1. The Four Tops, "It's The Same Old Song" (from Blood Simple)
Sometimes it's okay to repeat what's come before, particularly when you can offer a new spin on it. The songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland crafted a lyric to this 1965 hit that isn't any less heartfelt for sounding an awful lot like the band's earlier smash "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)." Similarly, Joel and Ethan Coen's stunning 1984 debut knowingly reworks old film-noir tropes to create an original work that's thrillingly new. When the song pops up in a few of the film's key moments, its pumping rhythm lends a sense of dread and inevitability to all the double- and triple-crosses of characters who don't realize they're making the same mistakes their noir predecessors have made again and again. (Still, legal tangles kept the song off the home-video versions, where a country-boogie cover of "I'm A Believer" replaced it until the Coens revisited the film with a directors' cut in 2001.)
2. Tears For Fears, "Head Over Heels" (from Donnie Darko)
It remains to be seen whether Richard Kelly will live up to his promise—his second feature, the notorious science-fiction fantasia Southland Tales, sent his career off the rails—but the opening bars of Tears For Fears' late-'80s hit are as galvanizing in Donnie Darko as the riff to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was when Robert De Niro made his slo-mo entrance in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. For five mesmerizing minutes, Kelly's camera prowls through a high-school hallway, introducing many of the major characters and even setting up some conflicts for later, all without dialogue. At the same time, the song perfectly situates the action in Reagan-era suburbia and evokes the life of a troubled adolescent with a tone that hovers somewhere between nostalgia and dread.
3. Belle & Sebastian, "Storytelling" (from Storytelling)
Between conception and release, Todd Solondz's 2001 follow-up to Happiness lost one of its three stories and a lot of music created by the Scottish group Belle & Sebastian. Among the cuts was this title track about the perils and responsibilities of crafting narratives. Maybe that's because, with lines like "stories are all fiction from their moment of birth," it summed up the film's themes a little too well—arguably better than the spotty film that inspired it.
4. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put A Spell On You" (from Stranger Than Paradise)
Why does Eszter Balint, newly arrived from Hungary, keep blaring Screamin' Jay Hawkins' abrasive, intoxicating hit upon arriving in America? Is she trying to fit in by playing her idea of American music? Nothing else about her behavior suggests that, and her old-world ways continually irritate her peevish, self-consciously American cousin John Lurie. The song seems completely at odds with her deadpan personality, and yet from the moment she enters the movie, she does, in the film's low-key fashion, cast a spell on Lurie and his sidekick Richard Edson, prompting them to break loose from their New York rut and see a bit of the country, even if it's mostly snowy lakefront beaches and cramped motel rooms. Hawkins screams what Jim Jarmusch's movie only whispers: Even those too cool to admit it can hear the sirens singing.
5. The Shins, "New Slang" (from Garden State)
"What are you listening to?" asks the writer-director-actor with the sensitive emo eyes. "The Shins. You know them?" replies the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, bouncing in her chair. "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life." This one song is "New Slang," and while it's a little hard to believe that The Shins could change anyone's life—their songs were never meant to do that sort of heavy lifting—Zach Braff's iPod playlist brought the band newfound prominence. If Garden State could be called Braff's attempt to do The Graduate for Generation Y, then The Shins are his Simon & Garfunkel, commenting (however obliquely) on the story of a twentysomething mope looking for some direction.
6. DJ Shadow, "Dark Days" (from Dark Days)
Marc Singer's stark, black-and-white documentary—about a community of homeless people dwelling in New York subway tunnels—is equally fascinating and unnerving, showing how refugees from proper society carve out a place for themselves, built from our garbage. So who better to set the mood than DJ Shadow, who digs through the music that others leave behind? On this soundtrack, as in most of his work, Shadow reshapes old records into dense soundscapes, evoking the kind of modern anxieties that drive people underground.
7. Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglová, "Falling Slowly" (from Once)
Most movies about fictional musicians fall short because the songs are weak, and it's hard to care about aspiring stars who show minimal talent. Once, by contrast, makes no great claims for its Dublin busker hero (played by The Frames' Glen Hansard, who also wrote the music), yet when he and his new friend Marketa Irglová rendezvous in a music shop and he teaches her how to play his song "Falling Slowly," their understated performance and the simple beauty of the song ring true as a bell. Barely 15 minutes into Once, the movie hits an emotional peak, putting the audience immediately in Hansard's corner.
8. Stealers Wheel, "Stuck In The Middle With You" (from Reservoir Dogs)
Cultural historians continue to debate how the simple act of not showing a man getting his ear cut off touched off a revolution in independent cinema, making stomach-turning violence, brutal irony, and slacker kitsch into arthouse staples. Did Quentin Tarantino's use of offscreen space make the scene so effective? Was it the sudden shift away from chitchat after all the long stretches of motor-mouthed dialogue? Or was it just that everyone watching the movie suddenly remembered how much they liked Stealers Wheel's '70s pop-rock chestnut?
