The 50 Greatest Musical Numbers in Movie History


It doesn't really feel like we're living in a golden age of movie musicals. The days of all singing, all dancing Technicolor spectacle are well behind us, the fantasy of emotion bursting into immaculately choreographed showstoppers almost exclusively replaced by the fantasy of men bursting into chaotically choreographed battles dressed as bats, spiders and aliens. While a recent resurgence of traditional musicals has given hope to fans of the genre, the films themselves have hardly made this a revival worth celebrating – "Chicago" is often regarded as a stain on the Academy Awards, "Mamma Mia!" introduced the world to Pierce Brosnan's singing voice, and last year's "Les Misérables" was less of a tribute to a Broadway classic than it was a studio gluing a camera onto a three-legged chair and having famous people shout at it until money came out.

Having said that, the cinema without songs would be like a novel without exclamation points. From the moment Al Jolson ushered the world into the era of synched sound, it was clear that movies and musical numbers were destined to have a very special relationship. When Hollywood began to deviate its attentions, independent and foreign filmmakers naturally picked up the slack, and movies as disparate as "Dancer in the Dark" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" have kept the tradition alive. Of course, the most globally beloved bearers of the flame were Disney musicals like "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid", and this week's "Frozen" finds the Mouse House harkening back to that grand tradition, even if they've ditched lush 2D animation for a more rounded, sterile look.

But if "Frozen" – and "Black Nativity" – are the season's only true musicals, it certainly doesn't feel that way. An argument could easily be made that the Coen brothers' pitch-perfect new film, "Inside Llewyn Davis", is as much of a musical as anything else, its hero's Homeric journey around the East Village folk scene of the 1960s peppered with moving performances that speak the truths he could otherwise never convey to the people around him.  There's also Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty", which – like this summer's "The Great Gatsby" – would be considered as musicals of the highest order if only they ever bothered to show the songs being sung. If anything, the decline of MUSICALS has allowed their spirit to take root in all sorts of unexpected places, making the genre – to the great benefit of movies as a whole – as difficult to classify as documentaries are. Most crucially, other types of films have turned to the musical for inspiration, and many of the most memorable song sequences pop up in stuff that would otherwise be thought of as simple "talkies."

And so, with that overly long prelude out of the way, we present to you's picks for the 50 Greatest Musical Numbers in Movie History. Our criteria was pretty simple: The sequence had to feature singing. That's it. A full cast belting out an iconic Broadway song? Absolutely. A fading movie star warbling through an Elvis Costello classic in a karaoke booth? Why not.

Party time? Excellent.

50.) WAYNE'S WORLD – “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1992)

I don’t think anybody could have expected, before seeing “Wayne’s World”, that Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” would lend quite so well to film — it’s hard to imagine a track that garish and over the top to be slotted into a soundtrack to run without comment. Well, Penelope Spheeris found the workaround: she had her heroes go ahead and sing the song from start to finish, setting a precedent followed by “Wayne's World” enthusiasts to this day. The film imposed upon the world an unspoken rule: if Queen comes on in the car, you have to sing. And rock that air guitar. – Calum Marsh

49.) BLAZING SADDLES – "Tired" (1974)

I can tell you why this scene is great in four simple words: the indispensable Madeline Kahn. As the Marlene Dietrich-inspired Old West showgirl Lili von Shtupp, Kahn commits all her energy to playing a character who's singing about not having any energy. Her not-quite-on-pitch voice and perfunctory stage movement help sell the notion of a performer who's sick of being onstage (which is all the funnier coming from an indefatigable trouper -- and a fine singer -- like Kahn). There's also something deliciously subversive about Ms. von Shtupp openly declaring that she's tired from having too much sex with too many random men. When Mel Brooks is involved, there's no beating around the bush. – Eric D. Snider

48.) TROPICAL MALADY – "Wanasawat" (2004)

Apichatpong Weerasethaul’s “Tropical Malady” is staggeringly beautiful, almost by sleight of hand. It is a film cleaved in two, right down the middle. Most of the breathtaking and provocative images are to be found in the second act, a woodland tale of intimidating magic and spiritual confrontation. Yet it is the humbler first portion of the film that allows this finale to become such an apotheosis of love. “Tropical Malady” begins with a charming and unadorned romance between two young men, one that stays just to the left of saccharine. It’s almost imperceptibly seductive in its joy, in no moment more so than in this odd, almost false musical number. The entire scene is like an enormous smile, with bright purple lipstick. – Daniel Walber

47.) COPACABANA - “Go West, Young Man” (1947)

