5. “Wonderstruck” (Carter Burwell)
Carter Burwell has been a driving force behind Todd Haynes’ greatest films (“Carol” would never have achieved its immense emotional impact without him), and “Wonderstruck” — which uses music to bridge the 50-year gap that separates its two deaf protagonists and give shape to the space between them — often sounds like a celebration of their work together. The mammoth amount of music that Burwell wrote for this movie includes some of the composer’s best and most intricate stuff to date.
From the propulsive wind and piano pieces that flesh out the silent-era melodies to the psych drone that welcomes us back to New York, every note hints that the bifurcated “Wonderstruck” is crescendoing toward an incredible feeling of cohesion. Burwell’s score doesn’t belong to either of the film’s different time periods (the 1920s and the 1970s) so much as it erases their differences, the twinkling main theme flecked with a delicate sense of destiny.
4. “Good Time” (Oneohtrix Point Never)
How do you turn the most familiar city on the planet into a completely alien place? Electronic wizard Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) only needs a few jagged notes. His queasy and pervasive music for the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time” transforms the streets of New York City into a feverish synth nightmare, the cold beats chasing Robert Pattinson’s low-rent criminal from one corner of hell to another as he desperately tries to find a way out of the mess he’s made for himself.
Despite convulsing with echoes of everything from “Blade Runner” to “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” Lopatin’s “Good Time” score is ultimately unlike anything the movies have heard before. His paranoid soundscapes are like a wormhole into the hero’s addled mind, each of the score’s glitchy layers conveying a different one of his snowballing anxieties. Some of the pieces are noodling and conflicted (“Leaving the Park”), while others are so seductive they could almost be confused for Tangerine Dream (“Romance Apocalypse”), but all of them are strangely listenable for music so tinged with violence. By the time it finally caves into some kind of catharsis, you don’t know if you should sleep for five-to-ten years or flip back to the beginning and start it all over again.
3. “Mudbound” (Tamar-kali)
“Strings, darkness, and intimacy.” Those were Dee Rees’ words of instruction for Tamar-kali when she entrusted the polyphonously talented Brooklyn native to write the music for “Mudbound,” and “strings, darkness, and intimacy” is exactly what she got when the finished recordings were delivered to her just five weeks later. Using the groan of a contrabass to capture the stagnant quality of the film’s Mississippi Delta setting, Tamar-kali built a stunningly evocative soundscape that anchors the sprawling plot to a particular stretch of land in the deep South.
Moments of levity jump out of the higher registers like flickers escaping a fire, but the music always returns to that low rumble, those strings absorbing all manner of hardship and violence. That consistency only makes Tamar-kali’s final tracks more powerful, as the torture of “Missing Letter” gives way to the divine transcendence of “…But for Love.” Tamar-kali had contributed isolated bits of music to Rees’ previous films, but here’s hoping “Mudbound” represents the start of a deep and long-lasting collaboration.
2. “A Ghost Story” (Daniel Hart)
There’s literally no such thing as a David Lowery movie without a Daniel Hart score — every one of the director’s features, stretching all the way back to 2009’s micro-budget “St. Nick,” has been made in collaboration with the Dark Rooms frontman. That collaboration has been instrumental to the rich mood and rustic energy of films like “Ain’t them Bodies Saints” and “Pete’s Dragon,” but Hart’s music is at the very soul of “A Ghost Story,” these creaking songs tasked with nothing less than conveying the sound of eternity.
So what does eternity sound like? For Hart, it’s beautiful but also a little stagnant, the music wheezing with awe like it’s always right on the edge of a great discovery. Each piece feels like a distant echo of the soaring Dark Rooms song that Casey Affleck’s character records before he dies; the ominous expanse of “Thesaurus Tuus” offers more queasy future shock than anything you’ll hear in “Blade Runner 2049,” while the poppy loops of “Safe Safe Safe” achieve a sense of cosmic acceptance that allows you to hum along in time.
1. “Phantom Thread” (Jonny Greenwood)
Jonny Greenwood, the supernaturally creative Radiohead instrumentalist who steers Thom Yorke’s genius and pushes the band forward, has always understood the servile nature of writing music for movies. Each of the brilliant scores he’s previously composed for Paul Thomas Anderson have been bonded to their films on a molecular level, their discordant strings sewed into the material like dark thoughts. If Greenwood’s contributions to “Phantom Thread” are the most beautiful (and self-sustaining) music that he’s ever written for the screen, it’s only because his compositions are even more inextricable from this movie than they were from “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” or “Inherent Vice.”
At the risk of being a bit too cute about it, you could say that “Phantom Thread” wears Greenwood’s elegantly perturbed score the way that Reynolds Woodcock hopes his patrons might wear one of his magisterial dresses, each these symphonic pieces draped over the film like a careful bit of fabric that exposes the beauty (and the violence) of what lies underneath. Building out from the movie’s main theme — a delicate whirlwind of violins that comes in four different variations, like a model being newly outfitted for each new fashion season — Greenwood’s score is a masterpiece of troubled beauty, a glass of sherry spiked with poison.
At first, in fraught pieces like “Boletus Felleus” and “Sandalwood I,” the beauty is troubling. However, by the time we get to the climactic lilt of “For the Hungry Boy,” the troubling has become beautiful. Greenwood perfectly intuits the tidal dynamics of Anderson’s perverse romance, and translates them into something that everyone can feel for themselves. Thanks to Greenwood, “Phantom Thread” would still be one of the year’s best films if you watched it with your eyes closed.