Good morning, welcome to December and the beginning of the end of the year. As ever, this means chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose to most people, but for those of us in the film blogging world, it means ferocious list-making, stock-taking and retrospective analysis. Over the coming days and weeks, we’ll be bringing you a wide selection of year-end features looking at 2014 in depth from a variety of different angles. To kick off, we’re starting with Best Scores of 2014, an area traditionally somewhat overlooked (though not by us, here’s last year’s list) but one that we particularly love to assess in some depth.
The first of our Best of 2014 features is also the first time we’re really settling in to argue the toss on the year now ending, so this piece also sets a kind of marker for what’s to come. And on that score, there’s some very good news: this has been a strong year for scoring, which probably means it’s been a good year overall. Also of note are the continuing inroads that TV shows are making into the collective Playlist consciousness —here, as elsewhere, we’ll be highlighting a couple of small-screen projects that have impressed us as much if not more than their big-screen counterparts. With one final reminder that this is about Best Scores, that we’ll be running a separate feature on Soundtracks in the very near future, and that we’re trying our durndest to limit ourselves to films that have a 2014 U.S. theatrical release date, turn up your speakers and let’s dive right in, shall we?
Mica Levi – “Under the Skin”
For his third feature, Jonathan Glazer called on a new voice (in the film world at least) to capture the strange, alien point of view of its villain/heroine. And that task falls to Mica Levi, aka Micachu from Micachu & The Shapes, who was brought in to capture what she felt best represented the film’s very particular, otherworldly point of view, and the musician’s contribution is a big reason why Glazer’s film is one of the best of the year. She quickly became obsessed, spending more than nine months on the project and crafted the creepiest score of the year that, like the film itself, burrows deep in the subconscious and elevates the gorgeous imagery on screen. “The idea was to follow Scarlett Johansson‘s character and try to react in real time to what she was experiencing, not to pre-empt or reflect on things that had already happened in the film,” Levi told The Guardian. “Some parts are intended to be quite difficult. If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.” There are various unforgettable moments in the music, but in particular we have to champion the vastly different moods achieved on the tracks “Love” and “Death”: the former is utterly gorgeous and used perfectly as Johansson’s alien is discovering her body and how it reacts to the kindness of strangers; the latter is a strong portent of doom, signaling the end for several poor bastards as they’re lured by her sexuality. And how could we forget “Alien Loop,” which plays over the opening scene as a giant eyeball is constructed, where the strings and repeated motifs warn of the terror to come but also hint at the layered, complex vision to unfold.
Jeff Grace – "Cold in July"
Jim Mickle‘s oddly overlooked Joe R. Lansdale adaptation "Cold in July" owes a major stylistic debt to the films of John Carpenter, from the title treatment in the film’s opening to its depiction of old-school, tough-guy machismo going up against a new, altogether more sinister world. And one of the ways that Mickle was able to pay homage to Carpenter (rather than simply ripping him off) is with Grace’s pulsing, at times powerfully unnerving electronic score: this is the movie’s wacked-out heartbeat. There are moments when Grace, who has worked with a number of today’s most prominent genre filmmakers (including Ti West and J.T. Petty), keeps things on a low boil, simply adding a layer of atmosphere to a movie already choked with it. And other times, he turns things up, letting you revel in the seemingly antiquated synths that somehow also feel positively futuristic. It’s a testament to both Mickle and Grace that the movie never tips over into self-referential camp; it’s very much in tune with the movie’s eighties setting (which keeps with the book’s original publication date) and never feels out of place or showy. And outside the film, Grace’s score is an exemplary exploration of electronic music. It’s also cool as hell.