It’s very probable that “Go West, Young Man”, the comic centerpiece of the late-period Marx comedy “Copacabana”, was written for the film “Go West”, released nearly a decade earlier. But even if it’s a rehashed leftover, it hardly feels like it: to this context it seems ideally suited, with Groucho taking a moment away from his character’s managerial duties to do some of the musical heavy lifting on his own. – CM

46.) BEETLEJUICE – "Day-O" (1988)

How strangely fitting it is that a poltergeist would mess with a group of pretentious, nouveau-riche buffoons by ensnaring them to a work song, as if the true horror of the scenario being not the physical loss of their motor control but the more metaphoric loss of control in having to act out the part of someone below their social rung. Surrounded by the faux-exotic markers of their insipid décor, the characters are attacked by a song that has equally passed from a specific cultural context to an appropriated mainstream pop tune, an appropriate revenge. And then, as all great things must, the scene ends with shrimp hands, maybe the single most perversely delightful image in Tim Burton’s work. – Jake Cole

45.) THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN –  “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (2005)

Perhaps we should have realized that the (literal) climax of Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” would feature something wacky and weird once newly married Andy (Steve Carell) and Trish (Catherine Keener) consummate their love, but we can’t say that a full-cast version of the “Hair” version of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” ever seemed like a viable possibility. It’s certainly one way to celebrate the loss of one’s virginity (liberation!), but the best part of the whole sequence is the game spirit exhibited by the film’s cast, saucy headscarves and all. Also, the revelation that Paul Rudd can’t sing a note somehow only makes him seem more endearing.  – Kate Erbland

44.) LINDA LINDA LINDA – "Linda Linda" (2005)

Nobuhiro Yamashita's "Linda Linda Linda" is one of the most infectiously fun films you've probably never seen. The "Citizen Kane" of the growing sub-genre of "empowerment stories about high school and / or grade school girls forming a band and coming of age in advance of a local talent show", this under-seen 2005 gem is pure bubblegum joy, and a terrific star vehicle for "Cloud Atlas" actress Bae Doo-na. The story of some Japanese teenagers who impulsively enlist the new Korean foreign-exchange student into their band after their lead singer drops out, "Linda Linda Linda" is a movie about the little things that still manages to squeeze in some seriously big moments. Best of all, inevitably, is the climactic school concert, at which the girls band together, cover, and absolutely own The Blue Hearts' classic Japanese karaoke rocker, "Linda Linda". – David Ehrlich

43.) TOP GUN – “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (1986)

The question is not “why do Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards and an entire bar filled with military men somewhat randomly break out into a Righteous Brothers song in the middle of their cult classic film about being in the goddamn Naval aviation academy?,” the question is “why didn’t they do it sooner?” In case the nuances of Cruise’s Maverick had otherwise escaped you, he’s kind of a smoothie, and his in-bar antics are all done to snag a lady – Kelly McGillis’ tough cookie Charlie Blackwood. Why this tactic works, we’ll never know, but damn if this whole sequence isn’t just plain ingrained in everyone’s culture consciousness – and for good reason, it’s a classic. – KE

42.) LILI MARLEEN – "Lili Marleen" (1981)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder gets at the soul of Nazi Germany with the tumultuous life of one-hit wonder “Lili Marleen,” a song that catapults struggling cabaret singer Willie (Hanna Schygulla) into the most powerful circles of the Third Reich. Her discomfort with the regime, her ties to the resistance and her Jewish husband Robert (Giancarlo Giannini) are the backdrop to the ironic, conflicted concert scenes that Fassbinder builds around her. Bombs, gunshots and the regalia of the fascist empire are tossed across Schygulla’s almost viciously edited performance scenes. We are reminded of the war in the context of her success, all built from a single song beloved by soldiers all over a convulsing continent. – Daniel Walber

41.) NASHVILLE – "I'm Easy" (1975)

It's tempting to call Keith Carradine's spell-bindingly confessional the centerpiece of "Nashville", but it's tempting call every song in "Nashville" the centerpiece of "Nashville". Robert Altman's magnum opus is peppered with dozens of songs, the musical performances comprising more than an hour of the film's 160-minute running time (and that's just accounting for the scenes in which the film stops to watch and listen), but few of them are as emotionally loaded as Carradine's ballad, which every girl in the audience thinks he's singing directly to them. "I'm Easy", which Carradine wrote himself and would eventually go on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, is the closest thing to an admission of guilt that womanizing musician Tom Frank will ever be able to muster. Nested in the gentle tune – a pointedly seductive description of Tom's easy come, easy go lifestyle – is the aching heart of a man who often seems not to have one. His words say "No strings attached," but his voice says "I'm incapable of meaningful human connection." Tragically misinterpreted as a mating call, "I'm Easy" is a cry for help laced with a pretty melody. – DE


40.) SKIDOO – “Garbage Can Ballet" (1968)

