12 Years A Slave

9. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” - "12 Years A Slave"
When we first meet Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s wrenching tale, we’re introduced an educated, erudite, and popular man who doesn’t seem to need religion to balance what is already a successful and fulfilling life. But one of the film’s more intriguing thematic undercurrents, and one that seems to have taken a backseat in discussions that tend to center on the unflinching brutality in the drama, is how Solomon sees the absolute worst in humanity and yet still finds solace and hope in the simple act of singing a spiritual. As depicted through Michael Fassbender’s loathsome slave owner/amateur preacher Edwin Epps, Christianity was warped to give permission to and rationalize no shortage of horrors, many of which Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon bears witness to. And yet, through all the abuse, beatings and the breaking of his very soul, Solomon clings desperately to the last scrap of hope that still dwells in whatever is left of the shattered shell of his weary body and mind. And it comes through beautifully in the deeply moving “Roll, Jordan, Roll” sequence, with Solomon first joining in tentatively with his fellow slaves, then wholeheartedly, calling and singing out with everything he’s got because his life depends on it “I want to go to heaven when I die.” It’s a lyric loaded with meaning, in a scene that not only says much about the character of Solomon, but perhaps McQueen’s perspective on human nature, it’s indefatigable ability to withstand even the harshest cruelties and the optimism that there is something nobler, and better, watching over us all.


Inside Llewyn Davis

8. "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" - "Inside Llewyn Davis"
You could probably fill this list entirely with moments from the Coen Brothers' latest masterpiece (and a film that, arguably, comes even closer to being a full-on musical than "O Brother Where Art Thou" did). There's Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan's lovely duet (and who would have thought that would be a combination we'd ever see singing folk music on screen?) on "500 Miles," the gorgeous "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)," which even makes Marcus Mumford's off-screen presence into something oddly haunting, and, of course, the unforgettably hilarious "Please Mr. Kennedy." But the one that's really stuck with us is the very first one of the film, as Oscar Isaac's title character performs the track "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" (popularized by folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the loose inspiration for Llewyn Davis) at the Gaslight Cafe.  It's a crucial moment, where we have to see the sheer talent that our hero possesses so that we can still feel for him when he's behaving like an ass, or verging on squandering it, and Isaac absolutely nails it: his rich voice and delicate guitar picking are enough to make you think that he might be some unsung 1960s Greenwich Village folkie frozen by the Coens and unearthed just to make the movie. Shot in smoky close-ups by the Coens and DP Bruno Delbonnel, it might not be the showiest scene here, but it might be the most soulful. There's no clip available of it, unfortunately, but to make up for it, here's Grizzly Bear frontman Daniel Rossen covering the song.

20 feet from stardom

7. “Gimme Shelter” - “20 Feet From Stardom”
Music aficionados probably know this one already. In recent years there’s been a trend towards excavating isolated tracks from classic pop and rock songs—the intricate drum tracks on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” or “Whole Lotta Love” by John Bonham, John Entwistle’s wobbly bass lines from "My Generation,” George Harrison’s passionate solo from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” etc. The list goes on and on. The excellent Morgan Neville-directed "20 Feet from Stardom" shines the spotlight on the often anonymous and (ironically) unsung heroes of rock n' roll: back-up singers. And it features it’s own soon-to-be iconic moment of isolated vocals. In the doc, it tells the story of Martin Scorsese’s oft-used classic, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and the backup singer, Merry Clayton, who was called into the studio in the middle of the night to sing the chilling siren call of “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.” In the mix of the song you all know, Clayton’s voice is heard, but its a subtle additive elevating the song in a way you’re probably not quite conscious of. “20 Feet From Stardom” plays the isolated vocal in a studio while interviewing Merry Clayton and holy fucking shit, this moment not only gives you immediate alarming chills, but it blows your hair back. You have to see it in context to truly understand it—especially with Mick Jagger and Clayton describing the vocal cut right before it plays (you even hear Jagger exclaim, “whoo!” in the middle of her take)—but even listening to it just as an isolated track is a transformative experience that communicates the eerie darkness of the song. And Kudos to Neville for finally giving all these ladies their rightful due.