Alex Ebert – "A Most Violent Year"
Despite its pulpy title, there’s very little actual violence in writer/director J.C. Chandor‘s outstanding crime drama "A Most Violent Year." Instead, the shadowy specter of violence hangs over the movie; it infiltrates every moment. And Ebert’s simple, subtle score provides the film with much of that unseen dread. Haunting and ethereal, the music sometimes sounds like a foggy jazz riff, with trumpets that twinkle in the distance; other times it’s more outwardly threatening, with elements of striking percussion and synths. At one point, Ebert’s score and the movie’s sound effects seem to bleed into one another, picking up where the other left off, and it’s a wonderful feat, made all the more impressive by the delicateness required to pull it off. This score seems to mutate from one scene to the next, sometimes sounding like Sunday church music and other times like the music from a forgotten eighties horror movie. That unpredictability adds to the growing sense of uneasiness that "A Most Violent Year" provides. This is movie music that isn’t loud or showy and as such has a good possibility of being overlooked. (Ebert won a Golden Globe for his work on Chandor’s last film, "All Is Lost," and this year also scored the charming Disney Animation Studios short film "Feast.") Hopefully, though, people will appreciate the music (like the movie) for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does do, as well as its dogged refusal to fall into easy tropes or clichés.
The score for "Gone Girl" marks the third collaboration between filmmaker David Fincher and Nine Inch Nails principals Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and by this point you might worry that their work together would come across tired or belabored. These are, after all, three men whose professional lives have been defined by the perceived ghoulishness of their work and that could potentially add up to a kind of one-note repetitiveness. How many times can something be described as "dark and creepy," after all? But what makes the Fincher/Ross/Reznor relationship so surprising is that each time these men collaborate, they are able to produce something new, exhilarating and wholly unlike the music that came before. "The Social Network" was awash in buzzy synths, while "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was snowy and foreboding. With "Gone Girl," Fincher’s hugely successful adaptation of Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling novel, Reznor and Ross were reportedly directed to emulate the soothing sounds that are played in spas, and you can easily pick that up, especially during the movie’s gooier flashback sequences. But like all things related to this trio, any moment of calm quickly gives way to something much more malevolent. The fact that both halves of the movie’s musical identity are so compelling is a tribute to the inexhaustible creative alchemy that comes from their collaboration. Here’s to ten more Fincher/Reznor/Ross projects in the future.
Dev Hynes – "Palo Alto"
Anyone who has listened to indie pop over the past few years knows that Devonte Hynes is some kind of musical genius. He’s produced undeniably catchy songs for Solange Knowles and Sky Ferriera that have a provocative way of getting lodged in your head (and never, ever leaving), while maintaining a strong solo career, highlighted by last year’s brilliant Cupid Deluxe album. Hynes’ music has a gauzy, swoony quality, not unlike the sensation of first falling in love. So it makes sense that Gia Coppola would enlist Hynes to provide the dreamy, off kilter score to "Palo Alto" (plus a handful of new songs), which delicately charts the emotional lives of the group of teenagers that the film follows. Swimming in ocean-sized analogue synths, big 80s drums, dreamy vocal accompaniments and rat-a-tat percussion, the score, like the film, is a sort of sonic descendant of the kind of music that Gia’ aunt Sofia has been using in her movies. And again ike the film in general, it feels like Gia’s got the knack for it in a way that Auntie Sofia hasn’t in her last couple of films. The result is a uniquely listenable score where arch hipness and grand sincerity peaceably meet in the middle, one that should be soundtracking early a.m. suburban teen hookups for a long time to come.
Dustin O’Halloran – "Breathe In"
After first coming to the attention of film fans for his work on Sofia Coppola‘s "Marie Antoinette," Dustin O’Halloran’s been forming quite an impressive collaboration with young writer/director Drake Doremus: O’Halloran’s music marked a smart contrast to the kind of indie-pop that a lesser filmmaker would use for the director’s breakthrough "Like Crazy," and their team-up struck gold again for Doremus’ most recent, more undersung movie, "Breathe In." The story of the relationship between a frustrated musician and the young student who comes to stay with his family is as finely wrought emotionally and modulated as its predecessor, and O’Halloran’s simple, piano-led melodies are the perfect fit again, not least because of the film’s focus on musicians. The result is a score that feels like it’s bleeding through from the world that Guy Pearce‘s Keith and Felicity Jones‘ Sophie inhabit, its delicate prettiness a direct mirror of the intimate, hushed visuals that Doremus uses to tell his story. There’s no word yet if a third collaboration, on Doremus’ upcoming sci-fi "Equals," is on the way, but we certainly hope so, and meantime O’Halloran gets another entry here for his work on Jill Soloway‘s "Transparent."