No time to fully defend Otto Preminger’s much-maligned, actually delightful take on generic ‘60s youth-and-drugs social changes from the parental POV, nor to really explain why there’s a sequence where jail guards doused with acid begin hallucinating a bunch of trash cans dancing in clunky choreographic formations. The why-not lyrics are typical for Harry Nilsson (“Living in a garbage can can be a lot of fun. It has its ups, do do do do, and downs”), whimsically imagining the love triangles formed among decaying food particles, and the sight of trash cans dancing in shades of post-production red, green et al. isn’t soon forgotten. Fair warning: this has “brief male rear nudity,” as the MPAA would say. – VR

39.) 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU – "You're Just Too Good to Be True" (1999)

Not a deathless classic, but head and shoulders above most of the abysmal late-’90s teen crop, “10 Things I Hate About You” is perhaps most fondly remembered for the unexpected verve of Heath Ledger’s big number, interrupting Julia Stiles’ soccer practice to sing and dance his way through the Frankie Valli number. From the moment he slides down a light pole into the stands, Ledger commands the frame more than pretty much any high school delinquent could possibly, ending with a long-legged dance/stride away from school cops that show up with suspicious quickness. Then it’s back to Letters To Cleo and other “OMG YOU GUYS THE ‘90S” staples. – VR

38.) TALK TO HER –  “Cucurrucú Paloma" (2002)

The clip above has been edited by a YouTube user – the original is unavailable to watch online.

This scene, a performance by Caetano Veloso, is oddly plunked into the middle of Pedro Almodóvar’s masterpiece. It’s a thematic diversion, a moment for the characters and the audience to rest in the presence of great beauty and weep. It serves not only as a centerpiece for one film, but also for the director’s entire body of work. Marisa Paredes and Cecilia Roth appear in the crowd around Veloso, in a brief cameo visitation from “All About My Mother.” It’s like an oasis of sighing contemplation, the ultimate companion to Almodóvar’s taste for raucous melodrama. – DW

37.) GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES - “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love” (1953)

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” features no shortage of great musical numbers, of course, and this spot could just as easily be taken up by some of the more obvious, Marilyn-led showstoppers. But there’s something about Jane Russell’s major solo act, the deleriously sexy “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love”, that seems a cut above. What is it? Russell’s cartoon eyes popping out at the sight of a flexing muscle? That its the rare piece in which nearly naked male bodies are oggled over for their physical qualities? Well, what’s not to love? – CM

36.) SHAME – “New York, New York” (2011)

In “Hunger” and “12 Years a Slave”, Steve McQueen’s technical virtuosity finds itself applied to scenes of abject terror — it’s as if rigor were the only reasonable way to deal with the brutality at the heart of the film. “Shame”, of course, features nothing so severe as starvation or hanging: its tragedy is rather more mundane. And so McQueen is freed up to embellish a quieter moment. Carey Mulligan’s glacial rendition of “New York, New York” lends itself a little too easily to parody, but in practice it feels like the heart of the film — earnest, moving, and depicted with an intensity only McQueen could pull off. – CM

35.) THREE AMIGOS – "My Little Buttercup" (1986)

Even without any context, this scene of Steve Martin and Martin Short singing in a Mexican saloon (with Chevy Chase on piano) is funny, thanks to that old comedy standby, silly dancing (bonus: few people are more adept at silly dancing than Steve Martin and Martin Short). The context only makes it funnier: the Mexican villagers think the Three Amigos are a trio of ruthless gunfighters, not pampered Hollywood stars. Their breaking into song at all, let alone such a dainty song as "My Little Buttercup," makes for a plethora of comedy. (Another bonus: the song was written for the film by Randy Newman, but it sounds like an authentic old-timey vaudeville tune.) – ES

34.) ONCE – “Falling Slowly” (2006)

Everyone’s favorite Irish musical from 2007 is all about the power that music has and its uncanny ability to bring people together (especially stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova). Though the pair’s trademark (and Oscar-winning) duet comes early in the film, it seals their bond and eerily foreshadows the trajectory and nature of their relationship. Simply filmed within a nondescript music store, the scene relies on the chemistry between Hansard and Irglova, along with their stirring talents, to deliver power and personal response. It gave you chills the first time, and it will give you chills every time you experience it thereafter. – KE

33.) HAIRSPRAY – “Welcome to the 60’s” (2007)

Though John Waters’ original take on the tumultuous tale of teen Tracy Turnblad is by far the better of the two “Hairspray” films, his film only includes one original song (“Hairspray” by Rachel Sweet) and zero singing from its actual cast. Adam Shankman’s 2007 remake, however, is packed with original songs (many from the Broadway musical), all performed by the film’s cast. One of the feature’s most memorable numbers features plucky Tracy (Nikki Blonsky), a terrifyingly kitted out John Travolta, and a whole mess of optimism about the changing times. Most impressive? Travolta still has the moves, even when gussied up as a big-boned lady (his accent, however, is a different story). – KE

