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