Just in time for the decade’s final Academy Awards, a look back at the greatest music moments from every Best Picture nominee since 2010
The Oscars give out 24 awards each year, and exactly two of them are related to music.
That’s a shame for a few reasons, but namely because, by my (totally, objectively scientific) calculations, about 99.94 percent of all great movie scenes interact with music in some way.
Whether its Casablanca’s iconic piano man, Jaws’ unforgettable score or Shrek’s fateful decision to set its opening sequence to a Smash Mouth song, music is as inseparable from the history of cinema as, well Smash Mouth now is from Shrek movies.
So yes, music could use some more love at the Oscars. But considering the Academy’s total inability to make a concrete decision about anything regarding its awards show, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. No biggie though, we can just do it for them instead.
That’s what this list is here to do. A Best Music Moment™ category would’ve made sense six decades ago, but the idea is more important now than ever. Here a few reasons why:
- The Oscars have had a rocky history with music movies. In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s musicals and music-heavy films regularly took home the award for Best Picture, but that’s changed in the past 40 years. Since 1980, only two movies that could be described as particularly musical—Amadeus and Chicago—have won it.
- This year’s awards are more music-heavy than almost any in recent memory. The eight Best Picture nominees alone, gave us a movie about a famous singer, a movie about fictional famous singer and a largely fictional movie about an actually famous pianist—not to mention the nominee with a soundtrack produced by Kendrick Freaking Lamar.
- This is a fun though experiment, so just play along.
A quick note before we start: This list only applies to films that have been nominated for Best Picture during the past decade. Sadly, that excludes music-heavy movies like Moana, Inside Llewyn Davis and yes, even Frozen. Lastly, we’re looking specifically at moments, not entire films. That’s important, because it means it’s possible for an otherwise bad movie to make the list. For example…
12. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – Rami Does Live Aid
Bohemian Rhapsody had no problem lying, reframing and fake-teething its way through Queen’s history, and that’s more than enough to make it a hateable film. But no matter how you feel about the movie’s many, many problems, its climax offers a beautifully shot, infinitely energized breather.
The 20ish-minute scene is a full-on adrenaline shot: it’s expertly filmed, meticulously choreographed and so viscerally exciting that you can almost forget everything else wrong with this movie.
11. ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ – The Big Dance
For being a movie about self acceptance and mental health, Silver Linings Playbook is also kind of just a movie about betting on a dance competition. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s surprisingly good routine is a five-minute summary of everything David O. Russell’s film wants to say about life: it’s goofy, occasionally sloppy and always full of surprises.
10. ‘The Shape of Water’ – The Big Fish Dance
In what is somehow the most unusual scene in a movie about literally falling in love with a fish, protagonist Elisa finds herself transported to a glitzy television program, entranced by music. It’s an alternative TV reality where she can not only talk, but even sing—and, more importantly, express her love openly.
Yes, it seems weird to watch a fish ballroom dance with a singing mute woman, but isn’t that kind of the point? At its best, The Shape of Water is a movie about finding and embracing your personal identity, and this scene captures that better than any other.
9. ‘Call Me By Your Name’ – The Big Armie Hammer Dance
There are few things more aesthetically pleasing than watching Armie Hammer fist pump and white-converse-slide his way through a hot Italian summer. The Psychedelic Furs-soundtracked scene is more than just a vibe though: it serves as the film’s thematic crux, during which Timothée Chalamet Elio fully realizes his love for Hammer’s Oliver.
8. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ – Yes, They Have Distortion Pedals in the Apocalypse
In days of olde, a drummer or trumpeter might signify a coming battle, rallying troops as war looms ahead. But in Mad Max’s futuristic wasteland, it’s a heavy metal guitar, because why wouldn’t it be?
The crazed, harnessed soldier, who is apparently known as the Doof Warrior, is a hilarious-but-crucial part of this film’s masterful world-building. There’s no telling in Fury Road, only showing: and sometimes, that showing means letting a dude fly around a stack of amps like a post- apocalyptic Kirk Hammett.