32.) SOUTHLAND TALES - “All These Things That I’ve Done” (2006)

Ah, “Southland Tales” — perennially maligned, forever misunderstood. Richard Kelly’s great, woefully underappreciated opus is 160-minute sci-fi tour de force, collecting the detritus of our ever-crumbling popular culture and making something beautiful out of it. Its centerpiece, of course, finds Justin Timberlake waltzing around an arcade while lip-synching through the entirety of the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” as uniformed backup dancers cavort behind him — all very much par for the course in Kelly’s world. Is it odd? Perhaps. But is it great? Don’t you forget it. –CM

31.) THE JERK – "Tonight You Belong to Me" (1979)

"The Jerk" is one of the funniest movies created by humans, yet it contains this unabashedly sweet little duet between Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, their soft voices harmonizing as they stroll along the beach to Martin's gentle ukulele-strumming. (The song is an old standard from the '20s that was recorded many times over the decades.) Then comes a joke: out of nowhere, Peters produces a loud, brassy cornet, which she plays flawlessly. After the song there's another bit of sweetness, and then a punchline. The scene is short, simple, tender, funny, and just about perfect. – ES


30.) SINGIN' IN THE RAIN – "Make 'Em Laugh" (1952)

We don't always think of musicals in the context of slapstick comedy, but we should. There's a lot of shared physicality between the world of the gag and the world of the song and dance number, an affinity made quite obvious in Donald O'Connor's performance in "Singin' in the Rain." He delivers "Make 'Em Laugh" in the handful of free seconds he gets between gestures and collisions, catapulting himself across a perfectly perilous movie set and barely surviving. By the end of it he's completely unhinged, transformed into a sprightly comic projectile with nothing to lose. It's like Cole Porter performed by Bugs Bunny, and it's exceptional. – DW

29.) MULHOLLAND DRIVE – "Llorando" (2001)

David Lynch’s musical scenes have always countered the occasional sense of the director making it up as he goes along, aligning various layers of ironic detachment, unbearable earnestness, deception and honesty in concise, expressionistic bursts. “Mulholland Dr.” even turns on such a moment, when Rebekah Del Rio takes a stage at a cavernous but sparsely filled club to sing a Spanish-language rendition of “Crying.” Lynch films Del Rio like a classic torch singer, at once the object of everyone’s attention and utterly alone, and the emotion in her voice suggests that neither Naomi Watts nor Laura Harring had to work hard to conjure tears. Yet the starkness of the unbacked performance suggests something is off even before the soundtrack and image start to diverge, and around the time one remembers that “Crying” is a break-up song, the entire film flips on its head even as the surreal romance comes into its sharpest focus. – JC

28.) FOOTLIGHT PARADE – "By a Waterfall" (1933)

This is as good an example as any of fascist marshaler of bodies Busby Berkeley getting results, putting his beloved chlorines through their kaleidoscopic paces in the second of three back-to-back spectacular closers capping off an otherwise straightforwardly snappy backstage drama. After some opening warbling (love, waterfalls, etc.), Berkeley gets down to business, sending his fleet of female swimmers out into a pool to perform elaborate configurations. Whether seen overhead dividing into amoeba-like clumps before regrouping into disciplined patterns or leered at from underneath via crotch-cam, the dancers are successfully dehumanized into mindless automatons, smiling dutifully while forming one overwhelming pattern after another. – VR

27.) MOULIN ROUGE! – "Elephant Love Medley" (2001)

Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” takes its viewers through the whole glorious spectrum of loving someone, but before Nicole Kidman’s pragmatic Satine can give into Evan McGregor’s dreamy Christian, she needs to see things from his pop culture-soaked perspective. While he attempts to charm her with plenty of sugary love sentiments during the large-scale “Elephant Love Medley,” he finally wins her over with his take on David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Who knew that even French courtesans dig classic glam rock? Christian’s wordsmithery works, the pair croon away together, and their fate is sealed – and for far more than just one day. – KE

26.) HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I – "The Inquisition" (1981)

Mel Brooks’s “History of the World, Part I” is a wild ride through humanity’s greatest achievements, from the invention of fire and the Roman Empire to Hitler on Ice and Jews in Space. Yet it’s also an equally thorough parody of Hollywood’s many genres of high-minded historical filmmaking, spoofing the sword and sandal epic alongside the mannered costume drama. Its single greatest achievement is the Spanish Inquisition sequence, a Busby Berkeley-style number complete with Jackie Mason, iron maidens and a tasteful water ballet. Brooks doesn’t just know his way around a joke, but here shows some pretty incredible skill as a song-writer, performer and director as well. – DW

