The 50 best uses of songs in movies

TONY ranks the coolest soundtrack moments of all time.

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Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction


Colloquially, it used to be called the "needle drop"—when a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino picked a piece of preexisting music and laid it down under a dramatic scene, with seismic results. We've thumbed through our stacks of wax (i.e., Blu-ray collections) to collect cinema's most potent examples, allowing for iconic uses of classical music and jazz along with the expected pop hits. One parameter, though: no songs composed for the movie itself. (Sorry, Simple Minds.) The result is our most toe-tapping list to date. But do let us know if we've left out your favorite jam.

Listen to the best uses of songs in movies playlist on Spotify

50. "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)," Enya, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

In David Fincher's latest antiseptic thriller, the murderer has all the usual instruments of torture: poison gas, sharp scalpels, immobilizing slings. But most harrowing of all? A taste for blasting Enya's cloying hit song at eye-glazing volume. (We don't have the clip—and wouldn't want to ruin the killer's identity for you anyway—but here's that cool trailer again.)—Keith Uhlich

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Watch the video for "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)" by Enya

49. "Hip to Be Square," Huey Lewis and the News, American Psycho (2000)

True to the spirit of the novel, this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's serial-killer satire uses Huey's catchy hit single to score the cutthroat dispatching of a Wall Street rival. Christian Bale alternates gleeful critical assessments with grisly ax thwacks, making this superficially slick '80s tune emblematic of the ultimate Reagan-era hollow man.—David Fear

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Watch the video for "Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News

48. "You Never Can Tell," Chuck Berry, Pulp Fiction (1994)

Of the many peppy, pop-culture-charged scenes in Quentin Tarantino's landmark crime comedy, few pack the giddy punch of this Jack Rabbit Slim's musical number, set to a Chuck Berry jaunt. Uma Thurman slinks with feline grace, and John Travolta proves he's still got the Tony Manero moves.—Keith Uhlich

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Watch the video for "You Never Can Tell" by Chuck Berry

47. "He Needs Me," Shelley Duvall, Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

The lilting love anthem from Robert Altman's 1980 Popaeye was brilliantly repurposed by Paul Thomas Anderson for his quirky romance: Adam Sandler races to join inamorata Emily Watson in Hawaii. When they finally embrace, the music flourishes and the rush is palpable.—Keith Uhlich

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Watch the video for "He Needs Me" by Shelley Duvall

46. "Some Velvet Morning," Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Morvern Callar (2002)

A psychedelic groove of soap-opera strings and lyrical menace accompanies Samantha Morton, lost in her headphone cloud, as she cruises to her McJob at the supermarket. It's a perfectly rendered Gen-Whatever moment, an interior mood that few filmmakers have nailed as expertly as Scotland's Lynne Ramsay.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Watch the video for "Some Velvet Morning" by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra

45. "The Times They Are a-Changin'," Bob Dylan, Watchmen (2009)

Zack Snyder's faithful-to-a-fault adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's influential graphic novel is a dud, save its mesmerizing, Bob Dylan–scored opening-credits sequence. Dylan's folk prophecy poetically complements the history of the story's superhero protagonists, from their WWII heyday to a Vietnam-era fall from grace.—Keith Uhlich

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Watch the video for "The Times They Are a-Changin'" by Bob Dylan

44. "Natural's Not in It," Gang of Four, Marie Antoinette (2006)

Sofia Coppola's threading of anachronistic postpunk into her portrait of the 18th-century queen prompts head-scratching among historical purists. But kicking things off with Gang of Four's Marxist critique is inspired: The song immediately puts displays of conspicuous consumption within contextual air quotes. (Here's the trailer, with a taste of Gang of Four at the 0:30 mark, along with other artists.)—David Fear

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Watch the video for "Natural's Not in It" by Gang of Four

43. "Danny Boy," Frank Patterson, Miller's Crossing (1990)

It's ironic enough for an Irish crime boss to be assassinated in his bedroom while listening to this ballad. Yet the Coen brothers rev up the humor massively by having the wistful gent (the mighty Albert Finney) actually survive the hit, returning a hail of submachine-gun fire while his favorite song calmly concludes.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Watch the video for "Danny Boy" by Frank Patterson

42. "These Days," Nico, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Gwyneth Paltrow is immortalized as the alluring, raccoon-eyed Margot Tenenbaum in Wes Anderson's slo-mo tracking shot, which captures a sweet reunion, a hint of nostalgia and the filmmaker's signature coziness, all wrapped up in the Teutonic loveliness of Nico's quiet voice. If Anderson's choices were always this restrained, he'd be a giant.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Watch the video for "These Days" by Nico

41. "Imagine," John Lennon, The Killing Fields (1984)

This Oscar-winning drama about an American journalist and his captured Cambodian translator uses John Lennon's hit to end on a high note. The former Beatle's wish-list lyrics and the moment's emotional uplift—a tearful reunion—make such utopian fantasies seem both noble and absolutely necessary.—David Fear

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Watch the video for "Imagine" by John Lennon


  1. 50–41
  2. 40–31
  3. 30–21
  4. 20–11
  5. 10–1

Users say

30 comments

I now also think the climatic scene to Warrior and The National's 'About Today' live version absolutely blew my  mind. Perfect combination! 

