1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: Never underestimate the power of The Force or John Williams’ indelible music. The 83-year-old, five-time Oscar winner represents the strongest link to the franchise’s past and delivers a continuation of themes that are part of the fabric (the rousing “Main Title,” the romantic “Leia and Han” and the majesty of “The Force”). At the same time, he conjures new “melodic identifications”: a stellar theme for Rey (Daisy Ridley), a very dark one for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and a march for The Resistance.
2. “The Hateful Eight”: It’s been 40 years since Ennio Morricone has composed a Western (without Sergio Leone he simply lost the desire), but Quentin Tarantino enticed his return and Morricone has delivered something totally unique to his canon, more dark and brooding. With only the script to read, the composer first came up with a singular theme for a stagecoach traveling through the snow, with only the hint of violence to come. After further contemplation, more music poured out. The result is like the slow arrival of death itself and very horrifying.
3. “Carol”: Carter Burwell brings out the sensitive complexity of Todd Haynes’ lesbian love story adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel, “The Price of Salt.” The composer keys in on three primary themes between Cate Blanchett’s socialite and Rooney Mara’s aspiring photographer: “The Opening” (the fascination of love), “To Carol’s” (going inside Mara’s head during the long drive to Blanchett’s house) and “The Letter” (loss and loneliness and why they can’t be together). The highly processed use of piano is quite poignant.
4. “Spotlight”: Two-time Oscar winner Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings”) came up with a chamber piece for 10-piece orchestra, evoking the tragedy and triumph of Tom McCarthy’s fact-based journo procedural. With this chamber group, folk instruments express the distinctive Boston culture, a motif on the style of reporting and its legacy also stands out along with the conspiratorial bond between the Church and the city. But the use of piano in the opening is particularly haunting.
6. “Inside Out”: Pixar’s latest triumph and most experimental movie from Pete Docter has inspired Michael Giacchino’s most sublime score. It’s a “strangely therapeutic/emotional journey” about memory, maturity and holding onto the spirit of innocence. The dual piano intro for “Bundle of Joy” evokes an ethereal sense of wonder that recalls Elmer Bernstein’s great “To Kill a Mockingbird” theme.