As powerful as The Image in cinema can be, sometimes the right song placed at the right time can have the transcending power to turn a given scene into the type of raw, emotional experience that keeps most of us returning back to the movies over and over.
Though I've given this list the not-so-dubious "Top 5" title, I would like it to be known that this is pretty far from comprehensive, and these 5 are basically off the top of my head. Nevertheless, they are 5 moments that completely blew me away (note: there may be spoilers). I've also limited it to songs that are not original to the films, as opposed to original scores, as that opens a whole new area that I would really have to think about. In no order:
Roy Orbison's "Crying" in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive
I'll just go ahead and get this one out of the way. The Club Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite scenes ever, and Rebekah Del Rio's version of "Crying" is an emotional gut punch for the viewer, one that's mirrored by the emotions of the Diane and Rita characters. The whole sequence is just haunting, mysterious and deeply moving, especially when one realizes the significance of the pair's emotional breakdown. I've probably seen it 100 times and it never fails to give me chills.
Corona's "The Rhythm of the Night" in Claire Denis' Beau Travail
I am in awe of this scene, the ending one from Claire Denis' 1999 masterpiece, that manages to take a radio-friendly novelty song like "The Rhythm of the Night" and essentially make it a cathartic canvas for the tortured soul of Denis Levant's Seargent Galoup. The meaning of his wild and uninhibited dance, alone and out of time in the empty dance club, is left up to the viewer. But the raw sense of catharsis present in the scene, along with Levant's force-of-nature performance, makes it one of the most breathtaking endings I've ever seen.
The Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" in Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz
Yes, I am one of those who consider Fassbinder's 15 hour magnum opus to be one of the great achievements in all of cinema. It's a bleak, emotional roller coaster matched by few, and it's most heartbreaking moment comes in the wild and surrealist two-hour Epilogue. The moment involves our tortured protagonist Franz Biberkopf, in odd makeup that gives him the appearance of a sad clown, begging his enemy (for lack of a better word) Reinhold to release him from his suffering. Franz, who has been through the ringer over and over again, proclaims with tears in his eyes "I don't know anyone who's suffered like me, so pitifully, so wretchedly." while the haunting chorus to the Underground's "Candy Says" hums in the background. It's a moment of overwhelming power and honesty that's stayed with me ever since I first viewed this masterpiece.
The Commodores' "Nightshift" in Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum
For my money, no one uses music better in movies these days than Denis, and another example is her wonderful 35 Shots of Rum. In a diner late at night, a father dances with his daughter, and as the opening notes to The Commodores' ode to lost loved ones begins, the father steps aside to let her boyfriend have the next dance. He then watches the portrait of young love in front of him with sad, resigned eyes as inevitability strikes him. While the father's loss is of a different sort than that in the song, the connection is not lost, and never has such an epochal life epiphany been played so subtly and tenderly.
The Cranberries' "Dreams" in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express
Though the song (Faye Wong's version of course) plays multiple times throughout this movie - my favorite from Wong Kar-wai by the way - the greatest is the part where it plays over the montage of Faye cleaning and redecorating the apartment of cop 663 (which she has broken into) with feverish glee. There is a pure joy and exhilaration to this scene that never fails to put a smile on my face, no matter how down and out I am. It also helps that Wong's version of the song is killer - and perhaps even catchier than the original. It's a movie I cherish and a scene I have watched countless times. Pure cinematic exuberance.
Feel free to leave any of your favorites in the comments.