The movie music of 2017 has been every bit as memorable as the movies themselves. From Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood to David Lowery and Daniel Hart, several of the most remarkable director-composer duos in the business returned with their finest collaborations to date. Just as exciting, the year also saw a number of teams galvanizing their previous work together into true partnerships, as Daniel Pemberton has become the best reason to get psyched for a new Guy Ritchie joint, and Tamar-kali has made the wait for Dee Rees’ next film even more excruciating than it would have been otherwise. And then there were true originals like Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin, who brought sounds to the screen that the cinema had never heard before.
Here are the 10 best movie scores of 2017, along with selections from each.
10. “King Arthur” (Daniel Pemberton)
Sometimes — but not often — good music happens to bad movies. It’s a strange phenomenon, as rare and beautiful as the aurora borealis. And it happened in a big way with Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur,” a wannabe summer blockbuster that’s part “Game of Thrones,” part “Snatch,” and almost entirely bad. The “almost” in that last sentence is owed to two things: One is the fact that Jude Law plays an evil wizard who sacrifices his wife to a three-headed sex kraken in the film’s opening minutes. The other is Daniel Pemberton’s riotous and blisteringly percussive score.
Pemberton, whose unusual contributions to the likes of “The Counselor” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” suggest a composer who likes to go against the grain), literally breathes life into this movie, his music heaving with the haggard breath of men in battle. A far cry from the stale Hans Zimmer fart sounds that we’ve come to expect from a mainstream historical epic, Pemberton’s score largely eschews the usual orchestral flourishes in favor of a more feral kitchen sink approach; the standout element is a furious bit of drumming that sounds like a cross between Blue Man Group and that guy who wails on paint cans in the Times Square subway station. “King Arthur” may not have much success in reviving an ancient legend with a modern touch, but Pemberton does.
9. “Loveless” (Evgueni Galperine & Sacha Galperine)
On its own, “11 Cycles of E” is a striking piece of music, evoking the best of Steve Reich as it creates a thunderous storm of sound around a single dying note. Every one of its 11 cycles sounds a touch more desperate than the last, as though something at the center of the composition is trying to crawl its way out of quicksand and making things worse with every new attempt. In the context of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” the piece’s futility assumes a bleak political dimension, casting a manic pall of hopelessness over the film’s search for a missing child.
Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s score can be heard underneath much of this deeply oppressive movie (their other tracks are mournful and more conventionally beautiful), but “11 Cycles of E” tells us everything we need to know right from the start: This isn’t going to be a story about a simple search and rescue, it’s going to be a story about people living inside a punitive system that has forced them to make peace with their misery. In a world without empathy, everything you lose is lost forever.
8. “Loving Vincent” (Clint Mansell)
Clint Mansell’s score for “Loving Vincent” does nothing less than capture, without images, what it feels like to look at a painting by Vincent van Gogh; listen carefully and you can almost appreciate the beauty of “The Starry Night” with your eyes closed. Lending a much-needed sense of equilibrium to a discombobulating movie that animates some of the most iconic still images in all of Western art, Mansell’s flowing orchestral music breathes new life into old melancholy. Mournful but never dour, these string compositions bend and move with the same curled impressionism of van Gogh’s brushstrokes, wrapping an emotionally potent theme inside a beautiful veil of wild uncertainty. You can hear the painter’s raw genius, as well as everything that clouded it.
7. “Darkest Hour” (Dario Marianelli)
“There is a level of stylization in Joe Wright’s movies that enlarges the space for music,” composer Dario Marianelli told IndieWire. “It’s a very cinematic theatricality, although that sounds like a contradiction in terms.” Like “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina” before it, “Darkest Hour” offers a thrilling testament to that idea, Marianelli’s score infusing the Winston Churchill biopic with an energy that allows it to trample over the most tired parts of its genre.
The propulsive soundtrack doesn’t merely support Churchill’s vision or add weight to his words, it also frustrates his gravitas and feeds into his doubt. Gary Oldman is able to bring such an astronomical degree of energy to the performance partly because the music is there to bring him back to Earth, undercutting his defiant streak with an apprehensive lilt and then charging forwards in an orchestral rush that reeks of false confidence and real desire. The music restores an element of awareness to the performative nature of Churchill’s existence, and in turn rewards him with great humanity. It holds “Darkest Hour” together, and the people of Britain along with it.
6. “The Mountain Between Us” (Ramin Djawadi)
Rightfully famous for his contributions to “Game of Thrones,” Ramin Djawadi has been scoring movies since the turn of the millennium, his feature credits stretching all the way back to 2001’s classic DMX / Steven Seagal vehicle, “Exit Wounds.” Some of his work has become iconic (“Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”), but most of these movies haven’t given him the room he needs to flex his talent. Despite being such an unassuming film (or perhaps because of that), Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Mountain Between Us” provided Djawadi with the canvas required to compose his masterpiece.
A light-headed melodrama about Idris Elba and Kate Winslet trying not to have sex with each other after a plane crash strands them in the wilderness, “The Mountain Between Us” is an intimate romance told against an epic backdrop. Djawadi’s task was essentially to blur the line between those two modes, making the love story feel epic and the harsh environments feel as exquisitely tender as they are naturally merciless.
Needless to say, he nails it on both fronts, building a consistently beautiful score that builds out from an unforgettable theme, its orchestra of strings wrapping around a forlorn piano melody like a blizzard bearing down on a small cabin. That dynamic changes as Elba and Winslet let their instincts take over, the piano digging a path through the thick soundscape as Djawadi’s lush and full-bodied music almost buries the movie that inspired it. This is the kind of score that can make something as mundane as a morning commute feel like a great adventure.