Stay tuned for the corresponding 5 worst films, coming tomorrow...
5. Farenheit 9-11 (2004). I'm no big fan of Michael Moore, but the man does know how to get the most out of pop music. Sure, it's heavy handed (insert Moore weight-related joke here) but it's heavy-handed in the best and most exuberant way -- almost as if Moore really believes he can score more political points with pop than with actual argument or evidence. In almost all cases he's right: especially when he streams the Go-Go's "Vacation" over clips of Bush at Crawford, and "Shiny Happy People" over Carlyle Group-Saudi handshakes. Best of all is the 2-second overdub of "Cocaine" while Moore discusses Bush's truancy in the National Guard. The movie is full of holes, but that is a brilliant moment.
4. Buffalo '66 (1998). I have an admitted soft spot for prog rock, but it's not that soft, and I would never willingly sit down and listen to Yes's "Heart of the Sunrise" just because I wanted to. Yet in this movie, a personal fave, that song-- along with a few other Yes and King Crimson tunes -- is taken so far beyond its potential that I went out and bought The Yes Album. The final scene where Vincent Gallo finally confronts Buffalo Bills kicker "Scott Wood" is especially awesome.
3. Zodiac (2007). An underrated film whose subtle soundtrack makes '60s and '70s San Francisco ooze all around you. No obvious period choices, here: Scott McKenzie, Mick Jagger, and Grace Slick have been temporarily exiled to Oakland. Instead, a brilliant use of slightly dustier pop classics, both good and bad: Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" wafts in eerily during the first murder; Santana's noodly "Soul Sacrifice" captures the onset of the decadent '70s. And don't you think bedgraggled, sideburns-sporting Frisco cops on the tail of the Zodiac probably DID spend a lot of time in bars that played Gerry Rafferty, Boz Scaggs, and Steely Dan?
2. Easy Rider (1969). A cliched choice, but an Important one. By some accounts, Dennis Hopper canceled a proposed CSN score and more or less invented the idea of re-using existing pop music in a feature film. Personal favorite moments, besides the obvious Steppenwolf opening: the naked frolicking with hippie chicks during "Wasn't Born to Follow," which first drew me to the Byrds, at age 17, but sadly did not augur any naked frolicking of my own; and the Roger McGuinn take on "It's Alright Ma," which I still prefer, sacreligiously, to the original Dylan.
1. Donnie Darko (2001). In its own way, this is an even more obvious selection than Easy Rider. But it's unavoidable: this movie led me directly to purchase no fewer than six albums (two Echo albums, and one record each by The Church, Joy Division, Tears For Fears, and Duran Duran). In a very real sense, Donnie Darko gave me the gift of the '80s. Dubious, but undeniably catchy -- and memorable, too. "The Killing Moon" manages to make c. 1988 suburbia both ominous and fascinating, in under 3 minutes; "Head Over Heels" is the perfect introduction to Donnie's school; and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which only gets about 20 seconds of background airplay, nevertheless establishes itself as the ultimate party song. I don't know if I can count Gary Jules's final, heartbreaking cover of "Mad World," which was specially recorded for the movie. But Darko doesn't even need the help. It wins anyway.