25.) GREASE  – “Beauty School Dropout” (1978)

“Grease” is packed with countless memorable musical numbers, but there’s undoubtedly something pretty special about Frenchy’s (Didi Conn) creamy, dreamy, totally bonkers Frankie Avalon-starring “Beauty School Dropout” sequence. Who wouldn’t want the former teen idol to serve as their very own velvet-voiced, tough-talking guardian angel? The unabashedly theatrical set design, eye-popping costumes, Frenchy’s dazed look (and Pepto pink hair), and unexpectedly amusing lyrics mark “Beauty School Dropout” as a unique entry into the “Grease” canon, and this is a film that features an entire sequence about a car and a whole bit that involves its leading lady staring into a kiddie pool. – KE

24.) BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S – "Moon River" (1961)

It’s a discovery of innocence, leaning out of your window to find Audrey Hepburn sitting on a sill with her hair in a towel, clutching a guitar and doing her best not to fall off of the fire escape. Now “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and even its poster have perhaps become a bit too iconic, but the song itself has kept its original charm. “Moon River” is, probably, the best tune ever to win the Oscar for Best Original Song (if only because “The Rainbow Connection” lost), and it remains a touchstone of wistfulness. And, to boot, it’s actually Hepburn singing – no Marni Nixon here to show her up on the soundtrack. – DW

23.) A STAR IS BORN – "The Man That Got Away" (1954)

This is it. Not too far into “A Star Is Born,” Judy Garland’s comeback tour de force, this is where she first truly blows the audience away and reminds us why she was a legend in the first place. Director George Cukor just lets her do her thing, and the camera follows her as if in a Judy-induced trance itself. Everything is in this performance, every little inflection that will grow into the driving performance of this 150-minute epic and the agonies and ecstasies of fame in Hollywood. There’s an entire career playing out just on her face, power and tenderness and a deep, ineffable sadness. – DW

22.) MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS – "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (1944)

Where choreographer-directors like Stanley Donen and Bob Fosse’s musical work was characterized by spaces that existed to facilitate performance, Vincente Minnelli’s background as a designer made for musicals that fused space and performance to eliminate any discrepancy between expression and aesthetic. Usually, this is best evidenced by Minnelli’s gargantuan dance numbers, but to know how to extrapolate emotion into form is to also know how to do it with restraint. Case in point: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” a song played out in two static shots that alternate, a close-up of Margaret O’Brien’s sleepy Tootie and a medium-shot of her and sister Esther (Judy Garland).

The florid colors and immaculate interior design of “Meet Me in St. Louis” is scarcely visible here, with the window forming a proscenium to isolate the characters and only a few other objects to divide the frame further. Yet the compositions practically set down the language of “Christmas” in American pop culture terms, its warm lighting mixed with a chill of yearning and uncertainty that sets the very idea of the holiday into stone. In a career filled with pure cinema magic, Minnelli made his most visible impact on culture with these two-and-a-half minutes. – JC

21.) LOST IN TRANSLATION – "More Than This" (2003)

While this is likely the greatest karaoke scene in movie history, it's almost certainly the one with the most crucial dramatic function (apologies to "Duets"). Capping off the iconic Tokyo night-crawl sequence in which fading movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) tags along with the demure Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and her posse of local friends as they blitz the town for The Greatest Night Ever, Bob's strained and subdued performance of Roxy Music's "More Than This" is nothing less than the emotional cornerstone of the entire film. The lyrics, as direct and true as the movie itself, allow Bob to tell Charlotte everything he's feeling about their strange encounter, the song helping to establish an emotional closeness that both compensates for and completely transcends the vulgarity of a fleeting physical relationship. His cracking voice and their shared eye contact in this moment suddenly makes everything real, two drifting travelers simultaneously acknowledging that they've found something to hold onto.


20.) LIFE OF BRIAN – "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (1979)

If you're going to make a scathing comedy about a hapless Israelite at the time of Christ who is mistaken for the Messiah, it's hard to imagine a better ending than a mass crucifixion scene in which one of the condemned men sings a jaunty toe-tapper called "Always Like on the Bright Side of Life." That's basically the whole joke right there, but it's a pretty audacious one, coming at the end of a pretty audacious movie. For added levity, Eric Idle (who also wrote the song) sings in an impish middle-class accent, further deflating any sense of reverence. Then, in true Python fashion, it dissolves into the closing credits, a plug for the soundtrack album "available in the foyer," and some mumbling about how the film will never make its money back. – ES