Aaron
Aaron

Somewhere Over The Rainbow - during the shoot out in Face/Off. Violence through the eyes of an eight year old.

bill
bill

You've missed a few good ones from the last decade, which other people in the comments have suggested. Forbidden Friendship - How to Train Your Dragon

dn
dn

Come on, man !!!! Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Twist and Shout Back to the future - johnny b good The mission - gabriel's oboe matrix etc etc

William White
William White

My vote goes to Remember by Josh Groban (Troy) and Ordinary by Train (Spiderman 2)

Supermanfriday
Supermanfriday

Two Tribes ...Supergrass( Robbie Coltrane) .....Florida Fantasy ..Midnight Express. Wandering Star ..Paint your Wagon.. Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia...Way out West ....The Real Me ....Quadrophenia.

Mazorko
Mazorko

Donnie Darko (2001): The Church - Under the milky way http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-6UJigii8U Argo (2012): Van Halen - Dance the night away http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iyX_iy8F6M 21 (2008): Peter Bjorn and John - Young Folks The Departed (2006): Dropkick Murphies - Shipping up to boston http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrc1prw96-Y Dirty Dancing (1987): Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes - The Time of My Life Performed http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpmILPAcRQo Drive (2011): Kavinsky - Nightcall http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIpXQS5gaAw Kelly's Heros (1970): The Mike Curb Congregation - Burning Bridges http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA9581o27uA The Graduate (1967): Simon & Garfunkel - Scarborough Fair http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWxOTDYeWbU Drive (2011): College & Electric Youth - A Real Hero http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5bKGu45zHxo

awesome one
awesome one

What about Tuesday's gone happy Gilmore,schools out dazed and confused. Where is all of that.

nicole
nicole

Bill Murray's Karaoke cover of Roxy Music's of 'More than This' should have definitely been placed in the top 50 not to mention Sinatra's 'it had to be you in when harry met sally

john
john

Song to the siren. Lost highway. Patricia arquette!!! Sooo hot

yaka
yaka

does answer my question

clara alfieri
clara alfieri

Did you forget - the movie The Deer Hunter Cant Take My Eyes Off Your - Frankie Valli - 4 Seasons

00
00

Drive college ft electric youth - "a real hero" drive kavinsky "nightcall" drive desire's "under your spell" drive instrumentals by cliff martinez drive drive drive dri....

Kevin Wilson
Kevin Wilson

Well, thought out list - Kudos. One that HAS to be in the top ten though - "Falling Slowly" in Once. Its use near the beginning of the film was fantastic, and set the entire tone for the movie. But its use in the ending was the best use of music in a movie ending ever.

PJA_Master
PJA_Master

Oh and of course white Christmas in home alone when he's shaving. Great scene!

PJA_Master
PJA_Master

Great list bit it's missing dont you forget about me - Simple Minds from the breakfast club. Perfect match of song to movie.

Db
Db

Did I miss Clockwork orange or was it forgotten as well?

Smurfe
Smurfe

I really expected to see something from Forrest Gump (the entire soundtrack) and Dazed and Confused (the entire soundtrack)

Eelnodrog
Eelnodrog

Have yourself a merry little Christmas from The Victors, as the young soldier faces the firing squad!

AJRN
AJRN

Great list. You included so many that I thought you would miss.

jaspreet
jaspreet

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Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson

a Lovely day in 127 hours - the entire soundtrack of Into the wild dueling banjos in Deliverance the "little train song Harry and Hermione dance to in HP&the DH the Doors in what?every Vietnam movie

Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson

good call, digga; the entire movie was a set up of that movie - You're gonna love me from Dreamgirls should be here, too and and where are streets of fire,feed me from Little shop of horrors; sister act? and sweeney todd?the proclaimers in Beny & Joon

Luke
Luke

Kubrick dominates these lists and i love it !

Mike
Mike

No Streets of Fire?

WC
WC

No "Little Green Bag" from Reservoir Dogs?

Brainslks
Brainslks

So a song from an Adam Sandler movie beats out "La Marseilles" AND "AsTime Goes By" from "Casablanca"? Who's making these f*ing lists, chimps with typewriters?

Liam
Liam

Bird is the Word - Trashmen this was brilliant in Full Metal Jacket

jason
jason

how about "memories are made of this" in Veronika Voss?

TONY 50 best songs in movies playlist on Spotify