7. ‘La La Land’ – A Very Unromantic Love Song
Is it even fair to let La La Land compete here? As a musical about the addictive, often painful journey toward stardom, Damien Chazelle’s 2016 darling is jam-packed with music moments. But “A Lovely Night,” the song-and-dance number performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone during their first night together, stands above the rest.
It’s a love song about not being in love, and Gosling and Stone perform it with perfect, cynical detachment. First they’re walking and complaining, then they’re singing and complaining; eventually they’re tap dancing their way through the Hollywood Hills, completely caught up in the excitement of a night they claim the other is ruining.
6. ‘Inception’ – That Noise (Come On, You Know the One)
Some movies take paragraphs to explain; Inception takes one sound. Almost anyone on earth can recognize Christopher Nolan’s 2010 dream-drama from a singular “BRAMM,” and that’s a feat in itself.
But the noise’s importance to the movie (and for that matter, almost every movie trailer for years to come) has become wildly underrated. Hans Zimmer’s assertive, blowhorn of a film score feels just as powerful as the idea of controlling someone else’s dream, and it’s impossible to imagine the movie without it.
5. ‘Black Panther’ – The Chase
It shouldn’t be uncommon for movie studios to collaborate with generational songwriters, yet somehow Black Panther felt revolutionary. Kendrick Lamar’s supercharged soundtrack gives a sense of style and authenticity to the Marvel film, and his hip-hop-infused music blends seamlessly with Ludwig Göransson’s score.
This musical blending lends itself to one of the film’s greatest achievements: its ability to feel both completely epic and believably grounded; existing in fiction and reality all at the same time.
That concept is sharpest during T’Challa’s South Korean car chase, which finds the score sliding between Vince Staples’ rapping and Göransson’s traditional drum beats. It’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.
4. ‘Get Out’ – Stay Woke!
Get Out begins with a terrifying kidnapping, but it really begins with Childish Gambino. Jordan Peele lets us into his 2017 thriller with a clear warning, as the chorus to Gambino’s “Redbone” reminds the film’s viewers—and characters, in more ways than one—to “stay woke.”
It’s a perfect touch: just on-the-nose enough to make sense and just subtle enough to slip through the cracks on first watch. Like everything in Get Out, the music is about a lot more than what’s on the surface.
3. ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – The McConaugh-Song
It’s the music moment that was never supposed to happen. You’ve probably already heard the story about how Matthew Mcconaughey and Martin Scorsese improvised this wild, 50-second meme machine into the movie, but that doesn’t make its origins any less legendary.
The song is total nonsense. It’s also a perfectly raw moment, fueled by an actor at his absolute peak impersonating a man who is at least three lines of cocaine into his Monday morning. It doesn’t really matter if you think this scene is funny, genius or somewhere in between—either way, you’ll never forget the first time you saw it.
2. ‘A Star Is Born’ – Do We Even Need To Name This One?
Do we even need to describe it either? The original “Shallow” performance is a musical and cinematic masterwork in every sense of the word: it’s the best, most important scene in what is possibly the year’s best and most important movie.
It’s a moment that will probably go down in cinematic history, and one we’ll be just wanting to take another look at for years to come.
1. ‘Whiplash’ – The Finale
Whiplash might be the best movie about music made this century, and its ending somehow exceeds that high praise. The film’s last scene—in which drummer Andrew Neyman finally becomes the generational musician his abusive teacher had always hoped for—is jazz porn at its absolute finest.
Chazelle’s direction is almost nauseating, flashing into new angles and perspectives with the same unpredictability of a freeform jazz solo. But it’s what the music does, not how it looks, that makes this moment truly transcendent.
Neyman’s drumming is fueled by so much emotion—regret, revenge, ambition, passion—and that all comes across in a scene that has hardly any dialog. Whiplash is a film about one-minded obsession, and it concludes exactly how a movie like that should: We don’t need monologues; we don’t need a spoken resolution; all we need is music, and that’s all we get.