Keegan DeWitt – "Listen Up Philip"
This old-fashioned jazzy score feels just right and certainly helped writer/director Alex Ross Perry achieve his particular brand of comedy. What better music to soothe the audience while watching a bunch of assholes enjoying being, well, assholes? Portland native Keegan DeWitt’s done fine work in the past for other indie stalwarts like Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”) and Chad Hartigan (“This is Martin Bonner”). With his ‘Philip’ score, it’s likely a backhanded compliment to say its strength lies in its familiarity, but we mean it sincerely. The simple-sounding horns and piano work meld together to form the kind of music that protagonist Philip (Jason Schwartzman) would listen to if for no other reason than his idol and mentor, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), told him it was great. DeWitt’s work here also fits the autumnal mood of the film, its low tenors slowing down to a crawl at times as things get ugly between the characters, only to jump back to life as things pick up and seem hopeful, even happy (only insomuch as Philip would be capable of such a genuine feeling, of course). The music evolves as the narrative does, taking tangential paths to follow other characters on their own. He’s a young composer on the rise, and should have no problem finding work if he continues to carve out this kind of unique, varied array of musical stylings for each film.
Hans Zimmer – "Interstellar"
The man who made “BRAAAM” a thing with his score for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” once again brings the noise in his latest collaboration with the king of the brainy event spectacle film. Yes, there’ve been plenty of complaints that “Interstellar” is assaulting in its sheer loudness (many of us even had trouble hearing the film’s dialogue), but Zimmer knows a great hook when he has one. His use of organs and a simple, clockwork-like beat in the film’s themes is perfectly in sync with Nolan’s most successful attempt so far at a truly emotionally satisfying film. The score does at times overwhelm,, but since Nolan’s on the record saying he wants the audience to experience the film more than pick apart every fine detail, we’d say that’s a deliberate choice and that this score is working on multiple levels. It heightens the many suspenseful action sequences, adds layers of emotional heft to the sad moments and flat-out knocks the audiences on their ass when it needs to (like during the shuttle launch). Zimmer score is essentially Gargantua, the film’s black hole —it’s music so big and bold that it threatens to swallow up even the moments of silence. Still, it works in smaller moments: Matthew McConaughey‘s lonesome astonaut watching 23 years of messages from back on Earth, for example, is scored more subtly —that simple organ— yet somehow resonates all the more for counterpointing with the bombast elsewhere. It shows off the range of Zimmer’s talents, even if the music occasionally threatens to break your eardrums.
Alexandre Desplat – "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Hopefully the Academy doesn’t forget “The Grand Budapest” come Oscar time, because for our money, it’s easily one of Wes Anderson’s best films to date, and the score from Desplat is, like so much of this gifted composer’s work (he gets several more honorable mentions for this year’s scores alone), totally unforgettable and a large part of the film’s success. Like the film, the music is constantly moving, always one step ahead of the audience as the story jumps from genre to genre (screwball sex comedy/prison break/quasi-World War II story/stories within stories). There’s so much inventive use of instrumentation and a big, joyous overall sound that’s propulsive (in an old-fashioned way) but never overbearing that it pastes a smile on your face.. Of course the many soundtrack cuts deserve props, but each track fits with the one that came before, while also always pushing the score to new heights and down odd musical avenues. As Jeff Goldblum’s character is stalked by Willem Dafoe in the middle of the film, the track “The Cold-Blooded Murder Of Deputy Vilmos Kovacs” amps up the pace and even adds some ominous organs to ripe effect right until the rather disturbing and violent moment happens. A particular highlight is “The Society of Crossed Keys,” where the music helps the film’s most electric montage bring together an entire underground society in all its clockwork efficiency. It’s a joyous track that reminds us why this is one of this year’s very best and flat-out entertaining films.