19.) ERASERHEAD - “In Heaven”

When people invoke the term “Lynchian”, they’re usually describing something nightmarish and vaguely surreal — the sort of thing that scares you even though you can’t quite comprehend its shape or purpose. That isn’t quite accurate. Certainly “In Heaven”, the song twice performed in “Eraserhead” by the tiny lady behind the radiator, qualifies as thoroughly inexplicable and weird, but what’s important is that it isn’t weird or frightening as an end unto itself. It’s a strange moment, but also a beautiful one, an ethereal vision and a rare moment, for Henry, of calm and repose. The sinister qualities are only undertones. But the beauty is right there on the surface. – CM

18.) A SONG IS BORN – "A Song Is Born" (1948)

A novelty number, perhaps, but a good one. Musicologist Danny Kaye has effortlessly rounded up some of America’s most prominent popular musicians at the time, mapped out their genres’ evolutionary relationship to each other in song, and written a little booking narrative for them to sing and demonstrate where they fit in. Virginia Mayo and Kaye are unlikely swinging hosts, but they’re good book-ends for the stupidly stacked room (Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and the Golden Gate Quartet are only a sixth of who’s present) in this surprisingly convincing presentation of American musical history up to the post-war present. – VR

17.) CASABLANCA – "La Marseillaise" (1942)

Music is powerful, emotionally and therefore politically. The Nazis of “Lili Marleen” know this, with their craven co-opting of a song for propaganda. The Nazis of “Casablanca” get it too, shutting down Rick’s Café American over a musical gesture. The German officers sit by a piano and proudly belt out “Die Wacht am Rhein,” an anthem which still gives us chills. Then Victor Laszlo orders the orchestra to take up “La Marseillaise,” leading to a visceral, gripping distillation of an entire war. It’s brief but unforgettable, a sonic clash that stands in for the strife of a fragmented and tortured world. – DW

16.) BEFORE SUNSET – "Let Me Sing You a Waltz" (2004)

"I f**ked up my whole life because of the way you sing."

Nine years later, that's what Jesse would tell Celine during the climactic argument of "Before Midnight", poor word choice forcing an intended compliment to be heard as a scathing shock of resentment. But we know what he meant. Nine years before (Sunrise), they began to fall in love under the spell of a different song, sitting silently in a Vienna music booth as Kath Bloom's "Come Here" helped a chance encounter blossom into an unforgettable one-night stand. But for many fans of Richard Linklater's note-perfect trilogy, it's the middle chapter that sounds the sweetest. Having reconnected in a Parisian bookstore almost a decade after the only day they'd ever spent together, lost loves Jesse and Celine walk the city in real-time, answering an eternity of questions in 80 fleeting minutes.

It's obvious that, in their mutual absence, they've allowed each other to metastasize into the living embodiment of their hopes and regrets, parallel lives just waiting for the chance to cross. Jesse is in Celine's hometown because he wrote a novel about their night together, but it isn't until the final scene that we fully understand the extent to which their feelings echo one another. As Celine sings Jesse a song she wrote about him, their mythic love story becomes suddenly, irreversibly real. – DE

15.) THE MUPPET MOVIE – The Rainbow Connection (1979)

“The Muppet Movie” is silly, outrageous and more than a little bit self-aware. It’s also among the warmest, most genuinely positive achievements in the history of American cinema, up there with “The Wizard of Oz” and the earnest parables of Frank Capra. Kermit the Frog is the little green hero that represents the best of us, a felt icon of our loftiest goals and dreams. This has never been truer than in this swamp-bound opening number, our cinematic introduction to Kermit and his longing for a richer, more colorful world. – DW

14.) THE GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 – "Remember My Forgotten Man" (1933)

“Gold Diggers of 1933” is about as big as Pre-Code can get, its post-WWI and Depression angst exploded on a vast scale of Busby Berkeley choreography that somehow remains true to the direct ‘n dirty style that makes the period of filmmaking so exciting. Everything culminates in the showstopper “Remember My Forgotten Man,” which foregrounds the political backdrop of the film in a way that clarifies the primary preoccupation with the “vulgarity” of the showgirls who center the story. As Etta Moten moans homilies to shellshocked and impoverished veterans and Joan Blondell dejectedly sighs as if it wasn’t worth the effort to sing anymore, the measures they have taken to get ahead is brought into sharp relief against a dizzying work of filmmaking that scans over vast but barren sets, dissolves into pure cinema and back again until it has conflated trenches and bread lines into one great machine of death. If that way, the decent way, is the alternative, who could possibly fault the women for finding a less miserable way? The musical exists to elevate emotions to the most audacious displays, and the sheer anger of this number is terrifying to face directly. – JC

13.) CABARET – "Cabaret" (1972)

