The songs play in the foreground, in the background, over montage sequences and triumphant climaxes. Sometimes they move the plot along, and sometimes they just move us. And, much as in real life, the right song at the right moment can mean the difference between something ordinary and something truly transcendent.
Music has always been a vital component of film, but in this decade a number of directors pushed the art of the soundtrack further than ever before, offering them up not as disposable souvenirs of some cinematic experience but as important cultural artifacts in their own rights.
The great movie soundtracks of the past ten years proved as crucial to their respective films as any starring actor or tangible set-piece, and today we celebrate ten of the very best.
10: The Twilight Saga: New Moon [Atlantic] (2009)
Swirling, moody contributions from Death Cab for Cutie, Thom Yorke, and St. Vincent playing with Bon Iver make this feel less like just one more entry in the teen-vampire-flick brand mania and more like a mix-tape meant for wooing some hard-hearted hipster, but—oh wait, that’s probably just what Alexandra Patsavas and co. were going for. We’d feel bad about liking it so much if—like Edward Cullen himself—it wasn’t all just sooo pretty. —Rachael Maddux
9. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [Hollywood] (2004)
Featuring the instrumental compositions of Mark Mothersbaugh, Paco de Lucía and the Sven Libaek Orchestra; classics by Joan Baez, Iggy & the Stooges and Devo; and, best of all, four liquid-hypnotic Portuguese-sung acoustic Bowie covers from the inimitable Seu Jorge, this ultra-chill soundtrack is the aural equivalent of Wes Anderson’s strangely relaxing and easy-paced ocean-exploration flick. —Steve LaBate
8. Vanilla Sky [Reprise] (2001)
Cameron Crowe’s follow-up to Almost Famous was confusing, aching and beautiful, and the music and that played throughout its disorienting scenes—eerie selections from Radiohead and Jeff Buckly, plus oddly jaunty moments thanks to Peter Gabriel Todd Rundgren—perfectly augmented that off-kilter mood. As a bonus, Crowe tossed Sigur Ros in the mix three years before Steve Zissou and his crew confronted the jaguar shark to the tune of “Staralfur.” —Rachael Maddux
7. High Fidelity [Hollywood Records] (2000)
Like the “play at home” version of the movie, High Fidelity’s soundtrack lets you, the viewer, act out all the best scenes from the film. Anguish over an ex-lover to the 13th Floor Elevators! Turn people on to the Beta Band! Make your sweetheart a mixtape to Stevie Wonder! Stand in the rain to Bob Dylan! The game’s as fun as the movie is funny. —Austin L. Ray
6. Juno [Rhino Records] (2007)
Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s hearbreakingly clever and lovely film deserved nothing less than a heartbreakingly clever and lovely soundtrack, and that’s just what it got, from the opening scene tracked to Barry Louis Polisar’s “All I Want Is You” to Michael Cera and Ellen Page’s clumsy rendition of the Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You.” What could have been a smorgasboard of toothaching twee fare from Belle & Sebastian and Kimya Dawson is balanced by retro cuts from The Kinks and Buddy Holly, echoing the film’s tension between precocity and naivete. —Rachael Maddux
5. Almost Famous [Dreamworks] (2000)
The soundtrack of this decade’s best cinematic ode to the glory years of rock ‘n’ roll could’ve just been a greatest hits of assorted tunes by Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Allman Brothers. While those bands do show up, the compilation plays more like the best classic rock mixtape your dad never made, including perfect live versions (Bowie covering The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”) and under-appreciated album cuts (The Who’s “Sparks” from Tommy). And after the movie’s sing-along scene, only the soulless can resist “Tiny Dancer.” —Justin Jacobs
4. Garden State [Sony] (2004)
Despite the movie’s bemoaned status among sentiment-allergic hipsters, this Grammy-winning collection of songs still packs a sweet punch. The surprising mix of indie darlings The Shins with classic artists like Nick Drake and Simon & Garfunkel alongside the up-tempo electronica of Frou Frou and Thievery Corporation made this album a pure pleasure from beginning to end. —Emily Riemer
3. I’m Not There [Sony] (2007)
Six different actors portrayed Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ audacious 2007 biopic, and several dozen artist tackled the grizzled one’s oevure on this two-disc soundtrack. From the mellow, brass-tinged saunter of Jim James and Calexico’s take on “Goin’ to Acapulco” to Karen O & The Million Dollar Basher’s wiry take on “Highway 61 Revisited” on disc 1, to Mason Jennings’ “The Times They Are A Changin’” (to which Christian Bale lip-synched as Jack Rollins) and Antony and the Johnsons’ haunting rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” it was as true a tribute to Dylan’s musical legacy as the film was to his smoke-and-mirrors persona. —Rachael Maddux
2. Once [Columbia] (2007)
We hear a lot about break-up records, but The Frames’ Glen Hansard and newcomer Markéta Irglová gave us the loveliest falling-in-love record of the decade, as the Once co-stars fell slowly for one another, both on-screen and off. Hansard’s voice is as vulnerable as an open wound, and Irglová’s is the salve that makes everything OK. —Josh Jackson
1. O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Mercury] (2001)?
This old-timey country album and most unlikely hit may have signaled the last gasp of alternative country. On the bright side, it suggested that those alt-country values (rough-hewn vocals, acoustic instrumentation, a palpable connection to American roots music) had busted out of the sub-genre ghetto and crossed over into the mainstream. After all, the album did win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Some of our favorite female vocalists—one-named artists like Emmylou and Gillian—got much-deserved exposure thanks to this collection, which scored a freewheeling Coen Bros movie and did nothing but good for all concerned. —Nick Marino