Antonio Sanchez – "Birdman"
So much is remarkable and fluid and dynamic in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” but if there is a single element that rivals the restless wit of the cinematography, it’s the restless wit of the score, from first-time film composer and long-time improvisational jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez. His drum-and-cymbal rhythms are omnipresent, unapologetically intrusive and frankly a little show-offy (like the film), yet the music doesn’t feel invasive and overall contributes even more brio and momentum to a filmic experience that is simply pitched about six levels higher than anything else we’ve seen all year. And it won’t surprise anyone who’s seen the film that the story behind the scoring is so singular too (detailed in this Vanity Fair piece): Sanchez first supplied Iñárritu with a much more traditional percussion score in which each character had a motif, whereupon the director reportedly told him that that was everything he exactly didn’t want. Instead, Sanchez improvised riffs and beats while Iñárritu read through/acted out Riggan’s journey through the script. Using that directive as the basis, he went back to further muddy up the instrumentation —replacing the clean, crisp sounds of his original instrumentation with a scuzzier, seedier feel achieved by using vintage drum heads and a detuned kit. And for certain sequences, like the Time Square scene, the composer and director took to the streets, recording the drums live, complete with ambient noise and outdoor sounds, the better to achieve that you-are-here immediacy. Like everything else in “Birdman,” the rip-it-up-and-start-again approach to scoring is extraordinarily risky and could well have ended up just hollow hubris, but Iñárritu’s breathtaking confidence and Sanchez’s neophyte’s enthusiasm and inventiveness pay off. The score doesn’t just fly —it soars and swoops and occasionally tumbles to earth with a clatter, and it’s impossible to believe that “Birdman” would be half the film it is with any other music.
Any time Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood deigns to compose a soundtrack, he’ll probably make this list, but it’s always with good reason. Greenwood hasn’t written a non-intriguing score yet and it’s likely because he isn’t a traditional composer (or musician, really) that he’s always delivering something wonderfully strange (even Paul Thomas Anderson was taken aback by his “There Will Be Blood” score at first). And while Greenwood is primarily PTA’s composer, for “Inherent Vice,” he was given the opportunity to break from the atonal orchestral scoring sonic palette he’s rendered thus far and presented something exciting, typically askew and eclectic. It ranges from moments of warm and sunny acoustic folk, paranoiac analog-electronic moments that sound like a cross between The Silver Apples and Californian-flavored Krautrock, traditional noir, and mysteriously bendy philharmonic jags that evoke Greenwood detuning an orchestra against its will. “Inherent Vice” is moody mystery, but it’s also goofy, melancholic, introspective and comical, and Greenwood helps wrap that up in a unique sonic collage that in the hands of PTA is once again unlike anything out there. Not a lot available from it online as yet, so we’ll have to make do with the trailer, which is mostly cut to a Sly & the Family Stone track.
Justin Hurwitz – “Whiplash”
It’s a measure of the quality of the music in "Whiplash" that we were originally going to earmark the film for our Soundtracks list (coming next week), so sure we were that director Damien Chazelle had mostly used old jazz standards to punctuate his thrilling film. There are a couple of familiar key tracks here (Hank Levy‘s, which gives the film its title, and Duke Ellington‘s “Caravan,” among them), but an overwhelming amount of the music in the film is original and from composer Justin Hurwitz, who played in a band with Chazelle at Harvard. The pair previously collaborated on Chazelle’s debut "Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench," but Hurwitz has outdone himself here: despite having no real jazz background, both the band songs (some of which are by collaborator Tim Simonec) and score are appropriately percussive, driving and intense. Constantly pushed on by an ever-moving beat, with mournful wind and explosive brass punctuation, it’s the perfect accompaniment to the movie and will be rattling around your head for weeks after. Here’s a testament to Hurwitz’s talent: the jazz standard playing in the pizza place when Miles Teller‘s Andrew and Melissa Benoist‘s Nicole are on a date, which Andrew introduces as "Jackie Hill, 1932"? That’s a fake standard, created by Hurwitz for the scene. Suddenly, we’re even more excited about Chazelle’s next film, "La La Land," a full-on "Singin’ In The Rain" style musical with songs by Hurwitz.
Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans – “Enemy”
Sparse, atonal and enigmatic, like the film it complements, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score for Denis Villeneuve’s terrific “Enemy” is a summary lesson in minimalist unease. Utilizing surprisingly classical instrumentation, the rising indie composers (who also scored “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Simon Killer” “Magic Magic” and the underseen “Bluebird” along with Sundance 2014 hit “The One I Love”) employ lone cellos or single clarinets in simple, discordant drones before fleshing out the music for brief stretches with layers of strings and roiling percussion. These more expansive components are both anti-melodic and strangely lush, so much so that at particular moments it can sound almost Hitchcockian. Mostly though it’s pared-back and uncanny, and if it’s not the kind of album that we can honestly say we’re going to pop on for background noise all that often, that just goes to show how effective it is in creating that sense of creeping eeriness that “Enemy” delivers more singlemindedly than perhaps any other 2014 title.
“The Guest” – Steve Moore
Every review of Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” will tell you that the movie’s spooky pulsating score is a homage to John Carpenter’s classic horror scores from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and while the influence is certainly there, that’s only telling half the story. Steve Moore’s score isn’t simply chilling, because “The Guest” is a self-aware, entertaining thriller that’s more than just frights and scares. Thus Moore’s throbbing synth syncopations have a different energy and drive. There’s a dreaminess that captures the coming-of-age aspect of the movie, a sinister oscillating pulse to contribute a sense of ominous foreshadowing and a wry, knowing archness to its more intentionally ridiculous moments. Carpenter’s scores are iconic, but not something you really want to listen to outside that horror context. But Barrett’s riff on that mood is irresistibly devilish, something you could spin on a dance floor and still get off on, albeit maybe with an evil, Cheshire Cat-like smirk on your face.
Jozef Van Wissem & SQÜRL – “Only Lovers Left Alive”
If Jim Jarmusch movies generally exude cool —and yes, they almost always certainly do—it’s because beyond being uber-cool himself, Jarmusch has exquisite taste. But on top of being a great writer/director, Jarmusch is also a musician, so his DIY aesthetics have also been applied to his music. And so the “Only Lovers Left Alive” soundtrack is a collaboration between minimalist composer and lute player Jozef Van Wissem & SQÜRL, Jarmusch’s ambient noise-rock band. “Only Lovers Left Alive” is a vampire movie on the surface, but it’s also so many things, which is a testament to everything that Jarmusch can pack into the movie without feeling way overstuffed. It’s romantic, it’s melancholic, and it’s also a lament about the decay of culture. And yet it’s also self-deprecating about its snobbish hipster vampires who have lived through the heyday of many epic cultures (did we mention it’s very wry too?) Van Wissem’s lute pluckings generally apply the timeless “we’ve lived for an eternity” vibe baked into the character’s DNA and SQÜRL often provide swirls of haunting and forlorn feedback that echo and clash the existential ache the movie’s characters feel. And the score is also blackened, eerie and persistent like a painful memory that has lived on for thousands of years without much choice. This inspired union is perhaps best exemplified in the track “The Taste Of Blood,” a masterful and hypnotic death march of crying drones and distorted guitar/lute pluckings that sound like the most ancient of imprisoned sorrows.
Best TV Scores: Dustin O’Halloran – “Transparent”
The humanity and emotional riches teeming through Jill Soloway’s Amazon show “Transparent” are so legion, it’s impossible to scratch their surface without taking in the whole thing. But Dustin O’Halloran’s plaintive and beautifully wistful score taps into all these moods and flavors with evocative dreaminess. The show is about a father, who late in life decides to start to live as a woman and the repercussions it has for his now adult, emotionally stunted children. But the show is really a comedic and bittersweet look at family dysfunction and all the complex love/hate feelings usually engendered. There’s also an autumnal melancholy during its flashbacks to a more innocent time when the burdens of the world hadn’t affected these children as much, and O’Halloran underscores this beautifully. A very humane, empathic and sensitively-realized show about the confusion and pain of identity, fraught family dynamics, O’Halloran’s nuanced score nails every funny/sad moment with the perfect connections of notes; like a musical conduit for everything everyone is feeling, unspoken or otherwise. Andit entirely complements the well-selected soundtrack from music supervisor Bruce Gilbert. (Note: O’Halloran scored most of the series, though Vince Jones handled the pilot).
