10 Best Overlooked Movie Soundtracks in the History of Film

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation/Photo © 2003 Focus Features

The more common version of this list, the Greatest Soundtracks in the History of Film, has been done out the wazoo. The reason for that is its relative ease of formulation. Just as we can look to Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and some general box offices numbers to establish a compendium of great films, we also possess accessible metrics for measuring the influence of cinematic music: first in the form of the Billboard Hot 100 and radio play, then record and CD sales, and now iTunes and its many iterations.

But while everyone knows that "Saturday Night Fever," "The Bodyguard," and "A Hard Day's Night" often top the charts that rank successful film soundtracks, those rankings are less concerned with the contribution of the music to the film itself and more inclined toward acknowledging the excellence of the standalone two-disc CD set. Yes, "I Have Nothing." "Queen of the Night," and "I Will Always Love You" amount to a splendiferous amount of cash and casual listening, but they could do little to save Mick Jackson "The Bodyguard" from widespread critical apathy.

In a similar vein, Cameron Crowe is a director often charged with being too precious with his musical curating, often allowing it to dominate his films to a detrimental extent. "Vanilla Sky" is often cited as possessing one of the most assorted and ambitious soundtracks of the past two decades, but, in the end, the music overtook the plot, allowing it to collapse into moody fragments of itself. "Elizabethtown" actually used its soundtrack in 2005 as its third-act narrative -- and we all remember how that turned out.

So what should be the goal in putting your movie to music? I offer this: a fine balance, a rare selection, and a good result. With that in mind, let's take a look at ten often overlooked soundtracks that enthusiastically demonstrate our credo.

1. "Reality Bites" (1994)
Massive in scope, Ben Stiller's choice of tunes for his mid-1990s Houston romance romp hits the aimlessness of Generation X'ers perfectly, each of his songs capturing anything from supreme musical confidence ("My Sharona") to sexual confusion ("Spin the Bottle").

2. "Dazed and Confused" (1993)
While Linklater's latest film, "Boyhood" (2014), has seemingly accomplished the impossible, transforming previously clichéd songs such as Coldplay's "Yellow" into poignant nostalgic gestures, his musical work on "Dazed and Confused" is notable simply because it's not a common compendium of 1970s hits, giving us a real taste of what these people actually were listening to on the last day of school, 1976.

3. "Wayne's World" (1992)
Responsible for re-charting "Bohemian Rhapsody," the rest of the soundtrack for Penelope Spheeris and Mike Myers's comic masterpiece is the perfect accompaniment to good-natured metalheads, even with Alice Cooper's bizarre penis anthem, "Feed My Frankenstein."

4. "Midnight Cowboy" (1969)
The originally controversial subject matter of John Schlesinger's movie (enough to garner an "X" rating) is offset by a series of American folk variations, famously led by Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin.'"

5. "Lost in Translation" (2003)
Sofia Coppola's modern classic draws perfect inspiration from the emotional isolation of its three main characters, played by Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, and Giovanni Ribisi. Along with Kevin Shields's gorgeous score, the film is a pristine document of the filmic medium: sparse in words yet abundant in image.

6. "The Broken Circle Breakdown" (2012)
A major presence in the film circuit two years ago, Felix van Groeningen directs his Belgian cast with marvelous sensitivity in their renditions of both traditional and modern Bluegrass and Folk.

7. "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1999)
A strange choice for the list? Most certainly. But John McTiernan completely nails the Caucasian, self-obsessed, over-forty, multimillionaire demographic with his hopelessly sexy selections from Bill Conti and others.

8. "Austin Powers" (1997)
How Jay Roach and Mike Myers found some of these ingeniously silly and groovy tracks from the swinging sixties is beyond me. But the fact is, what may have started as careful comedic planning ended up becoming one of the most far-out soundtracks in movie history.

9. "Pretty Woman" (1990)
Most of the songs from this love-it-or-hate-it Julia Roberts film have fallen prey to the hungry wolves of time, revealing themselves only during their perfect placement in Garry Marshall's seminal romantic comedy. What they have in common is their baroque similarity to the excesses of the late 1980s and early 1990s, matching the indulgent materiality of the film.

10. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986)
The hard and fast rule of John Hughes's films was to avoid musical clichés, opting instead to reveal the emotional truth of a scene in often rarified song choices. From Yello's "Oh Yeah" to The Smiths's "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want," Hughes was the great predecessor of Cameron Crowe, purposefully calling upon an eclectic source of English and American Pop to get his point across.

  • Brett

    In the history of film, huh? I signed up simply to say I'm never coming back to this site ever.

  • Chicago_animal

    This list has no merit without the "Singles" soundtrack.

  • AMac

    What--no, "The Big Easy?" Dude.

  • Alex

    Who picked these! No "Boogie Nights" or any other Paul Thomas Anderson flick?

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