creative people.