9. Pink Floyd, "Hey You" (from The Squid And The Whale)
When in-over-his-head high-school student Jesse Eisenberg claims he wrote this plaintive number from Pink Floyd's mammoth concept album The Wall, it's indicative of the character's habit of borrowing ideas and attitudes from others rather than doing the hard work of becoming his own man. It's also indicative of the kind of person he is—earnest, pretentious, and self-mythologizing—that he's a Pink Floyd fan in the first place.
10. Sufjan Stevens, "Chicago" (from Little Miss Sunshine)
The big musical scene in Little Miss Sunshine comes at the end, when Abigail Breslin rocks the talent portion of her beauty pageant with a lewd dance set to Rick James' "Super Freak." In the process, an already-preposterous movie hits its nadir. Far better is a rare lyrical moment early in the film, when Breslin's family's yellow VW microbus crisscrosses arid Southwestern interstates while Sufjan Stevens' surging "Chicago" gives a pointless quest a tinge of grandeur.
11. Arvo Pärt, "Spiegel Im Spiegel" (from Gerry)
Anyone who didn't know what they were in for with Gus Van Sant's spare Gerry probably got an inkling in the first five minutes, which consists of Matt Damon and Casey Affleck driving down a remote, dusty road, while the camera catches the shifting landscape and orange sunlight, and this gentle minimalist composition by Estonian avant-garde composer Pärt plays softly on the soundtrack. The tune is an overture for the whole film, establishing a theme of sedateness and fragile beauty, with an undertone of foreboding.
12. Yes, "Heart Of The Sunrise" (from Buffalo '66)
For the most part, Buffalo '66 is an offbeat psychodrama about an obnoxious ex-felon and his intolerable family, but in the final moments, writer-director-star Vincent Gallo inserts a stunning special effect: a 360-degree pan around a freeze-framed barroom shootout, set to the prog-rock rumble of Yes. The scene has little to do with the rest of the movie, but it was jaw-dropping in the pre-Matrix days of 1998, and it's still pretty cool today. Even better is the Buffalo '66 trailer, which uses "Heart Of The Sunrise" behind a rapid succession of stills from the movie, making the movie look more stylistically daring than it actually is.
13. The Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band, "Ooh Child" (from Our Song)
Jim McKay's poignant slice of life follows a group of 15- and 16-year-old African-American girls during summer vacation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the various dramas that trouble their lives: an unwanted pregnancy, the shifting dynamics of their friendship, the prospect of having to start a new school year in an unfamiliar high school in faraway Queens. But amid all these problems, the young women happily retreat to the comforting formations of the Jackie Robinson Steppers, a real-life marching band that gives Our Song an authentic local flavor and a sense of civic unity. The band's superb rendition of "Ooh Child"—the eponymous "our song"—addresses their concerns with a touching directness.
14. Theodore Shapiro and Craig Wedren, "Higher And Higher" (from Wet Hot American Summer)
Part gut-busting parody, part '80s nostalgia piece, Wet Hot American Summer was tailored specifically for Gen-X latchkey kids who grew up watching summer-camp comedies like Meatballs, Poison Ivy (with Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon), and SpaceCamp on VHS. Many of the laughs come from the scrupulous period details, like the dated clothing and hairstyles, and sub-subgenre conventions that have long since been retired. To that end, Theodore Shapiro and Craig Wedren's score reaches great heights of inspirational cheese, especially on the made-for-montage anthem "Higher And Higher," when a chef shows a weepy camp counselor "the way." With the help of a squealing electric guitar and a pumped-up chorus ("Show me the fever / Into the fire"), the young man is Karate Kid-ed to short-lived glory.
15. Phil Collins, "Sussudio" (from American Psycho)
David Letterman used to complain about the Phil Collins hit "Sussudio" when it became unavoidable in 1985, because what the hell is a "Sussudio"? American Psycho protagonist Patrick Bateman doesn't offer any answers in the middle of a long monologue about Genesis and Phil Collins interrupted only by instructions to a pair of hookers. Maybe that's because Collins has admitted he just kind of made the word up as part of an improvised lyric. But that doesn't stop Bateman from referring to it as "a great, great song, a personal favorite," and it's a perfect choice for someone who doesn't understand the beats that move him, or why they drive him to do what he does.
16. Three 6 Mafia, "It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp" (from Hustle & Flow)
Before "pimpin' ain't easy" became a popular T-shirt slogan, it was just something pimps knew. Craig Brewer's 2005 film worked in part because it showed just how hard it could be out there, and made Terrence Howard's pimp seem almost sympathetic, in the amount of angsty effort he put into his hustle. However unsavory his business, he's ultimately just another working stiff with a dream.
17. Air, "Playground Love" (from The Virgin Suicides)
Sofia Coppola found the perfect accompaniment for her feature debut's tale of '70s suburban tragedy in Air's warm-but-unsettling backward-looking score. "Playground Love"—which opens with the lines "I'm a high-school lover and you're my favorite flavor," sounds simultaneously inviting and unsavory, like a snapshot of a pep rally tangled up with the memory of what went on underneath the bleachers.