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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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