The movie scores of 2018 have been as eclectic as the movies themselves, with any list of the year’s best forced to hop between the pep of “Paddington 2,” the swoons of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the bloody tumult of “Mandy,” and the regal triumph of “Black Panther.” Yes, for the first time in forever, the score for a Marvel movie was worthy of being discussed alongside work from the likes of Jonny Greenwood and Justin Hurwitz. In fact, there was too much great work this year to celebrate all of it, especially in under-the-radar films like “Mary Shelley” (Amelia Warner), “Nostalgia” (Laurent Eyquem), and “Madeline’s Madeline” (Caroline Shaw). And while attention is too seldom paid to the original music in foreign films, the likes of “Burning” (Mowg) and “Capernaum” (Khaled Mouzanar) boasted indelibly evocative scores, as well.
2018 also featured a number of memorable soundtracks full of original songs — another category in which “Black Panther” merits a mention, alongside “A Star Is Born” — but this list is strictly focused on instrumental scores, even if that meant disqualifying Thom Yorke’s brilliant and moody contributions to “Suspiria” (it’s true that Luca Guadagnino used Yorke’s voice as an instrument all its own, but the members of Radiohead are well-represented here, regardless).
These are the 10 best movie scores of 2018:
10. “Paddington 2” (Dario Marianelli)
Dario Marianelli — who won an Oscar for “Atonement,” and is long overdue for another — delivers some of the best (and most deceptively challenging) work of his career in “Paddington 2,” composing a score that manages to be colorful but never cloying, sensitive but never saccharine, and always as buoyant and bright-eyed as Paddington Brown himself.
The glockenspiel in the score’s main theme endows the movie with an appropriately fanciful attitude, and Marianelli’s ability to expand that energy to a number of different sounds (samba, military, even religious church choir) does a marvelous job of expressing Paddington’s resourcefulness and/or resiliency. It’s all there on the soundtrack’s opening song, a fluid medley of all the fun music to come. Most impressively, Marianelli’s score for “Paddington 2” is entirely different from the one Nick Urata wrote for the previous installment; it’s deeper, richer, and more vibrant in every way.
9. “The Old Man & the Gun” (Daniel Hart)
David Lowery’s delightful caper has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle this fall; despite being Robert Redford’s swansong, this true(ish) throwback to a more innocent time of gentlemen thieves was just too nice to claw its way into awards season. No matter, just a few notes of Daniel Hart’s rollicking score is all it takes to convey the film’s charms, and the music will convince people to give it a watch long after the year-end madness has released us from its maw.
Hart, a regular on this list (his score for last year’s “A Ghost Story” has remained in constant rotation), whips up a jaunty suite that seamlessly intermingles with period-appropriate needle-drops from the likes of Scott Walker and The Kinks. Some of the tracks are endowed with a bluesy wistfulness, appropriate for the story of an aging bank robber who’s nearing the end of the road (also appropriate for aimlessly walking around New York City). Others, like the propulsive “Rub a Dub Dub,” skip along to the handclaps that have become Hart’s signature, while embellishing them with mythic strings and a call to adventure.
8. “Annihilation” (Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow)
“Annihilation” is a movie that’s literally about its atmosphere — in this case, the soapy bubble of the extraterrestrial “Shimmer” that’s growing out of a lighthouse off the tip of Florida — and so writer-director Alex Garland had a certain mandate to create a palpable alien ecosystem for his characters to explore. Enter “Ex Machina” composer Ben Salisbury and Portishead instrumentalist Geoff Barrow, who teamed up to create a dense and amorphous soundscape that (appropriately) begins to assume the qualities of the movie around it. After strumming along to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Helplessly Hoping,” the score gradually starts to lose its edges, rounding into something more akin to Mica Levi’s music from “Under the Skin.” Towards the end, the music evolves to find a life all its own, as its various influences and voices cohere into something new — a low rolling drone (heard on “The Alien”) that sounds like a hymn from another world.
7. “Black Panther” (Ludwig Goransson)
Kendrick Lamar’s involvement guaranteed that “Black Panther” was going to have one of the year’s best soundtracks, but people had little reason to suspect that the film’s score was going to rise above the generic bombast that accompanies most superhero fare. And then composer Ludwig Göransson delivered music that was every bit as specific, forceful, and full of life as the rest of Ryan Coogler’s afropunk epic. Weaving South African and Senegalese drumming into the base of his compositions, Göransson creates a prickly, percussive sound that rumbles with anxiety and power. The regal horns of “Waterfall Fight” sounded unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the rest of the score only strengthened the feeling that “Black Panther” was so much more than just another chapter in an endless cycle of movies.
6. “Hereditary” (Colin Stetson)
Saxophonist Colin Stetson’s “Hereditary” score is the sound of an emergent sickness. It’s that first queasy twist in your stomach 48 hours after you’ve eaten something that’s been lying dormant in your guts and waiting to wreak havoc at the worst possible time. It’s the sound of realizing that something in your blood — maybe something you were born with — is finally about to reveal itself.
And it’s terrifying because writer-director Ari Aster doesn’t force it to be terrifying. Whereas other horror movies tend to use music against the audience, “Hereditary” finds a seductive quality in Stetson’s ominous brass swirls, luring viewers towards a pervasive evil that isn’t just hiding in the dark and waiting to jump out at you but is also suffused into every inch of the house where most of the film takes place. It’s in the floorboards and in the ceiling and it follows these poor souls wherever they go. But the music isn’t merely stalking them — it also wants something. Every note has some kind of sinister agenda. And when you hear the transcendent hum of the airy clarinets that Stetson uses on tracks like “Reborn,” it doesn’t sound like relief. It sounds like whatever’s been chasing the film’s characters has finally caught up to them.
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