It could be said that 2008 was the year that soundtracks returned as a bankable product, with four soundtracks topping the charts during the year. High School Musical 3, Twilight, Mamma Mia and Juno all may have pulled in some cash, but you won't see any of those on this list (Juno was our #2 in our 2007 list).
This year's crop of films was a bit more gritty than past one's I've curated, and were especially dominated by foreign settings: India, Brazil, Germany, Italy, England, Laos... and of course, Gotham City.
10. Tropic Thunder (Rssmbld Sndtrck Playlist)
This comedy utilized plenty of period music that we all associate with Vietnam war pics, but also brought the booty juice -- sprinkling some hip-hop for Tom Cruise's Les Grossman to shake his thang to. But even beyond that, the score from Theodore Shapiro played around with the action film genre, making it believable while also leaving tongue firmly in cheek. As Kirk Lazerus (Robert Downey, Jr.) said so beautifully about the lyrics to the theme from The Jeffersons, "man, just cause it's a theme song don't make it not true."
9. Son of Rambow
More fake fun in the jungle! If the film Son of Rambow is a love letter to one's childhood, then the soundtrack is the mixtape lying next to it in Garth Jennings' beautiful brown manila envelope. The quirky miniaturized world that Jennings creates here has garnered comparisons to Wes Anderson's Rushmore, so it's no surprise that the soundtrack is a key to the film. Relying on the 1980's as a setting, thankfully the soundtrack is careful not to be just a 'Best of the 80's' compilation, by utlizing artists like Fun Boy Three and Jonathan Richman (with the Modern Lovers,) while Joby Talbot's whimsical score keeps everything bouncing along. When Lee Carter says "This has been my best day of all time," you believe it.
(Soundtrack reviewed, May 28, 2008)
8. The Wackness
There are some, like myself, that think hip-hop had it's creative peak in the early 90's, which gives this soundtrack an added edge to it. The setting is New York in '94, and hip-hop is the backdrop, with plenty of songs from A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G. and especially the Wu-Tang Clan (WTC member Method Man has a prominent role in the film). The film, unfortunately, doesn't live up to either the soundtrack backing it. Provided you've got the right medicinal help, though, The Wackness proves to be entertaining, nonetheless. "I got mad love for you shorty. That's on the real."
7. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
The film, which follows the bridge-and-tunnel protagonists Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) on a night of hijinks through the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, is packed full of blink-and-you-miss-it hipster cameos. Likewise, the soundtrack is so chock-full of NOW indie rock, that it can make you feel like you're trapped in the back seat of Nick's claustrophobic yellow Yugo. Still, riding around with Vampire Weekend, Modest Mouse, The National and Band of Horses isn't a bad way to go. Throw in pop magic from Chris Bell and Richard Hawley and this is a fine mix of music to what ends up being a so-so movie. "Let's dance, douche bag!"
(Soundtrack reviewed, October 6, 2008 )
Here's another film that doesn't live up to it's soundtrack -- or, for that matter, it's source material, Chuck Palahniuk's daring novel of the same name. Writer/Director/Actor Clark Gregg and Palahniuk both wrote their respective versions while listening to Radiohead, which in turn fueled rumors that the band would be scoring the film. Instead, Shudder to Think's Nathan Larson scored the film, while Radiohead instead contributed "Reckoner" for the closing credits. Other highlights in the soundtrack include My Morning Jacket's wonderful "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt. 1," and songs from The Buzzcocks, Blitzen Trapper, The Fiery Furnaces and Death Cab For Cutie. And because I've started some theme of ending these with a quote from the film, here you go: "A lot of people would say it's a bad idea, on your first day out of prison, to go right back to stalking the tranny hooker that knocked out five of your teeth. But that's how I roll."
5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
One of the main reasons this soundtrack is in the top five is the work of actor/writer Jason Segal, who contributes much of the original music to the film, including the (sort of) Oscar contending "Dracula's Lament," the cornerstone of his Dracula-based puppet musical A Taste for Love. Other highlights include multi-instrumentalist Daniel Ho's Hawaiian-themed covers of break-up songs under the pseudonym The Coconutz. Even the anguish of "Nothing Compares 2 U" sounds happy when played on a 'ukulele. But the best scene might just involve hearing Belle & Sebastian's "Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying" while Segal's Peter watches a wedding. Later, of course, it's not so happy a sight: "Oh, wedding in Hawaii! Real original!"
4. Palermo Shooting (Rssmbld Sndtrck Playlist)
Wim Wender's latest has been called boring, pretentious and... well... boringly pretentious, but if only from a music standpoint, it appears quite the opposite. The film stars one German music legend (Campino of Die Toten Hosen) and was scored by another (Irmin Schmidt of Can,) and also features appearances by Nick Cave's Grinderman, Lou Reed and Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy). Other music highlights include songs from Iron & Wine, Portishead, Calexico and Beirut. But don't go looking for it in a theater near you, it's strictly a straight-to-DVD release here in the states, sometime in 2009 if we're lucky. And if we're really lucky, the soundtrack will follow, if only to hear Schmidt's score along with the two new Grinderman songs. (Sorry, no quote here, thus unceremoniously ending the theme.)
3. Elite Squad
Coming off like a gritty cross between City of God and The Wire, this Brazilian film is brazen and unrelenting, showing the unpleasant side of the drug war in the intricate slums of Rio. Turning City of God on it's ear, Elite Squad tells the story from the side of the police, painting an almost sympathetic portrait to paramilitary brutality in the war on drugs. It mirrors some of the tough love of The Shield or even The Dark Knight, where sometimes fascist enforcement of the law is the only thing that works. If it sounds like a downer, it can be, but the Brazilian sounds backing it help keep the film from staring into the dark for too long, especially MC Junior's "Rap das Armas" (used throughout) and the nuanced score from Pedro Bromfman.
2. The Dark Knight
I've never been one to put buy a movie score to listen to it repeatedly, as they usually require the visuals to work their magic, but every so often one comes along that does more than just drive a film. Last year it was Jonny Greenwood's work for There Will Be Blood which provided goosebumps, this year, it's the collaboration between composers Hans Zimmer (The Da Vinci Code, Gladiator, Buggles) and James Newton Howard (Michael Clayton, The Sixth Sense, Elton John,) a continuation of their work on Batman Begins. Thanks to the inclusion of a certain clown-faced villain, this is no mere continuation of their previous score, as the music takes on more dark twists and turns, particularly with the track "Why So Serious," whose nine minutes of madness alone is worth the cost of the soundtrack. The folks at Warner Bros. know they've got something special here, as they planned four different editions of the soundtrack. And we'll just eat them up.
1. Slumdog Millionaire
Like last year's winner (Once), Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale of sorts, an underdog of a film that has you rooting for it, and if composer A.R. Rahman finds himself winning an Oscar for the song "Jai Ho," I'll probably let out a joyous scream like I did for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Rahman's pulsating score, with help from M.I.A. and some choice Bollywood film references, drives this gritty fairytale from Mumbai, and has some audiences literally dancing in the aisles through the credits. It's a powerful soundtrack to a fine movie so it's deserving of the #1 slot for 2008.
(Soundtrack reviewed December 3, 2008)
Also worth mentioning:
Rachel Getting Married - You'd think having both Robyn Hitchcock and Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) in the film would guarantee a top 10 slot.
Good Dick - Jared Nelson Smith's minimal guitar was a highlight of this small indie.
Flaming Lips' Christmas on Mars - Like the film, lovingly bizarre.
Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) - Grégoire Hetzel's spellbinding score helps make this an Oscar contender for best foreign film.
Previously: Top Movie Soundtracks of 2007