Everything about Liza Minnelli’s final number in Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” is iconic, from her haircut to that purple dress. It’s a distillation of the musical’s spirit, a final parting word for a world still trying to figure out what to actually make of fascism and the demise of Europe. It’s “Lili Marleen” but with an American sense of optimism and an even sexier sense of anarchic glee. Fosse shoots Minnelli with reckless abandon, cutting about at unexpected moments and bouncing between odd angles. The film itself joins Sally Bowles in her boozy profession of faith, and invites us along for the ride. – DW

12.) BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – "Be Our Guest" (1991)

The song itself is a masterpiece of showtune construction, a perfect mix of Howard Ashman's lively, rhyme-filled lyrics and Alan Menken's impossibly catchy music, which starts slow and gradually builds, with each of four key changes, to a thunderous, bring-the-house-down climax. Then there's the animation, which almost convinces us we're watching an intricately choreographed Busby Berkeley-style stage production with a cast of hundreds. (Kudos to the artists for using characters that don't have legs to create a kick-line.) It wasn't uncommon for applause to break out in movie theaters at the end of this showstopper, which might be the high point of Disney's animated musical numbers. –ES

11.) ALMOST FAMOUS – “Tiny Dancer” (2000)

“I have to go home.” “You are home.”

It’s probably not the answer young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is expecting from the divine Miss Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) after a particularly bad night and rough morning spent wrangling the drug-fueled golden god known as Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), but it’s the right one. For a film about a band (well, sort of), Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” neglects to show just how much the dudes of Stillwater actually like music, until their cramped tour bus spontaneously breaks out into song, a transcendent, glorious moment that makes everyone feel like they’re at home, if only for a tiny minute. – KE


10.) A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – “Singin in the Rain” (1971)

Kubrick never found a piece of iconography he couldn’t cleverly subvert, as much of his bleak, brutal adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange” handily proves — here he runs the gamut from Beethoven (the favored pastime of a murderous teen, naturally) to his own filmography (check the “2001” record sleeve at the shoppes), and, of course, “Singin in the Rain”, which he not so much recontextualizes as utterly perverts. Here Stanley Donen’s beloved musical centerpiece becomes a moment of unbridled terror, when Alex Delarge makes it an impromptu soundtrack for a bit of the old ultraviolence. It’s hard to hear it the same way again. –CM

9.) PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE – "Somebody Super Like You" (1974)

The outraged phantom (William Finley) watches as a group of vulgarian glam-rockers take his sensitive work and camp it up for a crowd of screaming girls, complete with killing off mannequin members of the crowd. It’s a delightfully creepy sequence from the get-go, taking place against a “Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari” stage set, but the climax is literal murder as the phantom kills lead singer Beef (Gerrit Graham) with one of his own electric neon lightning bolts. “Somebody get a fire extinguisher” yells an unflappable stagehand, an appropriate punchline for Brian De Palma’s contemptuous staging of arena schlock. – VR

8.) NASHVILLE – "Dues" (1975)

Nobody knew how to pack a sequence with information quite like Robert Altman. There's more going on in the three or so minutes that Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), the cracking belle of the Nashville music scene, performs for the Opryland audience than there is in most entire films. As the fragile singer knocks "Dues" out of the park (the timelessly lovelorn song is a Blakley original), days after recovering from severe burns and minutes before succumbing to a nervous breakdown, two familiar men sit next to each other in the front row and watch the showstopper through very different eyes. As Geraldine Chaplin's pesky BBC reporter appears out of nowhere to interview them, at least four different plot threads knot together, held tight by the magnetic power of Barbara Jean's song. The clarity of her voice is magnified a thousand times over by the chaos of her circumstances, and the magnetism of her performance overwhelms everything around her, reminding us why the music brought all these people together in the first place. – DE

7.) WEST SIDE STORY – "Tonight Quintet" (1961)

This quintet version of the first act love poem shared by Tony and Maria is perhaps the greatest ensemble number in any of the great classic Hollywood musicals. It is not easy to capture the simultaneity of the stage, the ability to place a group of actors in the same physical space but still convince an audience that they’re in different settings. In a movie this has to be done with editing, turning every ensemble into a montage sequence almost by definition. Preserving the urgency and scope of these moments talks great skill, and very few films succeed as “West Side Story” does here. It’s thrilling and beautiful. – DW

6.) DANCER IN THE DARK – "I've Seen It All" (2000)

Everything about this scene screams "acquired taste", but once you feel it, pretty much every other musical feels flimsy and fake. Like a classic album without an obvious single, it's hard to isolate one standout track from Lars von Trier's irrepressibly sadistic Palme d'Or-winning opus, but "I've Seen it All" is certainly the film's most audacious number, and perhaps also the most lucid distillation as to the strange confluence of talents that make this movie work so well. Björk, in the only film role she'll ever need, plays Selma, a musical-obsessed single mother who's quickly going blind. Eking out a meager existence in the hopes of being able to afford an operation that will save her son from the same degenerative eye disorder, Selma is the Platonic Ideal of von Trier's "golden hearts", a vaguely magical woman who's beset by misfortunate on all sides. Musicals are Selma's only reprieve from misery, her own world – filmed in the murky, handheld style endemic to Dogme 95 – bursting into lavish digital clarity as she slips into song.