Unmistakably electro, resolutely modern and therefore daringly anachronistic, Cliff Martinez’s score for Steven Soderbergh’s jaw-droppingly good Cinemax show “The Knick” is, along with “Birdman,” probably 2014’s most outstanding example of directorial and compositional chutzpah when it comes to scoring. Dropping blips, beeps and drones over immaculately pictorialist visual compositions of thoroughly researched, period-accurate turn-of-the-century imagery is an inspired decision that adds new layers and resonances to the show. And whether putting us into Thack’s opium-addled doze or his manic cocaine high, whether accompanying a scene of surgery that’s closer to butchery or a forbidden tryst between star cross’d lovers, the score works to make these characters, with their bustles and corsets and horsedrawn ambulances, feel shockingly real, alive and present-tense. But while Martinez of course delivers compositions that absolutely stand up as their own thing (awesome writing music; we’re listening to it right now), within the context of the show, they serve to demonstrate how much Soderbergh, as we all know teetering on the brink of retirement from filmmaking altogether, seems not just rejuvenated by the possibilities of “The Knick,” but at the height of his powers. Where he chooses to highlight Martinez’s score, where he lets things play out in relative silence, where he allows ambient, of-the-time sounds to dominate and where he increases the throbbing volume of a sound and a beat that the characters themselves would never have experienced —this is not just a brilliant score, it’s a brilliant score brilliantly used.
Some work we also found impressive but didn’t quite make the cut: Jon Brion and Theo Green do some interesting work in “The Gambler” for sure. The movie’s uneven, but it has it’s tension-ratcheting moments that veer between exhilarating and nerve-wracking. The only thing that works against them is that they worked independently of each other and while there is cohesion, the pulsating, electronic work that Brion does in the first half of the movie is a bit more interesting. Still, kudos. Then, the truncated version of ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” that most of us have seen is a deeply mixed bag. Jessica Chastain is great, but the movie is uneven and often sentimental. But what helps every emotional scene stay afloat is the score by Son Lux; reflective, longing with sad guitar drones that feel like cherished memories scattered like autumnal leaves in the wind —we’d argue the score is the movie’s unsung MVP. David Wingo is David Gordon Green’s go-to composer and for great reason; he’s always creating incredibly evocative and haunting works that we love. And not far behind is Jeff McIlwain, who has worked with Wingo on two previous Green films, “Snow Angels” and “The Sitter.” Green’s “Joe” didn’t quite get a fair shake in theaters this year —it seemed to split the difference between the mainstream audiences who don’t care for Nicolas Cage in a non-going-big performance and indie audiences who didn’t know what to do with him, but it’s an underrated picture, and Wingo and McIlwain can place another feather in their cap for this moody and memorable score.
And the rest: There was some vocal support for Andrew Hewitt’s score for "The Double" along with: Nathan Johnson on "Young Ones"; Ola Fløttum with “Force Majeure”; Alexandre Desplat’s "Godzilla" score, also his work in “The Imitation Game” and the upcoming ”Unbroken” (along with "Grand Budapest Hotel," he’s had a pretty amazing year); Rob Simonsen’s restrained "Foxcatcher" music; Sondre Lerche & Kato Adland with "The Sleepwalker"; Dickon Hinchcliffe subtle but crucial contribution to "Locke"; Johann Johansson’s work on Oscar contender "The Theory Of Everything"; Alberto Iglesias on both “The Two Faces of January” and next week’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”; John Powell on "How To Train Your Dragon 2"; Dario Marinelli on “The Boxtrolls”; Brooke & Will Blair with the great "Blue Ruin”; Marco Beltrami with "The Homesman"; while Oscar-winner Steven Price ("Fury"), Clint Mansell ("Noah") and Michael Giacchino ("Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes") also gave great showings.
So what’s the best film you’ve listened to in 2014? Agree with our takes or feel like we’ve done someone a terrible injustice by excluding them? Let us know in the comments, and look out for Best 2014 Soundtracks coming soon.
–Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Oli Lyttelton