"I've Seen It All" is effectively Selma's fight song, as – with the help of 100 cameras and almost as many dancing extras – she tells her besotted co-worker (Peter Stormare) about why her life will still be worth living without sight. The earnestness of Selma's delivery makes a deeply moving contrast against the visual magnificence of the spectacle around her, the sequence held together by one of the best songs Björk has ever written, and somehow improved by Stormare's complete inability to sing it.

5.) THE PRODUCERS – "Springtime for Hitler" (1967)

Here's a terrific song with a hummable tune and clever rhymes ("We're marching to a faster pace / Look out, here comes the master race"), laugh-worthy even without the visual aspects. But the visual aspects are an amazingly faithful reproduction of a typical Broadway musical number, made hilarious by small touches (the dancers wearing German-themed costumes like pretzels and beer) and by the incongruous subject matter. When the dancing Nazis arrange themselves into a slowly rotating swastika, you're looking at what might be the greatest musical sight gag in history. The whole thing is perfectly tasteless, which is exactly what it's supposed to be within the film. – ES

4.) TOP HAT – "Top Hat, White Tie And Tails" (1935)

Fred Astaire’s sartorial assertion of self starts on a stage against a fleet of anonymous dancers dressed with the same punctiliously correct blandness. Astaire sings the opening and does a solo effort after the backup dancers, but the real coup’s at the finale. The dancers return from the back of the stage and stand in a neat line for execution as Astaire picks up his cane and — to a gunshot sound each time! — picks them off one by one. Clothes may make the man, but there can finally only be one. For an encore, Astaire fires at the audience. – VR

3.) MAGNOLIA – "Wise Up" (1999)

In theory, introducing a cast-wide musical number toward the end of an otherwise non-musical drama ought to be the sort of hardcore twee gesture that renders a precious movie basically insufferable. And yet, remarkably, Paul Thomas Anderson does it with such elegance in “Magnolia” that he manages to somehow pull it off. The biblical plague of frog rain may be its unofficial climax, but the “Wise Up” number is the real emotional payoff: a devastating, well-earned moment of bliss after a two-hour build up of heartbreak and hurt. – CM

2.) IKIRU – "Gondola no Uta" (1952)

"Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens." 

The theme song of Akira Kurosawa's greatest film, 1915's "The Gondola Song" is both the most frequently recurring musical motif in "Ikiru" as well as the most literal and concise distillation of its major theme. The message of the film is as simple as the lyrics of the song with which it ends – an ode to the fleeting beauty of being alive, "Ikiru" is as poignant and ineffably true as movies get. The deceptively simple story of a somnambulant bureaucrat (the legendary Takashi Shimura as Mr. Watanabe) who learns he has terminal stomach cancer and resolves to find a purpose for his life, Kurosawa's most essential work clings to your bones in part because of how elegantly it wraps its arms around the entire human condition and squeezes it until the whole of our existence can fit on the strap of a swing-set in a snowstorm. Days (or is it minutes?) before his death, Watanabe fights off the cold to sing this song in the playground for which he's responsible, the quivering melody and the simple lyrics so completely summing up the world that he might as well be swinging inside a snow globe. – DE

1.) SINGIN' IN THE RAIN – "Singin' In The Rain" (1952)

Of all the energetic, epic songs of “Singin’ in the Rain,” with their stylized production design, wit and intricate technicality, it is almost strange that the most enduring showcase of the film should be the modest one provided by the song that lends the movie its title. Yet the other numbers revolve around experiences beyond the average viewer: the absurdity of coordinating a film set, the elation of a creative breakthrough, even the casual, harmonic sparring of two masters. It is “Singin’ in the Rain” that approaches the universal, the feeling of falling in love and knowing it is reciprocal. To watch Gene Kelly during this scene is to see him at his least fussy and considered, even as he danced under the effects of a terrible fever. Yet as he glides along a street set, never taking a leap where a single step would do, one gets the sense that even his warm-ups were never this unguarded, this simple. Whether dangling airily from a lamppost or executing a slow, childlike spin, Kelly epitomizes the weightlessness of love like no one before or since. – JC